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Review: Apple’s new iPad mini continues to be mini

Raghav Jain

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The iPad mini is super enjoyable to use and is the best-sized tablet for everything but traditional laptop work. It’s very good and I’m glad Apple updated it.

Using Apple Pencil is aces on the smaller mini; don’t worry about the real estate being an issue if you like to scribble notes or make sketches. It’s going to fall behind a larger iPad for a full-time artist, but as a portable scratch pad it’s actually far less unwieldy or cumbersome than an iPad Pro or Air will be.

The only caveat? After using the brilliant new Pencil, the old one feels greasy and slippery by comparison, and lacks that flat edge that helps so much when registering against your finger for shading or sketching out curves.

The actual act of drawing is nice and zippy, and features the same latency and responsiveness as the other Pencil-capable models.

The reasoning behind using the old pencil here is likely a result of a combination of design and cost-saving decisions. No flat edge would require a rethink of the magnetic Pencil charging array from the iPad Pro and it is also apparently prohibitively expensive in a way similar to the smart connector. Hence its lack of inclusion on either Air or mini models.

Touch ID feels old and slow when compared to iPad Pro models, but it’s not that bad in a mini, where you’re almost always going to be touching and holding it rather than setting it down to begin typing. It still feels like you’re being forced to take an awkward, arbitrary additional action to start using the iPad though. It really puts into perspective how fluidly Face ID and the new gestures work together.

The design of the casing remains nearly identical, making for broad compatibility with old cases and keyboards if you use those with it. The camera has changed positions and the buttons have been moved slightly though, so I would say your mileage may vary if you’re bringing old stuff to the table.

The performance of the new mini is absolutely top notch. While it falls behind when compared to the iPad Pro, it is exactly the same (I am told, I do not have one to test yet) as the iPad Air. It’s the same on paper though, so I believe it in general and there is apparently no “detuning” or under-clocking happening. This makes the mini a hugely powerful tiny tablet, clearly obliterating anything else in its size class.

The screen is super solid, with great color, nearly no air gap and only lacking tap-to-wake.

That performance comes at a decently chunky price, $399. If you want the best, you pay for it.

Last year I took the 12.9” iPad Pro on a business trip to Brazil, with no backup machine of any sort. I wanted to see if I could run TechCrunch from it — from planning to events to editorial and various other multi-disciplinary projects. It worked so well that I never went back, and have not opened my MacBook in earnest since. I’ll write up that experience at some point because I think there are some interesting things to talk about there.

I include that context here because, though the iPad Pro is a whole-ass computer and really capable, it is not exactly “fun” to use in non-standard ways. That’s where the iPad mini has always shined and continues to do so.

It really is pocketable in a loose jacket or coat. Because the mini is not heavy, it exercises little of the constant torsion and strain on your wrist that a larger iPad does, making it one-handed.

I could go on, but in the end, all that can be said about the iPad mini being “the small iPad” has already been said ad nauseam over the years, beginning with the first round of reviews back in 2012. This really is one of the most obvious choices Apple has in its current iPad lineup. If you want the cheap one, get the cheap one (excuse me, “most affordable” one). And if you want the small one, get the iPad mini.

The rest of the iPads in Apple’s lineup have much more complicated purchasing flow charts — the mini does indeed sell itself.

Back even before we knew for sure that a mini iPad was coming, I wrote about how Apple could define the then very young small-tablet market. It did. No other small-tablet model has ever made a huge dent on the market, unless you count the swarm of super-crappy Android tablets that people buy in blister packs expecting them to eventually implode as a single hive-mind model.

Here’s how I saw it in 2012:

To put it bluntly, there is no small tablet market…Two years ago we were talking about the tablet market as a contiguous whole. There was talk about whether anyone would buy the iPad and that others had tried to make consumer tablets and failed. Now, the iPad is a massive success that has yet to be duplicated by any other manufacturer or platform.

But the tablet market isn’t a single ocean, it’s a set of interlocking bodies of water that we’re just beginning to see take shape. And the iPad mini isn’t about competing with the wriggling tadpoles already in the ‘small tablet’ pond, it’s about a big fish extending its dominion.

Yeah, that’s about right, still.

One huge difference, of course, is that the iPad mini now has the benefit of an enormous amount of additional apps that have been built for iPad in the interim. Apps that provide real, genuine access to content and services on a tablet — something that was absolutely not guaranteed in 2012. How quickly we forget.

In addition to the consumer segment, the iPad mini is also extremely popular in industrial, commercial and medical applications. From charts and patient records to point-of-sale and job-site reference, the mini is the perfect size for these kinds of customers. These uses were a major factor in Apple deciding to update the mini.

Though still just as pricey (in comparison) as it was when it was introduced, the iPad mini remains a standout device. It’s small, sleek, now incredibly fast and well-provisioned with storage. The smallness is a real advantage in my opinion. It allows the mini to exist as it does without having to take part in the “iPad as a replacement for laptops” debate. It is very clearly not that, while at the same time still feeling more multipurpose and useful than ever. I’m falling in real strong like all over again with the mini, and the addition of Pencil support is the sweetener on top.

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Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Spotify’s podcasting app Anchor now helps you make trailers

Raghav Jain

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Spotify’s simple podcasting suite, Anchor, is today introducing a new feature designed to help creators promote their podcast: trailers. On the Anchor app for iOS and Android, podcasters will now be able to create a dedicated trailer for their podcast that combines an introduction and some background music, then turns it into an animated video that can be shared across social media and the wider web.

The trailer will also be made available within the podcast’s RSS feed, where it’s marked with the “trailer” episode type.

Anchor had already offered a way for users to mark episodes of their podcast as a trailer within the app, but the new feature makes it simpler to create a trailer through a more integrated experience.

For example, when you push the button to record, you have one minute to introduce your podcast — and a warning will flash when that minute is about to be up. When you’re satisfied with the recording, you can then browse through Anchor free library of background music, which is organized by mood — like adventurous, calm, dramatic, cheerful, energetic, funky, chill, etc. Or you can opt to go without music, if you prefer.

And if you already have a voice recording saved elsewhere, you can import it into Anchor to use as your trailer.

There are other options today for creating podcast trailers, like those from services like Wavve, Headliner, or Audiogram, for example. But Anchor’s goal is to be the one-stop-shop for everything a new podcaster needs to get started, and that includes promotional tools like this.

However, many professional podcasters still view Anchor as a sort of entry-level product and turn to more advanced audio editing suites to craft their shows. But over time, these extra, handy features could help Anchor to earn a place in podcaster’s workflow, even if it’s not their end-to-end solution.

Podcasting has become an important vertical for Anchor’s parent company Spotify, which led to it acquiring both Anchor and Gimlet earlier this year for $340 million. And its investments in podcasts, which have also included the acquisition of podcast network Parcast, have been starting to pay off.

The company reported in July its podcast audience had doubled in size since last year. In October, it said the number of podcast listeners on its service grew 40% from the prior quarter, and it now had 500,000 titles hosted on its platform.

Spotify can monetize podcasts in two ways, as with music — through ads and by pushing people into premium subscriptions. It now has 113 million paying customers and 248 million monthly actives. And once Spotify’s users are subscribed to a number of podcast shows, they’re more likely to stay with the service. In addition, podcasts don’t come with the licensing costs associated with record label deals, which Spotify also surely likes.

Anchor’s new trailers feature is live now on both iOS and Android .

 

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Ghost wants to retrofit your car so it can drive itself on highways in 2020

Raghav Jain

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A new autonomous vehicle company is on the streets — and unbeknownst to most, has been since 2017. Unlike the majority in this burgeoning industry, this new entrant isn’t trying to launch a robotaxi service or sell a self-driving system to suppliers and automakers. It’s not aiming for autonomous delivery, either.

Ghost Locomotion, which emerged Thursday from stealth with $63.7 million in investment from Keith Rabois at Founders Fund, Vinod Khosla at Khosla Ventures and Mike Speiser at Sutter Hill Ventures, is targeting your vehicle.

Ghost is developing a kit that will allow privately owned passenger vehicles to drive autonomously on highways. And the company says it will deliver in 2020. A price has not been set, but the company says it will be less than what Tesla charges for its Autopilot package that includes “full self-driving” or FSD. FSD currently costs $7,000.

This kit isn’t going to give a vehicle a superior advanced driving assistance system. The kit will let human drivers hand control of their vehicle over to a computer, allowing them to do other activities such as look at their phone or even doze off.

The idea might sound similar to what Comma.ai is working on, Tesla hopes to achieve or even the early business model of Cruise. Ghost CEO and co-founder John Hayes says what they’re doing is different.

A different approach

The biggest players in the industry — companies like Waymo, Cruise, Zoox and Argo AI — are trying to solve a really hard problem, which is driving in urban areas, Hayes told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

“It didn’t seem like anyone was actually trying to solve driving on the highways,” said Hayes, who previously founded Pure Storage in 2009. “At the time, we were told that this is so easy that surely the automakers will solve this any day now. And that really hasn’t happened.”

Hayes noted that automakers have continued to make progress in advanced driver assistance systems. The more advanced versions of these systems provide what the SAE describes as Level 2 automation, which means two primary control functions are automated. Tesla’s Autopilot system is a good example of this; when engaged, it automatically steers and has traffic-aware cruise control, which maintains the car’s speed in relation to surrounding traffic. But like all Level 2 systems, the driver is still in the loop.

Ghost wants to take the human out of the loop when they’re driving on highways.

“We’re taking, in some ways, a classic startup attitude to this, which is ‘what is the simplest product that we can perfect, that will put self driving in the hands of ordinary consumers?’ ” Hayes said. “And so we take people’s existing cars and we make them self-driving cars.”

The kit

Ghost is tackling that challenge with software and hardware.

The kit involves hardware like sensors and a computer that is installed in the trunk and connected to the controller area network (CAN) of the vehicle. The CAN bus is essentially the nervous system of the car and allows various parts to communicate with each other.

Vehicles must have a CAN bus and electronic steering to be able to use the kit.

The camera sensors are distributed throughout the vehicle. Cameras are integrated into what looks like a license plate holder at the back of the vehicle, as well as another set that are embedded behind the rearview mirror.

A third device with cameras is attached to the frame around the window of the door (see below).

Initially, this kit will be an aftermarket product; the company is starting with the 20 most popular car brands and will expand from there.

Ghost intends to set up retail spaces where a car owner can see the product and have it installed. But eventually, Hayes said, he believes the kit will become part of the vehicle itself, much like GPS or satellite radio has evolved.

While hardware is the most visible piece of Ghost, the company’s 75 employees have dedicated much of their time on the driving algorithm. It’s here, Hayes says, where Ghost stands apart.

How Ghost is building a driver

Ghost is not testing its self-driving system on public roads, an approach nearly every other AV company has taken. There are 63 companies in California that have received permits from the Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicle technology (always with a human safety driver behind the wheel) on public roads.

Ghost’s entire approach is based on an axiom that the human driver is fundamentally correct. It begins by collecting mass amounts of video data from kits that are installed on the cars of high-mileage drivers. Ghost then uses models to figure out what’s going on in the scene and combines that with other data, including how the person is driving by measuring the actions they take.

It doesn’t take long or much data to model ordinary driving, actions like staying in a lane, braking and changing lanes on a highway. But that doesn’t “solve” self-driving on highways because the hard part is how to build a driver that can handle the odd occurrences, such as swerving, or correct for those bad behaviors.

Ghost’s system uses machine learning to find more interesting scenarios in the reams of data it collects and builds training models based on them.

The company’s kits are already installed on the cars of high-mileage drivers like Uber and Lyft drivers and commuters. Ghost has recruited dozens of drivers and plans to have its kits in hundreds of cars by the end of the year. By next year, Hayes says the kits will be in thousands of cars, all for the purpose of collecting data.

The background of the executive team, including co-founder and CTO Volkmar Uhlig, as well as the rest of their employees, provides some hints as to how they’re approaching the software and its integration with hardware.

Employees are data scientists and engineers, not roboticists. A dive into their resumes on LinkedIn and not one comes from another autonomous vehicle company, which is unusual in this era of talent poaching.

For instance, Uhlig, who started his career at IBM Watson Research, co-founded Adello and was the architect behind the company’s programmatic media trading platform. Before that, he built Teza Technologies, a high-frequency trading platform. While earning his PhD in computer science he was part of a team that architected the L4 Pistachio microkernel, which is commercially deployed in more than 3 billion mobile Apple and Android devices.

If Ghost is able to validate its system — which Hayes says is baked into its entire approach — privately owned self-driving cars could be on the highways by next year. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could potentially step in, Ghost’s approach, like Tesla, hits a sweet spot of non-regulation. It’s a space, that Hayes notes, where the government has not yet chosen to regulate.

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Google will now pay up to $1.5 million for very specific Android exploits

Raghav Jain

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When Google first introduced its bug bounty program for Android, the biggest reward you could get for finding and reporting a potential exploit was $38,000.

The cap grew over time, as Android grew in popularity, more security researchers got on board and more vulnerabilities were unearthed. This morning, Google is bumping up its top reward to $1.5 million dollars.

They’re not going to pay out a million+ for just any bug, of course.

For this new reward category, Google is looking for “full chain remote code execution exploit with persistence which compromises the Titan M secure element on Pixel devices.” In other words, they’re looking for an exploit that, without the attacker having physical access to the device, can execute code even after a device is reset and breaks into the dedicated security chip built into the Pixels.

Reporting an exploit that fits that bill will get researchers up to $1 million. If they can do it on “specific developer preview versions” of Android, meanwhile, there’s a 50% bonus reward, bumping up the maximum prize up to $1.5 million.

Google first introduced the Titan M security chip with the Pixel 3. As Google outlines here, the chip’s job is essentially to supervise; it double-checks boot conditions, verifies firmware signatures, handles lock screen passcodes and tries to keep malicious apps from forcing your device to roll back to “older, potentially vulnerable” builds of Android. The same chip can be found in the Pixel 4 lineup.

Indeed, $1.5 million for a single exploit sounds like a lot… and it is. It’s roughly what Google paid out for all bug bounties in the last 12 months. The top reward this year, the company says, was $161,337 for a “1-click remote code execution exploit chain on the Pixel 3 device.” The average payout, meanwhile, was about $3,800 per finding. Given the potential severity of persistently busting through the security chip on what’s meant to be the flagship form of Android, though, a wild payout makes sense.

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