Best of the week’s news 4 November 2016: analysis from E&T’s editorial staff

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Apple’s MacBook Pro adds touch bar, but high prices cause Twitter backlash

So Apple has finally updated its MacBook Pro after four years of sticking with the same design. The update is long overdue - since then they’ve just updated the model each year with the latest Intel processor and assumed that would do. Don’t get me wrong, when the retina redesign was first released in 2012, it was exceptional. The display was beautiful, the unibody aluminium design was classy and robust, and it looked cooler than any other laptop out there.

But tech moves fast and a lot has changed in four years. In the intervening time, Windows laptop manufacturers have upped their game and have released some really stellar hardware that has slowly eroded the Pro’s appeal. In that time, Apple seemed content to focus on iPhones and iPads while paying very little attention to its Mac OS line up. This may make business sense since those are the real money spinners, but Mac OS fanboys became increasingly frustrated.

So this update is long overdue. At the event announcing the new hardware, Apple banged on and on about shaving small amounts of girth from the device and they also added a ‘Touch Bar’, a nod to functionality found on iOS devices. To be fair to Apple, the Touch Bar does represent a new, unique feature, but many Windows laptops now opt for full touch functionality on their main screen in light of Microsoft’s touch-friendly Windows redesign, unlike Mac OS’s decidedly mouse-based interface.

While the hardware was underwhelming, even opting to use outdated Nvidia graphics chips in the interests of shipping the new laptops sooner, the most offensive part of the reveal was the price. The bottom spec’d model with the Touch Bar included starts at £1749. Who are they trying to sell these to? Maybe they’re shifting focus towards solely oligarchs and sheiks, which seems misguided considering that’s a pretty small market.

Apple failed to bring anywhere near enough exciting new functionality to the MacBook Pro to justify this price, and with the aforementioned hot competition in the Windows space, these new machines are really only designed for the most rabid of Apple fanboys. And don’t get me started on their lack of ports and compatibility with other devices. Do you want to connect your brand new iPhone to your brand new MacBook Pro? That’ll be £25 for a proprietary wire please. Google’s new phones, the Pixels, are actually more compatible with Apple’s new laptops than their own iPhone now. Steve Jobs is probably turning in his grave.

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

Homemade metal-scraps battery charges at rocket speed

This is actually quite cool. A team of American researchers has created a battery from junkyard metal scraps and detergent salts that charges as fast as supercapacitors and provides as much storage capacity as a commercial lead-acid battery. The team doesn't aim for commercialisation. Instead, they want to make the know-how publically available to enable everyone to make their own batteries at home. Thumbs up! The researchers reassure potential users the battery wouldn't explode.

Tesla unveils solar roof tiles with hidden photovoltaic cells

Elon Musk has unveiled the ‘Tesla’ among domestic solar panels – a photovoltaic roof that looks as good as it gets. He knows that people are vain. They don’t want to be seen driving crappy electric cars (that’s why they are buying much more expensive Teslas), they don’t want their houses to sport unsightly photovoltaic installations. Tesla’s tiles come in four varieties and can even look like ancient Roman house coverings.

Renewable energy only as sustainable as the manufacturing process

A Swedish researcher has posed a rather important question. Is renewable energy generation really sustainable? And what will happen when we try to replace all fossil fuel-based energy with renewable installations?

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Spinach enhanced with carbon nanotubes creates wireless explosive sensor

American researchers have created nanobionic spinach that can detect explosives. The plants have leaves enhanced with carbon nanotubes engineered to be sensitive to a class of chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are frequently used in landmines. If the plants are grown in ground contaminated by nitroaromatic compounds, the nanotubes in their leaves would develop a fluorescent signature that can be read by an infrared camera. The camera relays the signal to a small computer, which then alerts the user via an email. Landmines are a scourge that prevent communities returning to a normal life for years and decades after conflicts are over, so the research is encouraging for this reason alone, quite apart from all the other possible uses of pollution-detecting plants.

Renewable energy only as sustainable as the manufacturing process

“It is not obvious that the production of wind turbines and solar cells is sustainable, that the materials have been sourced in a sustainable way, or that the industries are capable of recycling the technology in the future,” says Simon Davidsson from Sweden’s Uppsala University. "Truly sustainable energy systems require the creation of sustainable industries.” There’s a growing emphasis on the whole product lifecyle across all areas of industry; it applies to renewables as much as any other sector.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Spinach enhanced with carbon nanotubes creates wireless explosive sensor

‘Words that shouldn’t really appear in the same sentence’ should be the other headline of this story. Good old ‘merican researchers have created explosive-detecting spinach because, you know, there could be bombs anywhere, even in your average vegetable allotment. The ‘nanobionic’ plant is super sensitive to a compound used in landmines. Forget having to send a soldier out to detect potential explosives, just chuck bunches of spinach out in front of you and see if it comes back with anything. It would save a lot of lives, and grazing animals nearby could have a most nutritious snack. Locals may think you’re a lunatic, but who cares? Next, they’ll be creating exploding kale. Really gives a boost to its reputation as a ‘superfood’.

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Thousands of anti-Trump web domains squatted by Trump himself

I like this story – if only for the fact that I now know about, and thoroughly approve of, the website I’m not that surprised that Trump has been buying domains which happen to mention his name –it’s fairly standard procedure with those who have a lot to lose from slur campaigns after all – but I do think it’s slightly odd that someone who seems so desperate to publicly ruin their own name would have the foresight, or inclination, to try and stop anyone else from badmouthing them.

Water harvested from clouds used to make craft beer

Picture this; you’re in your local pub, trying to decide which cold, frothy beer will best set your Friday evening off to a good start. It’s a tough decision, until you ask the barman for advice and he tells you the obvious choice – a new, cloud-harvested beer from Innis and Gunn. “Cloud harvested?” you ask, “like rainwater?” The barman scoffs, as if something as blasé as rainwater would impress his sophisticated tastes. “No,” he says, “the water is taken directly from the clouds.” Mind blown, you throw the contents of your purse across the bar screaming at the publican to take your money and give you the beer. This new beverage is surely about to revolutionise your beer-drinking experience. Thousands of years of human development have surely been working up to this moment. You take the beer with shaking hands, unsure of what you are about to receive. That first sip, it tastes like beer, but it’s not just any beer, it is sky beer. Thank God for Innis and Gunn.

Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor

Magnetic ink used to create self-healing electronics

For the past few years, the idea of ‘self-healing materials’ has been a fairly common buzzword that pops up every now and then in media coverage. But apart from self-healing concrete, researchers are now also making progress with electronics. A group of scientists at the University of California San Diego have just developed a new type of magnetic ink that makes electronic devices with self-healing capabilities. This self-healing quality could make printed electronics much more robust, thus paving the way to a number of new applications. For instance, the ink, composed of micro particles oriented in a certain configuration by a magnetic field, could lead to self-healing batteries, electrochemical sensors and wearable, textile-based electrical circuits. So how does it work? Well, because of the way micro particles are oriented, those on both sides of a tear are magnetically attracted to one another, causing a device printed with the ink to heal itself. The devices repair tears as wide as 3mm, which the developers say is larger than other self-healing systems. Exciting.

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