Review: Amazon Echo Input is the easiest way to stream media to speakers

This is the Echo I’ve been waiting for.

Throughout my house, I have Amazon Echo Dots connected to stereo systems. In my office, I have a Dot connected to an Onkyo receiver and amp. In my basement, I have one hooked up to a small bookshelf system. Outside on the deck, a Dot serves audio to a small amp that powers outside speakers. There’s more, but the point is made. The Dot is a great device to add voice services to existing speakers. But with its built-in speaker, I’m paying for features I’m not using.

That’s why Amazon made the Echo Input.

The premise is simple: The Input is a Dot without a speaker. It has a mic, two buttons, and most importantly, a 3.5mm output. This output lets the Input serve media to amps and powered speakers — just like I’m doing so with a Dot.

Since the Input doesn’t have a speaker, it’s much smaller. It’s only a half an inch thick. It’s a tiny thing, and I found it does the job as well as a Dot

Plug it in, set it up, and the Input adds voice services to speaker systems. From Bluetooth speakers to bookshelf speakers, it’s a great way to bring the convenance of Alexa to speakers.

The device is basic. To be clear this is not a Hifi device. To me, that’s okay on most speaker systems since I’m just streaming Spotify and NPR. Hopefully Amazon makes good on producing the Input’s HI-Fi cousin, the $199 Echo Link. This device was announced a few months back and does the same job as the Input, but features TOSLINK and coaxial digital audio outputs for connections to a proper DAC. The $299 Echo Link Amp does the same but features a built in amplifier to directly power a set of speakers. The Input is great for smaller speaker, but the Echo Link should provide a higher fidelity experience — and now that Tidal is available on the Echo, there’s a proper source too.

The Echo Link is said to be released on December 13.

For $35 the Echo Link does its job well. However, during the holidays, the Echo Dot is only $29.99 or less and features the same 3.5mm output. Unless size is a concern, I would recommend buying the Dot while it’s on sale just in case you need the speaker at a later time.

Audi e-tron first drive: Quick, comfortable and familiar

Even after a few minutes behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget the Audi e-tron is electric. The SUV is not outrageous or radical, but rather pedestrian and effortless. Audi didn’t invent something new with the e-tron. The German car company stuck a competent electric powertrain in an SUV, and, in the process, created a fantastic vehicle that should resonate with shoppers.

The Audi e-tron is the new benchmark in electric cars. Some EVs are larger, faster and have a longer range, while some are smaller and more limited. The e-tron sits in the middle. Priced at $74,800, the e-tron is a great size, has a moderate range and features faster charging than a Tesla Model X, Jaguar I-Pace or Chevy Bolt.

I spent a day in an Audi e-tron and drove it hundreds of miles over Abu Dhabi’s perfect tarmac, around winding mountain roads and through sand-covered desert passes. The e-tron performs precisely how a buyer expects a mid-size Audi SUV to perform. On the road, the e-tron is eager and quiet, while off the road, over rocks and through deep sand, it was sturdy and surefooted.

Just like the 1980 Audi Quattro normalized all-wheel drive, it’s clear the German car company hopes the e-tron does the same to electric power.

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Driving the e-tron

The car zipped down an Abu Dhabi highway. On this quiet morning, the traffic was light. Abu Dhabi’s police recently installed speed cameras at regular intervals, so with the cruise set at 140kmh, and Masdar City fading in the background, the mountains on the Oman border grew larger. The drive was uneventful; it was a regular commute. The e-tron’s electric motors served up power in an effortless fashion.

This is likely how many Audi e-trons will spend their life. While the vehicle has capable off-road abilities, most will probably never hit anything more than a parking lot flowerbed. Like most SUVs, these electric vehicles will likely be used as people movers, ferrying people to and from work and school. In this task, it’s comfortable and familiar, but there’s so much more to Audi’s first EV.

Drop the e-tron’s pedal to the floor and the mid-size SUV jumps to life. The new Audi electric AWD system provides the traction needed to launch the vehicle forward. There are 400 horses available, and the torque is instantaneous and plentiful, even at highway speeds. Audi says the 0-60 time is 5.7 seconds — and that’s quick enough for most buyers.

The e-tron’s capability was put on display racing up a mountain road. The jaunt took about 20 minutes, but that was more than enough time for the e-tron to show off. As it whipped around narrow roads, the e-tron held tight to the pavement and handled the winding road with decisiveness. To be clear, the e-tron is not a Pike’s Peak racer. The body roll was on par with other SUVs; it wasn’t offensive, but noticeable. At speed, steering is tight but lacked informative feedback — a theme I discovered continued with the all-wheel drive system.

The e-tron is heavy. At 5,489 lbs it’s 661 lbs heavier than the smaller Jaguar I-Pace and has 68 lbs on the larger Tesla Model X 75D. This isn’t noticeable while driving, but is worth noting. The battery and electric motors are situated at the bottom of the vehicle, which likely contributes to the sturdy feeling.

Audi built a complex battery regeneration system into the e-tron, and it seems to work as advertised. At the start of my road trip in Abu Dhabi, the vehicle said it had an available range of more than 210 miles while driving with the AC blasting at full strength. During highway cruising, the range decreased precisely as advertised. During city driving, the regeneration mode recuperated more range than I expected, slightly extending the range. On the lively 20-minute decent around mountain roads, the system gained more than 10 percent of its range thanks to the system recovering power from the breaking and rolling resistance.

The U.S.’s EPA has yet to release official numbers for the e-tron, and I didn’t spend enough time with the vehicle to declare an average range. What’s clear, however, is the e-tron can easily surpass 200 miles on a charge, and under certain driving conditions can go much farther. And thanks to the fastest recharging system in its class, the e-tron batteries can be recharged quicker than others — 80 percent in 30 minutes.

The e-tron accepts a charge up to 150kw. This allows the batteries to be refilled to 80 percent in 30 minutes. But Audi doesn’t have a network of chargers like Tesla. Instead, the car company partnered with Electrify America and e-tron owners are granted 1,000 kWh of power.

Compared to competitors, the e-tron can recharge at a quicker rate than others. But only at specific chargers. Interestingly, the e-tron has recharge ports on both sides of the vehicle.

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The battery regeneration serves another purpose central to Audi’s brand: all-wheel drive. The sophisticated system that extends the range of the vehicle also assists the vehicle in providing the appropriate power to each wheel. Like traditional AWD platforms, this lets the vehicle remain surefooted across rain, snow and sand. And in the desert, there was plenty of sand to test the system.

I took the e-tron through sand drifts and over blind rocky dunes. The electric AWD system never disappointed. Compared to traditional AWD, this platform seemed to respond quicker in a much more subtle fashion. When climbing a dune where logic stated the tires were spinning, I couldn’t feel the tires spinning, yet the vehicle continued to climb. When racing over two-foot sand drifts covering gravel, the vehicle would drift in a squirrelly fashion, yet the tire spin wasn’t felt through the pedals. This disconnect is a side-effect of the move to electric and is something drivers will have to get used to.

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Creature comforts

The e-tron’s cabin is nicely adorned with familiar materials and Audi’s latest technology package. A large digital cluster sits in front of the driver while, two screens reside in the center stack and are used for the infotainment system and climate controls. This is the same system in the new Audi A6 and A7, and I find the layout much easier to use than the giant screens in Tesla and a growing number of other vehicles. Radio on the top, climate on the bottom. It’s a logical layout.

When needed, the bottom screen is used for character input, and there’s a wide wrist-rest placed below the screen to allow the user to steady their hand. This makes a difference. Instead of using a shaky hand hovering over a giant screen, users can rest their wrist on this pad and easily input an address.

There are odd concessions in this luxury SUV. The sun visors do not slide on their mounting pole to extend their reach, and this feature was noticeably missing during my drive through the desert. The steering column doesn’t have power adjustment. A sunroof isn’t an option. For a vehicle with a starting price of $74,800, these features are oddly absent.

I spent the day in a European variant of the e-tron, and it was equipped with digital side-mirrors. U.S. buyers will not get this option, and that’s fine with me. I never got used to them. Instead of employing a piece of glass for side mirrors, there are cameras mounted on small, futuristic-looking stalks. Inside the cabin, there are small LCD screens mounted under the window. This virtual mirror isn’t worth it. The screens are too small and have too low of a resolution. The driver cannot move their head to gain a new perspective like what’s possible with traditional mirrors. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my mirrors to be made out of mirrors.

This e-tron SUV is essentially the self-titled album for Audi’s line of electric vehicles. Audi’s roadmap is clear, and it’s full of future models with the e-tron nameplate.

Next year Audi plans to release two more EV vehicles: the e-tron Sportback, a sporty SUV, and e-tron GT, a sports sedan developed with the help of Porsche . Audi is teasing a smaller e-tron vehicle for 2020.

Audi is building the e-tron brand around key innovations in recharging the battery both through regeneration and direct charging. As of right now, this is where the e-tron stands apart from its peers. It had the most sophisticated regeneration system and the fastest charging time. As batteries improve, these two platforms are primed to take advantage of larger batteries.

Against the competitors

There are only a few EVs on the market making the competition clear for the Audi e-tron. The new Jaguar I-Pace is priced slightly under the e-tron and has a similar range, but is smaller and recharges slower. If buyers are willing to ditch the e-tron off-road chops and luxury badge of Audi, the Chevy Bolt offers similar cargo capacity, technology and range for much less. The Nissan Leaf is another good low-cost option for those looking for nothing but an electric people mover.

Tesla is Audi’s closest competitor in the space. The Tesla Model X offers a bigger SUV and a quicker 0-60 time, though a slower recharge time. The base Model X offers a similar range for $10,000 over the e-tron’s price, and for more money the Tesla can be configured for a longer range.

On a dragstrip, the $84,000 base Model X is much quicker than the Audi e-tron, and the $140,000 Model X variant is as nearly quick to 60 as the fastest Audi super sports car. That doesn’t mean the Tesla is better than the e-tron. During my day with the e-tron, either while passing vehicles or taking off from a stop light, I found the e-tron to have an abundant amount of acceleration — quick enough to thrill though not in a ludicrous, tire-shredding fashion.

The Tesla Model X offers something not found in the Audi e-tron: Recognition. A Model X looks like nothing else on the road, whereas the Audi e-tron looks like another crossover. Compare the two vehicles’ technology packages and Tesla’s self-driving Autopilot feature stands tall. The e-tron only has lane assist and adaptive cruise control, a far cry from Tesla’s system.

Questions about Tesla’s future persist and could be on the minds of savvy shoppers. Will the automaker be around to service its vehicles through their life? Will Tesla be able to scale its mobile repair crews to be able to match the number of vehicles it’s shipping. The upstart automaker lacks the massive dealer network of Audi and its parent, VW, which for all their faults, at least provide numerous location for owners to service their vehicles.

Audi isn’t trying to define the look of the vehicle by the powertrain. Onlookers would be hard-pressed to tell the e-tron is electric in the same fashion as is evident with a Tesla or Toyota Prius. It’s a different strategy than what’s employed by others, and Audi seems to be banking on it to increase adoption of its electric vehicles.

The verdict

The Audi e-tron is fantastic. For the foreseeable future, this is the electric vehicle that makes the most sense for most people. It’s not radical. The e-tron is familiar. The e-tron is plentiful and comfortable while the cabin is loaded with the standard electronic accoutrements buyers expect from the luxury brand.

The Audi e-tron makes electric cars attractive to more buyers by removing variables. It looks and feels like its gasoline counterparts. Inside and out, it’s normal. That’s the point, and it works.

Gift Guide: 16 fantastic computer bags

Give the gift of organization this year. Bags are often ignored but are a critical part of anyone’s mobile gear. They’re the outward representations of our techie styles, and we put far too little thought into where we keep our most prized possessions. Here’s a collection of bags TechCrunch reviewed over the last year. You’ll find waxed canvas bags, camera backpacks, trail-ready commuter bags and bags designed with women in mind.

 

WP Standard built the leather messenger bag you want

At $295 the bag is priced accordingly for the fantastic material and build. It’s a great bag to carry a few things and it will always be noticed. I have yet to see a bag as beautiful as the Vintage Leather Messenger Bag. If more space is needed, WP Standard now has a larger option that looks equally as good in the $310 Large Messenger Bag though I haven’t seen the bag in person yet.

Read the full review here.

Pad & Quill Heritage Satchel is a modern leather classic

This is a solid bag that I completely recommend. It’s a great size, able to hold most everything I threw at it while not being too big to carry even when lightly packed. After a few months with the bag, it’s aged nicely and is starting to feel like a well-worn pair of denim jeans. The leather is still delicious and seems durable enough to withstand a person’s daily grind.

Read the full review here.

The Bitcoin Genesis Block backpack will centralize your belongings

Unlike the blockchain, this backpack will centralize your stuff in a fairly large, fairly standard backpack. There is little unique about the backpack itself – it’s a solid piece made of 100% polyester and includes ergonomically designed straps and a secret pocket – but it is printed with the Bitcoin Genesis Block including a headline about UK bank bailouts. In short, it’s Merkle tree-riffic.

Read the full review here.

Chrome’s Vega Transit Brief makes your work vibe less uncool

The Vega isn’t Chrome’s most inspired design ever, but it isn’t supposed to be. If you want to show up to a meeting looking pro but still cool, like yeah you looked over the slides from the call but you drink shitty beer after work because you’re legit not because you can’t afford some triple-hopped bullshit, the Vega is probably for you. For anyone looking for a well-made bag that’s not too loud to carry to and from work meetings that happens to turn into a damn backpack, Chrome’s Vega Transit Brief is a great fit.

Read the full review here.

Chrome’s BLCKCHRM Bravo 2.0 backpack is a burly, stylish beast

It’s hard to overstate how good-looking this bag is. Like quality leather, the Hypalon breaks in with wear, picking up surface marks that fade into a kind of weathered patina over time. Between that material, the all-black mini Chrome buckle chest strap and central black leather panel, it’s a very sleek, sexy looking bag. Still, for anyone who digs the Bravo 2.0’s vibe but is wary of its heavy construction, the regular edition Bravo 2.0 might be a better choice. But if you like your packs fancy, serious and black on black on black, well, you know what to do.

Read the full review here.

Filson 24-Hour Tin Briefcase

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This bag has a large main compartment with a padded laptop area that will hold a 15-incher easily, and a couple of pockets on the inside to isolate toothbrushes and pens and the like. On the outside is a pair of good-sized zippered pockets that open wide to allow access from either the top or side; inside those are organizer strips and sub-pockets for pens and so on.

Read the full review here.

Croots England Vintage Canvas Laptop

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There isn’t a heck of a lot of room in there but this is definitely meant to be a daily driver briefcase and not an overnight bag — a “personal item” on the plane perhaps but I would take the Filson or ONA over it for space reasons. However as a bag to take to work the cafe, or the bookstore it’s a great option and a striking one. The Flight Bag is a slightly more expansive and unique option.

Read the full review here.

S-Zone $30 waxed canvas bag

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To balance out the admittedly very expensive bags in this review I decided to grab a cheap one off Amazon as well. As I expected, it isn’t up to the quality level of the others, but for $30 it’s a bargain. If you want to experience how waxed canvas evolves and wears, an inexpensive bag like this is a great way to try it out.

Read the full review here.

WP Standard’s Rucksack goes the distance

This bag assumes that you’re OK with thick, heavy leather and that you’re willing to forgo a lot of the bells and whistles you get with more modern styles. That said, it has a great classic look and it’s very usable. I suspect this bag would last decades longer than anything you could buy at Office Depot and it would look good doing it. At $275 it’s a bit steep but you’re paying for years – if not decades – of regular use and abuse. It’s worth the investment.

Read the full review here.

The Nomadic NF-02 keeps everything in its right place

Nomadic is a solid backpack. It’s small, light, and still holds up to abuse. I’m a big fan of the entire Nomadic line and it’s great to see this piece available in the US. It’s well worth a look if you’re looking for a compact carrier for your laptop, accessories, and notebooks.

Read the full review here.

Chrome’s Yalta 2.0 is a roomy rolltop that keeps up

Compared to some of Chrome’s more heavy-duty bags and other less-technical packs, the Yalta is a likable middle ground. The pack isn’t as rain resistant as a bag made out of fully waterproof material and the laptop sleeve could use some structure, but it carries a fair amount and it’s got a nice slender profile that looks and feels good. The Yalta doesn’t really have any quirks or tricks beyond the strange side-zip compartment, and that makes it a good fit for anyone who needs a good-looking, weather resistant mid-sized rolltop backpack for work and what comes before and after.

Read the full review here.

Mission Workshop’s Radian rolltop starts simple but grows piece by piece

In the end I think the Radian is the best option for anyone looking at Mission Workshop bags who wants a modular option, but unless you plan on swapping out pieces a lot, I’m not personally convinced that it’s better than their all-in-one bags like the Rambler and Vandal. By all means take a look at putting a Radian system together, but don’t neglect to check if any of the pre-built ones fit your needs as well.

Read the full review here.

Why I still love the Peak Design Everyday Backpack

Like I said several months ago, the bag is best described as smart and solid. It’s a confident design with just enough pockets and storage options. The bag features one, large pocket that makes up most of the bag. Foldable dividers allow the wearer to customize the bag as needed. And quickly, too. These dividers fold in several ways, allowing the bag to hold, say, a large telephoto lens or several smaller lens.

Read the full review here.

P.MAI’s women’s leather laptop bag is luxury packed with utility

By designing a bag for women that blends a luxury aesthetic with comfortable utility, the P.MAI bag quickly rose to the the “Most Wished for” laptop backpack on Amazon last holiday season. Premium materials and quality design don’t come cheap. Still, the $450 price-tag may keep this one on the wish-list for now.

Read the full review here.

Timbuk2’s Launch featherweight daypack is tough and tiny

If you’re a longtime Timbuk2 fan know that the pack both looks and feels different from most of Timbuk2’s classic designs, and unfortunately doesn’t come in the bright, playful tri-color look that some of its classic messengers do. Still, if you’re into more natural, subdued tones and really don’t want your day-to-day pack to weigh you down unnecessarily, Timbuk2’s Launch is totally worth a look.

Read the full review here.

Osprey Momentum 32 is ready for muddy trails

The Osprey Momentum 32 impresses. I used it during a muddy week at Beaumont Scout Reservation and it performed flawlessly as a rugged, bike-ready backpack. It stood tall in the miserable rain and insufferable heat that engulfed northern Ohio during the camping trip. If it can withstand these conditions, it can withstand an urban commute.

Read the full review here.

GoPro shares are tanking after disastrous Q3

GoPro stock is currently down 15% in after-hours trading and is falling after reporting its third quarter earnings. The company saw revenues dive 13%.3 percent.

Overall GoPro reported a net loss of $27.1 million, or 19 cents per share, in the quarter that ended on Sept. 30. Is compared with a profit of $14.7 million, or 10 cents per share, from the previous year. Likewise, GoPro saw revenue fell to $285.9 million from $329.8 million, down 13% year-over-year and up 1% sequentially.

Earlier in the day, the company’s stock was up 9.3% on the day. It was rebounding nicely after ending last week down but all the gains could be lost if it opens tomorrow at today’s after-hours level.

The third quarter noted some successes though. The new Hero7 Black saw the company’s best first-month sales of any unit today. Likewise, GoPro’s spherical camera, the Fusion, holds 47% dollar share of its niche market. The company’s products are gaining popularity in oversea markets, too. In Europe, Japan and Korea, the company increased its unit and dollar marketshare substantially. In the US, GoPro still holds a massive chunk of the dollar and unit share of, 96% and 87%, respectively.

The company is also still growing its social channels, reaching a 21-month high in September.

Developing…

Nomad releases a stunning wireless charging pad with Apple Watch dock

With Apple’s AirPower still missing in action, the Apple accessory ecosystem has been attempting to fill the need with similar products. Some of these third party products are better than others, and the new Base Station from Nomad looks to be the best of them all.

The Base Station does two things. One, it wireless charges up to three mobile devices. Two, it charges an Apple Watch through an integrated Apple MFi-certified Magnetic Apple Watch charger. More so, it looks great.

A padded leather surface covers three charging coils allowing the unit to recharge up to three devices — or one device laying horizontally across the pad. Each of the coils are Qi-certified and output at 7.5W. As for the Apple Watch, it can only be recharged using the included magnetic charger unless Apple activates Qi-compatibility through a software update.

The Nomad Base Station is available now for $120. Don’t have an Apple Watch? The same charging base is available for $20 less and still supports up to three devices.

The 7 great features that will hopefully return to the MacBook Pro

I miss the old MacBook Pro. Remember when the MacBook Pro had a good keyboard? Or an SD Card slot? Or an escape key? I miss the time when the MacBook Pro was 2mm thicker than the current version but had a full-size USB port.

Remember the wonder of MagSafe? Or the glory that was using a MacBook Pro outside because of the matte screen?

Remember when the power adapter for Apple’s laptops had little fold-out tabs to hold the cord? There was also a time that a random brush of the keyboard wouldn’t trigger Siri.

There was a time when Apple made great laptops and there is now.

Yesterday Apple announced an upcoming event where the company will likely release new laptops and iPads. These are some of the features TechCrunch writers hope return to Apple’s notebook computers.

Escape Key

The Touch Bar is clever. I like it most of the time. But I like the escape key more. Right now, on Macs equipped with the TouchBar, the escape key is a temporary button on the TouchBar. It’s positioned off-center, too, which forces users to relearn its location.

It’s silly. The escape key has been with PCs for generations and is critical across applications and use cases. Everyone from causal gamers to coders use the escape key on a regular basis.

Keep the TouchBar, but make it a bit smaller and position it between an escape key and a real power button. Just give me my escape key back. And make Siri optional. I’ve had a TouchBar-equipped MacBook Pro for nearly two years and have yet to find a reason to use Siri.

USB Ports

I’m over living the dongle life. From everything from charging a phone to connecting a camera, standard USB ports need to return to the MacBook Pro. Since we’re dreaming here, I would love to have one per side. The PC industry has been slow to jump on USB-C. Even Apple hasn’t gone all-in and that’s the issue here.

Think about it: If a person buys a MacBook Pro and iPhone, that person cannot connect their iPhone to their new MacBook Pro without buying an adapter or cable. Same goes for an iPad. If a person wants to buy a new iPad and new MacBook Pro, the two products cannot connect out of the box.

Apple launched the USB-C equipped MacBook Pro in 2016. It’s 2018. For a company that understands ecosystems, Apple has done a poor job ensuring all of its products are compatible out of the box. The first USB-C Apple Watch cable was released today.

SD Card Slot

The MacBook Pro is billed as a laptop for the mobile professional yet it doesn’t allow some mobile professionals to connect their gear without adapters.

The SD Card is the overwhelming standard of photographers and videographers — a key audience for the MacBook Pro — and yet these folks now have to use adapters to connect their gear. Until the latest MacBook Pro redesign, there was a built-in SD Card reader, and Apple should (but won’t) build one into the next version.

External battery level indicator

A few generations ago, the MacBook and MacBook Pro had tiny button on the side that, when pressed, illuminated little lights to give the user an approximation of the remaining battery life. It was lovely.

You know the drill: You’re running out the door and need to know if you should bring your large power adapter. You don’t need to know exactly how much time until your laptop dies. You need an idea. And that’s what these lights provided. With just a press of a button, the user would know if the laptop would last 20 minutes or 2 hours.

Clever Power Adapter

For generations, Apple laptop chargers had little tabs that folded out and gave the owner a place to wrap the cable. It’s a simple and effective design. Steve Jobs is even listed on the 2001 patent. Those tabs disappeared when Apple went USB-C in 2016.

The latest charger is the same shape as the previous version but lacks the tabs, forcing owners to store the USB-C cable apart from the charging block. It’s a little thing but little things was what made Apple products delightful.

MagSafe

The elimination of MagSafe is nearly too painful to talk about. It was magical. Now it’s dead.

Here’s how it worked: The power cable was magnetic. Instead of sticking into the laptop, it connected to the side of it. If someone tripped over the cable, the cable would harmlessly disconnect from the laptop.

When Apple first launched MagSafe, the company loudly proclaimed they did so because customers kept breaking the connectors that plugged into the laptop. You know, like what’s in the current MacBook.

A good keyboard

I could forego all of the above if Apple could fix the keyboard in the latest MacBook Pro. It’s terrible.

Our Natasha Lomas said it best in her excellent piece called “An ode to Apple’s awful MacBook keyboard,”

The redesigned mechanism has resulted in keys that not only feel different when pressed vs the prior MacBook keyboard — which was more spongy for sure but that meant keys were at reduced risk of generating accidental strikes vs their barely there trigger-sensitive replacements (which feel like they have a 40% smaller margin for keystrike error) — but have also turned out to be fail prone, as particles of dust can find their way in between the keys, as dust is wont to do, and mess with the smooth functioning of key presses — requiring an official Apple repair.

Yes, just a bit of dust! Move over ‘the princess and the pea’: Apple and the dust mote is here! ‘Just use it in a vacuum’ shouldn’t be an acceptable usability requirement for a very expensive laptop.

Seriously. The keyboard is the worst part of the latest generation of the MacBook.

Alternatives

For the first time in 15 years I’m considering switching back to a Windows laptop. Microsoft’s Surface Book is not without flaws, but it’s a solid machine in my limited experience. I would be willing to try the less-powerful Surface Laptop 2, too. They’re just missing one thing: iMessage.

Review: The tiny $149 Echo Sub is a huge audio upgrade

Want to make your music more interesting? Add a subwoofer. That’s what Amazon did and, suddenly, the entire Echo smart speaker lineup is more interesting. If you were not impressed with the sound of an Echo, consider trying again when the Echo is paired with an Echo Sub. The subwoofer changes the game.

The Echo Sub is a small, round sub covered in the same fabric as the Echo speakers. Currently it’s only available in dark gray. It’s designed to be sat on the floor or a sturdy desk and serve up the low notes the Echo speakers are unable to reproduce. The Echo Sub does its job. When paired with an Echo speaker, the audio is more full and enjoyable, well-balanced and healthy. The Echo Sub is a must-have for Echo owners.

Review

Amazon provided TechCrunch with a pair of $99 Echo speakers and the $129 Echo Sub. This kit is available for $300, but Amazon also sells the Echo Sub bundle with two Echo Plus devices for $329 — that’s the bundle to get since the Plus models have larger speaker drivers. I suspect the difference will be worth the additional $30.

Setting up the system takes about 25 minutes. Each speaker is individually added to the Alexa smartphone app. Once all three speakers are installed, they have to be bundled in a virtual group. The app’s prompts make it easy, but I found the process buggy. When trying to combine the speakers into a group, the app would sometimes fail to locate one of the speakers. Other times, the two speakers were found, but the sub was not. Eventually, I got it configured and ended up with two Echo speakers running in stereo and a subwoofer handling the low-end sounds.

The difference an additional speaker and subwoofer makes is lovely. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Stereo is how music was supposed to be enjoyed.

Years ago the Jambox and its countless Bluetooth speaker clones convinced a generation that one speaker is all that’s needed for music. That’s a lie. One speaker gets the job done, but two, running in stereo will always be better. And in this case, with the addition of a subwoofer, it’s much, much better.

Des Rocs’ Let me Live takes full advantage of the newfound soundstage. The left and right speakers explode with activity, creating an immersive listening experience that’s not possible with any single speaker from an Amazon Echo to Apple HomePod. The stereo arrangement lets the music breath.

AKA George’s Stone Cold Classic comes alive with this setup. The Echo Sub provides dramatically more depth to the track while the stereo Echos offer a full experience. Need more proof? Turn to Van Halen’s Panama. A single speaker cannot give the same experience; the channels get muddled and mixed. But when played in true stereo with the backup of a woofer, the David Lee Roth comes alive.

I’m impressed with the sound quality of this $300 bundle. A lot of the heavy lifting is offloaded to the Echo Sub, allowing the Echo speakers to handle the mids and highs, which are clear and precise for the price point. At $300, it’s hard to find a better audio system than two Echo speakers and the Echo Sub. And the Echo’s smart features sweeten the deal.

Amazon provided two $99 Echo speakers, and they do the job. The Echo Sub can also be paired with two $149 Echo Plus speaker, which feature more significant drivers; I suspect using two of these speakers would result in even better sound and when purchased as part of a bundle, they’re only a few dollars more.

The Echo Sub works well in most situations. Compared to other subwoofers, it’s on the smaller side of the scale. It provides much-needed bass, but the woofer cannot shake walls. It does not pound, per se. It’s a great match for hard rock or pounding pop; it’s not for trunk-rattling rap. Think Arctics Monkeys instead of Post Malone.

The Alexa app allows users to adjust the amount of bass, mid and treble the subwoofer produces. I found the adjustments to be minor and unable to change the sound profile of the woofer drastically. Overall, the Echo Sub is an elegant, little sub that works well in conjunction with a pair of Echo speakers.

The Echo Sub can work with just one Echo speaker, too. Own just Echo smart speaker? Add an Echo Sub for an astounding upgrade in sound quality.

Amazon is not the only company pairing smart speakers for a new age of stereo sound. Sonos has long allowed owners to wirelessly connect speakers to create stereo and surround sound setups. Two Google Home Max can be paired to create a lovely stereo set. The same goes for Apple HomePods: Two $350 HomePods can be wirelessly tied together for a stereo kit. Each of the setups mentioned above provides great audio quality, but they’re more expensive than Amazon’s solution. Only Sonos sells a dedicated subwoofer, though.

Amazon, with the addition of the Echo Sub, now offers a great audio experience for much less than that of its closest competitors. The $129 Echo Sub is compact and capable and the best way to instantly upgrade an Echo smart speaker setup. If possible, add a second an Echo speaker to create a virtual set of stereo speakers.

The Echo Sub is an easy recommendation for homes where an Echo speaker is dedicated to music. If forced to pick between adding a second Echo or adding an Echo Sub, go for the subwoofer first.

Here are the companies that pitched in Startup Battlefield MENA

Today in lovely Beirut, Lebanon TechCrunch held its first Startup Battlefield in the country. Over 700 people watched the show on site, which featured speakers from throughout the Middle East and 15 startups competing in Startup Battlefield.

A winner will be chosen at the end of the day and they will walk away with a $25,000 prize. As of this post’s publication, a winner has not been picked.

What follows, is each company’s Startup Battlefield pitch in the order that they appeared on stage.

[Please note: Videos will be added to this list as they become available]

Startup Battlefield Competition – Flight #1

BuildInk

Real estate construction firms nowadays are struggling to keep up with the fast-moving pace of technological advancements in order to fulfill the market constantly changing demands. Buildink is offering a revolutionary solution for construction firms, via a scalable and mobile friendly Cable Robot Concrete 3D printer and Signature Concrete Mixture. Concrete 3D printing will not only open the space for unlimited architectural designs, it will also reduce the overall construction cost.

Harmonica

Harmonics is the leading marriage making app in MENA that not only match singles but also help them build healthy relationships. Launched in Cairo with a unique matching algorithm of one match at a time, powered by a strong team of phycologists, managed to reach a 100,000 user base in only few months.

Material Solved

MaterialSolved is a data visualization software for chemical/nano compounds. MaterialSolved helps scientists and scientific illustrators create complex scientific 3D models, static illustrations, and animations in an efficient way. Unlike general purpose graphics and visualization software, we use a new model that merges several algorithms to achieve significant time and cost reduction and make many visual representations possible.

MoneyFellows

MoneyFellows enables access to interest free credit and helps savers to easily reach their saving goals. We do this by digitizing the traditional ROSCA model (Rotating Savings and Credit Association).
How it works:
1- Group of people joins together to contribute a fixed monthly installment into a common pot.
2- Every month one of the users takes the whole pot as a payout.
3- Circle ends when all circle participants gets his/her payout once.
4- Circle is then usually repeated with the same group of people over again.”

Neotic AI

Neotic.ai created auto-traders for financial markets, giving the opportunity for everyone to use advanced technology to get higher returns on their savings. In other words, Neotic users can find ready to use, plug and play, live tested, AI powered trading strategies and deploy them directly on the broker account without writing any single line of code.

Startup Battlefield Competition – Flight #2

Naturansa

Naturansa produces high-quality protein from edible insect grown through pre-consumer food waste decomposition. We have built scalable technology that produces insect year-round which then get converted into a protein powder. We currently use our product in pet food market, but our target is to move into human consumption and solve major environmental problems that are present in current protein production.

IT Grapes

IT Grapes is a precision farming platform composed by an internally developed hardware for smart monitoring of environmental data and control of in-field equipment, combined with an online hub that gives access to federated data for selected actors of the agricultural sector in order to help farmers, taking the right decisions and improve the decentralized intelligence included in the in-field devices.

IN2

IN2 is a sports and activities platform that aims to streamline the activity organization process. Whether it’s fitness, sports, music, or other activities, IN2 makes planning and participating in activities a much more enjoyable experience. It does that by empowering businesses & organizers with management tools and connecting them to the relevant stakeholders

Seez

Seez is a mobile app that reduces the time people spend searching for a car from 17 hours down to a few seconds. By fully automating your search, seez uses its AI chatbot, Cesar, to scan all sites, identify the seller, and even negotiate the price down for you. This way you will see all cars for sale in your country and the final price of each car.

Autotell

AUTOTELL is revamping driving experience, Our aim is to give you the right advice at the right moment, helping you reduce consumption, get the maximum return out of your car by providing you with the remote monitoring, detecting faults on road, have an access to an automotive Eco-system and getting instant advice whenever needed through AI personal assistant 24/7.

How the Audi e-tron compares to the Tesla Model X and Jaguar I-Pace

Audi just announced its first production electric vehicle. Called the e-tron, the EV is a mid-size SUV loaded with technology with an unofficial range of over 300 miles. It’s nicely equipped, and with a starting price of $74,800, it sits between the Jaguar I-Pace and the Tesla Model X.

The e-tron is most similar to the Jaguar I-Pace though the Audi is slightly better equipped. The e-tron packs a 95 kWh battery over the Jaguar’s 90 kWh battery. It’s also slightly larger and rated to tow 4,000 lbs.

Comparing the e-tron to the Model X gets messy. Tesla sells the Model X in three flavors: mild, hot, and on fire. The mild version starts at $72,100 and packs a 75 kWh battery good for 237 miles. Spend $88,600 to get the 100D and its 100 kWh battery that’s rated for 295 miles. And for $125,800, buyers can get the P100D that’s good for 298 miles and a 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds.

Autonomous driving modes are available for purchase on each version of the Model X. Audi and Jaguar do not offer autonomous driving on the e-tron or I-Pace.

Spec for spec, the e-tron, I-Pace and Model X offer advantages over each other. Here are the most important technical specifications for each vehicle along with the Toyota RAV4, the top selling SUV in the United States.

Here’s how I see each vehicle’s advantage:

Audi e-tron

  • Best price-to-battery ratio: Buyers get a 95 kWh battery on the base model. For the money, the Audi is the best value when it comes to the range it can travel.
  • Competent controls: Audi installed the same dual-touchscreen system found in its high-end A8 luxury sedan. The top screen handles infotainment while the bottom screen handles climate control and text input. Both screens offer tactile and audio response when touched.
  • It looks and feels like an Audi: The e-tron does not stand out, which could be a good thing for some buyers. It looks and feels like an Audi SUV.
  • Audi is not releasing the range yet: The EPA must certify the e-tron before Audi can advertise the range of the e-tron. Without those numbers, it’s hard to place where the e-tron sits in the landscape. But today at the e-tron launch event, the company hinted at a range that’s superior to that of the Tesla Model X.

Jaguar I-Pace

  • Early reviews of the I-Pace praise the driving: The I-Pace is a crossover and it drives like one. It’s sporty and confident and it has the lowest stance of the three EVs listed here.
  • The I-Pace is a Jag: The I-Pace has the quickest time to 60 mph out of the bunch and is capable of hitting the mark in 4.5 seconds. That’s the same as a 2016 Audi TTS Coupe. However, the more expensive Tesla P100D is much, much quicker with a 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds.
  • Well equipped yet the cheapest: Starting at $69,500, the I-Pace is the least expensive of the bunch. And at that price, it’s well equipped

Tesla Model X P75

  • It’s a Tesla: The Model X looks like nothing else on the road inside and out. To some, it’s a big draw while others shy away from the attention-getting design.
  • The Model X is deceptively large: The Model X comes with five seats, but two jump seats can be added to the rear area. With all the seats down, the Model X has an available storage volume of 88 cubic feet — that’s just 6 cubic feet smaller than a Chevy Tahoe.
  • The Model X can drive itself: The Model X can be equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s self-driving system that can pilot the SUV on its own.
  • More options: The Model X P100 offers more range and the Model X P100D offers more range and insane performance.

The e-tron hits the US market in the middle of 2019, and by then, there will be additional competitors to compare.

Detroit’s StockX raises $44M from GV and Battery to expand marketplace internationally

StockX started as a marketplace for reselling sneakers but has since grown to be much more, bringing its transparent and anonymous marketplace to more verticals. Today the company is announcing a $44 million Series B that will help fuel international and domestic growth while letting the company expand to even more product categories and perhaps opening StockX stores.

The idea driving StockX is simple: Provide a marketplace with fair pricing and ensure the merchandise is authentic. The result scales to nearly day-trading in consumer goods in the same vein as oil futures. In some cases, the seller never touches the product. Sneakers and other in-demand products are priced and sold at rates set by the market rather than the seller. If a particular sneaker is in demand, the price increases.

StockX is among the fastest growing startups in Detroit and Michigan and currently employs 300 in Detroit and 50 in Tempe, Arizona. Founded in 2016 by CEO Josh Luber, COO Greg Schwartz and Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quick Loans, the company has scaled to see more than $2 million in daily transactions and 800,000 users have sold or purchased items on StockX. Today, at an event in Detroit, Luber told the audience that the company is approaching a billion dollar run-rate.

The company has never been capital contrasted and CEO and co-founder Josh Luber told TechCrunch that the company never thought they would have to turn to institutional financing. That’s the comfort of having a billionaire like Gilbert as a co-founder; Luber said Gilbert was always happy to fund StockX.

“We didn’t need money,” Luber told TechCrunch the day before this announcement, adding. “It was really about having external people that that we thought added truly different values than we had around the table.”

Right now the company’s main marketplace centers around sneakers but StockX is built around a platform that works for most ecommerce. It’s a $5 billion market worldwide. Last year the company also launched marketplaces for streetwear, handbags and watches — all verticals with a strong demand in the secondary market.

Scaling the service requires more bodies. Since everything sold on StockX is authenticated — in person — it takes more hands to authenticate more items. With that comes more customer service employees and as the company grows, StockX will need more engineers.

The company is already growing fast but Luber seems ready to double down. In March StockX had 130 people. Today, it’s at 415. He thinks. He confesses it could be a slightly more.

“We have about 50 engineers today and I would quadruple that tomorrow if I could,” he said. “We have about 50 customer service people today. I think it would be safe to double that tomorrow just because the business is growing so fast and we obviously hope it continues to grow as we scale.”

If StockX is going to scale, it needs more employees to ensure the company’s core ethos does not soften. The new round of funding will go far in bringing in the people Luber is seeking including additional members of the C-suite. StockX is running without a CTO, CMO, or CFO — pretty much the entire leadership suite, Luber admits.

It seems this is part of the reasoning behind the funding. The company was not seeking funding but, as Luber tells it, as the company gained attention, investors increasing reached out requesting meetings. Of the meetings they took, there were two firms that meshed with Luber’s vision of growing a marketplace.

The new round of funding comes from GV and Battery Ventures including several high-profile investors including DJ Steve Aoki; model and entrepreneur, Karlie Kloss; streetwear designer Don C; Salesforce founder chairman and co-CEO, Marc Benioff; Bob Mylod, founder and managing partner of Annox Capital; Shana Fisher, managing partner at Third Kind Venture Capital; and Jonathon Triest, managing partner of Ludlow Ventures — only Mylod and Triest are based in the Detroit area.

StockX says it intends to use the funding to expand internationally. Right now StockX only advertises in the US and only supports purchases in U.S. dollars. Going forward it intends to open up local versions of StockX to better support key markets with support for local currency, language and marketing. The company could also open location operations to make shipping and receiving easier and faster.

“In some of these countries, we have, a pretty decent customer base where people are tendered on a VPN,” Luber said. “There are pictures of people that walk around China with a StockX tag hanging off their shoe.”

Fifteen percent of StockX sales currently come from international buyers.

Of the four product categories StockX current sells, sneakers and streetwear make up the bulk of the sales. Before expanding to different verticals, Luber tells me there’s a lot of room for growth in each of the current categories but expanding means more employees.

For instance, each streetwear brand is essentially a sub-vertical, he says, adding that if the company launches a new brand StockX has to assemble a staff around it with brand expertise to build the catalog and product authentication process.

StockX is not ready to announce what other type of products it might sell. Street art seems like one they’re exploring.

Despite the growth, Luber remains committed to Detroit. He said the company will always be headquartered in Detroit and was proud to point to the fact that StockX was the second largest tenant in Dan Gilbert’s marquee Detroit building, One Campus Martius. The company also operates a 30,000 square foot facility in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

StockX could come to other cities though, Luber says. The company is talking about what a StockX “in-real-life” experience would look like: It could be retail, a brand experience, accepting products to be sold or additional operation centers. The company is exploring all the obvious candidates including LA, NYC, San Francisco and Portland.