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OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations – TechCrunch

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The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide to a small community both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected, but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15,000 to build, plus roughly another $10,000 to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from a negotiable initial split to 50/50); it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10,000 of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6 million was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Cecchini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: The company hopes to deploy as many as 1,000 throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as 100 boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as 100,000 more people.

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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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