Apple preps new AirPods: One with hands-free Siri, one water-resistant

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One of the smallest members of Apple’s product lineup may get a useful update this year. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is working on new models of its AirPod wireless earbuds. One could debut later this year with an updated wireless chip and another with a water-resistant design may come out in 2019.

AirPods arrived in 2016 alongside the iPhone 7 as a solution to the smartphone’s lack of headphone jack. The W1 chip inside the AirPods helps it connect almost immediately to a user’s Apple products. According to the report, Apple is developing a new model with a new wireless chip that helps it better manage Bluetooth connections. It’s unclear if this new chip will be a variation of the W2 chip, which debuted with the Apple Watch Series 3 last year, or if it will be an entirely new one.

This year’s new model may also give users voice activation for Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri. Currently, users must tap the side of an AirPod before they can use voice commands. In the new AirPod models, summoning Siri would be hands-free, requiring only a voice command such as “Hey Siri” and no physical prompt.

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Electric car boom prompts Apple to get serious about securing cobalt

Enlarge / Cobalt chips (credit: Alchemist-hp)

Apple may cut out the cobalt middlemen by obtaining supplies for its batteries on its own. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is in talks with miners to buy long-term supplies of cobalt, a key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries used in Apple’s iPhones and iPads. Apple has reportedly been in discussions to secure contracts for “several thousand metric tons” of cobalt each year for at least five years.

If a deal comes to fruition, it would be the first time Apple has secured its own supplies of cobalt for batteries. The tech giant currently leaves cobalt buying to battery manufacturers, but now the company wants to ensure it can lock down enough of the metal to maintain a sufficient supply.

The growth of the electric car industry has prompted fears of a cobalt shortage—electric car batteries use much more cobalt than those of consumer electronics, and car manufacturers are already seeking contracts with cobalt miners to get the amounts they need for their vehicles. BMW is reportedly close to securing a 10-year supply deal, and Volkswagen Group tried but failed to secure a long-term cobalt supply deal at the end of last year. Cobalt prices are rising, and VW’s plans failed partly because the company wanted to set a fixed price for the metal for the entirety of the contract.

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Apple’s HomePod: Paying $350 for a speaker that says “no” this much is tough

Jeff Dunn

What is this thing?

That, in essence, is the question most onlookers have asked about Apple’s HomePod speaker since its unveiling last summer. The natural inclination is to compare it to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. It’s a speaker with a talking assistant in it, the thinking goes. Apple just wants a piece of that growing pie.

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Fast talker: Alexa may offer speedier answers with Amazon-made AI chips

Amazon wants to cut the lag time between your asking Alexa a question and the virtual assistant giving you an answer. According to a report by The Information, the online retailer is developing its own artificial intelligence chips to be used in Echo devices and other hardware. If successfully created and deployed, these AI chips would allow more voice-based requests to be processed on-device rather than going to the cloud.

Currently, Alexa needs to contact the cloud to interpret commands. That’s why there’s a short delay after you ask the virtual assistant a question—it needs to analyze the command and gather an answer with help from the cloud. A dedicated AI chip in a device like an Echo would allow Alexa to process certain requests more quickly, decreasing the delay that lies in between your question and Alexa’s answer. While complex inquiries will likely still be handled with help from the cloud, more simple commands could be processed all on the device itself.

Amazon reportedly has 450 people with chip knowledge on staff now, many of which came via recent acquisitions. The company bought the Israeli chipmaker Annapurna Labs in 2015 for $ 350 million and the security camera company Blink for a reported $ 90 million at the end of 2017. It’s believed that Amazon bought Blink specifically for its low-energy chip expertise; the company’s smart home security cameras use these chips to extend the battery life of its camera modules to at least two years.

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Reddit audiophiles test HomePod, say it sounds better than $1,000 speaker

Enlarge / Apple’s new HomePod speaker retails for $ 350. (credit: Apple)

Apple released its much-hyped HomePod speaker to the masses last week, and the general consensus among early reviews is that it sounds superb for a relatively small device. But most of those reviews seem to have avoided making precise measurements of the HomePod’s audio output, instead relying on personal experience to give generalized impressions.

That’s not a total disaster: a general rule for speaker testing is that while it’s good to stamp out any outside factor that may cause a skewed result, making definitive, “objective” claims is difficult. A speaker’s sound largely depends on the room in which it’s placed. Its proximity to walls, the surface on which it’s rested, whether or not you have a carpet—all of this can alter what sounds make it to your ears and thus how you perceive its performance. And no two people’s rooms are entirely alike.

But having some proper measurements is important. Reddit user WinterCharm, whose real name is Fouzan Alam, has made just that in a truly massive review for the site’s “r/audiophile” sub. And if his results are to be believed, those early reviews may be underselling the HomePod’s sonic abilities. After a series of tests with a calibrated microphone in an untreated room, Alam found the HomePod to sound better than the KEF X300A, a generally well-regarded bookshelf speaker that retails for $ 999.

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