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June 25, 2019
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Daily Crunch: New MacBook Pros have a keyboard fix

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The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Apple announces new MacBook Pros with a keyboard fix, oh, and more powerful processors

Apple says it’s taking three steps to remedy the keyboard situation: It will be making a materials change to the MacBook Pro keyboard mechanism, it’s covering all butterfly keyboards across its notebook line in its Keyboard Service program and it’s improving the repair process in Apple Stores to make things faster.

The new laptops have more to offer than improved keyboards: Apple says the 15-inch MacBook Pro will run at double the speed of the previous quad-core models.

2. TransferWise now valued at $3.5B following a new $292M secondary round

While this is a secondary round (so no new cash is entering the TransferWise balance sheet), previous investors aren’t exiting — in fact, Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford are actually doubling down.

3. ARM halts Huawei relationship following US ban

The dominoes continue to fall for Huawei in the wake of a Trump-led U.S. trade ban.

4. Google says some G Suite user passwords were stored in plaintext since 2005

The search giant disclosed the exposure Tuesday but declined to say exactly how many enterprise customers were affected.

5. London’s Tube network to switch on Wi-Fi tracking by default in July

Transport for London writes that “secure, privacy-protected data collection will begin on July 8” — while touting additional services, such as improved alerts about delays and congestion, which it frames as “customer benefits,” as expected to launch “later in the year.”

6. Apple has a plan to make online ads more private

By taking the identifiable person out of the equation, Apple says its new technology can help preserve user privacy without reducing the effectiveness on ad campaigns.

7. The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

Last month, Getaround acquired Parisian peer-to-peer car rental service Drivy. For more details about what lies ahead for Drivy and the Paris startup scene, we spoke to Alven Capital partner Jeremy Uzan, who first invested in Drivy’s seed round in 2013. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Some MacBook Pro users complain about throttling issues

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The new MacBook Pro has a thermal issue. YouTuber Dave Lee found out that the top-performing MacBook Pro can’t operate at full speed for a long time because it gets too hot.

According to him, a video export in Adobe Premiere Pro is taking longer on a brand new MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i9 CPU than on a 2017 MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i7 CPU (previous Intel generation).

Sure, if you look at benchmarks, the new MacBook Pro destroys previous models, and even many iMacs. But Apple is throttling the speed of the CPU so that it doesn’t get too hot under heavy load.

Apple Insider tested the performance of the new MacBook Pro with a Core i7 and Core i9 model. In both instances, the clock speed of the CPU started to drop drastically after a while.

For the i9, the CPU dropped from 4.17 GHz to 2.33-2.9 GHz after some tests. The i7 dropped from 3.8 GHz to 2.3-2.6 GHz under load.

Some users on Reddit also got a new laptop and noticed the same issue:

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment and didn’t hear back.

If all those benchmarks are true, the MacBook Pro might have a ventilation problem. You will never get perfect CPU performances on a laptop compared to a desktop computer due to size contraints. But it becomes an issue when you buy a laptop expecting great performances and it doesn’t deliver.

Living with the new 15-inch MacBook Pro

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When reviewing hardware, it’s important to integrate it into your life as much as possible. If you can, swap it in for your existing devices for a few days or a week, to really get an idea of what it’s like to use it day to day.

There are certain nuances you can only discover through this approach. Of course, that’s easier said than done in most cases. Switching between phones and computers every week isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, especially when juggling multiple operating systems.

As a MacBook Pro owner, however, this one was a fair bit easier. In fact, there’s very little changed here from an aesthetic standpoint, and beyond the quieter keyboard and Siri integration, there’s not a lot that’s immediately apparent in the 2018 MacBook Pro refresh for me. That’s because I’m not the target demographic for the update. I write words for a living. There are large portions of my job that I could tackle pretty easily on an Apple IIe (please no one tell the IT department).

This upgrade is for a different class of user entirely: the creative professional. These are the people long assumed to be the core user base for the Mac ecosystem. Sure, they only account for around 15 percent of Mac users, according to the company’s estimates, but they’re the people who use the machines to make art. And as such, it’s precisely the group of influencers the company needs to court.

In recent years, however, some vocal critics have accused the company of taking that key demo for granted. Apple has seemed more focused on a populist approach to its technology. The simplification of pro software like Final Cut X and the seeming abandonment of the Mac Pro have been regarded as exhibits A and B.

For the first time in recent memory, the company has serious competition for the hearts and minds of creative pros, including Microsoft, which has made the category a focus with its high-end Surface line.

But the last two years have seen Apple fighting back. The company was uncharacteristically open about the status of the Mac Pro line, which has been undergoing a fundamental rethink. In the meantime, it released the iMac Pro and added a bunch of new features to macOS aimed firmly at that category.

The new MacBook Pro continues that trend; the form factor remains the same, and the changes are largely under the hood. But these are in fact extremely powerful machines but around the premise that, in 2018, one shouldn’t have to compromise power in order to go portable. Well, maybe a little — but in those cases where you need some intense graphical processing, there’s always an external GPU, which makes the machine capable of VR and other process-intensive tasks.

The new Pros top out at a bank-breaking $6,699, presenting a healthy jump over the highest-end models money could buy last year. For the rest of us, however, the starting price remains the same, at $1,799 for the 13-inch and $2,399 for the 15.

Keys to quiet

There’s a lot going on here. First, as many pointed out in the initial announcement, Apple didn’t alter the fundamentals here — they just made the loud typing a bit quieter. That was a surprise to many, given everything that’s happened on that front over the last several months. After all, if the company was going to go out of its way to update the technology, wasn’t a fundamental rethink in order here?

A couple of things. First, things (and lawsuits) didn’t really start getting hot and heavy on that front until recently. The first major class-action suit was filed back in May. Hardware iteration happens slowly, especially with a massive company that supports so many users. After all, you want to get things right — especially when correcting a known issue. A couple of months is hardly sufficient lead time.


Old keyboard

Second, Apple says the actual instances of real keyboard failure are a small minority. I’m inclined to believe that’s the case, though the internet certainly has the tendency to amplify these kinds of things. But still, there seems a reasonable possibility that some bigger fix is in the works.

The company will also point out that, in spite of pushback, many users like the new keyboards. Based on the multiple threads of discussion we had after the news was announced, I can tell you that this is anecdotally true among the TechCrunch staff.

Things got better with gen two, and I’ve certainly become more used to typing on it. I still didn’t love it at first, but I’d say I’m pretty much keyboard-agnostic at this point. I did have an issue with one key not working, but it was nothing a blast of canned air couldn’t fix. Another reason to always keep some lying around.

New keyboard

Along with the mechanics, the key travel is the same. So if you had issues with the typing being too shallow for your liking, sorry, you’re out of luck here. An early teardown points to a thin, silicone membrane sitting on top of the keyboard switch that serves to help protect the undercarriage from spills, food particles and the like. I once got a small piece of something stuck under there once, and it hampered movement entirely.

In my case, it was nothing that a blast of canned air couldn’t fix (we don’t all have one lying around, but we really should), but clearly not everyone has been so lucky on that front. It seems as though the muffling of the sound and the extra sense of tactile pushback was a happy accident of a kind here, but hey, we’ll take it.

Here’s a longish thing we wrote after getting our hands on the system. We enlisted Anthony Ha, TechCrunch’s Loud Typing World Champion five years running (they tried to recruit him out of college, but the allure of writing about VCs was too strong) to try it out. Even with Anthony downright punishing the keys, the result was noticeable.

The new keys aren’t silent, but they’re a lot less likely to get you kicked out of the library. There’s not a huge difference between the actual decibel levels between the two, but the older model’s more staccato typewriter clacking sound has become more dull and less harsh on the ears, which likely makes it sound that much quieter.

Another tidbit here for people who focused on such things: The keys’ cap color is ever-so-slightly lighter than the last. I thought I was going crazy at first, but there you go. I mean, I still think I’m losing my mind, but for non-keyboard-related reasons.

About those specs

Apple didn’t splurge on the specs with the review unit it sent along. The model sports:

  • 2.9 GHz Intel Core i9
  • 32 GB of DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 560X
  • 4TB of storage

Configured on Apple’s site, that will run you a cool $6,669 — about the same as the monthly rent on a studio apartment in San Francisco from what I understand. It’s worth noting here that it’s the SSD storage that really pushes the cost into the stratosphere. That’s an additional $3,200 over the default 512GB.

Again, 4TB is probably overkill for the vast majority of users. All of the above configurations are really, but they’re there if you want/need them. Apple was able to push memory up to 32GB courtesy of finally introducing DDR4 to the MacBook. That move does come with a hit to the battery life, however, so the company went ahead and increased the battery size to offset that hit.

The company says the laptop gets around 10 hours of use in its testing. I admittedly put it through something a bit more rigorous than standardized testing when incorporating it into my daily usage, recording a podcast on Skype, listening to music while working/browsing the web (it’s part of my job, I swear) and got a few hours less than that.

As for performance, Apple’s not messing around here. Running Geekbench 4 (a popular PC benchmark), I got an impressive 5540 on the single core and 233345 with the multi core test. Geekbench got similar — if slightly lower — results in its own tests on the high-end. Here’s founder John Poole on the findings:

For the 15-inch models, single-core performance is up 12-15%, and multi-core performance is up 39-46%. Since the underlying processor architecture hasn’t significantly changed between the 2017 and 2018 models, the increases in performance are due to higher Turbo Boost frequencies, more cores, and DDR4 memory.

The 2018 MacBook Pro is the most substantial upgrade (at least regarding performance) since the introduction of quad-core processors in the 2011 MacBook Pro.

Taken together, that represents a significant upgrade from last year’s model. Individual performance will vary depending on a lot of different topics, but there’s no doubt these are powerful machines.

Hey, Siri

The addition of hands-free Siri functionality didn’t get a lot of play here, but it’s an important one — if not for the computer itself, then for Apple’s broader ambitions. Like Google’s play, Siri was mobile first.

But Apple’s assistant has always been about building a broader ecosystem of contextual search that can help the company tailor its offerings to individual user needs. We saw this manifest itself last year with the addition of HomePod, a typically Apple high-end approach to the insanely popular world of smart speakers.

The assistant has actually been available on macOS since Sierra (10.12) rolled out back in late 2016. This, however, marks the first time hands-free voice interaction has been available on the desktop. Apple says it was the T2, introduced on the iMac Pro, which allowed for the capability — just one of an extremely long list of features the company has offloaded on the proprietary chip.

Like other key features, Siri is enabled during setup. If you’re the sort who sticks masking tape over your webcam, you can also simply opt out of having the MacBook’s microphones listening in for the wake word. And you can always untick the “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” box in Settings.

Setup is more or less the same as on iOS. You’ll be prompted to speak a couple of phrases to train the AI on your voice. Device interaction functions similarly as other assistant hardware ecosystems. The moment you say, “Hey, Siri,” your iPhone/Mac/HomePod, et al. communicate with one prioritize either the device the heard the query the best (likely the closest) or was most recently used.

I ended up disabling the feature on my phone in order to test it on the desktop, because there were too many instances of the phone picking it up or having Siri pop up on both at once and then disappearing on the one that was de-prioritized. When the feature was switched off the phone, however, its desktop counterpart was plenty responsive.

All of this leads to a key question: Is a desktop smart assistant ultimately very useful? The primary driver of voice functionality is the ability free up your hands from having to type. Presumably, however, you’ve already got your hands at or near the keyboard if you’re close enough for Siri to hear you.

Multitasking seems to be the primary use-case here. Say you’re typing and want to know the weather or find movie times, you can definitely do that. Ditto for sports scores — it took a query or two, but “did the A’s win yesterday?” got me the answer I wanted, with a conversation reply, “the Athletics eked out a win over the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series by a score of 4 to 3 yesterday.”

Hey Siri, a win is a win, okay?

Multimedia functionality, which seems like one of the most logical applications, is still limited here. Siri will find and play things in Apple Music, but ask her to play something on Spotify and that’s a no-go — you’ll get an Apple Music link and Wikipedia entry instead. Siri knows which side her bread is buttered on. Ask her to play a movie and she’ll confess that she can’t do that.

More functionality is surely on the way. For now, however, Siri on the desktop is more a nice addition than necessary feature.

Toning it down

Like Siri, True Tone is opt-in during the setup process. You can toggle it on and off at the beginning, which I suggest, just so you know what you’re getting yourselves into. And like Siri you can always go back into settings later to adjust if it’s not to your liking. Clicking Option and the Touch Bar bright icon will get you there, as well.

The effect, which debuted on the iPad Pro (and rolled out to other new iOS devices) utilizes a light sensor (new for the Mac) to determine the ambient color and brightness of its surroundings. It’s a sort of more sophisticated version of the brightness detection Apple computers have had on board for some time now.

If you’ve ever fiddled with a camera (even the one on your phone in most cases), you recognize the importance of white balance. That’s the thing that turns objects weird colors when you step into different lighting settings. It’s a key to perceiving contrast getting lifelike reproductions of images. I have two 15-inch MacBooks in front of me right now (that’s just how I roll), and it’s like night and day. You’ve got no idea how blue the screen you’ve been staring at is until you see it up against another True Tone-enabled display.

For a majority of us, it’s a nice feature, but for photographers, video producers and designers who rely on a MacBook for their work, it’s a much bigger deal. As recently published support documents point out, the feature will also work with a handful of secondary displays, including Apple’s own, and LG’s Ultrafine 4K and 5K.

Upgrade time?

I’m staring at my now 2017 MacBook Pro as I type this. It’s always tough to compete with the latest and greatest, especially when it’s been specked out like crazy. I’m going to miss the quieter keyboard and True Tone display, for sure. Hands-free Siri, I can really take or leave at the moment based on current functionality.

But I’m not ready for upgrade just yet. For a majority of users, the upgrades on the high end will mostly amount to overkill. Thankfully, however, the low-end price points remain the same at $1,799 and $2,399 for the 13- and 15-inch, respectively.

Those who expect a lot more from their machines will no doubt be excited to see what these laptops can do. The new MacBooks aren’t a fundamental rethink by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re a welcome acknowledgment that the company still considers creative pros a key part of its DNA.

Apple’s MacBook Pro refresh puts the focus back on creative pros

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New MacBook Pros seemed like a no-brainer for WWDC. Like the rest of the company’s hardware line, however, they were a no-show. Sure, Apple used the opportunity to reaffirm its comment to creative professionals — perhaps most notably in the form of some key macOS updates — but there were no new devices available to take advantage of those new features.

The company is addressing that today with its first major hardware release since its big developer conference. Like Mojave, updates to the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models with Touch Bars find the company tipping its hats to creative pros, a key demo long understood to be the core to Apple’s user base.

Nothing has changed on the outside. The new Pros are indistinguishable from last year’s model. As is the case with a majority of updates to the line, all of the really important stuff is happening inside. And these are, indeed, formidable machines. You get a six-core Intel Core i7 or i9 on the bigger machine, backed with up to 4TB of storage and up to 32GB of memory — the latter of which required the company to upgrade from DDR3 to DDR4 memory.

That move means a hit to battery life, so the company boosted the battery by an additional 7.7 watt hours. For most users that should mean around the same battery life they would have gotten with the last generation. The 13-inch with Touch Bar gets a similar treatment, bumping up to a quad-core i5 or i7 and up to 2TB of SSD storage.

Apple says it’s still committed to the version without the Touch Bar, but it’s going to have to sit out this round of updates, for the time being.

In case there was any doubt who Apple might be going after with these new models, the company introduced us tech writers to a number of creative pros, whose work runs the gamut from micro neurology (UCSF professor Saul Katoto) to performance art (Aaron Axelrod) to gigapixel imagery (Lucas Gilman). If nothing else, it’s a reminder of just how many fields the admittedly generic “creative professional” tag touches — and why it’s such an important market, both in terms of cache and reach.

It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the overall PC market (around 15 percent by the company’s estimates), but these people are influencers, a title that extends beyond just their output. For every prominent EDM producer (Oak Felder) or music video director (Carlos Perez), there are countless budding artists looking for the right tools for the trade.

Apple had the category on virtual lock for decades, but recent years left some wondering whether the company had begun to take those users for granted. Between simplistic updates to popular platforms like Final Cut and the aimlessness of the Mac Pro line signaled to some devotees that the company had perhaps become complacent, opening up a potential vacuum that Microsoft was more than happy to attempt to fill with its Surface line.

Last year, however, the company took a stand. In April, it offered a rare peek behind its infamously impenetrable curtain, with a refreshing candid conversation about the Mac Pro line. The company offered an uncharacteristic apology for pausing production to “completely rethin[k]” the desktop, according to Phil Schiller. In its stead, the company announced the iMac Pro, a “love letter to developers,” in the words of our video producer, Veanne, who was understandably bummed to return our review unit.

The all-in-one was less of a consolatory gesture than it initially appeared. It was a truly formidable powerhouse in a familiar form factor. And while the company continued fiddling with the aforementioned Mac Pro reset button, it remained the sole representative of Apple’s new offensive. The new MacBook Pros are intended to be the next piece in that puzzle, inheriting a number of features that debuted in that space-gray iMac.

Chief among them is the T2 — a proprietary chip designed to supplement some of the heavy lifting done by Intel’s silicon. The list of jobs managed by the chip is a pretty long one, including everything from audio systems and disk drives to improved tone mapping and face detection in FaceTime.

There’s an important security element on here, as well. From Apple’s press material:

T2 also makes iMac Pro even more secure, thanks to a Secure Enclave coprocessor that provides the foundation for new encrypted storage and secure boot capabilities. The data on your SSD is encrypted using dedicated AES hardware with no effect on the SSD’s performance, while keeping the Intel Xeon processor free for your compute tasks. And secure boot ensures that the lowest levels of software aren’t tampered with and that only operating system software trusted by Apple loads at startup.

Interestingly, Apple’s putting it to even more use here, enabling “hey Siri” on macOS for the first time. It’s an optional addition that you can enable during the setup process, but once it’s on, it will work like any Siri-enabled device, working in tandem with the iPhone and HomePod and giving preference to the microphone in closest proximity. It’s similar to desktop implementations of assistants like Cortana and the Pixelbook’s use of Google Assistant.

True Tone, meanwhile, was borrowed from another source entirely. That one debuted on the iPad back in 2016, bringing with it an automatic temperature adjustment, based on ambient surroundings. Given how aggressively the company has gone after photo and video editors, it’s honestly a bit surprising that the company didn’t embrace the technology earlier for the desktop. It’s one of those features that doesn’t seem particularly important until you use it. Once you’ve got it, however, you wonder how you managed to go so long without it.

Really though, it’s those performance boosts that Apple’s small army of creative pros kept touting over and over at this week’s event. The phrase “cuts the time in half” was the most common phrase bandied about, whether it was the trio of developers (Leah Culver, Akshaya Dinesh and John Ciocca), running simulations of iOS apps or University of Utah Assistant Professor Janet Iwasa rendering complex animated representations of molecular biology.

For Apple, all of this is designed to make a broader point that such complex tasks no longer require that a professional be tethered to a work station. It’s an enticing concept. Over the past decade, smartphones have liberated a number of tasks (the question of how they’ve simultaneously tethered us is one for another day), so it only makes sense that we’d ask similar things of our PCs.

Of course, for a number of pros, the laptop still won’t replace the processing power of a high-end workstation, but the leaps it made in portable computing over the past several generations is certainly impressive, and the new MacBook Pros are nothing if not formidable machines.

Their ability to support two 5K displays and an external GPU through Thunderbolt 3, meanwhile, delivers the promise of modularity. Many of the aforementioned creative types praised the ability to plug and play into a desktop for all of the heavy lifting and tossing the system in a backpack to have it by their side when inspiration strikes.

It’s all part of a difficult balance for Apple. A majority of users will never edit 4K feature films or develop VR games. For most of us, the truly high-end upgrades will have little impact on our day-to-day use. Though the addition of Siri functionality and that newer, quieter keyboard are certainly welcome.

Catering to pros, meanwhile, is the sort of thing that pays off in spades down the road, much like Apple’s longstanding education play. The company was seen as taking its eye off the ball and allowed the competition to usurp some of that ownership. With the iMac and MacBook Pros, coupled with those upcoming macOS updates, the company is making it clear that the category is still a key to Apple’s future.

The 13- and 15-inch models go on sale today, starting at $1,799 and $2,399, respectively.

OmniHub tries to fix the MacBook Pro’s port shortage with magnets and modules

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Earlier this month, my five-year-old MacBook Pro finally gave up the ghost. After traveling the world and surviving several CESes, it was time to finally lay the thing to rest. I had some misgivings about replacing the old workhorse with one of the new models, not the least of which was the company’s fairly unpopular decision to ditch all existing ports for a quartet of ThunderBolt 3 ports, which felt a bit like trading in a cow for a pocketful of magic beans.

I’ve just been at too many events/live blogs in the past couple of years where some fellow reporter is kicking themselves for leaving some ever-important dongle back in the hotel room. So I’ve had some adapters sitting in my Amazon shopping basket until the time came to officially pull the trigger on the new computer — the $100 HyperDrive Hub being the top contender.

But then a representative from MadHub dropped in with perfect timing with word of the company’s new upcoming Kickstarter campaign for the OmniHub. The system is a magnetic, modular solution to the problem of never having the right ports. From a design standpoint, it looks an awful lot like the HyperDrive and any number of competitors. It’s a long, thin ledge that plugs into the side of the MacBook, extending the surface area out a bit. It’s a much more elegant solution than having a bunch of extra cables dangling down from the side of the computer.

Where the OmniHub looks to set itself apart is the concept of modularity. In other words, why be stuck with the default array of ports on one of these systems, when you can mix and match to get what you need? It’s also more compact, for those times when you don’t need to bring everything along, and works with more systems, including the upcoming Google Pixelbook, because it doesn’t have the two USB-C jacks on the back.

I’m not sure how useful that last point ultimately is for most people. I don’t expect that too many folks are going to be swapping these peripherals from system to system. But there’s certainly appeal to the first two points. I don’t really have much use for an HDMI module right now, but I need an SD card reader, and I’ll take all of the standard USB ports I can get. So treating port selection like a salad bar sounds pretty great.

Of course, this is a Kickstarter campaign, so the selection is pretty limited. There are three modules at the moment: One with SD/micro SD, two USB 3.1 ports and a USB-C on the side, one with an HDMI and USB-C and one with DP video and USB-C. Hopefully, if all goes well with the campaign, the company will add more choices. MadHub sent the first two along for review purposes — both are pre-production, so my results were honesty a bit mixed.

The company is still working on the paint job — which is a good thing, because my units arrived scuffed, in spite of being sent along in super-protective casing. And the silver coloring didn’t quite match the shade of my new MacBook, though you’ve really got to be paying attention to notice, so that seems a bit nit-picky. The magnetic connector was also a bit weak, though that’s something the company assures me it’s working on for the final product.

The hub doesn’t quite lay flush with the keyboard casing and juts out from the back if you have  two in at once. The fact that each module is held in by a single port also means that the platform moves around as you plug and unplug things. Also, I had a little trouble with one of the USB 3.1 ports — I had to pull the cable out a millimeter or so in order to get the charge going. These are all things the company will hopefully address in the shipping version of the product.

There are some nice touches on board, as well. The port layout is well-thought-out so you can work with multiple modules at once. There’s also a nice green glow that emanates from the ports, making it easier to find them in the dark.

You can get in on the ports for pretty cheap if you support the Kickstarter. Otherwise, they’re a bit pricey compared to some of the other non-modular competition. A USB and HDMI combo should retail around $108, while all three together are expected to go for $158. If all goes according to plan, it should start shipping by the end of the year.

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