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Apple debuts new iPad Pro alongside revamped MacBook Airs

... and also the return of the (mini) Mac.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: The Brooklyn Academy of Music hosts an Apple launch event on October 30, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Apple debuted a new MacBook Pro, Mac Mini and iPad Pro. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
  • Inside the new iPad Pros are the new A12x Bionic chip, which are apparently faster than 92% of the laptops out there.
  • MacBook Airs come with Retina display, first true update in 8 years.
  • The iPad Pro starts at $799 while the MacBook Air starts at $1,199.

Apple product launches are sort of like sports drafts in that there's a lot of pageantry and hullabaloo surrounding what is ostensibly just an introduction to a slightly updated lineup. 99.5% of the people out there are going to be doing roughly the same thing they're doing on these new machines as they are on their current ones, so it's not that big a deal—right?

Well... perhaps it is this time. Apple just launched not one but three updates to its lineup: new iPad Pros, updated MacBook Airs, and even a revamp of the Mac Mini.

Watch the full keynote event here.


The new iPad Pro 

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Apple unveils a new iPad Pro with new Apple Pencil during a launch event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 30, 2018 in New York City. Apple also debuted a new MacBook Air and Mac Mini.

(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

This is probably the biggest deal of the three. It not only looks futuristic, but it's... well... it's super cool. It has a processor that's faster than most desktop computers and as much graphics power as the latest XBox, in a package that's just a few millimeters thick and the size of a piece of paper. That's pretty incredible.

The keynote spent some time showing just how good this is as a gaming device, too, with a vaguely humorous demonstration of what 2K Games' NBA 2K looks like on the new iPad Pro. You can really see every bead of sweat on the players and movement in the stands, a far-cry from the crummy graphics of most mobile games.

It looks like last year's iPhone X, itself a big deal, and for good reason. Anyone who has used an iPhone X (or XS or XR) can attest to how quickly the gesture system starts to feel natural—there's no reason to go back to the home button after you use this thing. At risk of sounding too hyperbolic, this update turns the iPad from a "squashed / really big iPhone" into a laptop replacement. This is arguably what computers will look like in five years; the kind of design that actually looks like it's from the future.

  • Comes in both 11" and 12.9" sizes. The 11" is the same body size as the 10.5" previous generation of iPad Pros, just the screen is bigger. The 12.9" size is almost exactly the size, measured diagonally across, as an 8"x11" piece of paper.
  • The A12X Bionic chip is by all accounts one of the fastest mass market chips out there. It's faster than those in Apple's iPhone XS, and can handle "up to five trillion operations a second". Which is a lot, I'm told. The keynote addressed that the A12X Bionic is faster than 92% of current notebook computers out there.
  • The new iPad Pro is unlockable no matter how you hold it.
  • USB-C should alleviate charging problems, as they are much more energy efficient than lightning. Likewise, battery is advertised as "all day battery" — in the real world, though, that should amount to anywhere between 6 hours (heavy use) to 12 hours (simple use).
  • An updated Apple Pencil can now respond to 'tap' gestures. Which is great for illustrators who want to switch brushes on the fly. Or writers who want to erase things quickly. It also fits magnetically on the iPad and charges accordingly. This is a big deal for anyone who was thrown off by the previous Apple Pencil, which had to be charged by plugging into the iPad (and anyone like me who lost the top quickly).

To put some of those numbers into perspective, the A12X Bionic chip is 40% faster than the A11 chip, which was in the last iPad Pros. So you're looking at a dramatic increase in power, looks, and usability.

Updated MacBook Airs

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple unveils a new MacBook Air during a launch event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 30, 2018 in New York City. This is Apple's first full upgrade of the laptop in three years.

(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

MacBook Airs got an update about three years ago, getting marginally bumped up specs so that they could continue to be used with Apple's ever-evolving operating system. These new puppies, the 2018 MacBook Airs, however, get way bigger updates that put the old machines out to pasture. But before you get too excited, remember that this is the MacBook Air and thus doesn't have nearly the top-notch technical specs as the MacBook Pro.

  • Touch ID! Now you can use your laptop just as you would your, um, iPhone 8!
  • Expectations were that there'd be quad-core CPUs, but instead we've got dual-core Intel Core Y-series CPUs. Don't ask me to explain what that means (I'm a writer, and if you need help describing what a cloud look likes I'm your guy), but from what I've researched it's about as fast as the top-of-the-line 2015 MacBook Pros. For most people who will be using this, this is all you really need to surf the web, check your emails, and do some light video-editing. But it's by no means the fastest Apple has.
  • Retina display, on a machine this light, is the biggest draw. That translates to 48% more colors in terms of range, and this is most likely what will be the 'wow' factor for buyers.
  • Smaller bezels mean more screen size, and an updated trackpad means more usability.
  • Speakers have been updated to be 25% louder with twice as much bass.

This could be the go-to option for most people looking for a new laptop. The Air line is Apple's most popular laptop line for a reason: they're light enough to throw into a backpack or bag without thinking twice and fast enough for almost everyone.

Ask yourself how much audio editing or video editing you're really going to be doing over the next 3 to 5 years. If the answer is less than one Drake album or one family vacation video, chances are the MacBook Air is going to be your next laptop.

Return of the Mac (Mini)

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple unveils a new Mac Mini during a special event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House October 30, 2018, in New York.

(Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Sing it now... the return of the (mini) Mac! Mac Mini's are the caffeine-free-Diet-Coke of the Apple empire; if you love 'em, you're part of a small but die-hard fanbase. They get the job(s) done. Nobody is going to be wowed by one on your desk. But string a few of them together (really—during the keynote, Tim Cook briefly showed a picture of an entire server farm full of them) and you've got an insanely powerful productivity team. At $799 they are considerably cheaper and more powerful than the MacBook Air by some degree, but don't forget these roughly sandwich-sized computers don't come with a display.

But, it's worth mentioning, the last time these were updated was 2014. That was so long ago! There were midterm elections! An ebola outbreak in NYC! Pharrell wore a silly hat! Given that Apple has had four years to tinker with the Mini, what are you getting with the 2018 models?

  • Snark aside, these are 5x faster than the previous line of Mac Minis. That's a huge jump, making them twice as powerful as the 2018 MacBook Airs.
  • They're made with 100% recycled aluminum, apparently using leftover aluminum from the new iPad Pro line.
  • One of the best things about the Mac Mini is its ability to connect to pretty much anything you throw at it. An HDMI 2.0 port means you could theoretically connect it to any 4K TV (or other display) and have a giant workspace for a fraction of the price of a huge display. Meanwhile, two USB-A ports, an audio jack, and Gigabit Ethernet round out the connections.
  • A T2 security chip makes this the machine you want on your desk if you want to keep your files safe. It adds security, meaning that hackers won't be able to listen in on your microphone. And hacking overall should be way, way more difficult, according to TechCrunch.

Ideally, this is the kind of thing you'd buy 20 of if you were starting a start-up. They're workhorses, and can handle 4K video editing easily without slowing down the rest of your workflow too much.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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