Review: Wireless headsets from Logitech, Audio-Technica, SteelSeries, HyperX and more

With the amount of time you’re spending at home these days, you deserve a better headset. A wireless one that works with your computer and maybe your console as well, with a mic for calls and great sound for games and movies. Fortunately there are a lot to choose from, and I’ve tested out your best options.

I asked the leading audio and peripheral companies to send over their flagship wireless headset, with prices ranging from about $100 to $250. Beyond this price range returns diminish swiftly, but right now that’s the sweet spot for comfort, sound, and usability.

For years I’ve avoided wireless headsets because there were too many compromises, but I’m pleased to say that the latency has been eliminated and battery life in the ones I reviewed is uniformly excellent. (NB: If the wireless version feels too expensive, you can often get wired ones for $50-100 less.)

To test the headphones, I used them all for a variety of everyday tasks, from video calls to movies and music (with only minimal EQing to get a sense of their natural sound) to AAA games and indies. None require an app to work, though some have companion software for LEDs or game profiles. I have a fairly large head and medium-sized ears, for what it’s worth. All the headphones are rather bulky, though the angle I shot them at individually makes them look huge — you can see in the image up top that they’re all roughly the same size.

None of these headphones have active noise cancelling, but many offer decent physical isolation to the point where they offer a “monitor” feature that pipes in sound from the outside world — useful if you’re playing a game but waiting for the oven to preheat or something. Only the first set has a built-in mic, the rest have detachable ones of generally solid quality, certainly good enough for streaming and chatting, though for broadcast a separate one would be better. All these headphones use a USB-A style dongle, though the 7P/7X also has a USB-C connector.

SteelSeries 7P/7X – $149

The 7P and 7X headsets, designed with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in mind (as well as PC) respectively, are my first and most unreserved recommendation.

The standout feature on these is, to me, a truly surprising sound with an almost disturbingly broad stage and clarity. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I put on some familiar tracks I use for reference. This isn’t a 7.1 simulation or anything like that — but no doubt the gaming focus led to creating a large soundstage. It worked!

I also found the headphones to be very comfortable, with a “ski goggle” strap instead of a per-band adjustment that lets them sit very lightly as well as “remembering” your setting. The spacious earcups rotate for travel or comfort.

The built-in mic is unobtrusive and stows away nicely, but if you’re picky about placement it was a bit floppy to adjust. Many of the other headsets have nicer mics that completely detach — maybe that’s a plus for you but I tend to lose them.

My main issues with these are that the controls feel cheap and not particularly well laid out. The bottom of the headset is a jumble of ports and buttons and the volume dials don’t have much travel — it’s 0 to 100 in one full swipe. (Volume control is independent from system volume.)

The dongle is different from the others in that it is itself USB-C, but with a USB-A cable attached. That’s good for compatibility, but the cable is three feet long, making it kind of silly to attach to some laptops and whatnot. You could easily get your own short cord, though.

At $150 I think these are an easy recommendation for just about anyone looking at that price range.

Audio-Technica AT-GWL – $250

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The high price on these is partly because they are the wireless version of a headset that also comes wired, so if you want the solid audio performance and comfy fit, you can save some money by going wired.

The sound of the AT-GWLs is rich and naturally has a focus on the upper-mid vocal range, which makes voices in media really pop. I did find the sound a bit confined, which hitting the “surround” setting actually helped with. I know that this sort of virtualization has generally been frowned on, but it’s been a while since these settings have been over the top and distortive. I found surround better for games but not necessarily for music, but it’s very easy to switch on and off.

The headphones are light and adjusted with traditional, no-nonsense metal bands, with a single pad on the top. I would say they are the lightest-feeling pair I tested, with the SteelSeries and Razer coming in just behind owing to some extra weight and bulk. Despite being compact, the AT-GWLs felt airy but not big. The leather-microfiber combo cups are nice, and I think they’ll break in well to provide better isolation over time.

Where they fall short is in the interface. First, a note to Audio-Technica: Turn down the notification noises! Turning the headset on, the mic on or off, or hitting the system-independent volume max produces loud, surprising beeps. Too loud!

Second, the buttons and dials are stiff, small, and same-feeling. Lifting a hand quickly to turn down the volume (maybe after a huge beep) you may very easily mistake the power switch for the volume dial. The dial also doubles as a button for surround mode, and next to it is a microscopic button to turn on and off the sound of surroundings. It’s a bit of a jumble — nothing you can’t get used to, but considering how nice other headsets on this list made their controls, it has to be said.

HyperX Cloud II wireless – $100

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

HyperX (owned by Kingston) wasn’t exactly known for audio until fairly recently, but its previous Cloud headset got the crucial Wirecutter endorsement, and it’s easy to see why. For less money than any of the other headsets in this roundup, the follow-up to that headset (which I’m wearing right now) has excellent sound and isolation.

I was surprised to find a soundstage nearly as wide as the 7P/7X, but with more of a focus on the punchy lower register instead of on detail and placement. My music felt big and close, and the atmosphere of games likewise, more immediately present.

The Cloud II’s controls are simple and effective. The volume dial, tied directly to the system volume, is superb: grippy, with smooth motion and just the right amount of friction, and just-barely-there clicks. There are two good-size buttons, the power one concave and the mic mute (which gives different sounds for muted and active) convex.

It’s unfortunate that they’re not as comfortable, for me anyway, as the others on this list. The cups (though a bit on the warm side) and band are perfectly fine. It’s that there’s little rotation to those cups, meaning there’s no play to accommodate the shape of your head. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my big dome, but they were noticeably tighter at the front of my ear than the back, so I was constantly adjusting or trying to twist them.

I’ll say this: if they add a bit more adjustment to the cups, these would be my default recommendation over the 7P/7X. As exciting as the SteelSeries sound is to me, the Cloud IIs seem more like what people expect and $50 cheaper.

Logitech G-733 – $130

The matte texture of the G733s had a weird interaction with my camera — they don’t look speckly IRL. Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

These are Logitech’s streamer-friendly, color-coordinated, LED-sporting set, but they’re better than the loud design would suggest.

The sound is definitely gaming-forward, with a definite emphasis on the low end and a very central, present sound that was a lot like the Cloud II.

To be honest, I was not expecting the G733s to be very comfortable — their stiff plastic look suggested they’d creak, weigh down my ears, and crush my noggin. But in fact they’re really light and quite comfy! There’s a lot of play in the positions of the earcups. The fit is a little odd in that there’s a plainly inferior version of the 7P/7X’s “ski goggle” strap that really only has four settings, while the cups slide up and down about two thirds of an inch. It was just enough to accommodate my (again, apparently very large) head.

The mic boom is rather short, and sadly there is no indicator for when the mic is on or off, which is sometimes a minor inconvenience and sometimes a major pain. You can tell from the sound the mute button makes, though.

The volume dial is nice and smooth, though the “clicks” are really far apart. I like the texture of it and the mic mute button, the power button not so much. But it works.

The colors may not be to everyone’s liking, but I have to hand it to Logitech for going all the way. The headset, mic, and even the USB dongle are all the same shade, making it much easier to keep track of them in my growing pile of headphones and widgets.

Logitech Pro-X – $200

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Currently Logitech’s most premium set of gaming headphones, the Pro-X abandon the bright, plasticky look of its other sets and goes for understated and black.

The sound of the Logitech is big and very clear, with almost a reference feel in how balanced the bands are. I felt more presence in the mid-lows of smart bass-playing than the other sets. There is a “surround” feel that makes it feel more like you’re in a room of well-configured speakers than headphones, something that I think emerges from a de-emphasis of the center channel. The media is “out there,” not “in here.” It’s not a bad or a good thing, just distinct from the others.

The controls are about on par with the Cloud II’s: A nice frictiony volume wheel controlling system volume, a nice mic toggle button, and a fairly meaty on-off switch you’re unlikely to trip on purpose.

Also like the Cloud IIs, there is no rotation to the earcups, making them less comfortable to me than the ATs and SteelSeries, and Logitech’s cheaper G-733s. A larger head than my own, if that’s possible, would definitely feel clamped. I do think these would wear in well, but all the same a bit of play would help a lot.

The external material, a satinized matte plastic, looks truly lovely but is an absolute fingerprint magnet. Considering you’ll be handling these a lot (and let’s be honest, not necessarily with freshly washed hands), you’re going to need to wipe them down rather more than any of the others I tested.

Razer Blackshark V2 Pro – $180

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The understated Razer Blackshark V2 Pro soon became my go-to for PC gaming when the SteelSeries set was attached to the PS5.

Their sound is definitely gaming-focused, with extra oomph in the lows and mid-lows, but music didn’t sound overly shifted in that direction. The soundstage is full but not startlingly so, and everything sounded detailed without being harsh.

The Razers look heavy but aren’t — it varies day to day but I think they’re definitely competing for “most comfortable” with the A-Ts and SteelSeries. The cups feel spacious and have a nice seal, making for a very isolated listening experience. Adjustment is done with the wires attached to the cups, which is nothing special — I kind of wish this setup would let you adjust the cant as well as the height. The material is like the Logitechs — prone to fingerprints, though a little less so, in my experience.

Their controls are very well designed and laid out, all on one side. The protruding (system-independent) volume knob may seem odd at first but you’ll love it soon. The one big notch or click indicates exactly 50%, which is super useful for quick “calibration,” and turning the knob is smooth yet resistant enough that I never once accidentally changed it. Meanwhile there are conveniently placed and distinguishable buttons for mute and power, and ports for the detachable mic, charge cord, and 3.5mm input.

I’m hard pressed to think of any downsides to the Blackshark except that it doesn’t work with consoles.

#audio-technica, #gadgets, #gaming, #hardware, #headphones, #hyperx, #logitech, #ps5, #reviews, #steelseries, #tc, #xbox

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The Animaniacs reboot, reviewed: Zany is harder to pull off in 2020

Promotional image for Hulu's reboot of Animaniacs.

Enlarge / Come join the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister, Dot). (credit: Hulu)

The Warner Brothers—and the Warner Sister—are back, thanks to Hulu. The streamer has rebooted the Emmy-winning, enormously popular Animaniacs, stalwart of 1990s afternoons, for a new generation and a new era.

Animaniacs first hit the small screen in 1993, part of a cohort of cartoons that tried to reach young audiences in a whole new way. At the highest level, Animaniacs was an animated variety show, with the main plot, such as it was, centered on Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner, animated creations from the 1930s who spent most of the 20th century locked up in a water tower until their escape in the 1990s. The show’s artistic DNA seemed to be equal parts Looney Tunes and Laugh-In, with a Dadaist streak and a heavy dose of Mel Brooks-style parody woven through.

Animaniacs was, in the end, a pretty weird show, equal parts absurdist and educational. And that suited me perfectly because I was, frankly, a pretty weird kid.

Read 20 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#animaniacs, #cartoons, #gaming-culture, #lampshades, #reboots, #reviews

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Charge’s City is an e-bike for everyone

Charge Bikes founder Nick Larsen and VP of product Peter Vallance wanted to reduce the pain points of buying and owning an electric bike to attract everyday folks and cycling enthusiasts alike.

The company offers three models: the Comfort for weekend leisure rides, the City for commuters and the XC for off-road enthusiasts. I got to spend some time with the City and took it on a quick grocery to see what it could do.

The bbike features a 250w geared hub motor with a max speed up to 20 MPH, pedal assist and throttle, front and rear lights, a locking removable battery that’s capable of 50 miles on a single charge, folding handlebar and pedals, puncture-resistant Goodyear tires, tire pressure sensors, an easy to read display with speed and power assist selector, disc brakes, Shimano Tourney 7 speed shifter, fenders, a rack and a handy dandy kickstand. All of that weighs in at just 45 pounds.

Charge Bikes

Source: Charge

Unboxing was simple, and I was happy the company skipped the styrofoam packing. I really like working with my hands and building things, but this was almost too easy. Just unfold the handlebar and pedals, attach the front wheel and adjust the seat post. Once you fill the tires with air and charge the battery, you’re ready to ride.

I started my ride on flat ground and mostly used the throttle at the highest setting — because, why not? The seat, grips, and riding position were comfortable, and I could see myself easily riding for longer.

The foldable pedals felt strange. There was some flex and bowing, which made me think I might be losing some crank power going to the wheel. I was afraid I might break them. However, the foldable handlebar felt securely locked in and didn’t give me any worry.

Source: Charge

One of the company’s marketing messages — “Get there and back, no sweat” — didn’t ring entirely true, at least for me. While it’s plenty fast and assists great on flat land, it’s not the hill flattening bike that I hoped it would be. We’ve got a lot of foothills out here in Oakland and my route to the local grocery store had several varying inclines. Some of the steepest had me cranking hard to make five miles an hour at assist level five.

It’s definitely better to have the electric power than not. I certainly wouldn’t attack any of these hills on my regular bike. I normally drive to this grocery store, but having an e-bike gave me the option of leaving the car parked and I like that.

Some critical points about the bike but aren’t dealbreakers are the fenders. While a great feature, they’d bend out of place often rubbing against the tires. The foldable pedals are a nice idea, but I’d likely swap them out for standard ones with straps.

I ran into gear-shifting issues mid hill climb which is the worst time for it not to shift into an easier gear. This was happening with my thumb on the throttle full blast. I also had an issue with the charger not charging the battery 100% overnight. It happened a couple times and I’m not sure what the issue was. I unplugged everything and plugged it back up, and that seemed to do the trick.

Source: Charge

Overall, the City is a great utilitarian bike for daily riding for everyday folks. From purchasing the bike to storing it, they really have reduced the friction points of owning an e-bike. You can purchase the City bike on their site for $1,499.

 

#charge, #ebike, #reviews

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Thank you, Chrome team

Since Chrome came out back in 2008, it’s been a constant companion in my life. In fact, Chrome’s launch is how I helped get the startup I worked for at the time onto TechCrunch for the first time.

We did shots to celebrate. Chrome rocked, and we were Day One Fans.

But over time what was once a romance began to sour, as Chrome got a bit slower, a bit heavier and a bit worse over the years.

The devolution felt a bit like what was happening to Google search, in which a very good idea was slowly turned into something that made more money at the cost of functionality, speed, and user happiness (more on that natural terminus of that progression here).

And because I am a petulant child, I have been very annoyed by what has happened to Chrome, software that I have never paid a single dollar to use. To make this point, I went out to round up a tweet or two from myself complaining about Chrome over the years, but after finding at least nine examples since May I started to feel bad (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine). So let’s move on.

What went wrong with Chrome? I don’t know. Over time its taste for RAM, lag, and being generally annoying grew. But as I was living in a G Suite world, sticking to Chrome made sense — so I endured.

And now, I may not have to any longer. This week Google detailed an impending set of Chrome updates that are amazing to read through and imagine the real-world impact of. Big Goog appears to have gone deep into its browser’s code, finding ways to make it faster, lighter on memory usage, and smarter.

I am so very excited.

What’s coming? Pulling from Google’s Chromium blog instead of its more consumer-friendly post (a big thanks to The Verge for bringing this set of updates to my attention), here are the highlights as far as I am concerned (Bolding: TechCrunch in each block quote):

Even if you have a lot of tabs open, you likely only focus on a small set of them to get a task done. Starting in this release, Chrome is actively managing your computer’s resources to make the tabs you care about fastwhile allowing you to keep hundreds of tabs open—so you can pick up where you left off.

In this release, we’re improving how Chrome understands and manages resources with Tab throttling, occlusion tracking and back/forward caching, so you can quickly get to what you need when you need it.

Google this is literally me. I feel incredibly seen. Thank you.

We investigated how background tabs use system resources and found that JavaScript Timers represent >40% of the work in background tabs. Reducing their impact on CPU and power is important to make the browser more efficient. Beginning in M87, we’re throttling JavaScript timer wake-ups in background tabs to once per minute. This reduces CPU usage by up to 5x, and extends battery life up to 1.25 hours in our internal testing.

When the world works again, I want to buy lunch for everyone who took part in this effort.

Next, we’re bringing Occlusion Tracking–which was previously added to Chrome OS and Mac–to Windows, which allows Chrome to know which windows and tabs are actually visible to you. With this information, Chrome can optimize resources for the tabs you are using, not the ones you’ve minimized, making Chrome up to 25% faster to start up and 7% faster to load pages, all while using less memory.

Hell yes.

How many times have you visited a website and clicked a link to go to another page, only to realize it’s not what you wanted and click the back button? […] In Chrome 87, our back/forward cache will make 20% of those back/forward navigations instant, with plans to increase this to 50% through further improvements and developer outreach in the near future.

I didn’t even know I needed this, but I do. And I can’t wait to have it.

All in all, as I write this short post to you inside of Chrome, I cannot help but be freaking excited about New And Improved Chrome. More later after I get some testing in, but, honestly, yay!

 

#apps, #google, #google-chrome, #reviews

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The new Mac mini: The revival of the no-compromise low-cost Mac

There’s nothing small about the latest Mac mini.

Never mind the Mac mini’s tiny size or low price. This diminutive desktop is a revolution for most users, thanks to Apple’s new chipset. Called the M1, this chip platform replaces the Intel CPU long found at the heart of Apple’s desktop and portable computers, and the results are impressive.

Using the M1 Mac mini feels like using a new iPad or iPhone. Everything satisfyingly snaps into place. I keep waiting for my test machine to start lagging, and nearly a week later, it’s just as fast as the day I started using it. The new Mac mini is surprising, and most users will find it a major upgrade over existing Mac computers. It’s hard to beat regardless of the price.

For casual users, those who live in a web browser or Apple’s apps, the Mac mini is a no-brainer option. This is the desktop I would buy for myself. Even for power users, those who run bespoke applications, the Mac mini should be seriously considered. Most mainstream applications excel on the new Mini — especially apps with a creative tilt toward photography or video.

The Mac mini has long been a forgotten friend among the Mac lineup. Hardly updated and never promoted, it sat on the bench for years, watching as Apple’s portables received updates and refreshes as the world became more mobile. But here we are in the midst of a never-ending pandemic. With coffee shops closed and business travel limited, the COVID-19 crisis could lead to the rediscovery of the desktop computer.

The M1-powered Mac mini is a winner.

Review

There are several things you should know. One, the new Mac mini runs the M1 SoC, which is fundamentally different from its Intel predecessor. Instead of a CPU, it’s an SoC — System on a Chip, which comes with advantages and concessions. The chipset is built around an ARM design with more integrated components than its CPU counterparts. In many ways, it’s more similar to the system powering phones and tablets than the chips used in traditional computers. Because of this design, components that used to be discrete are now integrated directly into the chip.

Second, Apple provided a 6K 32-inch Pro Display XDR with my test Mac mini (these will be returned to Apple). I’m also running a 24-inch display over HDMI. According to the Mac mini’s product page, the system is limited to two monitors. I was able to hook up a third monitor through 3rd party software but it was unstable and should not be considered a capability.

Lastly, you should know TechCrunch also reviewed the new 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. We benchmarked these systems with similar conditions to demonstrate the differences between the units.

In our tests, we found Apple’s M1 system on a chip (SoC) to outperform its rivals, regardless of price. With the M1 at its core, the Mac mini is faster in most regards than every Apple computer available except for the ultra-expensive Mac Pro — and sometimes the Mini is faster than the Mac Pro, too. What’s more, this performance increase is noticeable throughout the system and not just limited to raw computing tasks in purpose-built applications. The system is snappy, responsive and feels like the start of a new era of computing.

The new Mac experience

Snappy hardly describes the experience of the new Mac mini. This system flies. Users will instantly notice the increase in speed, too, from startup time to launching apps. In the past, even on powerful machines, macOS has always felt heavy compared to iOS, but not anymore. With the M1 chip, macOS (Big Sur) is light and free and a joy to use.

Even better, the ARM-based M1 chip allows Macs to run iOS applications, and they run as smoothly on the Mac as they do on an iPad.

There’s likely a hesitation around embracing a new Intel-less Mac. Will your legacy applications run on these machines? Will they run well? I can’t answer every variable. I installed and ran dozens of applications during my few days with the system and never experienced a roadblock. Even with older programs, everything ran as advertised, and in most cases, ran better on this M1-powered Mac mini than on my few-months-old 15-inch MacBook Pro. I didn’t find one application unable to run on the new platform.

The largest speed increases are most noticeable when using native apps for the M1 processor. With Apple’s Final Cut Pro, the application loads seemingly instantly — two seconds from button press to it being open and ready to go.

With the M1 chip, it’s less painful to edit 8K footage in the native Final Cut Pro app than it was to edit 4K footage on an Intel Mac. Exporting the files still takes time, though, and this is one of the few tasks where Intel’s platform outperforms the M1.

Even when using legacy software, the system preformed with ease. Edits in Photoshop seemed more fluid. Lightroom loaded photo albums quicker and without hesitation. Editing video in Premiere was easier and less painful as I scrubbed through 6K footage. Even unzipping files was much quicker.

Image Credits: Matt Burns

This is a silly demonstration, but watch the GIF above. Applications open instantly — all of them at the same time. If Apple put a beachball in this system, I haven’t found it yet.

The M1 chip is based on an ARM design, which required Apple to rework macOS to run on this new computing platform. While it looks mostly the same, the macOS is now purpose-built for Apple’s own silicon. To take full advantage of the redesigned chip, applications need to be re-coded into an Arm-friendly design. And yet, we found something surprising: Even the apps that are not re-coded yet are still impressively fast thanks to Apple’s Rosetta 2 that enables software encoded for Intel’s platform to run on the new Apple platform and take advantage of the M1’s power.

For most uses, this holistic approach of building the hardware and software results in major advantages. Common system-level tasks like launching apps, waking from sleep and unzipping files are lightning-fast. Other items like rendering video and editing photos are just as fast, too. Right now, at launch, all of Apple’s apps — from Music to Photos to Safari — are re-encoded for the M1. Like those from Adobe, other apps are not yet native, but the older versions run fine, and in most cases, run better on the M1 than an Intel platform.

The M1 platform lacks a dedicated graphics processing unit. It’s built-into the core of the chip. Thanks to a memory dedicated to machine learning, this lack of a discrete GPU is hardly noticeable for professional users. Still, those who do intensive graphics work (like professional gfx visual artists) should hesitate. Even then, this conclusion could change once the applications become native to the new ARM architecture.

The M1 also lacks the ability to use an eGPU — an external graphics card — but most users should not fret. It could be a problem for pros who found the Intel-based Mac minis paired with a powerful eGPUs as a viable, low-cost alternative to the Mac Pro. However, based on our testing, the GPU performance in these M1 systems are impressive and could be good enough for most, even in creative media editing applications.

In addition to common workflows, I ran through some industry benchmarks to see how the system responds and came away impressed. We took it one step further, too, and charted the performance between Apple’s top-of-the-line systems and the new 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Benchmarks often oversimplify results, but in this case, they seem necessary. This puts systems on common ground. By looking at multiple tests, the results draw a common conclusion. The M1 is really good.

The new Mac lineup

The Mac mini has two siblings. The M1 is also available in Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. The differences are minor. The same computing platform powers all three but feature different cooling schemes in the MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Because of the improved cooling, the MacBook Pro and Mac mini are better suited for sustained performance.

In our testing, all three machines performed similarly. The Air started to fall short in the longer tests, and that’s likely due to its passive cooling that does not feature a fan. In the MacBook Pro and Mini, the SoC is cooled by a fan, while a heatsink is used in the Air.

What does this mean for you? For most users, the Air’s performance is sufficient as it only slows down during long, intensive tasks. For browsing the web, editing photos and watching videos, the Air is perfect.

There’s one downside to the new Mac mini over its Intel sibling. The M1 Mac mini only sports two Thunderbolt 4 inputs — that’s because the M1 chipset has an integrated Thunderbolt controller and it supports up to two of these ports. For some users, this could be a deal-breaker, though it’s not for me. There are countless ways to expand the Thunderbolt capability of the Mac mini, and to me, the performance of the machine outweighs the port limitation.

The M1 Mac mini also lacks a 10GB Ethernet option, limiting its use as a server for some users. This is also likely an M1 limitation, and something I would expect would be addressed in future chipset revisions.

Multiple monitor support is a major downside to the M1 Mac mini. It only supports two monitors: one through Thunderbolt and one over HDMI. I was able to get a third monitor running at low resolution through third-party software, but it was unstable and performed poorly. To some, including me, multiple monitor support is a major issue and two monitors are often not enough.

Benchmarks

Apple, when promoting the M1-powered computers, laid out some wild claims about the chipset. We found most of the claims to be factual. We ran a handful of benchmarks on the M1 systems, comparing them against the most recent Macs, including the Mac Pro.

Benchmarks paint with a broad stroke and often miss nuances. That’s the case here. While the first few benchmarks demonstrate the speed of the M1, the final test fails to capture a critical aspect of Final Cut Pro. Sure, it’s slower to export than an Intel-based system, but using the M1-native version of Final Cut Pro is much smoother than what’s available on older systems. I was able to easily manipulate, scrub and edit 8K footage without even a hiccup. Rendering takes longer, but editing is seemingly easier.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Here we downloaded the Xcode 12.3 beta. It’s an 11.57GB file that extracts a 28.86GB folder. Lower times are better.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Here we compile WebKit. Lower times are better.



With Geekbench, we ran two tests: One, using Rosetta 2 to demonstrate the system’s power when running legacy applications. Then we ran Geekbench in an M1 native mode to test Apple’s silicon. Higher is better.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

For Final Cut Pro, we timed the rendering of an 8K video (80GB). Lower is better.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Breakthrough performance for the price
  • Easily able to run legacy (Intel) and iOS apps
  • Cool and quiet

Cons

  • Support for only two monitors
  • No eGPU support
  • Only two Thunderbolt 4 ports

Test Mac mini specs

  • Apple M1 chip with 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU
  • 16-core Neural Engine
  • 16GB unified memory
  • 1TB SSD storage
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Price as tested: $1,299

The new Mac mini is a fantastic machine and feels like the start of a quiet revival. In another era, Apple was known for its solid, fairly-priced desktops, which is a great description for this Mac mini.

As a longtime fan of the Mac mini, I’m thrilled to see it once again as a great option for those of us who live at a desk .

With the M1 chipset, Apple is moving onto a new chapter in its long history of personal computers. This chip redefines the computing paradigm by offering stellar performance in a small, power-efficient package. In the Mac mini, the M1 shines as a stable workhorse that provides a new experience to Mac desktops. In the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, the M1 is just as solid while offering substantially better battery life than previous offerings. Read those reviews here and here.

Should you get the new Mac mini? If you’re stuck at a desk, yes. The new Mac mini is fantastic.

#apple, #hardware, #m1, #mac-mini, #reviews, #tc

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MacBook Air M1 review: The right Apple Silicon Mac for most

Reviewing hardware is an act of minutia. Occasionally something new or potentially earth-shattering comes along, but on the whole, it’s about chipping away. Documenting small, gradual changes designed to keep product lines fresh and — if you play your cards right — differentiating yourself from the competition.

Apple’s as guilty of this as anyone, of course. That’s just the nature of a 12 to 24-month product cycle. Every refresh can’t be a revolution. Every so often, however, a game-changer comes along — something undeniable that sets the scene for a more profound shift for a product line. The trio of Macs launched at the company’s third major press conference in three months certainly apply.

It’s been 15 years since Apple made the jump to Intel processors from PowerPCs, a chip technology it had relied upon for more than a decade. That move came as the company was butting up against the limitations of its chosen technology. PowerPC took them far at the time, but it couldn’t deliver on the processing power it desired for the next generation of portables.

As with that transition, the move toward Apple silicon has been years in the making. The company has been making a concerted effort to wean itself off of third-party components. Among other things, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate your product when you’re essentially using the same parts as everyone else on the market. Creating your own processors is, of course, a long and difficult process. Thankfully, however, the company had a head start.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Arm-based chips that power the company’s mobile devices are a great starting point. The company can build on several generations of learning, while moving ever closer to that perpetual Holy Grail of Apple software: perfect cross-ecosystem compatibility. Elements of iOS have been trickling down into MacOS for years now (a trend that includes, and arguably accelerates with, Big Sur), while the company eased the transition for Intel Mac owners with the Catalyst.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

After countless rumors and months of wait, the first three Apple Silicon Macs are finally here. And the results are, in a word, impressive. You’ve no doubt seen some of the benchmarks that have popped up over the past several days that have left many in the community taken aback. While it’s true that Apple talked up performance in its own presser, it’s easy enough to discount those numbers without more specific benchmarks. We’ve split our testing of the three systems among three editors — and it’s pretty safe to say we were blown away by what the systems can do.

Okay, so, a brief break down of the M1:

  • Eight-core CPU with a stated 2x performance gain
  • Seven- or eight-core GPU (depending on the Air model you go in for) with up to a 2x graphical upgrade
  • 16-core neural engine
  • Increased power
  • Improved image signal processing

The Air, in particular, presents some truly robust gains of the most recent versions of the system, released back in March. That may feel like forever ago, given everything that has transpired, but that’s a mere eight months. The system excels at two benchmarks in particular: battery life — measures by a simple video playback — and Geekbench, which tests a system’s CPU and GPU performance by simulating real-world situations. Anecdotally, things are just faster all over the place.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Apps open almost instantly and resource-intensive tasks like editing 4K video are surprisingly zippy. Some of these are changes you’ll likely notice right away, even if you’re not pushing the system to the limit. Take the neat trick of waking up instantly from sleep. It’s something we’ve taken for granted on mobile devices but haven’t seen as much on desktops.

These advances, perhaps unsurprisingly, arrive in the same package. Like the new Mac mini and 13-inch Pro, the Air is identical to the one released early this year. Perhaps the company is seeking to maintain consistency on the outside as the products undergo rather dramatic changes under the hood. Maybe a redesign didn’t line up with the move to Arm. Or, hey, maybe Apple thinks the current design represents some sort of platonic ideal for thin and light laptop.

Whatever the case, you’d be hard-pressed to pick the new Air out of a lineup. I’ve been using the system in public, and no one’s been any the wiser that I got a slight head start on the next generation of Macs. If I’m being honest, I’d have liked it if Apple had ushered the moment in with some befittingly dramatic redesign — but at least no one can accuse Apple of introducing change for the sake of change. And let’s be honest, while the physical design of the Air hasn’t changed much in recent generations, it remains one of the most iconic and better-looking laptops on the market.

That includes the same thin and beveled design that differentiates the product from the rest of the MacBook line, and at 2.8 pounds, it’s 0.2 pounds lighter than the 13-inch MacBook. That’s not a huge spread, but it’s something that will make a difference to your lower back over time — I say that as someone who lugged the system around on a 15-mile walk over the weekend.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Once again, there are two USB-C ports, both positioned on the same side. I’m always going to argue for more ports, especially given the fact that one will semi-regularly be monopolized by a charging cable. I’m also a fan of spreading them out a bit more — preferably on either side of the machine for those instances when you just can’t get enough slack from the cable or have something a bit wider plugged into the port. Of course, there’s no surprise on that front, unlike the new 13-inch Pro, which lost two ports in the process of upgrading.

That will likely sting for some users attempting to figure out whether to upgrade here. The change appears to be connected to some limitations of the new M1 SOC. If I was a betting man, however, I would suggest that there’s a pretty reasonable possibility that whatever pro-focused version of the chip comes next will support more ports for upcoming devices like the first Apple Silicon 16-inch MacBook Pro.

In fact, the company is likely reserving a number of upgrades to differentiate this round from some new pro-focused devices likely to arrive at some point next year. It’s all part of a kind of configuration of Apple’s Mac strategy that we’re seeing play out in slow motion. The new Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini represent the entry-level tier for the Mac line. It’s a category that’s become an increased focus for the company in recent years — and one we’ve seen play out across the iPhone and Apple Watch lines.

There is, of course, still truth in the longstanding notion of the premium “Apple Tax,” but the company has expended its approach to improve things on the lower end. One of the more surprising aspects of this strategy on the Mac side is just how much the company has closed the gap between the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook. There are differences between the two devices, of course. For many or most, the biggest is the $300 price gulf between the $999 starting price for the Air and $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro.

So, how does Apple justify the price difference? And more to the point, will the upsell make a difference for a vast majority of users? Before we go any further, let’s break down the key differences between the new Air and Pro.

  • Stated Battery – Pro: Up to 20 hours, Air: Up to 18 hours
  • Display – Pro: 500 nits of brightness, Air: 400 nits
  • Microphone Array – Pro: Studio-quality three-mic array, Air: Three-mic array
  • Touch Bar – Pro: Yes, Air: No
  • Speakers – Pro: Stereo speakers with high dynamic range, Air: Stereo speakers
  • Fan – Pro: Yes, Air: No

The last bullet is the most important when it comes to performance. The arrival of the M1 made a fanless MacBook Air a possibility — something that was unheard of in early models. It bodes well for the thinness of future MacBooks, and more immediately, it means extremely silent performance. And, indeed, no matter how much stress testing I’ve managed to do over these past few days, the system has remained eerily silent — though I’d caution you that the passive cooling system can result in a rather toasty Air if you really push things. And, more importantly for a workload standpoint, the system will throttle during resource-intensive tasks — but you’ll have to push it.

Take, for example, the five-minute, 8K clip we exported in Final Cut Pro. At 33:13 minutes on the Pro and 32:59 minutes on the Air, the end result was, honestly fairly negligible (the Mac Pro, meanwhile, blew them both away at a blazing five and a half minutes). Ditto for running a WebKit compile. That took 25 minutes and five seconds on the Air and 20 minutes and 43 seconds. That’s not entirely negligible, but both systems beat out the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro’s 26 minutes and 56 seconds. And both systems took far less of a battery hit, losing around 9% during the process, versus the 16-inch’s 39%.

The new M1 chips are remarkably energy efficient, even when performing more resource-intensive tasks. In a video playback test, I got 16 hours of life. That’s less than the maximum 18 hours stated by Apple’s numbers, but it’s an impressive figure, nonetheless. I would certainly feel comfortable leaving the house without a charge.

Per Matthew’s numbers, the Pro fares even better. He was able to get right around the stated 20 hours. That higher figure likely comes due a higher capacity battery courtesy of the thicker laptop footprint. In both cases, however, the systems blew away last year’s 13 and 16-inch Pros, which got eight hours and eight minutes and six hours and 40 minutes, respectively. That’s a tremendous bump in an important metric.

So let’s break down those Geekbench 5 numbers. The new Air and Pro’s numbers are quite similar. That’s to be expected given their respective internals. Again, you’re going to have to really push the system — likely for a prolonged amount of time — before the Air take a noticeable hit due to its fanless design. The Pro scored a 1711 on single core and 7549 on the multi-core. The Air got an average of 1725 and 7563, respectively (for good measure, I’ll add that the the Mini hit a similar 1748 and 7644).

Here’s some more historical context from Geekbench. A few relevant examples: the Core i7 MacBook Air from earlier this year averaged 1136, while the 13-inch Pro hit 1240. Running the Intel version of the benchmark (using the Rosetta 2 emulator), the numbers predictably took a hit, but still best the Intel systems. And, indeed, Intel-designed apps performed quite smoothly.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Most of the benchmarks we ran found the two systems scoring remarkably close to one another. In other words, I think it’s a safe bet a majority of people searching for systems at this tier won’t be bumping up against those kinds of limits too often. Those who do find themselves frequently performing tasks that challenge those hardware limitations are going to have the difficult choice of buying the new 13-inch Pro now or waiting the see what models like the 16-inch have in store. For more information on that front, spend some time with Matthew’s review of the new 13-inch.

Image Credits: Apple

What I can say with more certainty, however, is that Apple’s got a much stronger case for its rediscovered focus on creative pros. While the category has long been its bread and butter, a case can be made that the company has surrendered some of that market to the likes of Microsoft’s Surface line and others. Apple made the case that the Touch Bar found it rekindling that relationship, but I think there’s a much stronger case to be made for a MacBook Air that can process much heavier workloads than its predecessors.

And, frankly, I haven’t missed the Touch Bar. My primary laptop is a 15-inch Pro with Touch Bar, but it’s a feature that hasn’t really impacted my workflow — and it’s not for a lack of trying. I suspect that for those attempting to distinguish between the Pro and Air the missing feature will barely register. And besides, my favorite part of the Touch Bar addition — TouchID — is here as it was on the last Intel version of the Air. On a whole, I’ve found the ability to log in with a fingerprint more useful than scrolling through photos or emojis on the thin touch strip.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Speaking of touch — there’s another elephant in the room here. Obviously the touchscreen Macs some predicted didn’t arrive at the event early this month. Even so, it seems reasonable to expect that they will at some point in the not so distant future, with the lines continuing to blur between macOS and iOS. Look no further than Big Sur, which continues the recent trend of adopting key features from the mobile operating system.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As I noted in my recent writeup of macOS 11.0, a number of features are practically begging for touchscreen interaction. Take the sliders in the newly added Control Center. Sure, the trackpad works fine, but it sure would be satisfying to swipe them over with a finger. This becomes even more pronounced when playing certain iOS optimized games, which now play natively on the M1. Take “Among Us.” I played the wildly popular social game on the new Air — and while the gameplay was predictably smooth, playing with the trackpad feels less natural than touch.

In this implementation, you either have to use the pointer to control an on-screen joypad or simply point the character in the right direction. There’s also the fact that the game occupies a fixed window that you can’t expand to take up the full display. The M1 chip goes a long ways toward opening up the available Mac ecosystem, making porting an iOS app as simple as ticking a box to make it available through the Mac App Store, but in many cases, additional optimization for these systems is warranted particularly for more professionally minded applications.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As for the other primary input device, the keyboard is pretty much the same as the latest Intel Air — which is to say head and shoulders above early versions. That’s no doubt a dark couple of generations of keyboards Apple would like to forget. They were solid as a rock, and insufferably loud. They also caused a lot of users undue stress by getting jammed. The latest version of the scissor mechanisms are far superior to the early butterflies. I won’t go so far as saying it’s the best laptop typing experience, but it’s like night and day compared to early models.

Another aspect that warrants mention is the webcam. It’s a feature that rarely warrants a sentence in most laptop reviews, but this is 2020. It’s a weird year with weird demands and here we are carrying out the vast majority of our interaction with other human beings over Zoom. It sucks, but it’s life. Many people have no doubt already invested in external webcams as part of the shift toward working from home. For the first time in — well, probably ever — webcams are an important factor in purchasing for many or even most people.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Apple has, indeed, upgraded the camera for the latest Air — but not entirely. That is to say the sensor is the same, and the camera is still stuck at 720p. But the new image signal processor (ISP) included as part of the M1’s SOC design does result in a better image. You can see the difference above. Frankly, neither is great to be honest, but one is decidedly less bad than the other. On the left you’ll see the Air’s image.

The resolution is still low, but the color — among others — is certainly improved. The white balance is more inline with reality and it handles shades better. I’m going to still defer to my external webcam for things like Extra Crunch panels, but for a quick meeting, sure, I’m fine letting the Air do the job. This would have been a perfect time for Apple to go all-in with a webcam refresh on these systems. Common wisdom says there are limitations on camera hardware give the thickness of the laptop lid, but if I had to venture a guess here, I’d say the company is looking at webcam video as another point of differentiation for Pro models.


The microphone, meanwhile, remains a point of distinction between the Air and Pro. I’ve included voice recordings from the Intel and Arm Airs above. See if you can tell the difference. Honestly, I can’t, really. As with the webcam, they’re fine for a casual chat, but I wouldn’t want to, say, record a podcast on the thing.

These three new systems represent the first step toward Mac’s future. And there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the potential of Apple Silicon. The M1 chip already displays some pretty dramatic performance gains for a lot of tasks, coupled with substantial increases in battery life, courtesy of decreased power consumption.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are some limitations worth noting on these models. Two USB-C ports appears to be the maximum in the current configuration and all three models currently top out at 16GB of RAM. If either of those are dealbreakers, the company will happily still sell you an Intel model for the foreseeable future.

When Apple Silicon was announced at WWDC back in June, Tim Cook noted that it would take two years to transition the full line. That means we’re very much at the beginning of this journey and there’s a lot left to reveal, including how dramatically different the true Pro tier of MacBooks look.

For most users with most needs, the Air is a fine choice. If I had to buy a new MacBook today I would pull the trigger on Air and upgrade the memory and storage for good measure. It’s a surprisingly powerful machine in a compact package.

#apple, #apple-mac-event-2020, #apple-silicon, #arm, #hardware, #m1, #macbook, #macbook-air, #reviews

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Demon’s Souls: The first truly next-gen game is a lopsided but impressive showcase

The next generation of gaming is here with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — except it isn’t, because there are almost no next-generation games to play on them. Demon’s Souls is the first title that can truly be called next-gen, and it shows — even though it’s a remake of a PS3 game… which also shows.

The original Demon’s Souls was an incredibly influential game. Its sequel, Dark Souls, was more popular and improved on the first quite a bit, but much of what made the now major series good had already been established. “Souls-like” is practically a genre now, though the originals are unsurprisingly still the nonpareil.

The comparative few who played Demon’s Souls were elated to hear that it was being remade, and by Bluepoint at that (who also remade the legendary Shadow of the Colossus), but worried that the game might not stand up by modern standards.

Can an old game, the essentials of which are a decade behind its descendants, be given a really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking coat of paint and still act as a blockbuster next-gen debut? Well, it kind of has to — there’s no other option! Fortunately the game really does hold up, and in fact makes for a harrowing, cinematic experience despite a few significant creaks.

I don’t want to give a full review of the game itself; let it suffice to say that, although it looks and runs much better, the core of the game is almost entirely unchanged. Any review from the last decade is still completely relevant, down to the “magic is overpowered” and “inventory burden is annoying.”

As a next-gen gaming experience, however, Demon’s Souls is as yet without comparison. It serves as a showcase not only for the PS5’s graphical prowess, but its sound design, haptics, speed, and OS.

Image Credits: Sony

First, the graphics. It’s clear that Sony and Bluepoint intended this to be a truly lavish remake, and the game’s structure — essentially five long, mostly linear levels — provides an excellent platform for breathtaking visuals carefully tuned to the user’s experience.

The environments themselves are incredibly detailed, and the various enemies you fight very well realized, but what I kept being impressed by was the lighting. Realistic lighting is something that has proven difficult even for top-tier developers, and it’s only now that the hardware has enough headroom to start doing it properly.

Demon’s Souls doesn’t use ray-tracing, the computation-heavy lighting technique perennially on the cusp of being implemented, but the real-time lighting effects are nevertheless dramatic and extremely engaging. This is a dark, dark world and the player is very limited as far as personal light sources, meaning the way you experience the environment is carefully designed.

Although the detailed armor, props, and monsters are all very nice, it’s the realistic lighting that really sets them off in a way that seems truly new and beautiful. Dynamic range is used properly, to have actually dark areas illuminated dramatically, such as the still-terrifying Tower of Latria.

Image Credits: Sony

The game isn’t a huge leap over the best the PC has to offer right now, but it does make me excited for game designers who really want to use light and shadow as gameplay elements.

(Incidentally, don’t bother with the “cinematic” option versus “performance.” The latter keeps the game silky smooth, which for Souls games is a luxury, and the other setting didn’t improve the look much if at all, while severely affecting the framerate. Skip it unless you’re taking glamour shots.)

Similarly sound is extremely well done in the game, though I’m cautious about hyping Sony’s “3D audio” — really, games have had this sort of thing for years on many platforms. Having a decent pair of headphones is the important bit. But perhaps the PS5 offers improved workflows for spatializing sound; at all events in Demon’s Souls it was very good, with great separation, location, and clarity. I have reliably dodged an enemy attack from offscreen after recognizing the characteristic grunt of an attacking foe, and the screeches and roars of dragons and boss monsters (as well as the general milieu of Latria) were suitably chilling.

A Sony DualSense controller seen from above.

Image Credits: Sony

This combined well with the improved haptics of the DualSense controller, which seemed to have a different “sensation” for every event. A dragon flying overhead, a demon stomping the ground, a blocked attack, an elevator ride. Mostly these were good and only aided immersion, but some, like the elevators, felt to me more like an annoying buzz than a rumble, like holding a power tool. I hope that developers will be sensible about these things and identify vibration patterns that are irritating. Fortunately the intensity can be adjusted universally in the PS5’s controls.

Likewise the adaptive triggers were nice but not game-changing. It was helpful when using the bow to know when the arrow was ready to release, for instance, but beyond a few things like that it was not used to great advantage.

Something that had a more immediate effect on how I played was the incredibly short load times. The Souls series has always been plagued by long load times when traveling and dying, the latter of which you can expect to do a lot. But now it’s rare that I can count to three before I’m materializing at the bonfire again.

This significantly reduces (but far from eliminates) frustration in this infamously unforgiving game, and actually makes me play it differently. Where once I could not be bothered to briefly travel to another area or the hub in order to accomplish some small task, now I know I can return to the Nexus, fuss around a bit with my loadout, and be back in Boletaria in 30 seconds flat. If I die, I’m back in action in five seconds rather than twenty, and believe me, that adds up real fast. (Load times are improved across the board in PS4 games running on the PS5 as well.)

Aiding this, kind of, is the new fancy pause screen Sony has implemented on its new console. When hitting the (annoyingly PS-shaped) PS button, a set of “cards” appears showing recent achievements and screenshots, but also ongoing missions or game progress. Pausing in Latria to take a breath, the menu offered up the ability to instantly warp to one of the other worlds, losing my souls but skipping the ordinarily requisite Nexus stop. This will certainly change how speedruns are accomplished, and provides a useful, if somewhat immersion-breaking, option for the scatterbrained player.

The pause menu also provides a venue for tips and hints, in both text and video form. Again this is a funny game to debut these in (I don’t count Astro’s Playroom, the included game/tech demo, which is fun but slight), because one of the Souls series’s distinctive features is player-generated notes and ghosts that alternatively warn and deceive new players. In another game I might have relied on the PS5’s hints more, but for this specific title they seem somewhat redundant.

As arguably the only “real” PS5 launch title, Demon’s Souls is a curious but impressive creature. It definitely shows the new console to advantage in some ways, but the game itself (while still amazing) is dated in many ways, limiting the possibilities of what can be shown off in the first place.

Certainly the remake is the best (and for many, only) way to play a classic, and for that alone it is recommended — though the $70 price (more in Europe and elsewhere) is definitely a bit of a squinter. One would hope that for the new higher asking price, we could expect next-generation gameplay as well as next-generation trimmings. Well, for now we have to take what we can get.

#gadgets, #gaming, #reviews, #tc

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Using the GoPro Hero 9 Black and Zeus Mini to improve my manual driving skills

There are plenty of reviews out there for the Hero 9 already, so I wanted to do something a little different. I decided to put GoPro’s latest to the test while hugging turns in my 1970 Chevelle.

I recently swapped the automatic transmission in it for a Tremec Magnum 6-speed manual in order to do something I’ve never done before: rev-match my downshifts. In other words, I wanted a smooth ride. And what better way to monitor my progress than record it with the Hero 9?

The camera features a front-facing screen, removable lens cap, webcam and streaming capabilities, Hypersmooth 3.0, and Hindsight with up to 30 seconds of pre-recording. GoPro threw in the Zeus Mini, and I’m glad they did.

The rechargeable LED light has a 6-hour total runtime at level one brightness. There are four levels in all, at a max of 2000 lumens. It’s waterproof up to 33 feet and has a 360 rotating clip that’s also magnetic. There’s also a strobe mode for emergency signaling or partying. As a video producer I can always use different types of light sources.

Mounting the Zeus Mini was quick and simple thanks to the clip. It lit my pedals well. I set the brightness on level four to try and match the light coming in from the windows. I have to say I’m very impressed with the utility of the light. Not only can it mount onto the cold shoe of a media mod, you can clip it on your hat for camping, or light up a section under the hood that’s tucked away from light. It’s handy.

I tried mounting the Hero 9 a couple of places to capture the road, as well as my shifting in the same frame – one with a head mount and the other on my chest. Neither one could capture both really well, but the chest mount was definitely better than on my head. I also mounted DJI’s competitor, the Osmo Action, as a b-cam to cut between for comparison. 

I shot both cameras with stock settings. Of the two, the Hero 9 generally had less noise in the shadows, more vibrant colors and a high-contrast image quality compared to the Osmo. I like to shoot most of my work flat so I have the option to create the look that I want instead of having it baked in, but in this case I really didn’t mind having that stock GoPro look.

Seeing your ride blast down the road in 5k is awesome and hearing your exhaust note roaring by can be just as good. The sound quality is also much better on the Hero 9 than the the Osmo, especially at lower frequencies. DJI’s camera seemed to have a high pass filter or additional wind filtering baked in even when the optional wind noise reduction was already turned off. The Hero 9 also has some wind noise filtering that was noticeable but it didn’t seem as intrusive.

One tjomg I didn’t like about the Hero 9 is how both screens are simultaneously on. I know a lot of folks love this feature, and I see why it can be useful, but I just think you should be able to turn them off and on independently. Maybe a double tap on the mode button or something, because, you know, battery life. 

The battery is improved from the Hero 8, but when recording side-by-side with the Osmo for continuous recording, the Hero 9 depleted when the Osmo was still around 50%.

Another critique: the hypersmooth actually worked too well. A side-by-side from the rear shows the Hero 9 drift from left or right in the turns to keep things smooth, whereas the Osmo drifted some but managed to keep most of the dash in frame. 

A common nice-to-have feature on either action cam would be a front touch screen. But adding that functionality would likely mean increasing the overall size even more. 

Watching myself rev matching in 5k is definitely helpful and it’s only a matter of time before I get better. The Hero 9 is a significant improvement on previous generations. If you own a Hero 8 and don’t have a need for a front facing screen, 5k, or a removable lens then you probably don’t need to upgrade. For me, the Hero 9 isn’t the silver bullet of action cams but is a welcome addition to my collection.

You can pick up the Hero 9 Black for $399.

 

#gopro, #gopro-hero-9-black, #hardware, #reviews

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Apple HomePod Mini review: Remarkably big sound

It’s hard to shake the sense that the smart speaker market would look considerably different had the HomePod Mini arrived several years back. It’s not so much that the device is transformative on the face of it, but it’s impossible to deny that it marks a dramatically different approach to the category than the one Apple took almost three years ago with the launch of the original model.

Apple has never been a particular budget-conscious company when it comes to hardware — terms like “Apple tax” don’t spring out of nothing. But the last few years have seen the company soften that approach in an effort to appeal to users outside its traditional core of creative professionals. The iPhone and Apple Watch have both seen the company more aggressively pushing to appeal to entry-level users. It only follows that it would follow suit with its smart speaker.

Couple that with the fact that the Echo Dot and Google/Nest Home minis pretty consistently rate as the best-selling smart speakers for their respective company, and arrival of a HomePod Mini was all but inevitable, as Apple looks to take a bite out of the global smart speaker market, which currently ranks Amazon and Google at around 40% a piece. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the HomePod, but the Mini is, simply put, its strongest push in that direction to date.

Launched in early 2018 (after delays), the HomePod was a lot of things — but no one ever claimed it was cheap (though no doubt they found a way to spin it as a good deal). The $349 price tag (since reduced to $299) was hundreds of dollars more than the most expensive models from Amazon and Google. The HomePod was a premium device, and that was precisely the point. Music has always been a cornerstone of Apple’s philosophy, and the HomePod was the company’s way of embracing the medium without cutting corners.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As Matthew wrote in a David Foster Wallacesque “four sentence” review, “Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the seven years Apple has been working on it.”

He called it “incredibly over-designed and radically impressive,” while bemoaning limited Siri functionality. On the whole, the HomePod did a good job in being what it set out to be — but it was never destined to be the world’s best-selling smart speaker. Not at that price. What it did do, however, was help convince the rest of the industry that a smart speaker should be, above all, a speaker, rather than simply a smart assistant delivery device. The last several generations of Amazon and Google products have, accordingly, mostly brought sound to the forefront of product concerns.

Essentially, Amazon and Google have become more focused on sound and Apple more conscious of price. That’s not to say, however, that the companies have met somewhere in the middle. This is not, simply put, the Apple Echo Dot. The HomePod Mini is still, in many ways, a uniquely Apple product. There’s a focus on little touches that offer a comparably premium experience for its price point.

That price point being $99. That puts the device in league with the standard Amazon Echo and Google Nest, rather than their respective budget-level counterparts. Those devices run roughly half that price and are both fairly frequently — and quite deeply — discounted. In fact, those devices could nearly fall into the category of loss leaders for their respective companies — dirt-cheap ways to get their smart assistants into users’ homes. Apple doesn’t appear particularly interested in that approach. Not for the time being, at least. Apple wants to sell you a good speaker.

And you know what? The HomePod Mini is a surprisingly good speaker. Not just for its price, but also its size. The Mini is nearly exactly the same size as the new, round Echo Dot — which is to say, roughly the size of a softball. There are, however, some key differences in their respective designs. For starters, Amazon moved the Echo’s status ring to the bottom of the device, so as to not impede on its perfectly spherical design. Apple, on the other hand, simply lopped off the top. I was trying to figure out what it reminds me of, and this was the best I came up with.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design decision keeps the product more in line with the original HomePod, with an Aurora Borealis of swirling lights up top to show you when Siri is doing her thing. It also allows for the inclusion of touch-sensitive volume buttons and the ability to tap the surface to play/pause music. Rather than the fabric-style covering that has dominated the last several generations of Google and Amazon products, the Mini is covered in the same sort of audio-conductive mesh material as the full-size HomePod.

The device comes in white or space gray, and unlike other smart speakers, seems to be less about blending in than showing off. Of course, being significantly smaller than the HomePod makes it considerably more versatile. I’ve been using one of the two Minis Apple sent on my desk at home, and it’s an ideal size. On the bottom is a hard plastic base with an Apple logo.

There’s a long, non-detachable fabric cable. It would be nice if the cord was user-detectable, so you can swap it out as needed, but no go. The cable sports a USB-C connector, however, which makes it fairly versatile on that end. There’s also a 20W power adapter in the box (admittedly, not a sure bet with Apple, these days). It’s disappointing — but not surprising that there’s no auxiliary input on-board — there wasn’t one on the standard HomePod, either.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Where Amazon switched to a front-facing speaker for the new Echo, Apple continues to focus on 360-degree sound. Your preference may depend on where you place the speaker, but this model is more versatile, especially if you’re not just seated in front of the speaker all day. I’ve used a lot of different smart speakers in my day, and honestly, I’m really impressed with the sound the company was able to get out of the 3.3-inch device.

It’s full and clear and impressively powerful for its size. Obviously that goes double if you opt for a stereo pair. Pairing is painless, out of the box. Just set up two devices for the same room of your home and it will ask you whether you want to pair them. From there, you can specify which one handles the right and left channels. If you’d like to spread out, the system will do multiroom audio by simply assigning speakers to different rooms. From there, you can just say, “Hey Siri, play music in the kitchen” or “Hey Siri, play music everywhere.” You get the picture.

In fact, the whole setup process is pretty simple with an iPhone. It’s quite similar to pairing AirPods: hold the phone near the speaker and you’ll get a familiar white popup guiding you through the process of setting it up, choosing the room and enabling voice recognition.

The speakers also get pretty loud, though if you need clear sound at a serious volume, I’d strongly recommend looking at something bigger (and pricier) like the original HomePod. For the living room of my one-bedroom in Queens, however, it does the trick perfectly, and sounds great from pretty much any angle in the room.

As a smart assistant, Siri is up to most of the basic tasks. There are also some neat tricks that leverage Apple’s unique ecosystem. You can, say, ask Siri to send images to your iPhone, and it’ll oblige, using Bing results. The fact of the matter is, however, that Amazon and Google got a pretty major head-start on the smart home assistant front and Apple is still catching up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There have, however, been some key strides of late — particularly as it pertains to Home/HomeKit. The last couple of iOS updates have brought some solid smart home updates; 14.1 brought intercom functionality specifically for HomePods and 14.2 extends that to other other devices. So you can say, “Hey Siri, intercom everyone, dinner is ready,” and beam it to various devices. The feature joins similar offerings from Amazon and Google, but does so on a wide range of (Apple) products, sending a pre-recorded snippet of your voice to the devices.

The system works out of the box with HomeKit-compatible devices — it’s a small list, compared to what’s currently offered for Alexa and Google Assistant, but it’s growing. You can check out the entire list of compatible smart home devices here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I found the voice recognition to be quite responsive to voice, even when the music is playing loud. Beyond Siri, there are a couple of ways to interact with the device. In addition to a single tap on the top to play/pause, a double-tap advances the track, triple-tap goes to the previous track and touching and holding fires up Siri. Unlike other smart speakers, there’s no physical button to turn off the mic — and you can’t ask Siri to do this either. The device is only listening for a “hey Siri” trigger and audio isn’t stored, but the feature would be nice for additional peace of mind.

You can also control music from your iPhone using AirPlay 2. That’s my preferred method, because I’m a bit of a micromanager when it comes to music. You’ll need to hit the AirPlay button to do that — or you can simply hold the iOS device near the HomePod Mini to take advantage of handoff using the U1 chip (iPhone 11 or later). That’s a neat little trick.

As someone who’s more accustomed to using Spotify than Apple Music, one thing that tripped me up a bit, however, is that when you ask the HomePod to play music, it will pick up from the last time you verbally requested playback, rather than treating all of your Apple Music listening sessions as a single stream. I prefer Spotify’s unified cross-device approach here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, a nice little iOS 14.2 addition brings your aggregated listening history (Apple Podcasts and Music) to a single stream accessible by long-pressing your HomePod in the Home app. From there you can tap on an album or podcast to automatically send them to the smart speaker.

All told, I’ve quite enjoyed my time with the little smart speaker. As I noted at the top, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Apple had launched the Mini alongside the initial HomePod. I suspect the company would still be a ways from market share domination, but the product really could have eaten into Amazon and Google’s lead. Instead, Apple waited — likely in hopes of getting the package right. That’s certainly understandable. Apple’s never been one to rush into a product, and the HomePod Mini sounds all the better for it.

#apple, #hardware, #homepod, #homepod-mini, #reviews, #siri, #smart-speaker, #smart-speakers

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The Boox Poke 3 is my new favorite e-reader

There are plenty of e-readers to choose from out there, but never enough for me. I’m always questing for the one that will make me forget that there are others available, and in the Onyx Boox Poke 3, I think I have found it — at least for now. The Chinese e-paper device maker has nailed the size, the screen, and added a sprinkle of versatility that I didn’t know I was lacking.

The Poke 3 fits in the same “original flavor e-reader” category as the Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Clara HD: 6 inches, 300 PPI or so (which makes for very clear text), and somewhere between $100 and $200.

These readers fit easily in a pocket, unlike the larger Oasis and even larger Forma; they tend to lack anything but a power button and are very focused on books and saved articles.

But the Kindle and Clara both have major flaws. The Kindle is tied to Amazon in all the ways I can’t stand, including on-device ads by default, and the Clara… well, beside the screen, the hardware is honestly just bad. Kobo made my previous favorite e-reading device, the compact and flush-front Aura, and I’ve finally found a worthy successor to that beloved gadget.

The Poke 3 is the latest device to come from Boox, the e-reader line from parent company Onyx. The company has mostly been a presence in Southeast Asia, particularly its home country of China, so don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it. Boox makes a wide variety of e-paper devices (which I will evaluate in a separate article), and the Poke 3 is the simplest and smallest of them.

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader in a hand.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

I’ll highlight the device’s strengths first. Most importantly, it is a lovely piece of hardware. The flush front is a pleasure to read on, as there is no raised bezel to shade the text or collect grime. The power button is well located and clicky. There’s just enough border to hold onto without worrying about smudging or activating the screen, and a bit of extra space at the bottom enables plenty of comfortable grips.

It’s thinner than the competition and the build quality is excellent. The front is hardened glass from partner Asahi, which will hopefully prevent it from needing a cover.

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader side-on.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The finish is, to be honest, something of a fingerprint and oil magnet, and could be grippier. The Paperwhite has it beat on texture but I prefer the smooth back to the weird perforated one of the Clara.

At 150 grams it’s 16 lighter than the Clara and 32 lighter than the Paperwhite. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re holding a device for hours straight every little bit counts, and at this size it also helps with balance.

Its 6-inch screen is not meaningfully different from the Kindle or Kobo devices out there in terms of resolution or font rendering. I scrutinized the Poke 3 next to the Clara HD and Forma and found no differences that anyone would notice reading from 10-20 inches away.

Screen of a Boox Poke 3 e-reader

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

It does differ in its approach to illumination, though whether meaningfully so is a matter of opinion. Instead of having a brightness slider and a temperature slider, it has a warm and cool slider, and increasing or decreasing either one changes both the brightness and temperature. You can also turn either one off entirely or link them together so they are adjusted as one.

If it sounds more complicated… it is. I don’t see that it adds any real new capabilities, but once you get the feel for it, it isn’t that much harder to use, either. I do wish that when you linked the two sliders, they kept their positions relative to one another. The whole system seems a little baroque and I hope Boox streamlines it. That said, the quality of the light is equally good and once you dial it in, it looks great.

Type formatting is good, and has plenty of options for tweaking how any of the many (too many…) included fonts look, even weight and contrast adjustments to really fine tune them. Adding custom fonts is as easy as dragging and dropping them, just like documents.

The operating system of the Boox provides far more options than either Kobo or Kindle. Amazon keeps tight control over its ecosystem and outside of a handful of associated services the devices can’t do much. Kobo at least allows for more file formats to be loaded directly on, and now has excellent Pocket integration for saving articles from the web. Boox takes things two steps further with a custom Android launcher that you can download full apps onto.

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Now, there are really only so many apps that you actually might want on an e-reader like this one. And not everything works as well as I’d like. But for the first time I can actually get Simplenote on my e-reader.

It’s not as simple as it would be on an ordinary Android device, though. Because the Poke 3 comes from China, it doesn’t have access to Google services right off the bat. You can add it through settings, which isn’t hard, but there’s also a sideloading store built in with recent (if not quite brand new) install packages of popular, vetted apps for the device.

Let’s just admit right now that compared to the simplicity of Kindle and Kobo, this is already a bit out there. And whether you feel comfortable logging into a version of Evernote that you can’t (without a bit of work) verify the contents of… well, it’s not for everyone. But to be clear on this, Boox isn’t some fly-by-night operation — they may not be well known over here, but it’s hard to argue with the quality of the devices. The problem is simply that localizing an OS built for users in China has some fundamental challenges.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Fortunately for everyone, the basic capability to load books on there and read them is solid and it’s what you’d be doing most of the time. There may be a busy interface when you’re doing other stuff, but you can easily hide all indicators like progress and title while you’re reading, dedicating every square inch of the screen to actual reading.

It has 32 gigs of internal memory, making storage of audiobooks (it has Bluetooth for sound) and bulky documents easy, and connects quickly as a drive when you plug in its USB-C cord.

The Poke 3 will cost $189 when it ships next week, which is on the high end for this type of device. That’s $30 more than a Kindle Paperwhite and $70 more than a Clara HD. But I honestly think it is worth the premium. This is a better e-reader, period; despite the sometimes fussy interface, I enjoy using it, and appreciate that it provides capabilities that its competition doesn’t. If you need simple and don’t mind a cheap build, the Clara is a great cheaper option, but for a step up consider the Poke 3.

#boox, #e-ink, #e-paper, #e-readers, #ereaders, #gadgets, #hardware, #onyx-boox, #reviews, #tc

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Microsoft Surface Laptop Go review: Goldilocks and the three SKUs

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go

Enlarge / The Surface Laptop Go is made for those who want a smaller and more affordable Surface PC. (credit: Jeff Dunn)

What is the point of a Surface device? The latest model in Microsoft’s line of Windows PCs, the Surface Laptop Go, forces buyers to confront why they want a Surface machine in the first place.

Much like the Surface Go series of two-in-one tablets, the Surface Laptop Go aims for the mainstream side of the market, with a starting price of $550. However, it does so with a more traditional clamshell design.

For that amount, the Surface Laptop Go still provides most of Microsoft’s signatures: an attractive design, high build quality, a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, a display with a taller 3:2 aspect ratio, the proprietary Surface Connect port, and so on.

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#laptops, #microsoft, #microsoft-surface-laptop-go, #reviews, #tech, #windows-10

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Revolution Cooking’s R180 Smart Toaster delivers smarter, faster toasting – for a price

A lot of the past decade in smart home gadgets has been figuring out just how smart we actually want our appliances to be. In a lot of cases when it comes to cooking, the old ways are best, and smart features tend to just complicate things. The new Revolution Cooking R180 High-Speed Smart Toaster ($299.95) strikes the right balance, delivering genuinely useful tech-enabled goodies, without any of the things you don’t need in a toaster – like an internet connection.

The basics

Revolution Cooking’s R180’s most immediately apparent feature is its large, prominent touchscreen display. The screen replaces your typical hardware controls, including buttons and switches, and gives you visual feedback about the toasting process when it’s underway. This is definitely part of the ‘smart’ of the R180’s Smart Toaster designation, but the company’s ‘InstaGlo’ heating technology might be better described as its primary differentiator.

In terms of basic specs, this is a two-slice toaster with slots that are wide enough to accommodate bagels and burger buns pretty easily. It has selectable modes for bagels, sliced bread, English muffins, waffles and toaster pastries (like pop-tarts). You can choose between three different heating modes, including ‘fresh,’ ‘frozen’ and ‘reheat’, and there are seven different darkness levels for browning.

There’s a standby clock display option for when the toaster isn’t in use, and the toaster can provide reminders occasionally to nudge you to remove and empty the crumb tray.

Design and performance

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The industrial design of the Revolution R180 is good, without being wacky or overly futuristic. It’s basically a brushed stainless steel rectangle, with a sloped chrome front face and the large touchscreen display. The toaster unquestionably looks good sitting on a counter, however, and the slant of its front is a nice touch for ensuring prime visibility and touchscreen control access when you’re using it from a standing position. It’s also relatively compact, and won’t take up too much room if you’re concerned at all about counter real estate.

The display is big and bright, and uses capacitive touch so it’s very responsive in terms of input detection. The nice thing about the interface is that even though it’s digital, it keeps things simple – everything you need is on one screen, with a standard cog icon hiding settings that let you do neat but unnecessary things like setting the time and choosing between an analog or digital virtual clock face for the sleep screen.

Using the R180 Smart Toaster is easy – there’s no internet connection to set up or app to install, you just plug it in and it starts up, presenting you with the bread type/browning level/heating mode selection screen. Tap the image associated with what you want to toast, or scroll left and right to reach others, select from the three modes and tap the browning level that corresponds with what color you want the toasted item to mostly closely resemble (the image above updates to reflect this) and hit the ‘Start’ button and you’re off to the races.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

And it really is a race: The Revolution toaster is faster than most. I was perhaps expecting even faster given the company’s marketing claims, but there’s no question that it’s speedier than your average toaster. The other big claim that Revolution makes is about toasting quality, as it promises not to dry out your bread, and provide better-tasting end products, even with tricky toasting situations like a combo dethaw and brown.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t even really aware of these claims the first time I tried out the review unit they sent, and me and my partner both instantly noted about how anything toasted in the R180 seemed not nearly as dried out as in our existing Breville toaster. And yet, the toasted parts were crisp and golden at the same time. Surprising as it might sound, Revolution’s claims bear out – the Smart Toaster really does make better-tasting toast.

Bottom line

A $300 two-slice toaster definitely seems like an extravagance – and to be clear, it is – but premium non-smart toasters already stretch the limits of most home appliance budgets, and Revolution’s main claim to superiority is achieving a crunchy exterior while leaving the inside soft and not dried out, and it does this with aplomb. The touchscreen almost certainly adds to the cost, but it does provide a clear and easy-to-understand interface for setting desired toast goals, and it’s a pretty good-looking countertop clock when not in use. In short, Revolution’s Smart Toaster is just smart enough, and smart where it counts, for a smart appliance – but expensive enough that it’s worth taking a long, hard think about just how much you love toasted things.

#appliances, #cooking, #food-and-drink, #gadgets, #hardware, #ovens, #reviews, #smart-kitchen, #tc, #toast, #toaster

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Aveine’s Smart Wine Aerator is a huge upgrade for wine lovers – and could create some new ones, too

You might have very good reason to be on a wine kick right now – along with plenty of the rest of the country – so it’s perhaps timely to take a look at the Aveine Smart Aerator, a gadget from a French startup that offers variable, instant aeration and a connected app platform for determining just the right amount of aeration that any particular wine you happen to be drinking requires. The Aveine Smart Wine Aerator is premium-priced, but you might be surprised at just how much of a difference it can make.

The basics

The Aveine Smart Wine Aerator began life as did many other startup devices – as a crowdfunding project. The France-based team ended their campaign in 2018, having surpassed their funding goal, and spend the next couple of years working on finalizing, producing and shipping their design. The Aveine is now available to order, in both the original, full-performance version at $449, and an ‘Essential’ edition introduced this year that offers half the maximum aeration time (12 hours vs. 24) for $299 (reviewed here).

Both work the same way: You place them on top of the bottle you want to aerate once it’s opened, and they connect via Bluetooth to your phone and the Aveine app, which is available for iOS and Android . Through the app, you can take a photo of your wine’s label and it will try to match it from its growing database to automatically set the Aveine to the optimal aeration time.

Image Credits: Aveine

In practice, I found that most of the wines I was testing with weren’t in the database – which Aveine expects, and that’s why it provides a simple survey that you can fill out to get an approximate best aeration time, by supplying information like vintage, grapes used, region and whether the wine is organic or biodynamic. You can also manually set the aeration, and taste test small amounts to find your preferred amount.

Aveine includes a soft carrying case for the Smart Aerator in the box, as well as a charging base that connects to any standard USB wall plug for via micro USB. The built-in battery is rated for around 12-hours of standby, with occasional aeration use while pouring, when it’s actively injecting air into the flow using a built-in motor.

Design and performance

The Aveine feels quite heavy, and it’s clear that a lot of care went into ensuring that all of its smart internals fit comfortably inside the relatively small device. It fits easily over the vast majority of wine bottle tops, and grips while pouring without any special attachment process required. The touchscreen activates when you swipe it, showing you the adjustable aeration screen in simple black and white.

Getting started with the Aveine is simple, and doesn’t require the app at all in fact. Just adjust the scale to your desired aeration level, and pour. The aeration automatically begins when you tip the bottle, and you can hear it working as the motor works to inject air while the wine flows through. If you do use the app, it’ll ask you to connect the Aerator (if you’ve woken up the device by activating the display, it should instantly show up in the app’s device list when it’s within Bluetooth range of your phone).

If you have a wine that’s in Aveine’s database, taking a picture of the label will return a recommended aeration time, and if you’re connected to the aerator, it’ll also automatically set the aerator’s aeration time to that level. As mentioned, you can also answer a few questions about the wine if it’s not in the database to return an estimated aeration time, which will also be automatically set if you’re connected to the device.

Image Credits: Aveine

Now let’s talk performance: Let me say that I understand sticker shock when you see the asking price of the Aveine – I had the same thing. But actually using the Smart Aerator goes a long way to proving its worth. The effect is immediate and non-ambiguous: It makes just about any bottle of wine taste a whole lot better, without you having to decant it and let it sit for hours in advance.

My testing is admittedly non-scientific, but I did poll a wide swath of friends and families who enjoyed bottles aerated via the Aveine during socially distanced visits, and to a one they all noted a vast improvement between before and after aeration tastings. At least one even went out and immediately purchased an Aveine of their own based on the experience.

Sometimes you have to do a bit of experimentation to get the aeration right, adjusting the levels and doing contrasting taste tests – but that’s actually also part of the fun.

Bottom line

Aerator gadgets are plentiful, and often cheaply acquired in the checkout line at the local wine shop for well under $100. But the Aveine is the first one I’ve tried that makes such a clear and demonstrable difference it can convince novices and pros alike about its efficacy. It’s a high price to pay, yes, but what you get in return is a device that consistently makes life better for wine lovers – and that make some new wine lovers out of skeptics, too.

#aeration, #android, #bluetooth, #computing, #gadgets, #hardware, #reviews, #software, #tc, #wine

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The Level Bolt and Level Touch smart locks are a cut above the competition in design and usability

Level is one of the newer players in the smart lock space, but with a design pedigree that includes a lot of former Apple employees, the company’s already attracting a lot of praise for its industrial design. I tested out both of its current offerings, the Level Bolt and the Level Touch, and found that they’re well-designed, user-friendly smart locks that are a cut above the competition when it comes to aesthetics and feature set.

The basics

Level’s debut product, the $229 Level Bolt, works with existing deadbolts and just replaces the insides with a connected locking mechanism that you can control from your smartphone via the Level app. The newer $329 Level Touch is a full deadbolt replacement, include the faceplates, but unlike most other smart locks on the market it looks like a standard deadbolt from the outside – albeit a very nicely designed one. The Level Touch is available in four different finishes, including satin nickel, satin chrome, and polished brass and matte black (the latter two are listed as ‘coming soon’)

Image Credits: Level

The Bolt is similar in concept to other smart lock products like the August lock, in that you use it with your existing deadbolt, which means no need to replace keys. It also leaves the thumb turn intact, however, meaning from all outward appearance it isn’t at all obvious that you have a smart lock at all. Installing it is relatively simple, and basically amounts to a lock mechanism transplant. Level includes different cam bar adapters that fit the vast majority of available deadlocks, so it should be something most homeowners can do in just a few minutes. The Bolt offers access sharing via the app, auto lock when you depart, Auto Unlock when you arrive, an activity log, temporary passes, and a built-in audio chime. It also works with Apple’s HomeKit for remote control, voice control via Siri, automation and push notifications.

Image Credits: Level

The Level Touch takes everything that’s great about the Bolt, and adds in some super smart additional features like a capacitive external deadbolt housing, which allows an amazing touch-to-lock/touch-to-unlock feature, and NFC that allows you to use programmable NFC cards and stickers to issue revokable passes to unlock your door. On top of all that, it’s probably the most attractive deadbolt I’ve ever owned or used, which is saying a lot in a field of smart locks where most offerings have unsightly large keypads or large battery compartments.

Design and features

The Level Bolt’s design is clever in its ability to be completely invisible when in use. The deadbolt itself is the battery housing, holding one lithium CR123A battery (included in the box, offers over a year’s worth of use). Installing the Bolt was as easy as unscrewing my existing deadbolt, removing the internal deadbolt mechanism, picking out the right adapter for the cam bar, and then inserting it into my door’s deadbolt lock and screwing back together the external face plates. It took under 10 minutes, start to finish.

Setting up the lock was also simple. You just download the app and follow the instructions, and you’ll be able to control your app in just minutes, too. Using the app, you set up a home profile for your lock or locks, and you can also invite others in your household to share access (they’ll have to install the app and get a profile to do so). You can also set up HomeKit if you have an Apple device and a HomeKit hub (this could be an Apple TV, or an iPad) and instantly unlock a lot of features including remote unlocking and locking control when you’re away from home.

Image Credits: Level

Even without HomeKit, you can set up Level to automatically lock once you leave a certain geofenced area around your home, and to automatically unlock once you return within that perimeter. It’s a fantastic convenience feature that works great and offers tons of benefits when it comes to things like coming home with armfuls of groceries, or large packages.

With the Level Touch, you get all of the above, plus a feature I’ve come to find indispensable: touch control. The metal exterior of the Level Touch’s outside cylinder has capacitive touch sensors, which means that like your iPhone’s screen, it can detect when it’s touched by a finger or skin. You can activate a touch-to-lock feature which will allow it to lock whenever people leave and hold their finger to the deadbolt cover, and you can even set it to unlock when it detects a touch combined with immediate proximity of your phone for identity verification purposes.

To me, this is even more useful than auto-lock/auto-unlock, and yet still much more convenient than fumbling with keys or even using the app to manually lock/unlock. It’s one of Level Touch’s unique advantages, and it’s a big one.

As for installation of the Level Touch, it’s also very easy – no more difficult than installing any deadbolt you might buy at the hardware store. Like the Bolt, it uses a single CR123A battery loaded right into the deadbolt itself that should give you enough power for over a year of use.

Bottom line

Smart locks have become a lot more prevalent over the course of the past few years, but they also haven’t really progressed much in terms of functionality or design. Level has upended all that, bringing the best of convenience features and miniaturized hardware technology to smart, modern design that leapfrogs the competition.

#apple, #doors, #gadgets, #hardware, #homekit, #ios, #ipad, #iphone, #lock, #review, #reviews, #security, #smart-lock, #smartphone, #tc, #unikey

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Jackery’s solar generator system helps you collect and store more than enough juice for off-grid essentials

Portable power is a very convenient thing to have on hand, as proven by the popularity of pocket power banks for providing backup energy for smartphones and tablets. Jackery’s lineup of battery backups offer an entirely different, much greater level of portable energy storage, and when combined with the company’s durable and portable solar panels, they add up to an impressive mobile solar power generation solution that can offer a little piece of mind at home for when the power goes out, or a lot of flexibility on the road for day trips, camping excursions and more.

The basics

Jackery sells the Explorer 1000 Portable Power Station and SolarSaga 100W Solar Panels I reviewed separately, but it also bundles them together in a pack ($1,599.97) with the power station and two of the panels in a ‘Solar Generator’ combo, which is what I tested. The Portable Power Station retails for $999.99, though it’s the top of the line offering and there are more affordable models with less capacity. The station itself offers a 1002Wh internal lithium battery, and 1000W rated power with 2000W surge power rating. IT has two USB-C outputs, one standard USB, one DC port like you’d find in your car dash, and three standard AC outlets. It has an integrated handle, a tough plastic exterior and a built-in LCD display for information including battery charge status and output info.

The Explorer 1000, on a full charge, can provide up to 100 chargers for your standard iPhone, or up to 8 charges of a MacBook Pro. It can power an electric grill for 50 minutes, or a mini fridge for up to 66 hours. It can be recharged via a wall outlet (fully charges in 7 hours) or a car outlet (14 hours), but it can also be paired up with the 2x SolarSaga panels for a full recharge in around 8 hours of direct sun exposure – almost as fast as you’d charge it plugging git into an outlet at home (it takes double the time, or around 17 hours, when using just one).

As for the solar panels, they each retail for $299.99, and fold in half for greater portability, and feature integrated pockets and stands for cable storage and easy setup anywhere. Each ways less than 10 lbs, and they offer both USB-C and USB-A direct output for charging up devices without any battery or power station required. It’s worth noting that they’re not waterproof, however, so you should exercise some caution when using them in inclement weather.

Image Credits: Jackery

Design and features

The Jackery Portable Power Station is a perfect blend of portability, practicality and durability. Its internal powerhouse will keep you going for days in terms of mobile device power, and it weighs only a relatively portable 22 lbs, despite packing in a massive battery. The range of output options built-in mean you can connect to just about any electronically-powered device you can think of, and three AC outlets mean you can power multiple appliances at once if you want to spend your juice on running a lightweight outdoor kitchen – albeit not for a super long time at that kind of power draw.

Jackery’s Explorer series features durable and attractive (insofar as any utility device is ever that attractive) exterior impact-resistant plastic housings, and they definitely feel like they don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. The display is legible and clear, and provides all the info you need at-glance in terms of reserve power, and power expenditure for connected devices, as well as charging info when plugged in.

The many charging options are also super convenient, and that’s where the SolarSaga 100W panes come in. These fold up to roughly the size of a folding camp side table, and have integrated handles for even easier carrying. They’re also protected outside by a tough polycarbonate shell, and the panels are resistant to high temperatures for max durability. They come with included output converter cables for connecting to USB A and USB C devices, and can be used with the adapter included with the Power Station to charge that either in tandem with one another, or on their own.

Around back you’ll find an adjustable kickstands, which allow you to angle the panels towards the sun across a range of positions for maximum energy absorption. Between these and the Explorer power stations, you have everything you need to set up your own fully mobile solar energy power generation station in just a few minutes and with minimal effort.

Image Credits: Jackery

Bottom line

In actual use, the Jackery Explorer 1000 Portable Power Station provides so much backup power that it was hard to expend it all through general testing. You really do have to plug alliances like my Blendtec blender in to make a dent, and even then I got roughly 12 hours of usage or more out of it. This is a great solution for taking some selective on-grid equipment off-grid while on camping trips, like a TV, small fridge or a projector, and it’s an amazing thing to have at home just in case of power outages, where having your own backup options can make the difference between getting through a productive workday or staying in touch with family.

The SolarSaga panels are an amazing complement to the Explorer, and truly turn this into your own mini green energy power generation station. Even if you’re not convinced on the expense and necessity of converting your home to solar power, using something like Tesla’s Powerwall, for instance, this is a nice way to power a cooler in the backyard effectively for ‘free’ when it comes to energy costs, or to extend the useful life of the Explorer on trips when you’re away from the grid over the course of multiple days.

#articles, #energy, #gadgets, #hardware, #iphone, #jackery, #rechargeable-battery, #review, #reviews, #smartphones, #solar-panel, #solar-power, #tc, #usb

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The Freewrite Traveler is an outstanding, but expensive, dedicated portable writing laptop

As a hardware startup, Astrohaus stands apart because of its unique offerings focused specifically on writers and writing. Its debut product, the Freewrite, looked like an old-school travel typewriter with an e-ink screen. Now, it’s back with a new device it’s been working on for the past couple of years: The Freewrite Traveler. This more portable e-ink typewriter has a clamshell design and isn’t much larger than a Nintendo Switch, making it a flexible, go-anwyhere writing companion.

The basics

Astrohaus began teasing the Traveler a few years ago, before eventually launching an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in November 2018 to get it made. The crowdfunding was very successful, raising over $600,000 on the platform before the campaign ended, and then another $200,000+ in pre-orders after that. Like many hardware efforts, it encountered a few delays relative to its original delivery timeline, but now the Freewrite Traveler is shipping out to pre-order customers.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

In terms of specs, it has up to four weeks of battery life with regular usage, and weighs under two pounds, with a folding design that’s roughly half the surface area of most laptops. The screen on the top half is an e-ink display, and there’s a sub-screen for providing info like network status. The bottom half houses the keyboard, which boasts over 2mm of travel for a great keypress feel.

The case is plastic, as are most of the components, and the exterior is a glossy black. The Traveler connects via wifi, like the original Freewrite, and allows you to register an account to sync to up to three separate folders of documents. When out of wifi range, your work is stored locally, and it can sync to the cloud service of your choice via Freewrite’s integrations whenever you’re connected.

Design and features

The Traveler’s design is all about portability and convenience, while retaining the core usability features that make the original Freewrite such an ideal device for focused writing. The clamshell design is intentionally large enough to fit that full-sized keyboard comfortably, but keeps the screen small like with the original, which makes it more portable and ensures that distractions are kept to a minimum – aided by the fact that all you can do on it is type text, since there are no apps, browser or other functions.

Astrohaus has stayed very close to their original vision for the Traveler, with some minor tweaks including the hinge design. The end result is a light and durable-feeling portable digital typewriter, with a keyboard that feels excellent to type on – better than any laptop in my experience. The keyboard is really the star of the show here, since this is a purpose-built device created for typing. The travel feels ample, especially for a notebook-style device, and the raised, rounded keycap wells make it easy to touch type comfortably all day if you want.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The display, while small, provides excellent legibility and contrast, though it’s worth noting that you’ll have to supply your own light source, because as with the original Freewrite, there’s no backlight or frontlight built in, and e-ink doesn’t provide its own light like LED.

E-ink is incredibly power efficient, however, which is why you’ll get so much useful life out of the Traveler. In my testing, it’s been operating on its original charge for nearly two weeks now, which is in line with the Astrohaus estimates.

The Traveler’s case features a piano black glossy exterior, which looks great, but quickly picks up fingerprints. And existing Freewrite users might notice that the display has a slightly glossy sheen as well, where the original was fully matte. That’s because of a thin piece of optically transparent plastic that goes across the entire width of the clamshell to protect the e-ink display against the keyboard, according to Astrohaus. To me, it hasn’t been an issue in terms of usability or quality, just something to note in terms of differences.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Astrohaus has created a design that stands out, regardless of what you think of the piano black finish. The contrast of the black with the white interior gives it a unique, quirky and attractive design that helps ensure you’ll never confuse the Traveler with any other gadget. And the materials keep it lightweight and durable for easily taking it with you anywhere you might want to go.

The Traveler’s hinge allows it it to open up to roughly 135 degrees, which is a good position for laptop typing. It can also be positioned at any angle less than that for when you have it elevated at a table or desk.

Bottom line

The Freewrite Traveler is a unique device, with a special appeal for people who are hyper-focused on a writing tool that offers all the benefits of cloud-connectivity with none of the downsides of a multipurpose tool like a laptop or computer. It can sync to Dropbox, Evernote or Google Drive so that you can easily create a cross-device workflow for finishing up manuscripts and drafts, but on its own, the Traveler will ensure you remain focused on the task at hand – and enjoy yourself while doing so.

A portable, digital writing device like this one isn’t unique in the world – many distraction-free writing enthusiasts use the Pomera line of products from Japan for this purpose. But Astrohaus is unique in providing hardware tailor-made for North American and European markets, and they’ve done an amazing job at delivering on the potential of this device even in a field of relatively few competitors.

The Traveler is fairly expensive at $599, but there’s truly nothing else like it, if what you want is a laser-focused writing device that combines portability with great ergonomics, long-lasting battery and cloud storage convenience.

#articles, #astrohaus, #computing, #dropbox, #e-ink, #e-book, #evernote, #freewrite, #gadgets, #google, #hardware, #hardware-startup, #indiegogo, #industrial-design, #japan, #laptop, #laser, #microsoft-surface, #nintendo, #reviews, #tc, #typewriter, #writing

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NASA discovers water on the surface of the sunlit portion of the Moon

NASA has made a groundbreaking discovery – confirming the presence of water on the surface of Moon, in the area that is exposed to sunlight. Previously, we knew that water was present as water ice on the dark part of the Moon, and that’s part of the reason that the next mission to the Moon is to the lunar South Pole, where it’s believed that water ice could be present hidden in craters that aren’t ever exposed to direct sunlight.

This isn’t an entirely surprising discovery, because NASA scientists and researchers had previously found indications that water was potentially present on the Moon’s sunlight side. But what is new is confirmation, in the form of observational data by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that deduce water molecules in the Moon’s Clavius Crater in its Southern Hemisphere.

As you might expect since it took this long to actual verify its presence, the lunar water isn’t very plentiful. NASA says they were able to detect between 100 and 412 parts per million in an area spanning a cubic meter of soil, which is around the equivalent of a standard 12-ounce bottle of water – to put that in context, NASA points out that “the Sahara desert has 100 times the amount of water” vs. what SOFIA was able to detect.

Even so, the fact that it’s able to survive intact in the relatively harsh conditions of the sun-exposed lunar surface is intriguing, and will merit further study. Scientists want to find out how the date gets there, and how it manages to actually accumulate. They’ll study that, and scope for potential future use by human explorers establishing a more permanent presence on the lunar surface, through future SOFIA missions looking at different craters and sunlit areas for other water deposits.

This is definitely a landmark discovery, and one that will likely prove integral to the future of human deep space exploration. Part of those longer-term goals include establishing a scientific base of operations on the Moon from which scientists can conduct research, and eventually reach further out to destinations including Mars. Using in-situ resources, including water, could make all of that possible much quicker and without requiring much more complicated workarounds, since it forms the basis for not only human survival, but also essential resources for additional missions from the Moon including rocket fuel for launches.

#aerospace, #moon, #reviews, #space, #tc

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Flair’s Smart Vent system is a big improvement for anyone looking to improve their home HVAC

Smart thermostats are fairly ubiquitous these days, but depending on which one you’re using, you could be getting a lot more from your home heating and cooling – with relatively simple DIY upgrades. The Flair Smart Vent system is one such upgrade, and though it costs a bit upfront to get going (each register is $79 to start depending on size), you won’t have to call an HVAC contractor or break down any walls to take advantage of what it offers.

The basics

Flair’s system is designed around a simple idea: Controlling the airflow across individual rooms can help you be more efficient about where you direct your heating and cooling, and when. The basic ingredients Flair uses to make this happen are its Smart Vents, which fit into existing floor and wall register slots in standard sizes. The Flair designs are low profile, with all the electronics contained in casing that rests under floor level. They can be hardwired for power, but they also ship with two C batteries the provide “years” of power before they require replacement.

Flair advises three different approaches to determining how many Smart Vents you need to complement your existing system: If you have one room that’s too cold when cooling and too hot when heating, just get a Smart Vent and Flair Puck for that room. If you have just one room that gets too little cooling, and too little heating, equip all your other rooms with Smart Vents and Pucks (or Ecobee sensors if you have an Ecobee thermostat, but we’ll get to that later). If your HVAC is already pretty even, but you just want more control and efficiency gains, then equip the whole house as a third option.

Each room will require a Puck, which is a small round device that includes temperature control and monitoring. The first of these needs to be hardwired to power via the included USB cable, since it acts a bridge connecting the Flair system to your home network. All the others can be powered by included AAA batteries, and they’re very power efficient thanks in part to the e-Ink display.

Flair works in a number of modes, including one that’s compatible with any thermostat where you simply set the temperature for any room, and the associated vent(s) will open or close depending on whether the temperature in that room matches up. It can also work directly with Ecobee and Honeywell smart thermostats for a much more intelligent mode where they receive or send the temperature to the smart unit, and coordinate their open/shut status depending on that. Google has changed the Nest API, so Flair is working on supporting similar features on Nest systems through that in future, but for now it works with Nest installations the same way it would with ‘dumb’ thermostats.

Design and features

Image Credits: Flair

Flair’s Smart Vents themselves are attractive, well-made hardware. The vent covers themselves are made of metal, with an attractive grill design that will go with most decors. They’re exclusively white, which could be an issue for dark flooring, but they’re definitely a step up from your average registers. One one side, they have an LED light strip that is used during setup for identifying which is which, and underneath, the have the battery housing, louvres and the motors that control their open and shut status.

As mentioned, the Smart Vents can be associated with a Puck, which will provide them the ambient temp information, as well as target temp, in order to set them open or shut. They can also use an Ecobee sensor to get their marching orders when set up for software integration with an Ecobee system. I installed my review units and first tried them with the Flair app providing target temp info to the Ecobee, but then switched it around so that the Ecobee determined the desired temperature, and the Flair units all inherited that info and set their open/close status accordingly.

At first, I found the Flair app a bit intimidating just because with a multi-vent system it presents a lot of information, and some degree of logic to initially set up. But once I got the Ecobee integration working, the whole Flair system just worked – and worked like magic.

In this configuration, you never even have to think about the fact that the vents are Smart; they just do whatever they need to in order to equalize the temperature and keep heating and cooling routing intelligently. It made an impressive difference in the amount of airflow circulating around my nearly 100-year old house – and my setup isn’t necessarily ideal because there are a few non-standard, larger registers around that can’t yet be Flair-equipped.

The Pucks themselves are well designed, with magnetic, stick-up and screw-in installation options, and readible, power-efficient e-Ink displays. Their bezel turns for temperature control, and they can also be placed out of sight if you really just want to use them as remote sensors.

Bottom line

You might think that whether a register is open or closed wouldn’t make much difference to the efficacy of a house-wide HVAC system, but in my experience, the before-and-after of Flair was dramatically different. I started out with one problem spot primarily (the master bedroom) and afterwards it got to target temp much more quickly, both in heating and cooling modes.

Even if you find your central air and heating are already pretty effective, Flair seems like a wise upgrade that will provide lasting benefits in terms of consistency and power efficiency. Plus, if you use Flair as the controller, you can set different target temps for different rooms depending on individual occupant preferences.

True zoned HVAC systems can cost thousands – especially if you’re replacing existing ducting in walls. Flair’s solution is a lot more affordable by comparison, and provides effective results with DIY installation that takes just minutes to set up.

#articles, #controller, #ecobee, #electronics, #gadgets, #google, #google-nest, #hardware, #home-automation, #honeywell, #metal, #puck, #register, #reviews, #smart-thermostat, #tc, #technology, #thermostat

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Amazon Echo review: Well-rounded sound

Six years ago, Amazon essentially created a new consumer electronics category. Expectations weren’t particularly high when the first Echo device debuted in November of 2014. Amazon, after all, has never shied away from throwing a new device against the wall to see what sticks — if anything, that’s become a defining characteristic of the last half-dozen years of Alexa devices.

The Echo stuck. In 2019, 146.9 million smart speakers were shipped globally, according to figures from Strategy Analytics. That figure marked a 70% increase over the year prior. Of that figure, Amazon owned a 26.2% market share.

That’s a success story by any measure. Of course, any competition present is also a knock-on effect of Amazon’s success. Google’s original Home speaker was released two years later, and Apple’s HomePod came out the year after that. While each certainly offered their own unique take on the category, it’s hard to imagine them making the same mark had Amazon not helped define the smart speaker category way back when.

Along with being the smart speaker grandaddy, Amazon’s also updated its devices with the most frequency. Google Home just got its second iteration (now Nest Audio) and the original HomePod is still on its first version. Last month, we got the fourth generation versions of both the Echo and the Echo Dot. The refreshes are about more than just getting people to buy new devices (of course, that’s a big part of it, too) — they’re also about adapting to learnings about how people use these sorts of devices.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

After all, the original Echo had little to go on beyond internal testing. Take audio. The initial Echo was smart first and a speaker second. Sure it could play music, but that was really just a secondary feature. First and foremost, the product was about conversing with Alexa. In 2017, however, Apple showed everyone the importance of focusing on audio quality with the HomePod. For many consumers, it made a lot more sense to purchase a quality speaker with an assistant built in, rather than a purpose-built smart speaker with lousy audio quality.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Subsequent versions of the Echo started to prioritize audio. Of course, the company never really did so to such a degree that the entry-level product could stand toe to toe with, say, the HomePod (though the Echo Studio is an attempt to approximate that on a somewhat tighter budget), but audio has increasingly become less of an afterthought across the company’s product line.

This year’s redesign centers on an audio upgrade yet again, along with an aesthetic overhaul that attempts to focus some of that newfound sound. The fourth-generation Echo is, in a word, round. Eschewing generations of cylinders, the company has gone with a design that is perfectly spherical (except the flat bottom to stop it from rolling off your table top). I suspect one learning that lead to the new design was where users place speakers in their homes.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Previous generations have been focused on a more three-dimensional listening experience, assuming, I suppose, that people are sticking these speakers in the middle of a room, rather than up against the wall. While the new Echo is round, however, the hard plastic bottom arcs upward, monopolizing about two-thirds of the device’s back. This time out, the company’s opted for a pair of front-firing 0.8-inch tweeters (one more than gen-three), coupled with a three-inch woofer (same as last year).

The speaker leans a but too heavily on the bass by default for my tastes, though you can adjust those setting via the Alexa app (I took it down about two notches). The sound quality is solid for the size and price point. I was able to get pretty decent playback listening to Spotify. Head to head, I think the Nest Audio delivers a richer, fuller sound — and if you’re currently assistant-agnostic, that’s the one I’m recommending based purely on sound.

Of course, the sound is much fuller if you’ve got a pair of the $99 devices in stereo mode. Amazon thoughtfully sent along two for testing that feature specifically. A similar feature is available for both Google’s Nest devices and Apple’s HomePod and HomePod Mini. Given that two Echos are roughly the price of one Echo Studio, the math might make sense, depending on your home setup.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do like the design here. Though sitting next to the Nest Audio, it’s hard to shake a sense of convergent evolution with all of these smart speakers. As it happens, both of my review devices are the same color, and really look like they could have sprung out of the same product line, with their dark fabric coverings. I do, however, appreciate the design work that’s being done to make them feel a bit more subtle than previous generations — and in a sense part of the furniture.

As I mentioned in my recent review of the Echo Dot (which is physically identical to the Echo in all but size), I’m a bit less thrilled with the design to move the light ring to the bottom. I understand practically why the company did this: it wouldn’t have made sense to slice up the round design with a light ring. But the new design only makes sense if the Echo is close to eye level. Otherwise you’re reliant on its reflection from the surface on which the device sits.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest upgrade here, however, may be the inclusion of a Zigbee hub, which negates the existence of the Echo Plus. It was only a matter of time before the Echo became a smart home hub, and it’s nice that Amazon’s found a way to incorporate that into a device at this price point. It’s a big part of the company’s push to corner the smart home control market. Notably, the new Nest Audio also offers the feature.

An interesting surprise addition is the temperature sensor. In addition to local weather, asking “Alexa, what’s the temperature in here?” it will offer up an average temperature for the room where the Echo resides. Not exactly necessary, but helpful information, I suppose.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon’s nearly annual updates to the line ensure that no new generation represents as radical an upgrade as the one we just saw between Google Home and Nest Audio. But all in all, Amazon’s presented us with a nice little refresh here.

#alexa, #amazon, #amazon-echo, #echo, #hardware, #reviews, #smart-speaker

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Amazon Echo Dot with Clock review: A mostly aesthetic update

It’s been a busy few weeks for smart speakers. Amazon kicked things off in late September with newer, rounder versions of both the Echo and Echo Dot. Less than a week later, Google updated the Home, after four years, with the rebranded Nest Audio. And then, last week, Apple unveiled the long-awaited $99 HomePod Mini, finally delivering an affordable version of its Siri speaker.

Amazon, for its part, has easily offered the most regular refreshes of the three. Both the Echo and Echo Dot are currently on their fourth iterations. The Echo Dot with Clock is only on its second (having just been introduced), but for all intents and purposes, the device is basically an Echo Dot — but, you know, with a clock.

The latest update to the line finds the company offering a kind of design uniformity across the smart speakers. The Dot really does look like a diminutive version of the standard Echo. I wasn’t entirely sure how large a difference there would be between the two products, but it’s definitely pronounced. The Echo is the size of a large grapefruit and the Dot is essentially the size of a softball.

The Dot’s size lends it a good deal more flexibility in terms of placement. I could definitely see placing them in nooks and crannies throughout my place to create a kind of makeshift sound system (though the in-box cable is on the short side, so you’ll likely need an extension if you’re not close to an outlet).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The majority of the speaker is covered in fabric, though the hard plastic bottom arcs up on the back of the device, occupying a large portion of the back. This allows for the inclusion of two ports (power and auxiliary audio out), though it also limits the speaker surface area on the device, restricting a full 360 approach unlike the older hockey puck design. As such, the speaker is just front-facing, in spite of the round design.

The new Echo devices, it’s worth noting, are one in a growing number of devices from big companies that are included as part of a push toward climate consciousness. I won’t really address Amazon’s larger overall carbon footprint here, but it’s nice to see some of that trickling down into these products. According to the company, the plastics are 50% post-consumer recycled, while the fabric and aluminum (including the capable and adapter) are both 100%.

The setup process is as simple as ever. Tap a couple of buttons on the connected Echo app and you should be up and running. The status light ring has been moved to the bottom of the device — that seems to be more of a practical choice than anything. After all, the standard light ring wouldn’t really work at the top of a round, fabric-covered device.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Whether that’s a net positive kind of depends on where you put the Echo. If it’s around eye-level, great. If it’s below that, it moves the ring out of view, and you may have to rely on seeing how it reflects off the surface it’s sitting on. For my own use, it’s a small step in the wrong direction. The digital clock (the big differentiator between the two Dots) is also a bit low on the ball, leaving a lot of blank surface area up top.

Again, I think Amazon is anticipating people will stick it around eye level, which is certainly the case if you