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Apple AirPods (2019) review: A subtle, but meaningful upgrade Review

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I’m often asked what my favorite gadget or gadgets are, and for the past two years, without hesitation, my answer has been Apple’s AirPods and the Nintendo Switch.

Also: AirPower fail: The latest victim of Apple’s OCD

The AirPods took wireless earbuds and made them something I actually wanted to use and made it easy to do so. The Switch, well, I like to game when and where I can, so the portability combined with the ability to dock on a big screen TV has won me over.

For the past few months, however, the battery life on my original AirPods has been suffering. I’ve used them a lot since their release in 2016, and the small battery inside each earbud has suffered enough.

For months, rumors and speculation swirled that new AirPods were just around the corner. Keynotes came and went, without as much as a mention of a second-generation AirPods update. Then, the week before last month’s services event, Apple cleared out all hardware announcements. There were a new iPad Air and iPad mini, refreshed iMacs, and, finally, new AirPods.

For the past week, I’ve been using the 2019 version of the AirPods and they’re every bit as impressive. On paper, the changes are subtle, but in use, there’s a meaningful difference.

Design


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If you didn’t know what to look for on the wireless charging case, telling the difference between first- and second-generation AirPods would be impossible.

Also: Coming to an Apple store near you: The harder sell

The wireless charging case has a different hinge, an indicator light on the outside of the case, and the pairing button has moved up just a touch.

Other than the new case, the new AirPods look like the old AirPods. I had hoped we would see AirPods in a matte black finish, but the bright white earbuds have become a cultural phenomenon and easily recognizable over the past two years.

The earbuds are still one size fits all, and in my testing, have the same fit as the first-generation AirPods. I’ve never had issues with AirPods falling out or becoming uncomfortable in normal use.

The wireless charging case is compatible with all Qi-enabled wireless charging pads, and charges at a speed of 5W. There’s also a Lightning port on the bottom of the case if you’re short on time and want to charge the case a bit faster. The case will fully charge via cable in about two hours, or wirelessly in about 3.5 hours.

The indicator light on the wireless charging case doesn’t stay on the entire time the case is charging. Instead, it turns on when you first place the case on a wireless charging pad and will turn green when the case is fully charged. It also lights up each time you open the case, turning green when the AirPods are charged or amber if the case and earbuds are running low.

To be clear, you don’t have to purchase the wireless charging case with the second-generation AirPods. The AirPods are still available for $159 with a standard charging case. If you want wireless charging, you’ll pay $199 for the upgraded case.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that first generation owners who want a wireless charging case don’t have to upgrade AirPods. You can purchase a standalone wireless charging case that works with all AirPods for $79.

Performance

The most notable difference between the first iteration of AirPods and the 2019 version is a new Apple H1 chip. The custom H1 chip replaces the W1 chip that’s found in the first-generation AirPods.

Also: Quitting the five tech giants: Could you abstain from Apple?

The H1 is designed specifically for headphones, and won’t make its way to other wearables, like the Apple Watch (as we saw with the W1, and later the W2 chip).

What does the H1 chip bring to the table? Double the talk time of three hours, faster connection speed for incoming calls and when switching between devices, and hands-free “Hey Siri” use.

Overall battery life is still five hours, with 15 minutes in the charging case adding three hours of listening time, or two hours of talk time.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve yet to completely drain the AirPods during my normal use in my office. I’ve pushed four hours of constant listening and had just under 20 percent battery left, putting the five-hour estimate within reach.

airpods-2019-case.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The new AirPods boast the same range, seamless pairing process that takes a couple of seconds (and syncs across all of your Apple devices), and auto-pause and auto-resume when removing/placing an AirPod from your ear.

Also: Apple TV+ paid service: The company’s latest big bet 

One feature I’ve found myself using, and actually enjoying, is hands-free Hey Siri. Instead of double-tapping on an AirPod to trigger Siri, you can now speak Hey Siri at any time, and as long as the device they are connected to has an active internet connection, it will trigger Siri. You can then interact with Siri as you normally would — ask for weather, directions, your messages to be read, control music playback, or adjust volume.

Often times, I don’t have my iPhone in my pocket or nearby when I’m using my AirPods; I get up and walk around a lot. So using Hey Siri with my iPhone isn’t really possible. With the AirPods, however, I can still bark commands on Apple’s personal assistant and not have to worry about where my iPhone is.

Additionally, when using my Apple Watch with the AirPods, Hey Siri works. Instead of lifting my wrist to talk to Siri, I can talk and keep doing the task at hand without interruption.

Will I continue to use Hey Siri with the AirPods a month or two down the road? Most likely. Switching playlists and having messages read to me with a quick voice command is far too convenient for me.

Competition

When AirPods were first released, they were in a category of their own. There really wasn’t a product that came close to providing the same completely wireless experience. In the two years since their release, several companies have come out with products aimed at taking a slice of the market share from Apple. But it wasn’t until Samsung’s recently released Galaxy Buds that there was a true competitor that mimics the AirPods features, and in some ways improves upon them.

Also: Apple products you shouldn’t buy

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are designed for use with Galaxy devices, much in the same way that the AirPods are designed to use with Apple devices. And while both products will work outside of each respective company’s ecosystem, they’re better inside the walled gardens.

Although, if you don’t care about fast pairing and features like auto-pause on iOS, the Galaxy Buds are slightly less expensive at $129.

Conclusion

airpods-2019-wireless-charger.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

When it comes down to it, there’s not a big difference between the first and second generation AirPods. Talk time, improved connection speed, and Hey Siri are the headlining features, and to some, they won’t mean all that much.

Also: Apple versus the privacy spiral: The business value of trust

To be honest, if you recently purchased AirPods and your battery life is still strong, there’s little incentive to upgrade. However, those who have had the original AirPods since launch and are seeing diminished battery life, or those who have never owned a pair and are ready to make the wireless jump, the new AirPods are worth every penny.

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Founder of auto giant Geely buys Meizu as smartphone demand weakens – TechCrunch

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Remember Meizu, the once-promising competitor to Xiaomi? The Alibaba-backed Chinese smartphone maker is making a comeback — in a way — as it gets acquired by the founder of Geely, China’s largest private automaker and Volvo’s parent comapny.

China’s smartphone industry is notoriously competitive. Founded in 2003, Meizu has been making affordable, trendy Android-based smartphones that allowed it to gain brief moments of prominence at home and abroad. As of late, the phone maker’s market share in China has been marginal — 1% in Q4 2019, according to market research firm Counterpoint.

But the firm is now taking another shot as Xingji Technology, a smartphone company launched by Geely’s founder and chairman Eric Li last September, acquired a controlling stake of 79.09% from it.

Meizu will continue to operae as an “independent brand” following the strategic investment. Its founder Huang Zhang, also known as Jack Wong, will be involved as the brand’s “product strategy advisor.”

The tie-up joins a raft of phone and auto makers working closer together and betting on a future where in-car control and handset operating systems are more integrated. Last March, Xiaomi created a subsidiary to make electric vehicles and pledged to spend $10 billion on the new business in the upcoming years.

In the highly homogenous consumer device market, Meizu and Xingji aim to build “a multi-device, scenario-agnostic, and immersive” digital experience. Xingji was founded with a focus on premium smartphones, mixed reality and wearables.

It’s hard to be too excite about another new phone brand at a time global economy is slowing down. Smartphone shipment worldwide is expected to slump 3.5% this year, according to market researcher IDC. And there’s ample competition. The upcoming Nothing phone, spearheaded by OnePlus’s co-founder Carl Pei, vows to be different with refreshing designs and affordability, but its success will hinge on actual execution.

Xingji plans to release its first phone model by 2023 and sell 3 million units in the first year, Reuters reported earlier. Taking on premium-phone leaders Apple and Huawei, as well as aspiring players like Oppo, will be no small feat.

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UK’s Oxford Quantum Circuits snaps up $47M for quantum-computing-as-a-service – TechCrunch

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Quantum computing has been making quantum leaps of progress in the last several years — going from theoretical concept to multiple testing environments, to help organizations prep for a time when quantum computers, and their unparalleled processing power, become a scaled reality. Now, UK-based Oxford Quantum Circuits is announcing £38 million ($47 million) in funding to fuel the growth of its own contribution to the space — a patented 3D processor architecture it calls Coaxmon, plus quantum-computing-as-a-service that will run on it. OQC says that this Series A is the largest to date for a UK-based quantum computing startup.

“We work at pace, and our systems are being optimized. We’ll continue to scale and reduce error rates,” said Ilana Wisby, OQC’s founding CEO, in an interview. “Our vision is seamless quantum access.”

Lansdowne Partners and The University of Tokyo Edge Capital Partners (UTEC) a deep tech fund out of Japan, are co-leading the round, with British Patient Capital, Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE) and Oxford Investment Consultants (OIC) also participating. OSE and OIC previously led a £2.2 million seed round into the startup, which began life as a spinout from Oxford University and work done there by quantum physicist (and OQC founder) Dr Peter Leek.

The plan will be to use the funding to keep hiring more talent (it’s now at 60 employees), continue improving accessibility to quantum computing for developers interested in working with it, and to continue building out its computing infrastructure, which today is based on an 8-qubit machine. And as you might guess from the investor list, it will also be using some of the funds to expand into Asia Pacific, and specifically Japan, to tap would-be customers there in financial services and beyond.

“Quantum computing promises to be the next frontier of innovation, and OQC, with its state-of-the-art Coaxmon technology, aims to integrate the forefront of modern physics into our everyday lives,” said Lenny Chin, a principal at UTEC, in a statement. “UTEC is honoured to be part of OQC’s mission of making quantum technology accessible to all and will support OQC’s expansion into Asia-Pacific through collaborations with academia including the University of Tokyo, and partnerships with Japan’s leading financial and tech corporations.”

Wisby told me that OQC actually started raising this Series A before the pandemic, back in early 2020; but it opted to shelve that process and go for grants instead to build out the company in its earlier phases.

That got OQC quite far, advancing from a 1-qubit, to a 2-qubit, then a 4-qubit, and now currently an 8-qubit machine.

The startup is also already providing services to a variety of customers who work across either OQC’s private cloud or via Amazon Braket, AWS’s quantum computing platform that also provides developers access to other quantum-as-a-service providers such as Rigetti, IonQ and D-Wave. (OQC notes that its quantum computer, named Lucy, is the first European quantum provider on Braket — a key detail for companies and quantum researchers based out of Europe who need to comply with data protection laws by keeping data and the processing of it local: this gives them a local option.)

Its customers include Cambridge Quantum, which runs its IronBridge cryptographic number generator on OQC’s computer; financial services companies; molecular dynamics researchers; government organizations and large multinationals with in-house R&D teams working on systems capable to be run on quantum machines when they are eventually spun up.

“Eventually” is the operative word here: the real promise of quantum computing is vast computing power, but there has yet to be a quantum computer built that can achieve that at scale without also producing a lot of errors.

But it seems that a lot of the hope these days is not on “if” but “when” that hurdle will be overcome. “We’re well past theory,” Wisby said.

That’s led to a big wave of both large tech players such as IBM, Amazon and Alphabet to get involved, as well as a number of smaller startups, and companies like Rigetti, IonQ and D-Wave that sit between those two poles. While there are some opting to build and sell quantum devices, the economics don’t make sense for most potential use cases, so for now the bigger efforts appear to be around quantum in the cloud: offering it as an infrastructure-free, use-as-you-need-it compute service.

Although Oxford Quantum Circuits’ 8-qubit computer is not the largest in the field, Wisby said that one reason it’s picking up users, and this investment in what has been a tough fundraising climate, is because its platform is better, in that it produces less faults than others.

“We’re all working towards larger scale processes,” Wisby said. But, she added, there is something to be said for better quality and less errors. “We have low error rates, and the funding will enable us to deliver on the next steps.”

Another major fillip in the process is the fact that regions, and countries, are looking to back leaders in the field early on to help cement their respective standing in that next generation of technology, and so backing Oxford Quantum Circuits is seen to be part of that strategy. British Patient Capital is a strategic backer in that regard: it’s the investment arm of the British Business Bank, which is a government-owned bank focused on developing business and industry in the U.K.

“Since launching the UK’s first commercially-available quantum computer, we have continued to be highly impressed with both the technical developments and also the future ambitions of OQC,” said Peter Davies, partner and head of developed markets strategy at Lansdowne Partners, in a statement. “We are very excited to be investing in this innovative and forward-thinking company.”

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MarketWolf is a trading-first platform for new investors – TechCrunch

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Live in India, Singapore-based MarketWolf has plans to introduce stock trading to first-time investors in more markets. The platform announced today it has raised $10 million in Series A funding led by Singaporean venture capital firm Jungle Ventures and Mumbai-based Dream Capital. Returning investors 9Unicorns, iSeed, Crescent and Riverwalk also participated.

This brings MarketWolf’s total raised to $17.4 million since it was founded in 2017 (it launched in India in 2020). The new funding will be used to build product suite and on hiring for its product, marketing and engineering teams.

MarketWolf wants to making trading accessible to first-timers with low minimum investment amounts and a risk management system, as well as modules for practicing and learning about investing. They can invest in options, futures, ETFs and stocks, starting at $5. Most of its users are in the 18 to 35 year old age bracket.

MarketWolf’s risk-management features include setting mandatory risk and reward levels, listing only liquid instruments, preventing selling of options to avoid unlimited risk and its practice and learn module.

Founded by Vishesh Dingra and Thomas Joseph, MarketWolf says it has seen over 1.5 million app downloads in India over the last 18 months and that its number of trading accounts and retail active clients have grown 10x year-over-year. It was listed among the top 15 brokers in terms of trades by India’s National Stock Exchange (NSE) in 2021.

Before co-founding MarketWolf, Dingra worked at Merrill Lynch and Barclays Capital, building quantitative models and strategies for algorithmic trading in capital markets.

He told TechCrunch that he and Joseph wanted to launch an investment app because “we saw that existing products were focused on investing for long-term only, and short-term trading was overlooked. Thomas and I have worked at trading desks in Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, etc. and understood that there could be an easier, more engaging and risk-managed way of trading made available to people globally.”

The startup is among a number of investment apps based in Southeast Asia that have raised funding–and are continuing to raise). Just over the past month, wealth management platform PINA, Indonesian crypo trading app Pintu and Vietnam’s Anfin, also for first-time investors, have all raised venture capital.

Dingra said MarketWolf differentiates from other investment apps with its gamified interface (many of its users come from mobile gaming communities) and a trading-first approach.

“Most brokerages in the market are investment-first products, whereas MarketWolf is a trading-first product creating its own new market segment—people who can trade well in all market conditions, bullish, bearish, flat or volatile,” he said.

In a prepared statement, Jungle Ventures principal Arpit Beri said, “Retail participation in the stock market in India continues to remain abysmally low at ~3-5% and we believe that MarketWolf has the right product, as well as the right team and expertise to break-through this market.”

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