Audient’s EVO 4 is a sleek, modern USB audio interface with useful smart features

The USB audio interface is a fairly standardized device – for those who might not know, that’s the hardware you use to take a microphone or instrument that uses an XLR or 1/4″ output and get that into your computer via a USB connection for recording or streaming. There are a lot of choices in USB audio interfaces, from a wide range of brands, but a relatively new entrant from Audient is the EVO 4, a modern take on the device that includes some smarter tech tweaks to make using one even easier.


The EVO 4 is a 2in / 2out audio interface, which means that it supports input from up to two microphones or instruments, and can output to speakers and/or headphones, as well as your computer. Audient has made the EVO 4 even more flexible on the input front with a dedicated 1/4″ input for plugging in your guitar, in addition to the combo XLR+1/4″ connectors on the back. This is a great feature for anyone looking to use this as a recording method for instruments, and goes above and beyond most of its competitors in terms of flexibility.

Audient has also helpfully used USB-C as the primary connector for linking up the EVO 4 to your computer. This means it’s likely to work with cables you already have or that are easy to find no matter where you happen to want to use it. The USB-C connection also not only routes audio to your computer, but also provides all the power the EVO 4 needs to operate, including what it requires to provide 48V phantom power to microphones that require that to operate. The fact that it’s powered via USB makes it super handy for portable use, and its overall small size helps with this as well, making it the perfect audio interface for creating a lightweight, very packable podcast interview kit.

On top of the EVO 4, you’ll find all the physical controls. There’s a single large volume dial, two buttons to select the XLR inputs, a 48v phantom power toggle, a monitor mix and pan button and a volume button that applies to both headphones and any attached speakers. There’s also a dedicated, large green button that’s specifically for Smartgain, a unique feature Audient has included with the EVO 4 that really boosts its convenience – more on that later.

The EVO 4’s control interfaces are a bit of a mixed bag – on the one hand, they help keep the hardware minimalist and sleek. On the other, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to adjust input volume levels, control interfaces, switch between different outputs and adjust the mix to each, and more. It’s definitely a more modern interpretation of an audio control surface (many other USB interfaces still just primarily user dedicated hardware switches and dials for most of these things), and so it’s going to have a learning curve for anyone used to the older way of doing things. That said, once you do figure out what everything does and what to press, in what order, it’s all relatively intuitive and easy to remember from that point on.


Where the EVO 4 really shines is in the features that Audient has added to make it more convenient and flexible than your average USB audio interface. Two in particular, Smartgain and Audio Loop-back, are immensely useful and make using the EVO 4 incredibly easy and convenient even for people inexperienced in any kind of audio recording or editing.

Smartgain, which as mentioned has a dedicated button on the top of the EVO 4, lets you automatically set the gain (essentially the input volume) level of any instrument or mic you plug into the interface for the best possible results. Typically, setting gain levels on a USB audio interface is a fully manual affair, and involves a lot of listening back to yourself either via monitors or through recordings. With Smartgain, you simply tap the button, tap the input you want to set (you can select both), and start speaking, singing or playing – after a few seconds, the button will flash green to indicate that it has set the gain level based on the volume of your input.

If you’re doing a recording where you’re both singing and playing guitar, for instance, you can set Smartgain to determine the best level for each input, which makes it super simple to record a balanced multitrack recording of both. It’s hard to understate how much time and frustration this can save in the recording process.

As for Audio Loop-back, it similarly makes it easier to record audio – but by allowing you to capture the sound coming from your computer, as well as the inputs from whatever mics or sources you have plugged into the EVO 4 itself. This is a super handy feature for something like an advanced game streaming setup, since you can use it to route the sound from any game you’re playing along with your commentary via your mic plugged into the interface to the same output source.

Audient accomplishes this without the need for any additional hardware or connections from the EVO 4 to your computer, but you will need to makes some adjustments in either the streaming or recording software you’re using, or in your computer’s audio devices settings. Luckily, the company provides clear and easy-to-follow instructions about how to do that depending on your specific needs.

Often, this kind of thing requires an additional dedicated capture device, and a much more complicated and roundabout setup in software, too. Audient building it into the EVO 4 shows that they recognize the needs of the modern market for USB audio interfaces, and it’s a great competitive advantage for the gadget over the rest of the field.

Bottom Line

At $129, Audient’s EVO 4 is a remarkable value for a USB audio interface with these capabilities. One of the most popular devices in the same category, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, retails for $30 more, is larger and doesn’t come with any features similar to Smartgain or Audio Loop-back.

EVO 4 is compatible with PC, Mac, and iOS devices, and it’s small enough to be perfect for a portable setup, as well as taking up very little desk space. It has a matte black, lightly textured surface that looks great, and the large volume dial has graduated, clicky tactile response that makes it simple to use.

For podcasters and at-home recording artists, this is a fantastic option that packs a lot of value and quality into a sleek, feature-rich package.

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure is a silly, gentle way to shape up

Nintendo has a long history when it comes to exercise-driven games. I’m dating myself, but I can say I remember playing Track & Field on NES with the Power Pad. How far we’ve come! Ring Fit Adventure is a full-body workout for grown-ups, but fun, gentle, and ridiculous enough to forget it’s exercise.

The game and accessories were announced in September, coming as a complete surprise even considering Nintendo’s constant but hit-and-miss attempts at keeping its players healthy. What really threw people off was that this game actually looked like… a game. And so it is!

Ring Fit Adventure has you, the unnamed and (naturally) mute protagonist, journeying through a series of worlds and levels chasing after Dragaux, a swole dragon who’s infecting the land with… something. Maybe he’s not wiping down the equipment afterwards. Come on, man.

Playing with these virtual versions of the controllers gives you a real feel for how solid the motion detection is.

Anyway, you do this by using the Joy-Cons in a new and strange form: the Ring-Con and leg strap. The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but the ring must be explained. It’s a thick plastic resistance ring that you squeeze from the edges or pull apart. It detects how hard you’re squeezing it through the other Joy-Con, which slots into the top. (The strap and ring grips are washable, by the way.)

The two controllers combined can detect all kinds of movements, from squats and leg lifts to rotations, presses, balancing, and yoga poses. You’ll need them all if you’re going to progress in the game.

Each level is a path that you travel down by actually jogging in real life (or high stepping if you’re in goo), while using the Ring-Con to interact with the environment. Aim and squeeze to send out a puff of air that opens a door or propels you over an obstacle, or pull it apart to suck in distant coins. Press it against your abs to crush rocks, do squats to open chests — you get the idea.


I haven’t gotten this one yet, but it looks handy. I could use a stronger arm-based multi-monster attack.

Of course you encounter enemies as well, which you dispatch with a variety of exercises targeting different muscle groups. Do a few arm presses over your head for some basic damage, or hit multiple enemies with some hip rotations. Each exercise has you do a number of reps, which turn into damage, before defending against enemy attacks with an “Ab Guard.”

The ring and leg strap seem almost magical in their ability to track your motion in all kinds of ways, though some are no doubt only inferred or fudged (as when you lift the leg without the strap). A missed motion happened so rarely over thousands of them that I ceased to think at all about it, which is about the highest compliment you can give a control method like this. Yet it’s also forgiving enough that you won’t feel the need to get everything right down the millimeter. You can even check your pulse by putting your thumb on the IR sensor of the right Joy-Con. Who knew?

As you progress, you unlock new exercises with different uses or colors — and you soon are able to fight more strategically by matching muscle group coloring (red is arms, purple legs, etc) with enemies of the same type. It’s hardly Fire Emblem, but it’s also a lot more than anyone has every really expected from a fitness game.

The red guys are like, “yeah… do him first.”

In fact, so much care and polish has clearly gone into this whole operation that’s it’s frequently surprising; there are so many things that could have been phoned in an not a single one is. The exercises are thoughtfully selected and explained in a friendly manner; the monsters and environments show great attention to detail. There’s no punishment for failure except restarting a level — the first time I “died,” I expected a little sass from my chatty companion, Ring, but it just popped me back to the map with nary a word.

Throughout is a feeling of acceptance and opportunity rather than pressure to perform. You can quit at any time and it doesn’t chide you for abandoning your quest or not burning enough calories. If you decide not to do the warm-up stretch, Tabb just says “OK!” and moves on. When you perform a move, it’s either “good” or “great,” or it reminds you of the form and you can try again. Whenever you start, you can change the difficulty, which I believe is reps, damage, and other soft counts, since it can’t increase the resistance of the Ring-Con.


Seems familiar…

There’s no pressure to change your body and no gendered expectations; Your exercise demonstration model/avatar, Tabb, is conspicuously androgynous. Your character is a pretty cut specimen of your preferred gender, to be sure. And Dragaux himself is a sort of parody of oblivious, musclebound gym bunnies (“He’s working out while planning his next workout,” the game announced one time as he skipped an attack to do some bicep curls). But even he, Ring mentions at one point, used to be very insecure about his body. Importantly, there’s nothing about the game that feels targeted to getting a certain type of person a certain type of fit.

I’m not a trainer or fitness expert, but so far the variety of exercises also feels solid. It’s all very low-impact stuff, and because it’s resistance ring and body weight only, there’s a sort of core-strengthening yoga style to it all. This isn’t about getting ripped, but you’ll be surprised how sore you are after taking down a few enemies with a proper-form chair pose.

If you don’t want to play the adventure mode, there are minigames to collect and short workouts you can customize. Honestly some of these would make better party games than half the stuff on 1-2-Switch.

As I’ve been playing the game and discussing it with friends, I found myself wanting more out of the game side. I’m hoping Ring Fit Adventure will be a success so that Nintendo will green light a new, deeper version with more complex RPG elements. Sure, you can change your outfit here for a little extra defense or whatnot, but I want to take this concept further — I know the fundamentals are sound, so I’d like to see them built on.

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It feels like until now there have been few ways to really gamify fitness, except the most elementary, like step tracking. The two separate motion controllers and the smart ways they’re used to track a variety of exercises really feel like an opportunity to do something bigger. Plus once people have bought the accessories, they’re much more likely to buy matching software.

My main criticisms would be that it’s a bit limiting at the beginning. There’s no choice to, for example, prioritize or deprioritize a certain type of exercise. I could probably stand to jog more and do arm stuff less, and I dreaded having to resort to squats for the first few worlds. And the constant instruction on how and when to do everything can be wearing — it would be nice to be able to set some things to “expert mode” and skip the tutorials.

The game and accessories will set you back $80. If you consider it simply as buying a game, it’s an expensive gimmick. But I don’t think that’s the way to think about it. The target audience here is people who likely don’t have a gym membership, something that can cost $50-$100 a month. As a fun and effective fitness tool that does what it sets out to do and does so in a praiseworthy way, I think $80 is a very reasonable asking price.

The FrankOne is a simple and portable coffee brewing gadget

The FrankOne coffee maker, fresh off a successful crowdfunding campaign, is now available for purchase, and I got a chance to test out one of the first run of these funky little gadgets. While it won’t replace my normal pourover or a larger coffee machine, it’s a clever, quick and portable way to make a cup.

Designer Eduardo Umaña pitched me the device a little more than a year ago, and I was taken by the possibility of vacuum brewing — and the fact that, amazingly, until now no one from Colombia had made a coffee maker (it’s named after Frank de Paula Santander, who kicked off the coffee trade there). But would the thing actually work?

In a word, yes. I’ve tested the FrankOne a few times in my home, and, while I have a couple reservations, it’s a coffee making device that I can see myself actually using in a number of circumstances.


The device works quite simply. Ground coffee goes in the top, and then you pour in the hot (not boiling!) water and stir it a bit — 30-50 seconds later, depending on how you like it, you hit the button and a pump draws the liquid down through a mesh filter and into the carafe below. It’s quick and almost impossible to mess up.

The resulting coffee is good — a little bit light, I’d say, but you can adjust the body with the size of the grounds and the steeping time. I tend to find a small amount of sediment at the bottom, but less than you’d get in a cup of French press.

Because it’s battery powered (it should last for ~200 cups and is easily recharged) and totally waterproof, cleaning it is a snap, especially if you have a garbage disposal. Just dump it and rinse it, give it a quick wipe and it’s good to go. It gets a bit more fussy if you don’t have a disposal, but what doesn’t?


I can see this being a nice way to quickly and simply make coffee while camping — I usually do a French press, but sometimes drip, and both have their qualities and limitations. The FrankOne would be for making a single cup when I don’t want to have to stand by the pourover cone or deal with disassembling the French press for cleaning.

It’s also, I am told by Umaña, great for cold brew. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t really like cold brew, but I know many do, and Umaña promises the FrankOne works wonders in a very short time — four minutes rather than an hour. I haven’t tested that, because cold brew tastes like bitter chocolate milk to me, but I sincerely doubt he would mention it as many times as he did if it didn’t do what he said.

There are, I feel, three downsides. First, you’re pretty much stuck with using the included glass carafe, because the device has to create a seal around the edge with its silicone ring. It didn’t fit in my biggest mug, but you might find an alternative should the carafe (which I have no complaints about — it’s attractive and sturdy) crack or get lost.


Second, it doesn’t produce a lot of coffee. The top line as indicated in the reservoir is probably about 10-12 ounces — about the size of a “tall” at a coffee shop. Usually that’s a perfect amount for me, but it definitely means this is a single-serving device, not for making a pot to share.

And third, for the amount of coffee it produces, I feel like it uses a lot of grounds. Not a crazy amount, but maybe 1.5-2x what goes into my little Kalita dripper — which is admittedly pretty economical. But it’s just something to be aware of. Maybe I’m using too much, though.

I reviewed the Geesaa a little while back, and while it’s a cool device, it was really complex and takes up a lot of space. If I wanted to give it to a friend I’d have to make them download the app, teach them about what I’d learned worked best, share my “recipes” and so on. There was basically a whole social network attached to that thing.

This is much, much easier to use — and compact, to boot. It’s a good alternative to classic methods that doesn’t try to be more than a coffee maker. At $120 it’s a bit expensive, but hey, maybe you spend that on coffee in a month.

And by the way, you can use the discount code “TC” at checkout to get 10% off — this isn’t a paid post or anything, Umaña’s just a nice guy!

Review: The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 do Disneyland after dark

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: iPhone 11’s Night Mode is great. It works, it compares extremely well to other low-light cameras and the exposure and color rendition is best in class, period.

If that does it for you, you can stop right here. If you want to know more about the iPhone 11, augmented photography and how they performed on a trip to the edge of a galaxy far, far away, read on.

As you’re probably now gathering, yes, I took the new iPhones to Disneyland again. If you’ve read my other reviews from the parks,  you’ll know that I do this because they’re they ideal real-world test bed for a variety of capabilities. Lots of people vacation with iPhones.

The parks are hot and the network is crushed. Your phone has to act as your ticket, your food ordering tool, your camera and your map. Not to mention your communication device with friends and family. It’s a demanding environment, plain and simple. And, I feel, a better organic test of how these devices fare than sitting them on a desk in an office and running benchmark tools until they go dead.

I typically test iPhones by using one or two main devices and comparing them with the ones they’re replacing. I’m not all that interested in having the Android vs. iPhone debate because I feel that it’s a bit of a straw man given that platform lock-in means that fewer and fewer people over time are m​aking a truly agnostic platform choice. They’re deciding based on heredity or services (or price). I know this riles the zealots in both camps, but most people just don’t have the luxury of being religious about these kinds of things.

Given the similarities in models, (more on that later) I mainly used the iPhone 11 Pro for my testing, with tests of the iPhone 11 where appropriate. I used the iPhone XS as a reference device. Despite my lack of a desire to do a platform comparison, for this year’s test, given that much discussion has been had about how Google pulled off a coup with the Pixel 3’s Night Sight mode, I brought along one of those as well.

I tried to use the iPhone XS only to compare when comparisons were helpful and to otherwise push the iPhone 11 Pro to handle the full load each day. But, before I could hit the parks, I had to set up my new devices.

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Much of the iPhone 11 Pro’s setup process has remained the same over the years, but Apple has added one new feature worth mentioning: Direct Transfer. This option during setup sits, philosophically, between restoring from a backup made on a local Mac and restoring from an iCloud backup.

Direct Transfer is designed to help users transfer their information directly from one device to another using a direct peer-to-peer connection between the two devices. Specifically, it uses Apple Wireless Direct Link (AWDL), which also powers AirDrop and AirPlay. The transfer is initiated using a particle cloud link similar to the one you see setting up Apple Watch. Once it’s initiated, your old iPhone and new iPhone will be out of commission for up to 2-3 hours depending on how much information you’re transferring. IMG 6590

The data is encrypted in transit. Information directly transferred includes Messages history, full resolution photos that are already stored on your phone and any app data attached to installed apps. The apps themselves are not transferred because Apple’s app signing procedure locks apps to a device, so they must be (automatically) re-dowloaded from the App Store, a process that begins once the Direct Transfer is complete. This also ensures that you’re getting the appropriate version of the app.

Once you’ve done the transfer, the data on your phone is then “rationalized” with iCloud. This helps in cases where you have multiple devices and one of those other devices could have been making changes in the cloud that now need to be updated on the device.

Apple noted that Direct Transfer is good for a few kinds of people:

  • People without an iCloud backup
  • People who have not backed up in a while
  • People in countries where internet speeds are not broadly strong, like China
  • People who don’t mind waiting longer initially for a ‘more complete’ restore

Basically what you’ve got here is a choice between having your iPhone ‘ready’ immediately for basic functionality (iCloud backup restore) and waiting a bit longer to have far more of your personal data accessible from the start, without waiting for iCloud downloads of original photos, Messages history etc.

Direct Transfer also does not transfer Face ID or Touch ID settings, Apple Pay information or Mail Data aside from usernames and passwords.

After iPhone Migration is complete the Messages content from the device will be reconciled the Messages content in iCloud to ensure they are in sync. The same is true for Photos stored in iCloud.

Anecdotally, I experienced a couple of interesting things during my use of Direct Transfer. My first phone took around 2.5 hours to complete, but I still found that the messages archive alerted me that it needed to continue downloading archived messages in the background. Apple suggested that this may be due to this rationalizing process.

I also noticed that when simultaneous Direct Transfer operations were active, side-by-side devices took much longer to complete. This is very likely due to local radio interference. Apple has a solution to that. There is a wired version of the Direct Transfer option using the Camera Connection Kit with a source device and connecting them via USB. Ideally, Apple says, the transfer speeds are identical, but of course the wired option side-steps the wireless interference problem entirely — which is why Apple will be using it for in-store device restores for new iPhones using the Direct Transfer option.

My experience with Direct Transfer wasn’t glitch free, but it was nice having what felt like a ‘more complete’ device from the get go. Of note, Direct Transfer does not appear to transfer all keychain data intact, so you will have to re-enter some passwords.

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Design and Display

I’ve been naked for years. That is, team no case. Cases are annoying to me because of the added bulk. They’re also usually too slippery or too sticky. I often wear technical clothing too and the phones go into slots designed for quick in out or fun party trick things like dropping into your hand with the pull of a clasp. This becomes impossible with most cases.

Apple provided the clear cases for all three iPhones, and I used them to keep them looking decent while I reviewed them, but I guarantee you my personal will never see a case.

I’m happy to report that the iPhone 11 Pro’s matte finish back increases the grippyness of the phone on its own. The smooth back of the iPhone 11 and the iPhone XS always required a bit of finger oil to get into a condition where you could reliably pivot them with one hand going in and out of a pocket.

Traveling through the parks you get sweaty (in the summer), greasy with that Plaza fried chicken and turkey legs and all kinds of kid-related spills. Having the confidence of a case while you’re in these fraught conditions is something I can totally understand. But day-to-day it’s not my favorite.

I do like the unified design identity across the line of making the bump surface blasted glass on the iPhone 11 with a glossy back and then flipping those on the iPhone 11 Pro. It provides a design language link even though the color schemes are different.

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At this point either you’ve bought into the camera bump being functional cool or you hate its guts. Adding another camera is not going to do much to change the opinion of either camp. The iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max have a distinctly Splinter Cell vibe about them now. I’m sure you’ve seen the jokes about iPhones getting more and more cameras, well, yeah, that’s not a joke.

I think that Apple’s implementation feels about the best it could be here. The iPhone 11 Pro is already thicker than the previous generation, but there’s no way it’s going to get thick enough to swallow a bump this high. I know you might think you want that too, but you don’t.

Apple gave most reviewers the Deep Green iPhone 11 Pro/Max and the minty Green iPhone 11. If I’m being honest, I prefer the mint. Lighter and brighter is just my style. In a perfect world, I’d be able to rock a lavender iPhone 11 Pro. Alas, this is not the way Apple went.

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The story behind the Deep Green, as it was explained to me, begins with Apple’s colorists calling this as a color set to break out over the next year. The fashion industry concurs, to a degree. Mint, seafoam and ‘neon’ greens which were hot early in the year have given way to sage, crocodile and moss. Apple’s Deep Green is also a dark, muted color that Apple says is ideal to give off that Pro vibe.

The green looks nearly nothing like any of the photographs I’ve seen of it on Apple’s site.

In  person, the Deep Green is reads as dark grey in anything but the most direct indoor light. Outdoors, the treated stainless band has an “80’s Mall Green” hue that I actually really like. The back also opens up quite a bit, presenting as far more forest green than it does inside. Overall, though, this is a very muted color that is pretty buttoned up. It sits comfortably alongside neutral-to-staid colors like the Space Gray, Silver and Gold.

The Silver option is likely to be my personal pick this time around just because the frosted white back looks so hot. The first time I won’t have gone gray or black in a while.

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Apple’s new super retina display has a 2M:1 contrast ratio and displays up to 1200 nits in HDR content and 800 in non-HDR. What does this mean out in the sun at the park? Not a whole lot, but the screen is slightly easier to read and see detail on while in sunny conditions. The “extended” portion of Apple’s new XDR screen terminology on the iPhone 11 Pro is due to lux, a luminance metric, not a color metric, so the color gamut remains the same. However, I have noticed that HDR images look slightly flatter on the iPhone XS than they do on the iPhone 11 Pro. The iPhone 11’s screen, while decent, does not compare to the rich blacks and great contrast range of the iPhone 11 Pro. It’s one of two major reasons to upgrade.

Apple’s proprietary 3D touch system has gone the way of the dodo with the iPhone 11. The reasoning behind this was that they realized that they would never be able to ship the system economically or viably on the iPad models. So they canned it in favor of haptic touch, bringing more consistency across the lineup.

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By and large it works fine. It’s a little odd for 3D touch users at first. You retain peek and quick actions but lose pop, for instance, because there’s no additional level of pressure threshold. Most of the actions that you probably commonly use 3D touch for, like the camera or flashlight or home screen app shortcuts work just fine.

I was bullish on 3D touch because I felt there was an opportunity to add an additional layer of context for power users — a hover layer for touch. Unfortunately I believe that there were people at Apple (and outside of it) that were never convinced that the feature was going to be discoverable or useful enough so it never got the investment that it needed to succeed. Or, and I will concede this is a strong possibility, they were right and I was wrong and this just was never going to work.

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Performance and Battery

Apple’s A13 Bionic features efficiency cores that are 20% faster and use 40% less power than the A12 bionic — part of where some impressive battery life improvements come from. Its overall clock speed and benchmarks are up around 20% overall. The performance cores also use 30% less power and the GPU uses 40% less power. The Neural Engine doesn’t escape either and uses 15% lower power. All compared to the iPhone XS.

My focus there on the cores power usage is not to say this feels any less juicy, but all new iPhones feel great out of the box because Apple (usually) works to neatly match power requirements with its hardware. And any previous generation software is going to have plenty of overhead out of the box. No change here.

The biggest direct effect that this silicon work will have on most people’s lives will likely be battery life.

The iPhone 11 Pro has a larger battery than the iPhone XS, with a different higher voltage chemistry. That, coupled with power savings improvements mentioned above, along with more in the screen and other components means better battery life.

My battery tests over several days at the parks point to Apple’s claims about improvements over the iPhone XS being nearly dead on. Apple claims that the iPhone 11 Pro lasts 4 hours longer then the iPhone XS. The iPhone XS came in at roughly 9.5 hours in tests last year and the iPhone 11 Pro came in nearly bang on at 12 hours — in extremely challenging conditions.

It was hot, the networks were congested and I was testing every feature of the camera and phone I could get my hands on. Disneyland has some WiFi in areas of the park, but the coverage is not total, so I relied on LTE for the majority of my usage. This included on-device processing of photos and video (of which I shot around 40 minutes or so each day). It also included using Disney’s frustrating park app, about which I could write a lot of complaints.

I ordered food, browsed twitter while in lines, let the kids watch videos while the wife and I had a necessary glass of wine or six and messaged continuously with family and team members. The battery lasted significantly longer on the iPhone 11 Pro with intense usage than the iPhone XS, which juuuust edged out my iPhone X in last year’s tests.

One of the reasons that I clone my current device and run it that way instead of creating some sort of artificially empty test device is that I believe that is the way that most people will be experiencing the phone. Only weirdos like device testers and Marie Kondo acolytes are likely to completely wipe their devices and start fresh on purchase of a new iPhone.

I’m pretty confident you’ll see an improvement in the battery as well. I’ve done this a lot and these kinds of real world tests at theme parks tend to put more of the kind of strains you’ll see in daily life on the phone than a bench test running an artificial web browsing routine is. On the other hand, maybe you’re a worker at a bot farm and I’ve just touched a nerve. If so, I am sorry.

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Also, an 18W power adapter, the same one that ships with iPad Pro, comes in the iPhone 11 Pro box. Finally, etc. It is very nice having the majority of my cables have at least one end that is USB-C now because I can use multi-port GaN chargers from Anker and power bricks that have USB-C. Apple’s USB-C lightning cables are slightly thicker gauge now, and support data transfer as well as the 18W brick. The bigger charger means faster charging, Apple claims up to 50% charge in 30 minutes with the new charger, which feels about like what I experienced.

It’s quicker, much nicer to top off while nursing a drink and a meatball at the relatively secret upstairs bar at the Wine Country Trattoria in DCA. There’s an outlet behind the counter just ask to use it.

Unfortunately, the iPhone 11 (non pro) still comes with a 5W charger. This stinks. I’d love to see the 18W become standard across the line.

Oh, about that improved FaceID angle — I saw, maybe, a sliiiiiiight improvement, if any. But not that much. A few degrees? Sometimes? Hard to say. I will be interested to see what other reviewers found. Maybe my face sucks.

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Camera and Photography

Once upon a time you could relatively easily chart the path of a photograph’s creation. Light passed through the lens of your camera onto a medium like film or chemically treated paper. A development process was applied, a print was made and you had a photograph.

When the iPhone 8 was released I made a lot of noise about how it was the first of a new wave of augmented photography. That journey continues with the iPhone 11. The ISP that normally takes on the computational tasks associated with color correction and making images look presentable from the raw material the sensor produces. Apple has added the Neural Engines’s machine learning expertise to the pipeline and it’s doing a bunch of things in various modes.

This is what makes the camera augmented on the iPhone 11, and what delivers the most impressive gains of this generation, not new glass, not the new sensors — a processor specially made to perform machine learning tasks.

What we’re seeing in the iPhone 11 is a blended apparatus that happens to include 3 imaging sensors, 3 lenses, a scattering of motion sensors, an ISP, a machine learning tuned chip and a CPU all working in concert to produce 1 image. This is a machine learning camera. But as far as the software that runs iPhone is concerned, It has one camera. In fact, it’s not really a camera at all, it’s a collection of devices and bits of software that work together towards a singular goal: producing an image.

This way of thinking about imaging affects a bunch of features from night mode to HDR and beyond, and the result is the best camera I’ve ever used on a phone.

But first, let’s talk new lenses.

Ultra Wide

Both the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro get a new “ultra wide angle” lens that Apple is calling a 13mm. In practice it delivers about what you’d expect from a roughly 13mm lens on a full-frame SLR — very wide. Even with edge correction it has the natural and expected effect of elongating subjects up close and producing some dynamic images. At a distance, it provides options for vistas and panoramic images that weren’t available before. Up close, it does wonders for group shots and family photos, especially in tight quarters where you’re backed up against a wall.

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In my testing of the wide angle, it showed off extremely well especially in bright conditions. It allowed for great close up family shots, wide angle portraits that emphasized dynamism and vistas that really opened up possibilities for shooting that haven’t been on iPhone before.

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One clever detail here is that when you shoot at 1x or 2x, Apple blends the live view of the wider angle lenses directly into the viewfinder. They don’t just show you the wide with crop marks over it, they are piping in actual feeds from the sensor so that you get a precise idea of how the image might look, while still letting you see that you have other options outside of the frame. It’s the camera viewfinder engineer version of stunting.

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I loved shooting people with it up close, but that won’t be for everyone. I’d guess most people will like it for groups and for landscapes. But I found it great to grab fun tight shots of people or really intimate moments that feel so much more personal when you’re in close.

Of note, the ultra wide lens does not have optical image stabilization on either the iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro. This makes it a much trickier proposition to use in low light or at night.

The ultra wide camera cannot be used with night mode because its sensor does not have 100% focus pixels and, of course, no OIS. The result is that wide angle night shots must be held very steady or soft images will result.

The ultra wide coming to both phones is great. It’s a wonderful addition and I think people will get a ton of use out of it on the iPhone 11. If they had to add one, I think adding the UW was the better option because of group shots of people are likely far more common than landscape photographers.

The ultra wide is also fantastic for video. Because of the natural inward crop of video (it uses less of the sensor, so it feels more cramped), the standard wide lens has always felt a little claustrophobic. Taking videos on the carousel riding along with Mary Poppins, for instance, I was unable to get her and Burt in frame at once with the iPhone XS, but was able to with the iPhone 11 Pro. Riding Matterhorn you get much more of the experience and less ‘person’s head in front of you’. Same goes with Cars where the ride is so dominated by the wind screen. I know these are very specific examples, but you can imagine how similar scenarios could play out at family gatherings in small yards, indoors or in other cramped locations.


One additional tidbit about the ultra wide: you may very well have to find a new grip for your phone. The lens is so wide that your finger may show up in some of your shots because your knuckle is in frame. It happened to me a bunch over the course of a few days until I found a grip lower on the phone. iPhone 11 Pro Max users will probably not have to worry.

HDR and Portrait Improvements

Because of those changes to the image pathway I talked about earlier, the already solid HDR images get a solid improvement in portrait mode. The Neural Engine works on all HDR images coming out of the cameras in iPhone to tone map and fuse image data from various physical sensors together to make a photo. It could use pixels from one camera for highlight detail and pixels from another for the edges of a frame. I went over this system extensively back in 2016 and its only gotten more sophisticated since with the addition of the Neural Engine.

It seems to be getting another big leap forward when Deep Fusion launches, but I was unable to test that yet.

For now, we can see additional work that the Neural Engine puts in with Semantic Rendering. This process involves your iPhone doing facial detection on the subject of a portrait, isolating the face and skin from the rest of the scene and applying a different path of HDR processing on it than on the rest of the image. The rest of the image gets its own HDR treatment and then the two images are fused back together.

This is not unheard of in image processing. Most photographers worth their salt will give faces a different pass of adjustments from the rest of an image, masking off the face so that it doesn’t turn out too flat or too contrasty or come out with the wrong skin tones.

The difference here, of course, is that it happens automatically, on every portrait, in fractions of a second.

The results are portraits that look even better on iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Faces don’t have the artificially flat look they could sometimes get with the iPhone XS — a result of the HDR process that is used to open up shadows and normalize the contrast of an image.

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Look at these two portraits, shot at the same time in the same conditions. The iPhone 11 Pro is far more successful at identifying backlight and correcting for it across the face and head. The result is better contrast ant color, hands down. And this was not an isolated experience, I shot many portrait shots side by side and the iPhone 11 Pro was the pick every time. With especially wide margins if the subject was back lit, which is very common with portraiture.

02 iphone11 sideby2

Here’s another pair, the differences are more subtle here but look at the color balance between the two. The skin tones are warmer, more olive and (you’ll have to trust me on this one) truer to life on the iPhone 11 Pro.


And yes, the High Key Mono works, but is still not perfect.

Night Mode

Now for the big one. The iPhone 11 finally has a Night Mode. Though I wouldn’t really call it a mode because it doesn’t actually require that you enable it, it just kicks in automatically when it thinks it can help.

On a technical level, Night Mode is a function of the camera system that strongly resembles HDR. It does several things when it senses that the light levels have fallen below a certain threshold.

  1. It decides on a variable number of frames to capture based on the light level, the steadiness of the camera according to the accelerometer and other signals.
  2. The ISP then grabs these bracketed shots, some longer, some shorter exposure.
  3. The Neural Engine is relatively orthogonal to Night Mode working, but it’s still involved because it is used for semantic rendering across all HDR imaging in iPhone 11.
  4. The ISP then works to fuse those shots based on foreground and background exposure and whatever masking the Neural Engine delivers.

The result is a shot that brightens dark-to-very-dark scenes well enough to change them from throw away images to something well worth keeping. In my experience, it was actually difficult to find scenes dark enough to make the effect intense enough. The new 33% improvement in ISO in the wide camera and 42% improvement on telephoto on iPhone XS already help a lot.

night mode

But once you do find the right scene, you see detail and shadow pop and it becomes immediately evident even before you press the shutter that it is making it dramatically brighter. Night Mode works only in 1x and 2x shooting modes because only those cameras have the 100% focus pixels needed to do the detection and mapping that the iPhone 11 needs to make the effect viable.

IMG 4090 1

I have this weird litmus test I put every new phone camera through where I take it on a dark ride, like Winnie the Pooh, to see if I can get any truly sharp usable image. It’s a great test because the black light is usually on, the car is moving and the subject is moving. Up until this point I have succeeded exactly zero times. But the iPhone 11 Pro pulled it off. Not perfect, but pretty incredible all things considered.

A few observations about Night Mode:

  • The night images still feel like night time. This is the direct result of Apple making a decision not to open every shadow and brighten every corner of an image, flaring saturation and flattening contrast.
  • The images feel like they have the same genetic makeup as an identical photo taken without night mode. They’re just clearer and the subject is brighter.
  • Because of the semantic mapping working on the image, along with other subject detection work, the focal point of the image should be clearer/brighter, but the setting and scene does not all come up at once like a broad gain adjustment.
  • iPhone 11, like many other ‘night modes’ across phones, has issues with moving subjects. It’s best if no one is moving or they are moving only very slightly. This can vary depending on the length of exposure from 1-3 seconds.
  • On a tripod or another stationary object, Night Mode will automatically extend up to a 10 second exposure. This allows for some great night photography effects like light painting or trailing.

The result is naturally bright images that retain a fantastic level of detail while still feeling like they have natural color that is connected to the original subject matter.

Back when the Pixel 3 shipped Night Sight I noted that choosing a gain-based night mode had consequences, and that Apple likely could ship something based on pure amperage but that it had consistently made choices to do otherwise and would likely do so for whatever it shipped. People really hated this idea, but it holds up exactly.

Though the Galaxy 10+ has a great night mode as well, the Pixel 3 was the pioneer here and still jumps to mind when judging night shots. The choices Google has made here are much more in the realm of ‘everything brighter’. If you love it, you love it, and that’s fine. But it is absolutely not approaching this from a place of restraint.

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Here are some examples of the iPhone 11 Pro up against images from the Pixel 3. As you can see, both do solid work brightening the image, but the Pixel 3 is colder, flatter and more evenly brightened. The colors are not representative at all.

falcon iphone vs pixel

In addition, whatever juice Google is using to get these images out of a single camera and sensor, it suffers enormously on a detail level. You can see the differences here in the rock work and towers. It’s definitely better than having a dark image, but it’s clear that the iPhone 11 Pro is a jump forward.

The Pixel 4 is around the corner, of course, and I can’t wait to see what improvements Google comes up with. We are truly in a golden age for taking pictures of dark shit with phone cameras.

Of note, the flash is now 36% brighter than the iPhone XS, which is a nice fallback for moving subjects.

iphone11 4


Auto crop

The iPhone 11 will, by default, auto crop subjects back into your videos shot at 1x or 2x. If you’re chasing your kid and his head goes out of frame, you could see an auto button on the 1 up review screen after a bit of processing. Tapping this will re-frame your video automatically. Currently this only works with the QuickTake function directly from the iPhone’s lock screen. It can be toggled off.

You can toggle on auto cropping for photos in the Camera settings menu if you wish, it is off by default. This has a very similar effect. It’s using image analysis to see if it has image data that it can use to re-center your subject.


Yeah, they’re fun, yeah, they work. They’re going to be popular for folks with long hair.


Apple has included a U1 chip in the iPhone 11 – can’t test it but it’s interesting as hell. Probably best to reserve talking about this extensively for a bit as Apple will ship the U1’s first iPhone functionality with a directional…AirDrop feature? This is definitely one of those things where future purposes, tile-like locator perhaps, were delayed for some reason and a side project of the AirDrop team got elevated to first ship. Interestingly, Apple mentioned, purely as an example, that this feature could be used to start car ignitions given the appropriate manufacturer support.

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve probably read anything I’ve written over the last several years. It’s inevitable that iPhones and Apple Watches begin to take on functionality like this, it’s just a matter of how to do it precisely and safely. The U1 has a lot to do with location on a micro-level. It’s not broad, network based or GPS based location, it’s precise location and orientation. That opens up a bunch of interesting possibilities.

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No Night Mode

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Night Mode

About that Pro

And then there was the name. iPhone 11 Pro. When I worked at a camera shop, you learned the power of the word “pro”. For some people it was an aphrodisiac, for others, a turn off. And for others, it was simply a necessity.

Is this the pro model? Oh I’m not a pro. Oooh, this is the pro!

We used it as a sales tool, for sure. But every so often it was also necessary to use it to help prevent people from over-buying or under-buying for their needs.

In the film days one of the worst things you could ever shoot as a pro-am photographer was gym sports. It was fast action, inside where it’s comparatively dim, and at a distance from court-side. There was no cheap way to do it. No cranking the ISO to 64,000 and letting your camera’s computer clean it up. You had to get expensive glass, an expensive camera body to operate that glass and an expensive support like a monopod. You also had to not be a dumbass (this was the most expensive part).

Amateurs always balked at the barrier of entry to shooting in these kinds of scenarios. But the real pros knew that for every extra dollar they spent on the good stuff, they’d make it up ten fold in profits because they could deliver product no parent with a point and shoot could hope to replicate.

However, the vast majority of people that walked into the shop weren’t shooting hockey or wrestling. They were taking family photos, outdoor pics and a few sunsets.

Which brings us to what the term Pro means now: Pro is about edge cases.

It’s not about the 80% case, it’s about the 20% of people that need or want something more out of their equipment.

For this reason, the iPhone 11 is going to sell really well. And it should because it’s great. It has the best new lens, an ultra wide that takes great family photos and landscape shots. It has nearly every software feature of iPhone 11 Pro. But it doesn’t have the best screen and it doesn’t have telephoto. For people that want to address edge cases – the best video and photo options, a better dark mode experience, a brighter screen — the iPhone 11 Pro is there — for everyone else, there’s still fiscal 2020’s best selling iPhone.

IMG 1820

Yep, Night Mode

‘The Division 2’ is the brain-dead, antipolitical, gun-mongering vigilante simulator we deserve

In The Division 2, the answer to every question is a bullet. That’s not unique in the pervasively violent world of gaming, but in an environment drawn from the life and richly decorated with plausible human cost and cruelty, it seems a shame; and in a real world where plentiful assault rifles and government hit squads are the problems, not the solutions, this particular power fantasy feels backwards and cowardly.

Ubisoft’s meticulous avoidance of the real world except for physical likeness was meant to maximize its market and avoid the type of “controversy” that brings furious tweets and ineffectual boycotts down on media that dare to make statements. But the result is a game that panders to “good guy with a gun” advocates, NRA members, everyday carry die-hards, and those who dream of spilling the blood of unsavory interlopers and false patriots upon this great country’s soil.

There are two caveats: That we shouldn’t have expected anything else, from Ubisoft or anyone; and that it’s a pretty good game if you ignore all that stuff. But it’s getting harder to accept every day, and the excuses for game studios are getting fewer. (Some spoilers ahead, but trust me, it doesn’t matter.)

To put us all on the same page: The Division 2 (properly Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which just about sums it up right there) is the latest “game as a service” to hit the block, aspiring less towards the bubblegum ubiquity of Fortnite and than the endless grind of a Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. The less said about Anthem, the better (except Jason Schrier’s great report, of course).

From the bestselling author of literally a hundred other books…

It’s published by Ubisoft, a global gaming power known for creating expansive gaming worlds (like the astonishingly beautiful Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) with bafflingly uneven gameplay and writing (like the astonishingly lopsided Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey).

So it was perhaps to be expected that The Division 2 would be heavy on atmosphere and light on subtlety. But I didn’t expect to be told to see the President snatch a machine gun from his captors and mow them down — then tell your character that sometimes you can’t do what’s popular, you have to do what’s necessary.

It would be too much even if the game was a parody and not, as it in fact is, deeply and strangely earnest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

EDC Simulator 2

The game is set in Washington, D.C.; its predecessor was in New York. Both were, like most U.S. cities in this fictitious near future, devastated by a biological attack on Black Friday that used money as a vector for a lethal virus. That’s a great idea, perhaps not practical (who pays in cash?), but a clever mashup of terrorist plots with consumerism. (The writing in the first Division was considerably better than this one.)

Your character is part of a group of sleeper agents seeded throughout the country, intended to activate in the event of a national emergency, surviving and operating on your own or with a handful of others, procuring equipment and supplies on the go, taking out the bad guys and saving the remaining civilians while authority reasserts itself.

You can see how this sets up a great game: exploring the ruins of a major city, shooing out villains, and upgrading your gear as you work your way up the ladder.

And in a way it does make a great game. If you consider the bad guys just types of human-shaped monsters, your various guns and equipment the equivalent of new swords and wands, breastplates and greaves, with your drones and tactical launchers modern spells and auras, it’s really quite a lot like Diablo, the progenitor of the “looter” genre.

Moment to moment gameplay has you hiding behind cover, popping out to snap off a few shots at the bad guys, who are usually doing the same thing 10 or 20 yards away, but generally not as well as you. Move on to the next room or intersection, do it again with some more guys, rinse and repeat. It sounds monotonous, and it is, but so is baseball. People like it anyway. (I’d like to give a shout-out to the simple, effective multiplayer that let me join a friend in seconds.)

But the problem with The Division 2 isn’t its gameplay, although I could waste your time (instead) with some nitpicking of the damage systems, the mobs, the inventory screen, and so on. The problem with The Division 2 isn’t even that it venerates guns. Practically every game venerates guns, because as Tim Rogers memorably paraphrased CliffyB once: “games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.” It’s difficult to avoid.

No, the problem with The Division 2 is the breathtaking incongruity between the powerfully visualized human tragedy your character inhabits and the refusal to engage even in an elementary way with the themes to which it is inherently tied: terrorism, guns, government and anti-government forces, and everything else. It’s exploitative, cynical, and absurd.

The Washington, D.C. of the game is a truly amazing setting. Painstakingly detailed block by block and containing many of the most notable landmarks of the area, it’s a very interesting game world to explore, even more so I imagine if you are from there or are otherwise familiar with the city.

The marks of a civilization-ending disaster are everywhere. Abandoned cars and security posts with vines and grass creeping up between them, broken and boarded up windows and doors, left luggage and improvised camping spots. Real places form the basis for thrilling setpiece shootouts: museums, famous offices, the White House itself (which you find under limp siege in the first mission). This is a fantasy very much based in reality — but only on the surface. In fact all this incredibly detailed scenery is nothing more than cover for shootouts.

I can’t tell you how many times my friend and I traversed intricately detailed monuments, halls, and other environments, marveling at the realism with which they were decorated (though perhaps there were a few too many gas cans), remarking to one another: “Damn, this place is insane. I can’t believe they made it this detailed just to have us do the same exact combat encounter as the entire rest of the game. How come nobody is talking about the history of this place, or the bodies, or the culture here?”

When fantasy isn’t

Now, to be clear, I don’t expect Ubisoft to make a game where you learn facts about helicopters while you shoot your way through the Air and Space Museum, or where you engage in philosophical conversation with the head of a band of marauders rather than lob grenades and corrosive goo in their general direction. (I kind of like both those ideas, though.)

But the dedication with which the company has avoided any kind of reality whatsoever is troubling.

We live in a time when people are taking what they call justice into their own hands by shooting others with weapons intended for warfare; when paramilitary groups are defending their strongholds with deadly force; when biological agents are being deployed against citizenry; when governments are surveilling and tracking people via controversial AI systems; when the leaders of that government are making unpopular and ethically fraught decisions without the knowledge of their constituency.

Ultimate EDC simulator

This game enthusiastically endorses all of the previous ideas with the naive justification that you’re the good guys. Of course you’re the good guys — everyone claims they’re the good guys! But objectively speaking, you’re a secret government hit squad killing whoever you’re told to, primarily other citizens. Ironically, despite being called an agent, you have no agency — you are a walking gun doing the bidding of a government that has almost entirely dissolved. What could possibly go wrong? The Division 2 certainly makes no effort to explore this.

The superficiality of the story I could excuse if it didn’t rely so strongly on using the real world as set dressing for its paramilitary dress-up-doll fantasy.

Basing your game in a real world location is, I think, a fabulous idea. But in doing so, especially if as part of the process you imply the death of millions, a developer incurs a responsibility to do more than use that location as level geometry.

The Division 2 instead uses these deaths and the most important places in D.C. literally as props. Nothing you do ever has anything to do with what the place is except in the loosest way. While you visit morgues and improvised mass graves piled with body bags, you never see anyone dead or dying… unless you kill them.

It’s hard to explain what I find so distasteful about this. It’s a combination of the obvious emphasis on the death of innocents, in a brute-force attempt to create emotional and political relevance, with the utterly vacuous violence you fill that world with. It feels disrespectful to itself, to the setting, to set a piece of media so incredibly dumb and mute in a disaster so credible and relevant.

This was a deliberate decision, to rob the game of any relevance — a marketing decision. To destroy D.C. — that sells. To write a story or design gameplay that in any way reflects why that destruction resonates — that doesn’t sell. “We cannot be openly political in our games,” said Alf Condelius, the COO of the studio that created the game, in a talk before the game’s release. Doing so, he said, would be “bad for business, unfortunately, if you want the honest truth.” I can’t be the only one who feels this to be a cop-out of pretty grand proportions, with the truth riding on its coattails.

Perhaps you think I’m holding game developers to an unreasonable standard. But I believe they are refusing to raise the bar themselves when they easily could and should. The level of detail in the world is amazing, and it was clearly designed by people who understand what could happen should disaster strike. The bodies piled in labs, the desolation of a city overtaken by nature, the perfect reproductions of landmarks — an enormous amount of effort and money was put into this part of the game.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly obvious from the get-go that very, very little attention was paid to the story and characters, the dialogue, the actual choices you can make as a player (there are none to speak of). There is no way to interact with people except to shoot them, or for them to tell you who to shoot. There is no mention of politics, of parties, of race or religion. I feel sure more time was spent modeling the guns — which, by the way, are real licensed models — than the main “characters,” though it must have been time-consuming to so completely to purge those characters of any ideas or opinions that could possibly reflect the real world.

One tragedy please, hold the relevance

This is deliberate. There’s no way this could have happened unless Ubisoft, from the start, made it clear that the game was to be divorced from the real world in every way except those that were deemed marketable.

That this is what they considerable marketable is a sad sort of indictment of the people they are selling this game to. The prospect of inserting oneself into a sort of justified vigilante role where you rain hot righteous lead on these generic villains trampling our great flag seems to be a special catnip concoction Ubisoft thought would appeal to millions — millions who (or more importantly, whose wallets) might be chilled by the idea of a story that actually takes on the societal issues that would be at play in a disaster like this one. We got the game we deserved, I suppose.

Say what you will about the narrative quality of campaigns of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but they at least attempt to engage with the content they are exploiting to sell the game. World War II is marketable because it’s the worst thing that ever happened and destroyed the lives of millions in a violent and dramatic way. Imagine building a photorealistic reproduction of wartime Stalingrad, or Paris, or Berlin, and then filling it not with Axis and Allied forces but simplified and palatable goodies and baddies with no particular ethos or history.

I certainly don’t mean to equate the theoretical destruction of D.C. with the Holocaust and WWII, but as perhaps the most popular period and venue for shooters like this, it’s the obvious comparison to make thematically, and what one finds is that however poor the story of a given WWII game, it inevitably attempts to emphasize and grapple with the enormity of the events you are experiencing. That’s the kind of responsibility I think you take on when you illustrate your game with the real world — even a fantasy version of the real world.

Furthermore Ubisoft has accepted that it must take some political stances, such as the inclusion of same-sex player-NPC relationships in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not controversial to me and many others, certainly, but hardly an apolitical inclusion in the present global political landscape. (I applaud them for this, by the way, and many others have as well.) It’s arguable this is not “overt” in that Kassandra and Alexios don’t break the first wall to advocate for marriage equality, but I think it is deliberately and unapologetically espousing a stance on a politically and societally charged issue.

It seems it is not that the company cannot be overtly political, but that it decided in this case that to be political on issues of guns, the military, terrorism, and so on was too much of a risk. To me that is in itself a political choice.

I do think Ubisoft is a fantastic company and makes wonderful games — but I also think the decision to completely divorce a game with fundamentally political underpinnings from the real politics and humanitarian conditions that empower it is a sad and spineless decision that makes them look both avaricious and inhumane. I know they can do better because others already have and do.

The Division 2 is a good game as far as games go. But games, like movies, TV, and other media, are very much art now, deserving of criticism as to their ideas as well as their controls and graphics; and as art, The Division 2 is as much a barren wasteland scoured of humanity as the D.C. it depicts.

Bioware’s high-flying ‘Anthem’ falls flat

Anthem is the first attempt by Bioware (of Mass Effect and Dragon Age fame) to tap into the well of cash supposedly to be found in the “game as platform” trend that has grown over the last few years, with Destiny, Warframe and Fortnite as preeminent exemplars. After a botched demo weekend dampened fan expectations, the final game is here — and while it’s a lot better than the broken mess we saw a few weeks ago, it’s still very hard to recommend.

I delayed my review to evaluate the game’s progress after an enormous day-one patch. While it is always premature to judge a game meant to grow and evolve by how it is immediately after launch, there are serious problems here that anyone thinking of dropping the $60 or more on it should be aware of. Perhaps they’ll all be fixed eventually, but you better believe it’s going to take a while.

I’d estimate this is about half the game it’s clearly intended to be; it seems to me we must soon find out that most of Anthem, supposedly in development for five years or more, was scrapped not long ago and this shell substituted on short notice.

The basic idea of Anthem is that you, a “freelancer” who pilots a mechanized suit called a “javelin,” fly around a big, beautiful world and blast the hell out of anything with a red hostility indicator over its head, which in practice is damn near everything. Once you’re done, you collect your new guns and gadgets and head back to base to improve your javelin, take on new missions, and so on.

If it sounds familiar, it’s basically an extremely shiny version of Diablo, which established this gameplay loop more than 20 years ago; its sequels and the innumerable imitators it spawned have refined the concept, bolstering it with MMO-style online integration, “seasons” of gameplay, and of course the inevitable microtransactions. People play them simply because it’s fun to kill monsters and see your character grow more powerful.

So Anthem is in good company, though of course for every success there are probably two or three failures and mediocre titles. Destiny has thrived in a way only because of its fluid and satisfying gunplay, while a game like Path of Exile leans on bulk, with skill trees and content one may never reach the ends of.

Anthem, on the other hand, lacks the charms of either. It is wildly short on content and its moment-to-moment gameplay, while competent and in some ways unique, rarely has you on the edge of your seat. It’s a very mixed bag of interesting concepts and disappointing execution, coupled with some truly baffling user experience issues.

I’ll cover the good parts first: the basics of flying around and shooting guys are for the most part solid. There’s a good variety of weapons, from hand cannons to shotguns and sniper rifles, with meaningful variations within those groups (though they usually boil down to rate of fire). You feel very cool during engagements, picking off enemies, dodging behind cover, flying to a new vantage point, and so on.

Each of the four javelins has a good pile of themed special abilities that significantly affect how you play; for instance, the Storm starts out with (basically) non-damaging ice shards that freeze enemies, setting them up for a damaging combo from its lightning strike — but soon you can swap those out for fiery explosions and a charge-up blast of cold, and so on. The synergies are somewhat limited in that some abilities clearly only work with some others, but there’s fun to be had experimenting. I played with three of the four javelins available (more to come, apparently) and they were all very distinct styles.


The graphics really are lovely, from the future-past desert chic of Fort Tarsis to the lush jungle cliffs of the world you’ll be exploring. The light and landscapes are beautiful, and the character models are, too. Firefights look chaotic and splashy, which they are. There are also lots of customization options, in terms of colors and materials anyway — there’s a puzzling lack of cosmetics to buy with in-game or real currency, only two or three available right now.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the extent of what Anthem gets right — and to be clear, it really can be fun when you’re actually in the middle of a firefight, blasting away, doing combos with friends, taking on hordes of bad guys. The rest is pretty much a mess. Here’s the greatest hits of how Anthem fails to operate, to respect the player’s time, and to generally speaking be a good game.

First and perhaps most egregious, the load screens are frequent and long. I timed it at more than 5 minutes from launch, and at least 3 or 4 different load screens, before I could actually play the game.

Get ready for a lot of this! And incidentally, many fire attacks don’t actually set up combos.

A long load time to bring up a huge world like Anthem’s I can understand. But load times to enter the screen where you change your gear? Load screens when you enter a small cave from the map? A load screen when you stray too far from your teammates and have to be teleported to them? A load screen when you finish a mission, then another before you can return to base — and another before you can equip your new gun? Oh my god!

This is compounded by a sluggish and over-complicated UI that somehow manages to show both too much and not enough, while inconsistent keys and interaction elements keep you guessing as to whether you need to press F or space or escape to go forward, hit or hold escape to go back, use Q or E to go through submenus or if you have to escape out to find what you’re looking for.

Equipment and abilities are mystifyingly under-explained: no terms like “+15% gear speed” or “+/-10% shield time” are explained anywhere, in the tutorial, documentation, or character screen. Because there is no character screen! For a game that depends hugely on stats and getting an overall feel for your build and gear, you have to visit five or six screens to get a sense of what you have equipped, its bonuses (if comprehensible), and whether you have anything better to use. Even core game systems like the “primer” and “detonator” abilities are only cursorily referred to, by cryptic icons or throwaway text. The original Diablo did it better, to say nothing of Anthem’s competition at the AAA level.

Navigating these menus and systems is doubly hard because you must do so not by just hitting a key, but by traveling at walking speed through the beautiful but impractical Fort Tarsis. It took a full 30 seconds for me to walk from my suit (the only place where you can launch missions) to a quest giver. And when you start the game, you start in a basement from which you have to walk 20 seconds to get to your suit! Are you kidding me?

A common sight.

Even when you’re doing what the game does best, zooming around and getting in firefights, there’s a disturbing lack of mission variety. Almost without exception you’ll fly to a little arena — some ruins or a base of some kind — and are immediately alerted of enemies in the area. They warp in at a convenient distance, often while you watch, and attack while you stand near a gadget (to advance a progress bar) or collect pieces to bring back. Some more powerful guys warp in and you shoot them. Fly to next arena, rinse and repeat.

Sure, you could say “well it’s a shooter, what do you expect?” I expect more than that! Where are the aerial chases the intro leads you to believe exist? Enemies all either stand on the ground or hover just above it. They don’t clamber on the walls, get to the top of towers, shoot down on you from cliffs, climb trees, build gun emplacements. You don’t defend a moving target like the “Striders” (obviously AT-ATs) you supposedly travel in; bridges and buildings don’t crumble or explode; you don’t chase a bad guy into a big cave (or if you do, there’s a loading screen); the “boss” type enemies are often just regular guys with more life or shields that recharge in the time it takes you to reload. Where are the enemy javelins? The enemy Striders? 90 percent of what you kill will be groundbound grunts taken down in a flash. For a game in which movement is emphasized and enjoyable, combat involves very little of it.

The campaign, which is surprisingly well acted but forgettable, seems like it was tacked on in a hurry. Amazingly, a major cutscene details a much more interesting story, in which a major city is overrun and destroyed and only a few survive. It struck me at the time that this might have been the original campaign and starting mission, after which you are logically relegated to the nearby Fort Tarsis and forced to fight for scraps. Instead you have a series of samey missions with voice-overs telling you what’s happening while you stand there and watch progress bars fill up.

At one point you are presented with four ancient tombs to track down, only to find that these amazing tombs aren’t missions but simply checklists of basic game activities like opening 15 treasure chests, killing 50 enemies with melee, and so on. At a point increasing these numbers was literally the only “mission” I had available in the game. And when I tried to join other people’s missions to accomplish these chores, half the time they were broken or already finished. Even trying to quit these missions rarely worked! (Some of these bugs and issues have been mitigated by patches, but not all.)

Spoiler warning! What do you think is in the tombs? A taxing dungeon full of traps, monsters, and ancient treasure? Nope! Literally just a tiny, empty room. And yes, there’s a loading screen — both in and out.

Oh, and because many of the missions are difficult or tedious to do solo, you’ll want to team up — except if you’re slow to load, the mission will commence without you and you’ll miss the VO. Whoops! And by the way, if you just want to test out a new gun or power, you’ll have to join a multiplayer “freeplay” session to do it, which is another handful of loading screens. I’m not even going to get into the failings of the multiplayer. Since you can’t communicate it’s basically like playing with bots. By the way, there’s no PvP so forget about skirmishing with your friends or randoms.

Even the loot you get is frustratingly low quality and unimaginative. Every gun or component is a standard model almost always with just slightly better damage than the last one you found, and perhaps a stat bonus. But the stat bonuses are boring and often nonsensical: do I really want an assault rifle that gives me 10 percent better damage with heavy pistols?

Where’s the fun? For comparison when I was playing Diablo III recently I found a pair of leg armor early on that produced a powerful poison cloud whenever I was touching 3 or more enemies. Suddenly I played differently, rushing into crowds of monsters and leaping out, then immobilizing them while their life ticked down. I changed out my weapons, focused on physical defense, poison buffs… all because of a pair of pants!

I’ve encountered nothing like that in 25 hours of Anthem. Every new power and gun is the same as the old one but with a higher number. Where’s the lightning bolt that also sets people on fire, or the plasma blast that always knocks down flying guys? The pistol that does double damage against one class of enemy, the sniper rifle that automatically chambers a new round instantly in one out of five shots?

You do eventually find some “Masterwork” items that have unique qualities, but even these are compromised by the fact that their stats are completely random (such as a bonus to the wrong damage type), necessitating a grind to make or find them over and over until you get one with bonuses that make sense.

So much of Anthem seems like it’s just missing. The campaign is half there; the controls and UI are half there; the loot is half there. The multiplayer is half there. Everything lacks a critical piece that makes it more than basically functional, and considering the game’s highly polished competition, this is inexplicable and inexcusable. I find it hard to believe this was in the works for five years when such elementary aspects like a character screen and working item descriptions aren’t included at launch.

It’s more than possible that with perhaps half a year of work the Bioware team — which seems to be painfully aware of the game’s shortcomings, if their responses to detailed litanies of complaints on the game’s subreddit are any indication — could make this game worth the price of entry. But right now I couldn’t recommend it to anybody in conscience, and I’m disappointed that a developer that’s created some of my favorite games dropped the ball so badly.

It’s too bad, because I feel the pull of the game, the basic chaotic fun at the heart of any good looter-shooter, because I feel like this can’t really be it. This can’t really be all my abilities, right? This can’t be every weapon? I liked Anthem when it was at its best, but that was so very little of the time I spent in it, and it took so much effort and patience on my part to even make those moments a possibility. I’ll be checking back in with the game in the hopes that it makes a Destiny-esque turnaround, but for now I have to say Anthem suffers from a failure to launch.

Kobo’s Forma e-reader takes on Kindle Oasis with an asymmetric design and premium price

Kobo’s latest e-reader is a complete about-face from its anonymous, cheap, and highly practical Clara HD; the Forma is big, expensive, and features a bold — not to say original — design. It’s clearly meant to take on the Kindle Oasis and e-reader fans for whom price is no object.

The $280 Forma joins a number of other e-readers in using a one-handed design, something which is, we might as admit up front, isn’t for everyone. That said, I’ve found that my reading style on these devices has been able to adapt from one form factor to another — it’s not like they made it head-mountable or something. You still hold it like you would any other small device.

It uses an 8-inch E-Ink Carta display with 300 pixels per inch, which is more than enough for beautiful type. The frontlight — essentially a layer above the display that lights up and bounces light off it to illuminate the page — is a Kobo specialty, adjustable from very cold to very warm in cast and everywhere in between.

The Clara HD, Kobo’s best entry-level device, left, and the Forma. (The color cast of the screens is adjustable.)

The screen will be very similar to that of the Aura One, Kobo’s previous high-end reader, but the Forma’s asymmetric design gives it slightly closer to square dimensions.

Where it differs from the Kindle Oasis is in size and a couple important particulars of design. The Forma is slightly larger, by about 20 millimeters (3/4″ or so) in height and width, and is ever so slightly but not noticeable thicker. (I didn’t have one to compare on hand, unfortunately.)

It’s also worth saying that like all Kobo devices, there are no forced advertisements on this one and you can load your own books as easy as that. To me Kindles aren’t even an option any more because of the “special offers” and limited file support.

Chin or ear?

The shape is similar, as anyone can see, but the Kobo team decided to go against having a flush front side and instead give the device a “chin,” as we used to call it on HTC phones, though being on the side it would perhaps more accurately be termed an “ear.” The screen, of course, is flat, but the grip on the side rises up from it at a 15 degree angle or so.

Is this better or worse than having a flush front? Aesthetically I prefer the flush screen but practically speaking it is better to have a flat back so it lies flat when you put it down or prop it against something. That the Oasis sits at a tilt when you set it down on a table is something that bothers me. (I’m very sensitive, as you can tell.)

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It’s still very light, only 30 grams more than the Clara, the same amount less than the Aura One, and nearly equal to the Oasis. Despite being larger than any of those, it’s no less portable. That said, the Clara will fit in my back pocket, and this one most definitely will not.

The device is fully waterproof, like the Oasis, although liquid on the screen can disrupt touch functionality (this is just a physics thing). Nothing to worry about, just wipe it off. The USB port is just wide open, but obviously it’s been sealed off inside. Don’t try charging it underwater.

I am worried about the material the grip is made of: a satin-finish plastic that’s very nice to the touch but tends to attract fingerprints and oils. Look, everyone has oils. But the grip of the Forma won’t let you forget it.

Although the power button is mushy and difficult to tell if you’ve pressed it right, the page-turn buttons are pleasantly clicky, and despite their appearance of being lever-like, they can easily be pressed anywhere along their length. Which goes forward and which backward switches automatically if you flip the reader over to use the other hand.

This flipping process happens more or less instantaneously, with a rare exceptions in my brief testing. Neither side feels more “correct,” for instance because of the weight distribution or anything.

The only one that doesn’t feel correct is the landscape mode. I’m not sure why someone would want to read this way, though I’m sure a few will like it. It just seems like a missed opportunity. Why can’t I have two pages displayed side by side, like a little pocket paperback? I’d love that! I’ve already asked Kobo about this and I assume that because I have done so, they will add it. As it is most books simply feel strange in this mode.

Familiar software, unfamiliar price

Text handling seems unchanged from Kobo’s other devices, which means it’s just fine — the typefaces are good and there are lots of options to adjust it to your taste book by book.

Kobo’s much-appreciated drag-and-drop book adding and support for over a dozen formats (epub, cbr, mobi, etc) is here as well with no changes. Pocket integration is solid and extremely useful.

The Forma (like Kobo’s other readers) does have Overdrive support, meaning that with a library card and account there you can easily request and read books from your local branch’s virtual stock. This is an underutilized service in general (by me as well) and I need to take advantage of it more.

So far, so good. But the real question is whether this thing is worth the $280 they’re charging for it — $30 more than the Kindle Oasis and even an even bigger jump over the Aura One. In my honest opinion, for most people, the answer is no. For the dollar you get a lot more from the Clara HD, which also has the advantage of being compact and pocketable.

But it must be said that the Forma is clearly a niche device aimed at people who use their e-reader a lot and want that bigger screen, the waterproofing, the thin profile, the one-handed design. There’s a smaller, but not necessarily small, number of people who are willing to pay for that. As it is the Forma is among the most expensive e-readers out there and it’s hard to justify that price for ordinary people who just want a good reader with the warmth control and good type.

The Forma is successful at what it aims to do — provide a credible competitor to Amazon’s most expensive device, and beat it at its own game in the ways Kobo usually beats Kindle. That much I can say for certain. Whether to buy it is between you and your wallet. Pre-orders start October 16.

I watched HBO’s Tinder-shaming doc ‘Swiped’ so you don’t have to

Have you ever wanted to see one of your “hate-reads” stretched out to feature-film length? If so, you’ll want to watch HBO’s new documentary, “Swiped,” which takes a depressing, trigger-inducing and damning look at online dating culture, and specifically Tinder’s outsized influence in the dating app business.

The film evolved from journalist Nancy Jo Sales’ 2015 Vanity Fair piece, entitled “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,” which was criticized at the time for its narrow focus on 20-something, largely heterosexual women in an urban setting. The piece had extrapolated out their personal dating struggles and turned them into condemnation of the entire online dating market.

But the VF piece was actually more memorable for Tinder’s response.

The company – well, it went off.

In a 30-tweet tirade (that’s still some of the best of the internet, mind you), the company lost its ever-lovin’ mind on both Vanity Fair and Nancy Jo Sales alike.

One sample tweet from the Tinder meltdown: “@VanityFair: Little know fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.”

Ah, take that! Right?! Right?

Despite the complete PR buffoonery, Tinder had a point.

The VF piece wasn’t representative of Tinder’s larger user base, only a sliver. And the complaints from a few users couldn’t be used to make a point about the entire industry.

Besides, what exactly was unique about those complaints?

Was it truly swipe culture to blame for the mistakes made in dating and sexual experimentation, when you’re young? Don’t you at least once or twice have to choose the wrong person, so you can begin to triangulate on what’s right?

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t fully correct the article’s problem in terms of its demographic samplings.

It still mostly relies on anecdotes told by (usually drunk) 20-somethings, which are then spliced up by the occasional expert commentary.

And the subjects are often really, really drunk.

There’s one scene where a young woman is so wasted, it’s hard to believe she gave the filmmaker informed consent to use her footage.

(Not the one below. But I’m pretty sure those Solo cups aren’t filled with lemonade.)

Meanwhile, the expert commentary has its highlights, too.

There’s one expert – April Alliston, a Princeton professor – who breastfeeds her baby on camera while giving her commentary on pornography. (Oh yes, please discuss rape porn while the baby suckles your breast, thank you very much.)

Look how cool and progressive we are! is the unspoken subtext, even as the film continues to subtly vilify casual sex among young adults, or act as if Tinder itself is somehow entirely responsible for the callous behavior of its users.

Unlike the magazine article, the film does slightly expand its cast of characters to include gender non-conforming and other LGBTQ people, more people of color, and – well, it’s Tinder! – a couple interested in threesomes.

But the general slice of the Tinder user base interviewed remains young, urban, and, in some cases, fairly vapid.

As for “Swiped’s” milieu,  much of its action is in the city.

Specifically, scene after scene in the film is labeled, “New York, New York,” as if the experiences of people in this competitive and unique market – a place where leveling up to something better is a way of life – could somehow represent a universal truth applicable to all of Tinder’s estimated 50 million users.

The film does, however, cover nearly everything that’s awful about dating apps – from young men ordering girls to their door as if it’s a meal from Seamless, to the overwhelming sense of dread and the depression that results from being on dating apps – or really, the internet itself – for too long.

There are also scenes touching nearly every Tinder trope:

The sending of dick pics; men posing with fish in their profile photos; that supposedly happy couple “looking for a third” (spoiler alert: they’re not happy and are broken up by end of film); the “DTF?” come-ons; and basically every other reason people delete these apps in the first place.

Where the film is somewhat stronger is when it talks about the very real psychological tricks Tinder and other dating apps have adopted to keep users engaged and addicted to swiping.

Tinder, it’s pointed out, uses gamification techniques: Brain tricks like intermittent variable rewards that are proven to work on pigeons, no less!

You see, if you don’t know when you’re getting the reward – a treat, a match, etc. – you end up playing the game more often, the psychologists explain.

One of the better quotes on this topic comes from Tinder co-founder and CSO Jonathan Badeen, where he essentially compares the act of using Tinder to doing drugs or gambling.

“We have some of these game-like elements, where you almost feel like you’re being rewarded,” says Baden. “It kinda works like a slot machine, where you’re excited to see who the next person is, or, hopefully, you’re excited to see ‘did I get the match?’ and get that ‘It’s a Match’ screen? It’s a nice little rush,” he enthuses.



Of course, these are concerns that extend beyond the online dating app industry.

Social media apps, in general, have been more recently called out for similar behaviors – that is, for leveraging psychological loopholes to addict their users in unhealthy ways.

The ramifications of our smartphone addictions are only now being examined, in fact.

Apple and Google, for example, have just launched screen time controls aimed at giving us a chance at fighting back at the dangerous dark patterns and brain hacks these apps use. (Apple’s toolset is only arriving in iOS 12 – which is just now getting to the public.)

It’s certainly fair to criticize companies like Tinder and Bumble for bringing these gamification tricks into delicate areas like those where the focus is supposedly on forming real human connections or “finding love.” But it’s disingenuous to act as if this is something unique to Tinder (et al) and not just, generally, the god-awful state of the tech industry as a whole at present.

The only other worthwhile part to “Swiped” is where the film points out that no one knows if any of these addictive apps actually succeed in helping people find real relationships.

Dating app companies don’t have any data on how many lasting relationships result from their app’s usage, “Swiped” finds. It’s odd, as tech companies are usually data hungry beasts. And success rates would seemingly be the exact kind of metric a company claiming to solve issues around relationship-finding would want to track.

Though everyone today seems to know someone who “met on an app,” it’s unclear what portion of the user base is actually finding long-term success with those relationships. The dating app companies have no idea, either, the film proclaims.

Asked how many people who met on Tinder got married or ended up in committed relationships, Jessica Carbino, a sociologist at Tinder, tells the filmmaker: “we do not have that information available.” She then adds she’s “inundated with emails” from Tinder users getting married and having babies.

(She also hilariously defends casual hookups as something that people go to church to pursue, too, so don’t blame Tinder for that! I mean, sometimes this film is just comedy gold, I swear.)

Of course, with a user base in the tens of millions, a good handful of happy emails should be expected. It’s definitely not evidence that Tinder is any better than the alternative – bars, blind dates, introductions through friends, etc.

The film then drives this particular point home by citing user studies by both Tinder and the more relationship-focused dating app Hinge, which seem indicate that swiped-based dating doesn’t work.

“80% of Tinder users are looking for a serious relationship,” says one Tinder survey. The text then fades, and the next statistic, this time from Hinge, appears.

“81% of users have never found a long-term relationship on any swiping app,” it says.

By the end of the film, it’s clear you’re expected to delete Tinder and all the other dating apps off your phone and get on with your life.

However, as with Facebook and social media, backlash doesn’t mean abandonment.

Tinder’s swipe culture is the new normal. It’s right to hold it accountable in areas it can do better – reporting and abuse, for example – but it’s not going away anytime soon.

Lexip’s joystick-mouse combo is a strange but promising hybrid

 While at CES I try to avoid getting bogged down by dozens of random gadgets, and this time I mostly succeeded — but the mouse reviewer in me was intrigued by Lexip’s new gaming mouse that’s also a sort of floating joystick. It’s a strange but cool idea, and although the learning curve is high, I can see some hardcore gamers and productivity fiends getting a lot of use… Read More