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The Traeger Timberline 850 turns BBQ from art to science

This review took a lot of pork. Over the last few months, I’ve used the Traeger Timberline 850 several times a week. Cooking on this grill is easier than using an oven. With a little bit of planning, a person can simultaneously grill a flock of chickens, a couple of pork butts and a load of veggies and have them turn out perfectly. I did, and it was the best Mother’s Day ever.

First the good.

It’s simple: This grill can cook the perfect brisket every time. It doesn’t take any skill. Just follow the instructions, and in 12-14 hours, an award-winning brisket will melt in your mouth. And therein lies the rub. This grill turns barbecuing from an art to a science.

My completely unscientific ranking of all the food I cooked on this grill:

  • Brisket: 10/10
  • Pork butt: 10/10
  • Pork belly: 10/10
  • Short ribs: 10/10
  • Country style ribs: 10/10
  • Beer can chicken: 8/10
  • Spatchcock chicken: 8/10
  • Chicken wings: 8/10
  • Roasted chicken: 7/10
  • Hamburgers: 7/10
  • Cookies: 7/10
  • Flank steak: 6/10
  • Thick, general cuts of beef: 5/10

Everything from chicken to every cut of pork to every sort of vegetable comes out nearly perfectly. Just follow the instructions, set the temperature and walk away. As long as the pellet hopper has enough fuel, most food will be a blue ribbon contender.

I cooked everything I could on this grill. It excels at long and slow. Items like ribs and pork shoulders and brisket are perfect for this grill. Poultry turns out picture perfect. The indirect nature of the grill makes a perfect tray of veggies. But the grill isn’t ideal for everything. Items that need high, direct heat aren’t great on this Traeger grill. Steaks and hamburgers aren’t as good as what comes off other grills. That’s to expected though.

The grill uses little pellets of compressed wood as fuel. Loaded in a hopper on the side of the grill, they’re gravity-fed into an auger that methodically pulls the pellets to a small firebox on the bottom of the grill where they’re burned, providing the right temperature and amount of smoke. A control panel on the front of the hopper lets the user select the desired temperature in single digit increments from 165 to 500 degrees.

Once the appropriate temperature is selected, the grill’s computer makes the necessary adjustments. Want to crank the heat from 220 degrees to 500? It takes about 10 minutes and just a twist of a dial.

I found the built-in probe thermometer accurate. It registered within a degree of my Weber meat thermometer. More importantly during my time with the grill, the meat cooked on the grill was done when the thermometer said it was done.

The Timberline 850 is one of Traeger’s largest grills though it’s not evident from the outside. That’s part of the beauty. It’s compact but can hold a crazy amount of food thanks to three deep trays. For Mother’s Day I cooked six chickens on the bottom level, a pork belly on the middle level and veggies on top, and for a little bit, they all shared the grill. Other times, I cooked four pork butts and two racks of ribs, and there was still plenty of room left.

The grill’s vertical design allows it to hold a lot of food while minimizing hot spots. This design is what sets it apart from similar pellet grills. I didn’t experience a substantial difference in cooking ability on any of the levels.

This grill comes with wifi. Traeger calls it WiFire because that’s fun. It’s handy, and I use it a lot more than I expected. The app lets users see and adjust the temperature of the grill and monitor the temperature of the meat probe. The connection is rock-solid. Past experiences with wifi-enabled appliances set the expectation that I would have to continually re-connect the grill to my network. That’s not the case. The app has never lost connection to my network. I wish there were an Alexa app so I can talk to my grill.

And now the bad.

This grill is expensive. It’s $1700. That’s crazy. I own several Weber grills, and after 20 years of practice, I can cook a chicken better on a Weber than on this Traeger grill. But it took years to get there. The Traeger makes cooking a great chicken possible from the first time. What’s more, there are a handful of Traeger competitors that offer grills with similar features for often half the price: Green Mountain Grills, Camp Chef, Z Grills, Pit Boss. Google Pellet Grills.

Is this grill worth $1700 when compared to the others? No, I don’t think so though an argument could be made around its relativity small footprint compared to its capacity. A person can cook a lot on this thing, and it doesn’t take up more room than a standard gas grill. Still, unless you’re grilling for a family of 20 every Sunday, I would look at other modes while considering this one.

I had some issues with the Timberline 850.

Grease fires. I had two over the last few months. Both were my fault, but the grill suffered. One time I had a tray overloaded with oiled veggies. Some oil seeped behind the drip plate that guards the firebox and caused a fire out of my reach. The temperature blasted to over 700 degrees, tripping a sensor and shutting off the grill. But the fire raged on for a few minutes in the closed grill. Something similar happened when I had to cook 50 of those horrible frozen hamburger patties. Grease from one dripped down the back of the grill and started a fire. Same thing: the sensor tripped and the grill shut off. But look at the rear of the grill. The paint is peeling, and I fear the steel is damaged though it feels fine.

The grill shutoff twice in the middle of an 8-hour pork butt. I caught the first time within a few minutes; the second time it ruined my pork butt. The hopper is to blame.

The hopper in this model is poorly designed. In my mind, it’s reasonable to expect most of the hopper to empty itself without user intervention. That’s not the case. The auger easily grabs the pellets and pulls them in, but the hopper is too wide. This causes the pellets to sit on the side of the container where the auger can’t reach. By my estimate, nearly 1/4 of the pellets can sit on the sidelines, useless until the owner pushes them down into the path of the auger. To be clear if the hopper is more than half full, this is not an issue. It’s when the hopper is half exhausted that the owner needs to watch the levels.

This grill does a lot of things right. It cooks like a pro. The Timberline 850 makes you, the cook, look like a pit boss. I like it a lot. Getting over the initial price is hard. $1700 is a lot for a grill when similar grills can be had for less than half. Without a direct comparison, all I can say is the Traeger Timberline 850 is a rock solid barbecue grill with a few flaws. Its design lets it hold a lot of food without taking up a lot of deck space. It excels at low and slow cooking, and for my money, that’s the best way to cook.

Virtru teams up with Google to bring its end-to-end encryption service to Google Drive

Virtru, which is best known for its email encryption service for both enterprises and consumers, is announcing a partnership with Google today that will bring the company’s encryption technology to Google Drive.

Only a few years ago, the company was still bolting its solution on top of Gmail without Google’s blessing, but these days, Google is fully on board with Virtru’s plans.

Its new Data Protection for Google Drive extends its service for Gmail to Google’s online file storage service. It ensures that files are encrypted before upload, which ensures the files remain protected, even when they are shared outside of an organization. The customer remains in full control of the encryption keys, so Google, too, has no access to these files, and admins can set and manage access policies by document, folder and team drive.

Virtru’s service uses the Trusted Data Format, an open standard the company’s CTO Will Ackerly developed at the NSA.

While it started as a hack, Virtru is Google’s only data protection partner for G Suite today, and its CEO John Ackerly tells me the company now gets what he and his team are trying to achieve. Indeed, Virtru now has a team of engineers that works with Google. As John Ackerly also noted, GDPR and the renewed discussion around data privacy is helping it gain traction in many businesses, especially in Europe, where the company is opening new offices to support its customers there. In total, about 8,000 organization now use its services.

It’s worth noting that while Virtru is announcing this new Google partnership today, the company also supports email encryption in Microsoft’s Office 365 suite.

Coinbase lets you convert your tokens into gift cards

It’s still quite hard to buy physical goods using bitcoins or ethers. Coinbase plans to (partially) solve that issue with a new partnership with WeGift. Coinbase customers in Europe and Australia can now convert their tokens on their Coinbase account into digital gift cards for popular stores.

For instance, you’ll be able to buy gift cards for Uber, Tesco, Google Play, Marks and Spencer and more. The feature is now live in the U.K., Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands and Australia.

While WeGift promises gift cards for dozens of merchants, most of them are restricted to customers based in the U.K. If you live in another country, you’ll only get a handful of options. For instance, in France you can only buy gift cards for Décathlon, Bloom & Wild, Global Hotel Card and Ticketmaster. Coinbase says that it will adding be more retailers in the coming months.

In some cases, WeGift offers you the fiat equivalent of your cryptocurrencies as well as a tiny bonus. For instance, you get £102 in Uber gift cards if you spend the equivalent of £100 in bitcoins.

In the U.S., Coinbase also partnered with Shift for a traditional Visa card. But many European cryptocurrency companies who provided Visa cards had to go back to the drawing board because Visa stopped working Wave Crest Holding — Wave Crest Holding was the card issuer for all European cryptocurrency cards.

Gift cards aren’t as convenient as receiving money on your bank account or a debit card. But they’re a great way to avoid telling your bank that you made money by speculating on cryptocurrencies. Many banks directly report data on their users to local tax authorities. But don’t forget that Coinbase can track all your withdrawal events and notify tax authorities too.

Disclosure: I own small amounts of various cryptocurrencies.

ColdQuanta raises $6.75M to make it easier to spin up a limited use-case quantum computer

Quantum computing may be a long ways off, but early applications of it aren’t as far off as you might think, according to longtime researcher and ColdQuanta founder Dana Anderson.

The startup creates a device that’s designed to make it easier to start operating quantum computing-like operations on near-term problems like signal processing or time measurement, which is the kind of low-hanging fruit that current technology might enable. Researchers using that approach — a set of atoms where there’s practically no motion — require some mechanism of keeping them from moving, for which some cases involve refrigeration. ColdQuanta’s main product is a set of lasers that’s able to stabilize a set of atoms and allow them to operate with those properties. It’s certainly nowhere close to a server — or even a standard computer — but using this kind of a tool, it might be easier to handle tasks like real-time signal processing. ColdQuanta said today that it has raised $6.75 million in a round led by Maverick Ventures and including Global Frontier Investments.

“If you were to look out the window, and you turned off GPS because it’s a conflict or sunspots, you can ask, ‘can I fly to New York from San Francisco with my eyes closed,’” Anderson said. “The answer is no. These types of applications — real-world applications based on fundamental advances of physics — keeps me thinking, and up at night. Clocks sound pretty boring, and you might ask why do I need something like that. But there’s enormous demand for improvements in time-keeping, whether for high-frequency trading, navigation, guidance, or autonomous vehicles. We see those as early applications.”

The primary aim of ColdQuanta’s hardware is, Andersen says, to create a “neutral” set of atoms that all have identical properties of the ones next to them. It does that by using a set of lasers to bring them to a near standstill — within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero — and then control their properties using lasers. That way, a researcher or team could scale that up to a larger system where they can start finding applications right away. That includes time-keeping, secure communications and others, now that a lot of the primary limitations of the technology have gotten a little more relaxed over time. ColdQuanta’s aim is to be able to do this in a normal, room-temperature situation throughout the environment everywhere else, as well. The lasers are tuned in such a way that a stream of photons hitting each atom slows it down until it’s largely stable (also being held up by another set of lasers to account for gravity).

“Laser technology was unreliable in the early days, that was mostly a time when things weren’t working, and most often it was the laser,” Anderson said. “What ColdQuanta is focused on, now for 11 years, is technology that could be manufactured in large quantities, making reliable, small, and robust equipment. If you looked at the initial quantum gas machine it took a couple of square meters of area on a table plus tons of electrics. Now we’ve made it small enough that there’s one sitting on the ISS. It’s a fairly small package, mostly because integration techniques, improvements in lasers and developing key electronics components have helped us achieve this task.”

There may be an analogy between what’s happened with the emergence of the widespread use of deep learning for a variety of tasks and the early stages of products like ColdQuanta. Deep learning, Andersen said, was the key innovation on the change in a lot of machine learning models, but there were plenty of smaller use cases where it was interesting and useful — even back in the 1990s. Andersen said there will probably be a similar situation going forward as limited quantum computing will find some near-term applications and then exist on a similar timetable as other technological shifts as it waits for the biggest, cheapest, and most powerful use case that demands widespread adoption.

“I see the path we’re going on is very familiar,” Andersen said. “I don’t think the technological challenges we face are improbable. We’ve been through other difficult technology roadmaps before and overcome them. The landscape is very familiar. The timescale of inserting them into real-world problems gets kind of fuzzy when you have to predict so far off, but I think quantum computers will get there. I’m quite convinced there will be modest applications of quantum computers that will show up very soon. Quantum simulation, I have almost no doubt, will find pure science uses and begin to apply to at least in restricted spaces relative to national security and defense.”

Mayfield Robotics ceases production of Kuri robot amid a questionable future

In a letter to backers today, Bay Area-based Mayfield Robotics said it was “crushed” to announce that it has ceased manufacturing of its home robot, Kuri. The note finds the Bosch-backed business grappling with an uncertain future, as it pauses all operations and re-evaluates its future.

Launched in 2015, as part of Bosch’s Startup Platform, the company debuted its home robot at CES the following year. It took close to two years, but the company finally began shipping the adorable little robot to backers in late 2017. Kuri also appeared on stage at our robotics event, back in May.

According to the letter, however, Bosch struggled to find good fit for the company in its broader portfolio.

“From the beginning, we have been constantly looking for the best paths to achieve scale and continue to advance our innovative technology,” the company writes. “Typically, startups in the Bosch Startup Platform are integrated into existing Bosch business units, but after extensive review, there was not a business fit within Bosch to support and scale our business.”

Home robotics have, of course, had a famously difficult time finding mainstream success, through a combination of prohibitive pricing (Kuri carried a $700 price tag) and limited functionality. Only the hyper-focused Roomba has managed to effectively buck that trend.

Existing within the larger confines of Bosch likely sheltered the company from some of those harsher realities, but ultimately, corporations have little time for products that don’t play into their larger strategies. Without a support structure, the future remains one giant question mark for the company.

“Creating a robot like Kuri is a massive undertaking,” Mayfield writes. “We don’t know what the coming months will bring. Regardless, we stand firm in our belief that the home robot Renaissance is just beginning, and it’s going to be amazing.”

Google is baking machine learning into its BigQuery data warehouse

There are still a lot of obstacles to building machine learning models and one of those is that in order to build those models, developers often have to move a lot of data back and forth between their data warehouses and wherever they are building their models. Google is now making this part of the process a bit easier for the developers and data scientists in its ecosystem with BigQuery ML, a new feature of its BigQuery data warehouse, by building some machine learning functionality right into BigQuery.

Using BigQuery ML, developers can build models using linear and logistical regression right inside their data warehouse without having to transfer data back and forth as they build and fine-tune their models. And all they have to do to build these models and get predictions is to write a bit of SQL.

Moving data doesn’t sound like it should be a big issue, but developers often spend a lot of their time on this kind of grunt work — time that would be better spent on actually working on their models.

BigQuery ML also promises to make it easier to build these models, even for developers who don’t have a lot of experience with machine learning. To get started, developers can use what’s basically a variant of standard SQL to say what kind of model they are trying to build and what the input data is supposed to be. From there, BigQuery ML then builds the model and allows developers to almost immediately generate predictions based on it. And they won’t even have to write any code in R or Python.

These new features are now available in beta.

Google launches a standalone version of Drive for businesses that don’t want the full G Suite

If you are a business and want to use Google Drive, then your only option until now was to buy a full G Suite subscription, even if you don’t want or need access to the rest of the company’s productivity tools. Starting today, though, these businesses will be able to buy a subscription to a standalone version of Google Drive, too.

Google says that a standalone version of Drive has been at the top of the list of requests from prospective customers, so it’s now giving this option to them in the form of this new service (though to be honest, I’m not sure how much demand there really is for this product). Standalone Google Drive will come with all the usual online storage and sharing features as the G Suite version.

Pricing will be based on usage. Google will charge $8 per month per active user and $0.04 per GB stored in a company’s Drive.

Google’s idea here is surely to convert those standalone Drive users to full G Suite users over time, but it’s also an acknowledgement on Google’s part that not every business is ready to move away from legacy email tools and desktop-based productivity applications like Word and Excel just yet (and that its online productivity suite may not be right for all of those businesses, too).

Drive, by the way, is going to hit a billion users this week, Google keeps saying. I guess I appreciate that they don’t want to jump the gun and are actually waiting for that to happen instead of just announcing it now when it’s convenient. Once it does, though, it’ll become the company’s eighth product with more than a billion users.