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Talk all things robotics and AI with TechCrunch writers – TechCrunch

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This Thursday, we’ll be hosting our third annual Robotics + AI TechCrunch Sessions event at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The day is packed start-to-finish with intimate discussions on the state of robotics and deep learning with key founders, investors, researchers and technologists.

The event will dig into recent developments in robotics and AI, which startups and companies are driving the market’s growth and how the evolution of these technologies may ultimately play out. In preparation for our event, TechCrunch’s Brian Heater spent time over the last several months visiting some of the top robotics companies in the country. Brian will be on the ground at the event, alongside Lucas Matney, who will also be on the scene. Friday at 11:00 am PT, Brian and Lucas will be sharing with Extra Crunch members (on a conference call) what they saw and what excited them most.

Tune in to find out about what you might have missed and to ask Brian and Lucas anything else robotics, AI or hardware. And want to attend the event in Berkeley this week? It’s not too late to get tickets.

To listen to this and all future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free.

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How desperate are you for GPUs, CPUs, consoles? Newegg tests with new lottery

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Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, electronics retailers have been under increased fire and scrutiny for mishandling how they sell brand-new consoles and high-end PC components. This week, online retailer Newegg has moved forward with a new, peculiar system for selling high-demand, low-supply electronics: the Newegg Shuffle. (Or, as the site’s metadata calls it, the Newegg Popular Product Lottery Queue.)

If you catch this article early enough on Friday, January 22, consider this a drop-everything suggestion to rush to the site by 5 pm ET and place a product-purchase request. Really: Do that right now if you’re interested in recent AMD CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, or the all-digital PlayStation 5. It’s free to try. We’ll wait.

OK, so, that process might have been a bit confusing. What’s going on with the Newegg Shuffle?

Shuffling into a forced bundle? Not necessarily, but likely

The Newegg Shuffle buzz began earlier this week when savvy shoppers noticed a limited-time lottery event under the same name in messages sent to a limited pool of Newegg customers. It advertised a variety of CPUs and graphics cards, and the lead-in page included a sales pitch: Pick what you want to buy, sign into your established Newegg customer profile, and submit a request. Do this by a certain time, and within a few hours, you’d get notified if your account was selected to purchase any of the products you picked. (Meaning, you could try to sign up for every listing, or just one, without the choices apparently changing your odds of being randomly selected.)

The problems with that early test, however, came in the form of furious customers sharing images of what the shopping interface actually looked like. After clicking a shiny new AMD processor, or an Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics card, you’d be shown the real shopping option: a forced bundle. Every single option appeared to require purchasing a brand new motherboard, even if you didn’t need one. That was particularly egregious in the case of Nvidia’s graphics cards, which are compatible with the common PCI-e 3.0 standard and thus don’t necessitate a new motherboard for interested PC gamers.

When pressed by PC Mag about this anti-consumer, forced-bundle promotion, Newegg clarified that its Shuffle feature was still in “beta.” The promotion would cut down on forced bundles once it rolled out to all customers. Friday’s Newegg Shuffle launch has confirmed this—but a few forced bundles remain.

Both of today’s available AMD CPUs, the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, can be purchased as standalone options. They’re additionally listed with bundles, however, and that means you essentially have a better shot at purchasing them from Newegg if you’re willing to attach a motherboard purchase to the CPU. The same goes for one of the promotion’s GPUs, an ASUS flavor of the RTX 3070, which can either be purchased a la carte or with a bundled ASUS motherboard.

Three other GPUs appear in the promotion; two of them can only be purchased a la carte, and one, the ASUS RTX 3080, can only be purchased with a bundled ASUS motherboard (for a whopping combined price of $1179.98).

And the all-digital PlayStation 5 on offer can only be purchased as part of a bundle, adding a staggering $160 to its normal $399 price with an extra controller (sure), a 1080p webcam (meh), and a media remote (ugh). Them’s some serious Gamestop vibes, and not in a good way.

Microsoft taking leadership in the space

The worst part about Newegg Shuffle is that it’s arguably the best system currently on the market for interested PC-parts shoppers. Otherwise, your best bet is following in-the-know Twitter accounts and online-shopping guides to learn exactly when high-end computer components and consoles are in stock—since retailers seem completely disinterested in, you know, letting us pre-order these things and enter a purchase queue.

The sole exception in this madness seems to be Xbox Series X/S. Microsoft has developed a somewhat scalper-proof purchasing system in the form of Xbox All Access. Combine a monthly subscription price with a dedicated Xbox account (and associated mailing address), and you can get your hands on a shiny new Xbox. Such systems are a pain for scalpers to transfer account ownership with. (As a bonus, buying a Series X/S this way may save you money compared to buying the hardware and attached subscription rates at retail prices.)

Until we see more retailers embrace customer verification systems, purchase limits, and anti-scalper efforts, we’re likely going to see more funky “lottery” systems like Newegg’s, complete with predatory bundle-enticement offers.

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Report: The MacBook Air is getting a major redesign, too

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There’s been on onslaught of Apple leaks out of business publication Bloomberg over the past week, and the latest goes into a little more detail about an upcoming MacBook Air redesign.

Like the others, the report cites anonymous people familiar with Apple’s plans. It claims a newly redesigned MacBook Air (presumably with either Apple’s M1 chip for Macs or a successor to that chip) will “be released during the second half of this year at the earliest or in 2022.”

But buried in this MacBook Air report is perhaps equally big news for a certain set of Mac users: it claims that Apple plans to reintroduce the SD card slot in new MacBook Pros—a detail that was left out of a story on those computers earlier this week.

The current M1 MacBook Air will remain in the lineup, while this new MacBook Air will be a “higher-end” alternative that will be sold alongside it. Why is it higher-end, you might ask? Well, Bloomberg’s sources claim that it will be even thinner and lighter than the model that’s available now.

Further, the footprint of the laptop will be smaller because the bezels will be reduced, but the screen will still measure 13 inches. This is a different approach than Apple has taken before (and is expected to continue to take) with its MacBook Pro line. In November of 2019, Apple launched a 16-inch MacBook Pro to replace the prior 15-inch model, but the footprint was the same, while the screen occupied much of the space that was previously bezel, bringing the display size up.

The report also says the new MacBook Air will have MagSafe—something that was stated by the same publication a few days ago about upcoming MacBook Pro models. MagSafe was a key feature of Apple laptops of yore, but Apple gradually removed it from the product line over the past few years before reintroducing it in the iPhone 12 in 2020.

In the Mac, MagSafe is a power port and accompanying cord that lightly, magnetically attach. The cord is easy to slot in, but if the cord is pulled on, it will pop out gently rather than tugging the laptop with it. The goal was to prevent situations where an owner of the device might trip on the cord and accidentally yank the laptop off a desk or table, damaging it.

Finally, today’s Bloomberg report says that Apple “considered” making a MacBook Air with a 15-inch screen, but that plan won’t happen this generation after all.

The reports earlier this week claimed that Apple plans to introduce a new iPhone in 2021 with an in-screen fingerprint reader.

They also said we should expect a 14-inch MacBook Pro with a larger, better display to replace the current 13-inch model, as well as faster graphics and CPU performance. Also coming is a successor to the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which would also have a better screen and which would bring Apple’s own silicon to that product.

Finally, the leaks predicted that an iMac redesign is coming, with Apple Silicon and a new design, as well as a cheaper alternative to Apple’s ProDisplay XDR monitor aimed at consumers.

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Loon’s bubble bursts—Alphabet shuts down Internet balloon company

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When Google announced “Project Loon” in 2013, a running joke behind the project was that no one thought a network of flying Internet balloons was a feasible idea. Eight years later, Google has decided that a network of flying Internet balloons is indeed not a feasible idea. Loon announced it is shutting down, citing the lack of a “long-term, sustainable business.”

Loon CEO (Loon was eventually spun out into an Alphabet company) Alastair Westgarth writes:

We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity—the last billion users: The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down.

Google also cited economic problems when it shut down Titan Aerospace in 2017, a plan to deliver the Internet via drone.

The name “Loon” came partly from the fact that the project uses flying balloons as a kind of ultra-low-orbit satellite, but also from how “loony” the idea sounded to everyone outside the project. Google’s introductory blog post explained the idea of a flying network of Internet balloons and followed up by saying, “The idea may sound a bit crazy—and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s solid science behind it.”

The science mostly seemed to work out. Loon’s sales pitch was that about half of the world was not on the Internet. The offline areas are too remote, without enough backhaul to build a traditional Internet infrastructure. So let’s build everything here and fly it over there, and then everyone can use our flying Internet infrastructure in the sky. The Loon balloons were flying cell phone towers—they could deliver an LTE signal down to regular smartphones (the cheapest computers we have) with no special equipment for the end user. There was also a home version of Loon with a cute red balloon antenna. Google wanted to integrate Loon balloons into the traditional cell phone network and had partnerships with AT&T, Telkom Kenya, and Telefonica in Peru.

Each flying tower was a tennis-court-sized polyethylene helium balloon with an altitude control system, solar panels, a satellite uplink for Google’s air traffic control, and all the cell tower bits. The balloons would fly around 20KM above the Earth—far lower than a low-orbit satellite—and form a mesh network between themselves. The mesh network would have to be wide enough to cover the offline area and also wide enough to beam down to the traditional Internet, bringing the whole network online. Loon didn’t have any directional control, relying instead on differing wind directions at various altitudes. At the height of the project, Google was launching 250 balloons a year, and they could stay floating for 300 days before they needed to be recovered. I don’t think Google ever published an uptime metric, but Loon did have its uses. At one point, Loon delivered connectivity to 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria knocked out the land-based infrastructure. A commercial Loon service launched in Kenya in 2020.

It sounds like the problem with Loon was that it was such a unique solution with tons of special equipment, and if you’re targeting people on the other side of the digital divide with little buying power, of course they can’t afford to pay for all that hardware by themselves. In this regard, a project like SpaceX’s Starlink seems better suited for bridging the digital divide. Starlink has the rich, developed world pay for the infrastructure, and then SpaceX could subsidize access for developing countries. Loon would have certainly been more convenient since it was a flying cell phone tower with a signal that beamed directly to your smartphone (Starlink requires a pizza-box-sized antenna) but when you’re talking about having no way to get the Internet at all, the more scalable solution seems better.

Some of Loon’s technology will live on in another Alphabet Internet access project, Project Taara, which aims to deliver the Internet via a giant laser beam. Google’s wild experiments never end, do they?

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