The Samsung Galaxy Fold is headed to Canada, with in-store pre-orders starting today

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is a very unique smartphone, in more ways than one. The most obvious differentiator is that it folds out to expose a large, continuous 7.3″ display, hiding the seam thanks to a flexible OLED screen. It’s also at the very top end of the smartphone market price-wise, which could explain why it only debuted in a few limited markets at launch. Samsung says that customer interest has helped expand that initial pool of availability, however, which is why it’s launching pre-orders in Canada today.

There’s going to be some sticker shock for Canadians, however: The Fold starts at $2,599.99 CAD in its newest market. That’s the price you’d pay for a well-specced computer, but it’s actually right in line with the price of the phone in the U.S. when you account for currency conversion. Pre-orders are also going to be exclusively in-store, at Samsung’s Eaton Center, Sherway Gardens and Yorkdale locations, all of which are in Toronto. Retail sales, also exclusive to Samsung’s own retail operations, are starting December 6 but pre-order customers will be able to ensure a day one pickup.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold has had a bit of an uneven launch, with a first attempt cancelled in light of multiple reviewers experiencing issues with their devices. Samsung re-designed elements of the phone as a result, including adding caps to prevent dust entering the crucial hinge component that powers the folding actions, and embedding a necessary pre-installed protective screen covering under the phone’s bezels. Still, our own Brian Heater experienced a display hardware issue within a day with his redesigned review device.

Samsung is offering free “Fold Premiere Service” which includes discounted screen replacements and standard free repairs when an issue is not due to any misuse on a user’s part. Overall, the takeaway should be that this is a first-generation device, but also a totally unique piece of technology in today’s marketplace for those willing to risk it.

Another US court says police cannot force suspects to turn over their passwords

The highest court in Pennsylvania has ruled that the state’s law enforcement cannot force suspects to turn over their passwords that would unlock their devices.

The state’s Supreme Court said compelling a password from a suspect is a violation of the Fifth Amendment, a constitutional protection that protects suspects from self-incrimination.

It’s not an surprising ruling, given other state and federal courts have almost always come to the same conclusion. The Fifth Amendment grants anyone in the U.S. the right to remain silent, which includes the right to not turn over information that could incriminate them in a crime. These days, those protections extend to the passcodes that only a device owner knows.

But the ruling is not expected to affect the ability by police to force suspects to use their biometrics — like their face or fingerprints — to unlock their phone or computer.

Because your passcode is stored in your head and your biometrics are not, prosecutors have long argued that police can compel a suspect into unlocking a device with their biometrics, which they say are not constitutionally protected. The court also did not address biometrics. In a footnote of the ruling, the court said it “need not address” the issue, blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for creating “the dichotomy between physical and mental communication.”

Peter Goldberger, president of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who presented the arguments before the court, said it was “fundamental” that suspects have the right to “to avoid self-incrimination.”

Despite the spate of rulings in recent years, law enforcement have still tried to find their way around compelling passwords from suspects. The now-infamous Apple-FBI case saw the federal agency try to force the tech giant to rewrite its iPhone software in an effort to beat the password on the handset of the terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife killed 14 people in his San Bernardino workplace in 2015. Apple said the FBI’s use of the 200-year-old All Writs Act would be “unduly burdensome” by putting potentially every other iPhone at risk if the rewritten software leaked or was stolen.

The FBI eventually dropped the case without Apple’s help after the agency paid hackers to break into the phone.

Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, said the Pennsylvania case ruling sends a message to other courts to follow in its footsteps.

“The court rightly rejects the government’s effort to create a giant, digital-age loophole undermining our time-tested Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination,” he said. “The government has never been permitted to force a person to assist in their own prosecution, and the courts should not start permitting it to do so now simply because encrypted passwords have replaced the combination lock.”

“We applaud the court’s decision and look forward to more courts to follow in the many pending cases to be decided next,” he added.

Elon Musk promises to take Tesla Model S to ‘Plaid’ with new powertrain

Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised a more powerful powertrain option in future Model S, Model X and the next-generation Roadster sports car that will push acceleration and speed beyond the current high bar known as Ludicrous mode.

Musk tweeted Wednesday evening “the only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid,” a teaser to a higher performing vehicle and a nod to the movie Spaceballs.

 

These new higher performing versions of the Model S, Model X, and Roadster will contain what Musk describes as a Plaid powertrain and is still about a year away from production. This new powertrain will have three motors, one more than the dual motor system found in today’s Model S and X.

This Plaid powertrain has already seen some action. Tesla revealed Wednesday that a Model S equipped with a Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype had lapped Laguna Seca racetrack in 1:36:555, a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan.

 

The “Plaid” powertrain will not be offered in the lower cost Model 3 or Model Y, which isn’t expected to go into production until late 2020. Musk also promised that this plaid powertrain will cost more than “current offerings, but will be less than competitors” without explaining what that means.

Cclose followers of the automaker might recall hints of a three motor powertrain in the past.

When Tesla unveiled a new Roadster prototype in November 2017, Musk said it would have three motors and be able to travel a whopping 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph or even more. The Roadster isn’t expected to go into production until 2020.

What is new are Tesla’s plans to make this more powerful three-motor powertrain available in the Model S and Model X. And it stands to be an important option, if it does in fact materialize. The Model S has been around since 2012 and since the introduction the cheaper Model 3, sales have dipped.

And yet, Musk has said the X and S won’t be getting a major refresh. If Tesla hopes to maintain demand for either of its higher margin luxury vehicles, new trims like this plaid powertrain will be essential.

Tesla first announced Ludicrous mode in its Model S vehicles way back in July 2015. As shareholders and customers awaited the Model X to arrive, Musk unveiled several options for the company’s Model S sedan, including a lower priced version, longer battery range and “Ludicrous mode” for even faster acceleration.

Ludicrous mode, which improved acceleration by 10% to let drivers go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, came about as a result of an improved battery fuse. This new fuse, Musk explained in a blog post at the time, has its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery that monitors current and protects against excessive current.

Tesla also upgraded the main pack contactor with a high-temperature space-grade superalloy instead of steel. This enabled the battery pack to remain “springy” under the heat of heavy current. In the end, the max pack output increased from 1300 to 1500 Amps.

Ludicrous was a $10,000 add on for new buyers. Tesla did reduce the price for existing Model S P85 owners for the first six months following the announcement and sold them the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode for $5,000.

Musk joked in this 2015 blog post that there is “one speed faster than ludicrous, but that is reserved for the next generation Roadster in 4 years: maximum plaid.”

Elon Musk promises to take Tesla Model S to ‘Plaid’ with new powertrain

Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised a more powerful powertrain option in future Model S, Model X and the next-generation Roadster sports car that will push acceleration and speed beyond the current high bar known as Ludicrous mode.

Musk tweeted Wednesday evening “the only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid,” a teaser to a higher performing vehicle and a nod to the movie Spaceballs.

 

These new higher performing versions of the Model S, Model X, and Roadster will contain what Musk describes as a Plaid powertrain and is still about a year away from production. This new powertrain will have three motors, one more than the dual motor system found in today’s Model S and X.

This Plaid powertrain has already seen some action. Tesla revealed Wednesday that a Model S equipped with a Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype had lapped Laguna Seca racetrack in 1:36:555, a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan.

 

The “Plaid” powertrain will not be offered in the lower cost Model 3 or Model Y, which isn’t expected to go into production until late 2020. Musk also promised that this plaid powertrain will cost more than “current offerings, but will be less than competitors” without explaining what that means.

Cclose followers of the automaker might recall hints of a three motor powertrain in the past.

When Tesla unveiled a new Roadster prototype in November 2017, Musk said it would have three motors and be able to travel a whopping 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph or even more. The Roadster isn’t expected to go into production until 2020.

What is new are Tesla’s plans to make this more powerful three-motor powertrain available in the Model S and Model X. And it stands to be an important option, if it does in fact materialize. The Model S has been around since 2012 and since the introduction the cheaper Model 3, sales have dipped.

And yet, Musk has said the X and S won’t be getting a major refresh. If Tesla hopes to maintain demand for either of its higher margin luxury vehicles, new trims like this plaid powertrain will be essential.

Tesla first announced Ludicrous mode in its Model S vehicles way back in July 2015. As shareholders and customers awaited the Model X to arrive, Musk unveiled several options for the company’s Model S sedan, including a lower priced version, longer battery range and “Ludicrous mode” for even faster acceleration.

Ludicrous mode, which improved acceleration by 10% to let drivers go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, came about as a result of an improved battery fuse. This new fuse, Musk explained in a blog post at the time, has its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery that monitors current and protects against excessive current.

Tesla also upgraded the main pack contactor with a high-temperature space-grade superalloy instead of steel. This enabled the battery pack to remain “springy” under the heat of heavy current. In the end, the max pack output increased from 1300 to 1500 Amps.

Ludicrous was a $10,000 add on for new buyers. Tesla did reduce the price for existing Model S P85 owners for the first six months following the announcement and sold them the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode for $5,000.

Musk joked in this 2015 blog post that there is “one speed faster than ludicrous, but that is reserved for the next generation Roadster in 4 years: maximum plaid.”

Elon Musk promises to take Tesla Model S to ‘Plaid’ with new powertrain

Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised a more powerful powertrain option in future Model S, Model X and the next-generation Roadster sports car that will push acceleration and speed beyond the current high bar known as Ludicrous mode.

Musk tweeted Wednesday evening “the only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid,” a teaser to a higher performing vehicle and a nod to the movie Spaceballs.

 

These new higher performing versions of the Model S, Model X, and Roadster will contain what Musk describes as a Plaid powertrain and is still about a year away from production. This new powertrain will have three motors, one more than the dual motor system found in today’s Model S and X.

This Plaid powertrain has already seen some action. Tesla revealed Wednesday that a Model S equipped with a Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype had lapped Laguna Seca racetrack in 1:36:555, a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan.

 

The “Plaid” powertrain will not be offered in the lower cost Model 3 or Model Y, which isn’t expected to go into production until late 2020. Musk also promised that this plaid powertrain will cost more than “current offerings, but will be less than competitors” without explaining what that means.

Cclose followers of the automaker might recall hints of a three motor powertrain in the past.

When Tesla unveiled a new Roadster prototype in November 2017, Musk said it would have three motors and be able to travel a whopping 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph or even more. The Roadster isn’t expected to go into production until 2020.

What is new are Tesla’s plans to make this more powerful three-motor powertrain available in the Model S and Model X. And it stands to be an important option, if it does in fact materialize. The Model S has been around since 2012 and since the introduction the cheaper Model 3, sales have dipped.

And yet, Musk has said the X and S won’t be getting a major refresh. If Tesla hopes to maintain demand for either of its higher margin luxury vehicles, new trims like this plaid powertrain will be essential.

Tesla first announced Ludicrous mode in its Model S vehicles way back in July 2015. As shareholders and customers awaited the Model X to arrive, Musk unveiled several options for the company’s Model S sedan, including a lower priced version, longer battery range and “Ludicrous mode” for even faster acceleration.

Ludicrous mode, which improved acceleration by 10% to let drivers go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, came about as a result of an improved battery fuse. This new fuse, Musk explained in a blog post at the time, has its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery that monitors current and protects against excessive current.

Tesla also upgraded the main pack contactor with a high-temperature space-grade superalloy instead of steel. This enabled the battery pack to remain “springy” under the heat of heavy current. In the end, the max pack output increased from 1300 to 1500 Amps.

Ludicrous was a $10,000 add on for new buyers. Tesla did reduce the price for existing Model S P85 owners for the first six months following the announcement and sold them the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode for $5,000.

Musk joked in this 2015 blog post that there is “one speed faster than ludicrous, but that is reserved for the next generation Roadster in 4 years: maximum plaid.”

Fairphone 3 is a normal smartphone with ethical shine

How long have you been using your current smartphone? The answer for an increasing number of consumers is years, plural. After all, why upgrade every year when next year’s model is almost exactly the same as the device you’re holding in your hand?

Dutch social enterprise Fairphone sees this as an opportunity to sell sustainability. A chance to turn a conversation about ‘stalled smartphone innovation’ on its head by encouraging consumers to think more critically about the costs involved in pumping out the next shiny thing. And sell them on the savings — individual and collective — of holding their staple gadget steady.

Its latest smartphone, the Fairphone 3 — just released this week in Europe — represents the startup’s best chance yet of shrinking the convenience gap between the next hotly anticipated touchscreen gizmo and a fairer proposition that requires an altogether cooler head to appreciate.

On the surface Fairphone 3 looks like a fairly standard, if slightly thick (1cm), Android smartphone. But that’s essentially the point. This 4G phone could be your smartphone, is the intended message.

Fp3j

Specs wise, you’re getting mostly middling, rather than stand out stuff. There’s a 5.7in full HD display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 chipset, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (expandable via microSD), a 12MP rear lens and 8MP front-facing camera. There’s also NFC on board, a fingerprint reader, dual nano-SIM slots and a 3,000mAh battery that can be removed for easy replacement when it wears out.

There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack: The handy port that’s being erased at the premium smartphone tier,  killing off a bunch of wired accessories with it. So ‘slow replacement’ smartphone hardware demonstrably encourages less waste across the gadget ecosystem too.

But the real difference lies under the surface. Fairer here means supply chain innovation to source conflict-free minerals that go into making the devices; social incentive programs that top up the minimum wages of assembly workers who put the phones together; and repairable, modular handset design that’s intended to reduce environmental impact by supporting a longer lifespan. Repair, don’t replace is the mantra.

All the extra effort that goes into making a smartphone less ethically challenging to own is of course invisible to the naked eye. So the Fairphone 3 buyer largely has to take the company’s word on trust.

The only visual evidence is repairability. Flip the phone over and a semi-opaque plastic backing gives a glimpse of modular guts. A tiny screwdriver included in the box allows you take the phone to pieces so you can swap out individual modules (such as the display) in case they break or fail. Fairphone sells replacements via a spare parts section of its website.

Fp3sc

Despite this radically modular and novel design vs today’s hermetically sealed premium mobiles the Fairphone 3 feels extremely solid to hold.

It’s not designed to pop apart easily. Indeed, there’s a full thirteen screws holding the display module in place. Deconstruction takes work (and care not to lose any of the teeny screws). So this is modularity purely as occasional utility, not flashy party trick — as with Google’s doomed Ara Project.

For some that might be disappointing. Exactly because this modular phone feels so, well, boringly normal.

Visually the most stand out feature at a glance is the Fairphone logo picked out in metallic white lettering on the back. Those taking a second look will also spot a moralizing memo printed on the battery so it’s legible through the matte plastic — which reads: “Change is in your hands”. It may be a bit cringeworthy but if you’ve paid for an ethical premium you might as well flaunt it.

It’s fair to say design fans won’t be going wild over the Fairphone 3. But it feels almost intentionally dull. As if — in addition to shrinking manufacturing costs — the point is to impress on buyers that ethical internals are more than enough of a hipster fashion statement.

It’s also true that most smartphones are now much the same, hardware, features and performance wise. So — at this higher mid-tier price-point (€450/~$500) — why not flip the consumer smartphone sales pitch on its head to make it about shrinking rather than maximizing impact, via a dull but worthy standard?

That then pushes people to ask how sustainable is an expensive but valueless — and so, philosophically speaking, pointless — premium? That’s the question Fairphone 3 seems designed to pose.

Or, to put it another way, if normal can be ethical then shouldn’t ethical electronics be the norm?

Normal is what you get elsewhere with Fairphone 3. Purely judged as a smartphone its performance isn’t anything to write home about. It checks all the usual boxes of messaging, photos, apps and Internet browsing. You can say it gets the job done.

Sure, it’s not buttery smooth at every screen and app transition. And it can feel a little slow on the uptake at times. Notably the camera, while fairly responsive, isn’t lightning quick. Photo quality is not terrible — but not amazing either.

Testing the camera I found images prone to high acutance and over saturated colors. The software also struggles to handle mixed light and shade — meaning you may get a darker and less balanced shot that you hoped for. Low light performance isn’t great either.

That said, in good light the Fairphone 3 can take a perfectly acceptable selfie. Which is what most people will expect to be able to use the phone for.

Fairphone has said it’s done a lot of work to improve the camera vs the predecessor model. And it has succeeded in bringing photo performance up to workable standard — which is a great achievement at what’s also a slightly reduced handset price-point. Though, naturally, there’s still a big gap in photo quality vs the premium end of the smartphone market.

On the OS front, the phone runs a vanilla implementation of Android 9 out of the box — preloaded with the usual bundle of Google services and no added clutter so Android fans should feel right at home. (For those who want a Google-free alternative Fairphone says a future update will allow users to do a wipe and clean install of Android Open Source Project.)

Fp3f

In short, purely as a smartphone, the Fairphone 3 offers very little to shout about — so no screaming lack either. Again, if the point is to shrink the size of the compromise Fairphone is asking consumers to make in order to buy an ethically superior brand of electronics they are slowly succeeding in closing the gap.

It’s a project that’s clearly benefiting from the maturity of the smartphone market. While, on the cellular front, the transformative claims being made for 5G are clearly many years out — so there’s no issue with asking buyers to stick with a 4G phone for years to come.

Given where the market has now marched to, a ‘fairer’ smartphone that offers benchmark basics at a perfectly acceptable median but with the promise of reduced costs over the longer term — individual, societal and environmental — does seem like a proposition that could expand from what has so far been an exceptional niche into something rather larger and more mainstream.

Zooming out for a second, the Fairphone certainly makes an interesting contrast with some of the expensive chimeras struggling to be unfolded at the top end of the smartphone market right now.

Foldables like the Samsung Galaxy Fold — which clocks in at around 4x the price of a Fairphone and offers ~2x the screen real estate (when unfolded), plus a power bump. Whether the Fold’s lux package translates into mobile utility squared is a whole other question, though.

And where foldables will need to demonstrate a compelling use-case that goes above and beyond the Swiss Army utility of a normal smartphone to justify such a whopping price bump, Fairphone need only prick the consumer conscience — as it asks you pay a bit more and settle for a little less.

Neither of these sales pitches is challenge free, of course. And, for now, both foldables and fairer electronics remain curious niches.

But with the Fairphone 3 demonstrating that ethical can feel so normal it doesn’t seem beyond the pale to imagine demand for electronics that are average in performance yet pack an ethical punch scaling up to challenge the mainstream parade of copycat gadgets.

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Reliability concerns raised over pi-top’s STEM learning laptop

TechCrunch has learned of a safety issue and a number of product reliability questions being raised about a modular computer made by a London edtech startup that’s intended for children to learn coding and electronics.

The product, called the pi-top 3, is a Raspberry Pi-powered laptop with a keyboard that slides out to access a rail for breadboarding electronics.

A student at a US school had to be attended by a nurse after touching a component in the device which had overheated, leaving them with redness to their finger.

A spokesperson for Cornell Tech confirmed the incident to us — which they said had happened in June. We’ve withheld the name of the school at their request.

In an internal pi-top email regarding this incident, which we’ve also reviewed, it describes the student being left with “a very nasty finger burn”.

Cornell Tech’s spokesperson told us it has stopped using the pi-top 3 — partly in response to this incident but also because of wider reliability issues with the device. They said some of their grad students will be working on a project with the K-12 team next semester with the aim of creating an alternative that’s more reliable, affordable and safe.

We have also been told of concerns about wider reliability issues with the pi-top 3 by a number of other sources.

We asked pi-top for comment on the safety incident at Cornell Tech and for details of how it responded. The company provided us with a statement in which it claims: “pitop incorporates all possible safeguards into our products to ensure they are safe.”

“As soon as we became aware of this incident we immediately investigated what had happened,” it went on. “We discovered that the incident was a one-in-a-million occurrence. The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.”

“This is the only reported incident where a user has been hurt whilst using one of our products,” pi-top added.

It is not clear how many pi-top 3 laptops have been sold to schools at this stage because pi-top does not break out sales per product. Instead it provided us with a figure for the total number of devices sold since it was founded in 2014 — saying this amounts to “more than 200,000 devices in 4 years which have been used by more than half a million people”.

pi-top also says it has sold products to schools in 70 countries, saying “thousands” of schools have engaged with its products. (The bright green color of the laptop is easy to spot in promotional photos for school STEM programs and summer camps.)

The London-based DIY hardware startup began life around five years ago offering a ‘3D-print it yourself‘ laptop for makers via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform before shifting its focus to the educational market — tapping into the momentum around STEM education that’s seen a plethora of ‘learn to code’ toys unboxed in recent years.

pi-top has raised more than $20M in VC funding to date and now sells a number of learning devices and plug-in components intended for schools to teach STEM — all of which build on the Raspberry Pi microprocessor.

pi-top adds its own layer of software to the Pi as well as hardware additions intended to expand the learning utility (such as a speaker for the pi-top 3 and an “inventors kit” with several electronics projects, including one that lets kids build and program a robot).

The pi-top 3 — its third device — was launched in October 2017, priced between $285-$320 per laptop (without or with a Raspberry Pi 3).

The distinctively bright green laptop is intended for use by students as young as eight years old.

Unusual failure mode

In the internal email discussing the “Cornell failure diagnosis” — which is dated July 16 — pi-top’s head of support and customer success, Preya Wylie, conveys the assessment of its VP of technology, Wil Bennett, that the “unusual failure mode was likely caused by an electrical short on the male 34-pin connector on the underside of the protoboard”.

She goes on to specify that the short would have been caused by the metal SD-card removal tool that’s bundled with the product — noting this was “reported to have been somewhere underneath the protoboard at the time”.

“[Bennett] has recreated the same conditions on his bench in China and has seen the pi-top enter similar failure modes, with an electrical short and subsequent overheating,” she writes.

An additional complication discussed in the email is that the component is designed to stay on at all times in order that the pi-top can respond to the power button being pressed when the unit is off. Wylie writes that this means, if shorted, the component remains “very hot” even when the pi-top has been shut down and unplugged — as heat is generated by the pi-top continuing to draw power from the battery.

Only once the battery has fully depleted will the component be able to cool down.

In the email — which was sent to pi-top’s founder and CEO Jesse Lozano and COO Paul Callaghan — she goes on to include a list of four “initial recommendations to ensure this does not happen again”, including that the company should inform teachers to remove the SD-card removal tool from all pi-top 3 laptops and to remove the SD card themselves rather than letting students do it; as well as advising teachers/users to turn the device off if they suspect something has got lost under the protoboard.

Another recommendation listed in the email is the possibility of creating a “simple plastic cover to go over the hub” to prevent the risk of users’ fingers coming into contact with hot components.

A final suggestion is a small modification to the board to cut off one of the pins to “greatly reduce the chance of this happening again”.

pi top 3

We asked pi-top to confirm what steps it has taken to mitigate the risk of pitop 3 components overheating and posing a safety risk via the same sort of shorting failure experienced by Cornell Tech — and to confirm whether it has informed existing users of the risk from this failure mode.

An internal pi-top sales document that we’ve also reviewed discusses a ‘back to school’ sales campaign — detailing a plan to use discounts to “dissolve as much pi-top [3] stock as we can over the next 8 weeks”.

This document says US schools will be targeted from mid August; UK schools/educators from early September; and International Schools Groups from early September. It also includes a strategy to go direct to US Private and Charter Schools — on account of “shorter decision making timelines and less seasonal budgets”.

It’s not clear if the document pre-dates the Cornell incident.

In response to our questions, pi-top told us it is now writing to pi-top 3 customers, suggesting it is acting on some of the initial recommendations set out in Wylie’s July 16 email after we raised concerns.

In a statement the company said: “Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it.  We are also advising customers to remove the SD card tool from the unit. These simple actions will make the remote possibility of a recurrence even less likely.”

In parallel, we have heard additional concerns about the wider reliability of the pi-top 3 product — in addition to the shorting incident experienced by Cornell.

One source, who identified themselves as a former pi-top employee, told us that a number of schools have experienced reliability issues with the device. One of the schools named, East Penn School District in the US, confirmed it had experienced problems with the model — telling us it had to return an entire order of 40 of the pi-top 3 laptops after experiencing “a large volume of issues”.

“We had initially purchased 40 pi-tops for middle level computers classes,” assistant superintendent Laura Witman told us. “I met one of the owners, Jesse, at a STEM conference. Conceptually the devices had promise, but functionally we experienced a large volume of issues. The company tried to remedy the situation and in the end refunded our monies. I would say it was learning experience for both our district and the company, but I appreciate how they handled things in the end.”

Witman did not recall any problems with pi-top 3 components overheating.

A US-based STEM summer camp provider that we also contacted to confirm whether it had experienced issues with the pi-top 3 — a device which features prominently in promotional materials for its program — declined to comment. A spokesman for iD Tech’s program told us he was not allowed to talk about the matter.

A separate source familiar with the pi-top 3 also told us the product has suffered from software reliability issues, including crashes and using a lot of processor power, as well as hardware problems related to its battery losing power quickly and/or not charging. This source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were not aware of any issues related to overheating.

Asked to respond to wider concerns about the pi-top 3’s reliability, pi-top sent us this statement:

pitop is a growing and dynamic company developing DIY computing tools which we believe can change the world for the better. In the past four and a half years we have shipped hundreds of thousands of products across our entire product range, and pitop hardware and software have become trusted assets to teachers and students in classrooms from America to Zimbabwe. pitop products are hard at work even in challenging environments such as the UN’s Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.

At the heart of our products is the idea that young makers can get inside our computers, learn how they work and build new and invaluable skills for the future. Part of what makes pitop special, and why kids who’ve never seen inside a computer before think it’s awesome, is that you have to build it yourself straight out of the box and then design, code and make electronic systems with it. We call this learning.

The nature of DIY computing and electronics means that, very occasionally, things can fail. If they do, pitop’s modular nature means they can be easily replaced. If customers encounter any issues with any of our products our excellent customer support team are always ready to help.

It is important to say that all electronic systems generate heat and Raspberry Pi is no exception. However, at pitop we do the very best to mitigate thanks to the cutting-edge design of our hardware. Faults on any of our products fall well below accepted thresholds. Although we are proud of this fact, this doesn’t make us complacent and we continually strive to do things better and provide our customers with world-class products that don’t compromise on safety.

Thousands of schools around the world recognise the fantastic benefits the pitop [3], pitop CEED, and pitop [1] brings as a Raspberry Pi-powered device. Our new flagship products, the pitop [4] and our learning platform, pitop Further, take coding education to the next level, as a programmable computing module for makers, creators and innovators everywhere. We are proud of our products and the enormous benefits they bring to schools, students and makers around the world.

Internal restructuring

We also recently broke the news that pi-top had laid off a number of staff after losing out on a large education contract. Our sources told us the company is restructuring to implement a new strategy. pi-top confirmed 12 job cuts at that stage. Our sources suggest more cuts are pending.

Some notable names departing pi-top’s payroll in recent weeks are its director of learning and research, William Rankin — formerly a director of learning at Apple — who writes on LinkedIn that he joined pi-top in March 2018 to “develop a constructionist learning framework to support pi-top’s maker computing platform”. Rankin left the business this month, per his LinkedIn profile.

pi-top’s chief education and product officer, Graham Brown-Martin — who joined the business in September 2017, with a remit to lead “learning, product design, brand development and communication strategy” to support growth of its “global education business, community and ecosystem” — also exited recently, leaving last month per his LinkedIn.

In another change this summer pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board: Stanley Buchesky, the founder of a US edtech seed fund who previously served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos.

Buchesky’s fund, which is called The EdTech Fund, said it had made an investment in pi-top last month. The size of the investment has not been publicly disclosed.

Buchesky took over the chairman role from pi-top board member and investor Eric Wilkinson: A partner at its Series A investor, Hambro Perks. Wilkinson remains on the pi-top board but no longer as exec chairman.

The job cuts and restructuring could be intended to prepare pi-top for a trade sale to another STEM device maker, according to one of our sources.

Meanwhile pi-top’s latest device, the pi-top 4, represents something of a physical restructuring of its core edtech computing proposition which looks intended to expand the suggestive utility it offers teachers via multiple modular use-cases — from building drones and wheeled robots to enabling sensor-based IoT projects which could check science learning criteria, all powered by pi-top’s encased Raspberry Pi 4.

Out of the box, the pi-top 4 is a computer in a box, not a standalone laptop. (Though pi-top does plan to sell a range of accessories enabling it be plugged in to power a touchscreen tablet or a laptop, and more.)

pi top 4 4

pi-top is in the process of bringing the pi-top 4 to market after raising almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from more than 500 backers. Early backers have been told to expect it to ship in November.

While pi-top’s predecessor product is stuck with the compute power of the last-gen Raspberry Pi 3 (the pi-top 3 cannot be upgraded to the Raspberry Pi 4), the pi-top 4 will have the more powerful Pi 4 as its engine.

However the latter has encountered some heat management issues of its own.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation recently put out a firmware update that’s intended to reduce the microprocessor’s operating temperature after users had complained it ran hot.

Asked whether the Foundation has any advice on encasing the Raspberry Pi 4, in light of the heat issue, founder Eben Upton told us: “Putting the Pi in a case will tend to cause it to idle at a higher temperature than if it is left in the open. This means there’s less temperature ‘in reserve’, so the Pi will throttle more quickly during a period of sustained high-intensity operation.”

“In general, the advice is to choose a case which is appropriate to your use case, and to update firmware frequently to benefit from improvements to idle power consumption as they come through,” he added.

TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report

Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.

Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.

Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.

With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.

The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.

“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”

For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.

In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack

So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?'” said Pereira.

The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.

“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”

Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.

Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.

Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.

Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.

To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.

Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.

“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

The ClockworkPi GameShell is a super fun DIY spin on portable gaming

Portable consoles are hardly new, and thanks to the Switch, they’re basically the most popular gaming devices in the world. But ClockworkPi’s GameShell is something totally unique, and entirely refreshing when it comes to gaming on the go. This clever DIY console kit provides everything you need to assemble your own pocket gaming machine at home, running Linux-based open-source software and using an open-source hardware design that welcomes future customization.

The GameShell is the result of a successfully Kickstarter campaign, which began shipping to its backers last year and is now available to buy either direct from the company, or from Amazon. The $159.99 ($139.99 as of this writing on sale) includes everything you need to build the console, like the Clockwork Pi quad-core Cortex A7 motherboard with integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 1GB of DDR3 RAM, but it comes unassembled.

GameShell Clockwork Pi 3

You won’t have to get out the soldering iron – the circuit boards come with all components attached. But you will be assembling screen, keypad, CPU, battery and speaker modules, connecting them with included cables, and then installing them in the slick, GameBoy-esque plastic shell. This might seem like an intimidating task, depending on your level of technical expertise: I know I found myself a bit apprehensive when I opened the various boxes and laid out all the parts in front of me.

But the included instructions, which are just illustrations, like those provided by Lego or Ikea, are super easy to follow and break down the task into very manageable tasks for people of all skill levels. All told, I had mine put together in under an hour, and even though I did get in there with my teeth at one point (to remove a bit of plastic nubbin when assembling the optional Lightkey component, which adds extra function keys to the console), I never once felt overwhelmed or defeated. The time-lapse below chronicles my enter assembly process, start to finish.

What you get when you’re done is a fully functional portable gaming device, which runs Clockwork OS, a Linux-based open-source OS developed by the company. It includes Cave Storyone of the most celebrated indie games of the past couple of decades, and a number of built-in emulators (use of emulators is ethically and legally questionable, but it does provide an easy way to play some of those NES and SNES games you already own with more portability).

There’s a very active community around the GameShell that includes a number of indie games to play on the console, and tips and tricks for modifications and optimal use. It’s also designed to be a STEM educational resource, providing a great way for kids to see what’s actually happening behind the faceplate of the electronics they use everyday, and even getting started coding themselves to build software to run on the console. Loading software is easy, thanks to an included microSD storage card and the ability to easily connect via WiFi to move over software from Windows and Mac computers.

[gallery ids="1868132,1868139,1868138,1868137,1868136,1868135,1868133"]

Everything about the GameShell is programable, and it features micro HDMI out, a built-in music player and Bluetooth support for headphone connection. It’s at once instantly accessible for people with very limited tech chops, and infinitely expandable and hackable for those who do want to go deeper and dig around with what else it has to offer.

Swappable face and backplates, plus open 3D models of each hardware component, mean that community-developed hardware add-ons and modifications are totally possible, too. The modular nature of the device means it can probably get even more powerful in future too, with higher capacity battery modules and improved development boards.

I’ve definitely seen and used devices like the GameShell before, but few manage to be as accessible, powerful and customizable all at once. The GameShell is also fast, has great sound and an excellent display, and it seems to be very durable with decent battery life of around three hours or slightly ore of continuous use depending on things like whether you’re using WiFi and screen brightness.

London edtech startup Pi-Top sees layoffs after major contract loss

London-based edtech startup Pi-Top has cut a number of staff, TechCrunch has learned.

According to our sources the company has reduced its headcount in recent weeks, with staff being told cuts are a result of restructuring as it seeks to implement a new strategy.

One source told us Pi-Top recently lost out on a large education contract.

Another source said sales at Pi-Top have been much lower than predicted — with all major bids being lost.

Pi-Top confirmed to TechCrunch that it has let staff go, saying it has reduced headcount from 72 to 60 people across its offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.

Our sources suggest the total number of layoffs could be up to a third. 

In a statement, Pi-Top told us:

pi-top has become one of the fastest growing ed-tech companies in the market in 4.5 years.  We have a unique vision to increase access to coding and technical education through project based learning to inspire a new generation of makers.

As part of this vision we built up our global team with a view to winning a particularly exciting national project in a developing nation, where we had a previous large scale successful implementation. We were disappointed this tender ultimately fell through due to economic factors in the region and have subsequently made the unfortunate but unavoidable decision to reduce our team size from 72 to 60 people across our offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.

Moving forward we are focusing on our growth within the USA where we continue to enjoy widespread success. We are rolling out our new learning platform pi-top Further which will enable schools everywhere to access a world of content enhanced by practical hands-on project based learning outcomes. We have recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign and we look forward to releasing our newest product pi-top [4].

We are also proud to have appointed Stanley Buchesky as our new Executive Chairman. Stanley brings a wealth of experience in the ed-tech sector and will be a great asset to our strategy going forward.

Pi-Top sells hardware and software designed for educational use in schools. It’s one of a large number of edtech startups that have sought to tap into the popularity of the ‘learn to code’ movement by piggybacking atop the (also British) low cost Raspberry Pi microprocessor — which provides the computing power for all Pi-Top’s products.

Pi-Top adds its own OS and additional education-focused software to the Pi, as well as proprietary cases — including a bright green laptop housing with a built in rail for breadboarding electronics.

Its most recent product, the Pi-Top 4, which was announced back in January, looks intended to move the company away from its first focus on educational desktop computing to more modular and embeddable hardware hacking which could be used by schools to power a wider variety of robotics and electronics projects.

Despite raising $16M in VC funding just over a year ago, Pi-Top opted to run a crowdfunding campaign for the Pi-Top 4 — going on to raise almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from 521 backers.

Pi-Top 4 backers have been told to expect the device to ship in November.