PCH International’s Highway 1 Is Looking For A Few Good Hardware Startups

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Highway 1, an incubator/accelerator run by Brady Forrest and underwritten by electronics powerhouse PCH International, is beginning its Spring Applications process and will close applications after TC’s Hardware Battlefield in Las Vegas.

“Our goal remains the same: to teach startups how to be hardware companies,” said Forrest.

The incubator helps build businesses by supplying funds, introductions, and an education in design, prototyping, and mentorship. The group is looking for international teams.

“Our Fall class is comprised of 11 teams with members from China, Portugal, Ireland, South Africa, US, & Canada. We want this expansion to come internationally. To that end we’ll be doing a tour US, European and Asian cities this year. I am personally going to be visiting visiting maker spaces in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijng, Shanghai, Paris, London, Los Angeles and Seattle.”

This session they are looking for 15 companies. Each company receives seed Funding of $ 20,000 in return for 3-6% equity. “I am looking for more companies that are going to use hardware as a platform. We’re also doubling down on wearables and health tech. We’re looking for non-profits this time as well.” You can apply here.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Nvidia Adds Console Mode To Outclass The Ouya, Updates To Android 4.3

Nvidia has updated its Shield Android-based mobile game console to add a host of new features, one of which is very interesting in terms of how it might affect the growing Android-based home game console market. For users, it’s a very nice update that adds a lot of worthwhile functionality, and for Nvidia, it’s reaffirmation that this is a real platform, not just a demonstration device designed to entice OEMs.

Along with the above, this update also adds the official, non-beta release of Shield’s Gamestream PC gameplay streaming service, which plugs into Steam to let users play full PC games on their device streaming at up to 60fps over a local Wi-Fi network. Plus, you can shift full app and game files from the local storage to an external micro SD card, which clears up space, and the Home button now provides access to both recently opened apps and Google Now.

One other new feature available today is ‘Gamepad Mapper,’ which aims to answer the question of what to do with games that don’t support game controllers out of the box. It gets around that by allowing users to go through and manually map touchscreen controls to the Shield’s hardware buttons, d-pad and joysticks, and in fact it does it automatically for many of the top games already available. It’s still not the perfect solution (i.e., all game makers building support for Shield right into their code), but it does make games that would otherwise be completely unplayable, playable.

The Gamestream feature now supports over 50 titles with its official launch (and others unofficially) and feels even more polished than it did the first time I used it. Barring any other considerations around the Shield, the PC streaming is a huge benefit to anyone who finds themselves glued to their PC for hours addicted to new games; being able to take that with you anywhere around the house you want to go is a huge boon.

The other big advantage here is Console Mode, which adds to the basic HDMI-out functionality to turn Shield into a full-fledged living room console. It’s designed to work with partner Nyko’s PlayPad Pro wireless Bluetooth controller specifically, but it should work with any Android Bluetooth controller. The PlayPad Pro was designed in conjunction with Nvidia, however, which makes it more likely to be fully compatible with Tegra-optimized game titles.

Now you can tap the new Console Mode icon to run it on the TV, and also the controller now wakes from sleep when connected to a TV, even if the clamshell is closed. Because of its software support and the way it just works without requiring all that much in terms of additional work on the part of developers, this makes it a very compelling alternative to Ouya. Full 1080p output is coming via an update, and best of all, you can unplug it and take it with you wherever you go, and play without a TV, too. Shield might be $ 200 more than the Ouya, but this new console mode makes it a much better value overall, in my opinion. It’s already my travel console of choice, and really helps those boring nights in hotels on business trips.


TechCrunch » Android

Hands On With The Afinia H-Series 3D Printer, A Rugged Printing Rig For Home And School

In the kennel of 3D printers, I’d equate the oddly-shaped and homegrown RepRap printers to lovable mutts. The Makerbot is a golden retriever, ready to please. And the $ 1,599 Afinia H-Series is a solid, scrappy Jack Russell terrier, willing to get dirty and able to take on all comers.

The H-Series looks like it was built by the same industrial design team that built the original metal-clad Apple IIs. The device is almost entirely self-contained and there are none of the familiar cables running up and down the various arms and cams. The print head is connected via a large wire ribbon to the control board and shielded by a 3D-printed plastic screen that keeps the .15mm print head protected. The spool sits on a fairly solid hook on the side of the machine and the plastic runs through a guide into the extruder. In short, there are very few visible moving parts, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

The H-Series is a great beginners’ printer and the rugged case makes it an excellent contender for a true classroom 3D printer. It looks and feels as solid as, say, an industrial educational microscope or similar lab gear and, given a choice, I’d far prefer it over a similarly outfitted but more exposed system like the many RepRap hardware. That said, the home hobbyist may be put off by the lack of visible access to the extruder and motors, two points of failure that often require maintenance. This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get into the extruder and pull out broken filament, for example, but it’s definitely a bit of a hindrance.

As for print quality, it was a mixed bag but erred on the side of excellent. On very simple prints everything worked swimmingly. The .15mm size produces a smooth, solid print in objects that fit within the fairly limited 5-inch square print envelope. However, bigger objects are problematic as you have to slice them a bit to get them to fit and, unlike the Makerbot, you don’t have much room to print multiple objects on one plate.

In terms of torture testing the printer I came away sufficiently impressed, but if you’re printing very complex objects this is probably not for you. This is my printer torture test object. It’s 100 layers tall and consists of a number of very fiddly little shapes that throw off most printers. The Makerbot can barely complete this without artifacts. How did the Afinia do? The results, while not perfect, were more than acceptable given the price and the materials available. No amount of fine-tuning could force the printer to create a better version of this print.

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The Torture Test model, on the other hand, printed just fine. In general the printer can produce some very solid output but it is stymied by the limitations imposed by additive printing and the problems associated with ABS filament.

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Given that the H-Series is facing a number of competitors in the 3D printing space, it’s important to understand how this model stacks up. It has a very small build envelope, which could be problematic, but because we’re not talking about an industrial printer here this can be forgiven. It’s half the price of similarly outfitted 3D printers but you are limited to ABS printing and it only includes one extruder. However, because it’s quite small it’s far easier to store than other models and can sit unobtrusively on a desk where others systems hulk menacingly.

I ran into a few problems with the software, however, which should give Mac users pause. The OS X versions of the software worked intermittently and the app didn’t work at all on Windows 8. It works best on Windows 7, which I ended up running in a virtual machine on my Mac just to get anything to print.

Compared to other software packages I’ve used the phrase “Better than nothing” comes to mind when I look at Afinia’s solution. There is no interactive scaling – to scale an object you select a size multiplier (.8, 1.2, etc) and press scale. The same unintuitive system is used to move and rotate objects on the bed. However, when all you want to do is print something small it works just fine. The 3D printer software is often an afterthought and, while I wasn’t impressed by its utility, I was able to use it and print with it without much trouble.

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Is this the 3D printer for you? If you’re an educator or home hobbyist, I think this is $ 1,500 well spent. Serious hobbyists may want to consider a printer that does PLA and ABS, however, and the build envelope is very small on this machine, thereby limiting what you can print in one piece. However it is very quiet, sturdy, and usable and I was very impressed with the build quality and utility. It’s not the best 3D printer out there, but in many respects it comes very close.

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TechCrunch » Gadgets

This Week On The TechCrunch Droidcast: Google’s Plan For Hangouts And Motorola’s Modular Future

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To paraphrase the one and only Gloria Gaynor, Darrell and I are back from outer space for yet another edition of the TechCrunch Droidcast. Well maybe not outer space per se, but the two of us have had to spend some time far from home and we couldn’t get together to record a show last week. For that you have our deepest apologies.

But if it’s any consolation, my trusty co-host and I had a real blast putting this week’s episode together. This time around we tackle Google’s savvy changes to its Hangouts Android app, Lenovo’s curious new tablets (complete with a dose of Ashton Kutcher), Motorola’s crazy-exciting dive into modular smartphones, and a little bit of love for the Nvidia Shield. And yes, in case you were wondering, that last bit was Darrell’s idea.

The world of Android is a weird and wild one, and we’re glad to be back digging through it. Join us, won’t you?

We invite you to enjoy weekly Android podcasts every Wednesday (or Thursday this week) at 5:30 p.m. Eastern and 2:30 p.m. Pacific, in addition to our weekly Gadgets podcast at 3 p.m. Eastern and noon Pacific on Fridays. Subscribe to the TechCrunch Droidcast in iTunes, too, if that’s your fancy.

Intro music by Kris Keyser.

Direct download available here.


TechCrunch » Android

Cambridge Audio Minx Xi Review: Give All Your Digital Audio A Big Upgrade – For A Price

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UK-based Cambridge Audio has long made very well-regarded high-end audio equipment, but recently that’s a market that has changed considerably, thanks to the advent of digital audio and online streaming services. The company has changed, too, and one example of that change is the new Minx Xi all-in one streaming device, which adds to Cambridge Audio’s growing family of digital-focused Minx products.

Basics

  • Wi-Fi & Ethernet
  • 2x USB 2.0
  • Toslink Optical audio in
  • Digital S/PIDF input
  • BT100 Bluetooth receiver included
  • 2x RCA inputs
  • 3.5mm audio input
  • Headphone out
  • 2x speaker out
  • Subwoofer out
  • Built-in Dual Wolfson WM8728 DAC
  • MSRP: £600, $ 899 in the U.S.
  • Product info page

Pros

  • Excellent sound
  • DAC works wonders for Bluetooth or when connected via optical to a Mac

Cons

  • Wi-Fi but no AirPlay support

Design

Cambridge’s Minx Xi is not dramatically different from what you might expect of any home theatre or hi-fi stereo component device; it’s essentially a black box (or white, if you choose that option) with ample venting on top, a face with knobs and buttons, and a rear with the majority of inputs and outputs. But small design flourishes make this a very attractive, and decidedly modern piece of stereo kit.

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The rounded rectangle border that surrounds the face is a nice touch, and frames the tall and wide display nicely. The display itself provides just enough information for easy navigation, without overwhelming or drawing the eye unduly. The low-res, basic LCD readout is a little behind the times in a market flooded with OLED panels, but it’s actually pretty refreshing in its retro appeal, and still gets the job done just as effectively as more advanced screens.

The Minx Xi case houses a lot of complicated internals, but it’s still relatively compact, and would look at home either in a stereo cabinet or on its own atop a dresser, bookshelf or cupboard. Paired with Cambridge Audio’s new Aero 2 bookshelf speakers, it makes a good-looking and minimalist setup that’s still capable of putting out impressive enough sound even for watching the occasional Hollywood blockbuster.

Features

Movies are now where the Minx Xi shines, however. Instead, it’s at its most impressive when it’s working with streaming audio, an area that’s always a challenge when it comes to sound quality. The Minx Xi connects direct to your network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, and can stream thousands of Internet radio stations directly, access BBC’s iPlayer feeds, subscribe to podcasts and more – without the need for a computer or mobile device for playback.

The Minx Xi does a great job of making even, for example, the 128kbps BBC Radio 4 stream sound excellent, with terrific channel division and a natural rendering of voice and music. If you’ve been listening on computer speakers or even a very capable standalone radio, you’ll probably actually be amazed that what comes through the Minx Xi is the same thing as what you’re used to listening to, the difference is that marked.

Subscribing to podcasts on the Minx Xi is as simple as registering your unit via the web and inputting RSS feeds via that dashboard. This provides you direct access to the latest episodes, and again, its ability to really highlight high-quality voice recording comes through.

The Bluetooth adapter included is external, but it doesn’t cost any extra, and it works tremendously well. There’s generally a big step down in quality when you’re listening to anything streaming via Bluetooth, even though it’s gotten a lot better over time. With Cambridge’s BT100 and the Minx Xi’s special Bluetooth DAC capabilities, performance of A2DP streams get a big boost.

Performance

Just to expand on what I already mentioned above, the Bluetooth streaming powers of the Minx Xi make it so that streaming from your mobile device and listening through headphones is in some cases arguably better than listening to the stream on the device itself. It really is that good. That said, it leaves me wishing even more that Cambridge had included AirPlay functionality on the Minx Xi, since Apple’s Wi-Fi audio streaming protocol offers better performance than Bluetooth to begin with.

Performance for streamed connections is excellent, as mentioned, with 802.11n support and no drop-outs for streams during my usage. Connected to my Mac as a DAC, and used in tandem with both the Aero 2 speakers and my Sennheiser HD 598 headphones, the Minx Xi really starts to show off its magic abilities in terms of boosting audio that you might not even have realized could be improved to begin with.

With both locally resident files, and streaming services like Rdio, the Minx Xi delivers noticeable improvements in quality to attached audio output devices, versus having that same hardware simply plugged directly into the Mac. There’s significant improvement in sound separation and clarity on all files and streams, in my testing experience.

Bottom Line

The Cambridge Minx Xi isn’t an impulse purchase for most at £600 ($ 899 MSRP in the U.S.), but it’s a big step up in terms of the audio quality not only for Internet radio and service streams, and also for connected computers and devices. The service library is a little limited for my liking (Pandora and Rhapsody, but no Rdio/Spotify!), and I’d love AirPlay, but Cambridge Audio does say that firmware updates will be pushed out regularly, and support for those kinds of things could follow.

That fact that it improves any source dramatically with a built-in DAC that would be expensive on its own, and also operates as a very capable and fairly comprehensive audio streaming box in and of itself, makes this a very desirable piece of kit for anyone looking to take their digital listening habits to the next level.

TechCrunch » Gadgets