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Live transcription and captioning in Android are a boon to the hearing-impaired – TechCrunch

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A set of new features for Android could alleviate some of the difficulties of living with hearing impairment and other conditions. Live transcription, captioning and relay use speech recognition and synthesis to make content on your phone more accessible — in real time.

Announced today at Google’s I/O event in a surprisingly long segment on accessibility, the features all rely on improved speech-to-text and text-to-speech algorithms, some of which now run on-device rather than sending audio to a data center to be decoded.

The first feature to be highlighted, live transcription, was already mentioned by Google. It’s a simple but very useful tool: open the app and the device will listen to its surroundings and simply display as text on the screen any speech it recognizes.

We’ve seen this in translator apps and devices, like the One Mini, and the meeting transcription highlighted yesterday at Microsoft Build. One would think that such a straightforward tool is long overdue, but, in fact, everyday circumstances like talking to a couple of friends at a cafe can be remarkably difficult for natural language systems trained on perfectly recorded single-speaker audio. Improving the system to the point where it can track multiple speakers and display accurate transcripts quickly has no doubt been a challenge.

Another feature enabled by this improved speech recognition ability is live captioning, which essentially does the same thing as above, but for video. Now when you watch a YouTube video, listen to a voice message or even take a video call, you’ll be able to see what the person in it is saying, in real time.

That should prove incredibly useful not just for the millions of people who can’t hear what’s being said, but also those who don’t speak the language well and could use text support, or anyone watching a show on mute when they’re supposed to be going to sleep, or any number of other circumstances where hearing and understanding speech just isn’t the best option.

Gif showing a phone conversation being captioned live.Captioning phone calls is something CEO Sundar Pichai said is still under development, but the “live relay” feature they demoed onstage showed how it might work. A person who is hearing-impaired or can’t speak will certainly find an ordinary phone call to be pretty worthless. But live relay turns the call immediately into text, and immediately turns text responses into speech the person on the line can hear.

Live captioning should be available on Android Q when it releases, with some device restrictions. Live transcribe is available now, but a warning states that it is currently in development. Live relay is yet to come, but showing it onstage in such a complete form suggests it won’t be long before it appears.

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Apple’s M1 MacBook Air has that Apple Silicon magic

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Enlarge / Hey, my macro lens still works!

Lee Hutchinson

The new M1-powered MacBook Air is hilariously fast, and the battery lasts a long-ass time.

If you stop reading this review immediately after this, then know that unless Windows virtualization is a requirement of your workflow, you should probably just go ahead and sell your old MacBook Air immediately and get this thing instead.

Assuming you’ve got a grand or so lying around that you weren’t going to spend on something else. But hey, if you do, then I can confidently tell you that in spite of what a legion of Doubting Thomases (including me!) might have said about Apple’s freshman effort at its own PC silicon, it is now my studied opinion that there are far, far stupider ways to part with your cash.

A quick caveat on this “review”

Specs at a glance: 2020 MacBook Air (M1)
Screen 2560×1600 at 13.3 inches
OS macOS Big Sur 11.0.1
CPU Apple M1
RAM 16GB
GPU Apple M1 (8 core)
HDD 1TB SSD
Networking 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 5.0
Ports 2x Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.1 Gen 2/DisplayPort, 3.5mm headphone
Size 0.16–0.63×11.97×8.36-inch (0.41–1.61×30.41×21.24cm)
Weight 2.8 lbs (1.29kg)
Warranty 1 year, or 3 years with AppleCare+
Price as reviewed $1,299
Other perks 720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers

Apple provided Ars with a couple of M1 Mac Minis for review. One of those went to Samuel for him to write up, and the other went to Jim for him to do his silicon analysis. Apple declined our request for any model of M1-powered laptop.

The MacBook Air being reviewed here is my personal device, which I bought shortly after the unveiling event. I’ve written this as quickly as possible after receiving it, but I had to wait for the device, which is why you all had to wait for the review. (This is also why it’s in kind of an intermediate configuration, rather than stock or maxed out like most review devices—I bumped the RAM up to 16GB and the internal storage up to 1TB, because that’s what I wanted.)

Because this is my device, I’m coming into this review from a slightly different perspective than some of the other publications doing MBA reviews. I’m not going to tell you why you should buy a MacBook Air, or how it might work for you. But I am going to talk about what it has been like to own it for a few days and how the device fits into my life. I do most of my power-user stuff on the desktop rather than on a portable, but I do occasionally need to leave the office and hit the road—and the M1 MBA is going to be a great traveling companion. You know, once we can hit the road again without worrying about plagues and stuff.

Unboxinating

Approaching a device like this as a reviewer is different from approaching a device as a consumer. When the UPS guy drops it off, you can’t just rip the box open and jump in—there’s stuff you have to do first.

Tripods. Lights. Gotta iron the big white sweep cloth so I’ve got a background for pix. Gotta try to remember where the DSLR battery is.

It’s the oddest part about working for Ars, even after going on eight years. Your technology buying experiences are not always your own—sometimes the Ars readership comes along for the ride.

So after unboxing, I logged on and ran some benchmarks. That’s the first thing you have to do when you’re reviewing—you either do the benchmarks first, or you do them dead last, and I wanted to get them out of the way because this was, you know, my laptop, and I’d actually like to use it for stuff rather than having it be tied up running battery tests for 20 hours at a time.

Only a few days earlier, I had used my living room HTPC—a base-config 2018 Mac mini—to do the entire set of Mac comparison benchmarks for Samuel’s Mac mini review. I had a pretty good feel for how quickly the Intel mini’s hex-core i5 banged through each of the tests, since I’d just seen the numbers, and from talking to Samuel and Jim I was anticipating the new MBA’s M1 would beat the Intel-powered mini.

I just didn’t realize how hard a beatdown it would be.

Getting the benchmarky bits out of the way

So here’s how fast it is in a bunch of charts and graphs.

According to Apple, the MacBook Air’s M1 is voltage-limited in order to function within the fanless design’s thermal envelope. iFixit’s teardown shows in detail that the Air’s M1 cooling setup is an entirely passive affair, with just a heat transfer plate in between the M1 CPU and the aluminum body. I was expecting performance similar to but perhaps a bit lower than the M1-powered Mac mini, and that’s more or less what I got. However, the Air’s M1 is good for at least a few solid minutes of full-bore Firestorm core performance before it throttles back.

The M1 MBA's passive cooling setup, <a href="https://www.ifixit.com/News/46884/m1-macbook-teardowns-something-old-something-new">disassembled over at iFixit</a>.
Enlarge / The M1 MBA’s passive cooling setup, disassembled over at iFixit.

In benchmarking, I noticed that subsequent runs of the Final Cut Pro export would slow down dramatically—the first export would complete in about 1 minute and 19 seconds, but if I immediately repeated the export it would take a bit under 2.5 minutes—and the Air would be quite warm to the touch. After closing the lid to hibernate until the Air was cool and then repeating the export, the time was once again in the 1:20-ish range.

To create some more sustained load, I cloned the source video three times and then repeated the export process. Starting from a cold startup with the MBA’s chassis at ambient temperature gave a result of 4 minutes, 21 seconds. This time, I opened Activity Monitor’s CPU graph to spy on the core utilization. All eight cores were engaged until about 2:56, at which time half of the cores—presumably the high-performance Firestorm cores—dropped to less than 50-percent usage and stayed there until the run completed.

A second run immediately after that took 7:37—not quite twice as long, but heading in that direction. Activity Monitor’s CPU usage graph showed half of the cores (presumably the high-performance Firestorm cores) at half utilization for the entire run.

Further testing—including several runs after letting the MBA sit powered off for about an hour to make absolutely sure it was cooled to ambient—failed to produce anything resembling a precise, repeatable time interval for when throttling starts. The best I can do is to say that it seems that when you throw a heavy workload at the MBA, it runs at full-bore until the Firestorm cores become too toasty, which seems to take anywhere from 3-ish to 6-ish minutes. Then it backs the Firestorm cores off until they show about 50-percent utilization, and the amount of heat generated at that level seems to be within the sustained thermal capacity of the design.

(These are subjective measurements, taken in whatever indoor ambient conditions happened to be happening in my house as I was doing the testing. Your results may vary.)

I hate USB-C charging, give me back MagSafe

The other major thing for a portable like the MBA is battery life, and we’re going to talk about that. But first, very briefly, the loss of MagSafe sucks.

Yes, I know I’m late to the discussion. I know MagSafe was deleted a few hardware revisions ago, but I’m going from a MacBook Air with it to a MacBook Air without it, and plugging in a USB-C cable feels like going back to the freaking dark ages. I’ve been happy with MagSafe plugs on my laptops for almost an entire decade—that quick one-handed snick into place, that easy no-fuss pull to disengage, and that friendly LED to tell you when you’re all charged up.

Gone but not forgotten. I miss these so damn much.

Gone but not forgotten. I miss these so damn much.

Jacqui Cheng

Having to shove a connector into a high-friction plug—often requiring two hands, depending on how you’re holding stuff—is stupid. It’s just stupid. This is a customer-hostile regression in functionality. I’m sure there are excellent reasons for it and that it saves Apple money on the MBA’s bill of materials and on warranty support, but I hate it and it’s terrible. This is not the premium Apple experience I feel like I’m paying for.

Battery life

I used the M1 MacBook Air for work all day one day, filling up about 11 hours of on-the-clock time with Slack, emailing, Zoom conferencing, Messages, and Web browsing, and the Air still had 40 percent remaining on the battery meter when the day was done. This is considerably longer than my old 2015 MBA, which throws in the towel around hour five. (Unlike with the official battery test, my unofficial workday usage test was done with adaptive brightness and Night Shift enabled, and there was a fair amount of idling.)

In the official Ars battery test, with the screen locked at our reference brightness of 200 nits, the M1 MBA lasted for 877 minutes—a bit over 14.5 hours. Charge time back from almost dead to full took a bit over two hours with the included 30W adapter, with the device powered off during the charge.

But I don’t usually spend the day working on my laptop—instead, the place where my old MBA most often lets me down is on long flights. Living in Houston means I usually fly United, and United is particularly miserly with power plugs—if you don’t get certain specific seats, you’re out of luck. In my experience, my Intel MBA is good for three, maybe four hours of movie watching before it’s dead as a doornail—so if I’m flying to California or pretty much anywhere that’s more than a couple of hours away and I don’t get a power outlet seat, I know I probably need to bring a book.

The M1 Air laughs at my old MBA. It laughs at it, gives it noogies, and flushes its head down the toilet in the locker room.

Artist's impression of how I felt about the M1 MacBook Air's battery life as it continued to play <em>Westworld</em> episodes without running out of juice.
Enlarge / Artist’s impression of how I felt about the M1 MacBook Air’s battery life as it continued to play Westworld episodes without running out of juice.

I left the M1 MBA playing 4K Westworld episodes from the UHD BluRay box set, full screen and at max brightness, with the sound blaring at max volume. I finally gave up and shut the laptop off after ten hours, at which point it still said it had 13-percent battery remaining. That’s not only long enough to last out any domestic flight—that’s enough to last you an international flight from the US to Europe.

A quick note on resuming from sleep: during the Air’s reveal, Apple showed off how quickly the Air resumes from standby by having Senior VP Craig Federighi lift the lid of a sleeping MacBook Air and peek in, all set to the mellow sounds of Barry White. While I can’t say that Barry White plays when I open up my laptop, I can say that the M1 Air wakes from sleep very quickly. It’s not that it’s faster than my Intel-powered Air, since the 2015 model will sometimes wake up instantly, too—but the 2015 Air also sometimes takes a second or two to blink on when I lift the lid. The M1 Air is much more consistent—I’ve only had the thing for a few days, but every wake-from-sleep has been lightning quick.

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WireGuard for Windows 0.3.1 is the release you’ve been waiting for

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Enlarge / I heroically resisted the urge to create a “WireGuard for Workgroups 0.3.1” image for this piece.

Jim Salter

This Monday, WireGuard founder and lead developer Jason Donenfeld announced a new WireGuard release for the Windows platform. The release is something of a godsend for administrators hoping to implement WireGuard as a replacement for more traditional end-user VPNs in a business environment, adding several new features that will make their lives easier—or simply make its implementation possible, in environments where it otherwise would not.

If you haven’t heard about WireGuard yet, it’s a relatively new VPN protocol featuring advanced cryptography. It’s implemented from the ground up as an exercise in cleanly written, minimalist, maximally secure and performant code—and it succeeded at those goals well enough to get Linus Torvalds’ own rarely-seen stamp of approval.

Installation

Existing WireGuard users will be prompted with obvious UI hints to download and install the new version, directly from within the application itself.
Enlarge / Existing WireGuard users will be prompted with obvious UI hints to download and install the new version, directly from within the application itself.

Jim Salter

Those who are already using WireGuard on Windows will receive an obvious in-app prompting to download and install the new version, which works swimmingly. New users can download WireGuard directly from its website.

The simple “Download Installer” button is aimed at Windows end users, and this probes the user’s system to determine which MSI installer to fetch and execute, based on the user’s system architecture. Sysadmin types may also browse the list of MSIs directly, for use with Active Directory Group Policy automated deployments.

WireGuard for Windows currently supports x86_64, x86 (32-bit), ARM, and ARM64 architectures.

Improved tunnel management for Windows users

Probably the most desperately-sought feature in WireGuard’s windows implementation is the ability for unprivileged users to activate and deactivate WireGuard tunnels via the app’s user interface. Until release 0.3.1, WireGuard has only allowed members of the Administrators group to open the UI, let alone do anything within it.

As of version 0.3.1, that limitation has finally been removed. Unprivileged users may be added to the Windows Builtin group “Network Configuration Operators”—and, once members of that group, if and only if the requisite registry key was added and DWORD value set, they can manage their own tunnel into the corporate LAN.

There’s one more step necessary to enable the limited UI—you need to open regedit, create the key HKLMSOFTWAREWireGuard, then create a DWORD at HKLMSOFTWAREWireGuardLimitedOperatorUI and set it to 1. (Don’t be confused at the lack of HKLMSOFTWAREWireGuard itself—you’ll need to create that, too.)

Otherwise-unprivileged users who’ve been allowed into the WireGuard club can see the tunnels available and start and stop those tunnels. They cannot see the public keys for the tunnels—and more importantly, they can neither add, remove, nor edit those tunnels.

Unprivileged users also cannot exit the WireGuard application itself—they can close the dialog just fine, but the “exit WireGuard” item is missing from the context menu in the system tray. This is because closing the WireGuard app from the system tray doesn’t just get rid of the icon, or even disable the WireGuard tunnel services—it actually uninstalls those services entirely. (The services are automatically reinstalled the next time an Administrator runs the WireGuard app.)

Also new to WireGuard for Windows 0.3.1, multiple tunnels can be simultaneously activated from the GUI. This feature is also registry-gated for now—to use it, you’ll need to create a DWORD at HKLMSoftwareWireGuardMultipleSimultaneousTunnels and set it to 1. Without creating and setting that DWORD, WireGuard for Windows 0.3.1 continues to behave like earlier versions, and activating one tunnel from the GUI will automatically deactivate any others.

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VanMoof X3 ebike review: At $2,000, it’s automatic for (some of) the people

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For some people, a review of the VanMoof S3 electric bicycle can begin and end with its stunning design. The same goes for its eyebrow-raising $1,999 price tag. Both seem to go hand in hand: this is a pricey electric bike, and it sure looks like one.

Honestly, I’ve never tested a bike that has garnered so much universal drool, and I emphasize that at the top of this review because everything else about the VanMoof X3 ranges from serviceable to questionable. My month-long testing period was never interrupted with serious issues in terms of reliability or battery life, thankfully. Instead, I kept wondering what, exactly, this company was charging a whopping $1,999 for. Usually, each time I had that thought, I’d see yet another passerby make a face, like I was a bikini model in an ’80s beach-romp comedy, and think, “Right. It’s the looks.”

Starting with the automatic gear shifter

The VanMoof caught our eye for reasons other than its aesthetics (though those didn’t hurt). We accepted VanMoof’s offer of a tester bike primarily because of its unique, automatic gear-shifting feature. The bike’s basic sales pitch appeared to be: set it up via an Internet-connected app, then comfortably ride with adjustable, motor-powered pedal assists, made all the niftier by not needing to click your bike’s gear up or down.

Otherwise, VanMoof’s X3 (for heights of 5 to 6.5 feet), much like its slightly larger S3 sibling (for heights of 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet, 8 inches), largely resembles other ebikes in terms of features, with enough key differences to merit a full review. Let’s start with that automatic gear-shifting system, which will lead us through various other X3 features and quirks.

How does it work? Though the X3 comes packed with an electric motor, a built-in battery, and even a GSM tracker, its actual sensing of your bike motion begins and ends with a speedometer. This factors hugely into the automatic gear-shifting feature, since it only kicks into gear when you reach various velocity thresholds. The VanMoof app (which isn’t required to use the bike, but highly urged by its manufacturer) lets you pick from three gear-shifting presets: flat, hilly, and custom. Open the “custom” tab, and you’ll get to pick the exact speeds at which the X3 shifts up when accelerating, and a separate list of speeds that will trigger a down-shift when decelerating.

When riding on a flat road using the app’s “flat” preset, this system works exactly as advertised—and in impressive fashion. Gear shifting clicks into place while pedaling with nary a noticeable lurch or noticeably slow reactions by the gear-shifting system. Again, you’re riding a pedal-assist ebike, not a ride that offers automatic throttle—riders still should expect to exert, but the effort needed on a flat road is minimal and steady.

However, I live in a hilly neighborhood of Seattle, where an average ride—either running errands or commuting—includes a mix of steady inclines and declines, along with occasional extreme elevation changes. Before riding, I poked around the VanMoof app in search of any settings that might auto-respond to elevation conditions. I found none. The X3 does not include any sensors like accelerometers or gyroscopes to determine elevation changes. As a result, this velocity-based system struggles to quickly aid riders with the kind of downshifting I’d want the instant I hit a monstrous incline—or a combination of a maintained higher shift and supercharged electric boost.

Instead, before approaching a hill, I found myself needing to park, pull out my phone, wait for the VanMoof app to sync with the bike, and then switch my riding profile from “flat” to “hilly.” Users must deal with the same obnoxious stop-and-refresh requirement whenever adjusting the amount of pedal-assist boost the bike’s motor offers (offered in a number range, from 1 to 4). I’ve never tested an ebike that makes users park to adjust a pedal-assist system, and this particularly annoyed me with the VanMoof.

I’m a relatively athletic rider who likes to mix up pedal assistance on ebikes: I start with less assist, while I’m feeling fresh and wanting some exercise, then crank up the assist to either tackle major hills or ease the final leg of a ride. The VanMoof takes me out of that use case, and between that and its stupidity about hills, I found myself leaving it at its maximum-assist setting at all times, lest I be caught in a pickle.

Honk and boost

The handlebars include two buttons, though neither offers a shortcut to adjust the gear-shifting system or pedal-assist level. While riding, the left-hand button activates a “horn,” which plays a digital sound effect from a built-in speaker, and the right-hand button toggles “boost” mode. This delivers an extra jolt of battery-boosted pedaling strength in a pinch—like, say, when you need to climb a hill. While this button is held down, the engine will drive additional pedal assistance.

Both of these buttons underwhelm, however. The horn can be customized with one of three prebuilt sound effects available in the VanMoof app, but there’s no getting around how weakly this sound effect carries in an average ride through traffic. Should safety be a priority for your commute, you’ll want to attach a physical higher-frequency bell as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the boost button seems to offer a predefined boost above your current pedal-assist level, as opposed to a universal maximum. Meaning: if you’re riding with a mild pedal-assist level (2 out of 4) and approach an extreme hill, the boost button will effectively get your pedal-assist level to a 3. For some of the extreme Seattle hills I’ve faced, that’s not enough boost. In this case, you’ll need to get the app out, switch the pedal-assist to the max of 4, then use the boost button to throttle your pedaling up to a “5”-ranked boost.

To be clear: that boost button is not an automatic, engine-driven throttle. You can’t press the button and expect the bike to surge forward automatically. Worse, holding the boost button does not immediately up-shift the gear system. When I wanted to rapidly accelerate from a dead stop to cross a busy traffic intersection, the VanMoof could feel dangerously sleepy, even with the boost button held.

Battery and lock

After coming to terms with those issues, I settled on an ideal VanMoof X3 riding setup: the “flat” gear-shifting preset, the maximum “4” pedal-assist setting, and a serious reliance on that boost button whenever I reached a moderate hill. (I still had to switch the gear-shifting preset whenever I reached a particularly steep hill, then switched it back to “flat” once I returned to reasonable inclines and declines.)

With those settings straightened out, I found that the bike primarily worked as advertised. You can expect an ample amount of pedal assistance with either the “3” or “4” preset enabled, and between those and the boost button, I never found myself needing to stand up and exert in order to smoothly accelerate to a speed of roughly 20mph.

I never ran into issues with battery life dramatically depleting, and VanMoof’s estimate of 37 miles on a full 504MWh battery (at level-4 assistance, with daytime running lights) comes close to matching my own testing experience, maxing out at roughly 32 miles. In good news, should the bike’s battery entirely deplete, its 41-pound body doesn’t feel quite that heavy to ride with zero assistance—which I learned after riding for two blocks with the motor off.

Yes, you’ll feel the difference without power, but it’s good to know that the bike doesn’t lock up without power. The system will seize up if the built-in lock is engaged, of course. And if you’re particularly protective about your pricey bike, you’ll appreciate the almost feather-touch sensitivity of the X3 when its built-in lock is enabled (which can either be engaged through the app or by tapping the “lock” button on the side of the back wheel). Move the bike at all, and a loud, high-frequency speaker will aggressively chirp; keep trying to move the bike, and that noise will get louder and more consistent. Personally, I seriously wish the settings menu included a toggle for a much softer initial chirp—like, say, when you have the bike parked at a busy rack, where it will likely be innocently jostled. Like, count to five before freaking out, VanMoof.

The built-in GSM tracker offers all of the built-in overkill tracking you might want for a pricey bike, should someone decide to lift your screeching bike off the ground and load it into the back of a van. Burglars would apparently need to saw the bike in half to pick that tracker out of it. You can also pay VanMoof an additional theft-proof fee to get a 100-percent free bike from the company ($350 for a three-year guarantee), should some scofflaw successfully steal yours.

Sadly, the built-in battery is just as wedged into the bike’s body as the GSM tracker is. Any X3 recharging requires running a cord from a wall outlet to the bike itself—plus, you can’t stash and swap a backup battery for a particularly long ride. The included power brick’s cables max out at around 108 inches, which isn’t long enough to run from my front door’s nearest power outlet to the safest place that I can park my bike outside. A full charge takes about four hours, while a single hour will recharge to about 50 percent.

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