All posts in “Hardware”

The NEEO universal remote is a modern Logitech Harmony alternative

The advanced universal remote market is not a very crowded market. In fact, for a while now, Logitech’s Harmony line has been pretty much the only game in town. Newcomer NEEO wants to upset that monopoly with its new NEEO Remote and NEEO Brain combo ($369), which is a system that can connect just about any AV system, along with a smorgasbord of connected smart devices including Nest, Philips Hue, Sonos and more.

NEEO’s two-part system includes the Brain, which, true to its name, handles all of the heavy lifting. This is a puck-shaped device with 360-degree IR blasters dotting its outside perimeter, and which has one IR extender out (there’s one in the box) for connecting devices held within a closed AV cabinet, for instance. This central hub also connects to your Wi-Fi network, and setup requires plugging it into your router via Ethernet to get everything squared away, similar to how you initially set up Sonos speakers, if you’re familiar with that process.

Most of the setup work you need to do to get NEEO working happens on your phone, and that’s where it becomes apparent that this smart remote was designed for a modern context. Logitech’s Harmony software has come a long way, and now you can do everything you need to do from the iOS and Android app, but it’s still somewhat apparent that its legacy is as something you initially setup using a desktop and somewhat awkward web-based software. The NEEO feels at home on mobile, and it makes the setup and configuration process much better overall.

The other core component of the NEEO system is the NEEO Remote. This is a fantastic piece of industrial design, first of all. It’s a sleek rectangle crafted from aerospace-grade aluminum that oozes charm, in a way that nothing in the current Logitech Harmony lineup can come close to matching. The minimalist design still doesn’t suffer from the ‘which way is up?’ problem that the Apple Remote faces, because of subtle design cues including bottom weighting and the presence of ample physical buttons.

A NEEO Remote isn’t necessary for the system to work – you can just use the Brain along with the companion app for iPhone or Android, but the remote is a joy to hold and use, thanks to its unique design, and it features a super high density display that’s extremely responsive to touch input and pleasingly responsive to touch. NEEO took a lot of time to get this touchscreen experience right, and it pays off, delivering a clear and simple control interface that shifts to suit the needs of whatever activity you’re running at the time.

The NEEO Remote also has an “SOS” feature so that you can locate it if you happen to misplace it, and it can even be configured to recognize different hands if you want to set profiles for distinct members of the household, or set parental control profiles limiting access to certain content or devices. This kind of thing is where NEEO’s feature set exceeds the competition, and shows a particular attention to modern device use cases.

One NEEO Remote can also control multiple NEEO Brains, which is another limitation of the completion. That means you can set up NEEO Brains in each room where you have devices to control, and carry your remote from place to place instead of having to have multiple. The NEEO Brain is still $200 on its own, however, so it’s definitely still a barrier to entry.

NEEO otherwise does pretty much everything you’d expect a smart remote to do in 2018: You can set recipes on the deice itself, including with triggers like time-based alarms or motion detection (without using IFTTT). You can connect it to Alexa, though that functionality is limited at the moment, with more updates promised in future to make this better.

The bottom line is that NEEO offers a competent, intelligent alternative the big dog on the block, Logitech’s Harmony system. Logitech’s offering is still more robust and mature in terms of delivering Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, as well as rock solid performance, but NEEO has some clever ideas and unique takes that will serve more patient and tech-forward users better over time.

Hold this beam for me, friend robot, and let us construct a house together

Being a neophyte in the world of woodworking — I’ve made a shabby but sturdy shed — I can appreciate the value of a good partner who can help measure, cut, hold stuff and generally be a second pair of hands. The usual drawback with humans is you have to pay them or feed them in return for this duty. So imagine my delight in finding that ETH Zürich is pioneering the art of robot-assisted woodworking!

The multi-institutional Spatial Timber Assemblies DFAB House project is an effort to increase the efficiency not just of the process of framing a home, but also of the design itself.

The robot part is as you might expect, though more easily said than created. A pair of ceiling-mounted robot arms in the work area pluck and cut beams to length, put them in position and drill holes where they will later be attached.

Most of this can be accomplished without any human intervention, and what’s more, without reinforcement plates or scaffolding. The designs of these modules (room-size variations that can be mixed and matched) are generated specifically to be essentially freestanding; load and rigidity are handled by the arrangement of beams.

The CAD work is done ahead of time and the robots follow the blueprint, carefully avoiding one another and working slowly but efficiently.

“If any change is made to the project overall, the computer model can be constantly adjusted to meet the new requirements,” explained Matthias Kohler, who heads the project, in an ETHZ news release. “This kind of integrated digital architecture is closing the gap between design, planning and execution.”

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Human workers have to do the bolting step, but that step too seems like it could be automated; the robots may not have the sensors or tools available to undertake it at present.

Eventually the beams will also be reinforced by similarly prefabbed concrete posts and slot into a “smart slab,” optimized for exactly these layouts and created by sand-based 3D printing. The full three-story structure should be complete and open to explore this fall. You can learn more at the project’s website.

Water Abundance XPRIZE finalists compete in gathering water from thin air

Despite being a necessity for life, clean, drinkable water can be extremely hard to come by in some places where war has destroyed infrastructure or climate change has dried up rivers and aquifers. The Water Abundance XPRIZE is up for grabs to teams that can suck fresh water straight out of the air, and it just announced its five finalists.

The requirements for the program are steep enough to sound almost like science fiction: the device must extract “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.” Is that even possible?!

For a million bucks, people will try anything. But only five teams have made it to the finals, taking equal shares of a $250,000 “milestone prize” to further their work. There isn’t a lot of technical info on them yet, but here they are, in alphabetical order:

Hydro Harvest: This Australian team based out of the University of Newcastle is “going back to basics,” probably smart if you want to keep costs down. The team has worked together before on an emission-free engine that turns waste heat into electricity.

JMCC Wing: This Hawaiian team’s leader has been working on solar and wind power for many years, so it’s no surprise their solution involves the “marriage” of a super-high-efficiency, scalable wind energy harvester with a commercial water condenser. The bigger the generator, the cheaper the energy.

Skydra: Very little information is available for this Chicago team, except that they have created “a hybrid solution that utilizes both natural and engineered systems.”

The Veragon & Thinair: Alphabetically this collaboration comes on both sides of U, but I’m putting it here. U.K. collaboration has developed a material that “rapidly enhances the process of water condensation,” and are planning not only to produce fresh water but also to pack it with minerals.

Uravu: Out of Hyderabad in India, this team is also going back to basics with a solar-powered solution that doesn’t appear to actually use solar cells — the rays of the sun and design of the device do it all. The water probably comes out pretty warm, though.

The first round of testing took place in January, and round 2 comes in July, at which point the teams’ business plans are also due. In August there should be an announcement of the $1 million grand prize winner. Good luck to all involved and regardless of who takes home the prize, here’s hoping this tech gets deployed to good purpose where it’s needed.

Huawei’s U.S. plans hit major setback as Best Buy said to stop sales

Huawei can’t catch a break in the States. Just at the company was set to announce a big carrier deal at CES, AT&T reportedly switch gears last minute. Now, a week before the company is set reveal its next big flagship at an event in Paris, Best Buy is reportedly planning to stop sales of the company’s products “over the next few weeks.”

That news comes courtesy of a report from Reuters, based on a “person with knowledge of the matter.” The Chinese smartphone maker was clearly banking on 2018 to be the year it finally expanded sales to the world’s third largest smartphone market. The AT&T deal was reportedly all but finalized ahead of the company’s big CES push.

The last minute nature of the news clearly left the company in a lurch, with consumer CEO Richard Yu going off-script to excoriate carriers and U.S. officials that have repeatedly raised concerns over the company’s perceived ties to the Chinese government.

Huawei offered a non-comment to TechCrunch in the wake of the report. “Huawei values the relationship it has with Best Buy and all our other retail partners,” the company writes in the statement. “As a policy, we do not discuss the details of our partner relationships.”

The statement goes on to offer the standard sort of defense of the company’s position.

Huawei currently sells its products through a range of leading consumer electronics retailers in the U.S.  We have a proven history of delivering products that meet the highest security, privacy and engineering standards in the industry and are certified by the Federal Communications Commission for sale in the U.S.  Our smartphones are widely acclaimed – both among critics and consumers – for their innovation in areas like battery life, processing power, build quality, and camera capabilities. Our products are sold by 46 of the top 50 global operators, and we have won the trust and confidence of individuals and organizations in 170 countries around the world.  We are committed to earning that same trust with U.S. consumers and making our products accessible in as many ways as possible.

A Best Buy spokesperson told TechCrunch, “We don’t comment on specific contracts with vendors, and we make decisions to change what we sell for a variety of reasons.” Noncommittal, sure, but it does appear to acknowledge a shift in the company’s relationship with the smartphone maker.

Until now, Best Buy has been a saving grace in the company’s U.S. plans. While it’s true that most smartphone purchases occur through carriers in the States, the chain is still the largest consumer electronics retailer in the U.S., marking another major setback for the company’s plans.

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is the way to wean yourself off of DSLRs

Samsung has a new smartphone out, the Galaxy S9 (and S9+). It’s the latest flagship from one of the top smartphone makers in the world, but this year’s version has a lot in common with last year’s model, at least on the surface. The big focus (lol) this year was on the camera, and for good reason: Samsung stepped up its game significantly in this department with this update, and it comes closest to any smartphone camera I’ve tried yet to replicating some of the aspects of traditional photography that I love.

Arguably, other smartphone cameras, and the Pixel 2 in particular, can produce better photos. The Samsung Galaxy S9 is basically on par with that industry leader when it comes to quality of photos when shot in automatic mode – in some situations, including a lot of low-light scenarios, the S9 is better, but in others, like when there are big lightning differences across the scene, Google’s smartphone edges the Samsung. But either device (and the latest iPhones, if you’re going beyond Android) is going to be a fantastic photographic choice for most smartphone buyers, and that shouldn’t be a major concern when making a buying decision.

Where the Samsung Galaxy S9 really takes a leap forward is in bringing some of what has been so appealing about manual-friendly retro camera designs like those favoured by Fujifilm to the mobile realm. There are plenty of manual photography apps that do similar things, but the Galaxy S9 has its crucial dual aperture camera lens, which can manually switch from F/1.5 to F/2.4 in pro shooting mode. This gives you a noticeable degree of control over depth of field, or the effect of subtly blurring either background or foreground details depending on where you want to draw attention in the frame.

It’s this small, but crucial detail that really drives the appeal of the S9 for me. Without it, it’d be difficult to roundly recommend it as a major upgrade from last year’s model, and hard to say that it can stand apart from the rest of the crowd, most of which now feature magnificent cameras.

The Galaxy S9 also produces pretty fantastic results with full-light photos outdoors, as you can see from the gallery, with vibrant, rich color that might be a bit artificial, but ultimately comes off looking like it includes the kind of minor boosts and tweaks I’d do while editing in post anyway. The video shooting is good, as well, though it lacks the degree of stabilization that Google’s Pixel 2 can provide when filming while in motion.

On the Galaxy S9+ (which I didn’t test, but spent a bit of time with ahead of launch), the dual-camera design provides even more balm for DSLR and mirrorless addicts, since it gives you access to that 2x manual zoom. But the standard S9 strikes a great balance in terms of portability, design and features, and honestly most people won’t often use the zoom lens anyway.

Another key feature of the S9 is its new super slow motion mode, which captures brief clips at 960 fps at 720p resolution. I had fun with this, but found its automatic mode frustrating (it rarely detected motion when I wanted it to, and often went either too early or too late to get the moment). Turning that to manual was again more fun, for many of the reasons described above, and more interesting in terms of results produced, like the clip below.

Other new features, including the AR Emoji, are less well-executed and will probably enter the dustbin of history with a lot of other Samsung exclusive features. That’s not necessarily a criticism however: Samsung trying a bunch of stuff and then introducing it into the wild for hundreds of millions of customers isn’t hurting anyone (though mode switching on the S9 is super sensitive to casual left and right swipes, meaning AR emoji could come up accidentally) and sometimes crazy stuff they try actually works. AR emojis is not one of those.