The iRig Pro Duo makes managing advanced audio workflows simple anywhere

Connecting audio interfaces to the various mobile and computing devices we use these days can be a confusing headache. The iRig Pro Duo, which IK Multimedia announced this year at CES and recently released, is a great way to simplify those connections while giving you all the flexibility you need to record high-quality audio anywhere, with any device.

The basics

The iRig Pro Duo is a new addition to IK’s lineup based on the original iRig Pro, which adds a second XLR input, as the name implies. It’s still quite small and portable, fitting roughly in your hand, with built-in power optionally supplied via two AA batteries, while you can also power it via USB connection, or with an optional dedicated plug-in power adapter accessory.

Compared to desktop devices like the Scarlett Focusrite 2i2 USB audio interface that’s a popular standard among home audio enthusiasts, the iRig Pro Duo is downright tiny. It’s still beefier than the iRig Pro, of course, but it’s a perfect addition to a mobile podcaster’s kit for ultimately portability while also maintaining all the features and capabilities you need.

The iRig Pro Duo also includes balanced L/R 1/4″ output, built-in 48v phantom power for passive Macs, a 3.5mm stereo jack for direct monitoring, 2x MIDI inputs and dedicated gain control with simple LED indicators for 48V power status and to indicate audio input peaking.

Design

Beveled edges and a slightly rounded rectangular box design might not win the iRig Pro Duo any accolades from the haute design community, but it’s a very practical form factor for this type of device. Inputs go in one side, and output comes out the other. IK Multimedia employs a unique connector for its output cables, but provides every one you could need in the box for connecting to Mac, iOS, Windows and Android devices.


The whole thing is wrapped in a matte, slightly rubberized outside surface that feels grippy and durable, while also looking good in an understated way that suits its purpose as a facilitation device. The knobs are large and easy to turn with fine-grained control, and there are pads on the underside of the Duo to help it stick a bit better to a surface like a table or countertop.

The lighting system is pretty effective when it comes to a shorthand for what’s on and working with your system, but this is one area where it might be nice to have a more comprehensive on-device audio levels display, for instance. Still, it does the job, and since you’ll likely be working with some kind of digital audio workflow software whenever you’re using it that will have a much more detailed visualizer, it’s not really that much of an issue.

Bottom line

As mentioned, iRig Pro Duo works with virtually all platforms out of the box, and has physical connector cables to ensure it can connect to just about every one as well. IK Multimedia also supplies free DAW software and effects, for all platforms – though you do have to make a choice about which one you’re most interested in since it’s limited to one piece of software per customer.

If you’re looking for a simple, painless and versatile way to either set up a way to lay down some music, or to record a solo or interview podcast, this is an option that ticks essentially all the boxes you could come up with.

With feature updates and new accessories, the RODECaster Pro is a podcaster’s dream come true

You might have been considering – or have already started – picking up a new hobby this year, particularly one you can do at home. Podcasting seems to be a popular option, and RODE is a company that has done more to cater specifically to this audience than just about any other audio company out there. The RODECaster Pro ($599) all-in-one podcast production studio that they released in 2018 is a fantastic tool for anyone looking to maximize their podcast potential, and with amazing new firmware updates released this year, along with a host of great new accessories, it’s stepped up even further.

The basics

The RODECaster Pro is a powerful production studio, but it’s not overwhelming for people who aren’t audio engineers by trade. The deck balances offering plenty of physical controls with keeping them relatively simple, giving you things like volume sliders and large pad-style buttons for top level controls, and then putting more advanced features and tweaks behind layers of menus accessible via the large, high-resolution touchscreen for users who desire more fine-tuned manipulation.

RODECaster Pro includes four XLR inputs, each of which can provide (individually selectable) phantom power for condenser mics, along with four 1/4″ headphone outputs for corresponding monitoring. That’s great because it means if you have guests used to recording podcasts and high-quality audio, they can listen to their own input, or you can opt to just have one producer keeping track of everything. There’s also a left and right 1/4″ audio out for a studio monitor speaker or other output, as well as a USB-C connector for plugging into a computer, and a 3.5mm in for connecting a smartphone or other external audio source. Smartphones can also be connected via Bluetooth, which is very handy for including a call-in guest via wireless.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The main surface of the RODECaster Pro includes volume sliders for each available input and pre-set sound effects; volume knobs for each headphone and speaker output; buttons to activate and deactivate inputs; large buttons for playing back pre-set audio files and a large record button. There’s also a touchscreen which gives you access to menus and settings, and which also acts as a visual levels editor while recording.

RODECaster Pro is designed so that you can use it completely independently of any computer or smartphone – it has a microSD slot for recording, and you can then upload those files via either directly connecting the deck through USB, or plugging the card in to a microSD card reader and transferring your files. You can also use multitrack-to-USB or stereo USB output modes on the RODECaster Pro to effectively turn the studio hardware into a USB audio interface for your Mac or PC, letting you record with whatever digital audio production software you’d like, including streaming software.

Design

The RODECaster Pro’s design is a perfect blend of studio-quality hardware controls and simplicity, making the device accessible to amateurs and pros alike. I was up and running with the deck out of the box in just a few minutes, and without making any adjustments at all to the sound profile or settings, I had great-sounding recordings using the RODE PodMic, a $99 microphone that is optimized by RODE to work with the RODECaster Pro out of the box.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

All the controls are easy and intuitive to manage, and you shouldn’t need to read any instruction manuals or guides to get started. The eight button sound effects grid is likely the most complicated part of the entire physical interface, but even the default sounds that RODE includes can be useful, and you can easily set your own via the RODECaster companion app for Mac and PC, and in the box you’ll find guides that you can use to overlay the buttons and label them to keep track of which is which.

The sliders are smooth and great to use, making it easy to do even, manual fade-ins and fade-outs for intro and outro or pre-recorded soundbites. Backlit keys for active/inactive inputs, mute status and the large record button mean you can tell with a quick glance what is and isn’t currently active on the track.

RODE has smartly included a locking power adapter in the box, so that you won’t find the cord accidentally yanked out in the middle of a recording. Each of the XLR inputs also includes a quick release latch for secure connections. And while the RODECaster Pro definitely takes up a lot of space with roughly the footprint of a 13-inch MacBook Pro, it’s light enough to be perfectly portable in a backpack for on-location recordings.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The touchscreen display is another design highlight, since it’s high-resolution, with a matte cover that makes it viewable in a wide range of light, and very responsive touch input, It’s a great way to extend the functionality of the deck through software, while still ensuring nothing feels fiddly or hard to navigate, which can be the case with hardware jog controllers like you’d find on a Zoom recorder, for instance.

Features

Balancing simplicity and power is the real reason RODECaster Pro works so well. If you’re just starting out, you can basically just begin using it out of the box without changing anything at all about how it’s set up to work. That’s especially true if you’re using any of RODE’s microphones, each of which has built-in profiles included for optimizing sound settings instantly.

I mentioned above that the RODE PodMic is optimized for use with the RODECaster Pro in this way, and the results are fantastic. If the price tag on the RODECaster Pro is a deterrent, it’s worth considering that the PodMic is a fantastically affordable dynamic podcasting mic, which produces sound way above its class when paired with the deck. so the overall cost of a RODE podcasting setup using both of these would actually be relatively reasonable vs. other solutions.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

If you’re ready to dive in and customize sound, you can toggle features like built-in compressor, de-esser and other audio effects. You can also manually adjust each of these effects since the release of Firmware 2.1 earlier this month – letting you adjust the processing of each included sound effect through the RODECaster Pro companion app for a totally custom, unique finally sound.

The ability to pre-load and call up sound effects and other audio tracks on demand on the RODECaster Pro is another killer feature. It’s true that you could achieve a lot of this in editing post-recording, but having it all to-hand for use in live recording scenarios just feels better, and it also enables genuine interactions with your guests that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. That 2.1 firmware update also brought the ability to loop clips indefinitely, which could be great if you want to place a subtle backing track throughout your recording.

One final feature I’ll highlight because it’s fantastic especially in a world where it might be hard to consistently get guests in-studio is the smartphone connectivity. You can either plug in via cable, or connect via low-latency Bluetooth for terrific call-in interactivity, using whatever software you want on your smartphone.

Accessories

RODE has done a great job building out an ecosystem of accessories to further extend the capabilities of the RODECaster Pro, and enhance the overall user experience. Among its recent releases, there’s the Rode PodMic, mentioned above, as well as colored cable clips that correspond to each input backlight color for easily keeping track of which hardware is which, 1/4″ to 3.5mm stereo jack adapters for using standard headphones as monitors, a TRRS-to-TRRS 3.5mm audio aux cable for smartphone connections, and a USB power cable to replace the adapter for easier plug-in power on the go.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The small plastic cuffs for your XLR cables are simple but smart ways of keeping track of gear, especially when everyone’s using the same mic (as they likely should be for sound consistency) – and it helps that they enhance the look of your overall setup, too. And the USB power cable in particular is a great addition to any RODECaster Pro kit that you’re intending to use outside of your own recording studio/home, since you can use it with any USB charger you have to hand – so long as it can provide 5V/2.5A output.

The real must-have accessory for the RODECaster Pro, however, is the RODE PodMic. It’s a no-fuss, well-built and durable microphone that transports well and that can work flexibly with a wide range of mounting options, and in a wide variety of settings including open air and in-studio. Yes, you can get better sound with more expensive mics, but with the PodMic, you can afford a set of four to complement the RODECaster Pro for the same price you’d pay for one higher-end microphone, and most people won’t notice the audio quality difference for their podcasting needs.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Bottom line

The RODECaster Pro is a fantastic way to upgrade your at-home podcasting game – and a perfect way to take the show on the road once you’re able to do so. Its high-quality hardware controls, combined with smart, sophisticated software that has improved with consistent RODE firmware updates to address user feedback over time, are a winning combo for amateurs, pros, and anyone along the spectrum in between.

The Loupedeck CT is a fantastic, flexible editing console for Mac and PC

For photographers and videographers spending a lot less time on location and a lot more time at the desk right now, one great use of time is going back through archives and backlogs to find hidden gems, and hone those edit skills. One recently-released device called the Loupedeck CT can make that an even more enjoyable experience, with customizable controls and profiles that work with just about all your favorite editing apps – and that can even make just using your computer generally easier and more convenient.

The basics

Loupedeck’s entire focus is on creating dedicated hardware control surfaces for creatives, and the Loupedeck CT is its latest, top-of-the-line editing panel. It’s essentially a square block, which is surprisingly thin and light given how many hardware control options it provides. On the surface itself, you’ll find six knobs with tactile, clicky turning action, as well as 12 square buttons and eight round buttons, each of which features color-coded backlighting. There’s also a large central control dial, with a touch-sensitive display in-set, and a 4×3 grid of touch-sensitive display buttons up top – each of which also includes optional vibration feedback when pressed.

Loupedeck CT connects via an included USB-C cable (though you’ll need an adapter or your own USB-C to USB-C cable if you’re using a modern MacBook) and it draws all the power it needs to operate from that connection. Small, rubberized pads on the back ensure that it won’t slip around on your desktop or table surface.

When you first set up the Loupedeck, you’ll need to download software from the company’s website. Once that’s installed, the setup wizard should see your Loupedeck CT hardware when it’s connected, and present you with configuration options that mirror what will show up on your device. By default, Loupedeck has a number of profiles for popular editing software pre-installed and ready to use, and it’ll switch to use that profile automatically upon opening those applications.

The list is fantastic, with one notable (and somewhat painful) exception – Lightroom CC. This isn’t Loupdeck’s fault: Adobe has changed the way that Lighroom is architected with the CC version such that it no longer offers as much interoperability with plugins like the ones that make Loupedeck work with such high integration. Loupedeck offers a Lightroom Classic profile, and one of the reasons Classic is still available is its rich support for these plugins, so you can still access and edit your library with Loupedeck CT. Plus, you can still use it to control Lightroom CC – but you’ll have to download a profile that essentially replicates keystrokes and keyboard shortcuts, or create your own, and it won’t be nearly as flexible as the profiles that exist for Photoshop, Photoshop Camera Raw, and Lightroom Classic.

That one exception aside, there are profiles for just about any creative software a creative pro would want to use. And the default system software settings are also very handy for when you’re not using your computer for doing anything with image, video or audio editing. For instance, I set up basic workflows for capturing screenshots, which I do often for work, and one for managing audio playback during transcription.

Design

I mentioned it briefly above, but the Loupedeck CT’s design is at first glance very interesting because it’s actually far smaller than I was expecting based on the company’s own marketing and imagery. It’s just a little taller than your average keyboard, and about the same width across, and it takes up not much more space on your desk than a small mousepad, or a large piece of toast. Despite its small footprint, it has a lot of physical controls, each of which is actually potentially many more controls though software.

The matte black, slightly rubberized finish is pleasing both to look at and to the touch, and the controls all feel like there was a lot of care put into the tactile experience of using them. The graduated clicks on the knobs let you know when you’ve increased something by a single increment, and the smooth action on the big dial feels delightfully analog. The buttons all have a satisfying, fairly deep click, and the slight buzz you get from the vibration feedback on the touchscreen buttons are a perfect bit of haptic response, which, combined with the raised rows that separate them, mean you can use the Loupedeck CT eyes-free once you get used to it. Each knob is also a clickable button, and the touchscreen circular display on the large central dial can be custom configured with a number of different software buttons or a scroll list.

Despite its small size, the Loupedeck CT doesn’t feel fragile, and it has a nice weight to it that feels reassuring of its manufacturing quality. It does feel like a bit of a compromise when it comes to layout to accommodate the square design vs. the longer rectangle of the Loupedeck+, which more closely resembles a keyboard – but that has positives and negatives, since the CT is easier to use alongside a keyboard.

Ultimately, the design feels thoughtful and well-considered, giving you a very powerful set of physical controls for creative software that takes up much less space on the desk than even something like an equivalent modular system from Palette would require.

Features

The Loupedeck CT’s primary benefits are found in its profiles, which set you up out of the box to get editing quickly and effectively across your favorite software. Each feels like a sensible set of defaults for the software they’re designed to work with, and you can always customize and tweak to your heart’s content if you’ve already got a set of standard processes that doesn’t quite match up.

Loupedeck’s software makes customization and addition of your own sets of tools a drag-and-drop process, which helps a lot with the learning curve. It still took me a little while to figure out the logic of where to find things, and how they’re nested, but it does make sense once you experiment and pay around a bit.

Similarly, Loupedeck uses a color-coding hierarchy system in its interface that takes some getting used, but that eventually provides a handy visual shortcut for working with the Loupedeck CT. There are green buttons and lights that control overall workspaces, as well as purple actions that exist within those workspaces. You can set up multiple workspaces for each app, letting you store entire virtual toolboxes for carrying out specific tasks.

This allows the CT to be at once simple enough to not overwhelm, and also rich and complex enough to offer a satisfying range of control options for advanced pros. As mentioned, everything is customizable (minus a few buttons like the o-button that you can’t remap, for navigation reasons) and you can also export profiles for sharing or for use across machines, and import profiles, including those created by others, for quickly getting set up with a new workflow or pice of software.

The Loupedeck CT even has 8GB of built-in storage on board, and shows up as a removable disk on your computer, allowing you to easily take your profiles with you – as well a tidy little collection of working files.

Bottom Line

At $549, the Loupedeck CT isn’t for everyone – even though the features it offers provide efficiency benefits for many more than just creatives. It’s like having an editing console that you can fit in the tablet pocket of most backpacks or briefcases – and it’s actually like having a whole bunch of those at once because of the flexibility and configurability of its software. Also, comparable tools like the Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Editor keyboard can cost over twice as much.

If your job or your passion involves spending considerable time adjusting gradients, curves, degrees and sliders, than the Loupedeck CT is for you. Likewise, if you spend a lot of time transcribing or cleaning up audio, or you’re a keyboard warrior who regularly employs a whole host of keystroke combos even for working in something like a spreadsheet app, it could be great for you too.

I’ve tested out a lot of hardware aimed at improving the workflow of photographers and video editors, but none has proven sticky, especially across both home and travel use. The Loupedeck CT seems like the one that will stick, based on my experience with it so far.

Watch Apple’s WWDC keynote live right here

Apple is holding a keynote today on the first day of its developer conference, and the company is expected to talk about a ton of software updates. WWDC is a virtual event this year, but you can expect the same amount of news, in a different format. At 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris), you’ll be able to watch the event as the company is streaming it live.

Rumor has it that the company plans to unveil new versions of its operating systems. Get ready for iOS 14 and its sibling iPadOS 14, a new version of macOS, some updates for watchOS and tvOS as well.

But the most interesting rumor of the year is that Apple could announce a major change for the Mac. The company could start using its own in-house ARM systems on a chip instead of Intel’s processors. It would have a ton of consequences for third-party apps running on your Mac as well as Mac hardware in general. Imagine a MacBook with a battery that lasts as long as what you get from an iPad. There could be some more hardware news, such as a new design for the iMac or some Tile-style hardware trackers.

You can watch the live stream directly on this page as Apple is streaming its conference on YouTube.

If you have an Apple TV, you can download the Apple Events app in the App Store. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old ones. The app icon was updated a few days ago for the event.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV and don’t want to use YouTube, the company also lets you live-stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

Of course, you also can read TechCrunch’s live blog if you don’t want to stop everything and watch a video.

Software will reshape our world in the next decade

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

Drone-deployed sterile mosquitoes could check spread of insect-borne illnesses

Drone deployment of sterile mosquitoes could accelerate efforts to control their populations and reduce insect-borne disease, according to a proof of concept experiment by an multi-institutional research team. The improved technique could save thousands of lives.

Mosquitoes are a public health hazard around the world, spreading infections like malaria to millions and causing countless deaths and health crises. Although traps and netting offer some protection, the proactive approach of reducing the number of insects has also proven effective. This is accomplished by sterilizing male mosquitoes and releasing them into the wild, where they compete with the other males for food and mates but produce no offspring.

The problem with this approach is it is fairly hands-on, requiring people to travel through mosquito-infested areas to make regular releases of treated males. Some aerial and other dispersal methods have been attempted but this project from French, Swiss, British, Brazilian, Senegalese and other researchers seems to be the most effective and practical yet.

Mosquitoes grown in bulk and sterilized by radiation are packed at low temperatures (“chilled” mosquitoes don’t fly or bite) into cartridges. These cartridges are kept refrigerated until they can be brought to a target site, where they’re loaded onto a drone.

Thousands of chilled, marked mosquitoes ready for deployment.

This drone ascends to a set altitude and travels over the target area, steadily releasing thousands of sterile males as it goes. By staging at the center of a town, the drone operators can reload the craft with new cartridges and send it in more directions, accomplishing dispersal over a huge and perhaps difficult to navigate space more quickly and easily than manual techniques.

The experiment used mosquitoes marked with fluorescent dyes that let the researchers track the effectiveness of their air-dropped mosquitoes, and the new technique shows great improvement over manual methods (on the order of 50 percent better) — without even getting into the reductions in time and labor. New methods for sterilizing, packing, and meting out the insects further gild the results.

The researchers point out that while there are of course plenty of applications for this technique in ordinary times, the extraordinary times of this pandemic present new dangers and opportunities. Comorbidity of COVID-19 and mosquito-borne illnesses is practically unstudied, and disruptions to supply chains and normal insect suppression efforts is likely to lead to spikes in the likes of malaria and dengue fever.

Work like this could lead to improved general health for billions. The researchers’ work appeared in the journal Science Robotics.

You can now install the first beta of Android 11

After a series of developer previews, Google today released the first beta of Android 11 and with that, it is also making these pre-release versions available for over-the-air updates. This time around, the list of supported devices only includes the Pixel 2, 3, 3a and 4.

If you’re brave enough to try this early version (and I wouldn’t do so on your daily driver until a few more people have tested it), you can now enroll here. Like always, Google is also making OS images available for download and an updated emulator is available, too.

Google says the beta focuses on three key themes: people, controls and privacy.

Like in previous updates, Google once again worked on improving notifications — in this case, conversation notifications, which now appear in a dedicated section at the top of the pull-down shade. From there, you will be able to take actions right from inside the notification or ask the OS to remind you of this conversation at a later time. Also new is built-in support in the notification system for what are essentially chat bubbles, which messaging apps can now use to notify you even as you are working (or playing) in another app.

Another new feature is consolidated keyboard suggestions. With these, Autofill apps and Input Method Editors (think password managers and third-party keyboards), can now securely offer context-specific entries in the suggestion strip. Until now, enabling autofill for a password manager, for example, often involved delving into multiple settings and the whole experienced often felt like a bit of a hack.

For those users who rely on voice to control their phones, Android now uses a new on-device system that aims to understand what is on the screen and then automatically generates labels and access points for voice commands.

As for controls, Google is now letting you long-press the power button to bring up controls for your smart home devices (though companies that want to appear in this new menu need to make use of Google’s new API for this). In one of the next beta releases, Google will also enable media controls that will make it easier to switch the output device for their audio and video content.

In terms of privacy, Google is adding one-time permissions so that an app only gets access to your microphone, camera or location once, as well as auto-resets for permissions when you haven’t used an app for a while.

A few months ago, Google said that developers would need to get a user’s approval to access background location. That caused a bit of a stir among developers and now Google will keep its current policies in place until 2021 to give developers more time to update their apps.

In addition to these user-facing features, Google is also launching a series of updates aimed at Android developers. You can read more about them here.

Lidar helps uncover an ancient, kilometer-long Mayan structure

Lidar is fast becoming one of the most influential tools in archaeology, revealing things in a few hours what might have taken months of machete wielding and manual measurements otherwise. The latest such discovery is an enormous Mayan structure, more than a kilometer long, 3,000 years old, and seemingly used for astronomical observations.

Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona is the lead author of the paper describing the monumental artificial plateau, published in the journal Nature. This unprecedented structure — by far the largest and oldest of its type — may remind you of another such discovery, the “Mayan megalopolis” found in Guatemala two years ago.

Such huge structures, groups of foundations, and other evidence of human activity may strike you as obvious. But when you’re on the ground they’re not nearly as obvious as you’d think — usually because they’re covered by both a canopy of trees and thick undergrowth.

“I have spent thousands of hours of fieldwork walking behind a local machete-wielding man who would cut straight lines through the forest,” wrote anthropologist Patricia McAnany, who was not involved in the research, for an commentary that also appeared in Nature. “This time-consuming process has required years, often decades, of fieldwork to map a large ancient Maya city such as Tikal in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize.”

You can see an aerial view of the site below. If you didn’t know there was something there, you might not notice anything more than some slightly geometric hills.

Lidar detects the distance to objects and surfaces by bouncing lasers off them. Empowered by powerful computational techniques, it can see through the canopy and find the level of the ground beneath, producing a detailed height map of the surface.

In this case the researchers picked a large area of the Tabasco region of Mexico, on the Guatemalan border, known to have been occupied by early Mayan civilization. A large-scale, low-resolution lidar scan of the area produced some leads, and smaller areas were then scanned at higher resolution, producing the images you see here.

What emerged was an enormous ceremonial center now called Aguada Fénix, the largest feature of which is an artificial plateau more than 10 meters tall and 1.4 kilometers in length. It is theorized that these huge plateaus, of which Aguada Fénix is the oldest and largest, were used to track the movement of the sun through the seasons and perform various rites.

The high-resolution lidar map also helped accelerate other findings, such as that, owing to the lack of statues or sculptures in honor of contemporary leaders, the community that built Aguada Fénix “probably did not have marked social inequality” comparable to others in the 1,000-800 B.C. timeframe (calculated from carbon dating). That such an enormous project could have been accomplished without the backing and orders of a rich central authority — and at a time when Mayan communities were supposed to be small and not yet stationary — could upend existing doctrine regarding the development of Mayan culture.

All because of advances in laser scanning technology that most think of as a way for self-driving cars to avoid pedestrians. You can read more about Aguada Fénix in Nature and this National Geographic article.

Aukey introduces an extremely compact 100w charger

Let’s talk about chargers. They are, quite possibly, the least exciting thing about a computer. Don’t get me wrong. They’re necessary, obviously. But when was the last time you got really psyched about one?

And yet, here I am, tech blogger guy telling you that today is the first day of the rest of your charger-loving life. Why? Because of three alternately cased letters: GaN. Back at CES, I wrote a piece titled “GaN chargers are still worth getting excited about.” I stand by it. And you, too, will stand by GaN.

That’s short for Gallium Nitride, by the way. The main thing you need to know about it is that it has allowed accessory manufactures to jam a lot of wattage into a surprisingly compact footprint. I’ve been pretty smitten with them since picking up Anker’s 30w PowerPort Atom the CES prior. The thing wasn’t the world’s fastest charger, but it did the trick for a 13-inch MacBook with a footprint just slightly larger than the charger that ships with the iPhone.

These days, however, I lug around a 15-inch laptop, so 30 watts really isn’t going to do much. In fact, you’ll actually watch the battery drain while plugged in. I tried out a couple of new adapters at this year’s CES, as well, but none really scratched the itch. Aukey’s $55 OMNIA 100W PD Charger, on the other hand is pretty close to my sweet spot.

It’s half the size of Apple’s proprietary charger, sharing roughly the same footprint as the Google Pixelbook adapter I’ve been carrying around for a couple of years. But that one’s just a modest 45w. Heck, it’s even more powerful than the 96w model Apple sells for the 15 and 17-inch models.

The size is ideal, though, in part owing to the fact that Aukey didn’t attempt to stick another port on it. This is a one-device-at-a-time charger, which is perfectly fine for most of my needs, and it’s going to have a permanent spot in my bag in that far off time when I’m able to start traveling again.

I will say that it’s surprisingly heavy for its size. This is a dense little charger. It stays put in all of my wall outlets, but it’s going to be a test to see if it stays in place in Delta’s notoriously loose seat chargers. My suspicion is that it most likely won’t — making that a fairly big strike against it for my own once-frequent traveling. The good news is that these companies seem to have an even smaller model every four to six months.

In the meantime, it’s an otherwise great option if you’re looking for a lot of charge in a small footprint, at $24 less than Apple’s 96w model.

Cowboy releases updated e-bike with new carbon belt

Electric-bike maker Cowboy has released a new iteration of its bike, the Cowboy 3. It’s a relatively small update that should make the experience better for newcomers. The first orders will be delivered at the end of July and the Cowboy 3 is now slightly more expensive at €2,290 or £1,990 ($2,500).

The bike still looks a lot like the Cowboy 2 that I reviewed last year. It has a triangle-shaped aluminum frame with integrated pill-shaped lights. The handlebar is still perfectly straight like on a mountain bike.

Compared to the previous generation, the company has replaced the rubber and fiberglass belt with a carbon belt. It should be good to go for 30,000km.

Like on the previous bike, there are no gears or buttons to control motor assistance. As soon as you start pedaling, motor assistance kicks in automatically.

But the gear ratio has been tweaked on this version. It’s now a bit lower, which means it’ll be easier to start pedaling at a traffic light. It’s going to have an impact on your top speed though as electric-bikes assist you up to a certain speed and you have to rely on your good old feet above that legal limit.

The wheels and tires have been slightly tweaked as well. Instead of off-the-shelf Panaracer tires, Cowboy is now using custom-made tires with a puncture protection layer. Rims are larger as well.

The saddle, hydraulic brakes and brake pads remain unchanged. The Cowboy 3 still features a detachable battery, something that is still missing from VanMoof’s e-bikes and the newly announced Gogoro Eeyo e-bikes.

Overall, the bike weighs 16.9kg. It now comes in three colors — black and two shades of grey.

New and existing Cowboy customers will be able to download a new version of the app with a handful of new features. You’ll be able to turn on auto-unlock to… automatically unlock your bike when you approach without having to open the app on your phone.

With theft detection, users will receive a notification as soon as your bike is moving. There will be a new crash detection feature that notifies an emergency contact and an air quality indicator in the app.