PSA: Redownload your Harry Potter e-books from Pottermore before they disappear for good

An email sent to customers warning them about the change.
 Image:Pottermore

If you’ve purchased Harry Potter eBooks from Pottermore, you may want to re-download your copies before the option is gone for good at the end of the month. The site sends an email to its customers to inform them that the books will no longer be available for a new download after January 31, since it was withdrawn from sale in September of last year.

When it launched  in 2012, Pottermore was the only official way to download digital copies of the Harry Potter books. Despite department stores like Amazon running promotions for  titles, which are among the best-selling books of all time, stores would route customers to Pottermore to finalize the sale (retailers like Amazon would have gotten a discount anyway. ).

But income of the e-books reportedly declined over the years, and in 2015 they have been made to be had at once from different online shops. Digitally better editions released on Apple’s e-books store in October 2015, and releases on different digital shops like Amazon accompanied later that year. Pottermore subsequently morphed into WizardingWorld.com in 2019.
Although the option to redownload current book purchases from Pottermore will disappear for appropriate on the quit of the month, it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain on in your current virtual copy.
On Twitter, Ryan C. Gordon notes that current downloads include a DRM-free .epub document, that you must be capable of switch to any new e-readers withinside the future (aleven though you need to convert the .epub document to make it readable on a Kindle).
Just make certain to stash the document someplace secure in case you don’t need to pay once more for books you already very own withinside the future.


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HP ZBook Studio G8 Review: Rock Solid Performance, Painful Price Tag

HP’s ZBook lineup — which encompasses the lightweight ZBook Firefly, the affordable ZBook Power, the powerful ZBook Fury, and the best-of-all-worlds ZBook Studio brands — doesn’t attract a lot of attention. As a mobile workstation-class device, the ZBook Studio is not as flashy as most gaming laptops or as affordable as most “creator” laptops, but in many ways, it’s better than both.

In the parlance of the tech nerd, the HP ZBook Studio G8 is a “mobile workstation.” On the hardware side, that typically means that you’re getting a Xeon processor, error-correcting (ECC) RAM, and an A-series or Quadro graphics card, paired with some sort of reliability testing (MIL-SPEC or MIL-STD), software certifications from major developers like Adobe, and an extended warranty. All of this usually comes attached to a price so high you’ll get altitude sickness if you stare at it for too long.

We don’t normally review mobile workstations on PetaPixel because the price increase associated with things like ECC memory and an enterprise GPU doesn’t translate into a measurable performance gain for photo and video editing, but HP did something interesting with the ZBook Studio G8: the company sort of split the difference.

The Studio G8 doesn’t use ECC memory or an Intel Xeon CPU, and it can be configured with a normal GeForce RTX 30-series GPU, but it still comes with all the other workstation perks. In other words: it offers the same performance as a high-end gaming laptop and the same sleek, professional design as a high-end consumer laptop, with better build quality, guaranteed reliability, and a longer warranty than either of the other categories. As a result, it comes in a little cheaper than similar options from, say, the Dell Precision lineup.

That’s not to say it’s cheap. The model HP sent us for review still costs an eye-watering $4,400:

Even if you downgrade some of the components, you’re still going to spend a lot of money. We actually asked the folks at HP to send us “Good, Better, Best” configuration options that they would recommend, and the most affordable of the bunch will still run you almost $2,800:

But that’s not to say that the price isn’t justified, or at least justifiable. From design to usability to raw performance, this laptop is fantastic. It’s just important to set expectations from the get-go: We’re not talking about a budget laptop today. We’re not even talking about a semi-affordable laptop. We’re talking about a mobile workstation that charges a substantial premium in exchange for professional-grade reliability and guaranteed performance.

If paying a $1,000 premium for MIL-STD reliability testing, software certifications, and an extended warranty sounds crazy to you, then a mobile workstation is the wrong choice and there’s no reason to read on. However, if that sounds like a reasonable investment and you like the fact that HP isn’t forcing you to throw additional money away on certain enterprise-grade specs you don’t want or need, then read on, because the HP ZBook Studio G8 turns out to be an excellent laptop for creative professionals.

Design and Build

There are only a few laptops that can compete with the likes of Apple and Razer when it comes to chassis design, but the HP ZBook Studio G8 is right up there with the best. The magnesium-and-aluminum alloy chassis is as rigid as a tank, extremely thin, and carved into a sharp design language that I loved from the moment I set eyes on this laptop.

Build quality really is top-notch. HP’s workstation-grade “Z” devices all undergo MIL-STD-810 testing, ensuring a level of reliability that surpasses anything you can expect from a standard consumer laptop. The MIL-STD-810 standard includes a suite of tests that check for resistance against vibration, dust, sand, humidity, altitude, drops, temperature shock, and even a “Freeze/Thaw” test.

Adding to the laptop’s reliability quotient is a three-year warranty direct from the manufacturer, a perk that usually costs extra (if it’s available at all) when you buy a consumer laptop.

Crack the ZBook Studio G8 open, and you’ll reveal an excellent keyboard that combines a satisfying click with a good amount of travel, zero mush, and per-key RGB lighting that gives the laptop just a little bit of gaming flare. The lighting is controlled by HP’s “OMEN” dashboard, and it’s a fun touch on an otherwise very professional-looking laptop.

This is accompanied by a slick, glass-topped trackpad that provides a precise and extremely well-optimized experience that can compete with the best-of-the-best. Because the speaker grill is positioned above the keyboard, the trackpad isn’t quite as big as the ones you’ll find on the latest Apple and Dell computers, but it was plenty big enough for me.

Port selection is solid, with only a little room for improvement. On the left side of the machine is an audio-combo jack, a USB Type-A port, and a Kensington lock; on the right side, you’ll find a sealable SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort 1.4 port that’s connected directly to the GPU, and two Thunderbolt 4 ports that can carry 40Gbps of data, power, and a display signal.

My gripes are minimal. Mainly, I was annoyed that the Thunderbolt 4 ports are connected directly to the iGPU with no way to re-route that signal in the BIOS (this is according to HP). As a result, anyone using a high-end 4K external display will want to use the Mini DisplayPort for true 10-bit color or high refresh-rate gaming.

For that reason alone, I really wish that HP had included an HDMI 2.1 port in this configuration instead of the MiniDP port. None of the monitors I’ve ever reviewed came with a MiniDP to DP 1.4 cable in the box, wihch forces me to buy a new cable in order to get full performance out of the ASUS ProArt PA32UCG I was using when I reviewed this laptop and eliminates the option of using this as a “single-cable” setup with Thunderbolt providing data, display, and power.

Fortunately, the included display is more than good enough to do professional creative work. The model we’re testing includes a touch-enabled 4K AMOLED screen that was able to hit well over 100% sRGB, 99.9% DCI-P3, and 91.6% Adobe RGB with an excellent Delta E of less than 2 and a maximum brightness of ~400 nits.

If OLED isn’t your thing, the ZBook Studio G8 is also available with a 4K 120Hz “HP DreamColor” LCD display with an advertised peak brightness of 600 nits and 100% coverage of DCI-P3, or an even more affordable Full HD model that promises 100% coverage of sRGB.

It’s nice to see a manufacturer offer both a 4K LCD and a 4K OLED option with identical gamut coverage, as well as a more affordable (but still acceptable) Full HD option. If you’re sold on the peace of mind of a mobile workstation but hate the price tag it carries, the lower-end screen option opens the door to get creative with your configuration, especially if you plan to use an external display much of the time.

As for our 4K OLED unit, you can see the results from our DisplayCAL tests below:

The HP ZBook G8 covers 99.9% of DCI-P3 (left) and well over 100% of sRGB (right).

If there’s a big downside to the high-res screen on our model it’s probably battery performance, which is decidedly middle of the road.

As with other high-performance notebooks, the ZBook Studio’s 83WHr battery can’t support the computer’s full 110W TDP (30W to the CPU, 80W to the GPU), and when you’re pushing the computer to its battery-powered performance limit, you can expect no more than about two hours of intense photo editing. In a more reasonable, battery saver or balanced mode, I was able to get about six hours of use for writing, occasional content consumption, and light photo editing, but don’t expect this laptop to compete with something that’s powered by AMD.

Overall, I found a lot to love and very little to complain about when it comes to the design and build quality of the ZBook Studio G8. It’s an excellent laptop that felt like a little piece of military equipment with just enough design flare. The excellent keyboard and trackpad, the professional-grade display, and the dual Thunderbolt 4 ports all make it a solid contender for serious creative work.

Photo Editing Performance

Given the extremely thin design, I was skeptical that the HP would be able to squeeze every ounce of performance out of its Core i9-11950H and NVIDIA RTX 3070. I was only kind of right. In most of our benchmarks, the ZBook couldn’t quite out-perform the latest Razer Blade 15 Advanced, which technically uses an ever-so-slightly slower Core i9-11900H, but the thinner ZBook Studio was still able to churn out top-shelf performance numbers.

Whether you’re running Photoshop, Lightroom, or Capture One, you can expect the Studio G8 to fly through most photo and video editing tasks with ease, all while staying remarkably quiet compared to some of the gaming laptops I’ve tested.

For our comparisons today, we’re showing the results from the HP side-by-side with the same tests run on an M1 iMac, an AMD-powered ASUS Zephyrus G14, and the aforementioned Blade 15 Advanced. Full specs below:

Lightroom Classic

In our standard import and export tests, the ZBook clocked in a tiny bit slower than the Razer Blade, but faster than our other test machines. As a reminder, these tests consist of importing 110 61-megapixel Sony a7R IV and 150 100-megapixel PhaseOne XF RAW files, generating 1:1 (Lightroom Classic) or 2560px (Capture One Pro) previews, applying a custom-made preset with heavy global edits, and then exporting those same files as 100% JPEGs and 16-bit TIFFs.

You can see the results for Lightroom Classic below:

Capture One Pro

The story is even better in Capture One, where the computer’s RTX 3070 finally gets to flex its muscle.

As we’ve mentioned in several of our past reviews, Lightroom does not use any sort of GPU acceleration during import or export, relying exclusively on the performance of your CPU and RAM to generate the numbers you see above. However, Capture One does take advantage of the GPU, so when it comes time to export the heavily-edited Sony a7R IV and Phase One XF variants in C1, the HP ZBook Studio G8 was able to close the gap with the Blade and trade blows at the top of the pack.

The results are essentially a wash between the three PCs, all of which benefit from NVIDIA RTX 30 series GPUs, with the M1 iMac falling way behind:

Photoshop

Finally, we ran our usual Photoshop test: Puget Systems‘ industry-standard PugetBench benchmark.

PugetBench assigns an Overall and four Category scores after timing a wide variety of tasks including basic stuff like loading, saving, and resizing a large .psd, GPU-accelerated filters like Smart Sharpen and Field Blur, and heavily RAM-dependent tasks like Photo Merge. As we have in the past, we ran version 0.8 of this particular benchmark, because it was the last version to include a Photo Merge test.

As you can see, the powerful GPU, 32GB of 3200MHz RAM, and the NVIDIA RTX 3070 GPU come together to put up impressive numbers in every category tested:

Performance Takeaways

There’s no questioning the HP ZBook Studio G8’s performance chops. Is it the most powerful laptop money can buy? Definitely not. HP’s own ZBook Fury lineup, the Alienware x17, and the Lenovo Legion 7i (to name a few) can all be configured with more powerful (and power-hungry) CPU/GPU combinations that would no-doubt outperform the ZBook Studio. However, it’s awesome to see this kind of performance across the board from such a thin device.

This is seriously impressive photo editing performance packed inside of a chassis that’s thinner than we previously thought possible for an Intel-based workstation.

Excellent Design, Great Performance, Painful Price Tag

If you can stomach the price, the HP ZBook Studio G8 is a phenomenal laptop for photo and video editors who want great performance paired with guaranteed reliability. That latter point really matters to working pros, who often opt for high-end gaming laptops with less-than-ideal build quality and lower-quality displays in order to achieve this kind of performance.

However, even when you understand the benefits, the Studio G8’s price is really hard to swallow. The variant I tested here costs about $1,000 more than you would spend on an (already expensive) Razer Blade 15 Advanced with basically the same core specs, a more powerful GPU, faster PCIe Gen 4 storage, and a next-gen OLED display that covers 100% of both DCI-P3 and AdobeRGB.

You really have to value those un-sexy mobile workstation perks if you’re going to justify that kind of price hike.

Pros

  • Excellent performance
  • Thin, light, rugged design
  • Fantastic trackpad and keyboard
  • Multiple color-accurate display options
  • Solid port selection with two Thunderbolt 4 ports and an SD card slot
  • MIL-STD-810 tested
  • 3-year warranty included

Cons

  • No HDMI port
  • SSD is PCIe 3.0, not 4.0
  • RAM is not upgradable
  • Sky high price

I hate to spend so much time addressing a computer’s price since a lot more goes into judging the real-world value of a computer than the cost of its components, so in most cases, I’ll focus on performance and usability and leave the economic calculus to individual readers who have individual budgets and don’t give an individual damn whether I think a laptop is “reasonably priced.”

However, “mobile workstations” like the ZBook Studio G8 exist in a different economic reality, and it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of that reality before you either a) spend way too much on a laptop you don’t need, or b) ignore features and benefits that could make the laptop worth every last penny.

For me, a well-built consumer laptop is reliable enough. I simply don’t use my computers hard enough to justify the price jump and there are some really fantastic options out there. But if you’re a professional photographer or video editor who needs a well-rounded, rock-solid machine that will go with you everywhere for the next three to five years, the HP ZBook Studio G8 is worth a very close look. It’s cheaper than many of its direct competitors in the workstation-class, gives you a wider variety of configurations to choose from, and it churns out better performance than we expected from something so sleek.

Are There Alternatives?

Several major laptop makers have a workstation brand that offers similar benefits to the ZBook Studio. The most popular are probably Lenovo’s ThinkPads and Dell’s Precision lineup. As I mentioned earlier, these laptops usually swap NVIDIA’s GeForce graphics for a mobile Quadro or A-series GPU, sometimes they use error-correcting “ECC” RAM, and often they include longer warranties, the aforementioned military-grade certifications, and displays that put an emphasis on color and/or battery life over speed and/or gaming performance.

For photographers, we’d recommend avoiding anything with ECC memory, an Intel Xeon processor, or an A-series/Quadro card, simply because these upgrades tend to increase the price significantly without adding much to real-world photo and even video editing performance. An 11th-gen Core i7 or Core i9 CPU, DDR4 RAM and a GeForce RTX 30 series GPU is just fine. Instead, if you’re interested in a mobile workstation, focus more on features like a solid manufacturer warranty, standardized reliability testing, and a killer LCD or OLED display with close-to-100% coverage of either AdobeRGB or DCI-P3.

Many of HP’s ZBook-branded laptops, Dell’s Precision laptops, and several of Lenovo’s ThinkPad models trade blows here in a variety of price brackets and configurations, depending on the kind of CPU, GPU, and display performance you need.

If you’re not interested in a mobile workstation, you can find similar performance and solid build quality for a lot less money by purchasing a high-quality consumer or gaming laptop like the Dell XPS 15/17, the Razer Blade 15 Advanced and Razer Blade 17, or the ASUS Zephyrus G14/G15 (just to name a few). You’ll get a lot more performance-bang-for-your-buck by going with a “consumer” or “creator” laptop vs a proper “mobile workstation,” just be aware of what you’re giving up.

Should You Buy It

Yes.

The caveats above apply, but other than a few minor gripes that I mention above, I cannot fault this laptop. For creatives, it’s a workhorse. The ZBook Studio G8 delivered a lot more “umph” than I expected from such a thin and light chassis while staying relatively quiet, it looks and feels great, and it offers a good variety of configuration options that help you dial in a ratio of price-to-performance that works for you.

It’s ultimately up to you to decide if the un-glamorous benefits of a mobile workstation are worth the inflated price tag. But if they are, then I have no qualms recommending this laptop.

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ProGrade Versus Sony CFexpress Type A Cards: Is There a Difference?

ProGrade Digital just released the first CFexpress Type A cards that aren’t made by Sony and while they aren’t “cheap” by any stretch of the imagination, they are more affordable than Sony’s offering. But does that discount come at a performance cost?

At the time of publication, CFexpress Type-A memory cards were only used by Sony in a few of its newer cameras like the Alpha 1. The format is much smaller than a CFexpress Type B card and while Type A cards will never be as fast, Sony chose them for its line of cameras because they have a secondary benefit: the small size lets them share a card slot that can also be used with legacy SD cards.

SD cards are actually bigger than CFexpress cards, which let Sony build a slot in both its cameras and its CFexpress card reader that lets the one slot pull double duty. For photographers, this means that Sony could support faster read and write speeds to get the most out of its new cameras while also not forcing photographers to pick up all-new media.

That choice is great because Sony’s CFexpress Type A cards are — at the time of publication — $400 for 160GB of capacity, a considerable investment.

As you can see above, ProGrade elected to keep its two memory card reader slots separate.

While the format isn’t widespread yet, ProGrade Digital believes it will become more popular in the future and as such has decided to join the party and just released its version of the media.

What’s the Difference?

Performance-wise, both Sony and ProGrade promise the same read and write speeds and physically both devices look almost identical — in fact, both cards note the country of origin as the same as well: Taiwan. The only real differences between them appear to be minor design choices on the back of the cards and a $70 price margin.

The only real way to repeatedly test and determine if there is a difference between these two cards is to run them each through speed tests. Theoretically, I could fire a burst of photos on camera with each card and time how long it takes to clear the buffer, but there is no reason to believe that the speed tests here would provide a different result especially since — as I’ll explain below — I used two different card readers. Additionally, this method is much more repeatable and controlled.

For this test, I have both the Sony and ProGrade CFexpress cards as well as the official card readers from both companies: the Sony MRW-G2 and the ProGrade Digital CFexpress Type A and SD Reader. I ran both cards through both of the readers in order to both see if there was any benefit to using a card reader and card from the same manufacturer, but also to assure that there was no unfair advantage that would appear by using a Sony card on a Sony reader, for example. I did not think one would exist, but it’s safer to be sure.

I ran speed tests using the BlackMagic Speed Test application on an Apple MacBook Pro multiple times. Both card readers were connected via USB-C cables into the reader and into the laptop — I did not use the cable that converts the USB-C design to USB-A. Testing speeds on cards varies with each run that the card goes through and performance will vary slightly depending on individual cards and over time, but the screenshots below are good overall averages of what you can expect from the cards.

Sony Versus ProGrade via ProGrade Card Reader

First I want to show the results from running both cards through the ProGrade Digital combination CFexpress Type A and SD card reader:

ProGrade Digital CFexpress Type A Card
Sony CFexpress Type A Card

As you can see, both cards fell short of the promised “up to” 800 MB/s read spends and 700 MB/s write speeds. The ProGrade Digital card averaged around 679 MB/s write speeds and around 785 MB/s read speeds with the ProGrade reader. The Sony card performed pretty similarly, averaging around 683 MB/s write speeds and around 780 MB/s read speeds through the ProGrade reader.

While it appears the ProGrade Digital card read data a bit faster than the Sony and the Sony wrote data a bit faster than the ProGrade, the difference here is within a tolerable margin of error of around 5 MB/s, which means that there is effectively no difference in performance between these cards with the ProGrade reader.

Sony Versus ProGrade via Sony Card Reader

Next, I ran both cards through the Sony combination CFexpress and SD card reader:

ProGrade CFexpress Type A Card
Sony CFexpress Type A Card

The Prograde CFexpress card averaged around 654 MB/s write speeds and 730 MB/s read speeds when tested through the Sony reader. The Sony card averaged around 651 MB/s write speeds and 731 MB/s read speeds through the Sony reader. The results here are much closer than when the cards were compared through the ProGrade card reader and are absolutely within the expected margin of error.

As far as I am concerned, this confirms that the cards should effectively perform identically across mediums and cameras.

Curiously, both the ProGrade card and the Sony card performed worse through Sony’s reader than through ProGrade’s reader by a factor of nearly 20 MB/s in both read and write, which is more than I feel comfortable attributing to just a margin of error. I am not familiar with the inner workings of card readers and what might make one perform better than the other, but in my testing, ProGrade does take the win here as far as media readers.

Hunt the Best Price, Not the Brand

If you were afraid that the $70 discount in price between the Sony and the ProGrade cards would result in worse performance for ProGrade, I have good news: both cards should perform pretty much exactly the same.

One thing worth noting though is that as far as card readers go, ProGrade Digital’s CFexpress Type A and SD card combo reader appears to be a bit better than the Sony MRW-G2 Cfexpress Type A reader. Sony’s reader is also $120, while ProGrade’s is $80. So while I can comfortably recommend you can buy either the Sony or ProGrade card (whichever is on sale) and get the same performance, it appears the ProGrade card reader will give you better performance, albeit just a little.

That said, ProGrade’s reader is made of mostly plastic while Sony’s is an all-metal housing. I haven’t ever encountered a situation where I needed my card reader to be tough as nails, but if that’s important to you, Sony is likely the better choice even if it’s just a hair slower.

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Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8 Macro Lens Review: A Solid Introduction to Macro

The Nikon 50mm f/2.8 Macro Prime lens is part of a pair announced in June. While the lens is designated as a macro, the 50mm focal length makes it more of a walkabout lens with macro capabilities.

While Nikon’s legacy macro lenses would still work using the FTZ adapter on the Z-System, the new lenses note another step of Nikon’s promise to deliver a wider range of native functionality lenses on its mirrorless systems. Nikon designed this new lens to be a small, lightweight, and compact everyday lens that can be used with both full-frame or APS-C Nikon Z mirrorless systems.

While it is a macro lens, the $650 Nikon 50mm f/2.8 offers a focal length that makes it a lens that can work double duty, both as a standard lens as well as one for close-up shots.

50mm is a lot wider than the standard 100mm or longer typically seen in macro lenses and thus frees this lens from the niche of only macro work. The 50mm f/2.8 is therefore quite diverse in its functionality and is suitable for both portrait and street photography, for example. But on the other side of the coin, users will notice it does lack a few key features when compared to the 105mm sibling, most notably the lack of Vibration Reduction (VR) and no special ARNEO coating.

The question is, does that matter?

Build Quality and Design

The Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens is the smaller and more affordable lens of the duo of macro optics released this summer. While the 50mm “wide” focal length does give users more flexibility as a walk-about lens, it also means that users will have to get much closer to their subjects to get the true macro shots. The upside of the focal range is it will be much easier to get handheld shots without having to worry about camera shake and blurriness, at least in well-lit situations.

The 50mm lens is about half the size and weighs less than half than its 105mm sibling, which makes it truly compact and travel-friendly. Something keen eyes may notice out of the box is that the 50mm lacks the S-line designation the higher-end lenses from Nikon’s mirrorless lenses have. This lighter plastic body does make the lens feel “lesser” as well.

Despite the lens being rated as dust and weather resistant, because it is so small and has a mostly plastic exterior, it feels almost like a toy lens rather than something intended for capturing incredibly sharp and detailed professional images. This may perhaps mean that it makes for a better “everyday” lens since it will be less likely to stand out while traveling.

Like most new Z-Mount lenses, the focus ring can be programmed to control additional settings like ISO and exposure compensation when using AF mode.

The last feature worth noting here is unlike most modern macro lenses with internal focus mechanisms, the Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 Macro uses a more traditional extending inner barrel system. The plus side to this design element is it allows the lens to be smaller when not using the feature, making it more compact for storage and travel. The downside is, of course, that it has a physically extending piece that can change its weight distribution.

Focus and Aperture

I found myself dealing with a shorter “working” distance than other macro lenses in order to get the true 1:1 macro shots, and when shooting at the 1:1 focus distance, the maximum aperture was f/5.6 instead of the f/2.8. While the aperture was a bit of a headscratcher, the big frustration point for me with this lens was the fact you had to get incredibly close to the subjects for the 1:1 shots. So much so that it was very hard to frame a photo without blocking the light and casting a shadow or getting too close to the small insects I was trying to capture that I would unintentionally scare it away.

The autofocus works pretty accurately, especially when shooting video. However, when shooting up close for the 1:1 shots, it is important to flip the switch on the focus limiter on the side of the lens otherwise there will be a very noticeable lag and focus breathing present as it makes autofocus adjustments.

After a lot of testing, I found the peak sharpness to be between the f/4 to f/5.6 range with my images. I was surprised to find that the lens was getting slightly softer starting as early as f/8.

Image Quality

The Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8 may not have the extra nanocrystal or ARNEO coatings like its 105mm sibling, but that does not mean the images produced by it are bad by any stretch of the imagination.

Shooting at 1:1, the depth of field is very thin, which was something I personally had to get used to, but I have found it visually interesting and a lot of fun to play with. That thin plane of focus aside, once focus is dialed in, pretty much edge to edge is sharp.

What was nice about this lens is how it is also a very nice walkabout lens. I found that while shooting it as a “normal” lens that it was quite easy to get incredibly sharp images at f/2.8 with only minor vignetting in the far corners. In that sense, I can see a lot to like about using this lens as you would with any 50mm lens and being happy with the results.

Below are some sample images captured with the Nikon Z 50mm f/2.8 Macro:

An Introduction to Macro Photography

For photographers that are interested in macro images but aren’t quite ready to invest heavily into the niche lenses, this is a great first step into the field. The Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens is capable of being an everyday generalist lens for landscape, street, and portrait work, on top of capturing fantastic macro images which means it can adapt to a variety of situations should you find that macro isn’t your favorite subject matter.

For the macro purist, however, there are likely better options out there for you and while the 50mm f/2.8 is nice, it has limitations.

Are There Alternatives?

There are plenty of DSLR macro lenses available to choose from including the $419 Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 Lens which is arguably a better macro lens. That being said, there are only a handful of macro lenses specifically designed for the Nikon Z series currently available including the 105mm f/2.8 VR S Lens some manual Venus Optic (Laowa) Macro lenses, and the IRIX cine 150mm T3.0 Macro lens for $1,195 that jumps significantly in price.

Should You Buy It?

Yes, if macro photography is new and a path of interest for your work, then the Nikkor Z MC 50mm F/2.8 Macro is definitely worth the investment to get you started shooting macro images on the Nikon mirrorless system and you will be very happy with the results you can capture.

However, if you have been shooting macro images for a while and already have a variety of macro lenses available in your kit, I would recommend skipping the 50mm f/2.8 macro and jumping right to the 105mm f/2.8 VR S Macro instead.

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Reid Hoffman’s latest book gives us 10 ways to rethink entrepreneurship

When you’re in the mood for a pep talk, who better to turn to than a well-networked, optimistic mentor who is naturally in your corner? That friendly shoulder is the role that “Masters of Scale” wants to play.

Inspired by LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman’s hit podcast, the new book, co-authored by Hoffman along with podcast executive producers June Cohen and Deron Triff, came out this week. Riddled with anecdotes and actionable takeaways, the book’s strength is wholly related to the sheer diversity of entrepreneurs that are represented in the text. Beyond sticking to tech leaders, the book draws lessons from Spanx founder Sara Blakely, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Daniel Meyer. Like any good mentor, the book is realistic. Mentors know you aren’t Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd or Airbnb’s Brian Chesky yet, but can extract universally applicable lessons from those leaders so that you can relate to them.

While press wasn’t a main character in the book, “Master of Scale” has already changed my perspective on how I interview founders. Lessons from Tristan Walker made me want to ask more questions about founders, and their most controversial beliefs, rather than how they plan to spend their new round of funding. A note from Andrés Ruzo made me realize that a startup that makes too much sense might be a comfortable read, but it might not be a moonshot that disrupts the world; in other words, pursue the startups that have too much seemingly foolish ambition — because they may be where the best strides, and stories, are made. Finally, it confirmed my belief that the best litmus test for a founder is if they are willing to talk about the hardships ahead of them in an honest, humble way.

Through every feel-good story, I waited for the pandemic to be addressed. The pandemic’s impact on startup advice was largely isolated to a single chapter about the art of the pivot. Instead of interspersing advice on how to deal with the pandemic’s impact on venture capital, funding and markets more broadly, the book limited its references to the cataclysmic event. This choice keeps the advice smartly evergreen. That said, I felt like the book’s choice to not talk much about the ugly within startupland creates an imbalance of sorts. It would have benefitted from talking directly about divisive dynamics, ranging from how WeWork’s Adam Neumann impacted the way we talk about visionary founders, Brian Armstrong’s Coinbase memo and what it means for startup culture, or even the role of the tech press today. One could argue that the book never claims to be journalistic, and instead wanted to play the role of a cheerleading mentor, not a cynical one.

Writing a book based on a hit podcast isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. Audio is an entirely different medium from written text, and it takes a certain finesse to translate into text the charisma and humility of vocal banter. Hoffman and the authors thus certainly shine brighter in some stories than others, leaning heavily on a repeated, yet effective storytelling arc throughout the text: introduce problem, present aha moment, offer solutions and share universal lessons.

I read the book over a weekend; I recommend the same move for any aspiring entrepreneur, techie or startup journalist looking to pick up a copy. Reid and the coauthors will do a fantastic job connecting the dots of over 70 entrepreneurs for you, but the real magic will come from what happens when you pause in between the stories — either to Google a founder you resonate with, to change up your interview style or to finally start working on the idea you one day may just blitzscale.

#book-review, #reid-hoffman, #reviews, #tc

Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike review: Utility that shreds

A recent move to Auckland, New Zealand — a city with lackluster public transit and hills that can turn a quick bike ride to the store into a sweaty workout — piqued my interest in e-bikes. 

Strong demand and skyrocketing prices, however, made it difficult to access these coveted e-bikes here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. That changed after learning about Ubco, the New Zealand-based electric utility bike startup that recently raised $10 million from investors. 

The company provided me with the Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike for nearly a month, which gave me plenty of time to put it to the test. 

I may not be Ubco’s target audience, although I did my best to use the bike as its design suggests, and packed it up with bags of books and other heavy things that might simulate the weight of delivered garlic bread, mail and other packages. The Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike is made for city utility riding, with the option of going off-road, which I would later try with gusto.

The company’s flagship is the Ubco 2X2 Work Bike, an electric dirt bike that was originally designed to help farmers. The fresh capital the company raised in June will be used to expand into existing verticals like food delivery, postal service and last-mile logistics, scale a commercial subscription business and target sales growth in the United States. 

Domino’s drivers in Auckland, and I hear in the U.K., can be seen delivering hot pizzas on Ubco bikes, and the company has a range of other national clients, like the New Zealand Post, the Defense Force, the Department of Conservation, and Pāmu, or Landcorp Farming Limited, as well as other local restaurants and stores.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The handoff

CEO and co-founder Timothy Allan drove out from the company headquarters in Tauranga to hand off the bike personally. It was a sunny day in my neighborhood, and I listened impatiently as he described the various bits and bobs, how to work the machine and how to charge it.

Allan helped me download the Ubco app to pair my phone with the bike, which, among other functionalities, allowed me to select beginner mode, which would cap the vehicle speed at around 20 miles per hour. I made a mental note so that I could write about it here, but was determined to reach the top speed of 30 miles per hour right away. 

I did, and it was … pretty sick. I’m not supposed to gush, but man! It’s a sweet ride. Here’s why:

Appearance

The Adventure Bike comes standard in white and sits on 17X2.75-inch multi-use tires with aluminum rims, both of which are DOT compliant. My version also had Maori decals on the frame, in a nod to the indigenous people of New Zealand.  

The bike’s height is about 41 inches and the seat comes to 32 inches. From wheel to wheel, it’s about 72 inches. The payload, including the rider, is about 330 pounds, so both my partner (6’2” man) and I (5’7” female) rode this bike with ease, needing only to adjust the wide rearview mirrors sticking out of the handlebars. And no, we didn’t ride it together. This bike is designed as a one-seater. 

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

That said, there’s a little cargo rack above the back wheel, which holds the license plate (apparently these are classified as mopeds, which require registration in many places) and any other cargo one might carry. I didn’t try, but I reckon it could hold at least five pizza boxes tied down with a bungee cord. The bike rack also allows for saddlebags to be strapped on. Ubco sells what it calls the Pannier Back Pack, a weather-resistant roll-top cargo bag, for $189 that slots in very nicely and is actually a quality bag with 5.28-gallon capacity. 

Accessories aside, the alloy frame is lightweight and step-through, which I love in a bike — it lets me start to shift myself off before I fully park and I feel super agile and swift. Speaking of parking, the rules are different everywhere, I assume, but here, you park it on the street or in parking spaces, not on the sidewalk. It’s got a kickstand to hold it in place, and you can lock the front wheel so no one can just wheel it away. They could, however, probably chuck it into the back of their pickup truck if they so chose, since it’s only 145 pounds. 

The appearance of the bike stood out, and not just to me. During my multi-week test drive, numerous tradesmen and bike folks went out of their way to compliment its design, the exact demographic that Ubco is aiming for. 

Rideability

The lightness of the bike means that it’s easy to take off and find your balance. The battery is also in the middle of the frame, just near where your feet sit, which anchors the bike and gives you a stable center of gravity.

The lightweight nature of the bike is a blessing and a curse. Cutting a turn is easy, but on a windy day and an open road, there were moments I worried that I’d be knocked off it — but maybe that had more to do with riding next to a 10-wheeler on the street. Because it’s so light, it did feel a bit strange to me to be in the street lane with the other bigger, meaner cars rather than in the bike lanes.

The bike accelerates quickly via the fully electronic throttle control, even up steep hills, due to the high torque geared drivetrain. The drivetrain has two 1kw Flux2 motors with sealed bearings, active heat management and active venting for residual moisture — a necessity in this moistest of cities.

The acceleration sound, which mimics those of a gas-powered dirt bike but with a softer electronic tone, was a surprising plus. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my sense of sound to tell how fast I was going until I rode the Ubco. 

The braking system was a bit touchy. It felt very sensitive to me, probably because hydraulic and regenerative brakes are operating together on the vehicle. There’s also a passive regenerative braking system, which I gather is what put the brakes on for me when I was just trying to coast down one of those mammoth hills.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Both the front suspension, 130 mm, and rear suspension, 120 mm, have a coil spring with a hydraulic dampener and have preload and rebound adjustment. In other words, the shocks are awesome. Even when I actively drove myself off sidewalks and over speed bumps, I could barely feel a thing. 

To test its off-road capabilities, I took the bike to Cornwall Park, where I ran it at full speed on the grass, swerving between trees, flying over roots and rocks, doing doughnuts in the field. It was good fun and I felt completely in control of the vehicle. I can imagine why farmers have turned to the Work Bike.

When it was time to test out its use as a delivery bike, I packed the two saddlebags with books and groceries and took it for a spin. Still a great ride, although I was a little wobbly turning corners until I got the hang of it.

Value

Since the Ubco Adventure Bike doesn’t neatly fit into a specific bike category, it’s not a simple price comparison. An electric moped, like a Lexmoto Yadea or a Vespa Elettrica, could set you back anywhere from $2,400 or $7,000, respectively. Electric dirt bikes could cost anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 for something like a KTM or Alta Motors. 

With that in mind, the Ubco Adventure Bike costs $6,999 with a 2.1 kW power supply and $7,499 for a 3.1 kW power supply. Depending on what you want it for, I’d say it’s somewhere around mid-range for a bike like this. Since you’d probably use it for work-related activities, it could get a tax write-off. Plus, you want quality in a bike that’s down to do some heavy lifting, and Ubco has plenty of that. It’s not only a handy utility bike, but it’s also got some excellent tech under the proverbial hood, which we’ll get to later. 

Ubco estimates a 10- to 15-year life expectancy, depending on use. Over-the-air software updates, replacing parts and full refurbishments can help keep the bike going for longer. The company encourages riders to send back the dead bikes because it’s committed to full product stewardship.

That said, if you wanted to buy a bike now, it’d be a preorder (unless your local Ubco dealer had some in stock). Ordering now could get you an Ubco by September if you live in the States. The company says it’s still feeling the effects of COVID, with high demand and a stretched supply chain causing delays. The preorder requires a $1,000 deposit. 

Ubco also has a subscription model, which is mainly available for enterprise customers at the moment and priced on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s piloting subscriptions for individuals in Auckland and Tauranga before rolling the program out globally. Subscriptions will start at around NZD $300 per month for a 36-month term.

Range

The Adventure Bike comes with either the 2.1 kWh battery pack, which has around 40 to 54 miles of range, or the 3.1 kWh, with 60 to 80 miles.

The battery is run off a management system, called “Scotty,” to monitor real-time performance and safety. The battery, which is sealed with alloy and vented during use, is made with 18650 lithium-ion cells, which means it’s a powerful battery that can handle up to 500 charging cycles. Ubco says its batteries are designed to be disassembled at the end of life.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The 10amp alloy fast charger can fuel the battery fully within four to six hours. You can charge it while it’s still in the vehicle by just connecting it to a power outlet, or you can unlock the battery and yank it out (it’s a little heavy) and charge it inside. Note: Charging is loud. Not sure if this is standard, but probably is. 

I charged it every two to three days, but that will depend on use and where you are. It’s winter in Auckland, so a bit cold, which affects battery life, and the hills are brutal, which also use up a lot of battery life.

I’d ride it downtown and around my neighborhood every day, but I’d wager a delivery driver would need to charge it nightly. As I mentioned earlier, the battery can be removed for charging, so if you take it to work, you can always take it up to the office or wherever to charge while you’re doing other things. 

Tech features

Vehicle management system

The vehicle runs off what Ubco calls its Cerebro vehicle management system, which integrates all electronic and electrical functions of the vehicles and provides control and updates via Bluetooth. Ubco builds with end of life in mind, so the CAN bus is isolated so future CAN devices can be easily integrated. 

Now, one of my first questions, given the heftiness of this bike and the likelihood of gig economy workers who would ride it for work living in urban dwellings, was this: How can I ensure no one will steal this thing when it’s on the street, because there’s no way I’m lugging it up to my fifth-floor walkup?

Like I said, you can lock the wheel in place, which would make it far more difficult for someone to wheel it off. If someone did decide to capture the whole cumbersome vehicle, Ubco would be able to track it for you. Each Ubco bike has telemetry, aka a SIM card, hardwired inside, and that can help provide data that can be used for location, servicing, theft, safety, route planning, etc. 

This VMS architecture is made for handling fleets via Ubco’s enterprise subscription vehicles, but it obviously has other uses, like providing peace of mind (personally, I’d still lock it up with chains, but I’m a New Yorker and trust no one). Obviously, if you think this telemetry is creepy, you can opt out, but it does come standard with subscriptions, allowing subscribers to track their bike’s location on the app.

Display

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Mounted on the handlebar is an LCD display that shows speed, power levels and more. Also on the handlebars are switch controls for high or low beams, indicators and a horn. I found the indicators to be a bit sticky and sometimes I would slip and hit the horn. What I wish the handlebars also had was a mount for your phone so you could follow directions. I had my headphones in and was listening to Google Maps tell me how to get around, but that felt less safe and efficient. 

Turning it on

You can turn the power on with a keyless fob by either clicking the button on the fob or the button on the handlebars. I will note that the keyless fob button is weirdly sensitive. At multiple points, I had it in my pocket with my phone or other pocket inhabitants and it must have knocked into the button, turning the vehicle off while I was riding it. Thankfully, that never happened anywhere busy, but that’s something to be wary about. 

App

As I mentioned earlier, you could pair your phone, as well as other users’ phones, to the bike using the app. The app allows you to choose learner mode or restricted mode, which controls ride settings; turn the bike and lights on and off; change the metrics; and check the status of things like battery life, speed and motor temperature. It’s basically all the info on the dash, but on an app. I didn’t really feel the need to use it.

Lights

The LED headlights are on at all times when the vehicle is turned on, but there’s also a high and low beam, as well as peripheral parking lights, all of which are designed for disassembly at the end of life. There are also LED rear, brake and number plate lights, as well as DOT-approved indicator lights.

Other stuff

Among the features that don’t fit neatly into the other categories, there’s the field kit, which is fastened to the lift-up seat and contains a user manual and tools to set up and maintain the 2X2, which is really handy. Usually, when people buy an Ubco bike, it comes in a box and there are “a few simple steps to follow to get it ready to ride.” There’s also an UBCO University course that shows how to set it up. If you buy from one of Ubco’s dealers, they’ll unpack it and set it up when you come to collect it. 

Maintenance

Maintenance comes with the cost of a monthly subscription. Ubco has a network of technicians placed wherever the company sells its bikes if they’re in need of fixing. If there’s no authorized mechanic nearby, Ubco’s head office will work with customers to help them fix the bike. Ubco did not respond to information about how many authorized mechanics are in its network.

Again, being from New York, I’ve seen probably thousands of delivery riders on bikes and mopeds, oven mitts covered in a plastic bag taped onto the handlebars so drivers can keep their hands warm during the colder months. This bike can handle a hefty load for delivering goods, it’s quick and agile for weaving in and out of traffic, and it’s easy to ride and use.

The subscription offering, especially for enterprise, makes this a great city utility bike that can probably handle a range of weather conditions. I already know it can handle rain and mud, so all signs point to success in the sloshy, icy hell of a Northern city winter. And for the adventurer — the person who just wants to ride something sweet on- and off-road, out of the city and into the wilderness — this is also a great consumer ride that will last you quite a while.

#ebike, #electric-bikes, #hardware, #micromobility, #new-zealand, #reviews, #transportation, #ubco, #ubco-2x2-adventure-bike, #united-states

OnePlus Buds Pro review: Much better

What does a company have to do to differentiate wireless earbuds in 2021? The near ubiquity of good hardware has made this an increasingly difficult question to answer. I’ve probably tested around 10 different sets of buds over the last year or so, and honestly, they were all pretty good.

Companies like Nura and Nothing are taking interesting approaches to the category, but for hardware makers who also sell their own handsets, sometimes being the best pair of headphones for a specific mobile device is enough.

OnePlus is in something of a void between the two worlds. The company makes its own phones, of course, but doesn’t pull in numbers approaching goliaths like Samsung and Apple. Fittingly, the OnePlus Buds Pro walk that line — serving as a solid pair of buds that play nicely with its own devices, while sprinkling in a few — at the very least — interesting additions that somewhat differentiate them from a crowded field.

OnePlus’s work in the category has been — to this point — unexceptional at best, and downright lackluster at worst. I was very much unimpressed when the company finally entered the fully wireless category last year, after a tethered play in the space. The sub-$100 price point was nice, but they otherwise felt like a set that could have flown maybe three or four years ago, when the pickings were far slimmer.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Pros are, mercifully, better in practically every respect. That has to be a bit of a relief for the company, as one of its co-founders launched his own new headphones within a month of their product. At $150, the product comes in at a $50 premium over both the Ear (1) and its standard buds. It’s a fair price for what you’re getting here, however, taking a broader look at the current landscape.

I should note, that for this review, I took the headphones for a spin with a non-OnePlus Android phone I had handy, as well as an iPhone. That requires the use of the HeyMelody OnePlus/Oppo app, which is, in a word, lacking. But it gets the job done with some key features. There’s a fit test to ensure that you have a good seal, and OnePlus Audio ID, which helps you create a custom sound profile.

The latter is a rudimentary version of what Nura offers with an old-school sound test that runs you through a number of different tones, asking whether you can hear the playback. It’s a bit of a slog, but it ultimately makes a difference. The result was a fair bit fuller and richer when I finished. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of EQ customization beyond that. That said, I really don’t have a lot to complain about on the sound side of things, beyond an over reliance on bass.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The noise canceling, which can either be controlled on the app or via the headphones’ stems, is also effective. A long (three-second) click of the stems, meanwhile, will pop up one of the buds’ most unique features: Zen Mode Air. It’s a clever if unnecessary addition in an era when every tech company is thinking about mindfulness. The feature pipes white noise into your eyes. The default is “Warm Sunrise” — kind of a meadow soundscape with chirping birds and insects. There are four other preloaded sounds, including campfires and the beach. It’s not a feature I ever thought I’d need, but in year where everything is stressful basically all of the time, I kind of dig it.

On the design side, companies have one of two choices these days. You can either embrace the AirPod or try something defiantly different. It’s pretty clear with a glance which direction OnePlus went. It’s a bit less pronounced on the matte black pair the company sent for review, but the white versions are unmistakable. The metal stems appear to be tossed in so as to not make them infringingly close to the market leaders.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

From a comfort perspective, they’re tough to beat. I’ve had them in for extended periods and gone running with them in and have no complaints. I guess there’s something to the AirPods design, after all. Battery life is pretty stellar, with five to seven hours on the buds (depending on ANC usage) and a combined 28 to 38 (ditto) with the slim case factored in. The case also supports wireless charging — an increasingly ubiquitous feature at this price point.

OnePlus clearly wanted to hew close to its budget roots by launching with the $99 buds first. But I think there’s something to the Google approach of showing what you can do with a more premium model and then dropping the budget take. There’s a strong case to be made that these were the headphones OnePlus should have released a year or two ago. But, hey, better late than never.

#earbuds, #hardware, #oneplus, #oppo, #reviews, #wireless-earbuds

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 is the foldable to beat

I took a long walk on Saturday. It’s become a routine during the pandemic, a chance to unwind after too many hours indoors, while seeing parts of the city that would otherwise be lost to subway rides in normal years. Saturday was more purpose-driven, heading to a newly opened Trader Joe’s before Henri unleashed itself on the Eastern Seaboard.

Taking respite from the early rain, I found a food court in Long Island City, ordered a shawarma and pulled the Galaxy Z Flip from my pocket. I unfolded the phone, popped the new Galaxy Buds in my ears and watched a baseball game on the MLB.TV app. The Flip really made sense in that moment, open in landscape mode at a 135-degree angle to keep the 6.7-inch screen upright. When the game ended (spoiler, it didn’t end well), I snapped the phone shut, stuck it in my pocket and went on my way.

It doesn’t always come with a piece of new technology, but sometimes you get lucky and have an experience where it just clicks. There were plenty of jokes about the long-ago death of the clamshell when the first Flip arrived. Those won’t be going away anytime soon, of course, but the phone also offered the first sense for many that maybe Samsung was heading in the right direction with its foldable ambitions.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Setting aside the early flaws with the first Galaxy Fold (we’ve covered them ad nauseum elsewhere), the device is also unwieldy. While it’s true the foldable screen affords you the ability to carry around a screen that might otherwise be impossible, it’s a large device when folded, and the opportunities to unfold don’t readily present themselves. The Flip splits the difference nicely between screen size and portability. In terms of display size, it’s effectively a Galaxy Note that snaps in two and fits nicely in your pocket.

Most of the talk of Samsung mainstreaming foldables has centered on the Galaxy Z Fold — mostly from the company itself. Samsung has made a big to-do about positioning the Fold as its latest flagship — augmenting or, perhaps replacing, the Note in its lineup. The Fold 3 certainly blurs the lines with the addition of S Pen functionality, but the Flip is the much clearer bridge between Samsung’s existing flagships and the foldable future it envisions.

Mainstreaming foldables was always going to be a tricky proposition. Right out of the gate, they were hit with negative coverage over production issues and prices; $2,000 is a lot to pay for a product you essentially have to handle with kid gloves. You shouldn’t have to worry about accidentally damaging your daily driver through normal use. The Flip benefits from the mistakes of earlier fold generations, getting a more robust design and water resistance as a result.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is pricing. The Galaxy Z Flip is Samsung’s first foldable under $1,000. Now, granted, it’s literally one penny under that threshold — a price point that puts it in line with expensive premium phones from the likes of Samsung and Apple. But in the world of foldables, that’s a really big win. The first couple of generations could — to some degree — survive on novelty alone.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As more of these devices make their way into the world, utility supersedes novelty. But growing popularity also means scale — and, as a result, price drops. For the first time, buying a Samsung foldable is not the financial equivalent of buying two phones. That’s a much more significant threshold than the Galaxy Fold dropping $200 over its previous generation.

The company noted this week, that “in just 10 days since announcement pre-orders for the Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 have already surpassed total global Samsung foldables sales in all of 2021, also making it the strongest pre-order for Samsung foldables ever.” There are a lot of factors here, including a lower price, more robust design, the absence of a new Note and an aggressive push to get consumers to preorder. But it’s safe to say the line is, at the very least, trending the right way.

Expectedly, the company’s numbers don’t break down sales in terms of Fold versus Flip. Admittedly, the Fold is more fully featured, and 7.6 inches of screen is better than 6.7 inches of screen, when it comes, to, say, watching a full movie. But for most people in most instances, the Galaxy Flip is a better choice. I can say with no hesitation: The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is the most mainstream foldable on the market.

If you’re not sold on the importance of foldables, such a statement understandably doesn’t mean much. But for a vast majority of people looking to make the leap to what is increasingly looking like a key part of the mobile future, the Flip is an obvious choice. And while it’s easy to make fun of the clamshell design as a relic of a bygone era, there’s a reason phones went that way in the first place. One assumes a big part of the reason they largely went away is that — until now — smartphones weren’t foldable.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Samsung gets the design language right here. The Flip 3 is easily the company’s best-looking foldable to date. The dual-color shell is striking. The company sent along a cream color, which I’m not particularly fond of, but the green, lavender and even plain black or white are quite striking. It pairs well with the strip of black that houses the exterior display, which has been bumped from 1.1 to 1.9 inches. It doesn’t sound like a lot, sure, but that’s a healthy increase on a screen this size.

Of course, you’re losing the full exterior screen functionality you get on the Fold. The Flip’s display is effectively a quick-glance secondary screen for notifications. Pull it out, and it shows you the time, date and how much battery you’ve got left. Swipe right and you’ll see your notifications.

Swipe left and you get an alarm or timer, with the option of adding more widgets to the screen, including weather, media playback (effectively audio play/pause) and Samsung Health Metrics. It’s a small list, but one that will no doubt increase if more people pick up the Flip. Swipe down for some quick settings and Swipe up for Samsung Pause.

In a time when many of us are trying to make a concerted effort to minimize our phone use, I appreciate the dichotomy between the two screens. It’s a much clearer line in the sand than the one separating the Fold’s 6.2- and 7.6-inch screens. Phone closed = checking my notifications. Phone open = engagement. When the time comes to open the phone, the Flip is a much easier proposition than the phones. I haven’t quite mastered the art of the one-handed open just yet, but it’s much easier to execute on the fly than the Fold, which is effectively like opening a book. The biggest downside to the form factor in terms of speed is there’s no quick way to fire off a photo.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Taking photos is far more deliberate, requiring one to open the phone to see the internal view finder. You can, however, snap off some selfies by double-pressing the power button, with the small front-facing screen doubling as a small viewfinder. Swiping to the left toggles between still, while swiping up and down changes the level of zoom. It’s a bit awkward and clunky, but the pair of 12-megapixel cameras (wide and ultra-wide) will get you a much better selfie than most pinhole cameras (including the Flip’s 10 megapixel lens).

Like the Fold, the rear cameras (which are also the front-facing cameras, depending on how you look at it) are largely unchanged since the Flip 2. A dual-camera system can feel almost antiquated in 2021, but for most intents and purposes, they do the trick, coupled with Samsung’s many years of camera software experience. The 22:9 aspect ratio means more than a quarter of the screen is occupied by the controls out of necessity.

The aspect ratio in general merits comment. It’s, like, really, really tall when open. It’s a nice amount of real estate to have when, say, scrolling through Gmail or Twitter. But when watching video, you’ll often encounter pillarboxing — letterboxing on the sides of the screen. The video world simply isn’t ready for 22:9, and quite frankly, it probably won’t ever be.

And then, of course, there’s the seam. It’s right there in the center of the lovely 2640 x 1080, 425 ppi screen. And barring some unforeseen breakthrough in foldable tech, I frankly don’t see it disappearing any time soon. I understand why that might be a deal breaker, though I’ve largely gotten used to it after spending time with these devices.

Like the Fold, the Flip runs on the Snapdragon 888 processor. Predictably, the lower cost comes with less in the way of RAM and storage, at 8 and 128GB on the Flip, to the Fold’s 12 and 256GB. Another $150 will upgrade the storage 256GB here. While Samsung mostly hasn’t skimped much on the internals, the 3,300 mAh battery does fall short.

Battery life is an issue with the Fold and an even bigger problem on the Flip — in fact, it’s the biggest complaint here. Moderate to heavy use is going to require getting near a charging cable before the day is over. Maybe not a huge deal in these pandemic days, but something to consider as we re-enter the world. Certainly long, unplugged plane rides are out of the question.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Again, I can totally sympathize with that being a deal breaker. You pay $1,000 for a phone, you want a battery that’s going to get you through a day of use, worry-free. And certainly it’s something for Samsung to focus on in gen four.

As it stands, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 has the benefit of previous generations, with a stronger aluminum frame, improved screen protector and IPX8 water resistance (no dust resistance rating, for reasons outlined in the Fold review). It’s not a perfect phone, but it’s a strong sign of how far Samsung’s foldables have come in three generations, coupled with a sub-$1,000 price point.

The device is likely to be second fiddle as the company continues to push the Fold as its flagship foldable. But for most people looking to enter the world of foldable phones, the Flip is the easy choice.

#foldables, #galaxy-flip, #hardware, #mobile, #reviews, #samsung, #samsung-galaxy-z-flip-3

Samsung’s refined Galaxy Fold

Samsung wasn’t quite ready to declare the Galaxy Note dead. Not just yet. When we put the question to the company again after this month’s Unpacked event, a rep told us:

Samsung is constantly evaluating its product lineup to ensure we meet the needs of consumers, while introducing technology that enhances users’ mobile experiences. We will not be launching new Galaxy Note devices in 2021. Instead, Samsung plans to continue to expand the Note experience and bring many of its popular productivity and creativity features, including the S Pen, across our Galaxy ecosystem with products like the Galaxy S21 Ultra and including to other categories like tablets and laptops. We will share more details on our future portfolio once we’re ready to announce.

It’s not an answer, exactly, so much as a reiteration of its earlier announcement that there will be no new Note for 2021. Asked whether it was simply a matter of chip shortages, Samsung sent us a similarly non-committal response:

The current volatility of the semiconductor market is being felt across the entire technology industry and beyond. At Samsung, we are making our best efforts to mitigate the impact, and will continue to work diligently with our partners to overcome supply challenges.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s too early to declare the Galaxy Fold 3 the heir to the Note’s decade-long phablet throne. What is for certain, however, is that new features introduced for the Galaxy S line and the company’s high-end foldable have rendered the device fairly redundant. What seems most likely, meanwhile, is Samsung’s wait and see approach. A good selling Fold 3 is as compelling an argument for the Note’s redundancy as any. But that continues to be a big “if.”

Samsung was smart to position early Folds as exciting experiments. It’s never easy to be among the first to market with a new technology, especially with the sorts of scales Samsung tends to trade in. The original Fold brought with it some major questions, both in terms of reliability and adoption. Without retreading the former too much here (we’ve written plenty about it), let’s just say the company went back to the drawing board a couple of times with that first round.

As for the latter, the company revealed back in 2019 that it sold one million units that first year. It was a surprising — and impressive — figure. Obviously it can’t hold a candle to the sorts of numbers the company puts up with the S and Note Series, but for an unproven $2,000 device a few months after launch, it was certainly a positive sign that — at the very least — early adopters were along for the ride.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Fold 2 found the company more directly addressing some of the biggest issues that arrived with its predecessor, making for a more robust and well-rounded device. The Fold 3 isn’t a radical departure by any stretch, but there are some key updates and refinements on board here. Top-level, here’s what’s new:

  • S-Pen support
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • Slightly larger external display
  • Under-display camera
  • Strengthened interior screen protector, frame and front glass

So what, precisely, does all of that add up to? For Samsung, the answer is simple: a new flagship. It’s one of those words in the mobile world with a bit of a floating definition. Samsung, after all, previously had two flagships, in the form of the S and Note series. Whether this a tech passing moment for the Note or a declaration of a third flagship for the Galaxy line is dependent on the words written above. What it does signal, however, is Samsung’s stated confidence that this is the moment its high-end foldable goes mainstream.

The first step toward mainstreaming the product is a no brainer. Price. The Fold 3 is still not, by any stretch of the imagination, an affordable device. At $1,800, it’s fittingly still the price of two flagship phones put together. But a $200 drop from its predecessor marks a considerable step in the right direction. One imagines/hopes things will continue to go down as Samsung is able to scale the tech further. Those seeking an “affordable” foldable should be taking a closer look at the new Flip, which actually ducks below the $1,000 price point. More on that in a later review.

There are bound to be issues with any new form factor — even one from a company with Samsung’s know how. I have this visceral memory of walking around gingerly with the original Fold for fear of breaking the thing. There’s a certain expectation of usage during the review process — that you’ll effectively treat the device as you would your own, but the earliest Fold didn’t afford that opportunity, leaving me a bit tense throughout that I might inadvertently damage the $2,000 phone.

And, well, I did. And I certainly wasn’t the first. There were enough issues to warrant reinforcing the device before sending it out into the broader world. It was the right move, to be sure. I don’t think anyone was expecting the Fold would be indestructible, but, again, there’s that expectation of standard usage that the earliest unit didn’t live up to.

The primary fix was two-fold: extending the protective film to the edges after the first looked far too similar to the removable screen protectors Samsung (and other) phones ship with, and second, the company added a brush mechanism to the interior of the hinge mechanism that would still allow some debris in, but would sweep it away through the process of opening the product. That would remove it before it had an opportunity to damage the screen.

The second generation upgraded to a more durable foldable glass. The new version extends those protections further. It is, notably, the first version of the Fold that doesn’t greet you with a laundry list of restrictions the moment you open the box. That’s a good sign. As a rule, I’d say users should probably adhere to a similar “normal usage.” And probably invest in one of those cases. It’s an $1,800 phone, after all.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The most notable addition on the durability front is the IPX8 rating. That’s water resistance for up to 1.5 meters for as long as 30 minutes. The company’s foldables line was a little slow on the uptake in terms of the sort of waterproofing/water resistance that has become nearly standard for premium phones — and understandably so, given the complex mechanisms required. The “X” in the rating, however, indicates that there’s no dustproofing here, for the simple reason that the hinge is actually designed to let particles in (as noted above).

The front and back of the device are now covered with Gorilla Glass Victus — Corning’s latest. Per Corning, “In our lab tests, Gorilla Glass Victus survived drops onto hard, rough surfaces from up to 2 meters. Competitive aluminosilicate glasses, from other manufacturers, typically fail when dropped from 0.8 meters. Additionally, the scratch resistance of Gorilla Glass Victus is up to 4x better than competitive aluminosilicate.” The phone’s body and hinge, meanwhile, are built out of alloy Samsung calls “Armor aluminum, which it claims is “the strongest aluminum used in modern smartphones.”

Perhaps most important of all is the inclusion of a stronger reinforced screen protector that extends further to the sides, making it a lot more difficult and less tempting to try to peel it off. The added protection is necessary both for standard usage (you really don’t want a phone that’s going to get damaged from too much tapping) and opens it up for S Pen functionality. The company now has three lines that utilize its stylus and all of the productivity features contained therein.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In addition to the S Pen Pro, the company introduced a Fold-specific model. The $50 stylus is smaller and features a retractable tip, specifically designed to lessen the pressure on the screen. I played around with both styli and didn’t notice a dramatic difference between the two, and while Samsung doesn’t explicitly warn against using the Pro, I’d go for the Fold Edition out of an abundance of caution. (The system also issues a warning if you attempt to use an older version of the S-Pen.)

The company offered TechCrunch the following statement on stylus compatibility:

Only the latest S Pen Fold Edition and S Pen Pro are compatible as they are set to a different frequency than standard S Pens. However, S Pen Pro is compatible with other S Pen-enabled devices—such as Samsung Galaxy tablets, Chromebooks, and smartphones. Users can switch the frequency of the S Pen Pro using the switch at the top.

The 7.6-inch canvas lends itself well to S-Pen functionality. Of course, the Fold — like other foldables — still has a visible crease in the center. That takes some getting used to, compared to the Note. But if you’re a stylus devotee, the functionality fits in well with a growing suite of productivity tools like multiple active windows and app split view. Samsung has compiled quite a productivity workhouse here.

Of course, unlike the Note (and like the S line), the Fold doesn’t feature a built-in slot for the S Pen. It seems likely there may have been some structural integrity issues barring its inclusion — or, at the very least, it probably would have added even more thickness to what is already a fairly thin device when folded up. Samsung does offer up an S Pen case for those serious about taking their stylus with them — and are otherwise worried about losing it.

The primary display hasn’t changed much since last year. It’s still 7.6 inches with a 120Hz refresh rate and a 2208 x 1768 resolution, with support for HDR10+. The 6.2-inch front screen doesn’t have the high dynamic range format, though it has been bumped up to 120Hz from 60Hz. The Fold 2 upgraded the exterior screen size last year, and it makes a big difference. There are plenty of times you just don’t want to deal with unfolding the thing. The aspect ratio is still much to skinny to rely on it most of the time, but App Continuity is a nice feature that lets you seamlessly jump between screens on enabled apps.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest addition on the screen front is more of a subtraction, really. The pinhole camera is gone from the main screen. In its place is an under-display camera — the first on a Samsung device. The technology has been a longstanding holy grail for companies. Samsung’s not the first to offer the feature — companies like Oppo and ZTE have sported the feature for a little while now. The Fold uses similar technology, applying a thin layer of pixels above the hole punch. The spot is still visible, particularly when there’s a white image on the screen, but at first blush, it does offer something more contiguous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

If you follow the space at all, you know that the image performance of these cameras have been less than ideal thus far. And Samsung suffers the same fate. The above shots were taken on the front 10-megapixel and under-display four-megapixels cameras respectively. There’s a haze or blur on the under-screen camera — really not up to the standards we expect from a premium smartphone in 2021.

In an earlier conversation with Samsung, the company was pretty candid about this — and the reason the Fold is the first of its phones to sport the tech. It’s here because you’ve got the additional option of the front-facing camera for selfies, so you’re not reliant on a, frankly, subpar camera. Certainly I wouldn’t rely on it for shooting photos — which is already admittedly awkward with the large form factor. I suppose it can work for teleconferencing in a pinch, but even then, you’re probably better off with the front one. File it as something Samsung can improve on in future updates, as the underlying tech improves.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The main camera system, meanwhile, is largely unchanged since the last version at:

  • 12MP Ultra Wide. F2.2, Pixel size: 1.12μm, FOV: 123-degree
  • 12MP Wide-angle. Dual Pixel AF, OIS, F1.8, Pixel size: 1.8μm, FOV: 83-degree
  • 12MP Telephoto. PDAF, F2.4, OIS, Pixel size: 1.0μm, FOV: 45-degree

It’s a great camera setup that shoots excellent photos, with the added bonus of being able to switch between a 7.6 and 6.2 inch viewfinder (honestly, again, the full screen is kind of awkward for shooting in most scenarios, so I largely stuck with the smaller one).

The battery meanwhile, takes a small hit, down from 4,500mAh to 4,400mAh, split between two modules behind the display halves. It’s a step in the wrong direction, if only a small one. A big device like this tends to be power hungry. Depending on your usage, you should be able to get through a day. That’s not going to be huge problem so long as many of us are still largely stuck at home, but probably not something you’re going to sit around and binge videos on all day without plugging it in.

Naturally, the Fold sports the latest Snapdragon — the 888. That’s coupled with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage on the model Samsung sent us. Doubling the storage will bring the price tag up to $1,900.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s been impressive to watch Samsung take the Fold from troubled early adopter tech to something far more stable in the course of two generations. But while the company is ready to toss around words like mainstream in the context of its foldables, it’s hard to shake the feeling that such goals are still a long ways away.

The price is heading in the right direction, but the product is still prohibitively expensive for most. I certainly can’t answer the question of why you need such a product, though the advantages of a larger screen make themselves known pretty quickly. In many instances, the form factor is still a bit cumbersome.

If the Galaxy Note is suddenly redundant, the fault lays more with the Galaxy S series than the Fold. And if Samsung is looking for a truly mainstream foldable experience, it may want to take a longer look at the Galaxy Z Flip. In terms of size, price, flexibility and good looks, that’s looking like the one to beat. Review coming soon.

#foldables, #galaxy-fold, #hardware, #reviews, #samsung, #samsung-galaxy-z-fold-3

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic: A well-rounded smartwatch

For smartwatches, it’s Apple against the world. Per recent numbers from CounterPoint, the Apple Watch commanded more than one-third of global shipments in Q1. Samsung/Tizen’s own market share is a distant — but respectable — second place, with 8%. With Google’s Wear OS at fifth place at just under 4%, it’s easy to see both companies — utterly dominant in other categories — are itching for competitive advantages.

For Google, the answer is two-fold. First, the Fitbit acquisition effectively doubles its existing market. Convincing Samsung to return to Wear OS after a long time in the Tizen woods. For Samsung, a return to the Google operating system made sense from the standpoint of developer access — and the resulting apps. And hey, if it means Google gets to deal with the underlying support issues, that’s all the better.

From a pure market share standpoint, Samsung has the clear upper hand here. And while building out its own version of Tizen hasn’t necessarily caught the world on fire, it has helped the electronic giant secure a solid second place. Clearly if the company was going to return to Google, it would need to do so on its own terms.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Following an announcement at Google I/O that the two companies were once again working together in the smartwatch category, Samsung finally unveiled the first fruit of that labor last week, in the form of the Galaxy Watch 4. The new wearable, available in both the standard and Classic form, runs “Wear OS Powered by Samsung.” What that means in practical terms is that Samsung worked closely with Google to build out a customized version of Wear OS — one that, effectively, looks, swims and quacks like Tizen.

It’s an effort to make a leap to a robust — if struggling — wearable OS ecosystem, without losing the familiarity of the experience Samsung spent years building out. And honestly, I’m here for it. The Samsung/Google team-up has done a fine job determining what works about their respective ecosystems and building out an experience that pulls from the best of both. It’s an ideal situation for Google, certainly, and one the company would no doubt benefit from by recruiting other big hardware makers — though none has anywhere near Samsung’s momentum in the category.

That’s coupled with several generations of hardware iteration and health improvements that go a long way toward making the Galaxy Watch 4 one of the few smartwatches that can truly go head to head with Apple. And like Apple, the new wearable is explicitly tied to the Samsung ecosystem — after all, even the other week was nothing if not an ecosystem play.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new Galaxy Buds are arguably the best earbuds for a Samsung user, and the same can be said for the company’s solid new smartwatch. As much as the company is opening things up to third parties by way of Wear OS (fewer than Apple, but a step in the right direction), this is still decidedly a Samsung smartwatch that works best with first-party Samsung apps on Samsung’s mobile hardware. It’s the sort of gamble you can take when you’re the No. 1 smartphone maker in the world. Let the Huaweis, Garmins and Fitbits fight for the rest of the non-iOS market.

As with its smartphones and earbuds, the Galaxy Watch line hasn’t always been the most straightforward, in terms of how things break down. The company has flirted with different models and SKUs over the years, but I think it’s finally hit on a setup that makes sense. Effectively, the lower-end, haptic bezeled Galaxy Watch Active is now the standard Galaxy Watch, and the standard Galaxy Watch is now the Galaxy Watch Classic.

Now that I’ve typed that, I recognize that it’s not as straightforward as it sounded in my head. Basically it breaks down thusly: Galaxy Watch 4 = thinner, lighter, sportier. Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is a bit classier looking, trading the digital bezel for Samsung’s trademark rotating hardware bezel.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’ve said it before and I’ll say again: The spinning bezel is Samsung’s ace in the hole. It’s the place where the company unequivocally has Apple beat in the smartwatch category. Apple’s crown is fine, but the bezel is currently the best way to navigate a smartwatch interface. I was, frankly, baffled when the company ditched it for the Galaxy Watch 2 in favor of a digital version. The company clearly thought better of it, bringing it back for the 3.

If you read my earlier review, you know my biggest sticking point with earlier Samsung watches was size. The things were giant. I’m not a small man, nor do I possess an abnormally small wrist, but even I had issues walking around with them on. Some people like big, clunky watches, but only making these devices available in the one size is severely limiting your potential audience right out of the gate.

Thankfully, you’ve got a number of choices here. The Galaxy Watch is available in 40mm and 44mm versions ($250 and $300, respectively), while the Classic comes in 42mm and 46mm ($350 and $380, respectively). You’re already talking about a pretty sizable premium for what mostly amounts to design differences. Add LTE onto the classic and you’re talking $379 and $429. Of course, that still compares favorably to the Apple Watch Series 6’s $399 starting price.

I opted to go somewhere in the middle, with the 42mm Galaxy Watch Classic. Having worn the device for several days now, I’m feeling pretty good about the choice. Given the design, I’m fairly certain the 46mm would have been too much watch for my day to day use. And certainly it would have been too large to attempt to sleep in.

I’m still curious how the 44mm version of the standard Watch would have fit, but if you’ve got the choice of rotating bezel, go for rotating bezel. A 40mm version of the Classic would be a nice option for users with smaller wrists looking for that functionality, but Samsung’s heading in the right direction here, with four distinct sizes.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Like much of the competition, Samsung is leading with health offerings here. I’ve been trying to up my exercise game, a year and half into the pandemic, and the watch does a solid job with workout detection. It’s about on par with the Apple Watch, in terms of auto detecting walks and runs. I’ve gotten into the rowing machine at the gym of late, and it does a solid job there, as well. It understandably is considerably more difficult with my morning HIIT routines, and yoga was a wash, so you’re best starting those manually, unless you’re using one of the company’s connected routines.

There’s an ECG on-board to detect heart irregularities. It’s a quickly standardizing tool that many medical professionals have begun to recommend for detecting early heart issues. Body Composition is a standout new feature here that offers key health metrics like skeletal muscle, body water, metabolic rate and body fat percentage by placing two fingers on the device.

Sleep tracking offers solid insight, including blood oxygen, light/deep/rem and total sleep score (hint, mine is low). If you’re able/willing to sleep with your phone near you, the app will also let you know how much time you’ve been snoring during the night. Taken together, the numbers can offer some good, actionable insight into your sleeping patterns.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, wearing a watch to sleep is not only a matter of comfort — it’s also a matter of battery life. The life on the Watch Classic is okay — I was able to go a day and a half of standard to light usage. That’s enough to do fitness and sleep tracking, assuming you can find some time in the morning or around lunch to charge it up again. Perfectly acceptable for most usage, but not really anything to write home about.

All of these elements add up to a solid smartwatch experience. The Galaxy Watch 4 is the best smartwatch for Samsung users, and there’s a strong case to be made for it being the best Android-compatible smartwatch, period.

 

#galaxy-watch, #hardware, #reviews, #samsung, #samsung-galaxy-watch-4, #smartwatch, #wear-os, #wearables

Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 review: Getting out of their own way

Earlier this year, Nothing launched the Ear (1) with a grand idea: earbuds as fashion accessories. Sure, the company talked a lot about the non-invasiveness of transparent design, but at the end of the day, the product’s launch on StockX betrayed a focus on the fashion forward.

In that respect, Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds 2 are the anti-Nothing. They’re almost aggressively unassuming in their approach. It’s in keeping with previous generations of Buds, but still in stark — and refreshing — contrast for a company that prides itself on creating some of the world’s most ostentatious smartphones. Look no further than the two (!) new foldables launched along with the headphones at the Unpacked event.

Samsung’s almost casual approach to its headphones is something of a mixed blessing. The company could certainly be clearer with the branding of what seems to be an ever-shifting lineup of models. I asked for clarification of how things break down ahead of this week’s launch, and the company responded thusly:

As our premium offering, the Galaxy Buds Pro leverage cutting-edge technology to deliver immersive audio, intelligent Active noise cancelling, and effortless connectivity. For those looking to show off their unique style, the Galaxy Buds Live combine high quality sound with an eye-catching design.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, the short answer is there are three versions of Galaxy Buds on the market: Buds 2, Buds Pro and Buds Live. The above quote should confirm any suspicion you may have had that the new $149 version of the entry-level Buds make the $170 Buds Live Buds more or less redundant. Barring some major upgrade, they’re probably not long for this world, leaving a clearer two-level offering of the Buds 2 and the higher-end Buds Pro.

I’ve mentioned this before — the world of wireless earbuds were quick to reach a consensus of “pretty good.” Frankly, you’d have to go out of your way to find a bad pair for over $100. And for many or most intents and purposes, I’m inclined to recommend people go with a pair made by the company that made their phone. There’s a definite market advantage in having direct access to a device’s hardware and software.

That, of course, is a decided advantage for a company with as massive a global market share as Samsung. And the Galaxy Buds 2 are the epitome of “pretty good” in the pretty good way. They’re not flashy, and with a design that’s 15% smaller and 20% lighter than the already compact original Galaxy Buds, they’re designed to practically disappear, with minimal surface area exposed.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The size and shape makes for an extremely comfortable pair of buds. I’m not sure why I’m blessed with the gift of ear pain with roughly half of the earbuds I try out, but these are ergonomic and designed for the long haul. There’s enough surface area to access the touch control on the exposed side. The biggest downside to the small size is there’s really no way to adjust them in your ear without accidentally triggering that touch. That became a nuisance when I constantly found myself adjusting them to deal with sweaty ears during a run — a bad time to have to worry about dealing with music controls.

The sound is solid, courtesy of Samsung subsidiary AKG. Not exceptional, but pretty much exactly what you need/want out of a pair of $149 buds. I was impressed with the active noise canceling, as well. A perfectly good, totally unexceptional experience — utilitarian, really. Again: in a good way. If better sound is a must, the Pros are an easy upgrade — or else, there’s Nura’s new buds or Sony’s, depending on how lavish you want get. The Buds Pro also bring features like 360 Audio — which is likely only a make-or-break for an exceedingly small number of potential buyers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Wireless charging for the case is a welcome touch, which along with ANC, catapults them above a number of other entry-level pairs. The battery is rated five hours with ANC and 7.5 with it off. The glassy little case bumps that up to a respectable 20 hours. The IPX2 water resistance, meanwhile, is good for sweat, but otherwise can be added to the list of things the company can improve next around.

All in all, it’s a pretty short list, however. The Galaxy Buds 2 are solid, unassuming and an easy addition for those in the Samsung Galaxy ecosystem.

 

 

#earbuds, #galaxy-buds, #galaxy-buds-2, #hardware, #reviews, #samsung, #wearables, #wireless-earbuds

Nothing Ear (1) review

Carl Pei says he looked around and saw a lot of the same. He’s not alone in that respect. Apple didn’t invent the fully wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of inflection point that sent many of its competitors hurtling toward a sort of homogeneity. You’d be hard-pressed to cite another consumer electronics category that matured and coalesced as quickly as Bluetooth earbuds, but finding something unique among the hordes is another question entirely.

These days, a pair of perfectly serviceable wireless earbuds are one click and $50 away. Spend $200, and you can get something truly excellent. But variety? That’s a different question entirely. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a bit rounder, there’s really not a lot of diversification. Up until recently, features like active noise canceling and wireless charging bifurcated the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but they’ve both become increasingly ubiquitous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you decided your first product is going to be a pair of earbuds. Where does that leave you? How are you going to not only differentiate yourself in a crowded market but compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google and Apple?

Price is certainly a factor, and $99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret pricing the Ear (1) at less than $100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say Nothing’s not exactly going to be cleaning up on every unit sold. And much like his prior company — OnePlus — he seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.

In a conversation prior to the Ear (1) launch, Pei’s take on the state of the industry was a kind of “feature glut.” Certainly, there’s been a never-ending spec race across different categories over the last several years. And it’s true that it’s getting more difficult to differentiate based on features — look at what smartphone makers have been dealing with the last several years. Wireless headphones, meanwhile, jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to “the actually pretty good” stage in record time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do think there’s still room for feature differentiation. Take the recently launched NuraTrue headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to arrive at earbuds, beginning with a specialized audio technology that it’s built three different headphone models around.

Pei noted in the Ear (1) launch presser that the company determined its aesthetic ideals prior to deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, its partnership with the design firm Teenage Engineering was announced well before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Pei’s grandmother’s tobacco pipe).

There are other ideals, as well — concepts about ecosystems, but those are the sorts of things that can only come after the release of multiple products. In the meantime, we’ve seen the product from all angles. I’m wearing the product in the ears and holding it in my hand (though I’m putting it down now; too hard to type).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stems to the white buds from which they protrude. You can’t say that they’re entirely their own thing in that respect. But perhaps a case can be made that the nature of fully wireless earbuds is, in and of itself, limiting in the manner of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they need to sit comfortably in your ears, and they can’t be too big or too heavy or protrude too much.

According to Pei, part of the product’s delayed launch was due to the company going back to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they ultimately arrived at was something recognizable as a pair of earbuds, while offering some unique flourishes. Transparency is the primary differentiator from an aesthetic standpoint. It comes into play in a big way with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency happens on the stems.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a vacuum, the buds look a fair bit like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason the entire buds aren’t transparent, as early renderings showed, is a simple and pragmatic one: the components in the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the product’s eventual delay: making a gadget clear requires putting thought into how things like components and glue look. It’s the same reason why there’s a big white strip in the middle of an otherwise clear case: charging components are ugly (sorry/not sorry).

It’s a potential recipe for overly busy design, but I think the team landed on something solid — and certainly distinctive. That alone should account for something in the homogeneous world of gadget design. And the company’s partnership with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the sorts of early adopters/influencers Nothing is going after here.

The Ear (1) buds are a lot more welcoming than any of the style-first experiments Will.i.am made in the category. And while they’re distinct, they don’t really stand out in the wild — which is to say, no one’s going to scream and point or stop you in the street to figure what’s going on with your ears (sorry, Will).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Ultimately, I dig the look. There are nice touches, as well. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buds, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, bringing to mind circuit board printing. The letter extends to most of Nothing’s branding. It’s clear the design was masterminded by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with supply-chain vendors. Notably, the times I spoke to Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, hammering out last-minute supply issues.

The buds feel really great, too. I’ve noted my tendency to suffer from ear pain wearing various earbud designs for extended periods. On Monday, I took a four hour intra-borough walk and didn’t notice a thing. They also stayed in place like champs on visits to the gym. And not for nothing, but there’s an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you place them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle, if you please). If it wasn’t clear, it might closely resemble a tin of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when shutting. Will be curious to see how well that stands up after several hundred — or thousand — openings and closings.

Though the company says it put the product through all of the standard drop and stress tests, it warns that even the strongest transparent plastic is still prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says that kind of battle scarring will ultimately be part of its charm, but the jury’s still out on that one. After a few days and no keys in close proximity, I have one long scratch across the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.

A large concave circle on the top helps keep the lid from slamming into the earbuds when closing. It’s also a nice spot to put your thumb when fiddling around with the thing. I suspect it doubles to relieve some of that fidgeting we (I) usually release by absentmindedly flipping a case lid up and down. It’s a small, but thoughtful touch. Round back, you’ll find the USB-C charging port and Bluetooth sync button.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On iOS, you’ll need to connect the buds both through the app and in the Bluetooth settings the first time. There are disadvantages when you don’t make your own operating system, chips and phones in addition to earbuds. That’s a minor (probably one-time) nuisance, though.

The Ear (1) are a decent sounding pair of $99 headphones. I won’t say I was blown away, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t really go head-to-head with, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These aren’t audiophile headphones, but they’re very much suitable for walking around the city, listening to music and podcasts.

The app offers a built-in equalizer tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: balanced, more treble/more bass, and voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but pretty subtle, as far as these things go. As far as equalizer customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLR, as Nothing doesn’t want you straying too far from the intended balance. After experimenting with all of the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.

There are three ANC settings, as well: noise cancellation, transparency and off. You can also titrate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. On the whole, the ANC did a fine job erasing a fair bit of street noise on my New York City walks, though even at heavy, it’s not going to, say, block out the sound of a car altogether. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.

There’s also a built-in “find my earbud” setting that sends out a kind of piercing chirp so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped beneath your couch cushion.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My big complaint day today is one I encountered with the NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection dropouts. It’s a bit annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re a lot less likely to encounter for those companies that build their own buds, phone, chips and operating systems. It’s a pretty tough thing to compete with for a brand-new startup.

I have quibbles, and in spite of months of excited teases, the Ear (1) buds aren’t going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a new company enter the consumer hardware space — and deliver a solid first product out of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a nice price from a company worth keeping an eye on.

#airpods, #bluetooth, #carl-pei, #ear-1, #earbuds, #hardware, #nothing, #reviews, #teenage-engineering, #wireless-earbuds

Nura finally goes fully wireless with the NuraTrue buds

As I write this, I have no fewer than five recently reviewed earbuds sitting on the desk in front of me. And you know what? They’re all pretty good. Some are better than others, of course — that’s why they invented gadget reviews. But as far as consumer electronics go, the category seemed to mature — and the products became ubiquitous — virtually overnight.

Nearly every hardware maker has entered the category — some several times over. You can get a truly great pair for over $200 and a pretty decent one for under $100. There’s a broad range in quality across that spectrum, of course. But features? A few things, here and there, but on the whole, earbuds settled into a similar sort of homogeneity as smartphones before them.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Differentiation was certainly a big topic during today’s launch of Nothing’s Ear (1). It’s also been a core part of Nura’s DNA since the beginning. But where a company like Nothing views its earbuds as the first piece in a larger ecosystem, Nura is, simply put, a headphone company. And there’s a pretty simple reason behind that. Everything Nura does is built around its audio technology — something that’s held true since before I had the opportunity to try the original Nuraphones as a prototype with a big, unsightly circuit board attached.

Announced today, NuraTrue mark the company’s third entry into the headphone market, following the over-ear Nuraphones and the tethered Nuraloop. The “true,” one assumes, refers to the truly wireless design, abandoning the behind-the-neck design that gave last year’s Nuraloop their name.

The decision to launch earbuds with a wire seemed an odd one at the $199 price point four years after Apple released the first AirPods (the year Nura was founded). There were some practical technical concerns, and Nura made the most of them with a magnetic connector that lets them double as wired headphones/monitors (something I appreciated when I still took a couple plane rides a month).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

When I put the question of going fully wireless to Nura co-founder Dragan Petrovic, he answered,

We wanted to release a fully wireless product only once we could ensure an outstanding user experience and (most importantly) outstanding sound quality. Fully wireless earbuds have been around for about 5 years now, but only recently has the underlying technology matured to the point of being able to do justice to the music. These improvements were delivered by the wireless chip providers, which is why many of the fully wireless products that have come out this year are considerably better than what was available before. For NuraTrue, we took the finally mature wireless technology provided by the chip makers and added Nura’s (or rather, the listener’s) personalized sound to deliver the best sound quality in the most convenient form factor.

While it’s true that everyone and their uncle has offered their own take on the category, Nura’s entry wasn’t as simple as pulling together some off-the-shelf components. The company offers one of the more unique listening experiences, courtesy of on-board technology that beams sound into the wearer’s ear and reads back the faint transmissions that return.
Per Nura,

Encoded in the returning sound wave is information about how well you heard the sound that went in. The Nuraphone uses an extremely sensitive microphone to detect this returning sound wave, and a self-learning engine built into the Nuraphone to create your profile. No buttons or knobs. It all happens automatically and in about 60 seconds. It is a little bit magic.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The experience is the same across the three devices, so we’ve written about it a few times. Essentially the system creates a sort of custom sonic fingerprint based on the reading it gets back and uses that to adjust the settings according. It does feel like a bit of wizardry the first time you try it, especially when you flip back and forth between the default and custom settings.

The original Nuraphones quickly became one of my most recommended headphones — a solid accomplishment for such a young hardware startup. Since the launch of the original over-ear headphones, however, I’ve been waiting to see what the company might be able to do in a fully wireless form factor. And on most accounts, I’d say the NuraTrue are a success.

The great sound is largely intact — a solid accomplishment. There are nuances you’ll hear in these headphones that you too often miss in comparably priced tech — subtle details that get lost in the mix with less balanced headphones. Of course, you’ll continue to lose other nuances depending on the source of the music you’re listening to. What Nura’s able to do is impressive, but not miraculous.

You do, obviously, lose something with the smaller size. The Nurphones’ big differentiator is the addition of a powerful, tactile bass, courtesy of the ear cups. This experience is accomplished to some extent by the immersion slider in the app, which is designed to adjust the experiential level provided by the buds. But again, there’s no replacing the cocooning effect of the over-ear cups.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

But listen, at this point I think we all implicitly understand that different form factors offer different compromises. Otherwise, we would only have one style of headphone. The NuraTrue are quite light — I was actually surprised, given their size. Each bud weighs 7.4 grams. They’re also extremely comfortable. As with other Nura products, the headphones will detect whether you have a tight seal when doing the initial testing. Of its three products, however, the NuraTrue gave me the least problems on that front.

As someone who frequently experiences ear pain from different buds, they’ve not given me an issue wearing them around effectively all day. The weight distribution and a design that you basically twist into your ear means they stay put quite well. I’ve had no issues with them falling out at the gym or on a few short runs.

The active noise canceling is decent. It’s not industry-leading by any stretch, but it gets the job done for sure. It’s a bit of an annoyance, however, that you have to go into the app to toggle it on and off — as well as the immersion feature. These things, coupled with the fundamental importance of sound profiles means the buds are tied to their app a lot more than other earbuds. It’s the price you pay for being different, I suppose.

The battery is rated at six hours on the buds and 24 with the case factored in. There’s no superfast charging here — it takes about 2.5 hours to get the case’s 500 mAh battery from zero to full. Likely that won’t be an issue unless you never remember to charge the thing or you’re planning to go on a couple of long-haul flights. The inclusion of four battery lights on the front of the case is a nice touch.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My biggest complaint here is a bit of a surprise to me. A majority of the headphones I’ve tested recently haven’t had any Bluetooth connectivity issues. Honestly, I’d thought we’d moved past that. While the NuraTrue isn’t using the latest version of Bluetooth (5.2), the 5.0 it does uses is the same version found in, say, the AirPods Pro (Apple, of course, has the decided advantage of making its own phone, operating system and chips). The connection is fine around the house, but I’ve experienced drops while walking around that I haven’t with other recent pairs.

It’s more annoying than end of the world, but it’s worth keeping in mind — and certainly something the company should consider addressing for gen 2. The built-in  microphone also left something to be desired, creating distortion when I took calls.

As from those, there’s really not a lot to complain about. The NuraTrue are well rounded (figuratively and literally), comfortable, and the company’s sound profiling technology is enough of a standout feature to set them apart from an army of similar buds. For my own specific needs, I’d say they also make the Nuraloop largely redundant, though Petrovic tells me, the company is keeping the product around as it, “complement[s] our product portfolio by offering things that no true wireless product has, most importantly 16+ hours of battery life, and the ability to connect to an analog audio jack.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Fair enough on those two points. Again, if any headphone did everything, there wouldn’t be much point in variety. On the whole, I do think NuraTrue carry the far broader appeal for a majority of users. The ability to hardwire has its appeal but is pretty limited for most of us at this point. And 16 hours of battery built-in is great, but most of the time six on the bud and 24 with the case should suffice.

Mostly, it’s just nice to see a legit hardware startup continue to make some waves in the consumer space by taking on the big names with differentiated technology. In the earliest days, I’d imagined Nura would get snapped up by a Samsung or Apple, but I’m glad the company opted to go its own way.

#hardware, #headphones, #nura, #reviews

VanMoof X3 e-bike review: Transportation revelation

Like some of the best consumer tech from the last decade, I didn’t know I needed an e-bike until I was on one, breezing down the bike lane contemplating my newfound freedom.

Before buying a Nintendo Switch, I would have never guessed how much a candy-colored gaming console that I could pop out of a dock and into my backpack for long flight would fill me with joy. An e-bike, particularly this e-bike, the VanMoof X3, feels like that.

I live in Portland, Oregon, land of ample bike lanes and naked bike rides. When I first moved here, I biked everywhere, but that habit slowly dissolved over the years. First, I bought a car for weekend camping trips, which slowly became weekday errand running.

A few years later, I got diagnosed with a chronic illness and suddenly found myself much less confident in what my body could do and where it could comfortably take me. Over time, my bike would only see a handful of rides a season on beautiful days, when I’d always sigh and think I wish I biked more — it makes me feel good!

Before testing the X3, I’d find excuses to drive short distances instead of riding my bike. What if I got tired and didn’t feel like biking home? What if it starts pouring rain? What’s if it’s too hot? What if I’m too sweaty when I get to the office? Riding an e-bike erases most of those concerns outright.

The X3 is an effortless enough ride that I can still zoom to work if it’s 95+ degrees out. It’s fast enough that I can get out of a surprise rainstorm quickly if need be. If I don’t want to be sweaty at the start of the day, I can lean on sweet, sweet electricity to whisk me away, rolling up to my office without breaking a sweat.

And it can’t go unstated that going fast on a bike — the whole time, with as much or little effort as you feel like putting in — is really, really fun. If you haven’t had a chance to try an e-bike, know that the sensation of effortlessly zipping around, electricity near-imperceptibly humming beneath you, is difficult to describe and best experienced first-hand.

VanMoof’s handsome pair of high tech bikes, the X3 and its larger cousin the S3, are far from the only options on the market, so some of their pluses would hold true for any electric bike. But that doesn’t make the VanMoof interchangeable either. The VanMoof X3 has a very specific look, feel and feature set that will perfectly suit a certain kind of rider (myself included) but other e-bike shoppers will still want to play the field. We’ll get into that — here goes!

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Matrix display shows battery life, speed and other key info.

APPEARANCE

I tested the VanMoof X3 over the S3 not by choice — its geometry is a little wacky looking in pictures — but because I’m 5’4″. The X3, which fits anybody from 5′-6’5″, is a little smaller and less traditional looking than the S3, which suits anyone taller than 5’8″. The X3 has 24″ wheels rather than the S3’s 28″ wheels and it has a little bungee-corded platform in the front where presumably you could carry something, but I still have no idea what (You can also buy an add-on front basket that slots in there and looks very cute.)

Like most e-bikes, the X3 is much, much heavier than a normal road or commuter bike. The listed weight is 45.8 lbs and you’ll feel every pound of it if you ever need to carry it very far. I live in a standalone house in Portland, Oregon and had to carry the X3 down a very short front step to ride it — totally fine!

I used to live in a fifth floor walkup in Brooklyn and carrying it up or down that would have been impossible. If you can’t store the X3 (or most any e-bike) around ground level with access to a charger, it might not be a good fit for you. (Note that in our pictures, the small platform above the chain area is where an optional external battery pack, discussed later, sits. The platform is removable.)

Though on paper I’d prefer the look of the S3, the X3 doesn’t look strange at all IRL, whether parked or with somebody riding it. It’s cute, futuristic but not conspicuous and gets plenty of compliments. My wife described its aesthetic as “Death Star chic” and while I don’t totally know what that means, she’s not wrong. On the way to my office a sanitation truck driver rolled down his window to bellow “HEY—THAT’S A REALLY COOL BIKE.” Thanks, my dude!

VanMoof X3 e-bike

The current generation of VanMoof e-bikes are coated in matte paint and you can choose between a classic, sexy matte black or a pleasantly cheery matte light blue. A previous version of the bikes used glossy coating, but apparently the matte is supposed to be more scratch resistant. The paint does seem pretty tough though it’s not totally bombproof. Somehow the handlebars picked up a little nick in the paint, though I still have no idea where it came from or what did it (owls?).

Something important to note is that neither the VanMoof X3 or S3 look like e-bikes. They don’t have an ugly bulge jutting out from the frame and the top tube and down tube are both thick but uniform — and not so thick you’d think twice about it.

The electronic components are nestled away in the frame and even the drivetrain is tucked away and enclosed. And while there’s a deeply cool LED matrix display embedded in the top tube, only the rider really sees it. For anyone looking for an e-bike that doesn’t scream e-bike!!!! the VanMoof is one of the best choices if not the best choice you could make. It’s an awesome looking bike — not just an awesome looking e-bike.

VanMoof X3 in the city of roses.

RIDING

The VanMoof X3 is a nice-looking bike — you get it. But what about, you know, the biking? I can confidently report that from the first time you hop on it to your twentieth commute to work, the X3 is an absolute joy to ride.

As an e-bike newcomer I had reservations. Would the electric assistance cheapen the magic of riding a bike? Do I really want a bike doing the shifting for me? As it turns out, quite the opposite and yes, absolutely.

The VanMoof X3 (and its sibling the S3) give you an electric boost while pedaling — you’ll still be pedaling but it feels enticingly easy and you’ll go faster with less effort. The bike also features a Turbo Boost button on the right-side handlebar that gives you a big boost on top of the smoother normal electronic assistance, up to 20 miles per hour in the U.S.

You can choose the amount of help that you want. Using the VanMoof app, which we’ll get to, or a physical button, you can select what level of power assist you’d like from zero to four. Zero is you pedaling a heavy-ass bike alone with no help (it sucks) and four makes everything feel so easy there’s almost no way to break a sweat.

In my time testing the bike, I’d use “two” when I felt like getting a bit of a workout with extra pep in my pedal, four when I was in a hurry to get to my co-working space in the mornings and three the rest of the time, like riding to brunch on a weekend. Being able to choose the level of pedal assistance is a huge perk and it makes the bike feel flexible for different uses.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

The kick lock button, back wheel and enclosed chain.

Whatever mode you’re on, the turbo boost button is a killer feature. It flattens steep hills and makes it feel way safer to zip across busy intersections where you’re not sure drivers are paying attention. It’s fun and awesome for safe, defensive city riding.

It takes a little bit to get used to the automatic electronic shifting but that’s silky smooth too. I initially assumed that, like many things that worked perfectly well before having some extraneous “smart” high-tech nonsense draped over them (fridges! lamps! vibrators!) the technology would fail just often enough to be a nuisance.

After a long period of testing, I can report that the X3 rides as smooth and seamless as ever. Every once in a while I’d crunch down on the pedal or a gear won’t catch right away but it’s super rare. You can even use the app to customize when the bike shifts up and down and it’s worth playing around with that to find something that feels just right.

What else? The X3’s maximum assisted speed is in the U.S. is 20 mph (32km/hr), but anyone in Europe will be limited to 15.5 mph (25km/hr). The U.S. speed feels great and it’s painless to get up to 20mph and maintain that speed with the X3 in a way I’d have to destroy my quads to manage otherwise, even on my zippy non-electric road bike.

Beyond that, the seat is very comfy and the ride is pleasantly upright and natural. After riding the X3 for a while I had a hard time going back to hunching over on my (adorable) little Bianchi and pined for the comfy ride I’d gotten so used to.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Tail light from the future.

VALUE

The VanMoof X3 is an excellent value, all things considered. The company has a weird habit of tinkering with its pricing, but after a redesign and a colossal price drop in 2020 ($3,398 to $1,998 at the time) the bikes feel very well priced. Now they’re retailing for $2,298 — $300 more than the previous price but still a fine deal for anyone looking for a very full-featured e-bike without spending more than around $2,000.

That’s not very much more than you’d spend on a regular bike, sans electricity and many, many cool bells and whistles. And if you’re into higher end bikes, it could even be a lot less. It’s also substantially less than the high end of e-bike competition, which the VanMoof bikes feel like they compete with, even with the wallet-friendlier price tag.

Still, it’s kind of stressful that VanMoof is quietly messing around with the pricing with the bikes already out in the wild. It would suck to plan to buy one only to see the price shoot up before you’d pulled the trigger.

The company should be more transparent about this, giving set future dates for planned price changes. There also seem to be updates within generations of the bikes, so an X3 you buy now might differ from an X3 you could buy in 2020. That’s confusing and all of it should be made clearer somewhere obvious on the website.

vanmoof-app

The VanMoof app’s in-app ride tracking and summary stats.

RANGE

One of the biggest considerations with an e-bike (or an e-anything!) is range. VanMoof says the X3’s range is 37 miles using “full power” and up to 93 miles in economy mode. If you’re getting 93 miles out of the battery, you probably aren’t even using the pedal assistance at all, so you can just toss that number out. The low end estimate of 37 miles might be a little generous for someone who’s using the bike on the fourth power assistance level and smashing the turbo boost regularly, but 35-45 miles feels about right from my testing (usually mode 3 or 4, occasionally 2, light use of turbo button).

The range feels good. Even using the X3 most days out of the week, charging is infrequent enough to never feel annoying. In my case, that meant daily short rides (2.5-5 miles, usually) and the occasional longer ride (10-20 miles). If you’re using the X3 or S3 to commute to work somewhere that’s farther away, you’re going to find yourself plugging in more. Even so, I never got into a situation where I was concerned that I’d run out of battery far from home. And even if you do, you can still pedal the bike — it’s just really heavy. Most people will probably charge up overnight, but you can fill up the battery in four hours if you need to.

Something to note is that you’ll plug in a wall charger directly to the bike to charge it. For anyone who can’t charge and store the X3 on ground level, know you’ll have to carry the whole dang bike to an outlet. The lack of a removable battery might be a strike against the VanMoof bikes for folks who live in walk-ups or small apartments, but for people with somewhere easy to store it, this wasn’t something I thought twice about.

While the built-in range is totally adequate for a lot of use cases, VanMoof just introduced an external add-on battery pack for both the X3 and S3. The battery slots into a little platform, pictured below and mounted on our test bike, and it extends the X3’s range considerably. VanMoof sells the PowerBank accessory for $348. The thing isn’t small — it weighs six pounds — but VanMoof says it’ll give you anywhere from 28 to 62 miles of extra range. Again, almost nobody is going to hit the high end of this, but even at the low end it almost doubles the bike’s existing range.

External PowerBank via VanMoof

The PowerBank is big and pretty clunky. It doesn’t look awful, but it definitely makes the X3 look like an e-bike. It’s not elegant like the removable battery on the Cowboy, another extremely handsome e-bike, but it’s ok. If everything else about a VanMoof suits you perfectly but you need more range, it’s great to have the option, even if you’ll be shelling out for it.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

TECH FEATURES

The tech bells and whistles are something that really makes the VanMoof X3 and S3 stand out from the crowd. The X3’s price feels reasonable for a reliable, great-looking e-bike, but on top of that you’ll be getting an electric steed with some pretty sweet tricks:

  • Matrix display: On the bike’s top tube an array of LED lights built into the metal displays your speed, battery life and other useful info. This is a killer feature, it’s extremely cool!
  • Alarm. You can activate an alarm that will *literally growl* at anyone who jostles your bike. It’s intense and really loud.
  • Kick lock. You can kick a small physical button to alarm the bike and lock the back wheel. If you live in a city with bike theft, someone could still toss the bike in a truck easily so this isn’t a single security solution (use a normal lock!)
  • Find My on iOS. If you’re an iOS user you can track your bike’s whereabouts easily. It’s a nice feature, though ideally if your bike is well-locked you aren’t going to be messing with this much.

Vanmoof Find My iOS

VanMoof support for “Find My” app in iOS

  • Lights. The VanMoof X3 has great built-in lights, front and back.
  • App: Surprisingly, the app is actually pretty good. You can customize lots of small things (bell noise, alarm on or off, shifting preferences), use it to track your rides and more. You also don’t have to be connected to the bike with the app to do the most essential stuff, liking riding it, unlocking it and changing your level of electric assistance. I had an occasional connectivity problem with the app (usually on Android) but this was easily resolved and never kept me from biking anywhere, though it did mean some rides weren’t automatically tracked.

VanMoof X3 e-bike

Overall, something great about the X3 is that the tech features aren’t just fancy tricks — they really enhance the experience. And even so, they’re optional. You can ride the bike and benefit from the power assistance without using the app. You can use a regular lock and skip the alarm system if you choose to, or use a physical button code to disable it manually. You can change the power assistance mode with the same button. This is all huge and lets you use the e-bike how you want to. Personally, I’d never buy an e-bike that required connectivity, a phone or an app to operate it; that’s just asking for trouble.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Shipping and Assembly: The VanMoof X3 and S3 come in the mail in a big box. The assembly process was almost painless — except for this one really fiddly bit you have to slide into another fiddly bit which took me the better part of an hour and some searching on the VanMoof subreddit (not the only one with this problem!)

Extra Support: VanMoof offers three paid plans to keep your bike in working order and in your possession. You can buy a three-year maintenance plan for $348, a three-year theft recovery plan for $398 or a combined plan for $690 (broken down via VanMoof below).

VanMoof support plans

Maintenance: Where you live should be a major consideration when thinking about buying a VanMoof. In my time testing it for reliability over an extended period, I was surprised at how few problems came up. I had to mess around with re-centering the front wheel at some point because a brake pad was rubbing, but aside from occasional app connectivity issues, that was pretty much it. Of course, significant wear and tear means any bike could benefit from a pro tune up from someone who knows the model.

VanMoof has full-fledged stores in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Tokyo. Beyond its flagship stores, the company relies on an expanding network of service centers and “certified workshops” to maintain its bikes, so be sure to check what’s near you. Personally, I’d want to be near enough to a VanMoof store or at least a service center to guarantee my $2,000+ investment and its many, many technological bits could be maintained in perfect health. Nobody wants to ship a bike back for repairs, especially a heavy, technologically complex one.

Prior to testing out the X3, e-bikes aren’t something I’d thought a lot about. I first heard of VanMoof a couple of years ago when a close friend and much more serious biker than me bought one for towing her dog (the goodest girl) on a long work commute. We rode to the farmer’s market together and her bike looked very cool, but I was skeptical that something with so much technology under the hood could prove reliable over time.

Bikes are mechanical and simple — that’s something wonderful about them! Could an e-bike really translate the joyful simplicity of biking into something much more high tech? As it turns out, yes. After test riding the VanMoof X3 to get a sense of its reliability over time and how its features hold up in normal day-to-day use, I regret my early skepticism.

I don’t know if I can overstate how much riding an e-bike, specifically this e-bike, enhanced my life in small ways for the better while I tried it out. Biking more — and e-bikes do get people biking more — makes me happier and healthier. Biking more has helped me ease out of the intensely sedentary pandemic period into new habits that make me feel more connected to the world around me. I’m seeing my city with fresh eyes, biking to new neighborhoods I’ve never explored and appreciating all of the little things I took for granted. My only e-bike regret is not hopping on one sooner.

#android, #e-bike, #e-bikes, #electric-bicycle, #micromobility, #reviews, #tc, #transport, #transportation, #vanmoof

Kobo Elipsa review: A sized-up e-reading companion with clever note taking

Kobo’s Elipsa is the latest in the Amazon rival’s e-reading line, and it’s a big one. The 10.3-inch e-paper display brings it up to iPad dimensions and puts it in direct competition with the reMarkable and Boox’s e-reader tablets. It excels on reading experience, gets by on note-taking and drawing, but falls a bit short on versatility.

Kobo has been creeping upmarket for a few years now, and though the cheaper Clara HD is still the pick of the litter in my opinion, the Forma and Libra H2O are worthy competitors to the Kindle lines. The $400 Elipsa represents a big step up in size, function, and price, and it does justify itself — though there are a few important caveats.

The device is well designed but lacks any flourishes. The tilted “side chin” of the Forma and Libra is flattened out into a simple wide bezel on the right side. The lopsided appearance doesn’t bother me much, and much of the competition has it as well. (Though my favorite is Boox’s ultra-compact, flush-fronted Poke 3)

The 10.3″ screen has a resolution of 1404 x 1872, giving it 227 pixels per inch. That’s well below the 300 PPI of the Clara and Forma, and the typography suffers from noticeably more aliasing if you look closely. Of course, you won’t be looking that closely, since as a larger device you’ll probably be giving the Elipsa a bit more distance and perhaps using a larger type size. I found it perfectly comfortable to read on — 227 PPI isn’t bad, just not the best.

There is a frontlight, which is easily adjustable by sliding your finger up and down the left side of the screen, but unlike other Kobo devices there is no way to change the color temperature. I’ve been spoiled by other devices and now the default cool grey I lived with for years doesn’t feel right, especially with a warmer light shining on your surroundings. The important part is that it is consistent across the full display and adjustable down to a faint glow, something my eyes have thanked me for many times.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

It’s hard to consider the Elipsa independent from the accessories it’s bundled with, and in fact there’s no way to buy one right now without the “sleep cover” and stylus. The truth is they really complete the package, though they do add considerably to its weight and bulk. What when naked is lighter and feels smaller than a standard iPad is heavier and larger once you put its case on and stash the surprisingly weighty stylus at the top.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The cover is nicely designed, if a bit stiff, and will definitely protect your device from harm. The cover, secured by magnets at the bottom, flips off like a sheet on a legal pad and folds flat behind the device, attaching itself with the same magnets from the other direction. A couple folds in it also stiffen up with further magnetic arrangement into a nice, sturdy little stand. The outside is a grippy faux leather and the inside is soft microfiber.

You can wake and turn off the device by opening and closing the cover, but the whole thing comes with a small catch: you have to have the power button, charging port, and big bezel on the right. When out of its case the Elipsa can, like the others of its lopsided type, be inverted and your content instantly flips. But once you put it in the case, you’re locked in to a semi-right-handed mode. This may or may not bother people but it’s worth mentioning.

The Elipsa, center, with the Forma and reMarkable 2 to its left and right.

The reading experience is otherwise very similar to that on Kobo’s other devices. A relatively clean interface that surfaces your most recently accessed content and a not overwhelming but still unwelcome amount of promotional stuff (“Find your next great read”). Ebooks free and paid for display well, though it’s never been my preference to read on a large screen like this. I truly wish one of these large e-readers would make a landscape mode with facing pages. Isn’t that more booklike?

Articles from the web, synced via Pocket, look great and are a pleasure to read in this format. It feels more like a magazine page, which is great when you’re reading an online version of one. It’s simply, foolproof and well integrated.

Kobo’s new note-taking prowess

What’s new on the bottom row, though, is “Notebooks,” where unsurprisingly you can create notebooks for scribbling down lists, doodles, notes of course, and generally use the stylus.

The writing experience is adequate. Here I am spoiled by the reMarkable 2, which boasts extremely low lag and high accuracy, as well as much more expression in the line. Kobo doesn’t approach that, and the writing experience is fairly basic, with a noticeable amount of lag, but admirable accuracy.

There are five pen tips, five line widths, and five line shades, and they’re all fine. The stylus has a nice heft to it, though I’d like a grippier material. Two buttons on it let you quickly switch from the current pen style to a highlighter or eraser, where you have stroke-deleting or brush modes. The normal notebooks have the usual gridded, dotted, lined and blank styles, and unlimited pages, but you can’t zoom in or out (not so good for artists).

Then there are the “advanced” notebooks, which you must use if you want handwriting recognition and other features. These have indelible lines on which you can write, and a double tap captures your words into type very quickly. You can also put in drawings and equations in their own sections.

Handwriting is shown on the Elipsa tablet before and after conversion to typed text.

Close enough. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The handwriting recognition is fast and good enough for rough notes, but don’t expect to send these directly to your team without any editing. Likewise the diagram tool that turns gestural sketches of shapes and labels into finalized flowcharts and the like — better than the original wobbly art but still a rough draft. There are a few clever shortcuts and gestures to add or subtract spaces and other common tasks, something you’ll probably get used to fairly quick if you use the Elipsa regularly.

The notebook interface is snappy enough going from page to page or up and down on the “smart” notebooks but nothing like the fluidity of a design program or an art-focused one on an iPad. But it’s also unobtrusive, has good palm blocking, and feels nice in action. The lag on the line is definitely a con, but something you can get used to if you don’t mind the resulting product being a little sloppy.

A sketched diagram is turned into a real one by the Elipsa.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

You can also mark up ebooks, which is nice for highlights but ultimately not that much better than simply selecting the text. And there’s no way you’re writing in the margins with the limitations of this stylus.

Exporting notepads can be done via a linked Dropbox account or over USB connection. Again the reMarkable has a leg up here, for even if its app is a bit restrictive, the live syncing means you don’t ever have to worry about what version of what is where, as long as it’s in the system. On the Kobo it’s more traditional.

Compared to the reMarkable, the Kobo is really just an easier platform for everyday reading, so if you’re looking for a device that focuses on that and has the option of doodling or note-taking on the side, it’s a much better deal. On the other hand, those just looking for an improvement to that stylus-focused tablet should look elsewhere — writing and sketching still feels way better on a reMarkable than almost anything on the market. And compared with something like a Boox tablet, the Elipsa is more simple and focused, but doesn’t allow the opportunity of adding Android apps and games.

At $400 — though this includes a case and stylus — the Elipsa is a considerable investment and comparably priced to an iPad, which is certainly a more versatile device. But I don’t particularly enjoy reading articles or books on my iPad, and the simplicity of an e-reader in general helps me focus when I’m making notes on a paper or something. It’s a different device for a different purpose, but not for everyone.

It is however probably the best way right now to step into the shallow end of the “big e-reader” pool, with more complex or expensive options available should you desire them.

#e-ink, #e-paper, #e-readers, #ebooks, #elipsa, #ereaders, #gadgets, #hardware, #kobo, #kobo-elipsa, #reviews, #tc

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

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