Beats Studio Buds offer a compact design, noise-canceling and Android/iOS fast pairing at $150

When they were released in 2019, Powerbeats Pro were standouts. Two-plus years later, they remain one of the more well-rounded wireless earbuds on the market. There are things I would change, of course. Even in 2019, that charging case was ridiculously large. In 2021, the original case is all the more absurd. And, of course, noise-canceling has become nearly standardized among mid-tier buds.

After weeks of rumors and leaks (including a very public cameo on the ears of one of the world’s most famous athletes), Beats’ latest take on the space is finally official. Meet the Beats Studio Pro. They are not, as the company will be quick to tell you, a Powerbeats Pro replacement. Those are sticking around (which isn’t to say they won’t be getting their own upgrade).

Beats may be Apple-owned, but in most respects, the brand operates as it has. It was a wildly successful brand well before Apple got its hands on it, after all. So the company’s opted not to fix what’s clearly not broken. And while technology is clearly shared between the two camps (the H1 chip on the Powerbeats, example), it maintains a line between its self-branded audio offerings (AirPods, et al.) and the Beats line. There’s a reason Beats never really shows up at Apple events, in spite of having a big announcement the following week.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Compared to AirPods, the Beats lines can get a bit convoluted. Effectively the new Studio Beats are a fully wireless earbud line from the company, borrowing a name from its premium over-ear line. But the new buds are actually significantly more compact than Powerbeats Pro, both in terms of the case and the buds themselves. Also notable — and frankly a bit surprising — is the pricing.

At $150, the Studio Buds are a fair bit cheaper than the two-year-old Powerbeats Pro, which currently go for between $160 and $200 online. Keep in mind, that’s down from a launch price of $250. That’s also $50 less than the AirPods and $20 less than the Galaxy Buds. It’s a nice price for what you’re getting here — though maybe my standards have shifted a bit, just coming off of a review of the $280 Sony WF-1000XM4.

Those Sonys are in a class of their own, of course. It’s much fairer for all parties concerned to pit them against other midrange headphones. And by that metric, they perform pretty well. The biggest addition here is active noise canceling — keep in mind, it was far from standard when the Powerbeats Pro were announced. These days, however, it feels like a glaring omission at this price range (Google, I’m looking at you).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Another interesting top-level feature is fast pairing for both iOS and Android, making the Studio Beats one of the first products to walk that line. Funny that it comes from an Apple product, but again, the company seems be afforded at least a little bit of freedom on that front. It’s a small thing — after all, many people will only use the iOS/Android one-touch pairing once, but there’s a lot to be said for making the product as accessible to as many potential customers as possible.

I like the new streamlined design of the buds. As mentioned above, the new case is a fraction of the size of the Powerbeats. Still, the Studio Buds have the same stated battery life, with eight hours on the headphones and 24 total, when you factor in the case. That’s a healthy bit of life, which is quickly becoming the standard these days. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom (a move away from the Apple-only Lightning), which will give you an hour of playback time on a five-minute charge.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is wider and a bit thicker than the AirPods Pro, but is still easily pocketed. It has a bit of a cheap plasticky feel to it, but the matte finish is a nice touch. The branding is the standard Beats level of loud, with a big, bold white “b” set against the black. The buds, too, sport the logo, which can pass for a “9” or a “6” depending on positioning. The lid has a snap to it, and the magnets on the buds snap nicely in place — though, as with the Powerbeats, it can take a little finagling to get them into the proper position.

The buds are fairly compact, as well. The earhooks are gone. That’s something of a mixed bag, honestly. I didn’t think I would love the Powerbeats Pros earhooks, but as someone who experiences some ear pain with a lot of different bud designs, I’ve found them to be among the most comfortable options, transferring the load bearing to the top of the ear.

The Studio Buds are fairly comfortable, and I was able to work out in them (IPX4 rating FTW), though I did have some trouble keeping them in place on occasion. That’s certainly never been a problem with the Powerbeats. If you really don’t want them to move, I recommend applying a bit of pressure to really corkscrew them in place.

One of the design choices I really appreciate that Beats brought back is the physical button. Powerbeats had them and they’re back here on the end of the Studio Buds. It’s got a nice little click to it that I prefer to purely touch-based buttons. A single click will Play/Pause and a long click will turn ANC on and off.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The ANC is a nice addition, of course. It does a decent job with ambient noise, but can’t really touch what you’ll find on higher-end systems. The sound quality, too, has come a ways in the last couple of years. Beats has refined things with a pair of 8.2mm drivers that offer solid sound at their price point. These aren’t sitting-around-and-enjoy-the-finer-points-of-classical-sonata-or-experimental-jazz-record buds; they are, however, solid, listen-to-music-or-a-podcast-while-going-about-your-life headphones.

There’s a lot to like about the buds, and with little question, they’re a much better deal in 2021 than the Powerbeats Pro, even if they don’t feel as groundbreaking as their predecessors did at launch.

The new Beats Studio Buds are up for preorder today and start shipping June 24.

#apple, #beats, #earbuds, #hardware, #headphones, #reviews, #wireless-earbuds

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Sony sets a new standard with the WF-1000XM4 earbuds

It’s been just under two years since I reviewed the WF-1000XM3, and in that time, Sony’s earbuds never stopped being the reference point for high-end earbuds. Seriously, I reviewed a new pair like a month ago and still made the customary reference.

That’s a rarity in these days of the yearly upgrade cycle. And that goes double for the wireless earbud space. It already felt crowded when Sony entered it in earnest in mid-2019, and things have only gotten worse on that front. But the M3s were a breath of fresh air. With so many companies competing for the middle and low end of the spectrum, Sony dropped something truly premium.

Six months before the AirPods Pro arrived, the M3 hit the market with excellent sound and noise canceling. The latter has, of course, become standardized across the category, but when Sony brought it, it was nearly unheard of. In spite of the headphones’ warm reception, however, the company’s waited two years to deliver a proper follow-up. Understandable, I suppose. Improving on very good is difficult.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’m happy to report that the WF-1000XM4 is worth the wait. Sony’s great at high-end headphones, and these are no exception. The new buds represent an improvement over their predecessors in a number of ways. Unfortunately, they’re priced to match. If you thought the M3’s were steep at $230, I’ve got some bad news for you, friend. The new ones run an additional $50.

The upshot is that new headphones means a price drop on the older units. A quick search shows them for around $178 from a number of places, putting them more in line with standard earbud pricing. At $30 more than the AirPods Pro, Sony’s really leaning into the premium end of the spectrum. If anyone has the resources and scale to keeping pricing down, it’s Sony.

Are the WF-1000XM4s worth the price? It’s a fairly subjective question, of course. What I can definitely say is that they’re among the best-sounding pairs of earbuds you can buy. I’m still not convinced that anyone can truly duplicate the over-ear headphone experience in a pair of buds — the form factor is just too limited for now. But there are definitely advantages to going with buds — namely portability and on these unspeakably hot summer days, a chance to let your ears breathe.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Buds are, of course, better suited to fitness, as well. Though if you’re specifically looking for a pair to work out in, these probably shouldn’t be your first choice. I mean, they’re IPX4 water resistant, which is plenty good for sweat, but these are more of a long plane ride or sitting at your desk and really enjoying the hell out of a jazz record kind of earbuds.

In part, because they’re big. Granted, they’re a fair bit smaller than their predecessors, and moving from a paddle design to placing the components above the ear canal is a net benefit, but they’re still a bit too large for a long run. And while this is one of those things that vary dramatically from person to person, I found that the buds tended to cause ear pain after wearing them for extended stretches. I found the pressure relieved a bit when I swapped the medium foam tips for a small (I’m a medium in virtually all variety of earbud tips), though the small were much worse at forming a seal in my ears — a necessity to really take advantage of the active noise canceling. And even still, the eventual dull pain was not non-existent.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It is also worth noting that I’ve had less than spectacular experiences with foam tips. They tend to be more prone to wear and tear than silicone and have a habit of getting a bit gnarly in the earwax department (look, this job isn’t always pretty). Though I understand why high-end manufacturers go this route, from a comfort perspective.

Also, hey, kudos to Sony for going with sustainable paper packaging. It’s not much to look at, but how often do you really look at the package your electronics came in? Anything that’s even slightly better for the planet is a net positive in my book. And besides, the charging case looks great.

It’s significantly smaller than the W3’s. These are a helluva lot more pocketable. It’s an understated matte black, albeit with a pretty loud white Sony logo on top. The magnets are strong and the buds snap into the case with authority — they’ll also attach to each other. A thin LED strip directly below the lid glows green or red, depending on charge. The case is wide enough to sit upright, so the USB-C port is located around the back — or you can charge it up wirelessly with a Qi pad.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Interestingly, the stated charging time is the same as the M3s, though the numbers have been shifted around. With the originals, you got six hours on the buds and another 18 from the case. Here it’s eight hours on the buds and 16 on the case. So, a full day, either way, but I certainly prefer the two added hours on the actual earbuds.

The buds themselves are a bit flashier than the case. The design features two intersecting circles, the upper most of which is designed to lie flush with the ear. The outside is accented with a metal microphone, with a second, flush microphone up top.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The sound of the buds is really excellent. It’s got the kind of instrument separation that opens up new details on familiar songs you missed with inferior buds. The default balance is terrific, as well. Sony doesn’t lean to heavily into the bass because it doesn’t have to. The headphones sound terrific across a wide range of music varieties, as well as podcasts.

The noise-canceling is, once again, industry leading. A simple tap on the left earbud cycles between ANC and ambient noise, and the difference is like night and day. I was really impressed by the sounds it was capable of blocking, including my extremely loud vegetable juicer. I was also impressed by the buds’ Bluetooth range.

With earbuds, it’s true that you often get what you pay for. That’s certainly the case here. Sony’s once again managed to set the bar for high-end buds with the WF-1000XM4.

 

#earbuds, #hardware, #reviews, #sony, #wf-1000xm4, #wireless-earbuds

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Google’s Pixel Buds A Series are an exercise in earbud cost cutting

Google does a lot of things well. But hardware strategy has never really been among them. The last several years have seen the company at least finding some consistency with its Pixel and Nest devices. But the former, in particular, has continued to struggle as the company has worked to find its footing in an already crowded space.

In 2017, the company entered the wireless earbud space with the first-gen Pixel Buds. The product was certainly an original take on the category, both in terms of design and features. Ultimately, however, it fell flat. But an “A” for effort, I guess. The second-gen product, introduced in April of last year, corrected a lot of their predecessor’s problems, mostly by delivering a more straightforward approach.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Announced today, the Pixel Buds A-Series find the company capitalizing on that success with an approach that has worked well for Google’s smartphone line. The first Pixel A arrived just as the company was dealing with the consequences of poor mobile sales. The low-cost approach to the line sold well (by Google smartphone standards), helping deliver positive news for the beleaguered line.

As with the budget phones, the price is, once again, the thing. Here that means $99. It’s a price point that puts it below the new Echo Buds ($119) and Samsung Galaxy Buds ($110), and well under the AirPods 2 ($159). Essentially it’s the low end of the mid-tier of fully wireless earbud pricing. There is arguably even more competition at the really low end, where you can pick up of a pair of Anker earbuds for around $40. But relative to what we’d generally consider brand names, the pricing is quite aggressive.

It’s also a significant reduction from the standard Pixel Buds, which sport an MSRP of $170 (though you can find them quite a bit cheaper with minimal effort). The Series A aren’t replacing the standard Pixel Buds, so much as augmenting them — similar to what Apple did with AirPods, albeit on the other end of the pricing spectrum. With the new buds on the market, I would anticipate a further narrowing of the price gap between the products on many online retailers. As of this writing, there’s at least one offering the Pixel Buds second gens for $99.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As you’d expect, the lower cost comes with a bit of corner-cutting — or at least the removal of some non-essentials. Ultimately the value for a given user comes down to what you’re willing to lose for the sake of a lower price point. The top-level losses here are:

  • No wireless charging
  • The loss of Attention Alerts (a feature that momentarily reduces volume when things like a siren, baby crying or dog barking are heard), due to lower-cost sensors
  • The loss of noise reduction for calls and wind
  • Limited tap gestures

Otherwise, the Series A are a lot like the Pixel Buds 2, including a similar 12 mm dynamic speaker driver and a nearly identical design. In fact, I was struck by just how similar they were. The size, the shape — really, the only immediate distinction here is coloring. It wasn’t broke, so Google didn’t really fix it. Gone are the bolder matte colors of the predecessors. Now the headphones feature two glossy colors: Clearly White and Dark Olive. Google sent the former, which is a bit more off-white than the AirPods (a bit closer to the Echo Buds coloring), paired with a kind of dull gray. If you want bolder colors, you’re going to have to stick with the standard buds, which also feature a striking orange and mint green colors. I prefer the matte coloring of the original, but the company had to do something to set these apart, I suppose.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is the same vertically oriented oval design as the earlier version. It’s similar in volume to the AirPods Pro — so pretty easy to just pop into a pocket. The USB-C charging port is on the bottom; a light up front tips you off on charging status and the sync button is toward the bottom of the back. Flip up the top and reveal two familiar earbuds.

The size and shape are more or less the same as the Pixel Buds — a good thing, as they’re pretty comfortable over long periods. That’s certainly not something I can say for all of the competition. The silicone tips are user-replaceable for a better fit, but the small silicone ear tip is stuck in there for good. That’s fine for me, but your results may vary.

Like their predecessors, the A Series’ (total side note, but after writing so many funding rounds, I really want to write “Series A”) sound falls in the middle of the pack. You can get better quality from higher-end headphones like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3 (talk about being overdue for a refresh), but these are totally capable for day to day listening and making calls, even if the mic has lost a few of its tricks.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s no noise canceling here. That’s to be expected, of course, given that the standard Pixel Buds don’t have the feature either. Given that it’s becoming increasingly standardized, it’s probably a no-brainer that the Pixel Buds 3 will offer the feature to further distinguish them from the budget model.

The buds offer five hours on a charge (2.5 hours of talk time) and 12 hours when the case is factored in — again, same as the Pixel Buds. They also boast the same IPX4 rating for water/sweat resistance. The Bluetooth connectivity is fairly strong. I found I was able to walk over to another room without losing connection, which is often hit or miss on buds.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

They’ll pair to either an Android (6.0+) or iOS device. Naturally, of course, they play nicely with the former, using Fast Pair. On an Apple handset, you’ll have to use the pairing button. Google Assistant — one of the standout features — also only works with Android devices. It’s handiest for enabling notifications, as well as real-time use of Google Translate.

Nothing about the Pixel Buds A Series is going to set the earbud world on fire. And that’s not really the point. More than anything, the product is an exercise in trimming the fat in order to deliver a solid experience at less than $100. And by that standard, they largely succeed.

#earbuds, #google, #google-pixel, #hardware, #pixel, #pixel-buds, #reviews, #wireless-earbuds

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Apple 24-inch M1 iMac review

Last September we concluded our 27-inch iMac review thusly,

“The big open question mark here is what the future looks like for the iMac — and how long we’ll have to wait to see it. That is, of course, the perennial question for hardware upgrades, but it’s exacerbated by the knowledge of imminent ARM-based systems and rumors surrounding a redesign.”

It was, as these things go, less than a full-throated endorsement of Apple’s latest all-in-one. We certainly weren’t alone in the assessment. It was a weird liminal zone for the computer — and Macs in general. At WWDC in June, the company had taken the unusual step of announcing its move from Intel to its own in-house chips without any hardware to show for it.

The reasoning was sound. The company was looking to help developers get out ahead of launch. It was going to be a heavy lift — the first time the Mac line had seen such a seismic shift since 2005. Fifteen years is a long time, and that’s a lot of legacy software to contend with. While the move wouldn’t outright break every piece of MacOS software, it was certainly in devs’ best interest to optimize for the new hardware, by way of the Mac Mini developer kit the company was offering. The full transition to the new silicon, Apple noted, would take two years.

Apple M1 chip

Image Credits: Apple

In November, the company debuted the first M1 Macs: a new Mac Mini, MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. We spent several thousand words reviewing all three systems, but ultimately Matthew put it pretty succinctly, “Apple’s new M1-powered MacBook shows impressive performance gains that make Intel’s chips obsolete overnight.”

Which is, you know, a rough look for an all-in-one launched a mere two months before. That goes double for a system that hadn’t seen a fundamental redesign in some time. Two months after launch, the 2020 iMac was already starting to feel old.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Fast-forward to last month, when Apple announced the new iMac amid a flurry of hardware news. This, it seems, was the iMac we’d been waiting for. The new system brought the most fundamental redesign in a decade, with an ultra-compact new form factor, improvements to audio and video (a big sticking point in the remote work era) and, perhaps most importantly, the new M1 chip.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest thing the 2020 system has going for it is that it’s, well, big. Having used a 27-inch iMac for much of my day-to-day work throughout the pandemic, I’m honestly surprised by how much I miss those extra three inches. I’d initially assumed that added bit of screen real estate was going to be fairly negligible once you’ve passed the 20-inch threshold, but turns out, like anything else, it takes some getting used to.

There’s an immediate upside, too, of course. I was genuinely surprised by how compact the new design is, compared to past iMacs. In spite of adding 2.5 inches to the display size over the 21.5-inch, the new system is an extremely thin 11.5 mm (or 14.7 when the stand is factored in).

The overarching theme for the system is “cute.” This is not a word I often apply to technology. Words like “cool” or “sleek” are generally go-tos here. But I’m at a loss for a better word to describe what feels like a true spiritual successor to the iMac G3. The colorful line of all-in-ones ushered in Steve Jobs’ second triumphant stint with the company, arriving at the tail end of a decade in a year personified by the Volkswagen’s New Beetle.

Of course, the design language has evolved dramatically in the nearly quarter-century since the first iMac arrived, owing to changing styles and, of course, ever-reducing component sizes. The flat-panel design arrived early this century and settled into the most recent design around 2012. Sure, there have been plenty of updates since then, but nine years is a long time for an Apple design to go without a major refresh.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It finds the company moving from what was ostensibly an industrial design to something more warm and welcoming. The color is the thing here. It was the most frequently discussed question around the TechCrunch (virtual) offices. Everyone wants to know which we’d be getting. Mine landed with a yellow hue — something nice, light and spring. Honestly, it’s more of a gold than I expected, with a bright and shiny glean to it. I will advise that anyone who plans to buy one of these systems visit an Apple Store if there’s one nearby if you’re comfortable doing so. It’s really the sort of thing that really benefits from being seen in person, if possible.

That goes double here — since, boy howdy, is Apple on theme. The keyboard matches, the cables match, the desktop wallpaper matches, the adorable packaging matches (it’s a fun unboxing experience, as those things go) and even little touches like the OS buttons match. The latter two, obviously, are something you’re able to futz around with a bit. But the system and even the keyboard is a bit more of a commitment, really. After all, this is probably the kind of thing you’re going to want to hold onto for a number of years, so lighting and interior decorating are both worth considering before you make your decision. I recognize this is an odd thing to think about when talking about a desktop computer, but, well, it’s the iMac.

The company is offering an AR iOS app for seeing how the new iMac will fit in with its surroundings, which is a clever — and probably useful — touch. The system also weighs in at less than 10 pounds. This is admittedly not something I’ve given much thought to with desktops. “Portable” is a weird way to describe the form factor, but particularly compared to other desktop systems, it kind of fits? At the very least, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that you can occasionally move the thing from room to room, as needed.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In broad strokes, the front of the system is similar to that of the past iMacs, though the bottom panel and its large Apple logo have been swapped out of a streak of color. The pane of glass lies flush with the screen and a not insignificant white bezel that frames it. The bezel, combined with the panel, comprises a not insignificant amount of real estate below the display, likely owing to the placement of components and the downward-firing speaker grille that runs the full length of the computer’s bottom. Up top is the newly upgraded 1080p HD Webcam — the first on any Mac.

As with past iMacs, the system sits atop a stand. In the case of the yellow model, at least, the stand is a notably darker hue than the front of the system. There’s a VESA mount option configurable upon purchase, but the stand itself is very much not designed to be user replaceable. The hinge’s action is smooth. I found myself pivoting the system up and down semi-regularly to better frame myself in the webcam, and did so with ease.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left — hello, old friend. I much prefer this placement to the rear of the device, which requires the cable to wrap around the side or bottom.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

A hole inside the stand is designed for cables to be run through — specifically power. Magsafe — er, the magnetic charging connector — really popped up unexpectedly here. It’s less about the quick release that you would find on the old MacBooks and more about the ease of simply snapping the cable in place. I suspect that people are less likely to trip over a desktop cable that never (or at least rarely) moves.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The big update to the power cable situation is, of course, the addition of ethernet to the brick. The brick is quite a bit larger — especially if you’re accustomed to dealing with MacBooks. But likely it will be out of the way. What it does bring is the removal of some additional clutter on the back of the system and helps keep the computer itself that much thinner. For most people in most cases that can access a hardwired connection, it’s a nice addition.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The port situation, on the other hand, is decidedly less so. I like ports. I have lots of stuff that need plugging in to the back of the computer and ports are probably the best case to plug ’em. The entry-level system has two Thunderbolt/USB ports. You can upgrade that to four. Definitely do this. Seriously. You’re not going to regret it.

I’m someone who keeps the wireless keyboard and trackpad/mouse plugged in most of the time. I know, it kind of defeats the purpose, but worrying about charging accessories is not another stress I need in my life right now. So that’s two ports right there. I also have some AV accessories and suddenly, boom, you’re out of ports.

The $1,299 version of the system ships with the Magic Keyboard. It’s pretty much the same as other Magic Keyboards of recent vintage. It’s not for everyone, I know. Those who love mechanical keyboards will find something to be desired in the tactility, but it’s a step up from MacBooks and I’ve certainly grown accustomed to using it. There’s no number pad on the base model, but the coloring coordinates with the Mac.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

With the $1,699 model, you get upgraded to a version with Touch ID — something that’s been a long time coming on the desktop system. Like other Macs (and older iPhones), the fingerprint scanning login is nearly instantaneous. As has been the case for a while, if you’re an Apple Watch wearer, that will log you in as well, but the addition of Touch ID on the desktop is great. The base version comes with the Magic Mouse. It’s $50 to upgrade to a Trackpad and $129 for a combo. I’ve grown fond of the Trackpad, so that’s where I’d probably land here (I doubt many people will have a need for both).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As ever, I understand the many reasons the company has pushed its line to USB-C — it’s especially obvious when you see how much room has been freed up on the rear of the device. But man, I miss having those legacy USB-A ports on the 2020 iMac. Meantime, you might want to toss a couple of A to C USB adapters into your basket before check out. That’s kind of just life with Apple, though. Courage, and all that.

I do wonder if this means the company is positioning the M1 line for the return of an iMac Pro. Stranger things have happened. For now, of course, the company is more focused on the Mac Pro at the much higher end.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

As expected, the new M1 chip breathes new life into the system. Take our Geekbench 5 scores: 1,720 Single and 7,606 multi-core. That blows the average of 1,200 and 6,400 for the 21.5-inch system out of the water. Things understandably take a dip with the Rosetta (Intel) version at 1,230 and 5,601, respectively, but it’s still solid performance running through a translation layer. But it also points to why Apple was so proactive about getting developers on-board with the new silicon. On the whole, the gains are in-line with the the other new M1 systems we’ve seen — which is to say a nice, healthy leap forward into the future of the Mac.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

If you want to know how much of your workflow will be impacted, this resource is a good place to start. On the whole, I found that most of my day to day apps were fine. There are outliers, of course. Spotify and Audacity are right there. Performance is impacted in both case, but on a whole, they worked okay through Rosetta. Usage is more resource-intensive, though.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Spotify is probably a question of how many resources the Apple Music competitor wants to put into a new version, while Audacity is likely more of an issue of how many resources the organization has at its disposal. The further you move away from big names like Microsoft and Adobe, the more of a crapshoot it is. But there are some support issues with bigger names still, as well. For instance, I upgraded to the Apple silicon version of Zoom, but downgraded when I discovered it doesn’t work with the Intel-only version of the Canon EOS webcam software I use.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

I recognize this is an extremely specific issue, but, then, workflows are extremely specific. As M1 systems become the mainstream of Macs, however, developers ultimately won’t really have much of a choice. Support Apple Silicon or risk becoming obsolete. Growing pains are essentially unavoidable with this sort of shift, but the results really speak for themselves. Apple Silicon is the future of Macs and it’s a fast-booting, smooth-moving future, indeed.

I can practically see the Apple team shouting at me when I mention the external mics and cameras I use to record video for work. After all, the new iMac sees the biggest upgrade to these things in some time. The best time for a new microphone system and the first 1080p HD camera on a Mac would have been last year, as the pandemic was beginning to transform the way we work and meet. The second best time, of course, is now.

Apple did tout an improved camera system on last year’s MacBook, but that was more to do with the image signal processing on the chips. That goes a ways toward improving things like white balance, but a truly meaningful improvement to imaging generally also requires new camera hardware. Take a look at the below images.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That’s the 2020 iMac on the left and new M1 iMac on the right. Forgetting (hopefully) for a moment my droopy, partially paralyzed face (2020, am I right?), the image is night and day here — and not just because I’m slightly better put together all of these pandemic months later. The change that comes from upgrading from 720p to 1080p is just immediately apparent in term of image quality. I anticipate Apple upgrading its systems across the board, because teleconferencing is just life now.

iMac 2020:


iMac 2021:

Along with camera, the mic system got a nice upgrade. I’ve re-recorded the same audio that I did back in November on the old system. The three microphone array is crisper and much clearer, eliminating much of the background noise hiss. The six-speaker audio system is an improvement, as well. I found it worked well with music and movies, but could be less clear for teleconferencing, depending on the quality of the other attendee’s mic. The audio could be a bit bass-heavy for my taste.

On the whole, for most people, day to day, I think the audio and video upgrades are plenty. If you use your system for the occasional Zoom calls and some music listening, you should be fine. Depending on what you’re looking to get out of these things, though, a decent external camera, mic or speaker is never a bad investment.

The new iMac represents a nice leap forward for the desktop all-in-one in some key fundamental ways, breathing new life into one of the company’s most popular systems that’s long been in need need of a makeover. I miss some ports and now feel spoiled having had an SD reader on the 2020 model. I would also love to see a 27-inch version of the system on the market at some point (iMac Pro reboot, anyone?). On the whole the system is less targeted at creative pros than other models have been in the past — though the M1 and its on-board ML are still capable of impressive audio, video and still image editing.

But a cute, color coordinated design and some long overdue upgrades to teleconferencing elements aside, Apple Silicon is rightfully taking centerstage here as it did with the MacBooks and Mac Mini before it. The pricing on the systems was a source of some confusion around these parts when first announced. The very base-level version runs $1,299, while the tip-top level goes up to $2,628 with all the bells and whistles.

At the most basic level, there are three main configurations:

  • $1,299 gets you an 8-core CPU and 7-Core GPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB storage, two USB ports, standard Magic Keyboard
  • $1,499 upgrades the GPU to eight cores, adds ethernet and two USB ports and brings Touch ID to the keyboard
  • $1,699 upgrades storage to 512GB (Our configuration as tested)

The systems are available for pre-order now and will start arriving in customers’ homes this Friday.

#apple, #apple-silicon, #hardware, #imac, #m1, #macos, #reviews, #tc

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Amazon’s new Echo Buds are a nice upgrade

It’s hard to recall a consumer electronics category that matured quite as quickly as the fully wireless earbuds. Things went from a handful of plucky startups to virtually every hardware manufacturer over the course of a year or two. When Amazon entered the category, it did so in an already arguably overcrowded field.

The first question you have to answer when you’re late to the party is what you’re bringing to the table. Ultimately, the original Echo Buds didn’t have a particularly compelling answer to the question in a world where you can pick up a pair of Ankers for $40. There were a smattering of other issues, as well, that ultimately ended in a pretty lukewarm write-up from me.

A little over a year later, the Buds are back. And to its credit, Amazon has both addressed some of the concerns with the original and offered a pretty solid upgrade over the original models. What’s more, the company added some features that other companies have saved for Pro models, while keeping the price at a reasonable $129.

I’ve been using the Echo Buds as my go-to headphones for several days now and can say, overall, I’ve enjoyed the experience. The product inhabits a kind of middle ground — I would still recommend a number of other products in the “Price Is No Object” category, and the Buds are not cheap enough to qualify for the low end.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new Echo Buds occupy a similar price point as Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus — and in a number of ways compare favorably. Most notable is the inclusion of active noise canceling, which has thus far mostly been the domain of more premium models. Amazon’s latest don’t offer the best ANC — nor really the best of anything — but they do form a well-rounded offering for the price point.

As Amazon has experienced with Alexa, the company’s at a disadvantage when competing directly with the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung, which can build devices that tie directly into their handsets. Amazon’s attempts at creating its own handsets have thus far failed, so the company has been forced to find another way to differentiate itself.

That has largely meant Alexa — and frankly, at the end of the day, the Echo Buds are really another way for the company to serve up its smart assistant. Built-in Alexa is mostly a selling point if you’re already invested in that ecosystem. I tend to prefer Assistant — especially given all of the other Google software offerings it integrates with, but for many intents and purposes, the personal assistants are often interchangeable.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new Buds are a fair bit smaller than their predecessors — but they’re not small exactly. They’re still a bit on the bulky side, and while they stayed put when using them indoors, I found they came loose a few times on a five-mile walk I did over the weekend. In that case, you’ll probably want to opt for the silicone cover, which sports small wings to better keep them in place. Probably the best option as well, if you’re planning to exercise with them in.

A weird design oversight here, however: I found the charging case doesn’t close all the way when the covers are on. The case doesn’t fully snap shut, and I learned the hard way last night that charging can be a bit tricky (in fact, I just got a “battery below 10%” warning in the right ear, while the left if currently in the high 90s. If you do end up using the wings, it’s best to pull them off after your workout — they’re also a bit on the snug side for too much extended use.

As Matt recently noted, the case is strongly…inspired by Apple. The differences are more pronounced when the two are next to one another, but the similarity is pretty undeniable:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is longer and a little cheaper to the touch. Though the different shape does have the added bonus of being able to sit upright. For this reason, the charging port (USB-C) is on the rear of the case, rather than the bottom. There’s also a wireless charging case option, though that’s going to run you an added $20 — but probably worth it if you’ve got a Qi charger handy. There’s an Amazon arrow logo on the case (the company can’t help itself with the branding), but it’s subtle and located on the bottom. You’ll also find a light arrow on one of the earbuds.

The pair Amazon sent are “glacier white,” which is really more of a light gray. Again, it’s that much more pronounced when compared to the AirPods. Perhaps it’s a subtle way to further distinguish the design from Apple’s? Who knows.

Pairing is fairly easy. It’s not quite like using AirPods on an iPhone or Galaxy Buds on a Samsung, but it’s a couple of quick taps in the Alexa app. The company made the app the focal point of the Echo Buds for good reason. It serves as ground zero for everything you do on all of your Alexa-enabled devices. At a certain point, however, it may be time to consider breaking the app up a bit. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword — nobody needs more apps, but the thing is extremely noisy at this point.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The upshot is that when the Buds are opened and paired, it surfaces the devices to the front. Tapping in lets you toggle between ANC and Pass Through modes (to my annoyance, I found that it would often default to the mode I wasn’t using when I put the Buds on for the first time in a while), turn the mic on and off and start Workout mode, which is opt-in. For people looking for more consistent workout tracking, an always-on wearable like a band or watch is a better choice.

The sound is a nice upgrade over the previous models. As with noise canceling, you can get better audio on more expensive systems, but for where this sits on the price spectrum, you’re getting solid sound for music, podcasting or calls. By default, it leans too heavily on bass for my preferences, but a few taps will take you to some equalizer sliders, where you can futz around with that.

The Bluetooth connection is pretty solid. I found I was able to walk around my apartment while leaving the iPhone in one place — a test failed by a number of the earbuds I’ve tested. I did, however, encounter some sync issues from time to time between the left and right bud when I was walking outside for long distances, creating an echoing effect. They can also send a sharp bit of feedback when held next to one another, owing to the fact that they don’t always instantly switch off when pulled out of the ear.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The stated battery is up to five hours on the Buds (6.5 with ANC off), and 15 total hours with the case. Compare that to the listed 4.5 and five hours on the AirPods and AirPods Pro and 24 hours with case. I certainly found I was able to get through a full day of use by dipping into the case once or twice.

The new Echo Buds present on upgrade over their predecessors on just about every level, making for a solid pair of mid-price earbuds. They don’t really address the “why” that their predecessor failed to. For Amazon, it’s about getting Alexa on more products. For consumers, the answer isn’t quite so easy.

 

 

#amazon, #earbuds, #echo-buds, #hardware, #reviews, #tc, #wireless-earbuds

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Sonos delivers a near-perfect portable speaker with the new Sonos Roam

Sonos has a new speaker that starts shipping later this month, and it’s a significant departure from the company’s usual offerings in a number of ways. The all-new Sonos Roam is a compact, portable speaker with a built-in battery and Bluetooth connectivity — but still very much a Sonos system team player, with wifi streaming, multi-room feature, voice assistant support and surprisingly great sound quality.

The basics

Priced at $179, the Sonos Roam is truly diminutive, at just over 6 inches, by roughly 2.5 inches for both height and depth. It weighs under a pound, and is available in either a matte white or black finish, which is par for the course for Sonos in terms of colorways. Roam is also IP67-rated, meaning it’s effectively waterproof, with a resistance rating of up to 30 minutes at depths of up to 1 meter (3.3 feet).

Sonos has placed the speaker’s control surface at one end of the device, including a microphone button, volume controls and a play/pause button. These are actual, tactile buttons, rather than touch-sensitive surfaces like you’d find on other Sonos speakers, which makes sense for a speaker designed to be used on the go, and in conditions where touch controls might get flummoxed by things like rain and water.

The Roam also has a power button on the back, next to a USB-C port for charging. It also offers wireless charging, via a receiver found in the base of the speaker, which can be used with Sonos’ own forthcoming magnetic charging adapter (sold separately), or with any standard Qi-powered wireless charger you want.

In addition to wifi streaming, Sonos Roam can also connect to any device via Bluetooth 5.0. It also features AirPlay 2 for connecting to Apple devices when on wifi, and it works out of the box with Spotify Connect. The built-in battery is rated for up to 10 hours of playback on a full charge, according to Sonos, and can also provide up to 10 days of its sleep-like standby mode.

Design and performance

This is the smallest speaker yet released by Sonos, and that’s definitely a big plus when it comes to this category of device. The dimensions make it feel like a slightly taller can of Red Bull, which should give you some sense of just how portable it is. Unlike Sonos’ first portable speaker with a built-in battery, the Sonos Move, the Roam truly feels like something designed to be thrown in a bag and brought with you wherever you happen to need it.

Despite its small size, the Sonos Roam offers impressive sound — likely the best I’ve yet encountered for a portable speaker in this size class. Inside, it manages to pack in dual amplifiers, one tweeter and a separate custom racetrack mid-woofer, which Sonos developed to help deliver both lows and mids with a faithfulness that normally escapes smaller speakers. The Roam also gets a lot louder than you’d probably expect it could, while keeping audio quality clear and free of distortion at the same time.

One of the keys to the Roam’s great sound quality is Sonos’ Automatic Trueplay tech, which tunes the audio to best suit its surroundings actively and continually. This feature requires that the mic be enabled to work, but it’s well worth having on in most settings, and makes a big difference while streaming in both Bluetooth and wifi modes. This also helps the speaker adjust when it’s switched from horizontal to vertical orientation, and it’s one of the main reasons that the Roam punches above its weight relative to other speakers in this size and price category.

The Roam would be a winner based on audio quality alone for the price, but the extra Sonos system-specific features it boasts really elevate it to a true category leader. These include a standby mode that preserves battery while keeping the Roam available to your system for wifi streaming via the Sonos app (handy, and also optional since you can hold the power button down for five seconds to truly power off and preserve your charge for even longer, which is great for travel).

One of Roam’s truly amazing abilities is a hand-off feature that passes playback of whatever you’re using it to listen to on to the nearest Sonos speaker in your system when you long press the play/pause button. This works almost like magic, and is a great speaker superpower for if you’re wandering around the house and the yard doing chores with the Roam in your pocket.

Bottom line

Sonos waited a long time to release their first travel-friendly portable speaker, but they obviously used that time wisely. The Sonos Roam is the most thoughtfully-designed, feature-rich and best-sounding portable speaker you can get for under $200 (and better than many more expensive options, at that). Even if you don’t already have a Sonos system to use it with, it’s an easy choice if you’re in the market for a portable, rugged Bluetooth speaker — and if you’re already a Sonos convert, the decision gets that much easier.

#airplay, #assistant, #bluetooth, #computing, #gadgets, #hardware, #play3, #reviews, #smart-speakers, #sonos, #speaker, #spotify, #tc, #technology, #wireless-charger, #wireless-speaker

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Google Nest Hub 2 review: The solid smart screen adds sleep tracking

Two-and-a-half years later, the Nest Home Hub remains one of my favorite smart screens on the market. Maybe that’s a commentary on the rate of improvement in the category, or maybe Google just got things pretty right the first time out. It remains one of the best-looking products on the market, built from solid but understated material. The size is right and Google clearly put a lot of thought into the functionality.

Of course, these consumer electronics have spent a few decades training us to expect big, annual updates to product categories (gotta keep that demand up). By that measure, the second-gen device is something of a disappointment. There’s not really a lot new here. The product now does sleep tracking and the speaker’s bass is a bit more full. And that’s honestly pretty much it.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the new version is how Google’s engineers worked within their own self-imposed limitations. I recall very distinctly seeing original Google Home Hub at a pre-release event and asking the company about the decision not to include a camera. Surely companies like Google and Amazon were committed to collecting as much information as possible on devices like these.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I gave the company kudos at the time for keeping the camera off the device — and I’m happy to say it continued to do so with gen 2 (of course, that was made easier with the subsequent release of the camera-sporting Nest Hub Max). And I have to say, having tested the new Echo Hub, which actually physically moves to follow you around the room, only cemented my appreciation of the intentional omission.

That decision was, no doubt, an integral part of why the Nest Hub has become a popular bedside device. Most of us don’t want a camera trained on us while we sleep and do…all of the other things people do in bed (eat crackers, watch scary movies, etc.).

Designing a second-generation version of what has become a popular bedside product made sleep tracking a no brainer. But there’s a problem: A camera seems like a pretty obvious way to do sleep tracking. But adding a camera would almost certainly make people less inclined to invite the product into their bedrooms. So, what do you do? If you’re lucky, you find a technology lying around that some company spent a bunch of money on, but ultimately had no idea what to do with.

So, what are the odds of something like that happening? If you’re Google, surprisingly high, it turns out.

Project Soli is one of those weird Google anomalies. It was a cool technology in search of a problem. The initial problem the team designated was, I suppose, that we touch our touchscreens too much. So it built the tech into the Pixel 4, allowing users to interact with a bespoke Pokémon game and a few other things. By the time the Pixel 5 rolled around, the technology was basically forgotten.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On the face of it, camera-free sleep tracking is a much more logical implementation of the Soli tech (assuming you can get around the initial strangeness of having essentially miniature radar in the electronic device sitting next to your bed). Here’s the breakdown from Google’s product page:

Sleep Sensing uses Motion Sense to track the sleep of the person closest to the display. With a low-energy radar, Motion Sense detects movement and breathing. Other sensors in Nest Hub detect sounds like snoring and coughing, and environmental factors like light and temperature in the room. That’s how Sleep Sensing determines not just when you went to bed and how long you slept, but also the quality of your sleep.

Certainly the inclusion of sleep tracking doesn’t make the product unique among consumer electronics. It seems like every company is racing to get into sleep — understandably so. Most of us aren’t getting anywhere near enough — a trend that dates back well before COVID-19 made insomniacs out of many of us. What makes the product relatively unique, however, is that it promises to do so without making contact with either you or the bed.

As someone who has tested dozens of fitness trackers and smartwatches over the years, I can attest that sleeping with a wearable around your wrist kind of sucks. I mean, I have enough trouble getting to sleep without one on (if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be that interested in sleep tracking in the first place).

For my money, if you’re looking for a pure sleep tracker, I would however, take a look at something like Withings Sleep Tracking Mat, which sits under your mattress. It’s minimally invasive and doesn’t require having a screen near your bed. I can’t recommend the new Nest Hub based purely on sleep tracking, but if you were already considering sticking a smart display next to your bed, this makes one of the best models on the market that much more compelling.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

One of the downsides of the Soli tracking is that there isn’t a ton of flexibility in where you can put the device. I don’t presently have a nightstand, for instance, so I had to improvise with a chair for testing. The device needs to be on the side of the bed (not the head or foot) and level with you on the mattress. The screen should be about one or two feet from you while you sleep.

There’s a calibration process, too, though it’s quite quick and you only really need to do it the once, assuming you’re not going to be moving the product around. This was the one time I found myself missing one of the Echo Show’s new features: specifically, a screen that you can manually tilt up and down. It would be a great feature to see in all of the products, going forward.

I’ve been using the sleep tracking for several nights now and have found it pretty accurate — particularly for a product that sits a couple of feet away from the edge of my bed. (Spoiler: I sleep like crap). The on-board wellness feature drills down on the information, as well. In addition to standard info like duration and overall quality, it will tell you how many times you coughed in the night, how many minutes you spent snoring and what your average respiratory rate was throughout the night.

Other info is available, including room temperature (which utilizes a still relatively underused built-in thermometer) and sleep quality, broken down by wake/sleep/restlessness. It’s fairly basic, and it will be interesting to see how much detail the company is ultimately able to drill down on with the given hardware. Given the focus on respiratory health, sleep apnea seems like a no-brainer, but that will likely require some updates, coupled with regulatory scrutiny.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It seems that, as far as sleep is concerned, there’s likely a good deal of room for improvement using the existing hardware. That’s doubly the case, now that Google’s Fitbit acquisition has officially closed. Expect some tighter integration on that front. For now, there’s still some thoughtful sleep integration with things like wake alarms and bedroom smart light functionality.

At $99, Google’s dropped the asking price by a full $50, which certainly softens the blow of what is ultimately a fairly minor update. Two and half years after its introduction, the Nest Hub is still one of the best smart screens you can buy, bolstered by Google’s solid Assistant and software offerings. The new version wouldn’t be the first on my list of sleep trackers, but if you’re looking for a beside smart display/alarm clock, it’s a nice bonus.

#google, #google-assistant, #google-nest, #hardware, #nest-hub, #reviews

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The Aston Martin DBX is a tale of two vehicles

The Aston Martin DBX is the brand’s first SUV — and the stakes for the iconic British luxury car maker couldn’t be higher.

Like Astons before it, the DBX is objectively handsome. Its sculptural form stretches out to unapologetic ample proportions, and stands out in the crowd of SUVs that frequent the private-school pickup lane. It’s an opulent design that scores high on aesthetics, performance and character. It’s also a vehicle that arrives late to the ultra premium SUV segment, and lacks the in-car technology and fuel economy of others of its ilk. Sales of the DBX, which starts at $176,900, began overseas last summer and entered the U.S. market in late 2020. (The version Aston Martin provided to TechCrunch for a test drive had the option-loaded retail price of $205,186 DBX, including delivery fees.)

Call it a tale of two vehicles in a time of dueling principles vying for luxury auto buyer budgets. Demand for SUVs continues to skyrocket, just as the mobility sector inclines sharply toward electrification. Aston Martin set a goal of selling 14,000 vehicles by 2023, a steep hike for a small, boutique brand. However, under new leadership, the company has dialed back those projections to 10,000 as part of its reorganization dubbed “Project Horizon.”

After an underwhelming year due to the pandemic, a new major owner and a new CEO are in place. It’s unclear which narrative will determine the DBX’s fate. The future of the company rests on its success.

Aston Martin said the DBX met sales expectations in 2020, with 1,516 units sold. The company anticipates that the DBX will make up 40% to 60% of global volume in 2021 — its first year of full production.

A tale of two vehicles

How to achieve best-in-class tech in both engineering and in-car experience is a quagmire for low-volume supercar makers who aren’t owned by a larger automaker that can lend that expertise. Aston took steps to solve this problem through an agreement reached with Mercedes-Benz AG to develop engines and electric architecture back in 2013. Tobias Moers, who headed up Mercedes-Benz’s AMG division until last summer, is Aston’s new CEO, a clue on how vital Aston still sees Daimler’s technical performance to its future.

Aston Martin has recently reentered Formula One racing, and true to the brand’s motorsports history, the DBX has sports car-like power, sprinting from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.3 seconds, using Mercedes-Benz AMG engines.

On the interior, the DBX scores high as a total sensory experience to drive (and floss in), affording its passengers panache and comfort, all swathed in Bridge of Weir leather. There are nifty options such as a snow pack, complete with a ski boot warmer.

Image Credits: Aston Martin

The other half of this product’s interior story raises more pragmatic questions about the role of in-car tech in the super luxury segment, and gets at the crux of Aston’s dilemma. Aston will always be at least one generation behind the latest Mercedes advancements. For a vehicle with a starting price of $180,000, cars that cost half the price have more advanced in-car features.

User experience

The Aston Martin DBX is equipped with COMAND, an infotainment system that Mercedes introduced in 1998, refreshed in 2014 and updated again in 2016. When it comes to tech, a few years feels like a lifetime. 

The challenge is that it’s not as simple as replacing a head-unit, Nathan Hoyt, a spokesperson for Aston Martin, told TechCrunch.

“The car would need to be revised to work a whole new electrical architecture” he said. “That said, the closer alignment we previously announced between Mercedes and Aston Martin means we will continue using MB technology for the foreseeable future.”

While Aston Martin is saddled with an older system, Mercedes-Benz has since moved on to MBUX, a new more technologically advanced infotainment system that was introduced in 2018 and has already been updated. No word on when MBUX will find its way to Aston Martin products.

In practical terms, that means a 2021 luxury vehicle that’s missing a touchscreen. What’s in its place is far too much clunky plastic to be called classic analog, which perhaps would make more sense. Think Mac keyboard, circa 2014. Apple CarPlay is standard on the DBX, but it lacks Android Auto.

aston-martin-dbx interior

Image Credits: Aston Martin

Instead of slick knobs, there are plastic buttons that seem out of step with the rest of the vehicle’s swanky naturally sourced woods. Plastic is also present on the air vents and gear selector.

In fairness, the everything-but-the-kitchen sink isn’t the best solution to in-car technology. Many carmakers have far too much frustrating and tactile tech on the dash that isn’t intuitive.

aston-martin-dbx-hyper-red-a1-aml-213-jpg.

Image Credits: Aston Martin

The tech that stood out

Aston’s done what it can to make DBX’s inner working distinct from the traditional Mercedes system. Creative thinking shows up in the 10.2-inch display’s slick graphics made for DBX on the center stack. A DB5, James Bond’s vehicle of choice, is used as an icon to indicate adaptive cruise control activation.

Aston manages to use the tech that it does have to its advantage — and it’s a whole mood.

Ambient lighting offers 64 different colors in two zones and a sound system that feels of the moment. The custom sound system boasts 790 watts over 13 speakers and a sealed subwoofer, and noise compensation tech that drowns out road noise. The combination of that cushy cabin and the boom of those speakers makes it feel as if one is driving around in a high-end theater, back when we all went to the movies, or if you’re an Aston owner, escaped into your personal home theater.

ADAS: form and function

Aston compensates for lack of computational power by making adaptive cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot monitoring all standard safety features.

Each function is housed in one of the aforementioned plastic buttons. Adaptive cruise control is on the left of the steering wheel, and can be adjusted to monitor distance and speed. The lane-keeping assist button is on the right of the center console.

The controls on the center console require the driver to glance down for a brief moment, causing the eyes to flit off the road. When lane-keeping assist is engaged, a light on the dash and a gentle twitch of the wheel alert the driver. Other switches control driver performance and Aston’s air suspension settings.

Character study

Stateside, Aston might be limited to James Bond, but for the British car culture enthusiasts, the brand is steeped in emotion, gravitas and significance. I attended the Aston centenary in 2010 in England, where I saw an outpouring of love across the U.K. for the brand’s heritage.

Under former CEO Andy Palmer, Aston was in pursuit of its future. A more modern factory in Wales was built to make DBX. But part of Aston’s intrinsic appeal is that some components are still hand built to suit the low-volume connoisseur of a few thousand-of-a-kind vehicle. As cars become more complex computerized systems, hand built becomes more of a liability.

The DBX’s path comes down to what the prospective driver wants and needs this vehicle to be in place of proper high-six figure dream machine such as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan owned by the BMW group, or Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus and Porsche Cayenne, which fall under the collective VW umbrella. Or Tesla, which is Tesla.

aston-martin-dbx

Image Credits: Aston Martin

As slick technological features become more important, Aston Martin may need to rethink how it solves for lagging behind. That may mean doubling down on what it means to be unapologetic and classic. Or using future powertrain variants to push the 21st century automaker messaging. The latter seems most likely.

A 2020 agreement with Mercedes that builds off of an existing partnership will give Aston Martin access to a wide range of technology, including electric, mild and full hybrid powertrain architectures through 2027.

Aston Martin indicated in its latest earnings call that offering a hybrid SUV will be important for the company. Tobias Moers, Aston Martin’s new CEO and the former head of Mercedes-Benz AMG, said a plug-in hybrid DBX will be offered before 2024. All-electric vehicles are part of the company’s plans as well, and have been targeted for middle of the decade.

The question is whether Aston Martin will give the infotainment system the needed upgrade to match the hybrid and EV tech.

When it comes to high-six figure SUVs, the air is thin at the top.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

 

#apple-carplay, #aston-martin, #automotive, #reviews, #tc

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Amazon Echo Show 10 review: Unmoved

Every new smart home device invites new questions. Questions of privacy, security and what we’re willing to give up for the sake of convenience. It’s not an anti-technology stance to welcome these conversations and assess new products as we invite them into our homes.

For my part, my apartment is fairly limited when it comes to smart home tech. I own two large smart speakers and a third smaller one, mostly for the convenience of networking streaming music across different rooms. My smoke detector is connected, for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that my home wasn’t on fire back when I used to leave it for extended stretches. Oh, and a couple of connected lightbulbs, mostly because why not?

Back when Google announced its first-party smart screen, the Home (now Nest) Hub, I thought it was a savvy decision to leave the camera off. Of course, the company included one on its larger Max device, so the option is there, if you want it. Of course, for most of these products, video cameras are a given — and understandably so, with smart screens like the new Echo Show 10 edging into the teleconferencing space as the line between work and home has become far more fuzzy for many.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon’s gotten the message here, with the addition of a large physical shutter button on the top of the device. When slid to the right, the camera on the top right is covered by a white lens cap, contrasted against the black bezel, so it’s easy to spot across the room. Doing so will pop up a notification: “Camera off. Disabling motion.”

The “motion” here refers to the rotating screen — the headline feature of Amazon’s latest take on the Echo Show format. The company is positioning the new tech as a game changer for the category, and while I will say it’s done a good job implementing the feature in a way that works well and quietly, it’s precisely this new addition that reignites the privacy question.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The notion of creating a home device that fades into its surroundings is really out the window with that feature. The Echo uses figure tracking to make sure the display is facing you at all times when using it, drawing attention to itself in the process. One can inherently know and passively understand that a device is using imaging and AI for tracking, but largely effectively ignore it. After all, we’ve got cameras on pretty much everything now. These things are a part of the social media and services we regularly use. When the device physically follows you around the room, however, this stuff is top of mind.

Having used the product for several days, I would say the feature feels unnecessary in most cases — and downright unnerving in some. I’ve placed the Show on my desk next to the computer where I’m typing this, and I’ve mostly disabled the feature. It’s probably something I could get used to over time, but with the relatively limited amount I’m going to spend with it, I prefer to use the product in a stationary manner, manually swiveling the display and flipping the screen angle up and down as needed. I adjust screens all of the time. It’s fine.

Amazon will walk you through the feature during setup, including which direction you want the screen facing as a default and how much rotation it offers on either side. Keep in mind, the system really has no notion of what constitutes “straight ahead, until you adjust the setting sliders accordingly. You can adjust these later in settings, as well. There’s also a “Motion Preferences” option. Here you can limit the applications it will use to follow you, require voice to use the feature or disable it entirely.

Of course, I’m also someone who prefers to keep the camera shutter on while not in use, so that works out just fine. You can’t shutter the camera and have the device continue to move, since it needs to know what it’s seeing to move along with it. I will say that the moving screen has the unexpectedly nice side effect of reminding me when I’ve forgotten to disable the camera.

Amazon’s understandably — and thankfully — been talking up the privacy aspects since the Echo Show 10 was announced. There are eight mentions of “privacy” on the product page, but here’s the key graf:

Built with multiple layers of privacy controls, including a mic/camera off button and a built-in shutter to cover the camera. Easily turn on/off motion at any time by voice, on-device, or in the Alexa app. The processing that powers screen motion happens on device – no images or videos are sent to the cloud to provide the motion feature.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Notably, the tracking feature uses a vague outline of a person, rather than any sort of facial tracking. The image it processes looks more like a blotchy heat map than anything recognizable as an individual or even, generally, a human (though it’s able to distinguish human figures from pets). That, in particular, has been a hot button topic for the company.

The rotating feature is primarily a way to reduce user friction. Amazon notes that existing Echo Show owners will swivel their devices around when they’re, say, using it in the kitchen to cook. The front-firing audio also moves as the screen does. That’s in keeping with the company’s move away from 360-degree audio in recent Echo models. This is either a plus or a minus, depending on how you use the device, and how many people are around. It can also be used to follow you as you move around while video calling (a feature the competition has offered through zooming and cropping).

Amazon’s taken pains in recent generations to improve the audio on these device, prioritizing the “speaker” part of smart speaker, and the new Show certainly benefits from that. I wouldn’t use it as my primary sound system, but sitting here on my desk, it delivers a nice, full sound for its size, even with the screen obscuring a big portion of the front.

The 10.1-inch screen is a nice size, as well. Again, I wouldn’t use it to replace a TV or even a good laptop, but it’s good size for quick videos. It’s a shame Amazon and Google haven’t been able to play nice here, because YouTube has the market cornered on short-form videos that are perfect for this form factor. (If you’re so inclined, you can still access YouTube via the built-in browser, though it’s not exactly an elegant solution.)

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon Prime Video certainly has its share of good long-form content and series (it has a ton of trash, as well, but sometimes that’s fun, too), but Amazon’s best play is partnering with third-parties to bolster its offerings. And that’s another spot where Amazon has been improving the Echo experience. Netflix and Hulu are now available on the device for video, and Apple Music and Spotify have been added on the music side.

There are still a number of third-party apps that would be nice additions, but that’s a pretty solid starting point. Not to mention that services like Spotify can be set as the default for music playback. That’s one of those additions that genuinely reduces friction (and honestly, Amazon Music is a far less compelling service than Prime Video at the moment).

Zoom — arguably the most compelling addition from a software standpoint — is coming later. For now, calls are limited to other Alexa devices. Zoom and other third-party teleconference software has the opportunity to create an entire new dimension for these products, especially with the aforementioned blurring of home and work life.

Honestly, where the Show is currently sitting on my desk is really the perfect placement to use it for calls while working on my computer. I’m cautiously optimistic about the implementation. At the very least, it would give me a compelling reason to get more use out of that 13-megapixel camera on a regular basis.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

For the time being, I think the most compelling case to be made for both the camera and automatic screen swiveling is as a makeshift security camera. This is another “Coming Soon” feature that requires a Guard Plus subscription. With it, you can set a geofence, with the Show doubling as a smart security camera when you leave home. The system will send an alert if a person is detected in your home while you’re out.

This month has seen rumors that Amazon is working on a wall-mounted smart home hub. The form factor certainly makes sense, essentially serving as an Alexa-enabled touchscreen control for your various connected devices. For the time being, between Show and the Alexa mobile app, I think the bases are covered pretty well — though such a device could certainly lend a more premium experience to the space.

A well-placed Show will address that need for many. Certainly it does the job for my one-bedroom apartment. You can use voice or touch to control lighting, and the screen can monitor feeds from security cameras, including, naturally, Amazon-owned Ring. Additions like these have really made the smart screen category a much more compelling and capable one.

At $249, it’s $20 pricier than the 2018 Show. It’s hard to say how much of the increase is due to the new mechanical turning mechanism, but Amazon offered up a cheaper model without the functionality that’s almost certainly the one I would go for, for reasons outlined above. Again, not everyone will have the same misgivings.

And all told, it’s a well-constructed, nice addition to the Show family and one I don’t mind moving around the old-fashioned way.

#alexa, #amazon, #echo, #echo-show, #hardware, #reviews, #smart-display

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Rode’s Wireless Go II delivers key upgrades to the best mobile mic for creators

Rode Microphones has a new and improved version of its much-loved Go portable mic, the Wireless Go II, which uses the same form factor as the original but adds a list of new and improved features. Most notably, the Go II offers two transmitter packs that can simultaneously talk to a single receiver, letting you record two individual speakers to the same camera or connected device.

Basics

The Rode Wireless Go II ($299) ships with everything you need to begin recording high-quality audio to a camera or anything else that can connect to a 3.5mm jack. The transmitter packs – there are two of them in the box – have built-in microphones that offer great sound on their own, or you can use them with any 3.5mm-equipped lavalier mic depending on your needs.

The receiver pack can output to 3.5mm TRS, but it can also transmit using USB Type-C (which is also for charging). This is new for this generation, and Rode also sells USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to Lightning cables so that you can use them with modern Android devices, iPhones, iPads, Macs and PCs.

Image Credits: Rode

Each of the three packs has a built-in rechargeable battery that can provide up to 7 hours of operating time on a single charge. You can independently adjust the gain on each of the transmitters, and mute each individually or both from the receiver pack. You can also swap between mono recording with each transmitter as a channel, and stereo recording modes.

The transmitters can operate at a range of 200 meters (roughly 650 feet) from the receiver, provided they have line-of-sight, and the receiver has a display to show you input levels, battery status, connectivity and more. The transmitters each have two LEDs that provide visual feedback for connectivity and gain. Each also automatically records locally, with the ability to store more than 24 hours of audio on built-in storage in case of dropouts in connectivity.

Design and performance

With this update, it really feels like Rode has thought of everything. You can get started immediately, for one, since the transmitter packs and receiver come pre-paired and assigned to left and right channels by default. They’re incredibly user-friendly, and while Rode has introduced a new Windows and Mac app for centralized control of them called Rode Central, you don’t actually need any additional software to get started recording with them.

This updated version also uses a new RF transmission tech that has 128-bit encryption built in, with a much farther line-of-site range for their use. This is designed to make them much more reliable in areas where there’s a lot of RF traffic happening already – like a busy shopping mall (once COVID times are behind us), conference halls, or other public areas with lots of people and smartphones around.

The onboard memory is also new, and means you’ll never have to worry about any potential dropped connections since you’ll always have a local file to rely on on the transmitter packs themselves. A similar peace-of-mind feature is a safety channel that records a back-up track at -20db, so that if you encounter any overloud sounds that cause peaking in your primary recording, you’ll have another option. Both of these features have to be turned on proactively in the Rode Central app, which Rode will also use to deliver future firmware updates for the Go II, but they’re very welcome additions.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Meanwhile, the best new feature might be that you get all these improvements in the same great package. Rode’s original Go was remarkable in large part because it came in such a small, portable package, with transmitters that featured built-in mics as well as being great body packs. The size here is exactly the same, and these use the same integrated clips that make them compatible with all of Rode’s existing Go accessories.

Bottom line

There’s a concept of ‘lapping’ in racing, where you’re so far ahead of a competitor that you overtake them again. That’s basically what Rode has done with the Go II, which pads the lead for the best mobile video/field podcasting mic on the market, with smart features that address the few downsides of the original.

#android, #darrell-etherington, #gadgets, #hardware, #ipads, #microphone, #microphones, #reviews, #rode-microphones, #smartphones, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #transmitter, #usb, #wireless

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The Tula Mic is a powerful portable recorder that doubles as a great USB-C microphone

Tula is a new company founded with the specific purpose of developing user-friendly hardware and software for sound capture, and its debut product, the Tula Mic, is now shipping after a successful crowdfunding campaign last year. Tula Mic is both a USB-C microphone input for computers and mobile devices, and also a dedicated recorder that has built-in storage and its own battery that can provide up to 14 hours of continuous use. It’s a strong intro offering that fits a lot of user needs at an attractive price point.

Basics

The Tula Mic is small – it’s definitely best described as ‘hand-held,’ taking up roughly the size and surface area of a deck of cards. The physical design includes microphone capsules up top, with control buttons running along either side, and a USB-C charging port in the middle of the back of the hardware. The top left side also features a standard 3.5mm port, which can be used not only for headphones for monitoring and playback, but also for input for lavalier microphones, effectively turning the Tula into a body pack.

Just below the grill that contains the recording capsule, there are two lights on the face of the Tula Mic. These including a gain/peaking indicator and a recording indicator, providing you with simple but effective visual feedback. There’s 8GB of built-in memory on board, and that built-in rechargeable battery that offers up to 14 hours of continuous recording. Inside, there are not just one, but two recording capsules, including one with a cardioid recording pattern for capturing audio from one user speaking towards the mic, and one with an omni pickup pattern for recording room sound, best for events or interviews.

The Tula Mic comes with a stand attached, which fold up and attaches magnetically to its midsection for easy transport. This is also removable, and can be swapped out for a standard microphone-mount threaded attachment point. It’s a simple and elegant design that proves very handy in active use, but the proprietary mounting method here means that if you ever lose one or the other of these accessories, you can’t just pick up a generic one like you could if they’d used a standard tripod thread instead, for instance.

Design and performance

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The Tula Mic’s design definitely conveys retro aesthetics, and its flat-sided oval shape is immediately eye-catching and recognizable. The unique look also provides great hand-holdability, and when used in stand mode, it’s immediately clear how a user should address the mic in use. The flip-down stand is elegant and keeps the mic firmly in place, thanks to its weighted metal construction.

The controls located down either side of the Tula Mic are each labelled, but I found that I definitely had to repeatedly reference the included user guide before I could consistently remember what each of them did. The icons are helpful, but not necessarily immediately intuitive. It’s nice to have physical controls, however, rather than touch sensitive surfaces or a screen for input.

The most important thing to note about the Tula Mic’s performance is that it sounds great, in both wired USB-C and standalone recorder mode. Having the ability to switch between omni and cardioid pickup patterns is also immensely useful in terms of the mic’s versatility as a one-size-fits-most solution, since you can use it for podcasting, for recording a class or lecture, and for recording a two-person interview all with equal ease and very high-quality results.

Lastly, Tula includes a built-in local noise cancellation algorithm, which allows you to capture a brief recording of room tone in order to automatically remove it from your subsequent recording. It’s a very handy and surprisingly effective feature, and one that should provide big benefits in terms of later using recordings from the mic with transcription services like Otter.ai.

Bottom line

At $199, the Tula Mic is already priced to match many of the leading USB microphones on the market today. The fact that it’s also a full-featured standalone digital recorder, many of which are also priced at or near that mark, really makes it an obvious choice for anyone looking for portable recording flexibility in a compact package.

#gadgets, #hardware, #metal, #microphone, #microphones, #mobile-devices, #recording, #reviews, #tc, #usb-c

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Nomad’s charcoal grill suitcase is modern ingenuity combined with classic cooking

Dallas-based Nomad set out to take an age-old cooking method and modernize it – but not by introducing connected or smart features. Instead, the Nomad Grill & Smoker takes classic charcoal grilling and relies on clever industrial design to make it packable and portable, while making sure cooks of all expertise levels can make great-tasting food even if they’re cooking with charcoal for the first time.

Basics

Nomad’s grill looks like some kind of fancy protective case that you’d expect to see traveling with a film crew, crossed with maybe a modern Mac Pro. It has an anodized aluminum build that uses a unibody casting in manufacturing, with high external durability and internal heat retention. It measures roughly 2 feet by 2 foot, and is around 9.5 inches tall when closed, with a total weight of 28 lbs including the cast stainless steel grill grate that’s included int the basic package.

28 lbs may seem like a lot, but it’s remarkably light for the cook surface you get with Nomad, which adds up to either 212 square inches of space in single-grate closed mode (good for smoking) or up to 425 square inches in open grill mode, which can double the cooking surface with the purchase of an optional second grate and charcoal placed in either side (better for open flame BBQing).

The case features a strong and durable dual latch closure system, and a reinforced handle for toting it around. Silicon skids offer protection for surfaces when laying the grill down to cook, and there are two magnetic air vents on either side for controlling airflow and flame, which are adjusted simply by manually sliding.

Design and performance

Image Credits: Nomad

The Nomad design is deceptively simple – at heart it’s essentially a metal box. But looking below the surface a bit, it actually hides some very advanced construction, including a layered shell design that means the outside never actually gets too hot, which is great not only for chef safety but also for setting it down on a wide range of materials during the actual cook process. For a portable grill, that’s a huge benefit.

Looking at the grill grate specifically, it features a honeycomb design that helps better distribute the heat, which is also domed subtly to allow more clearance for the charcoal underneath. It’s removable, but also snaps into place in the grill itself using magnets, which is great for transport and also for ensuring things don’t move around with any bumps.

One other huge benefit that seems like a small thing at first glance is a built-in thermometer that’s molded into the case. This provides you easy, clear temperature readings for the grill, and it’s analog so there’s no power required – another big benefit for portability.

In practice, the grill works exactly as you’d expect a great charcoal grill to work, which is amazing given its size and portability. It should definitely be mentioned that you’re going to be much happier getting the grill lit if you pick yourself up a charcoal chimney, which eases the lighting process – but that’s a great accessory regardless what kind of charcoal grill you’re using.

Image Credits: Nomad

I was particularly impressed at the Nomad grill’s performance when it comes to smoking. It maintains an even and consistent temperature with the box closed, and it’s easy to moderate the temperature with the built-in vents if you need to adjust the cooking intensity. The proximity of the charcoal to the food also imbues it with great flavor.

Bottom line

The Nomad Grill & Smoker is $599, which is a fairly high asking price, but it’s also unique in the market for the convenience it provides combined with the performance it offers. Whether at home or on road trips, Nomad is a wonderful addition to any home cook’s arsenal, and an all-in-one supplement that can replace even a dedicated, more fixed installation charcoal grill if that’s the way you want to go.

#barbecue, #chef, #cooking, #dallas, #food, #food-and-drink, #gadgets, #grill, #grilling, #hardware, #manufacturing, #nomad, #reviews, #smoking, #startups, #tc

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Treadly’s next-gen compact treadmill is ideal for small spaces and features app-based social workouts

As the global pandemic continues, having options for keeping active at home is increasingly top-of-mind. Treadly is a startup focused on building a home treadmill that’s compact and convenient, with smart connected features that boost engagement. The company recently released its second-generation product, and it’s super compact, with hardware improvements that boost the weight limit for users and add cooling benefits that extend workout times.

Basics

Treadly’s design is probably a lot smaller than you’re expecting – it’s just 3.7-inches tall for the base, and it weights just 77 lbs. The whole deck is just 56-inches long by 25-inches wide, and there’s a flip-down handle that you extend when you want to jog at a faster pace, while folding it away for strictly walking workouts.

There’s a display built into the deck itself, offering a simple but easy to read black and white readout of key stats, including speed, total steps, time and distance. The handrail features manual controls, and the Treadly 2 can also be controlled either via a dedicated remote control for the basic model, or through the Treadly app (iOS only now, but Android coming soon) via Bluetooth for the upgraded Treadly 2 Pro version.

The Treadly 2 also features a built-in Bluetooth speaker, which allows you to connect your smartphone and play music via whatever app you want. The Treadly iOS app also offers community iterative training, and live video integration. Treadly is also introducing new groups features to the app to allow users form their own communities, and also new challenges that users can issue to one another, like step count records and more.

Design and features

Treadly’s design is very compact, as mentioned, and it’s the perfect size for small spaces. It’ll slide easily under most couches thanks to its low height, and it can also be stored vertically if you want to put it against the wall or in a larger closet. The design is also attractive and minimal, which make it more unobtrusive than most exercise equipment even if left out in plain view.

The built-in display in the deck itself is a nice accommodation for keeping the dimensions compact, while also providing all the feedback you’d expect from a piece of home gym equipment. It’d be easier to check periodically if it was mounted into the fold-down handlebar, but that would definitely lead to increased bulk. Plus, having the stats slightly difficult to access is probably actually better for many people, since zeroing in on those can make a workout more arduous than it needs to be.

For the basic model, the remote is effective and compact, with a wriststrap included so that you can keep track of it easily while using the treadmill. The built-in Bluetooth speaker isn’t amazing, as you might expect, but it’s more than good enough to provide a soundtrack if you don’t have other speakers or earbuds on hand to use.

Image Credits: Treadly

As for the experience of actually using Treadly 2 to run or walk, it definitely delivers, with a few caveats: First, don’t expect this to provide a true indoor running experience. While it definitely offers impressive weight capacity for a treadmill of this size, the max speed is 5 mph, which is a low-intensity jog for most people. With the handrail down, that drops to just 3.7 mph, which is a brisk walk.

For something this compact, that’s actually still very impressive – especially since there’s no time limit on how long you can use the treadmill at 5 mph thanks to Treadly 2’s new and improved cooling system. For avoiding a sedentary lifestyle while remaining mostly indoors, the Treadly 2’s speed settings more than deliver, and that’s probably enough for most users, advanced fitness buffs excluded.

Bottom line

The Treadly 2 is a connected treadmill that provides a great blend of convenience, social features, guided usage, connected control and space-saving design into a reasonably-priced package starting at $749 for the Basic and $849 for the Pro with special New Year Sale pricing. It’s like the Peloton that most people are actually more likely to use long-term, and it’s a great way to stay active during the long winter months in our unprecedented times.

#app-store, #bluetooth, #bluetooth-speaker, #computing, #fitness, #gadgets, #hardware, #health, #ios, #itunes, #reviews, #science-and-technology, #smartphone, #tc, #technology, #treadmill

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing

The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.

In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.

With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.

The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.

Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.

The curved screen looks nice, per usual, accented well by the round corners. The screen itself is striking — Samsung’s displays always are. The screens on the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra are 6.2, 6.7 and 6.8 inches, respectively. Those are all unchanged, save for the Ultra, which is, strangely, 0.1 inches smaller than its predecessor. It’s not really noticeable, but is an odd choice from a company that has long insisted that bigger is better when it comes to displays.

Eye Comfort Shield is a welcome addition, adjusting the screen temperature based on time of day and your own usage. If you’ve used Night Shift or something similar, you know the deal — the screen slowly shifts toward the more yellow end of the white balance spectrum, reducing blue light so as to not throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s off by default, so you’ll have to go into settings to change it.

The company has also introduced a Dynamic Refresh Rate feature, which cycles between 46 and 120Hz, depending on the app you’re using. This is designed to save some battery life (a 120Hz along with 5G can be a big power hog). The effect is fairly subtle. I can’t say I really noticed over the course of my usage. I certainly appreciate the effort to find new ways to eke out extra juice.

The new era of Samsung is equally notable for what it left off. The new S models mark the end of an era as the company finally abandons expandable storage (following in the footsteps of the Z line). I mean, I get it. These devices range from 128 to 512GB of storage. For a majority of users, the microSD reader was superfluous. I certainly never needed to use it. Per the company, “Over time, SD card usage has markedly decreased on smartphones because we’ve expanded the options of storage available to consumers.”

Of course, expanding the built-in memory is going to cost you. Mostly, though, it’s always a bit of a bummer to say farewell to a long-time distinguishing factory. Speaking of, the company also ditched the in-box headphones and power adapter, notably deleting some ads in which it mocked Apple for recently doing the same. It’s the headphone jack all over again.

The company offered up a similar sustainability explanation in a recent statement. “We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.” As a consequence, the box is nearly half as thick as those from earlier S lines, for what that’s worth.

As mentioned above, the cameras are remarkably similar to their predecessors, with a few key differences. The S20 Ultra sported an 108-megapixel wide lens (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) and 48-megapixel (f/3.5) telephoto (4x zoom), while the S21 Ultra features a 108-megapixel wide (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2), 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto (3x zoom) and 10MP telephoto (f/4.9) (10x zoom). The dual telephoto lenses are the biggest differentiator.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The device will switch between telephotos, depending on how much you zoom in. The device performs a lot better than many competing handsets at distances requiring around 10x. Though, while the ability to zoom up to 100x is an extremely impressive thing for a phone to do on paper, the images degrade really quickly at higher levels. At a certain point, the image starts taking on the style of an impressionist painting, which isn’t particularly useful in a majority of cases.

Once Samsung (or whoever) can properly crack the code on translating that noise into signal, it will really be a breakthrough. Still, Zoom Lock is a nice addition in helping to minimize hand shake while zooming. Accidental movements tend to increasing exponentially the tighter you get in on an image. The Super Steady, too, has been improved for video recording.

Portrait mode has been improved. There still tends to be trouble with more complex shapes, but this is a problem I’ve run into with pretty much all solutions. Samsung gets some points here for offering a ton of post-shot portrait editing, from different bokeh levels, to adjusting the focal point to other effects. As with much of the camera software, there’s a lot to play around with.

Other key additions include 8K snap, a nice addition that lets you pull high-res images from a single frame of 8K video. There’s also Vlogger Mode, which shoots from the front and back simultaneously. Someone will no doubt find some social use for this, but it feels a bit gimmicky — one of those features a majority of users will promptly forget about. Additional options are generally a good thing, though the camera software has gotten to the point where there are a ton of menus to navigate.

I get the sense that most users want a way to quickly snap photos and shoot videos. The lower-end S21 entries are great for that. The hardware is strong enough to give you great shots with minimal effort. If you’re someone who really enjoys drilling down on features and getting the best images on-device without exporting to a third-party app, the Ultra is the choice for you. In addition to being a kind of kitchen sink approach, the high-end device is all about choice.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The addition of S Pen functionality is probably the most notable — and curious — thing the Ultra has going for it. On the face of it, this feels like the latest — and most pronounced — in a series of moves effectively blurring the lines between the company’s two flagships. Perhaps Samsung will make a move to further differentiate the next Note, or maybe the company is content to simply let the device meld over time.

There is one major difference off the bat, of course. Namely the fact that there’s no pen slot on the S21. This means that:

  1. The stylus is sold separately.
  2. You need to buy a case with an S Pen holder (also sold separately, naturally) if you’ve got any hope of not losing it.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I happened to have a Note S Pen lying around and found the experience to be pretty smooth. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I’m not really a stylus person myself, but Samsung’s done a good job building up the software over the years. The S Pen is a surprisingly versatile tool, courtesy of several generations of updates. But I would say if the peripheral is important to you, honestly, just buy a Note.

The components are what you’d expect from a high-end Samsung. That includes the brand new Snapdragon 888 (in some markets, at least), and either 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128, 256 or 512GB of storage on the Ultra. The battery remains the same as last year, at 5,000mAh. In spite of 5G and a high refresh rate, I’ve gotten more than a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge.

In the end, the S21 isn’t a huge change over the S20. It’s more of a refinement, really. But it does represent a big change for Samsung. The company has implemented a $200 price drop across the board for these products. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra start at $799, $999 and $1,199, respectively. None are what you would call cheap, exactly, but $200 isn’t exactly insignificant, whether it means easing the blow of getting in on the entry level or taking the pain out of going for a higher-end model.

It’s a clear reflection of a few years’ worth of stagnating smartphone sales, exacerbated by some dire numbers amid COVID. It’s nice to see a company take those issues — and concern around spending $1,000+ on a smartphone — to heart beyond simply offering up a flagship “lite.”

 

#ces, #ces-2021, #hardware, #mobile, #reviews, #samsung, #samsung-galaxy, #samsung-galaxy-s21

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Dell’s 40-inch curved monitor is perfect for a home office command center

Dell’s kicking off 2021 with a new addition to its monitor lineup that aims to hit a variety of sweet spots. The Dell UltraSharp 40 Curved WUHD monitor offers 39.7″ of screen real estate, with a 5120 x 2160 resolution that matches the pixel density of 4K resolution on a 32-inch conventional widescreen display. It comes equipped with Thunderbolt 3 for display and data connectivity, as well as 90W of charging for compatible computers, and a 10Gbps Ethernet connection for networking. In short, Dell’s latest (which is available beginning January 28) looks to be a true ‘one display to rule them all’ contender, particularly for those searching for a way to optimize their home offices.

The basics

Dell’s UltraSharp 40 has a 60Hz, 39.7″ diagonal display in 21:9 aspect ratio with WUHD resolution (not quite true 5K, but exceptional for a curved monitor this size). It offers 100% sRGB and 98% P3 color reproduction, and comes with a stand that has height adjustability, tilt and swivel, and that features a hidden cable channel for cable management. Built-in speakers provide 9W each of sound reproduction so you don’t need to worry about adding externals.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

In terms of wired connections, it offers Thunderbolt 3, RJ45 Ethernet, and USB 10Gps ports (three on the rear, and one in front) as well as one USB-C port for easy access on the front. There’s also 3.5mm audio line out (though it’s worth noting that this doesn’t work with headphones), and two HDMI ports plus one DisplayPort for more traditional display connectivity if you’re not going the Thunderbolt route. Finally, a standard security lock slot allows you to anchor the display in any shared environment.

The display itself is bright, clear and viewable at a wide range of angles, with a more matte finish that provides excellent viewing in a wide range of lighting conditions. A joystick control button provides easy navigation and operation of the built-in on-screen menu and integrated features, including picture-in-picture.

Design and features

First and foremost, the Dell UltraSharp 40 delivered excellent visual quality. Especially for a display this size, in a curved form factor, at this resolution, it’s going to be something that satisfies everyone from telecommuters mostly handling meetings and spreadsheets, to photographers and video professionals looking for image quality that is highly color-accurate and provides crystal clear detail.

The WUHD resolution means that you can run the display in a range of different configurations, depending on how much screen real estate you want or need. For instance, I’ve been using it at the 5160 x 2160 res, and it provides ample workspace for arranging multiple windows side-by-side, and tiled vertically. I typically use three displays at once in my day job (there’s a lot of tab and browser windows involved) and the Dell UltraSharp 40 makes it so that I can comfortably work with just a single monitor instead. It’ll work with Apple’s HiDPI modes on its modern Macs for clear and crisp visuals with larger on-screen elements, too, however, if you don’t need all that room.

Dell’s integrated stand is simple and effective, providing a range of maneuverability options that allow for significant travel in height adjustment. You won’t get a portrait mode full swivel in this display – but that’s not surprising given how long it is on its longest edge, compared to the vertical. You do get tilt if you need it, and the ability to angle back and forwards depending on how you have it positioned. The end result is a display that’s very large, but easy enough to adjust for your comfortable use.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The display comes calibrated out of the box, but also includes plenty of options for adjusting things like contrast and brightness using the built-in menus. This also including a very useful multi-device display setup, including both picture-in-picture features for multiple sources, and a picture-by-picture mode that splits the display into two equal side-by-side sections for multiple inputs. Another useful feature for working with the display with multiple computers: keyboards and mice connected via the monitor will automatically detect and switch between controlling both connected PCs.

Besides the display size and resolution, the other thing that makes the UltraSharp 40 a fantastic option for a home workstation is its range of ports and added bonuses like built-in speakers. The speakers aren’t going to win any audiophile awards, but they’re better than the ones that come built into your laptop and they obviate the need for additional equipment if you’re looking to spare your desk surface space. With any modern Thunderbolt-equipped Mac, the Dell UltraSharp 40 really is a one-cable wonder that offers very little in the way of compromises.

Bottom line

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

With the Dell UltraSharp 40, the company continues its tradition of delivering extremely high-quality display products at a reasonable price. The $2,100 price tag may seem steep, but for what you’re getting it’s a very fair price point, and Dell’s displays also have very high reliability that means an investment in their monitors is likely to keep you satisfied for many years to come (two of my home office displays are some of Dell’s very first 4K monitors, which have served me reliably for over half a decade).

Because of its wide aspect ratio and curve, this display really does replace two smaller 4K screens for most uses, and so the cost framed that way actually makes even more sense. In short, Dell’s UltraSharp 40 is a home office beast, which fills a sweet spot for a wide range of remote professionals.

#dell, #digital-imaging, #displayport, #electronics, #ethernet, #gadgets, #hardware, #hdmi, #reviews, #tc, #technology, #thunderbolt

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Bose’s latest sleep-centric earbuds mostly do the trick

It’s been a strange year for sleep. For me, levels have fluctuated between too little and too much, but have – more often than not – tended toward the former. 2020 gave most of us no shortage of excuses for sleep deprivation, from personal stresses to larger societal concerns.

And, thankfully, the past few years have seen no shortage of technological solutions to the problem of sleeplessness. Of course, the underpinning issues can be hard to isolate and even harder to treat. There’s no silver bullet. That’s the lesson I keep relearning at this job – no single piece of technology is going to cure all of my ills. (I’m sure it’s nothing that years of extensive and expensive therapy can’t fix.)

Sleep headphones are, in and of themselves, not an entirely new phenomenon. Bose got into the space in earnest back in mid-2018, offering one of the more polished (and pricey) approaches to the category. The company went in an entirely different direction than, say, Kokoon, which offers an over-ear solution.

The Sleepbuds are – as the name suggests – fully wireless earbuds. This second generation allows Bose to address some of the bigger issues with the original – include some major battery complaints. That was a pretty big strike against a $250 pair of headphones with, quite literally, one job.

The battery and connections complaints, I can state, off the bat, seem to have been addressed. The units I’ve been wearing to sleep off and on for a few weeks now haven’t had any major connection issues to speak of (assuming you keep your phone near your bed and all that entails), and the battery generally gets me through a full night bit a bit under 20% remaining. After you wake up, you toss them in the case and let them charge for the next several hours.

Image Credits: Bose

All told, the build is solid, as you’d expect/hope from the company name and accompanying price point. I really dig the design of these things, overall, from the illuminating metal charging case with its sliding lid to the earbuds themselves. As someone who finds the slightest irritants a major hurdle to falling asleep, I was pleasantly surprised by how unobtrusive the buds are. They slip on comfortably and stay flush with the ear, so nothing gets snagged. The soft and rubbery wings also do a great job keeping them in place.

The buds biggest limitation is actually by design. Like the originals, the Sleepbuds II only work with the included app. This is used to pair them, locate them and offers Bose’s library of music. The company generally does a good job curating its own sleep sounds, ranging from nature sounds like rain and wind to self-selected ambient tracks. I got in the habit of listening to the sounds of the ocean while reading Moby Dick each night. A pretty good way to fall asleep, all told.

I appreciate the decision to hamper the functionality to some degree – I suspect I would probably start listening to podcasts and TV shows on the thing, left to my own devices (so to speak). But I would love to see what the buds could do with, say, binaural beats or some other ambient selections. Ultimately, I think giving the consumer choice is ultimately a net positive.

That said, the headphones are well-tuned for their limited (but expanding) library of sounds. There’s no active noise canceling, but the passive cancelation of the buds themselves plus the on-board sound do a good job blocking out things like environmental noise or snoring. They’re probably no match for, say, construction noise, but do a good job with subtler barriers to sleep. They’ll also likely be a good choice for long flights, when we start doing those again.

There are a handful of headphones currently positioned for the sleep market, but Bose’s look to be the most polished package at the moment. The price will understandably be a barrier for many – and the limited sound library could be a dealbreaker for some. But if you have the money – and find getting and staying asleep tough – they’re well worth exploring.

#bose, #hardware, #headphones, #reviews, #sleep, #sleepbuds

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The Expanse S5 review: The show is bigger, bolder, and better than ever

Space is mind-bogglingly big... but what happens there may not stay there.

Enlarge / Space is mind-bogglingly big… but what happens there may not stay there.

The science fiction space opera is by now a well-known genre, and yet somehow The Expanse is hard to describe. Let me try to sum it up at its most basic: The Expanse is a show about space. It is a show about society, about resources, about people with passions and problems and desires and—most especially—about what happens when all those things collide.

It is also, in a word, excellent. The Expanse‘s fifth season is the best since its first, a long-awaited high-stakes payoff to several seasons’ worth of setup. If you drifted away from the show during earlier seasons, like something accidentally dropped in microgravity, this new season makes it worth finding a way to come back.

The setup

For the first few seasons, The Expanse was concerned entirely with our own solar system. In its vision of the 24th century, we have fairly widespread access to spacefaring technology, just all at sublight speeds. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn might be accessible, but not so much the stars beyond.

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#amazon-prime-video, #gaming-culture, #gravity, #prime-video, #reviews, #the-expanse, #tv

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Cyberpunk 2077: A retro-futuristic fantasy with huge potential – if you can ignore the Cyberjank

Practically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to offer a real review of Cyberpunk 2077, the long-awaited follow-up to The Witcher 3 from developer CD Projekt Red. In the first place, it’s so big that the few days I’ve had with it aren’t enough to realistically evaluate the game; second, it’s so buggy and janky now that it feels wrong to review it before it becomes the game I know it will be; and finally, everyone’s going to buy it anyway.

The Witcher 3 is among the most universally lauded games of the last decade, up there with Breath of the Wild, The Last of Us, and Dark Souls. Though it had its flaws — lackluster combat, a limited scope — it did the open world thing better than anyone before or since, largely through improved writing, interesting characters, and consequences to player choices.

It was during what you might call that game’s honeymoon period that Cyberpunk 2077 was announced, and in the years since then the game has approached untenable levels of hype: It could never live up to what people expected, but it could very feasibly be a good game in its own right.

Recent controversies, however, have cast a pall over the launch: A seemingly hypocritical condemnation of pre-release crunch from the developer, some indefensible choices regarding diversity in the game (racialized gangs and a questionable approach to gender and trans representation), and delays suggested this may not be the magnum opus people hoped for.

In the first place I can confirm that the game probably should have been given a few more months of polish, at least on PC, the platform I played it on. From the very start I encountered obvious bugs like characters failing to animate, objects floating in mid-air, and the admittedly expected physics silliness one finds in every open-world game with simulated objects interacting. A day-one patch may fix some of them, but it’s clear that a game this big is nearly impossible to smooth out entirely. (I should say that I’m only partway through the 40-odd-hour campaign, though like its predecessor that will be padded out considerably with side quests.)

That’s a shame, because the world CD Projekt Red has created — or rather adapted from the tabletop RPG on which it is based — is undeniably rich and lovingly fashioned. The easiest way to describe it is simply to say that it’s exactly what you imagine when you think of “cyberpunk,” no more but surely no less.

The look of overcrowded streets filled with weirdo future people, shuffling between food carts offering vat-grown meat, beneath floating neon advertisements for cybernetic limbs and hacking tools, all watched over by enormous corporations of dubious intention… it’s right out of Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days, Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer, and dozens of other genre pieces that informed both the original RPG and the general ideas that constitute “cyberpunk” in the zeitgeist.

It’s a familiar world you’ll be entering in some ways, with few real surprises if you’re at all conversant in the genre. That is a good thing in many ways, as it feels like a lived-in place: a crystallization and expansion of ideas that, while you have seen them elsewhere, have never been at your fingertips so readily, save perhaps in the original Deus Ex, which had its own limitations.

Yet at the same time there is very much the feel of a lack of imagination and willingness to update those ideas in ways that seem obvious. The gangs based on racial identities seem like such a poor fit for both this era and for a future in which such distinctions have no doubt declined in relevance, especially in a vast melting pot like Night City. The stereotypical “Mexican tough guy” dialogue of your otherwise likeable companion Jackie grates, for instance, as do for example the stilted, supposedly Japanese mannerisms of staff at an Arasaka corporate hotel.

Gender is also a mixed bag. Reviews by queer-identifying reviewers at Polygon and Kotaku have much more relevance here than anything I can say, but I can only concur that the freedom the player has in selecting their presentation is an important step towards better representation of queerness in games — but also has a “do as I say, not as I do” feeling. Elsewhere in the game sex and gender are handled regressively or inconsistently with the clear implication that, with body modification something anyone one can do on a street corner for a few eurobucks, race and gender are fluid and unimportant in this world.

This future feels like it was extrapolated exclusively from the forward thinking but still limited minds of a bunch of smart white guys from the ’90s. Perhaps that’s why I feel so comfortable in it. But as Ready Player One demonstrated, there’s a limit to how much can be accomplished by those methods.

At the same time I want to call out the care that was obviously taken in some ways to have a future filled with people of different shapes, sizes, colors, inclinations, and everything else — it’s clear there is genuine good intention here, even if it stumbles with unfortunate regularity.

“What about the game itself, you babbler,” you ask, after 800 words, “is it any good?”

Yes, it’s good, but difficult to categorize. On one hand, you have a paralysis-inducing freedom in shaping the capabilities with which your character approaches the various situations he or she will encounter. Brute force, stealth, hacking, gunplay — all are quite viable, but don’t expect to get far relying on only one. A “pure hacking” approach, for instance, will be far more tedious than it’s worth, while a “pure gunplay” one will likewise miss the point.

In navigating an enemy base, taking down some rando street gang, or getting through one of the game’s highly involved criminal operations, there are many options for any given situation, but none is reliable enough (certainly not early on, anyway) to get you through without resorting to the others.

One inconveniently placed guard may be susceptible to having his eyes hacked, while another may be easily distracted by one of the numerous items you can make fizzle out and attract their attention. But when you eventually slip up and the bullets start to fly, you’re not going to hack your way out of it. That’s okay, though: You’re not a scalpel, you’re a Swiss Army knife. Act like it!

The open world in which you’ll be undertaking all these missions is a rich one… perhaps too rich. Open the map and you’re presented with a sea of icons, though they’re not quite the Ubisoft-style to-do list so much as letting you know that this is a big, dense city where you’ll never lack for gun shops, criminal activities to engage in or disrupt, and interesting locations to explore. If you think of the map as more “where’s a ripper around here? Let me check my phone” than generic “video game map” it makes more sense, though it’s obviously the latter as well.

You’ll be driving around a lot as well, a process that is about as smooth as it was in Grand Theft Auto 3. Using the totally inadequate keyboard controls for my car, I’ve caused panics and accidents, mowed people down, and obstructed traffic constantly, while attempting to follow every law and attract as little attention as possible. This part of the game feels hilariously last generation, like how in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, your all-terrain horse vehicle was an object of terror and lethality to any peasant stupid enough to walk on one of that game’s many mountain trails.

The helpful GPS directions once took me through a pedestrian occupied area with a gate that was just narrow enough to completely trap the car, though it extricated itself offscreen when I called it. Another time I summoned the car to my location and instantly heard a distant explosion and screams. The car arrived 30 seconds later completely trashed, missing the doors on one side. Fortunately it seems to repair itself by mysterious means when you’re not looking.

But when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing — you know, cyberpunk stuff — things are smoother, if not what I’d call completely modern. I had this feeling the whole time like I was playing a game whose bones were built 8 years ago and then wrapped in layer after layer of stuff, creating systems and environments that feel incredibly cool in some ways and, like the car, huge throwbacks in others. The gunplay isn’t as good as any shooter today, the melee is about at Skyrim quality, the hacking is perhaps Deus Ex levels, and stealth is nowhere near Metal Gear — but none of those games actually offered the breadth or richness of systems and environments as Cyberpunk 2077.

In the final — for the purpose of this article, which is to say incredibly limited and initial — analysis, it’s both accurate to say that this game is GTA: Night City 2077 and totally inadequate. It’s both unique and totally derivative, futuristic and regressive, wide-open and painfully restrictive. Like many AAA games these days, Cyberpunk 2077 contains multitudes, and short of being a total faceplant, which it undeniably isn’t, it has a huge draw and value for the millions of players who want to hoon around a cyberpunk dystopia, hacking and shooting and scheming and getting better armblades, eyeball replacements, and future-guns.

I suppose the simplest summary of my review would be that I look forward to playing Cyberpunk when it’s finished. The Witcher 3 came out to acclaim but also criticism of many of its systems, and over time it has evolved into the genre-leading game it is. Cyberpunk has that potential, but it undeniably also has real issues that I would like to let them address before I play it. If you have any patience, I’d give it a few months at least so you don’t have the best of the game spoiled by the worst. At some point in the future I think Cyberpunk will be a pivotal title in gaming, but not yet — let’s just hope it gets there before 2077.

#cd-projekt-red, #cyberpunk, #cyberpunk-2077, #gaming, #gaming-consoles, #opinion, #pc-gaming, #ps4, #ps5, #reviews, #tc, #xbox, #xbox-one, #xbox-series-x

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The mikme pocket is a fantastic mobile audio solution for podcasters, reporters and creators

Portable audio recording solutions abound, and many recently released devices have done a lot to improve the convenience and quality of sound recording devices you can carry in your pocket – spurred in part by smartphones and their constant improvement in video recording capabilities. A new device from Austria’s mikme, the mikme pocket (€369.00 or just under $450 USD), offers a tremendous amount of flexibility and quality in a very portable package, delivering what might just be the ultimate pocket sound solution for reporters, podcasters, video creators and more.

The basics

mikme pocket is small – about half the size of a smartphone, but square and probably twice as thick. It’s not as compact as something like the Rode Wireless GO, but it contains onboard memory and a Bluetooth antenna, making it possible to both record locally and transmit audio directly to a connected smartphone from up to three mikme pockets at once.

The mikme pocket features a single button for control, as well as dedicated volume buttons, a 3.5mm headphone jack for monitoring audio, a micro-USB port for charging and for offloading files via physical connection, and Bluetooth pairing and power buttons. It has an integrated belt clip, as well as a 3/8″ thread mount for mic stands, with an adapter included for mounting to 1/4″ standard camera tripod connections.

In the box, mikme has also included a lavalier microphone with a mini XLR connector (which is the interface the pocket uses) and a clip and two windscreens for the mic. They also offer a ‘pro’ lavalier mic as a separate, add-on purchase (€149.00 or around $180 USD), which offers improved performance vs. the included lav in terms of audio quality and dynamic range.

Image Credits: mikme

The internal battery for the mikme pocket lasts up to 3.5 hours of recording time, and it can last for more than six months in standby mode between recordings, too.

Design and performance

The mikme pocket is a pretty unadorned black block, but its unassuming design is one of its strengths. It has a textured matte feel which helps with grittiness, and it’s easy to hide in dark clothing, plus the integrated belt clip works exactly as desired ensuring the pack is easy secured to anyone you’re trying to wire for sound. It features a single large button for simplified control, which also easily shows you its connectivity status using an LED backlight.

Controls for more advanced functions like Bluetooth connectivity, as well as the micro-USB port, are located on the bottom where they’re unlikely to be pressed accidentally by anyone during recording. The mini XLR interface for microphones means that once a mic is plugged it, it’s also securely locked in place and won’t be jostled out during sessions.

You can use the mikme pocket on its own, thanks to its 16GB of built-in local storage, but it really shines when used in tandem with the smartphone app. The app allows you to connect up to three pockets simultaneously, and provides a built-in video recorder so you can take full advantage of the recording capabilities of modern devices like the iPhone 12 to capture real-time synced audio while you film effortlessly. The mikme pocket and app also have a failsafe built in for filling in any gaps that might arise from any connection dropouts thanks to the local recording backup.

In terms of audio quality, the sound without adjusting any settings is excellent. Like all lavalier mics, you’ll get better results the closer you can place the actually mic capsule itself to a speaker’s mouth, but the mikme pocket produced exceptional clean-sounding, high-quality audio right out of the box – in environments that weren’t particularly sound isolated or devoid of background noise.

The included mini XLR lav mic is probably good enough for the needs of most amateur and enthusiast users, while the lavalier pro is a great upgrade option for anyone looking to make the absolute most of their recordings, especially with post-processing via desktop audio editing software. The mikme app has built-in audio tweaking controls with a great visual interface that allows you to hear the effects of processing tweaks in real-time, which is great for maximizing sound quality on the go before sharing clips and videos directly from your device to social networks or publishing platforms.

Bottom line

From on-phone shotgun mics, to handheld recorders and much more, there are plenty of options out there for capturing audio on-the-go, but the mikme pocket is the one that offers the best balance of very high-quality sound that’s essentially immediately ready to publish, in a package that’s both extremely easy to carry anywhere with you, and that offers durability and user-friendliness to suit newcomers and experts alike.

#austria, #bluetooth, #computing, #darrell-etherington, #gadgets, #hardware, #iphone, #microphone, #microphones, #review, #reviews, #smartphone, #smartphones, #speaker, #tc, #technology

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