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AirPods Pro review: Noise cancellation and improved design are valuable additions Review

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Happy Podoween! Let’s compare the latest wireless earbuds
What do Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have in common? Jason Cipriani and Jason Perlow discuss in this week’s Jason Squared the fresh crop of noise-canceling Bluetooth earbuds from tech’s biggest companies. Read more: https://zd.net/2pu7kuC

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Apple AirPods at Amazon

Now with more talk time, voice-activated Siri access — and a new wireless charging case — AirPods deliver an unparalleled wireless headphone experience.

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Apple’s $250 AirPods Pro
do all of the things that
the standard AirPods do
. But, with a new design and new features, do they do it better? The Pro model includes noise cancellation — something users and reviews have asked Apple for since the AirPods launched — and a new design.

I’ve used AirPods from day one, and they’re still one of my favorite gadgets of the past five years. The ease of pairing, auto-pausing music if you remove an earbud, extended range, battery life, and built-in Siri have made them indispensable for me.

So, when Apple unexpectedly announced the AirPods Pro, a significant upgrade over the standard AirPods, I immediately ordered a pair and anxiously awaited their arrival. I wasn’t sure what to expect; the wireless earbud market is suddenly flooded with options from some of tech’s biggest players, and the AirPods Pro are simply catching up with some of the newest products. And they’re more expensive than regular AirPods. 

For the past week, I’ve been using the AirPods, Pro and all of the hype is justified. They’re great.

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Design

The AirPods Pro now have shorter stems and have ditched the one-size-fits-all earbud found on previous generation AirPods. The Pros have soft ear tips that can be replaced and swapped out, providing a tighter and more secure fit.

Preinstalled on the earbud is the medium size ear tip, with small and large included in the box. Also included in the box is a USB-C to Lightning charging cable.

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On each stem is a flat spot that serves as an indicator of where you should squeeze to control playback or switch between noise cancellation and transparency modes. When you squeeze one of the stems, it feels like you pressed a button that clicks, but nothing actually moves. It’s one of those psychological tricks that Apple has mastered.

The case is roughly the same size as the standard AirPods case, only sideways. Actually, it’s slightly larger but still compact enough that I haven’t noticed a difference when it’s in the front pocket of my pants. The charging case comes standard with Qi-wireless charging support, or you can use a Lightning cable to charge it.

Thanks to the new ear tips, I’ve found the AirPods Pro to be more comfortable than the standard AirPods. I’ve used both the small and medium-sized ear tips, and the AirPods Pro haven’t fallen out or felt loose.

Even though I’ve used AirPods since they launched in 2016, I would often experience slight discomfort in my ears after extended use (on a long flight, for example). I haven’t flown with AirPods Pro yet, but I have worn them until the battery ran out of power and that same discomfort was absent.

airpods-pro-3.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

New features and performance

In addition to the new design, AirPods Pro also pack some new features. They’re now IPX4-rated for water and sweat resistance. Apple also added Active Noise Cancellation and a Transparency Mode to the wireless earbuds. Meaning, when noise cancellation is enabled, the amount of ambient noise you hear will be minimal. Transparency Mode will allow some ambient noise in, making it possible for you to hear vehicles as you walk along a busy street or overhear announcements in an airport.

I’ve spent a lot of time using noise cancellation on the AirPods Pro, and it’s some of the best I’ve used. I can go from transparency – hearing every word someone across the room is saying – to turning on noise cancellation, and then I can only see their lips moving. The heater in my office is loud and noisy, but with AirPods Pro and noise cancellation, the only way I know that it’s running is when I feel the air it’s pushing out across my hands.

I didn’t expect noise cancellation to be impressively good, but just good enough. However, it is impressively good. I wish I could have tested them on a plane before writing this review, but I suspect they’ll do a decent job drowning out the white noise of the engine and loud passengers. 

Apple puts the AirPods Pro battery life at five hours with noise cancellation turned off, and 4.5 hours with turned on. In combination with the charging case, you should expect around 24 hours of use. I haven’t been able to test the full 24-hour claim, but I can say that my AirPods Pro have had no issues reaching Apple’s estimates.

Of course, sound quality is a big part of the added cost for AirPods Pro. The Pros sound better than the standard AirPods, with more bass, and a little more depth to the sound quality overall. Some of that is likely due to the seal the new tips offer, along with the improved hardware.

To make sure you have the right ear tips installed on your AirPods Pro, there’s an Ear Tip Fit Test built into iOS 13.2 (required to use the AirPods Pro) that will play some sound through the earbuds, and using the microphones to listen, it will determine if you’re getting a proper seal between the ear tip and your ear. I was able to use both the small and medium ear tips and pass the test. Ultimately, I have been using the small ear tips because I found them more comfortable.

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Which AirPods are the AirPods for you?

If you had a hard time keeping the original AirPods in your ears, or you wish your AirPods had noise cancellation to cut down on distractions while traveling or in a noisy office, the AirPods Pro are the only way to go.

For someone who wants the flexibility of AirPods, but doesn’t care about wireless charging or added features, then the standard AirPods for $159 make the most sense.

For me, noise cancellation combined with the improved fit justify the added cost for the AirPods Pro. And I’d be willing to bet you’d feel the same way after trying them.



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SAIC Mobility Robotaxi valued at $1B after $148M Series B – TechCrunch

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SAIC Mobility Robotaxi, an arm of state-owned Chinese automaker SAIC aiming to launch a commercial robotaxi service, raised $148 million (RMB 1 billion). The funds will be used to scale its robotaxi service in China, which it will operate in partnership with autonomous vehicle company Momenta.

SAIC Group led the Series B round that also saw participation from Momenta, Gaoheng Management Consulting and other institutions. The funding brought SAIC Mobility’s total valuation to more than $1 billion, according to the company.

SAIC Mobility’s robotaxis are powered using Momenta’s “Flywheel L4” technology, which is designed to use deep learning rather than a rules-based, machine learning approach. Momenta contends that the technology allows the robotaxis to quickly iterate and improve its algorithms.

The funding comes eight months since the two companies launched two 100-day trials in the cities of Shanghai and Suzhou. The pilot, which launched in December, tested a fleet of 60 vehicles, all of which had a safety driver behind the wheel at all times. SAIC says it reached a daily order volume of about 20 rides per vehicle, and that its overall user satisfaction rate was 98%. About 80% of riders used the service two or more times after their initial experience, according to the companies.

The next step is to advance SAIC’s trial in Shanghai and Suzhou into a service as SAIC Mobility gears up for eventual commercialization. Local regulations don’t support commercialization and SAIC wants to be ready when new regulations are released early next year, according to a SAIC spokesperson.

With Momenta on its side, SAIC Mobility has a good chance of scoring a commercial deployment permit in Suzhou. The company has a joint venture with the Suzhou branch of the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC), which has oversight of more than 100 large state-owned enterprises, to “scale up” robotaxi deployment in the city.

Launching in Shanghai will put SAIC Mobility in competition with other big players, like Baidu, which also has an autonomous ride-hailing service, Apollo Go, in the city. Baidu also recently got the green light to operate a commercial robotaxi service, without a human driver present, in Wuhan and Chongqing. Baidu is also operating Apollo Go commercially in Beijing, with a human safety operator present, alongside Pony.ai.

Momenta and SAIC have said in the past that they aim to deploy 200 vehicles across China by 2022. To reach this aim, the two companies will use the Series B to buy and develop more vehicles, more than doubling the current number in its fleet, and to continue to improve on both the ride-hailing app, as well as the autonomous capabilities of the vehicles, said the spokesperson.

“SAIC Mobility Robotaxi’s success is the organic combination of ‘operational experience’ and ‘leading autonomous driving technology,’” said Cao Xudong, CEO of Momenta, in a statement. “Our two companies together will continue to develop the technology, products and commercial implementation to meet the future and diverse travel needs of end users. We believe that this will become the industry benchmark for autonomous driving and in-depth cooperation between leading car companies and operating platforms, and the future of scalable [uncrewed] driving.”

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Pomelo exits stealth mode with $20M seed to rethink international money transfer – TechCrunch

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Eric Velasquez Frenkiel had a seemingly simple thought when visiting his family in the Philippines, impressed by the cashless economy that had formed. Instead of sending money to his family once a year – a costly, fee-heavy affair – why can’t he just leave his credit card there?

As with many things in fintech, it wasn’t that simple. But the seed of the idea made the former enterprise chief executive turn his career into a bet on one of fintech’s most elusive problems.

Pomelo, Frenkiel’s new startup launching out of stealth today, wants to make it easier to send remittance payments and conduct international money transfer, with a credit twist.

To execute on that vision, Pomelo has raised a $20 million seed round led by Keith Rabois at Founders Fund and Kevin Hartz at A* Capital, with participation from Afore Capital, Xfund, Josh Buckley and the Chainsmokers. The round also included a $50 million warehouse facility, which will allow Pomelo to give upfront cash to people who want to make transfers.

Venture investors are not the only cohort showing interest; over 120,000 people have joined Pomelo’s waitlist over six months, according to Frenkiel. (It’s important not to confuse this Pomelo with another Pomelo, a fintech-as-a-service platform for Latin America that has raised $9 million in funding). Oh, fintech.

Here’s how the startup works: if someone wants to send money overseas, they make a Pomelo account, which comes with up to four credit cards. The creator of the account – let’s just assume that they’re the one that is sending the money – can set limits, pause cards and view spending habits.

Pomelo’s key tweak is around credit. Senders can give cash, in the form of credit, to family members – which the startup thinks will help with instant access to funds, fraud and chargeback protection and, for potential immigrants that may use this to send money back home, a way to boost one’s credit score with more transaction history.

Challenges still await any fintech, whether traditional or scrappy upstart, that is betting its business on backing potentially risky individuals. For example, Pomelo doesn’t want to rely on credit score when deciding whether or not to trust a sender, because the metric historically leaves out those who don’t have a bounty of access to financial literacy or spending.

Image Credits: Pomelo

“If you do have a credit score and you have enough credit history, you would get up to $1,000 a month,” Frenkiel said. “But if you don’t have credit or wish to improve your credit, we give you a credit builder.” Customers are invited to supply a secure deposit, so that there’s a way to prove creditworthiness down the road, and Pomelo is able to “actually balance the need to extend credit but also ensure we stay in business long term.”

International money transfer continues to be an expensive affair for senders. Unsurprisingly, that pain point has led to a plethora of startups. Startups offer a sliding scale proposition, meaning it costs more to send more money, or a flat-fee value proposition, with a $5 fee for all transfers regardless of size. Per the World Bank, around 6% of a total check is removed via fees and exchange rate markups.

Rethinking remittance thus feels like a common pitch. Frenkiel says that Pomelo’s closest competitors are Xoom and Remitly, although he thinks they differentiate in two keys ways: the focus on credit, and a “fundamentally new revenue model.”

Pomelo doesn’t make money from senders via transfer fees, instead leaning its business on interchange fees paid by merchants. “You shouldn’t have to pay money to send money,” Frenkiel adds.

While interchange fees have their own slew of issues as a business model, let’s end with some insurance: both Visa and Mastercard were interested in partnering with the startup, but the latter won the deal.

“MasterCard allows us to work in more than 100 countries,” Frenkiel said. “Obviously, we’re starting off with a few, but the idea is that there’s far more endpoints to take MasterCard or Visa than having banking as a prerequisite to send money… we hope we can eventually deliver a product to wherever MasterCard is accepted around the world. ”

The startup is servicing the Philippines, but soon plans to expand to Mexico and India as well as other geographies.

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Watch NASA roll out the mega moon rocket Space Launch System ahead of launch – TechCrunch

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NASA engineers have completed final tests of the Space Launch System (SLS), clearing the way for the mega moon rocket to roll out to the launch pad today instead of Friday as originally planned.

The space agency was able to move up the date for the rollout — when a transporter-crawler moves the 322-foot-tall SLS from the Vehicle Assembly Building to launch pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center — because it completed key tests of the rocket’s flight termination system (FTS). The FTS is a critical series of components that ensure a rocket can be safely destroyed after launch in the case of a major failure. Testing of the FTS was “the final major activity” on NASA’s pre-launch to-do list, the agency said.

Image Credits: NASA

Testing and installing the FTS was last on the list because the system starts a proverbial “clock” of around 20 days for launch. If launch does not occur within this period, the system must be retested. This time frame is set by the U.S. Space Force and by the FTS’s own battery system. NASA was able to get an extension from Space Launch Delta 45, the USSF unit that has jurisdiction over launches on the east coast, from 20 days to 25 days.

That means NASA is on track for a first launch attempt of the Artemis I mission on August 29. Thanks to the extension, NASA can now make backup launch attempts on September 2 and September 5.

Artemis I is the first in a series of planned launches aimed at returning humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era. The primary goal is to test the Orion spacecraft and ensure it can safely carry humans. (SLS is not reusable, so while a successful launch will surely give engineers plenty of confidence about the rocket, it will not make a second flight.) During the mission, Orion will journey around the moon before conducting a reentry and splashdown back on Earth.

The next flight in the manifest, Artemis II, is scheduled for 2024. This mission will carry humans, though they won’t touch down on the moon. That privilege will go to the next cohort of astronauts, which will include the first woman and person of color to go to the moon, during the Artemis III mission scheduled to launch in the middle of the decade.

Today’s rollout is expected to take around 11 hours. Click on the video above to watch it live.

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