Google Working on Next-Generation Lithium-Ion and Solid-State Batteries

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Google X research lab scientists are reportedly working on next-generation lithium-ion and solid-state battery technologies for consumer electronics. The company is said to have at least 20 battery-dependent projects under works that will have applications for the new technologies.According to a Wall Street Journal report on Friday, a small four member team of theGoogle X research lab led by former Apple battery expert Dr. Ramesh Bhardwaj had started testing batteries manufactured by others in 2012. But later in 2013, the group expanded to look at battery technologies that Google might develop itself.

The team at present is reportedly working to advance current lithium-ion technology and the cutting-edge solid-state batteries for consumer devices, such as Google Glassand Google’s glucose-measuring contact lens.

As per the WSJ report, Dr. Bhardwaj has told industry executives that Google has at least several battery-dependent projects in the works. During a presentation to an industry conference in February, Dr. Bhardwaj described how solid-state, thin-film batteries could be used in smartphones and other mobile devices that are thinner, bendable, wearable and even implantable in the human body, adds the report.

In addition to Dr. Bhardwaj’s team, Google reportedly has other teams working with Chicago-based AllCell Technologies LLC on more potent lithium-ion batteries for four hardware projects, including Project Loon.

Google’s Project Loon is an effort to beam Internet signals from high-altitude balloons. A video of the project from late 2013 shows Google engineers bundling AllCell batteries into the system’s power pack

Coolest Clock uses Projector Tech to make a Smartwatch for the Wall

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I’m not a fan of normal wall clocks, especially those that have hands. The ticking drives me crazy at night or when I am trying to read and it’s quiet. I really don’t need a wall clock either since I have a smartwatch and a smartphone that can give me the time.

Despite not needing a wall clock, I really want the Coolest Clock that has turned up on Indiegogo. This is like a smartwatch for the wall and there is nothing traditional clock about this thing. The Coolest Clock has no real hands, the entire clock surface is projected on the wall from a blister projection device you hang on the wall. That means no annoyingly loud ticking hands.

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In addition to showing the time, the Coolest Clock also shows the weather, reminders, tweets, status updates, and more. Users can customize what is shown using a smartphone app. The clock was seeking $20,000 and raised over $230,000. You can get a Coolest Clock for $199 with shipping set for December 2015. That’s a lot of money for a clock, but this thing is super cool.

Instagram gives Apple Watch developers a hand

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With the Apple Watch set for release on April 24, third-party application developers are rushing to write extensions that can run on the device. Now Instagram is sharing some code it wrote for its own app to help others.

The Facebook-owned company has posted a set of Objective C code that provides a way for an application to use complex data structures, which could facilitate feature-rich apps for the tiny device.

“We’re really excited to be one of the first apps on the platform, and were able to build some solutions that we think will help other people build their apps more quickly and easily,” Instagram engineer Ryan Nystrom wrote in an emailed statement. “We’ve been able to build on open-source technology at Instagram, so it’s exciting for us to contribute, too.”

Instagram’s Watch app can display items from a user’s Instagram photo feed and lets the user “Like” other photos and leave emoji comments.

Apple has published a preliminary framework for programmatically manipulating the Watch, though the company warns that some commands may change before the final release.

The Instagram code is different from Apple’s standard software in how it deals with multi-dimensional data, or a single piece of data with multiple items within it. Instagram says it provides an easier way to do things like using that data to populate multiple choices in a hierarchical menu.

Amazon Echo gains new features days ahead of price hike

 

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This week’s biggest Amazon-related story has got to be the introduction of the Wi-Fi-enabled Dash Button, an Internet of Things-fueled spin on the way people order groceries and other home-use products. Mind you, however, it’s not the only connected-home experiment the company is undertaking with select Amazon Prime members as willing guinea pigs.

There’s also the Echo cloud-enabled interactive speaker, which the e-tailing titan began selling on an invite-only basis back in November and which is about to get costlier. According to a recent update to Echo’s official page, Prime subscribers have until April 7 to request an invite for the chance to snag the Siri-in-device-form at the current introductory price of $99. If you fail to act in time, you will have to cough up twice as much.

Why this matters: That’s quite a bargain, considering how many users think that Echo acquits itself rather well as a voice-activated Internet-connected speaker if not as a virtual assistant. And it’s only going to get better, with an SDK (software development kit) on its way and third-party apps not far off . More importantly, the SDK could lead to the Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi-enabled device finally becoming the smart home’s voice and ears—something many, including us, would like to see.

More boom for your buck

The company added support for Pandora music streaming in January and arecent update has made it even better. Now Echo users no longer need a smartphone or tablet to fire up their favorite Pandora station. They can instead direct Echo’s on-board voice assistant Alexa to play it for them. (You can ask Alexa to either play a station for a particular genre, or create one for your favorite artist or band.

Asus to Sport Powerful New Nvidia GPU

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Nvidia on Thursday launched the latest in its GTX 900s series of mobile GPUs — GTX 960m and 950m — designed to make a gaming laptop as future-proof as possible. Asus’ recently unveiled GX501 is one of the machines that already has incorporated the latest Nvidia tech.

The new GPUs include such gaming-enhancing features as BatteryBoost, ShadowPlay and Optimus. BatteryBoost prolongs play time by managing battery consumption; ShadowPlay tracks achievements and captures video; and Optimus optimizes laptops for performance and battery life.

Though it isn’t ready to disclose the GX501’s full specs just yet, what Asus has revealed suggests the GTX 960m card will be surrounded with worthy hardware.

The GX501 will have the option of a 4K display, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160, or standard HD. Asus also has improved the gaming laptop’s cooling system for stealthier performance.

Nvidia’s Lead

Asus apparently kept a watchful eye on the processor competition before solidifying its plans for the GX501.

Intel recently announced its long-awaited Broadwell chips, but they are in their “tick” phase and haven’t hit their powerful “tock” just yet.

Also passed over was AMD, which has struggled to compete with both Nvidia and Intel in the GPU wars. Still, the red team isn’t out of the game yet, according to Ted Pollack, senior gaming analyst at Jon Peddie Research.

“AMD is not giving up that I know of,” Pollack told TechNewsWorld. “The price to performance trade-off in some AMD machines presents a compelling option for some consumers.”

Despite AMD’s persistence and its loyal following, besting Nvidia has become more of challenge as it has deepened its push into tablets and laptops.

Future of Gaming Laptops

Despite the rise of mobile gaming machines, tablets and smartphones, laptops in general are thriving, according to Mike Schramm, manager of qualitative insights atEEDAR.

“We’re not seeing mobile gaming overlapping with laptop gaming,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Most gamers are using laptops to play desktop-style PC games.”

Gamers are willing to buy high-end laptops to play AAA titles — big budget games — but they view it as a separate experience from mobile gaming, Schramm pointed out.

“It’s not a 1:1 comparison, in other words,” he said. “Players will enjoyMonument Valley on a tablet, but then go and play League of Legends on their laptop as well.”

Never Say Die

There’s always going to be a market for PCs and laptops, thanks to gaming and productivity, said Tim Coulling, senior analyst at Canalys. Times are changing, though, which is why hardware manufacturers are leaning on gaming.

“When you look at the total market, you’ve got [average sales prices] declining quite rapidly at the low end,” he told TechNewsWorld. “So it’s very difficult for the likes of Asus or any of the other vendors to make money in the wider notebook and desktop market.”

While the money may be fading at the lower end, PCs will continue to have a place in homes indefinitely, according to Coulling.

“Some things require a bit more heavy lifting — things that you can’t do on a tablet or a smartphone — even basic spreadsheets,” he observed. “People always go to a PC to do that, because you have the keyboard and mouse. It’s a bit easier to use that instead of a touchscreen.”

Leap Motion Faceplate Lets OSVR Head Talk to the Hand

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Open Source Virtual Reality, a platform that aims to unify virtual reality input devices, games and output, and Leap Motion, a company that has established itself in the development of motion-tracking hardware, on Wednesday announced what may be a compelling way to control movements in a virtual reality environment.

Despite spending years — decades, in many cases — navigating digital worlds with the “A, S, D, W” keys and computer mice, many in the video gaming community are wary of doing so when there are VR displays strapped to their faces. With gamers poised to become VR early adopters, helping to drive the technology into the mainstream, developers have been working hard to iterate on existing control schemes and conceive new ones.

HTC and videogame publisher Valve intrigued the gaming world at the 2015 Game Developers Conference with their Vive VR headset’s nunchuck controller and body-tracking lighthouses. The solution proposed by OSVR and Leap could be just as interesting.

Seeing the Hand in Front of the Face

With Leap Motion’s latest hardware offering, the VR controls are embedded in a faceplate that can be attached to an OSVR-compatible headset, according to Leap Motion.

“Developers will be able to purchase the Hacker Dev Kit bundled with the OSVR faceplate that includes our technology, or they can buy the OSVR faceplate with Leap Motion as a standalone piece of hardware,” Leap Motion told LinuxInsider in a statement provided by spokesperson Eva Babiak.

Though the partnership is critical in the development and implementation of its motion-tracking hardware for VR, Leap Motion intends to support more headsets in the future.

“Working with OSVR to embed our technology benefits developers and the end user,” the company said. “Developers can write code for a single platform that works across multiple hardware devices, and consumers get a consistently smooth experience.”

Leap Motion’s OSVR faceplate will be bundled in OSVR’s Hacker Dev Kit when the hardware ships in June. The faceplate also will be made available as a standalone peripheral.

“Modularity is one of the key benefits of OSVR,” Leap Motion noted.

The Open Source Route

In working with OSVR, Leap Motion joins hardware and software heavyweights including Bosch, Gearbox, HMD, Intel, Razer, Sixense, Techland, Ubisoft, Unity and Unreal. OSVR counts more than 50 hardware and software partners.

Excluding Sony’s Morpheus headset, the power players in the VR sector have been opening up their application programming interfaces to anyone who’d like to take a crack at developing for the platforms.

Taking the open source route to market allows a product to benefit from a big community of developers, because there is low overhead in creating hardware and content, according to Ira Michael Blonder, president of IMB Enterprises.

Going open source also exposes products to security risks, he said.

“When something is open source, it’s open to the public and everyone knows about the code,” Blonder told LinuxInsider, “and the ability of nefarious individuals to potentially to do something malicious … increases, because nothing is proprietary and out of the public view.”

On the flip side of the security coin, having a community of developers working with open source code can cultivate a massive force of white hat engineers who know the software intimately and can help to quickly dispatch hacks and malicious software, according to Blonder.

To Market, to Market

Despite the amount of weight being thrown behind OSVR and other VR efforts, the dream of a headset with an accompanying substantial library of games remains in the hands of developers.

Gamers are awaiting a killer app — such as a title from Valve with a “3” on the end — to sell them in full on VR.

However, VR developers have to look down the road, IMB Enterprises’ Blonder said — beyond the first wave of early adopters in the gaming community, and on to the casual consumers who pop into a Best Buy on a Saturday afternoon.

“We need apps,” he said. “We need a lot of things to run on this hardware, so that the market is interested.”

Digital Storm's new Bolt 3 adds a sexy edge-to-edge glass door

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It’s difficult to think of the growth curve of Digital Storm’s Bolt micro-tower, and not think of your neighbor’s kid who seems a foot taller every time you see him.

We first knew the Bolt as an ungainly, too-thin micro-tower incapable of anything more than air cooling for its CPU. It ran too loud. Then the Bolt 2 beefed up, adding muscles and even custom liquid cooling.

And now the Bolt 3 is back from college, and you wonder where the time went. Gone is the folded powder-coated steel in favor of brushed aluminum. The interior is also showcased with a side door made entirely of glass.

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Why glass? We didn’t get a chance to ask Digital Storm, but it’s probably because glass adds a luxurious look and feel to any PC. Side doors are typically made of plastic, which scratches easily, is difficult to clean, and frankly feels cheap.

Believe me when I say glass looks dead sexy on any case. The Bolt 3 won’t be the first with glass, as defunct Voodoo PC used glass doors in its custom systems in the late 1990s.

The only real downside to glass is weight… and the possibility of shattering. Hopefully, the glass in the Bolt 3 is tempered so if you do break it, it’ll pose less risk of cutting you.

Digital Storm didn’t spill other details of the Bolt 3, but it’s easy to see it still uses a Mini-ITX motherboard, and custom liquid cooling is still present. And no big surprise: It’ll run Nvidia’s top GeForce GTX Titan X card. I’d guess the Bolt 3 will be based on Haswell initially, but hopefully someone gives Asrock’s X99E-ITX/ac a good going over.

Asrock raised eyebrows by doing something other board vendors said was impossible: Getting Intel’s big boy LGA2011-3 into a miniature motherboard. The price is high, though, as Asrock had to cut back from quad-channel RAM to dual-channel RAM in the board. Still, that means it’s finally possible to build a micro-tower with an eight-core Core i7-5960X instead of the quad-core Haswell CPUs.

The micro-tower form factor isn’t an officially homologated definition for the industry, but it’s generally come to be defined by enthusiast system builders as a small, thin tower capable of supporting a full-sized graphics card. Credit for this goes to the originalAlienware X51, but you can reach back further for the concept to HP’s Firebird 803. But since the Firebird 803 was a dud with its heavy use of proprietary and mobile parts, most give the X51 credit for the current revolution.

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If you’re wondering where you can buy just such a case enclosure for your own build, you probably can’t. I’m going to imagine that just like Digital Storm’s other high-end offerings, the case is an in-house design and custom-built right here in the US of A. It’s long been one of the signature moves that sets Digital Storm apart from other boutique system builders.

Maximize your SSD's lifespan with the right maintenance

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Phillip Mitchell replaced his hard drive with a high-capacity SSD. He asked how best to keep it healthy.

Flash RAM–the storage technology within SSDs–is immune to the violent disasters and wear-and-tear that can crash a hard drive. But SSDs have their own problems. Every time you write to flash RAM, you bring it a step closer to the day it fails.

Fortunately, those steps are very tiny. If you avoid unnecessary writing, your SSD will probably last until you want to replace it with something better. But it’s still a good idea to avoid unnecessary writing. You can do that by turning off these four Windows settings.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

Defragger

An extremely fragmented hard drive can slow down a PC, but fragmentation is irrelevant on an SSD. Worse, it writes all over the place. Best to turn it off.

In Windows 7, Click the Start button, type disk defrag¸ and select Disk Defragmenter.If the big button near the top-right corner says “Turn on schedule…,” no problem; you don’t have to change a thing. But if it says “Configure schedule…,” click the button and uncheck Run on a schedule (recommended).

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Virtual memory

If you’re running more programs than fit in your physical RAM, Windows swaps some of them to your internal drive. If that drive is an SSD, that’s not good.

Check out my article on virtual memory to learn more about this issue and learn how to turn it off.

Superfetch

No, Superfetch is not a canine superhero, but a cache-like Windows feature that’s supposed to improve performance. It didn’t really help all that much with hard drives, and it actually slows down SSDs as it wears them down.

To disable Superfetch, search and select services.msc. In the resulting Services window, scroll down to and double-click on Superfetch. Pull down the Startup type menu and select Disabled.

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Hibernation

When you put a Windows PC into the energy-saving sleep mode, it still uses a trickle of electricity. When you hibernate it, you shut down the hardware entirely.

But hibernation also copies everything in RAM to the C: drive–wearing out the SSD just a little bit.

Securifi’s Almond 2015 and Almond+ routers pull double duty as connected-home hubs

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A year introducing  the Almond—the world’s first touchscreen wireless router—Securifi decided to go one better by adding home-automation features to its follow-up product. Itturned to Kickstarter, where many deemed the idea of a router/connected-home hub good enough to pour more than $850,000 into the effort. But even the staunchest believers must have had their faith tested when an undercooked device showed up in July, 2014, more than nine months behind schedule.

The home-automation functionality was nowhere to be seen at launch and, as is apparent from the many frustrated comments on the product’s Kickstarter page, the whole experience was riddled with bugs. The company has been working hard to remedy those shortcomings.

While a firmware update released in February gave the Z-Wave- and Zigbee-enabled Almond+ its missing home-automation chops, a fresh update that Securifi rolled out Tuesday includes a new and improved user interface. The company also recently introduced a lower-cost model—the Almond 2015—that is slightly less powerful and loses the Z-Wave connectivity, but costs $100 less than Securifi’s flagship.

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Securifi’s press release touts just how easy it is to create automation rules with the new UI, likening it to building something with Lego blocks. Since these rules run locally, you don’t have to worry about your connected home suddenly becoming dumb the instant you lose access to the Internet. It also means that both Almond routers can deliver response times that their cloud-based automation rivals can only dream of.

Securifi boasts of its routers’ ability to create conditional rules that can be more complex than “if this happens, do that.” You’ll need to have the appropriate sensors and devicesfor these rules to work, of course, but the examples the company provided are compelling:

  • When the mailbox is opened, turn the kitchen light on, set the color to yellow, and ring the door-chime.
  • If it’s hotter than 100F between 1- and 5PM, water the lawn for 5 minutes and close the shades
  • Set the bedroom light to 20% at 7AM: after 2 minutes set it to 40%: after another 2 minutes set it to 60%; after another 2 minutes set it to 80%
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The Almond+ and its newer sibling, the Almond 2015, are available from Amazon for $199 and $99, respectively, prices that reflect limited-time discounts on each router. The company is also giving away one of its Peanut smart plugs with each purchase.

Watch out, Withings: Xiaomi's Smart Scale

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Chinese gadget maker Xiaomi is gunning for the connected fitness market with a dirt-cheap smart scale.

The Mi Smart Scale will cost roughly $16 when it goes on sale in China. It tracks both weight and body mass index, and connects over Bluetooth to Xiaomi’s Mi Fit iOS andAndroid apps, so users can track their weight over time.

The scale also has a built-in LED display that lights up when the users steps on, and is covered in glass. Xiaomi says the scale is accurate to within 50 grams, or roughly a tenth of a pound.

While none of those features are unique among smart scales, the asking price is considerably cheaper compared to scales from Withings and Fitbit, which cost upwards of $100.

This isn’t Xiamoi’s venture into connected fitness. Last year, the company started selling a $13 fitness band that can also unlock certain Xiaomi smartphones. It’s all part of the company’s plan to sell a wide range of low-cost products, including phones, tablets, TVs, tiny set-top boxes and accessories—all connected through the company’s software and services.

In addition to the smart scale, Xiaomi also announced a 55-inch 4K television for roughly $800, an $8 power strip with surge-protected USB ports, and a pink version of its Mi Note phablet, all due out in China.

The story behind the story: For now, Withings and Fitbit can take solace in the fact that Xiaomi hasn’t entered the U.S. market. But that will change later this year, and the company has already launched an English version of its website in anticipation. When that happens, Xiaomi will likely want to bring out a range of products beyond just phones, and the Mi Smart scale—which measures in pounds as well as kilograms—could very well be part of that debut.