Next week, a SpaceX CRS-12 rocket will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Its payload will include a HP Enterprise (HPE) supercomputer, called the Spaceborne Computer, which will be used to see if off-the-shelf computer components can be built to withstand the harsh conditions of space.
Space travel is notoriously brutal to tech. It often shortens the lifespan of hardy Thinkbooks to mere months, forcing NASA to send a regular supply of laptops to the International Space Station, alongside pouches of ready-to-eat chilli con carne and freeze dried ice cream.
Consequently, most heavy computing is done on terra firma, with the results sent back to the ISS through the sparse data connections linking the facility with Earth.
As our ambitions move from Earth’s orbit, to Mars, and even beyond our solar system, scientists need to figure out how to perform the hard computational work on the spacecraft themselves.
That’s because the further you get from Earth, the higher the latency becomes. It could take up to 20 minutes to send a message to Earth from Mars, and another 20 minutes to receive a response.
The HPE Spaceborne Computer, which is built with the assistance of NASA, is based on HP’s high-density (and aptly-named) Apollo 40 servers, running an unspecified version of Linux, and using a custom water-cooled enclosure for the mission.
NASA only approves computers for space use if they’ve been sufficiently ruggedized in order to withstand space conditions — like radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, and so on.
To accomplish this, HPE built a software system that can automatically adjust for environmentally-induced computer errors, while adjusting the Spaceborne’s Computers performance based on current conditions.
The SpaceX rocket carrying the supercomputer will launch on Monday, August 14, at 12:31 EST. If you’re lucky enough to live near Cape Canaveral, you’ll be able to watch the takeoff in person. The rest of us will have to settle for SpaceX’s YouTube channel.
Apple CEO confirms new Mac mini in fan email
It’s been three years since Mac mini got an update. It’s easy to assume three years without an update means the product is dead, and the company has moved on. But with Apple products, you never really know for sure — looking at you Mac Pro.
One Apple fan could no longer deal with the uncertainty, so he took matters into his own hands and emailed CEO Tim Cook to ask him directly.
The email, published at MacRumors, read:
I love the Mac Mini but it’s been over 3 years now without an update.
Are we going to see anything in the pipeline anytime soon?
Miraculously, Cook responded with an email of his own. Cook confirmed the Mac mini was indeed part of Apple’s future plans, although he declined to share any further details. Cook’s email, also published at MacRumors, said:
I’m glad you love the Mac mini. We love it too. Our customers have found so many creative and interesting uses for Mac mini. While it is not time to share any details, we do plan for Mac mini to be an important part of our product line going forward.
Cook’s response mirrored that of marketing chief Phil Schiller, who made similar comments about the Mac Mini after the Mac Pro was teased earlier this year. “The Mac mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use,” he said.
Or, to anyone that speaks Apple: we’re working on something else right now, check back later.
Adobe tease data visualization storytelling with no coding required
Over 12,000 people are attending the annual Adobe Max creativity conference at the Venetian in Las Vegas. If you scratch beneath the surface of announcements such as the cloud-centric redesign of Lightroom washed down with appearances from actor/director Jon Favreau and Mark Ronson, there is substance as well as style.
The event is not just about new applications or adding shiny features to existing products. MAX Sneaks offers attendees an opportunity to preview future technology that may or may not make it into products. These proof of concepts provide a glimpse of the vision for the creativity cloud of the future.
I spoke with Bernard Kerr, Senior Experience Designer at Adobe before he hit the MAX Sneaks stage for a preview of how Project Lincoln is going to make it easier to bring data to life. But first, I needed to understand the problems with the current way of doing things.
Kerr advised that data can be incredibly powerful, but if no one can understand it, the reports are meaningless. In a visual digital world, a nasty looking Excel chart is no longer going to cut it. The New York Times is an excellent example of how using data visualization and infographics to not only capture readers attention but enables them to digest information instantly.
The use of data to create captivating artistic displays is rising to the top of wish lists to make information more palatable to the boardroom. However, the process can be quite cumbersome. A data analyst will collect and analyze data but in most cases will have to turn to graphic designers or data communication experts.
Starting from scratch can be a lengthy process and changing data when a brief gets lost in translation is guaranteed to make matters even more complicated. Adobe promotes themselves as a tool making company that enables people to tell stories in exciting and interesting ways, but how are they going to simplify data visualization?
The unveiling of Project Lincoln at Adobe Max reveals a unique approach and concept straight from its design lab. An antidote to rigid templates, Kerr demonstrated how easy it was to create a 14 visually appealing charts in only four minutes using data from a spreadsheet.
Lincoln is a new approach to making visualizations that give designers the creative freedom to make beautiful charts, visualizations, and info-graphics without the need to code. This revolutionary approach empowers designers with a new set of data-driven drawing tools that can dramatically change the design velocity at which designers can make these sorts of graphics.
Early indications suggest that project Lincoln could quickly become a designer’s best friend. The ability to bind data into pallets and graphics is something that we have not seen before. But, Adobe’s mission to crush the lengthy timescales, simplify complex data and quickly present in a visually appealing format is a mouthwatering prospect.
Buzzwords such as big data, AI, and machine learning continue to dominate the digital landscape. But humans need explanatory data visualizations to both tell and understand any corporate vision.
There was clearly a buzz at the possibilities that Project Lincoln could bring to the creative cloud in the near future. The big question on everybody’s lips, was when is it coming out? However, it’s easy to get carried away with a live demo at an Adobe Conference.
The MAX Sneaks sessions are an excellent opportunity to get engineers out of the lab and onto the stage to showcase what they’ve been working on. Project Lincoln is currently a proof of concept with exciting potential, but creatives will have to wait and see what happens next.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily shared by TNW.
Amazon’s original Echo gets a much-needed upgrade
With a good software-driven product, the hardware is almost inconsequential. After the unboxing and the setup, it just sort of fades into the scenery. That was always the case with Amazon’s original Echo, but even as Alexa continues to do all of the hard work, the grandaddy of smart speakers was in dire need of an update.
It’s been nearly two full years since the first Echo was made available to Amazon Prime subscribers. In that time, the company added six new members to the Echo family (seven if you count the Tap, which Amazon kind of, sort of does) — and in the case of the Echo Dot, did one full product refresh. Google entered the space in a big way with Home, and both Apple and Microsoft have their own takes arriving by year’s end.
While it’s true that Amazon’s products have rarely been about the hardware itself, the original Echo was long overdue for a rethink, as devices like the Dot started blowing past it on the company’s Top Seller charts. Announced at an event at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters last month, the all-new Echo finds Amazon looking to remain competitive in the field it pioneered.
The new Echo is more compact than the original. It’s also better looking, with five swappable shells designed to help it better blend in with its surroundings. The sound has been improved this time out, finally embracing the “speaker” part of the smart speaker category. Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s cheap. At $100, the new Echo is a full $80 cheaper than its predecessor — and $30 less than its closest competitor, Google Home.
It’s Amazon doing what Amazon does best: undercutting the competition.
Rumors started circulating about a new Echo a few months back. The line was long overdue for an update, the competition was intensifying and Amazon appeared to be working its way through the last of its Echo back stock. At the time, leaks positioned the product as a HomePod competitor, a high-end device with a new design and premium audio positioned to compete against Apple’s $349 Siri speaker.
Of course, ultra-premium has never really been Amazon’s speed. The Echo’s populist approach has always been a big part of its appeal — a fact the Dot’s $50 price tag really drove home. Alexa users are primarily interested in finding an affordable way to make the smart assistant a part of their home, so the new Echo splits the difference on pricing, while delivering some additional hardware perks that help it stand apart from the best-selling Dot.
It also splits the difference on sizing. The company has shaved about four inches off the original Echo, bringing it down to just a hair under six inches, with a footprint roughly the size of a pint glass (albeit without the tapered sides). It’s not nearly as compact as the Dot, but you’ve got to have a little height to thing if you want to get anything out of those on-board speakers.
The top of the Echo has the same button layout as the second-gen Dot, including volume up and down and Action, which does a variety of different things, including waking the Echo, turning off times and enabling WiFi setup mode. And, perhaps, most importantly, there’s the Microphone Off button, which allows a little extra privacy. Tapping that will turn the LED ring around the perimeter a bright, unmistakable red.
When listening for a command, the ring lights up blue, as always — though, the Echo is always listening, of course, lying in wait for its wake word. Conversations are sent to Amazon’s servers in encrypted form, “including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word,” according to a statement the company offered up to us earlier this year. But a safe rule of thumb is, if you don’t want what you’re saying sent to the cloud, turn the microphone off.
On the bottom is a small hole you push a finger through to remove the case, of which there are a half-dozen available at the moment, including three fabric colors (black, gray and off-white), two faux wood colors and a shiny silver cover. The swappable cases were a smart move for Amazon — the novelty of owning an Echo-style device has worn off slightly in recent years and many users likely want a product that mostly blends into the background.
The unit Amazon sent along came with the heather gray fabric case, which, as one coworker quickly pointed out, looks as though it’s drawn some pretty direct inspiration from Google’s Home/Pixel design language. Whatever the case, the options here are definitely better for most homes than the RadioShack-style black plastic design of the original Echo.
In the past year, sound quality has become a much bigger priority for smart speakers. There’s the HomePod, of course, and the Google Home Max — both of which are being positioned as speakers first, with a smart assistant built in. There’s also been a recent deluge of third-party manufacturers like Sonos, Sony and Harman building their own premium systems, featuring Alexa and Google Assistant.
The new Echo is not that. The sound is definitely improved over the earlier model, but for the time being, the company seems to content to let those third parties do heavy lifting when it comes to building audio-first systems. That, after all, would mean a marked increase in sticker price, making the standard Echo prohibitively expensive for many users.
The addition of the 2.5-inch woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter (same as on the new Echo Plus) means the Echo’s not bad for a $99 speaker. It gets reasonably loud — I had it on a max volume for a bit in the office, and it was distracting but not deafening (sorry coworkers). It’s about the quality you’d expect from a cheap, portable Bluetooth speaker.
It’s good for listening to music or podcasts while washing the dishes or cleaning the apartment, but I wouldn’t want it to be my main home speaker. I’d take something like the similarly priced JBL Charge 3 for that purpose, any day of the week. The good news on that front is that, in addition to multi-room audio through other Echos, the device can be paired to another Bluetooth speaker during setup and features an auxiliary out jack on the back.
Amazon’s standard seven microphone array is back, as, of course, is its far-field tech, which allows different Echos to work in tandem, defaulting to the unit closest to the person speaking. Amazon’s got the microphone down. It was able to recognize my hushed tones from around 20 feet away. Though playing music loudly does impact its ability to hear well, cutting that range by about half in my testing.
Amazon has had a steady march of new skills since releasing the first Echo back in 2014. Earlier this year, the company announced that it had topped the 25,000 mark. Of course, it’s a pretty broad spectrum, as far as usefulness is concerned. Some are pretty game changing for the line. Calling is a big one, letting the device ring other Echos or smartphones. Ditto for voice recognition — Amazon was a bit late to the game on that, but the ability to distinguish speaking voices is a big deal for Echo homes with multiple residents.
Alexa is about to get a big connected home overhaul, as well, bringing new controls to the app and the addition of Routines, which lets users customize multiple features into scenes like “morning” and “evening.” Neither were actually available at the time of testing, but both will be rolling out soon, as the company looks to become an increasingly important presence in the smart home category. In fact, that’s essentially the Echo Plus’ raison d’etre, which is basically the new Echo, only with easier smart home on-boarded (and an additional $50 price tag).
Increased competition from Google, et al. has been a great driver for the line. The new Echo is pretty much exactly what it should be: it’s smaller, better looking and has improved audio, all while staying under $100. The space is only going to continue to heat up over the next several years, and Google is certainly giving Amazon a run for its money with an extremely capable system and far better mobile distribution.
But the line is still synonymous with smart speakers, and Alexa gets more and more capable with each day. It’s not as affordable as the Echo Dot/Home Mini or as flashy as the HomePod/Home Max, but the new $99 Echo is going to sell like hotcakes this holiday season.
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