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In the Zone

Tech Explainer: LiDAR — What is it? How does it work? And what’s it good for?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 01/25/2021
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LiDAR, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is one of the hot new technologies worming its way into our digital lifestyles. 
 
LiDAR operates similarly to its closest siblings, sonar and radar. The “detection and ranging” part is where the rubber meets the road. 
 
The rest is more a matter of the medium by which one achieves it. Sonar uses sound to enable detection and ranging. Radar uses radio waves to the same end. When it comes to LiDAR, the medium is ultraviolet, visible or near-infrared light. 
 
LiDAR diagram
LiDAR sends out lasers, then measures their rate of return (Illustration: Génération Robots)
 
To get a fix, a LiDAR-equipped device first emits multiple beams of laser light. Once those beams bounce back to the device’s sensors, the processor interprets the time it takes for the light to make the round trip. Each beam returns to the sensor at a different time. These varied rates of return help the system to understand a physical object’s size, shape and position. 
 
Finally, the processor uses the resulting information to paint a 3D picture of the immediate environment.  That includes the length, height, depth of objects, as well as the position of other objects nearby. 
 
That makes LiDAR ideal for cameras. Indeed, LiDAR’s most recent claim to fame is its inclusion in the optical rangefinder of the new Apple iPhone 12 Pro. As shown in the photo below (courtesy of Engadget), there’s a LiDAR scanner in the phone’s camera unit. 
 
Apple iPhone 12 with LiDAR scanner
iPhone 12 Pro’s camera sensors and flash include a LiDAR scanner
 
But Apple, like many of today’s biggest consumer-electronics designers, has yet to fully realize the potential of this oft-misunderstood technology. As LiDAR becomes more commonplace, Apple could support optical range-finding on some of its homemade software. Mobile apps such as Apple Fitness, Health, Support, FaceTime and Face ID could become more useful with a better understanding of their host device’s physical position.
 
Industrial light & (near) magic
 
It won’t be long before LiDAR becomes an indispensable tool, enabling not only better photography, but also better security, healthcare and design. Current industrial uses for LiDAR include such lofty verticals as construction, industrial design and autonomous-vehicle navigation. 
 
Mass retailer Ikea is among those making commercial use of LiDAR by applying it to Augmented Reality (AR). The company’s popular Ikea Place app uses this potent combination to give users the ability to “place” virtual furniture in their room, so they can try before they buy (sort of). 
 
Ikea Place mobile app
Ikea’s Place app combines LiDAR with AR
 
The higher degree of accuracy provided by a LiDAR scan makes the Ikea experience pretty realistic. One day soon, it should even let users scan their spaces and customize their desired Swedish bed frames. The resulting info could then be sent to a 3D printer for the ultimate in instant gratification.
 
In consumer electronics, LiDAR’s relevance for smartphones and tablets is somewhat less heady, but still impressive. 
 
For example, LiDAR is being used to enable better photography, especially in low-light situations. By creating a 3D map of, say, Fluffy, the family feline, a smartphone’s optical sensors can better separate the subject from its surroundings. This, in turn, lets the user feature Fluffy in the foreground while defocusing the background. 
 
By creating depth of focus in this way, LiDAR brings smartphone photography into the professional realm of DSLR cameras—but without the extra expense and steep learning curve. 
 
What’s next for LiDAR?
 
It’s not hard to imagine a near future in which LiDAR becomes a commonplace tool used by a growing cross-section of consumers and SMBs. 
 
For example, the enhanced resolution offered by a laser-based detection system could help improve biometric security features such as facial recognition. 
 
Same goes for home healthcare. There, LiDAR tech could be used to help assess maladies and watch over those who need a little extra care from day to day.
 
Smart glasses
Smart glasses could use LiDAR to watch for danger
 
Wearables is another high-growth category that should take on an added dimension with the aid of LiDAR. Imagine a smart handbag that uses range detection to warn the wearer of would-be pickpockets or attackers as they draw near. Or glasses that keep a constant vigil as you’re walking around town. They could vibrate when it’s time to make a left on Broadway, and remind kids to look both ways before crossing the street. 
 
Don’t miss the LiDAR Express
 
Can you recall a time when you wished you’d gotten in on the ground floor of a new tech, especially one that could lead to extensive revenue growth? 
 
It’s happening now with LiDAR. We’re witnessing what should soon become the mass adoption of a new, smart technology. Over the next few years, LiDAR could potentially show up in hundreds of new devices. 
 
Ready to jump on the LiDAR bandwagon? Step one is opening your eyes to see the light. 
 
 

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In the Zone

Here’s the gear you need to make flight simulation take flight

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by Kevin Jacoby on 01/19/2021
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Guess who’s gearing up to spend some big bucks on PC hardware? Yup, the gamers are back, and with their credit cards ready. 
 
But now it ain’t Fortnite they’re after. This time it’s a whole new journey. 
 
Due to the pandemic, we may not want to travel in the real world, but we’re sure lining up for flight sims. Over the next 3 years, gamers will spend some $2.6 billion on PC gaming hardware just to run the latest version of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, predicts Jon Peddie Research.
 
Flight Simulator 2020
 
Flight Simulator 2020: unbeatable realism—but only with the right gear
 
Some of those billions will come from the $60 to $120 each flight-sim enthusiast will need to spend to buy the game itself. Jon Peddie believes they’ll buy some 2.27 million units of Flight Simulator 2020 over the next 3 years.
 
But that pile should also include the billions of dollars enthusiasts will spend gobbling up high-performance components, flight-control peripherals and even virtual reality (VR) gear.
 
So what does a good flight simulator rig look like these days? Glad you asked.
 
Need for speed
 
Make no mistake, you can’t run the latest flight sim on Dad’s old ultrabook. Just getting onto the ground floor of performance and frame rates requires a hefty rig, one that’s ready to churn like a Pixar render farm. 
 
First of all, any virtual pilot pining for a truly great flying experience will need to secure a heavy-duty processor. To power your 787 Dreamliner and all the lush scenery below, only the heartiest engines will do. If you’re looking at anything less than an Intel Core i9-9900K, keep looking.
 
Having the right graphics card is important, too. Flight Simulator has the option to bring in real-time mapping and meteorological data from Bing. Processing all those trees, clouds, buildings and other bits of hyper-realistic terrain at 30 to 60 frames per second requires a GPU with VRAM to spare. 
 
If a high frame rate and 1080p or better resolution is required, then it’s worth considering something like the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. While this GPU costs a bundle — around $1,200 — it brings to the party 11GB of GDDR6 VRAM. That should be more than enough.
 
NVIDIA GeForce GPU
NVIDIA GeForce GPU: hi-res, fast frames
 
Main memory matters, too. And when it comes to flight simulators, the question is not only “how much?” but also “how fast?” As Jarred Walton’s tireless research for TomsHardware.com shows, 16GB of RAM running at the DDR4-4000 speed can actually outperform twice as much RAM (32GB) running at the slower speed of DDR4-3600.
 
Keyboard overboard!
 
Can you fly a simulator with your standard PC keyboard? Sure. 
 
But is that the best way to have the most fun? Absolutely not.
 
In fact, to fly the friendly skies in true style, you need the right peripherals. Get rid of that keyboard and start instead with the Logitech Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals
 
Logitech’s setup includes a yoke, throttle quadrant and rudder pedals. With it, computer pilots can simulate real-world aircraft ranging all the way from a lowly, single-engine Cessna to a gargantuan Lockheed C5 Galaxy. 
 
Logitech Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals
Logitech’s Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals
 
However, due to the overwhelming popularity of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, Logitech says it’s currently sold out of the Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals. Fortunately, other retailers, such as the appropriately named MyPilotStore.com, have the setup in stock. They’re offering it for around $400. 
 
Virtually real 
 
Good as flight simulation is, it gets even better with virtual reality. VR makes total immersion possible, and without the cost of multiple high-res displays. 
 
One cool VR option comes from Asobo Studios, the designer of Microsoft’s vaunted Flight Simulator. Last month Asobo released a free software update; it enables OpenXR-compatible VR headsets such as the Windows Mixed-Reality Headset shown below to be used with Flight Simulator. 
 
Acer Windows VR helmet

Acer Windows Mixed-Reality headset: now ready for Flight Simulator

Imagine turning your head to see out the side window of an Airbus A380 cockpit. You look down to the churning Pacific waves below, then glance up at the contrails of a distant jet. Your head swivels back to center as your eyes flick from the altimeter to the airspeed indicator. Then back to the window for a view across the nose of a jumbo jet that few will ever get to see
 
The channel soars
 
PC sales are on the rise, having pushed up 26% in Q4, according to IDC. For the channel, that’s a welcome tailwind. Now it’s time to kick in the afterburners.
 
With its bleeding-edge components and high average sale prices (ASP), gaming continues to be a winning niche market. The new Flight Simulator 2020 represents a niche within the niche. 
 
This could be your chance to soar. Bon voyage!
 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How wireless induction charging works

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by Kevin Jacoby on 12/21/2020
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Wireless charging promises ease-of-use and a clutter-free workspace. Just plunk a compatible smartphone, tablet or other device on a charging pad — sold separately, of course — and wait for the battery to fill up.

But how does this marvelous modern convenience work? And is it worth the hype?

A long, wireless history

Wireless charging, also known as inductive charging, began creeping into the modern zeitgeist around 2008. That’s when the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) came into being. By 2010 the WPC had created today’s most common wireless-charging standard, known as Qi (pronounced “chee”).

But the real birth of induction power transfer started much earlier — back in 1894, to be exact. That’s when two engineers named Hutin and Le-Blanc proposed a system of wirelessly charging electric vehicles.

Their work, in turn, was based on discoveries made by famed English physicist Michael Faraday. In 1831 he had discovered the theories of magnetics and electricity that make induction charging possible.

Faraday induction experiment

Illustration showing Faraday’s magnetic-induction experiment (From 1892 textbook, via Wikipedia)

In 1977, nearly a century after Hutin and Le-Blanc did their work, their concept was finally realized in the form of a patent for an “electromagnetically coupled battery charger.” The patent application, filed by one John E. Trombly, listed as its primary use “charging headlamp batteries for coal miners.”

Fast-forward another 33 years, and here we are. You can now buy Qi-certified devices such as Apple’s new MagSafe charger to juice up your cellies without any pesky cables.

Look mom, no wires!

The underlying mechanism of inductive charging is as simple as it is elegant. An induction coil in the charging pad creates an oscillating electromagnetic field, just like the one Nikola Tesla created back in the 19th century.

This electromagnetic field then hangs out, floating like a butterfly waiting patiently for a compatible mate. Place your phone on the charging pad, and the device’s receiver coil converts this magnetic field back into electricity, which then charges the device’s battery. That’s all there is to it.

Wireless charger

Wireless charger, with room for multiple devices (photo courtesy of Amazon)

The maximum distance between the charger and your device is determined by the size of the coils in each. The larger the coils, the greater the distance you can have.

The latest, greatest wireless charging currently allows for up to 50 mm (equivalent to a little over 2 inches) between the device and its charger.

That may seem like a short distance, but it’s long enough to obviate the precision previously required to charge devices on older charging pads. In other words, 50 mm is just enough to give the user a chuck-it-on-the-pad-and-fuhgeddaboudit kind of joie de vivre.

A few cons

Wireless charging is mostly good news. As this technology rapidly spreads, subsequent generations of digital-natives will forget about peripherals as banal as USB cables and wall-warts.

But the news isn’t all digital daisies and wireless roses. There are the small matters of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Today’s inductive charging doesn’t have enough of either.

When we’re talking about the low-power wireless charging common to mobile devices (that is, less than 100 watts), we’re talking about a slower, less-efficient method of charging.

 As the chart below shows, charging a mobile phone with a Qi wireless charging pad is, at best, around half as fast as charging with an old-fashioned cable, according to Nick Guy of The New York Times.

Wired vs. Wireless Charging chart

Source: Wirecutter via The New York Times

Inductive charging is also relatively expensive. Manufacturing chargers and devices that contain the requisite drive electronics and coils raises their price per unit. Guess who that price increase gets passed on to?

Then there’s the matter of efficiency. Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, says that approximately 50% of the energy coming from a wireless charging pad ends up as wasted heat. With an estimated 3.5 billion smartphones in use worldwide, wholesale adoption of wireless charging could waste a staggering amount of energy.

How’s your Qi now?

But not to worry. As wireless charging becomes the de facto standard around the globe, our hardworking tech giants will likely figure out a way to increase efficiency and lower costs.

For now, consider the future of inductive charging as it pertains to the channel. Your customers will need chargers for their myriad devices. And when new chargers are available, they’ll need those, too.

So keep your eye on the inductive ball. A wireless wonderland may be closer than you think.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Provider Zone holiday gift guide, 2020 edition

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by Kevin Jacoby on 12/11/2020
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’Tis the season to spend some money. But what to buy for the tech geek in your life? With so many gadgets to choose from, option anxiety constitutes a clear and present danger.

Never fear, we’re here to help. Behold, the Tech Provider Zone Holiday Gift Guide, 2020 edition.

For the Beleaguered Apple TV Owner

What: One for All - Streamer Remote

Where: Best Buy

How much: $25

If you know someone who owns an Apple TV, then you also know someone who hates the included remote.

Apple, usually one of the best designers in the world, really dropped the ball with the Apple TV’s remote. Fortunately, a company called One For All has picked it up.

One For All’s Streamer Remote echoes the size and shape of the standard Apple TV remote. But it adds 1 thing that Apple forgot: usability.

For about $25, your giftee can enjoy easy scrolling, volume changing and general UI navigation — and without tearing out any hair.

One for All Streamer Remote

Streamer Remote: a better take on the Apple TV classic

One caveat: The Streamer Remote connects with IR, not Bluetooth. So to get this remote to work, you’ll have to actually point it at the Apple TV. But for easy binging, that’s a small price to pay.

For the Image-Conscious Zoomer

What: Razer Kiyo

Where: Razer.com

How much: $100

Think back to your last video chat. Did one of the chatters look pale and sickly, with sunken eyes and fuzzy hair? Chances are that person’s health is fine. It’s their webcam that’s sick.

For those who want to look good while chatting, Razer has introduced Kiyo, an HD webcam with a built-in ring light.

Razer Kiyo

Razer Kiyo: high-def video & lighting in 1 easy package

Kiyo offers 1080p resolution at 30 frames/second with a slightly wider than usual 82-degree field of view. And the light is programmed with 3 sensible defaults: bright, dim and off. That makes it easy to use, and hard to look bad.

For the Indoor Exerciser

What: The Mirror

Where: Mirror.co

How much: Starting at $1,495 + $39/mo.

Do you know someone aiming to have a killer post-pandemic bod? Do they already own a talking mirror?

If not, this could be just the holiday cheer they need. The Mirror hangs on the wall, just like a regular mirror. That’s the low-tech part. During a workout, the user watches their reflection to make sure they’re using the correct form.

The high-tech part comes from the embedded smart display. It projects a professional trainer onto the screen for some one-on-one panting and sweating.

There’s also an embedded camera. It keeps an eye out throughout the session, delivering real-time adjustments based on your fitness goals.

The Mirror

The Mirror: 1-on-1 workouts are the name of the game

The Mirror’s $39/month subscription price delivers an ever-expanding selection of workouts, including yoga, Latin dance, kickboxing and Tai Chi. Each workout also includes a curated music playlist to keep the energy up and the tunes flowing.

For the Person Absolutely Never Going Back to the Office

What: Autonomous Zen Work Pod

Where: Autonomous.ai

How much: $5,400 (pre-order)

The pandemic has shown us that working from home long-term is indeed possible. For many, it has even become preferable. If, that is, they can find some peace and quiet.

That’s where the Atonomous Zen Work Pod comes in.

It’s an outside office with all the comforts of your old office, minus the commute. That includes built-in shelves, a desk and chair, tempered glass walls, and sustainable oak and walnut components.

To be sure, it’s compact. The interior space measures roughly 6 1/2 x 8 feet, and the ceiling measures 10 1/2 feet at its highest point.

Autonomous Zen Work Pod

Zen Work Pod: Instant office — including desk & chair

Just pull the 5,400-dollar trigger, and the pod will arrive at your home in just 2 to 4 days. The full setup and assembly is completed for you in about 72 hours. Then, viola!, instant office without the obligatory breakroom chatter.

For the Ultimate Movie Fanatic

What: LG Signature Z9

Where: LG.com

How much: $30,000

It’s OLED. It’s 88 inches. It’s 8K. It’s insane.

What do you get for the person who has everything? The LG Signature Z9, a TV that costs as much as a well-equipped Toyota Camry.

The Z9’s organic LED delivers the sharpest picture currently available. And, at 88 inches, it also delivers the largest.

The sound, of course, is Dolby Atmos. Which means you’ll want to pair it with the best surround sound system money can buy.

LG Signature Z9 TV

LG Signature Z9 OLED TV: 88 inches of 8K def

The Z9 has its own brain capable of streaming and binging ‘till the cows come home. This smart TV’s smarts include Amazon Alexa, Apple Airplay 2, Google Assistant, and its own hands-free voice control system.

As a bonus, the Z9 looks like a piece of modern art. Now you’ll just need an art collector’s budget.

Go forth and spend thy ducats

Time’s running out. If you want to get those gifts under the tree before Santa comes down the chimney, now’s the time to do it.

Happy shopping!

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

The best HPC systems of 2020

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by Kevin Jacoby on 11/20/2020
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If 2020 has been the year of working at home, it’s also been the year of high performance computing (HPC) upgrades for the home office.

With all that enterprise-level hardware gathering dust at corporate HQ, your customers have had to bring home enough power to work (and play) hard.

What sets an HPC systems apart from standard PCs? The brute processing force needed to reach a bar that gets raised higher every year. Here are 3 that set the bar pretty high in 2020.

Bizon V500: The show must go on

Even during a pandemic (or perhaps because of it), we’re glued to our TVs. Whether that’s a news show about COVID-19 or a nice, long binge to help us forget, someone has to put all that video together.

Tossing around hours of 4K footage and lifelike animation requires processing power, and lots of it. That’s a job for a pro video-editing workstation such as the BIZON V5000. It can bust a move without breaking a sweat.

Bizon V5000

Bizon V5000: Powerful — but also pricey

The V5000 starts out at around $3,000, but maxing out this system can easily bring the price tag to an eye-watering $37,000. If your customers are spending that kind of money, they’ll expect nothing but the best. With Bizon’s system, that starts with an 18-core Skylake X Intel Core i9-10980XE running at 3GHz.

Remember to round out the box with 256GB of 3,000 MHz DDR4 memory and a chorus of NVIDIA RTX graphics processors. With that kind of gear, your customers will have the power to create superhero universes and AAA games to their heart’s content.

Apple MacPro: Costly fruit

So you thought 37 grand was a lot to pay for a computer? Then Apple’s fully tricked out MacPro may seem a little crazy. But if your customer has $52,000 to burn, they can kit out their home office with one of the most powerful, commercially available HPCs in the world.

When configured to the digital hilt, the Apple MacPro sports an Intel Xeon W processor with 24 cores (!), each capable of boosting up to 4.4GHz. Because this is a server-class platform, users can match that bodacious engine with up to 1.5 terabytes of DDR4 ECC memory.

 

Apple MacPro

Apple MacPro: server-class CPUs, up to 1.5TB of RAM

What can your customers do with all that power? Anything they want.

Worthwhile targets for this cruise missile of a computer include audio/video production, pro animation rendering, and the kind of scientific research that used to require a warehouse full of mainframes.

Alienware Aurora R11: All fun & games

The Alienware Aurora R11 Gaming PC might seem small. And compared with the aforementioned BIZON and Apple desktops, it might seem downright cheap. But this system delivers plenty of gaming cred and, well, fun.

The Aurora R11 sells for about $5,000 when fully loaded. Not cheap, exactly, but a lot less than the BIZON and MacPro. And measuring roughly 19 x 8 x 17 inches and weighing just a hair over 39 pounds, the Aurora could conceivably be dragged along to a gaming party.

Just don’t call it underpowered. The Aurora R11 can be kitted out with an overclocked 10-core Intel Core i9-10900KF processor, 128GB of HyperX FURY DDR4 XMP memory and a pair of NVIDIA RTX 3090 cards. That will make your customer competitive in any eSports tournament.

Alienware Aurora R11

Alienware Aurora R11: 2 colors, 1 big Core i9 punch.

Keeping them competitive, however, will require the optional liquid cooling system. It’s a veritable necessity when dealing with all the heat coming off of those top-of-the-line components.

Users can also pick a chassis color to suit their demeanors: Dark Side of the Moon (dark grey with blue LEDs) or the slightly more expensive Lunar Light (light grey with blue LEDs). Why the light grey costs $30 more is anyone’s guess.

HPCs are super

Are tablets and laptops eating away at desktop PC sales? Sure, and they have been for years. But no skinny piece of glass can leap tall buildings in a single bound the way an HPC can. And no ultrabook has what it takes to process an animated feature film faster than a speeding bullet.

That makes HPCs a good bet for channel partners. After all, offering reliable tools for which there can be no substitute has always been a solid business model.

You might even call it bulletproof.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How noise-cancelling works

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by Kevin Jacoby on 11/11/2020
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Noise cancelling (NC) technology is loved by many, but understood by few. Its ability to block out unwanted sound helps us sleep, makes traveling more pleasant, and reduces hearing damage by offering high fidelity at lower volumes.

But how does noise cancellation work? The answer is a story of both high-tech development and beautiful simplicity. And it begins with the desire for quieter airplanes.

Born to fly

In the early 1950s, an electrical engineer named Lawrence Jerome Fogel submitted various patents for the first active NC system. Fogel designed the system specifically for the aviation industry. He knew then what all intrepid business travelers know now: Everything having to do with jet engines is better when you can’t hear them.

NC tech from 1957

NC tech, circa 1957

Source: U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory

Today, more than 60 years later, NC technology has become much cheaper to develop and produce. It's much more effective, too.

One result: a marketplace chockablock with affordable ear-goggles. They can block out the bad stuff, making the good stuff easier to hear.

Active or bust

Let’s get one thing straight: There is no such thing as “passive NC.” That term is a misnomer concocted by savvy marketing departments looking to grab some cash without paying for the R&D.

What passive NC really means is that the headphones are blocking some ambient sound. This isn’t much different from sticking two fingers in your ears. It doesn’t count.

True NC technology refers to a powered (read: active) system. This removes unwanted noise through a physical phenomenon known as destructive interference.

NC headphones employ tiny microphones that detect ambient sounds. These mics feed a digital audio processor that first identifies the frequencies of the unwanted sounds, then calculates their exact opposite frequencies.

These opposite frequencies are described as being 180 degrees out of phase with the unwanted frequencies. Once projected into the listener’s ears, they block ambient sounds while allowing in the sounds the listener actually wants.

Going through a phase

At the risk of wandering into TL;DR territory, here’s why phase is so important to the NC process.

Sounds waves perfectly aligned are said to be “in phase” with each other. Multiple sound waves that are in phase will produce a sound we perceive as being louder.

But when two signals are out of phase, they cancel each other out. As shown in the graphic below, this happens when the low points (troughs) of one sound wave coincide with the high points (peaks) of another. In other words, the sound waves’ peaks and troughs are opposed.

Destructive interference

2 sound waves that are perfectly out of phase cancel each other out

Source: University of Connecticut

Here’s how this works in your NC headphones. When the headphones’ mic detects a monotonous blather from the jet turbine you’re stuck next to for a few hours, it tells your headphones to produce a frequency array that’s perfectly out of phase with the noise. Once your NC-cans shoot this equal-but-opposite sound into your ears, the engine noise more or less disappears.

Nobody’s perfect

Despite the fine work of Fogel — and that of his acolytes, including Amar Bose — NC tech is far from infallible.

For one thing, NC tech works way better with low frequencies than with high ones. It’s also far more effective at silencing constant noise than it is with noises that are sharp and irregular. That’s why your AirPods will protect you from the hum of a 737 far better than from the screaming baby in row 5.

But like most technology, NC seems to get better and better every year. It’s reasonable to assume AI will come into play soon, giving new meaning to the “active” in active NC.

Until then, you have quite a few noise-cancelling headphones to choose from. As Depeche Mode advised, Enjoy the Silence.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Your guide to noise-cancelling headphones under $300

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by Kevin Jacoby on 10/19/2020
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Working from home during a global pandemic involves a fair share of challenges. Not the least of these is finding some peace and quiet. That’s not easy amidst playing children, wailing sirens and the neighbor’s effort to become a rock drummer.

Noise-cancelling (NC) headphones present an elegant solution. That is, if you can find a pair that offers decent sound quality at a price you can afford.

Bargain Bose

Back when business travel was still a thing, a walk down the aisle in business-class was like watching a fashion show of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Over the years, Bose had worked hard to become the first name in NC technology. But it also became one of the most expensive.

So what if your customers want to go with a name they can trust, but for the honor would prefer not to spend upwards of $400?

Well, they can feast their ears on the Bose QuietComfort 35 II Smart Noise-Cancelling headphones. At just shy of $300, these quiet cans come with industry-leading NC-cred, minus the business-class price tag.

Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones

Bose NC headphones: business class at an economy price

What makes Bose’s “Smart” headphones smart? That would be none other than Google Assistant.

Yes, the company that practically runs the whole internet has jumped into bed with Bose. The result: a set of ear-goggles that can block out a baby’s cries, soothe you with the dulcet tones of smooth jazz, and offer all the hands-free help of a smart speaker.

Getting the Jabra done

The technorati may crow over every set of Bose, Sony and Apple cans to hit the market, but Jabra has been getting the job done, albeit quietly, for decades. The company’s name may not be the first to cross your customer’s lips. But they’ll appreciate Jabra’s features and quality just the same.

Jabra’s latest addition to the world of private NC listening is the Elite 85h. Like its more expensive brethren, these wireless headphones offer impressive noise-cancelling as well as smooth, crisp sound. Unlike some of the more highfalutin’ brands, the Elite 85h cans offer an all-day-and-then-some battery life. The company says they’ll keep the noise out and the tunes in for up to 30 hours.

Jabra Elite 85h headphones

Jabra Elite 85h: up to 30 noise-free hours

Another noteworthy feature of the Jabra headphones is an integrated off-switch that shuts down the system whenever the ear cups swivel 90 degrees. This movement comes into play when you stow the cans or pull them down onto your neck for a quick conversation. As the ear cups swivel, the speaker-housing flattens out against your chest, simultaneously saving wear on both the battery and the bottom of your chin.

Rounding out the feature set nicely is a custom iOS and Android app. It provides granular control over the headphone’s features, including the ability to design, select and save custom EQ settings.

Best of all, you can get all this from Jabra for around $200 — that’s nearly $100 less than you’d pay for Sony’s similarly featured WH-100XM4 headphones.

This bud’s for you

For reasons too boring to mention, noise-cancelling was until recently the sole domain of the traditional—if not downright bulky—over-ear form factor. But oh, how times have changed.

Today, thanks to years of tireless technological tinkering, your favorite features have been miniaturized. The result is a new generation of truly wireless Bluetooth earbuds. They offer brilliant sound in a small, lightweight form.

Two cases in point: Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds and Apple’s ubiquitously-white AirPods Pro noise-cancelling buds.

Priced at around $280 and $250, respectively, these NCs show that miniaturization commands a premium price. Nonetheless, if your customers seek a minimalist solution that disappears easily into a pocket, they might just find love between these tiny tweeters.

Bose QuietComfort earbuds

Bose QuietComfort buds: better sound, less noise

Both buds offer great sound and noise-cancellation. Bose, as usual, seems to edge out Apple (and everyone else) in terms of sound quality, especially at low volumes.

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple AirPods Pro: longer battery life

But when it comes to battery life, Apple’s AirPods Pro rule. With the aid of its svelte, white case, AirPods Pro offers up to 24 hours of listening time — about twice as long as you get with the Bose QuietComforts.

Silence can be golden

To keep our kids learning and our workers working from home, we all have to do whatever it takes. Noise-cancelling headphones aren’t the whole solution, but they can surely help.

So tell your customers about these affordable NC headphones. That, in turn, could help you keep working, too.

Your neighbor probably isn’t going to be the next Keith Moon. But the next sound you hear should be a win-win.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How foldable phones fold

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by Kevin Jacoby on 10/08/2020
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Foldable phones present a unique challenge for industrial designers. In order to give users the near limitless facility these devices promise, these phones must be able to bend, twist and hold their shapes literally hundreds of thousands of times, and all without failing.

How do they do this? It’s all about the mighty hinge.

We’re not talking here about the 90-degree swing of a laptop hinge. The latest in foldable tech — specimens such as Microsoft’s Surface Duo and Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold2 — offer far more variety. You can fold them in half. You can set the screens side-by-side. You can create a freestanding A-frame. And you can do just about anything in between.

To be sure, this is no easy feat. Hinges designed to do a marvelous impression of a pretzel have all sorts of enemies. These include (but are certainly not limited to) dust, dirt, foreign objects, loss of lubrication, weak springs — even overzealous users who don’t know their own strength.

King of the hinge

If an award was being given for most innovative hinge, the one on Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold2 would certainly be a nominee. In fact, to call this mechanism a simple hinge is to belie the intelligence of its intricate construction.

Last year, Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold ran into one or two dust-related issues. So this year Samsung got wise. It added what looks like a long strip of tiny, black astroturf along the interior of the mechanism. Samsung calls it the Sweeper.

The Sweeper is an elegant solution. It not only prevents dirt and dust from getting in, but also helps to evacuate any bits that manage to slip by.

The hinge mechanism itself is made up of 60 individual components. They combine to create what Samsung calls the Hideaway Hinge. Perhaps the most important of these are the four primary cams. Their friction serves to hold the two halves at any angle throughout its 180-degree arc of movement.

X-ray of hinge for Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 phone

Samsung’s hinge: X-ray view showing its 60 components

Just to put a little icing on the cake, Samsung also offers consumers the option of custom colors for the hinge’s casing. Current options include the quietly elegant Mystic Black as well as a slightly more bodacious metallic finish in silver, gold, red or blue.

2 hinges: better than 1?

If the Galaxy Z Fold2 is the height of sophisticated complexity, then Microsoft’s Surface Duo is a study in elegant simplicity.

Instead of joining 2 screens along the entire length of their common axis, Microsoft opted instead for 2 small yet sturdy 360-degree hinges.

The overall effect is much like a convertible PC, such as Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X1 Nano. The user can move the Surface Duo’s screens from a completely closed position all the way to the point where one screen is directly behind the other.

Hinge on Microsoft Surface Duo

Microsoft Surface Duo's 360-degree hinge offers full range of motion

To hold the Surface Duo’s screens in place, Microsoft has installed no fewer than four cams in each of the phone’s two hinges. The overall result is a sturdy feel, a free range of motion, and the ability to hold both screens securely in almost any position.

Much of Microsoft’s hinge mechanism is reportedly milled from stainless steel to ensure a long life with minimal torsion. The fine interior movement mechanisms, however, are made from a proprietary iron-copper powder.

Within the superstructure of each hinge sits a network of wires made of a copper-nickel-based alloy, designed to achieve maximum conductivity with minimal corrosion. These wires transfer data to and from the accelerometers, gyroscopes and proximity sensors located under each screen. These gadgets report on the current shape of the device, so the OS knows how to orient itself.

Gotta know when to fold ‘em

Where will all this foldable technology end? The most likely answer is, it won’t. And that’s good news for channel partners. Novel designs that capture the imagination of a global population stuck at home can be a lucrative business proposition.

What’s more, each new innovation carries with it higher and higher average sales prices. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold2 retails for a cool $2,000. That leaves plenty of room for generous profit margins.

How to collect some of these profits? That hinges on how well you fold these phones into your solutions.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Are the latest foldable phones ready for prime time?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 09/21/2020
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Has the foldable phone revolution begun? That’s the multibillion-dollar question as tech titans including Microsoft and Samsung push high-priced folding handsets into a flagging market.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to decide whether foldable phones represent a lucrative opportunity … or a waste of precious resources.

Caveat emptor: The latest crop of foldable phones has done little to impact the cellphone market thus far. Devices such as Microsoft's Surface Duo and Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold2 represented just 0.14% of global cellphones shipments over the 12 months ending June 30, which totaled 1.28 billion units, according to The Wall Street Journal and market watcher Canalys.

But all that may be about to change.

Microsoft Duo: It’ll get better

With the new Surface Duo, Microsoft has made a laudable, even impressive, attempt at defining a brand-new hardware category. Once all the bugs are converted to features, and once Microsoft’s dual-screen web API goes mainstream, the Duo magic will finally happen.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Microsoft Surface Duo: too soon?

Exactly when that will be is anyone’s guess. Joanna Stern, a tech writer for The Wall Street Journal, says the current Surface Duo isn’t ready for prime time. In her recent review, Stern compared the Duo to a steak taken off the grill too soon.

That said, Stern did recognize its tremendous potential. “When it was working,” she wrote, “the Duo felt like the first real innovation in smartphone design I’ve seen in years.”

The Surface Duo sells for around $1,400, or nearly $500 more than Apple and Samsung’s flagship smartphones.

What does all that cash get you? Quite a lot. First, two 5.6-inch PixelSense AMOLED displays. In addition, the Surface Duo features a Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of DRAM, and up to 256GB of internal storage. Unfortunately, the specs do not include 5G compatibility.

Convenience is also on the Surface Duo’s menu. The universal hinge at its center means a user can literally bend the device to their will. Possible configurations include:

> Book Mode: Two screens forming a single widescreen display that measures 8.1 inches on the diagonal  

> Single-Screen Mode: One 5.6-inch screen folded behind the other

> Compose Mode: The device turned sideways, like a laptop

> Tent Mode: The device standing up in an A-frame shape for hands-free media watching

Samsung Galaxy Fold2: 3rd time’s a charm

Samsung already knows what Microsoft is just finding out: foldable phones bring growing pains.

Samsung’s Fold2 is misnamed, since this is actually the company’s third generation foldable device. Previous iterations displayed the same close-but-no-cigar vibe the Surface Duo gives off. But this time, Samsung seems to have gotten it right.

The design of Galaxy Z Fold2 5G is straight out of the Apple playbook. It’s sleek, minimalist and drool-worthy from every angle. And unlike Surface Duo, it feels compact despite its enormous 7.6-inch main screen.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2: cool tech, hot price

The cover screen, which measures 6.2 inches, provides instant app access without actually having to fold or unfold anything. This makes Fold2 feel like a “regular” smartphone instead of a small tablet.

The Samsung Fold2 also sports some impressive specs, including 512GB of storage, 128GB of RAM, and an eight-core processor. With hardware like that, who needs an ultra-book?

The notchless, 10-megapixel camera is another alluring feature. Its charm may be due in no small part to the software that controls the primary sensors. Features include an enhanced, multi-tasking camera app, 4K video recording at 60 fps, and a hands-free mode that automatically tracks a moving subject while the phone is sitting still. You know, a little something for TikTok crowd.

So what’s the catch? Well, that would be the price tag. Are you sitting down?

Yeah, this phone costs 2 grand.

The foldable future

To the average consumer beset by the uncertainties of a pandemic-ravaged economy, the four-figure price of a foldable phone could be a deal-breaker.

But the business community uses a different value calculus to justify the purchase of cool, new gear.

The channel partner in you may appreciate the absurd average sale price (ASP) of a foldable phone as its hidden opportunity. Is now the perfect time to fold foldable phones into your portfolio?  

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Help get kids back to school with cheap, convenient gear

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by Kevin Jacoby on 09/14/2020
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Schools may be buying up all the laptops, but tech providers can still offer cheap and convenient solutions for at-home learning.

Not since the flu epidemic of 1918 have we had to keep children away from school this long, with no end in sight. As of today, we don’t know when — or even if — schools will return to normal.

But we do know that virtual learning is more vital than ever. And the technology that powers it is in demand like never before. In fact, demand is outstripping supply as both schools and parents struggle to meet the novel demands of virtual classrooms.

“Schools around the world are already scrambling to procure notebooks for their students,” said IDC researcher Jitesh Ubrani. “The excessive demand, some short-term component shortages, and general uncertainty about the upcoming school year have led many schools to purchase as many units as they can.”

Windows 10 on a stick

One cheap and convenient solutions for at-home learning is the thumb-drive-sized Terryza Mini PC Stick. It starts at just under $100, and tops out around $175 when you add 8GB of memory and 120GB of storage.

This Mini PC plugs into the HDMI port of any compatible monitor or TV — no desktop required. The only things you’ll need to add are a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

Terryza Mini PC Stick

Terryza Mini PC Stick: Affordable, portable Win10

Once the device boots up, students will have access to a full version of Windows 10 Pro. That means they can run any Windows-compatible application or tool.

Sure, the Terryza Mini PC Stick offers less power than a conventional PC. But the Intel Atom processor with 2GB of DDR3L memory and 32GB flash storage stand up remarkably well to the rigors of digital learning.

Google in the classroom

Cheap Chromebooks are flying off the shelf as educators adopt Google Classroom en masse, so it may be hard to put your hands on an ASUS or Lenovo Chromebook. But Google’s own Pixelbook Go is available directly from Google, as well as from major retailers including Best Buy.

To be sure, the Pixelbook Go is more expensive than the competition. The basic version retails for around $650, or about $100 more than the ASUS Chromebook Flip. But the extra money pays for the Pixelbook Go’s sleek (13 mm) and light (2 lb.) magnesium body, an all-day battery, and one of the best keyboards around.

Google Pixelbook Go

Google Pixelbook Go: A sleek if pricey Chromebook

Under the basic system’s hood you’ll find an Intel Core m3 processor supported by 8GB of memory and a 64GB SSD. The display is a 13.3-inch touchscreen.

As the price goes up, so does the power. For just under $1,400, Google will install an Intel Core i7 quad-core processor and 16GB of DDR4 RAM. The top-of-the-line version also includes a 4K UHD screen bearing the company’s Molecular Display brand.

Apple’s stylish corps

Back in the day when Google was a mere search engine and Windows was strictly for business, Apple was elected class president in a landslide. Since then, the situation has changed. But you’ll still find a lot of educational value in Apple’s famed iPad.

In addition to being in good supply, the iPad also offers two things Windows and Chrome utterly lack: the cool factor and creative cred.

Apple iPad Air

Apple iPad Air: Earns an A for style

Young, aspiring musicians, designers and auteurs appreciate Apple’s attention to all things creative. The rest of the student body may be equally impressed with a thoughtful OS, access to the world’s most successful app store, and the inherent mobility offered by a slim slate.

Apple’s iPad Air starts at around $500 with an A12 Bionic 64-bit processor and 64GB of storage. The touchscreen measures 10.5 inches, and the whole thing weighs just a pound. To complete the setup, you can offer an optional keyboard and Apple Pencil stylus. Though not necessary, they make a nice set.

Bring on the learning curve

In the midst of a pandemic, “back to school” has taken on a whole new meaning. Children’s safety tops everyone’s priority list. Traditional classrooms are out. And virtual learning is in.

For students, parents and teachers, it’s a challenging time. But for tech providers, this could be a great opportunity to make a real difference in the education vertical.

Now’s the time to offer much-needed educational solutions to your customers. You may also win back some economic stability in the process, and pull out a win for 2020. Good luck!

 

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