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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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Chinese hackers targeted SolarWinds customers in parallel with Russian op

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By now, most people know that hackers tied to the Russian government compromised the SolarWinds software build system and used it to push a malicious update to some 18,000 of the company’s customers. On Monday, researchers published evidence that hackers from China also targeted SolarWinds customers in what security analysts have said was a distinctly different operation.

The parallel hack campaigns have been public knowledge since December, when researchers revealed that, in addition to the supply chain attack, hackers exploited a vulnerability in SolarWinds software called Orion. Hackers in the latter campaign used the exploit to install a malicious web shell dubbed Supernova on the network of a customer who used the network management tool. Researchers, however, had few if any clues as to who carried out that attack.

On Monday, researchers said the attack was likely carried out by a China-based hacking group they’ve dubbed “Spiral.” The finding, laid out in a report published on Monday by Secureworks’ Counter Threat Unit, is based on techniques, tactics, and procedures in the hack that were either identical or very similar to an earlier compromise the researchers discovered in the same network.

Pummeled on more than one front

The finding comes on the heels of word that China-based hackers dubbed Hafnium are one of at least five clusters of hackers behind attacks that installed malicious web shells on tens of thousands of Microsoft Exchange servers. Monday’s report shows that there’s no shortage of APTs—shorthand for advanced persistent threat hackers—determined to target a wide swath of US-based organizations.

“At a time when everyone is hunting for HAFNIUM webshells because of the Exchange zero-days we learned about last week, SPIRAL’s activity is a reminder that enterprises are getting pummeled on more than one front,” Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, principal threat researcher at security firm SentinelOne, said in a direct message. The report is “a reminder of the diversity and breadth of the APT ecosystem.”

Counter Threat Unit researchers said they encountered Supernova in November as they responded to the hack of a customer’s network. Like other malicious web shells, Supernova got installed after the attackers had successfully gained the ability to execute malicious code on the target’s systems. The attackers then used Supernova to send commands that stole passwords and other data that gave access to other parts of the network.

Secureworks CTU researchers already believed that the speed and surgical precision of the movement inside the target’s network suggested that Spiral had prior experience inside it. Then, the researchers noticed similarities between the November hack and one the researchers had uncovered in August, 2020. The attackers in the earlier hack likely gained initial access as early as 2018 by exploiting a vulnerability in a product known as the ManageEngine ServiceDesk, the researchers said.

“CTU researchers were initially unable to attribute the August activity to any known threat groups,” the researchers wrote. “However, the following similarities to the SPIRAL intrusion in late 2020 suggest that the SPIRAL threat group was responsible for both intrusions:”

  • The threat actors used identical commands to dump the LSASS process via comsvcs.dll and used the same output file path (see Figure 6).
    LSASS process dump from August 2020 using an identical command to the November 2020 incident.
    Enlarge / LSASS process dump from August 2020 using an identical command to the November 2020 incident.

    Secureworks

  • The same two servers were accessed: a domain controller and a server that could provide access to sensitive business data.
  • The same ‘c:userspublic’ path (all lowercase) was used as a working directory.
  • Three compromised administrator accounts were used in both intrusions.

The CTU researchers already knew that Chinese hackers had been exploiting MangeEngine servers to gain long-term access to networks of interest. But that alone wasn’t enough to determine Spiral had its origins in China. The researchers became more confident in the connection after noticing that the hackers in the August incident accidentally exposed one of their IP addresses. It was geolocated to China.

The hackers exposed their IP address when they stole the endpoint detection software Sercureworks had sold to the hacked customer. For reasons that aren’t clear, the hackers then ran the security product on one of their computers, at which point it exposed its IP address as it reached out to a Secureworks server.

The naming convention of the hackers’ computer was the same as a different computer that the hackers had used when connecting to the network through a VPN. Taken together, the evidence collected by CTU researchers gave them the confidence that both hacks were done by the same group and that the group was based in China.

“Similarities between SUPERNOVA-related activity in November and activity that CTU researchers analyzed in August suggest that the SPIRAL threat group was responsible for both intrusions,” CTU researchers wrote. “Characteristics of these intrusions indicate a possible connection to China.”

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Headphones without headphones—we test Lucyd Lyte Bluetooth sunglasses

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Lucyd Lyte is a pair of $150 sunglasses which includes speakers and mic suitable for use in making phone calls or listening to podcasts. This isn’t a category of device I was aware of at all before a PR rep reached out to offer a review unit—but once I knew it was a thing, I very much wanted to test it.

The Wayfarer style that I tested is a neutral, unremarkable style unlikely to get much attention whether negative or positive. They look nicer than gas station sunglasses but without any particular style cue to lead a viewer into thinking they’re an expensive designer brand. There’s no visual cue to the onboard audio, either—the frames are a touch on the thick side, but unlike Bose Frames there’s no telltale shape to give the extra functionality away.

Lucyd Lyte paired with my Pixel 2XL phone quickly and easily. The instructions recommend a two-hour initial charging period; when factory-new and after the initial charging period, the phones are both on and in pairing mode—all you need to do is open the pairing menu in your phone and select “Lucyd Lyte.”

There is no specific trigger to “pairing mode” on the Lucyd Lytes—if they’re not in range of the device they were last paired to, they go into pairing mode and can be selected from any new device in range.

Testing

As sunglasses, Lucyd Lytes are quite good. I found them comfortable enough to “disappear” on my head in six-plus hours of continuous wear, beginning with a 45-minute drive and continuing through conversations with my parents, playing catch with my kids, and otherwise goofing off outdoors on a bright sunny Saturday.

As Bluetooth headphones, they’re unfortunately not as stellar. The audio quality is decent, but the maximum volume level is low—and anyone nearby can hear what you’re listening to nearly as well as you can. I listened to podcasts on the 45-minute drive out to my parents’ house, and my daughter reported she could hear the podcasts easily (including making out most or all of the words) from the passenger’s seat.

The low max volume isn’t a problem when listening to music or to well-normalized podcasts, but it’s likely to be an issue on phone calls or podcasts with a very quiet source. At maximum volume, Joe Ressington’s Late Night Linux wasn’t quite as loud as I wanted it to be, but I could understand everyone speaking over the interstate road noise. Jamie Loftus’ Lolita Podcast was another story entirely—engineered with far quieter source levels, I needed to cup one ear (drastically increasing perceived volume from the phones) almost continuously.

Maintaining the Bluetooth connection was also a bit of a crapshoot. With the Pixel 2XL sitting in a cupholder, the connection was fine. Putting the Pixel in the pocket of my jeans would almost immediately kill the connection, after which the Pixel would connect to my car instead until manually redirected to the (unpocketed) phone. I had much better luck with the phone pocketed while walking around than I had in my car—but it was never rock solid.

Aside from the volume issues, the audio quality is decent—better than you might expect from practically microscopic speakers embedded in a sunglasses stem, but not up to snuff when compared to typical earbuds or headphones. For voice calls or podcasts—again, assuming the level is high enough—you’re unlikely to have any complaints. The Lytes unlikely to be anyone’s favorite music listening device, however, with nearly-nonexistent bass and little if any sense of stereo positioning.

We tested Lucyd Lyte’s mic using a voice recorder app rather than a call, to eliminate any potential telephony issues. The experience is better than putting the Pixel 2XL in speakerphone mode, but it’s not as good as either the phone’s native mic in normal mode or the mic in most standard headsets. The audio level and clarity are quite good, but there’s little or no differentiation between the speaker’s voice and ambient noise—in my test recording, my kids’ voices and the episode of Spongebob Squarepants on the television were just as much in the foreground as my own voice was.

Battery life seemed easily up to the manufacturer’s claim of eight hours—we didn’t attempt to run them dry, but after about 90 minutes of driving and nonstop listening to podcasts, the Bluetooth connection dialog on the Pixel 2XL reported the Lytes’ batteries at 85 percent.

Controls

The Lucyd Lyte phones are easy to manage—the included charge cable has magnetically coupled two-pin connectors which snap directly onto contacts on each stem of the sunglasses. The charging cable is a Y-splitter type and needs to be connected to both stems—they have independent batteries which must also be charged independently.

The individual stems are also powered on independently. Long-pressing one control button results in that stem’s voice eventually declaring “powered on,” after which you can long-press the button on the other until it, too, powers up. With only one stem powered on, the onboard voice will declare “connected”—once the second stem also powers on and connects, you get a Windows-style “bing-bong” sound effect that lets you know everything is fully connected.

Once powered on, what the controls do depends in part on whether you’re taking a call or listening to music—a single tap on either button will answer an incoming call, or a two-second long press will decline it. While connected (to either calls or music), a single press of the left button increases volume, and a single press of the right button decreases it. Double-pressing either button pauses music (or podcast) playback, and triple-pressing either button skips tracks forward or backward depending on button.

Powering the headphones off is done with an eight-second-long press on either button. Unlike the power-on procedure, powering either stem off turns the other one off along with it.

Conclusions

My wife and I were both pretty excited about this device—even though the audio quality isn’t up to par with good traditional headphones, the light weight and lack of aural intrusion appealed to us both. If these were cheap devices, I’d be on board with them for certain use cases despite their Bluetooth connection flaws and relatively low volume.

The ambient broadcast factor of the Lucyd Lytes is also unappealing. Half the point of using headphones is sparing those around you from hearing your music or podcasts—which the Lucyd Lytes absolutely do not do. In a car full of road noise, it’s much less obnoxious than blaring a podcast out over the car stereo—but if there’s something in your podcast or music you’d prefer your kids / coworkers / whoever not to overhear, these aren’t a good choice.

Unfortunately, at $150, these are not cheap devices. At that price, we expect a solid, reliable Bluetooth connection at the very least—and we didn’t get it. For us, that’s the deal breaking flaw in Lucyd Lyte.

The Good

  • Comfortable
  • Lightweight
  • Unobtrusive styling
  • Neither in nor on your ears
  • Reasonably clear audio
  • You can still hear what’s going on around you
  • Simple, tactile controls
  • Magnetically coupled charging
  • Can be ordered with standard, prescription, bifocal, or reader lenses

The Bad

  • Flaky Bluetooth connection
  • Inadequate maximum volume
  • Completely audible to anyone nearby

The Ugly

  • We didn’t know we wanted Bluetooth sunglasses until testing these
  • Now we know—and these are tantalizingly close, but still not quite there

Listing image by Jim Salter

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Google TV takes a baby step toward multi-user support with “kids profiles”

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It sure sounds like Google is re-committing to the TV space with Google TV—a renamed, revamped version of Android TV. In addition to the new content-centric (instead of app-centric) home screen, watch list, and an upcoming “dumb TV” mode, Google is now revamping parental control support.

The new “kids profiles” will turn on a fun, kid-friendly UI with themes like “dinosaurs,” “space,” and “under the sea.” The big, new feature of Google TV—content-centric recommendations—will kick over into a kids-friendly mode, too, pushing educational content to the home screen.

Parental control functionality looks pretty much the same as in Android TV, with parents able to set limitations on total screen time, bedtime, and individual apps. The big difference is the interface, which has a friendlier UI that doesn’t look like a system administrator panel anymore. The controls are also compatible with Google’s Family Link app, which allows for remote administration and tracking.

Kids mode looks like a baby step toward solving Google TV’s biggest problem right now: the lack of support for multiple profiles. The flagship feature of Google TV is the home screen content recommendation engine, but there’s no differentiation between users, so it’s going to mash up the entire household’s viewing habits. Google lightly copped to this deficiency in the blog post, saying, “I personally want to be able to find my shows and movies, without being overwhelmed by my kids’ content.”

Kids mode will let you quarantine Sesame Street from your recommendations, but there’s still no way to separate the viewing habits between adults. Hopefully, kids mode is the beginning of full-blown profile support with personalized recommendations and watchlists, but Google hasn’t come out and said that.

Google TV is currently very rare, available mainly (only?) on the new “Google Chromecast with Google TV” that launched in September. It’s also headed to Sony’s entire Bravia XR 2021 lineup and select TCL TVs coming out later this year. Google’s decision to change the name of its TV product from Android TV to Google TV makes everything unnecessarily confusing, but it’s all the same code base. Google’s TV OSes based on Android 9 and lower are called “Android TV,” and the new versions, based on Android 10 and up, are “Google TV.” In theory, some Android TV set-top boxes and smart TVs can be upgraded to Google TV, since it’s just the next version. Your device manufacturer would need to actually ship an update, though, and a lot of smart TV manufacturers don’t.

Google says that support for kids profiles on Google TV will roll out “in the US starting this month and globally over the next few months.”

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