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The Flux beamo is a $1,500 laser cutter with simple but powerful software – TechCrunch

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Laser cutters are in a fun place right now. Gone are the days when the cheapest machines were tens of thousands of dollars, and when the “compact” models were roughly the size of a freezer. They’ve gotten affordable enough, and small enough, that a DIY home hobbyist can add it to their toolset without taking out a second mortgage or needing much more than some desk space… but they’re still a rare enough machine that saying “I’ve got a laser cutter!” makes people look at you like you’re a friggin’ wizard.

One of the latest entries into this space is beamo, a compact, 30W laser cutter and engraver built by Flux — a Taiwan-based team you might remember for raising $1.6 million on Kickstarter with its Flux Delta 3D printer/scanner/engraver back in 2014.

As with Delta, Flux is turning to Kickstarter for the launch of beamo. They sprinted past their goal of $25,000 pretty quickly, currently sitting at roughly $350,000 raised with a little over a week to go. The early-bird models are going for $849, with the company pinning the final MSRP at $1,500. Shipping/taxes aren’t included in those prices, and can cost a couple hundred bucks, so factor that in to any purchasing decisions.

While I tend to be a bit hesitant when it comes to crowdfunded hardware (having been burned too many times by products that either never arrived or did arrive only to be total garbage), Flux has been down this road before; in addition to Delta, it also crowdfunded and shipped Beambox (a slightly bigger, pricier, but more powerful laser cutter) just a few months back. In the case of beamo, it seems like the Kickstarter is primarily meant to help get the word out, rather than literally “kickstarting” the process. Production is already underway, and units are already rolling off the line.

Flux sent me one of those early units to check out for a few weeks. I haven’t had it long enough to do what I’d call a “review”; with things like laser cutters with their myriad moving parts and… you know, lasers, new issues can pop up months after you open the box, as components wear and maintenance is required. So consider this more of a “first impressions” kind of thing.

My first impressions, though, are good.

For reference, I’d classify myself laser experience as… moderate. More than most people you’d randomly ask, I’d wager, but less than if it were my job. I’ve put a hundred hours or so into training/creating with those aforementioned freezer-sized pro lasers, making everything from custom etched pint glasses, to bespoke Christmas ornaments, to personalized rubber stamps over the years. I tend to look for excuses to shoot lasers at things.

Getting it running

My beamo unit came ready to go right out of the box, mirrors aligned, moving parts all lubed up. I plugged it in, set up some basic ventilation, ran through about 10 minutes of software installation and configuration and started firing away. It all just worked on the first shot.

Speaking of ventilation: you’ll need it. Laser cutting is basically a tiny, super controlled fire… and that means smoke. Depending on what you’re cutting, that smoke can be super noxious. Cutting wood? It won’t smell too bad, but it’s still not something you want in your lungs on the regular. Etching a logo into felt? It’ll smell like you’re burning a trash can full of hair. Beamo uses a 200CFM exhaust fan to pull smoky air out of the machine, dumping it out through a 4″ exhaust hose that you’ll need to run through a window (or, if you’re feeling extra fancy, a dryer exhaust-style vent through a wall.) Expect to need about 8″ of clearance between the machine and any wall behind it for the exhaust hose and its bends, unless the path to the window is a straight shot.

The exhaust system is decent, but you’ll probably need to fiddle with how the hose runs to get it just right. If you’re venting through a window, you’ll want to figure out a way of sealing up the open gaps around the hose to limit any fumes that might float back into the room. Put time into getting it right. If the room still smells smokey hours after you’ve cut, you’ll want to keep working on your ventilation. You don’t want to breath that stuff in, especially if you’re running the laser more than occasionally.

Beamo’s built-in touchscreen. You’ll mostly control it over Wi-Fi, but you can access some basic functionality and monitor job progress here.

If you’re new to laser cutting, you should also put the time into learning what you shouldn’t put in these machines. Some materials are safe to laser cut, but tend to catch on fire easily. Some materials will just melt and screw up your machine. Other things (PVC!) will straight up emit chlorine gas when you hit them with a laser. If you’re moving beyond the basics of cutting thin wood/acrylic/cardboard or engraving glass, research it.

So what SHOULD you cut? Woods are a good go-to (though you’ll want to limit it to less oily stuff — because, again, fire). Cardboard is fun to cut for things like spray paint stencils. Leather is good, with practice, and you can do all sorts of really neat stuff with acrylic. You can’t cut glass, but you can engrave it; same goes for rubber, though that’s one you’ll want to source from a place that sells materials known to be laser safe.

The thickness of the material you can cut tends to be limited by a laser’s wattage, while height/width is generally limited by the size of the work area. At 30W, beamo’s laser can slice its way through wood about 1/8″ thick; its work area, meanwhile, comes in at 11.81″ x 8.27″. You can make a lot of cool stuff within those bounds, but be aware of them — buying a bunch of material only to get it home and realize you’re a few watts short of a complete cut is a bummer. If you foresee needing deeper cuts or bigger pieces, beefier lasers exist without too massive a leap in price. As examples: Flux’s other laser cutter, the $2,500 Beambox, bumps the laser up to 40W and the work area up to 15.7″ x 14.7″; the $2,500 base model from competitor Glowforge comes in at 40W with a work area of roughly 11″ x 19.5″.

Fire the lasers!

Got everything plugged in, ventilation set up and your materials purchased? Time to cut! Well, almost.

You’ll mostly be controlling beamo through Beam Studio, a free piece of software provided by Flux for Windows, macOS and Ubuntu. As far as laser cutting software goes, I’m really quite pleased with it so far.

Beam Studio is super straightforward, but darn powerful for a free companion app. If you’re looking to cut out basic shapes, etch text or lay down some bezier curves, it can do it. Want to etch a picture of your dog into some wood to make a keychain? Just drop an image onto the work area, scale as desired, then move a slider to tweak the black/white threshold until it looks right. You can work in layers, setting up a raster layer to be etched and then a vector layer to cut it out immediately after.

Beamo has a built-in camera system, allowing you to quickly scan the work bed before dragging and dropping your designs wherever you want them. The first time you connect to beamo, you’ll be asked to calibrate the camera — a process that was considerably simpler than I expected. Put a piece of paper on the work bed, and beamo will fire a quick test pattern into it. Beam Studio will then snap a picture of what it just etched, projecting an overlay of where it thinks the test pattern is versus its scan. Nudge the overlay around until everything is perfectly stacked, and you’re set. You’ll want to re-run this alignment process every once in a while (it’s quick) if you need precise placement.

The camera system here really is incredibly useful. After about 30 minutes with beamo, I was doing things that are at best annoying on camera-less cutters — things like etching a design, cutting it out, then immediately flipping the cut piece and etching on the other side without worrying about precarious placement. I just rescanned the work bed, dragged the image where I wanted it on the freshly cut side B, and fired away.

The camera is quick, but not instant. Scanning the entire work area takes about 60 seconds. If you only need a certain area scanned (like, say, the top half of the work area, or the rough area around something you’ve already cut), fortunately, that’s an option. Just drag the scanning boundary box accordingly.

If you need to do something beyond what the free software can handle (or if you just prefer working in apps like CorelDraw or Illustrator), Beam Studio can import JPGs, PNGs and SVGs.

While more capable than I expected, the software isn’t without its quirks. Beam Studio will try to keep you updated with a progress ticker, but don’t rely on it too much for predicting timing. I’ve had projects shoot up to 40% in the first 30 seconds, only to take five minutes for the rest to complete. There was an occasion or two where the software threw out an error in Mandarin that I didn’t want to dismiss without a quick pass through Google Translate… but for the most part, it was solid, stable and fun to use.

In its base configuration, beamo’s laser is manually focused, meaning you’ll need to focus things by hand each time you place new material inside the machine. Fortunately, focusing it is super straightforward: put material in, rotate a piece of acrylic attached to the laser head, lower the laser head until the acrylic is just barely touching the material, then lock the laser head back in place and lift the acrylic out of the way.

Flux says that it’ll ship a $250 add-on module that introduces autofocus to the mix, but I didn’t get to test that. They’re also working on a $499 rotary add-on that will let you etch designs onto cylindrical items (think shot/pint glasses), but out of the box, it’s flat stuff only.

As with every single laser I’ve ever worked with, working with a new material — or even, sometimes, the same material from a different source — requires some fiddling. You’ll be tweaking the speed at which the laser moves, the power of the laser and how many passes it makes over the same path; you want to keep the power low enough to minimize scorching and maximize the life of the laser, while making sure you’ve done enough repeat passes to cut completely through. Beam Studio comes with a bunch of presets for different materials that can get you pretty close (and you can save your own favorites, once you’ve found them), but expect to experiment a little when you’re working with a new material for the first time. Buy extra material.

As for noise: operating with fans running full force, it’s not what I’d call “quiet,” but it’s not so loud that it’s uncomfortable to sit next to. The company’s specs pin it at around 65 db — louder than your average conversation, but a bit quieter than, say, a vacuum. The fans do whir endlessly when the machine is idling, so you’ll probably want to cut the power between cutting sessions.

If for some reason you need to open the lid while the laser is operating, beamo’s built-in automatic kill switch will cut power to the laser to protect your eyes. Close the lid again and the job can be resumed right from where you left off. While the company says that the acrylic lid provides sufficient eye protection for beamo’s 30W Class 1 laser (though they note that you shouldn’t stare right at the laser beam, lid or not), I absolutely recommend picking up and wearing a pair of CO2 laser safety goggles, especially when it comes time to pop the machine open and do any maintenance. Speaking of…

Foreseeable maintenance

Maintenance is an inevitable part of owning a laser cutter. As noted, I’ve only had the laser set up for a few weeks and everything came well configured, so I haven’t had to go digging under the hood yet. If something suddenly breaks on me during my time with the cutter, I’ll update this post accordingly. But either way, maintenance will be part of the process for owners.

Even if nothing breaks unexpectedly, some of the parts involved are “consumable” and thus expected to wear down with use. The lens, mirror and laser tube, for example, are expected to last about a year with regular use, according to the company’s estimates. The team says those parts should cost about $19, $9 and $139 to replace, respectively, and you’ll be able to buy them through their online store. Plan ahead for those recurring costs, and make sure you’re comfortable with the idea of eventually tearing the machine apart before you dive in.

You’ll also need to keep things clean to keep them operating well. Burning stuff dirties the optics, and dirty optics lead to weaker cuts and faster wear. You’ll want to pop the work bed out regularly to get rid of any debris, and keep all the moving bits lubed. There’s more to keeping a laser cutter working well than say, an inkjet printer.

Overall, though, so far so good. The machine looks pretty great on a table; it’s not quite as shiny and Apple-y as a Glowforge, but it should blend into a home office or studio pretty easily. It’s light enough to be easily moved by two people, and took me all of a few minutes to get up and running. If you don’t mind the occasional software hiccup, can figure out sufficient ventilation, are mostly working on projects that fit within beamo’s wattage/work area capabilities and are down to get under the hood for maintenance, beamo seems like a solid machine so far.



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Apple just had the biggest holiday quarter in its history

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Enlarge / The back of the iPhone 13.

Samuel Axon

Neither a global pandemic nor a supply chain crunch can stop Apple, based on the company’s Q1 2022 earnings report. Released today, the report showed Apple smashing many of its sales records once again, with $123.9 billion in overall revenue and $34.6 billion in profit.

A lot of that money was driven by the iPhone 13, as this was the first full quarter since that product line’s launch. When we reviewed the iPhone 13 lineup, we wrote that it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with flashy new features, but it does give the people what they say they want: better cameras and more battery life.

Cameras and battery life seemed to resonate with buyers. iPhone revenue for the quarter was $71.63 billion, up 9 percent year-over-year. Also, Apple achieved a new record for smartphone market share in the critical China market: 23 percent. That made the company the top-selling smartphone brand in the country for the first time in years.

Apple’s services businesses (like Apple Music, Apple TV+, and iCloud) have been a major focus of expansion in recent years, and that expansion continues to pay off. Services revenue was up 24 percent to $19.52 billion during Q1. Apple reports that it has 785 million paying subscribers in total across all the services it offers. That’s 165 million more than last year.

Mac revenue grew 25 percent since last year to $10.85 billion. That growth is thanks mainly to consumer interest in the M1-driven models that offer notably better performance and power efficiency than previous Macs with Intel processors. On the other hand, the iPad slipped 14 percent compared to the same quarter last year.

The company’s catch-all category that includes other products like wearables and accessories grew to $14.7 billion, mostly on Apple Watch and AirPods sales.

All of these gains came despite an ongoing pandemic and, perhaps more critically in this instance, major supply issues. Supply chain constraints have led to exceptionally long wait times to receive a new MacBook Pro, for example. But Apple wasn’t as adversely affected by these problems as many other companies, in part because it was able to leverage its size and success to ensure that suppliers prioritized the components needed for its products.

Still, Apple estimates that it lost out on $6 billion in sales because of supply constraints. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that Apple expects supply to be less of an issue in the next quarter.

Apple still isn’t providing guidance to investors as to how it expects the next quarter to go, in contrast to Wall Street norms. The company stopped doing that in spring 2020, citing various pandemic-related uncertainties, and hasn’t said anything yet about when it might return to that practice.

As Apple continues to ship more and more iPhones, Macs, and wearables, its chief concern in the immediate future will be regulation. From right-to-repair to app store fairness movements, Apple is facing a great deal of criticism and government scrutiny, like many other big tech companies.

The company largely emerged victorious over Epic Games in a highly publicized legal battle over the future of the App Store. That wasn’t the only threat, however, and even that victory is not yet final as appeals move through the courts.

But barring a hypothetical court defeat or new regulations, it’s mostly business as usual at Apple despite the pandemic and supply chain woes—and business remains good.

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macOS 12.3 will break cloud-storage features used by Dropbox and OneDrive

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If you’re using either Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive to sync files on a Mac, you’ll want to pay attention to the release notes for today’s macOS 12.3 beta: the update is deprecating a kernel extension used by both apps to download files on demand. The extension means that files are available when you need them but don’t take up space on your disk when you don’t. Apple says that “both service providers have replacements for this functionality currently in beta.”

Both Microsoft and Dropbox started alerting users to this change before the macOS beta even dropped. Dropbox’s page is relatively sparse. The page notifies users that Dropbox’s online-only file functionality will break in macOS 12.3 and that a beta version of the Dropbox client with a fix will be released in March.

Microsoft’s documentation for OneDrive’s Files On-Demand feature is more detailed. It explains that Microsoft will be using Apple’s File Provider extensions for future Dropbox versions, that the new Files On-Demand feature will be on by default, and that Files On-Demand will be supported in macOS 12.1 and later.

The warning email that Dropbox sent to Mac users earlier this week.
Enlarge / The warning email that Dropbox sent to Mac users earlier this week.

Dropbox

In addition to integrating better with the Finder (also explained by Microsoft here), using modern Apple extensions should reduce the number of obnoxious permission requests each app generates. The extensions should also reduce the likelihood that a buggy or compromised kernel extension can expose your data or damage your system. But the move will also make those apps a bit less flexible—Microsoft says that the new version of Files On-Demand can’t be disabled. That might be confusing if you expect to have a full copy of your data saved to your disk even when you’re offline.

This isn’t the only time Dropbox and OneDrive have been behind the curve in supporting new macOS features. Both companies only released Apple Silicon versions of their clients within the last couple of months.

The betas for macOS 12.3 and iOS/iPadOS 15.4 add a handful of other notable features, after releases earlier this week that focused mostly on security improvements and bug-fixing. The macOS 12.3 beta adds support for Universal Control, the feature that allows you to seamlessly use multiple Macs or iPads together. Universal Control was announced back in June 2021 at WWDC and was briefly present in the initial run of Monterey betas before being removed almost entirely from the final release. The iOS and iPadOS 15.4 betas add support for FaceID that can be unlocked by users wearing a mask with no Apple Watch required. Two years into a pandemic is a bit late to be adding this feature, but late is better than never.

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Google relents: Legacy G Suite users will be able to migrate to free accounts

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There is hope for users of Google’s “legacy” free G Suite accounts. Last week, Google announced a brutal policy change—it would shut down the Google Apps accounts of users who signed up during the first several years when the service was available for free. Users who had a free G Suite account were given two options: start paying the per-user monthly fee by July 2022 or lose your account.

Naturally, this move led to a huge outcry outside (and apparently inside) Google, and now, the company seems to be backing down from most of the harsher terms of the initial announcement. First, Google is launching a survey of affected G Suite users—apparently, the company is surprised by how many people this change affected. Second, it’s promising a data-migration option (including your content purchases) to a consumer account before the shutdown hits.

Google Apps (today this service is called “G Suite or Google Workspace”) allows users to have a Google account with a custom domain, so your email ends in your website address rather than “@gmail.com.” It’s typically used for businesses. The basic tier of G Suite was free from 2006 to 2012—anyone could sign up for a Google account with a custom domain, and apparently, a lot of geeks did this for friends, families, and other non-business uses. Google stopped offering free G Suite accounts in 2012, but it was previously unthinkable that Google would go after its most enthusiastic, early-adopter users and kick them off the service. You trust Google and store a ton of data on a Google account, so the accounts are forever, right?

Users being hit by the shutdown faced two options: either suddenly start paying for their accounts, which had been free for years, or lose access to core Workspace apps like Gmail. Users who didn’t want to pay could only export data with Google Takeout, which would download some account data that would become a bunch of cumbersome, local files. Takeout was a terrible option because it makes it difficult to get your data back in the cloud, and you can’t export things like purchased content from Google Play or YouTube.

If you used your G Suite account like a regular consumer account and bought a bunch of digital content from Google, you could be out hundreds or thousands of dollars in purchases. With no way to get all the data out of a Google account in a seamless and easy way, Google’s “pay up or lose your account” options felt like data extortion.

The billing section of admin.google.com will tell you what kind of G Suite account you have.
Enlarge / The billing section of admin.google.com will tell you what kind of G Suite account you have.

Lee Hutchinson

The support page detailing the shutdown has quietly been updated (for some reason, Google is not making a big deal of the changes yet). First, if (and only if) you’re signed in with a free G Suite account, you’ll see a link to this survey, which is aimed at free G Suite admins with 10 users or fewer using the service for “non-business” purposes. Google says users filling out the survey will receive “updates on more options for your non-business legacy account in the coming months.” It’s a sign that Google had no idea how many people this change would affect, and now, the company wants to hear from you.

The ideal situation, if the custom domain option has to shut down, would be the option to port your free G Suite account to a consumer Google account, with all the purchases, data, email, and other features intact. You would naturally have to pick a new account name and email address, but minimal disruption to other services would seem like the least Google could do, and it sounds like the company is building something like that. There’s now a new section on the support page titled: “If I don’t want to upgrade to a paid subscription, can I transfer my data?”

It reads:

In the coming months, we’ll provide an option for you to move your non-Google Workspace paid content and most of your data to a no-cost option. This new option won’t include premium features like custom email or multi-account management. You’ll be able to evaluate this option prior to July 1, 2022 and prior to account suspension. We’ll update this article with details in the coming months.

This is the option everyone has been asking for, as it specifically references “non-Google Workspace paid content,” which presumably would mean all your app, game, and media purchases made through Google Play and YouTube. The support article doesn’t offer any additional details yet, only saying to wait for further updates, but Google promises the option will be ready before July, which is when the account disruptions start happening.

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