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Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent – TechCrunch

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If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture.

The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making.

Meet the ‘Made by Google’ Home Hub.

Buy into the smart home, the smart consumer might think, and you’re going to be stuck shelling out again and again — just to keep on top of managing an ever-expanding gaggle of high maintenance devices.

Which does sound quite a lot like throwing good money after bad. Unless you’re a true believer in the concept of gadget-enabled push-button convenience — and the perpetually dangled claim that smart home nirvana really is just around the corner. One additional device at a time. Er, and thanks to AI!

Yesterday, at Google’s event, there didn’t seem to be any danger of nirvana though.

Not unless paying $150 for a small screen lodged inside a speaker is your idea of heaven. (i.e. after you’ve shelled out for all the other connected devices that will form the spokes chained to this control screen.)

A small tablet that, let us be clear, is defined by its limitations: No standard web browser, no camera… No, it’s not supposed to be an entertainment device in its own right.

It’s literally just supposed to sit there and be a visual control panel — with the usual also-accessible-on-any-connected-device type of content like traffic, weather and recipes. So $150 for a remote control doesn’t sound quite so cheap now does it?

The hub doubling as a digital photo frame when not in active use — which Google made much of — isn’t some kind of ‘magic pixie’ sales dust either. Call it screensaver 2.0.

A fridge also does much the same with a few magnets and bits of paper. Just add your own imagination.

During the presentation, Google made a point of stressing that the ‘evolving’ smart home it was showing wasn’t just about iterating on the hardware front — claiming its Google’s AI software is hard at work in the background, hand-in-glove with all these devices, to really ‘drive the vision forward’.

But if the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory.

Google also made a point of referencing concerns it said it’s heard from a large majority of users that they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, saying: “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being.”

Yet it said this at an event where it literally unboxed yet another clutch of connected, demanding, function-duplicating devices — that are also still, let’s be clear, just as hungry for your data — including the aforementioned tablet-faced speaker (which Google somehow tried to claim would help people “disconnect” from all their smart home tech — so, basically, ‘buy this device so you can use devices less’… ); a ChromeOS tablet that transforms into a laptop via a snap-on keyboard; and 2x versions of its new high end smartphone, the Pixel 3.

There was even a wireless charging Pixel Stand that props the phone up in a hub-style control position. (Oh and Google didn’t even have time to mention it during the cluttered presentation but there’s this Disney co-branded Mickey Mouse-eared speaker for kids, presumably).

What’s the average consumer supposed to make of all this incestuously overlapping, wallet-badgering hardware?!

Smartphones at least have clarity of purpose — by being efficiently multi-purposed.

Increasingly powerful all-in-ones that let you do more with less and don’t even require you to buy a new one every year vs the smart home’s increasingly high maintenance and expensive (in money and attention terms) sprawl, duplication and clutter. And that’s without even considering the security risks and privacy nightmare.

The two technology concepts really couldn’t be further apart.

If you value both your time and your money the smartphone is the one — the only one — to buy into.

Whereas the smart home clearly needs A LOT of finessing — if it’s to ever live up to the hyped claims of ‘seamless convenience’.

Or, well, a total rebranding.

The ‘creatively chaotic & experimental gadget lovers’ home would be a more honest and realistic sell for now — and the foreseeable future.

Instead Google made a pitch for what it dubbed the “thoughtful home”. Even as it pushed a button to pull up a motorised pedestal on which stood clustered another bunch of charge-requiring electronics that no one really needs — in the hopes that consumers will nonetheless spend their time and money assimilating redundant devices into busy domestic routines. Or else find storage space in already overflowing drawers.

The various iterations of ‘smart’ in-home devices in the market illustrate exactly how experimental the entire  concept remains.

Just this week, Facebook waded in with a swivelling tablet stuck on a smart speaker topped with a camera which, frankly speaking, looks like something you’d find in a prison warden’s office.

Google, meanwhile, has housed speakers in all sorts of physical forms, quite a few of which resemble restroom scent dispensers — what could it be trying to distract people from noticing?

And Amazon now has so many Echo devices it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s as if the ecommerce giant is just dropping stones down a well to see if it can make a splash.

During the smart home bits of Google’s own-brand hardware pitch, the company’s parade of presenters often sounded like they were going through robotic motions, failing to muster anything more than baseline enthusiasm.

And failing to dispel a strengthening sense that the smart home is almost pure marketing, and that sticking update-requiring, wired in and/or wireless devices with variously overlapping purposes all over the domestic place is the very last way to help technology-saturated consumers achieve anything close to ‘disconnected well-being’.

Incremental convenience might be possible, perhaps — depending on which and how few smart home devices you buy; for what specific purpose/s; and then likely only sporadically, until the next problematic update topples the careful interplay of kit and utility. But the idea that the smart home equals thoughtful domestic bliss for families seems farcical.

All this updatable hardware inevitably injects new responsibilities and complexities into home life, with the conjoined power to shift family dynamics and relationships — based on things like who has access to and control over devices (and any content generated); whose jobs it is to fix things and any problems caused when stuff inevitably goes wrong (e.g. a device breakdown OR an AI-generated snafu like the ‘wrong’ photo being auto-displayed in a communal area); and who will step up to own and resolve any disputes that arise as a result of all the Internet connected bits being increasingly intertwined in people’s lives, willingly or otherwise.

Hey Google, is there an AI to manage all that yet?

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AMD laptops have a hidden 10-second performance delay. Here’s why

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Enlarge / When it’s on battery, your new Ryzen 4000 series laptop doesn’t deliver its true performance until about ten seconds into a full-throttle workload.

Aurich Lawson / AMD

In an embargoed presentation Friday morning, Intel’s Chief Performance Strategist Ryan Shrout walked a group of tech journalists through a presentation aimed at taking AMD’s Zen 2 (Ryzen 4000 series) laptop CPUs down a peg.

Intel’s newest laptop CPU design, Tiger Lake, is a genuinely compelling release—but it comes on the heels of some crushing upsets in that space, leaving Intel looking for an angle to prevent hemorrhaging market share to its rival. Early Tiger Lake systems performed incredibly well—but they were configured for a 28W cTDP, instead of the far more common 15W TDP seen in production laptop systems—and reviewers were barred from testing battery life.

This left reviewers like yours truly comparing Intel’s i7-1185G7 at 28W cTDP to AMD Ryzen 7 systems at half the power consumption—and although Tiger Lake did come out generally on top, the power discrepancy kept it from being a conclusive or crushing blow to AMD’s increasing market share with the OEM vendors who are actually buying laptop CPUs in the first place.

Enter the battery

Intel’s original Tiger Lake launch presentations sought to draw attention to on-battery versus off-battery discrepancies in AMD’s performance, but those attempts mostly went unheard. Shrout’s presentation Friday was an attempt to tell that story again, this time with enough additional information to get people fired up.

We can see this discrepancy between on-battery and off-battery performance easily in the PCMark 10 Applications benchmark and also in many of Intel’s RUGs—scripted workloads based around production applications, which the company calls “Realistic Usage Guides.” However, the same discrepancy between on- and off-battery performance isn’t visible in more commonly used industry benchmarks, such as Cinebench, PassMark, or Geekbench.

Intel’s engineering team displays the reason why we don’t see the discrepancy in Cinebench in the last image of the gallery above—in Intel’s testing, the Ryzen 4000 CPUs didn’t ramp up power and voltage to their maximum state until somewhere between eight and 11 seconds after heavy-duty workloads began.

Independent confirmation

We were able to confirm Intel’s findings over the weekend, working with an Acer Swift 3 SF314-42 laptop (with a Ryzen 7 4700u CPU) and an MSI Prestige 14 Evo laptop (with a Core i7-1185G7). In the charts above, we repeatedly compress small chunks of the Linux 7.3 kernel source and graph throughput over time on each CPU.

The 4-core/8-thread i7-1185G7 easily outperforms the 8-core/8-thread Ryzen 7 4700u in both single and quad-thread workloads, even after the Ryzen 7 4700u belatedly jumps to its full performance around the 12-second mark. In the unlimited workload, where the Ryzen 7 is allowed to flex its full octa-core muscle, things are much closer—and the 4700u even ekes out a narrow win in the last four seconds.

There are a few things we need to point out here, though. First and most obviously—Intel is 100 percent correct in its claims that AMD’s Zen 2 laptop CPUs delay ramping power and voltage up to their maximum states. This causes a sharp, corresponding, and decreased performance during those first few seconds.

We reached out to AMD representatives for comment on this design decision. Although AMD representatives asked further questions about our observations, we have not yet received a response for the record at press time.

The devil is in the details—so is the heat

But Intel is still playing games with its own power consumption. In the above screenshot, we can see the MSI Prestige Evo 14 with Core i7-1185G7 during a Cinebench R23 run. We haven’t had this laptop for long enough to fully review it—and particularly, to review its battery life, which we’ve been very curious about since being forbidden to test that stat in two earlier i7-1185G7 systems.

But we can see that—rather than dial the i7-1185G7’s cTDP down to something approximating the typical Ryzen 7 4000 cTDP of 15W, as widely expected—MSI has in this laptop chosen to dial it up even further than what we saw in earlier prototypes. This production i7-1185G7 system has a variable PL1 which hits as high as 36W during the course of a Cinebench R23 run—in addition to its PL2 of 51W, which is unchanged from the prototypes.

During this Cinebench R23 run, the laptop spent its first 10 to 15 seconds running at the full PL2 power limit of 51W, with temperatures up to a blistering 98°C. After that initial, extremely high-performance, power, and heat generating burst, the CPU dropped down to sustain an average power consumption of 34W. By contrast, an 8 core / 16 thread Ryzen 7 Pro 4750U—at cTDP up of 25W—consumed an average of 27.9W, with a high of 29.9W.

While we’re veering away from the CPUs themselves and into laptop-design territory, it’s perhaps worth noting that system-fan activity was also significantly different between the MSI Prestige 14 Evo—which reached nearly gaming-laptop levels of fan noise almost immediately—and the HP EliteBook, which took more than a minute to ramp its fans up to max and remained much quieter than the MSI throughout the run.

The battle continues

While Intel didn’t specifically tell us what conclusions we should draw from the performance delay in Zen 2 laptop CPUs versus the instant-on performance from Tiger Lake, the company was clearly hoping for something in between “AMD is gaming the benchmarks” and “it turns out, Intel was the winner all along.”

We don’t think there are any such cut-and-dried conclusions to draw here. Intel’s findings regarding the slow performance ramp of the AMD Zen 2 laptop CPUs is, obviously, correct in the facts—we had no trouble confirming it, and it does explain why many of Intel’s preferred benchmarking techniques show larger performance deltas in favor of Team Blue than the more widely used industry benchmarks like Cinebench, PassMark, and so forth.

But this ignores the greater efficiency of the AMD systems, above and beyond the delayed shift to maximum performance (and battery consumption) states in the CPU. When we run Cinebench R23 for five full minutes, a Ryzen 7 Pro 4750u system renders more scenes than the Intel i7-1185G7, and it does so with less total power consumed. There’s no clever trick to explain that away.

We also believe there’s a tuning argument to be made on both sides. Intel’s more rapid shift to the highest performance state carries some real-world benefits with it, but we’re not certain they’re as compelling as the charts make them seem. In practical terms, we’ve spent quite some time now with both Zen 2 and Tiger Lake laptops—and the Tiger Lake systems don’t really feel faster in terms of a seat-of-the-pants subjective experience. This argues strongly that there frequently isn’t much point in ramping up CPU power profiles that quickly—if the human piloting the system doesn’t notice the latency improvement, it’s probably better to conserve the battery instead.

Some exceptions exist—the most notable likely being boot time. Tiger Lake systems boot—and resume from suspend—phenomenally quickly, and we suspect their willingness to instantly boost performance to maximum has a lot to do with it. One developer we spoke to speculated that JavaScript just-in-time (JIT) compilation might be another short workload that nevertheless was easily human-perceptible.

The best news for consumers, we suspect, is that the “which system is better” argument is so difficult to conclusively answer in the first place. This level of competition means neither team gets to rest on its laurels, and consumers are less likely to end up buying systems nobody would want, if fully informed about the differences.

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Apple pushes out iOS 14.2.1, and it’s mostly bug fixes

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Enlarge / The iPhone 12 mini. iOS 14.2.1 fixes an issue that affected the lock screen on this phone.

Samuel Axon

Yesterday, Apple released iOS 14.2.1 to fix bugs users have encountered on new iPhones since iOS 14.2 launched on November 5. Unlike many other iOS releases, this release was not accompanied by updates to all of the company’s other operating systems.

The update fixes a bug that caused an unresponsive lock screen specifically on the iPhone 12 mini, and it addressed an issue that prevented MMS messages from coming in. Further, 14.2.1 fixes a problem with sound quality on connected hearing devices.

Here are Apple’s release notes for iOS 14.2.1:

iOS 14.2.1 addresses the following issues for your iPhone:

  • Some MMS messages may not be received
  • Made for iPhone hearing devices could have sound quality issues when listening to audio from iPhone
  • Lock Screen could become unresponsive on iPhone 12 mini

The previous update, iOS 14.2, was a somewhat larger one. It added more than 100 new emoji, incorporated Shazam in the control center, and introduced new audio and AirPlay features, among other things. That update was accompanied by updates to watchOS, tvOS, and others, as well.

Typically, updates with two decimal points in the number are minor bug fix updates, those with just one decimal point are small feature updates, and those with just a whole number (like iOS 14) are annual major releases.

iOS 14.2.1 should be available to all users on supported devices (any carrying the iPhone 12 name) right now.

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iFixit teardown of M1 MacBooks gives us our first glimpse at the M1 up close

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As expected, iFixit has done a teardown of two of Apple’s three new M1-based Macs: the MacBook Air and the 2-port, 13-inch MacBook Pro. What they found is somehow both surprising and not: almost nothing has changed in the laptops apart from the inclusion of the M1 chip and directly related changes.

The biggest change is definitely the omission of a fan in the MacBook Air. iFixit notes that given the Intel MacBook Air’s history of overheating in some cases, it speaks volumes about the efficiency of the M1 that so far it seems the Air gets on just fine without that fan now. Also missing: the T2 chip, which we noted in our Mac mini review has been replaced completely by the M1 in all these new Macs.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is even more similar to its predecessor. The T2 chip is also gone, but the laptop retains the exact same fan and cooling system, with no differences whatsoever. Reviews of the 13-inch MacBook Pro claim that the fan doesn’t spin up as often as it used to, but iFixit concludes here that that’s because of the shift from an Intel chip to the M1, not because of an improved cooling system. The fans on the Intel and M1 Pro are interchangeable.

What’s not interchangeable are a whole bunch of parts in the Air and parts in the Pro. iFixit laments that the similar silicon between the two machines could have presented an opportunity to make repairs easier by making it possible to use parts from one to fix the other, but that seems not to be the case.

And in general, the performance and efficiency gains of the M1 over the prior models are counterbalanced by the fact that user-serviceability and repairability are not moving in a more open direction, because the unified memory architecture of the M1 suggests that Apple isn’t planning to make RAM upgradeable or replaceable any time soon.

iFixit hasn’t given the laptops a repairability score yet, but those two notes suggest the scores wouldn’t be higher than those given to previous models (those machines didn’t have upgradeable RAM, either.)

For more shots of these laptops’ insides and some additional insights, read iFixit’s full teardown post.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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