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The year in crowdfunded PCs: Who succeeded? Who failed?

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Planet Computers Gemini PDA

The ever-maturing PC industry hasn’t deterred manufacturers large and small from embracing crowdfunding as a method of bringing new systems to market, whether they need the funds to produce their new product, or just want to gain publicity and guarantee some upfront sales. Not every launch on Kickstarter or one of its rivals is a roaring success, but enough are to keep the campaigns coming.

It was no different in 2017, as several companies offered new devices for crowdfunding, although some of them were clearly drawing inspiration from the past. That includes the Gemini, which answers the question: What would a PDA look like in a world filled with smartphones that have essentially replaced it? That answer is a clam-shell handheld with a physical keyboard, 5.99-inch screen, and Android and Linux dual-boot capability (along with built-in Wi-Fi and 4G option to keep up with the times).

As unlikely as you might think such a device would be attractive in a world of iPhones, tablets, Chromebooks, and other portables, the company behind the Gemini, UK startup Planet Computers, easily surpassed its campaign target on IndieGogo, raising over $1.1 million. If you want to see how the Gemini matches up with one of its inspirations, the 20-year-old Psion Series 5 PDA, check out ZDNet’s Sandra Vogel comparison from last month.

Another tiny computer, the GPD Pocket, doesn’t look all that different from the Gemini, though it doesn’t try to market itself specifically as a PDA. Instead, parent company GamePad Digital (or GPD) defines it as a 7-inch Windows laptop, complete with 8GB of RAM, 128GB solid-state drive, and full HD touchscreen. Like the Gemini, the Pocket ran its campaign on Indiegogo, and also like the Gemini, the Pocket blasted through its target fundraising goal, cashing in to the tune of more than $3.5 million.

While not as successful as the Gemini and the Pocket, French firm Miraxess doubled its campaign goal (again, on Indiegogo) for the Mirabook, which takes your smartphone out of your pocket and places it in a dock that turns it into a laptop. It’s not the first, or the most successful, crowdfunded smartphone dock, but the Mirabook will offer a bigger display and claims higher battery life than the cheaper Sentio Superbook that earned more than $3 million on Kickstarter last year. The Mirabook is about to go into beta, and will have a presence at the upcoming CES, so we’ll see if they can ride that momentum through to a final shipping product.

Actually getting a product into the hands of backers isn’t always a guarantee with crowdfunded campaigns, and there have been some notable vaporware disasters that have burned customers over the years. Even if companies can produce a shipping device, there can be delays or limited supplies that can hamper future growth. One example of being a victim of its own crowdfunded success is Purism, a new laptop maker that raised $2.5 million for its privacy-focused Linux notebooks, the Librem 13 and 15. Its original batches were made to order, which required buyers to patiently wait for their systems to arrive, but 2017 saw Purism being able to stock up on inventory to slice the wait time for a Librem from months to weeks.

Then there’s Tanoshi, which launched a Kickstarter campaign in September for a kid-friendly 2-in-1 Android laptop. By the middle of October, the campaign had raised less than 20 percent of its $50,000 goal and was canceled. That wasn’t the end for the company, however, as its crew of Silicon Valley vets managed to carry on and place an order for its systems anyway, which it’s currently pre-selling through its site.

The Tanoshi experience highlights one of the changes in crowdfunding over the years. Once the vast majority of campaigns required financial backers because the inventors didn’t have access to money to produce, now there are many campaigns that established companies run just as an additional funding source and marketing tactic.

Such is the case with Chuwi, a Chinese PC maker that has turned to Indiegogo to crowdfund laptops, despite being in existence for over a decade. Then again, it’s hard to argue with the success of its SurBook, a budget clone of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet. It has raised over $1 million since launching its Indiegogo campaign, raising awareness in the U.S. that it probably couldn’t have managed through more conventional means.

Finally, a highly anticipated crowdfunding campaign didn’t wind up materializing in 2017. The resurrected Atari brand announced with great fanfare that it would be accepting preorders of its new Ataribox living room device, which combines retro console gaming with a Linux-based PC, via Indiegogo starting on December 14. However, the campaign was a no-show on that date, with the company blaming an unspecified snafu for the delay. Atari promises an updated launch plan soon, but the incident highlights the risks inherent with hitching your PC launch to a crowdfunding campaign. Expect more of the same — smashing successes and puzzling stumbles — in the year to come.

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Can we cut the US’s carbon emissions in half this decade?

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About a year ago, President Joe Biden set an ambitious climate target: The US should cut its greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030. That’s consistent with what we’d need to do to reach some of the goals of the Paris Agreement, but it provides very little time to get our emissions under control.

That raises some obvious questions. Is it even possible? If so, how? To find out, a group of energy experts used six different models of the US energy economy, tasking each with reaching a state where emissions are consistent with our goals. The good news is that all the models provide routes to getting there. While the exact details vary from model to model, their common features strongly hint at where our focus needs to be.

Route finding

Greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from energy use, both for generating electricity and powering transportation. Industrial processes can also release either carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses, some of which have an even higher warming potential. It’s possible to track the costs and benefits of altering the weight of each of these sources. In some cases, it can involve switching an industrial process to alternate materials or from fossil fuels to a renewable source. Alternately, it could include offsetting continued emissions through things like carbon capture or reforestation.

The models used here find ways of optimizing the economics of different emissions levels. Give them a target—50 percent emissions cuts, in this example—and they will find the lowest cost method of getting there. Because all the models include somewhat different assumptions about the economics, they don’t all produce the same output. That’s useful, given that a result’s consistency across multiple models provides stronger confidence that the result is reliable.

For the work here, the research team relied on six detailed models widely used to track US emissions and its energy economy.

The good news is that all of the models found reasonably economical routes to get greenhouse gasses down by half, and the general outlines of those routes are pretty similar. But there are differences in the details.

It’s the grid, stupid

One clear thing was that most models relied on nearly every option we have for reducing net carbon emissions. For example, four of the six relied on land-use changes—think planting trees—to reach their targets. Emissions from buildings showed up in five of the six, and all of them targeted greenhouse gasses other than carbon dioxide. But, for the most part, these contributions were relatively small compared to two major contributors: transportation and the electric grid.

Every model expected changes in emissions from generating electricity to cover over half the needed reductions. Transportation tended to contribute another 20 percent or so; combined, the two accounted for 70 to 90 percent of the required reduction, depending on the model. There were a few exceptions—one model had transportation, land-use changes, and non-CO2 greenhouse gasses making roughly equal contributions—but most models agreed on the top priorities.

That’s a positive for us, as the vast majority of the US’s emissions reductions are already coming from changes in the electric grid. The reductions are driven by a mix of retiring coal plants and the rapid growth of solar and wind power. The present trend in coal’s decline is not too far off from where we need to be to hit our targets—we’d only need a slight acceleration. But the striking thing is where that would leave us: a near-complete retirement of coal power plants by 2030.

Depending on the model, renewable power installations would have to increase anywhere from “dramatically” to “unreasonably.” On the dramatic side, some models call for a doubling of wind and solar installs compared to the historical averages, rising to about 30 gigawatts of capacity per year. That’s roughly what we managed in 2020, so it’s possible. In the unreasonable category, we have a pace that’s three times higher, at over 90 gigawatts annually, which would require significant changes in manufacturing and installation capacity.

One of the reasons for the different reliance on renewables is that about half of the models start doing carbon capture on the remaining natural gas plants.

For transportation, the big target is the electrification of light-duty vehicles; electric versions of those vehicles represented only four percent of sales in 2021. The Biden administration has set a target of 50 percent electric vehicles by 2030, but the models were all over the map in terms of goals. Different models called for anywhere from 34 percent to an all-electric fleet by 2030, with the average being two-thirds electric. A 50 percent sales goal will not get the overall fleet close to the model’s average target.

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CDC presumes community spread of monkeypox; 9 cases now in 7 states

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Enlarge / A 2003 photo of the arms and legs of a 4-year-old girl infected with monkeypox in Liberia.

Monkeypox is presumed to have spread within the US, and nine cases have now been identified in seven states, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky.

In a press briefing Thursday, Walensky said the nine cases were from Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Utah, Washington, California, and Virginia. Most of the nine cases had recent international travel to areas with active monkeypox cases, but not all.

“We need to presume that there is some community spread,” Walensky said. “But there is active contact tracing that is happening right now to understand whether and how these cases might have been in contact with each other or with others in other countries.”

On Monday, the CDC reported five cases (one confirmed and four probable) from four states, and all of the cases were reported to have recent travel history. Health experts expect more cases will be identified as awareness of the infection grows and health officials trace contacts of known cases.

As before, almost all of the nine cases are in men who identify as gay, bisexual, or are men who have sex with men, mirroring what health officials elsewhere are seeing amid the current multinational outbreak.

“This is a community that has the strength and has demonstrated the ability to address challenges to their health by focusing on compassion and science,” Walensky said, referencing the response to the AIDS epidemic.

Walensky emphasized that the response to the current outbreak should be “guided by science, not by stigma.” Although some groups may be at higher risk of infection, the virus infects indiscriminately. Infectious diseases are “not contained within social networks, and the risk of exposure is not limited to any one particular group,” she said. The case in Virginia, for instance, is in a woman who recently traveled to an African country.

The relatively small number of cases in the US are linked to a growing outbreak affecting over 20 countries, most of which are in Europe. Unofficial tallies include 320 confirmed cases and an additional 73 suspected cases worldwide.

Still, health experts essentially see the risk of monkeypox to the general population as very low. The virus is not easily spread among people, requiring prolonged, close contact to transmit. As such, family members of infected people and health workers who care for them are most at risk. There are also effective antiviral treatments and vaccines available to fight monkeypox. Health officials in the US are offering those options to healthcare workers and other contacts of the known cases. Treatments and vaccines have already been used in California, Florida, and Massachusetts, CDC officials said Thursday.

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NASA’s verdict on Starliner: “A great vehicle for crew transportation”

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Enlarge / The Starliner spacecraft landed within 500 meters of its intended target in New Mexico on Wednesday evening.

NASA

Steve Stich is a buttoned-down NASA engineer who has worked at the space agency for decades, dating back to the space shuttle’s heyday in the 1980s. But on Wednesday night, as he contemplated the success of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft after its six-day mission to the International Space Station, he said he had the chills.

“I probably can’t express in words what it meant for me and the team to see the whole mission go well,” Stich said during a news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “That’s really what this commercial crew program has been all about. I’m getting goosebumps.”

Stich has held a leadership position in NASA’s commercial crew program to fly astronauts to the International Space Station for the last seven years. This was a bold bet by NASA, trusting private companies to build and fly new spacecraft with limited NASA oversight. Not everyone supported the initiative, and it has faced some technical challenges. But now NASA is close to its final aim, having two independent means of accessing low Earth orbit.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has already flown five missions to the space station, and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is on the cusp of joining it. Proving Starliner’s readiness was the purpose of Boeing’s six-day flight test completed on Wednesday evening, which ended when the spacecraft safely landed in the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

While being cautious and saying that NASA and Boeing need to review more data from the flight, Stich offered this pretty definitive conclusion about the vehicle and its test flight: “The Starliner is a great vehicle for crew transportation.”

Some issues

It was not a flawless flight, of course, because this was a shakedown cruise meant to find and fix any lingering problems. Two of the 20 main thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, used for orbital maneuvering, failed shortly after Starliner separated from its Atlas V rocket. They were not recovered during the flight. Two smaller reaction control system thrusters also failed during the approach to the space station, but they were recovered.

Although there were a few delays, Starliner ultimately made a smooth rendezvous and docking with the space station, and its cooling system kept the vehicle’s cabin interior at a comfortable temperature. During the reentry sequence on Wednesday, one of the 12 reaction control engines on the crew module appeared to shut down early, and there was also a brief drop in the navigation system’s communications with the GPS network.

However, Stich said, Starliner met “all of the objectives” for this test flight, and this likely clears NASA and Boeing to press ahead with a crew flight test. Engineers have a lot of data to review from the flight and may need to make some modifications to the Starliner spacecraft that will be used for the crew test. However, neither Stich nor Boeing’s Mark Nappi said they expected to make a major redesign to any systems on the vehicle.

Asked about the performance of Starliner compared to Crew Dragon, which made a successful demonstration flight more than three years ago, Stich said that NASA and the private companies learned a lot from both of these test missions. He also noted that Crew Dragon had its own issues, necessitating redesigns to the vehicle’s parachute and propulsion systems.

This was Boeing’s second attempt at a test flight after the first Starliner mission failed in December 2019 due to software issues. Since then, the company has spent about $600 million to revamp Starliner’s flight software and address other problems, including sticky propulsion valves. To a large extent, those measures appeared to work over the last week, putting Boeing on a good path to fly humans into space soon.

As for when that mission will come, Stich said NASA and Boeing are working toward having the hardware ready by the end of this year. However, he acknowledged, “Certainly it could move into the first quarter of next year.” Expect NASA to name a crew for Starliner’s first flight in the next few months and for the spacecraft to take flight again during the first half of next year, barring major issues with the flight’s data.

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