Amazon Echo Dot with Clock review: A mostly aesthetic update

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

Again, I think Amazon is anticipating people will stick it around eye level, which is certainly the case if you primarily use the clock while lying in bed. The clock itself is plenty bright. And honestly, it’s nice just having a simple digital display sometimes, versus a full-on smart screen. That’s especially the case if you plan to stick it near your bed. That, after all, is supposed to be a kind of refuge from screens. That’s doubly important these days when we’re seemingly never not in front of one.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, the uses for the face are pretty much limited. You get a “Hello” at launch, the time (naturally), the weather when prompted and the volume level. That last bit can be adjusted with voice or with a pair of physical buttons up top. Those are joined by the Alexa button, which fires up the assistant and the always-important microphone off. That turns red when you tap it, along with a red ring on the bottom of the device to let you known the speaker has stopped listening until it’s reenabled.

The sound quality is basically the same — which is to say, kind of what you’d expect from a $50 to $60 smart speaker. It’s good for all of the voice functionality you need, but I certainly wouldn’t rely on it as my default home speaker — even with a couple of them paired up. As an alarm clock, however, sure, go for it. It certainly beats the speaker on your phone.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The $10 price difference between the Dot and Dot with Clock is a bit of a weird one. I’d anticipate in future generations, Amazon will just combine them into one product, priced the same as the standard Dot. For now, however, telling time at a glance is going to cost you a little extra.

The new Echo arrives October 22. The Dot with Clock won’t be available until November 5.

Marshall Major IV wireless headphones offer great sound, plus 80+ hours of battery life and wireless charging

Marshall’s new Major IV headphones ($149.99) combine lightweight comfort with wireless charging, and up to 80 hours of playback for an iconic headset that’s affordable and flexible. At home or on the go, these are a great option with unique features that you won’t find anywhere else in the headphone market.

Basics

This is the fourth iteration of Marshall’s Major on-ear wireless headphones, and they offer a number of improvements new to the lineup, including a new folding clip design that makes them even more compact when packed for travel — and that allows them to rest comfortably on a charging pad to enable another new feature: wireless charging using the Qi standard.

Marshall has also greatly improved battery life, advertising an insane 80 hours of usage time on these, way up from the 30+ promised in the last generation. They still feature square earcups with that iconic Marshall look, but the detail on each is flat instead of pebbled faux leather (that remains on the headband). The multi-directional control knob is also carried over from past Major designs, and there’s a 3.5mm socket for wired sound, and for sharing your audio connection out to another headset.

In the box, there’s a coiled 3.5mm cable for that vintage Marshall amp feel, as well as a USB-C cable for wired charging, which will provide a full 80+ hours of use from three hours — or 15 hours from just 15 minutes with a new quick-charge feature.

Design and performance

The design of the Major IV is classic Marshall aesthetic — which is great news. They look fantastic, with the iconic logo in script on both earcups. As mentioned, the earcup face is now smooth and matte, which looks great, and there’s a silicone edge on each, which helps keep the right earcup in place when placed on a wireless charger.

Image Credits: Marshall

These are compact, over-ear headsets that rest comfortably, and that comfort is helped by the lightweight materials used in their construction. Despite feeling very light, they feel like they’re made of quality materials thoughtfully constructed, and should last a long time in terms of durability.

Marshall’s multi-directional controller is both an attractive cosmetic detail in gold, and a smart control interface that offers intuitive manipulation of audio playback and volume.

Sound-wise, the Major IV provides great audio quality for a headset in this price range. The bass is rich, and the highs are clear. There’s no noise cancelling at work here, so you will get a decent amount of audio bleed-in from your surroundings, but they do a decent job of sound isolation for an over-hear set. And the sound quality is made all the better because of the class-leading battery life Marshall has managed to pack into the Major IV. Indeed, 80+ hours is just astounding, and it means you’ll likely be able to go at least a week or two without even thinking about a charger while using these actively.

Bottom line

Marshall has really delivered an amazing value with the new Major IV. Combining style, performance and quality into a headset that also has amazing battery life and unique wireless charging capabilities is a true achievement — and perks like 3.5mm wired audio sharing just round out the package. These are a great everyday headset that you won’t want to go anywhere without.

Shure’s Aonic 50 wireless noise-cancelling headphones offer best-in-class audio quality

The noise-cancelling over-ear headphone category is an increasingly competitive one, and consumers have never been more spoiled for choice. Shure entered the market this year with the Aonic 50, a premium-priced headset ($399) that offers active noise cancelling, Bluetooth connectivity and USB-C charging. Shure’s reputation for delivering top-quality sound is definitely part of the package, and there’s a lot more to recommend the Aonic 50, as well.

Basics

Shure offers the Aonic 50 in either black or brown finishes, and they have physical controls on the right ear cup for volume, turning noise cancellation on and off, power, activating voice assistances and skipping tracks. There’s a USB-C port for charging, and a 2.5mm stereo connector on the left ear cup for using the included cable to connect via wire, which allows you to use them even while the internal battery is depleted or the headset is powered down (albeit without active noise cancelling, obviously).

The Aonic 50 also comes with a round, flat carrying case — the ear cups swivel to fit in the zippered storage compartment. This takes up more of a footprint than the typical folding design of these kind of ANC headphones, but it’s less bulky, too, so it depends on how you’re packing them whether this is good or bad.

Shure offers a mobile app for iOS and Android called ShurePlus Play that can provide EQ controls, as well as more specific tuning of both the active noise cancelling, and the environmental mode that pipes in outside sound. This allows for a lot of customization, but with one major caveat — EQ settings only apply when playing music via the app itself, which is an unusual and disappointing choice.

Design and performance

Shure’s Aonic 50 excel in a couple of areas where the company has a proven track record: sound quality and comfort/wearability. The ample faux leather-wrapped padding on both the headband and the ear cups make them very comfortable to wear, even for longer sessions, which is great for work from home practicality. I often forgot I had them on while moving around the house, which gives you an idea of how well they fit.

As for sound, Shure has aimed for a relatively neutral, flat tone that provides an accurate recreation of what the original producer intended for any track, and the results are great. Music detail is clear, and they’re neither too heavy on bass or overemphatic on treble. This is a sound profile that audiophiles will appreciate, though it might not be the best for anyone who’s looking for a bass-heavy soundstage. That said, bass-favoring headphones are easy to find in this category, so Shure’s offering, with its clear highs, stands apart from the field in the ANC arena. To be clear, the bass is excellent, but overall the market has moved toward muddy, artificially enhanced bass versus true rendering, which the Aonic 50 delivers.

The button controls on the Aonic 50 are well-placed and cover the spectrum in terms of what you’d want to be able to control right from the headset. USB-C charging is much-appreciated in an era where that’s far and away the standard for most of the mobile devices in your life, as well as many computers. The included stereo cable is a great addition for when the battery runs out — but Shure’s advertised 20-hour or so battery life estimate is accurate, so it’ll be quite a while before you have to resort to that, as long as you remember to charge once in a while.

If there’s one place where Shure’s performance falls a bit short, it’s in noise cancellation. The ANC does a decent job of blocking out unwanted environmental sound, but it’s not quite up to the standard of the like of Bose or Sony’s top-end ANC headphones. It still gets the job done most of the time, and the trade-off is better sound.

Bottom line

As I said above, people looking for active noise-cancelling headphones are spoiled for choice these days. But the Shure Aonic 50 offers something that discerning audio pros won’t be able to find from alternatives, including those from Bose or Sony, and that’s an excellent soundstage and sound quality that just can’t be beat. Wearability is also tops, which makes these a great option for audiophiles who want a wire-free, sound-blocking solution for a home office.

Google Pixel 5 review: Keeping it simple

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I don’t really understand Google’s phone strategy right now. And for what it’s worth, I’m not really sure Google does either. I wrote about it here, but I’ll save you from having to read an additional 800 words on top of all these. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of distinction between them.

The Pixel is a portrait of a hardware division in transition. That applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company recently saw a minor executive exodus. It’s pretty clear the future of Google’s mobile hardware division is going to look quite different from its present — but 2020’s three phones are most likely a holdover from the old guard.

What you’re looking at here is the Pixel 5. It’s Google’s flagship. A device that sports — among other things — more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a announced earlier this year. It distinguishes itself from that budget handset, however, with the inclusion of 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further muddy the waters.

There are some key distinctions that separate the 5 and 4a 5G, which were announced at the same event. The 5’s got a more solid body, crafted from 100% recycled aluminum to the cheaper unit’s polycarbonate. It also has waterproofing and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we’ve seen on Samsung devices for a few generations now. Beyond that, however, we run into something that’s been a defining issue since the line’s inception. If you choose not to use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to differentiate your devices’ hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Since the very beginning of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to push the products forward. It’s a nice sentiment after years of feature arms races between the likes of Apple and Samsung. But that means when it comes time to introduce new devices, the results can be fairly lackluster. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.

From a hardware perspective, it’s not a particularly exciting phone. That’s probably fine for many. Smartphones have, after all, become more commodity than luxury item, and plenty of users are simply looking for one that will just get the job done. That said, Google’s got some pretty stiff competition at the Pixel 5’s price point — and there are plenty of Android devices that can do even more.

There are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above worth pointing out, however. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device hampered by one really big issue: an abysmal battery life. The 2,800mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device’s neck. That, thankfully, has been addressed here in a big way.

Google’s bumped things up to 4,080mAh. That’s also a pretty sizable bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which sport 3,885mAh and 2,130mAh, respectively. That extra life is extra important, given the addition of both Battery Share and 5G. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area with basically no 5G (three cheers for working from home), so your mileage will vary based on coverage. But using LTE, I was able to get about a day and a half of use out of the handset, besting the stated “all-day battery).

This is helped along by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (though, confusingly, the 4a 5G does have a larger screen with a bit lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a six-inch, 2,340 x 1,080 size. It’s larger than the Pixel 4’s 5.7 inches, but at a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The 90Hz refresh rate remains. Compared to all of the phones I’ve been testing lately, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It’s a refreshing change to be able to use the device with one hand.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The camera is probably the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches are the most at conflict with one another. Google was fairly convinced it could do everything it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually begrudgingly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year’s model, but the 16-megapixel 2x optical telephoto has been replaced by a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. Whether that represent progress is largely up to your own personal preference. Frankly, I’d prefer a little more non-distorted zooming.

Google, of course, is building on a solid foundation. I really loved the Pixel 4’s photos. The things Google’s imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware constraints is really impressive, and while you’re lacking the scope of a premium Samsung device or high-end iPhone, casual photo snappers are going to be really happy with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.

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Night Sight has been improved and now turns on when the phone’s light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten decidedly darker in recent weeks as the season has changed, and the phone automatically enters the mode for those pre-dawn shots (COVID-19 has made me an early riser, I don’t know what to tell you). The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.

The Pixel’s Portrait Mode remains one of the favorites — though it’s still imperfect, running into issues with things like hair or complex geometries. It really doesn’t know what to do with a fence much of the time, for instance. The good news is that Google’s packed a lot of editing options into the software here — particularly for Portrait Mode.

You can really go crazy in terms of bokeh levels and placement and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that lends the appearance of changing a light source. Changing the effects can sometimes be a bit laggy, likely owing to the lower-end processing power. All said, it’s a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as usual, I would really love to see what Google’s imaging team would be able to do if the company ever gives it a some real high-end photography hardware to play around with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 becomes, I suppose.

In the end, the two biggest reasons to recommend upgrading from the Pixel 4 are 5G and bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time out. The former really depends on what coverage is like in your area. The 5G has improved quite a bit of late, but there are still swaths of the U.S. — and the world — that will be defaulting to LTE on this device. Also note that the $200 cheaper 4a 5G also offers improvements in both respects over last year’s model.

Still, $700 is a pretty reasonable price point for a well-rounded — if unexciting — phone like the Pixel 5. And Google’s got other things working in its favor, as well — pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flash, however, there are plenty of options in the Android world.

Microsoft reverse engineers a budget computer with the Surface Laptop Go

The Surface Laptop Go joined me in the woods last week. It lived in my backpack for a few days and came along for a 20-mile hike through footpaths and across bridges of questionable integrity.

It is, without a doubt, light. It’s certainly lighter than the MacBook Air I also packed for the trip, at 2.45 pounds to the Apple device’s 2.8. It doesn’t sound like a ton, but when you’re devoting eight hours to hiking up and down mountains, every fraction of a pound makes a big difference to your lower back. And while (sadly) I don’t hike every day, lugging around a heavy laptop can really do damage over time.

The screen brightness, on the other hand, is lacking. Not surprising, really, for a low-powered, low-cost device. It will do the job indoors, but combined with a reflective screen finish, it’s pretty tough to see anything on the screen outside, even at the highest brightness. That’s probably not a deal breaker for most, but it does feel like one of a number of corners the company cut in an effort to bring the cost down.

At its heart, the Laptop Go is a case study in reverse engineering a budget laptop. It’s the product of an expanding focus for the Surface line. Once almost exclusively Microsoft’s attempt to showcase what its software could do on premium, custom-built hardware, the brand has evolved in a lot of different directions.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company’s attempts to lure creative professionals away from Apple coexist with its exploration of budget devices. The Laptop Go firmly falls within the latter category. Following in the lines of the Go, the device seeks to answer the question of whether the hardware principles it has spent years developing across the Surface line can be applied to a budget device.

It’s an understandable — and commendable — effort on that front. Delivering a truly premium laptop experience at a rock bottom price is a win-win. Of course, there’s a lot to contend with here. For starters, getting prices down is a matter of determining which sacrifices you’re willing to make. Then there’s the fact that a lot of companies have already put a lot of work into building hardware for Chrome OS and Windows 10 S.

When Microsoft launched the latter operating system a few years back, it did so on the Surface Laptop. It was a strange decision: offering its Chromebook competitor in the form of a device starting at $999. It took a few years, but the company finally has an appropriately priced devices for the operating system, starting at $549. One lesson the company learned from the original Laptop and fellow Surface brethren is the importance of design.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Laptop Go is a nice-looking, budget laptop. It’s fairly sleek and sits nicely alongside other members of the Surface family. The top and keyboard case are made of aluminum. That’s coupled with polycarbonate composite resin that feels fairly plasticky to the touch. On the tactile front, the keys are a bit soft/gummy for my tastes and will take some getting used to — but it certainly beats typing on the vast majority of keyboard cases.

The port situation is mixed. I like that Microsoft opted to include both a USB-A and C port, straddling the line between backward compatibility and futureproofing. Though at this point, I think the safest bet is to go multiple USB-C ports. The other side sports only one port: a Surface dock connector. The company is no doubt maintaining the connection to keep the product working with existing accessories, but the time feels right to drop it in favor of USB charging.

Internally, things are kind of a mixed bag, as well. The 10th-gen Intel Core i5 chip comes standard. That’s a generous inclusion for a $550 laptop. But the base model defaults to 4GB of RAM and 128GB. You’re going to want to upgrade those — and that’s where you start losing the budget thread.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Our review unit had 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage — not bad. But that’s going to set you back $900. Suddenly you can see how you’ve quickly left the cheap laptop realm. The fingerprint sensor is also only tacked on as part of an upgrade for $699 and up. It’s also, weirdly, the one part of the keyboard that illuminates — albeit around the border. The exclusion of a backlit keyboard seems like an odd oversight here.

All said, the Laptop Go isn’t a bad first attempt to offer a truly budget entry. As I said with the original Surface Laptop, I’d recommend upgrading out of Windows 10 S the moment you get the device for a majority of users. But otherwise the system works reasonably well as a lightweight, good-looking secondary device. But if you’re not in a rush for such a thing, it will likely pay off to see what Microsoft can do with the device a second time around.

Corsair’s TBT100 Thunderbolt 3 dock offers the right expandability in a well-designed package

Gaming peripheral expert Corsair has released a new Thunderbolt 3 docking station that boasts a number of useful ports, paired with aesthetics that should fit in perfectly with any of Apple’s Space Gray hardware kit. The TBT100 dock offers plenty of expandability for making your Mac the center of a temporary work-from-home office, or can provide great convenience and connection options even for more powerful desktop computer setups.

The basics

The Corsair TBT100 offers a full complement of ports powered via a single Thunderbolt 3 cable from your computer, along with a dedicated power adapter. For display, there are 2 HDMI 2.0 ports capable of 4K 60Hz output, with HDR color rendering. There are two USB 3.2 Type-C ports, one in front and one in back, as well as two USB 3.1 Type-A ports (both in back) that can all connect to both charge devices and provide data connections. A Gigabit Ethernet port provides networking, while a 3.5mm jack offers both headphone out and microphone in. There’s also an SDXC card reader that supports UHS-II speeds.

The TBT100 offers 85W power delivery via its lone Thunderbolt 3 cable for connected host notebooks, and can smart charge devices at up to 15W via the USB-C ports, or up to 7.5W via the USB-A connections.

Design and features

This is definitely one of the better-looking Thunderbolt 3 docks out there. It’s a category where it’s hard for design to stand out, since these generally all look roughly the same – metallic and plastic rectangles with a combinations of ports located front and back. Corsair’s dock doesn’t venture too far from this standard look, but the touches it adds like the gray aluminum finish and the way the aluminum continues around the rounded corners makes it a more attractive desktop addition than most.

The port arrangement is also well-conceived. Up front, there’s one USB-C port (handy for quickly plugging in a mobile device for a charge), the SD card reader (really useful for frequent use) and the 3.5 mm jack (ditto for commonly relocated items like headsets). Everything else is around back, letting you put more regularly connected cables in prime location for routing them to make them a more invisible part of your desktop setup.

Corsair’s choice to go with HDMI ports is also probably the best option on balance for most users. Many alternatives have gone with DisplayPort, but your average consumer these days is much more likely to have HDMI cables and HDMI-capable displays, and the spec still supports 4K resolution as well as HDR to get the most image quality out of any modern connected TV or monitor.

Bottom line

There are many flavors of Thunderbolt 3 docks, but the Corsair TBT100 offers a pretty perfect blend of connectivity, design and convenience relative to the pack. At $259.99, the price of the dock is also not too expensive, though it’s not cheap either. But if you’re looking for a reliable, permanent solution to a lack of connections for your home setup, this is the one to get.

Apple Watch Series 6 review

When it comes to smartwatches, it’s Apple against the world. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of other products to choose from — it’s more that the company has just utterly dominated the space to such a point that any other device is relegated to the realm of “Apple Watch alternatives.”

The company has been successful in the space for the usual Apple reasons: premium hardware with deeply integrated software, third-party support, a large cross-device ecosystem play and, of, course, simplicity. Taken as a whole, the Watch just works, right out of the box.

Five years after launch, the line is fairly mature. As such, it’s no surprise, really, that recent updates have largely amounted to refinements. As with most updates, the watch has gotten a processor boost up to the A14 processor, which the company claims is 20% faster than the last version. Perhaps the biggest hardware upgrade, however, is the addition of a blood oxygen sensor, an important piece in the company’s quest to offer as complete an image of wearer health as is possible from the wrist.

I wrote a pretty lengthy piece about the watch last week after wearing it for a few days. As I mentioned at the time, it was an odd kind of writeup, somewhere between hands-on and review. A week or so later, however, I’m more comfortable calling this a review — even if not too many of my initial impressions have changed much in the past several days. After all, a mature product largely means most of the foundations remain unchanged.

The Series 6 certainly looks the part. The Watch is tough to distinguish from other recent models — and for that matter, the new and significantly cheaper SE. The biggest visual change is the addition of new colors. In addition to the standard Gray and Gold, Apple’s added new Blue and (Product)Red cases. The latter seems to be the more ostentatious of the pair. The company sent me a blue model, and honestly, it’s a lot more subtle than I expected. It’s more of a deep blue hue, really, that reads more as black a lot of the time.

It’s tough to imagine the product undergoing any sort of radical rethink of the device’s design language at this point. We may see slight tweaks, including larger screen area going forward, but on the whole, Apple is very much committed to a form factor that has worked very well for it. I will probably always prefer Samsung’s spinning bezel as a quick way to interface with the operating system, but the crown does the job well and scrolling through menus even feels a bit zippier this time, perhaps owing to that faster silicon.

The new Solo Loop bands hit a bit of a hiccup out of the gate. I’ve detailed that a bit more here, but I suspect that much of the problem came down to the difficulty of selling a specifically sized product during a strange period in history where in-person try-ons aren’t really an option. In other words, just really bad timing on that front.

Personally, I quite like the braided model. I’ve been using it as my day to day band. It’s nice and blends in a lot better than the silicone model (I’ve frankly never been much of a fan of Apple’s silicone bands). But I do need to mention that Apple sent me a couple different sizes, which made it much easier to find the right fit. I recognize that. Especially when the braided Solo Loop costs a fairly exorbitant $99. The silicone version is significantly cheaper at $49, but either way, you’re not getting off cheap there. So you definitely want to make sure you get the right fit.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

This is doubly important given the fact that the Series 6’s biggest new feature — blood oxygen monitoring — is highly dependent on you getting a good fit. The sensor utilizes a series of LEDs on the bottom of the watch to shine infrared and red light through the wearer’s skin and into their blood vessels. The color of light that reflects back gives the watch a picture of the oxygen levels in the blood. The whole thing takes about 15 seconds, but only works if your fit is right. Even with the right Solo Loop on, I found myself having to retake it a few times when I first started wearing the watch.

Beyond the on-demand measurements, the watch will also take readings throughout the day and night, mapping these trends over time and incorporating them into sleep readings. The overall readings will give you a good picture of your numbers over time. Honestly though, I get the sense that this is really just the tip of the iceberg of future functionality.

For now, there’s really no specific guidance — or context — given as far as what the numbers mean. Mine are generally between 90-100%. The Mayo Clinic tells me that’s good, but obviously there are a lot of different factors and variations that can’t properly be contextualized in a single paragraph — or on a watch. And Apple certainly doesn’t want to be accused of attempting to diagnose a condition or offer specific medical guidance. That’s going to be an increasingly difficult line for the company to walk as it gets more serious about these sorts of health tools.

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that the combination of sleep tracking in watchOS 7 and the on-board oximeter opens the door pretty nicely for something like sleep apnea tracking (again, more focused on alerts of irregularity versus diagnosis). We’ve seen a small handful of companies like Withings tackle this, so it seems like a no-brainer for Apple, pending all of the regulatory requirements, et al. There are all sorts of other conditions that blood oxygen levels could potentially alert the wearer to, if not actually diagnose.

Sleep was probably the biggest addition with the latest version of watchOS. This was probably the biggest blind spot for the line, compared to the competition. At the moment, the sleep tracking is, admittedly, still pretty basic. Like much of the rest of the on-board tracking, it’s mostly compared with changes over time. The metrics include time in bed versus time asleep, as well as incorporating heart rate figures from the sensor’s regular check-ins. More specific breakdowns, including deep versus light versus REM sleep haven’t arrived yet, but will no doubt be coming sooner than later.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The door is also wide open for Apple to really get mindfulness right. The company has incorporated a mindfulness reminder for a while now, but it’s easy to imagine how the addition of various sensors like heart rate could really improve the picture and find the company going all-in on meditation, et al. The company could partner with a big meditation name — or, more likely, disrupt things with its own offering. The forthcoming Fitness+ offering could play an important role in the growth of that category, as well.

The other issue that sleep brings to the front is battery life. I was banking on the company making big strides in the battery department — after all, a big part of sleep tracking is ensuring that you’ve got enough charge to get through the night. Apple really only briefly touched on battery — though a recent teardown has revealed some smallish improvements on battery capacity (perhaps owing, in part, to space freed up by the dropping of Force Touch).

The company has also made some improvements to energy efficiency, courtesy of the new silicon. Official literature puts it at a “full-day” of  battery life, up to 18 hours. I found I was able to get through a full day with juice to spare. That’s good, but the company’s still got some ground to make up on that front, compared to, say, the Fitbit Sense, which is capable of getting nearly a week on a charge. I think at this point, it’s fair to hold wearables to higher standards of battery life than, say, handsets. More than once, I’ve found myself intermittently charging the device — 20 minutes here and 20 minutes there — in order to have enough juice left by bedtime.

If you can spare more time than that, you should be able to get up to 80% in an hour or 100% in an hour and a half, courtesy of faster wireless charging. All told, the company has been able to shave significant time off of charging — a definite plus now that you’re not just leaving it overnight to charge. The latest version of watchOS will also handily let you know before if you don’t have enough charge to make it through a full night.

Other updates include the addition of the always-on Altimeter, which, along with the brighter screen doesn’t appear to have had a major impact on the battery. I’ll be honest, being stuck in the city for these last several months hasn’t given me much reason to need real-time elevation stats. Though the feature is a nice step toward taking the Watch a bit more seriously as an outdoor accessory in a realm that has largely been dominated by the likes of Garmin.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, the company now has three watches on the market — including the Series 3, which just keeps on ticking, and the lower-cost SE. The latter retains the design of the Series 6, but drops a number of the key sensors, which honestly should be perfectly sufficient for many users — and $170 cheaper than the 6’s $399 starting price ($499 with cellular).

Taken as a whole, the Series 6 isn’t a huge leap forward over the Series 5 — and not really worth the upgrade for those who already own that recent vintage. But there are nice improvements throughout, augmented by good upgrades to watchOS that make the best-selling smartwatch that much better, while clearly laying the groundwork for Apple Watches of the future.

Fitbit Sense review

The Versa helped Fitbit reverse its fortunes after a long, gradual slide. The company was slow to embrace the smartwatch, and stumbled somewhat out of the gate with the Ionic. But the Versa found a perfect sweet spot that build atop generations of wearable health knowhow, key acquisitions like Pebble and a pricing sweet spot at $200.

In fact, other big-name smartwatch makers like Apple and Samsung have since followed suit, offering up more budget-friendly approaches to the category. The moves came as Fitbit and a slew of Chinese device makers were nabbing market share through budget plays. But while the competition zigs, Fitbit zags, I suppose. That’s where the Sense comes in. It’s a return to the premium pricing the company put on hold when it let the Ionic fade away.

At $330, the Sense falls under the lower end of premium — at least compared to say, the Apple Watch Series 6 and Galaxy Watch 3, which both start at $399. The premium market isn’t the most logical play for a company that has been successful at a lower price point, but it’s perhaps understandable that the company is interested in expanding on its fortunes, legacy software and health metrics and finally, properly trying to beat Apple at its own game.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

While Fitbit has a bit of a history flooding the market with different devices, I do think the decision to introduce an entirely new product makes sense here. Really, the worst Fitbit could have done was add a bunch of features to the Versa and raise the price by $100, thus removing one of the product’s primary selling points in the process (though the Versa’s price has also increased to $220).

The truth is, the Sense and Versa 3 are actually more alike than they are different. The similarities start with the casing. The two products look virtually identical, aside from some different color options. The Sense comes in, arguably, classier colors with either gray or gold. The display is the company’s familiar squircle, which is only available in the one size.

I suspect Fitbit learned its lesson about unwieldy watch designs with the Ionic. The device sports a 1.58-inch display, which feels about right. And the square design makes it feel more compact than Apple’s comparably sized watch. That said, more watch sizes is always a good thing, particularly for a product like the Sense that’s attempting to appeal to a wide range of wearers.

Unlike Samsung and Apple’s smartwatches, there’s no standalone dial-button for navigating through screens. There is a pressure-sensitive button on the side of the device, though that ultimately was a bit of a nuisance. I found myself repeatedly accidentally triggering it while moving my wrist. And honestly, for most actions, simply swiping across screens is perfectly fine.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As the name implies, the biggest difference between Fitbit’s latest smartwatches comes down to sensors. The Sense has a lot packed in here. Both feature optical heart-rate monitoring, a temperature monitor and an SpO2 sensor — which was possibly the biggest upgrade announced for the Apple Watch Series 6. The Sense, however, is alone as the first Fitbit to adopt an ECG sensor, bringing it up to speed with the new Apple Watch on that front.

As is often the case with these sorts of sensors, I’m unable to really highlight it in the review. FDA clearance seems to be a bit more straightforward as the feature has become more and more common on consumer devices, but while Fitbit has cleared it, the functionality won’t be rolled out on the devices until next month. When it does arrive, you’ll get the kind of health readouts we’ve come to expect from these sensors, including heart rhythms and notifications for any usual activity.

Sleep tracking is one place Fitbit has had Apple beat for some time. The latter is attempting to change that with the latest version of watchOS, but still has a lot of work to do in order to catch up. The array of sensors go a long ways toward providing a more complete picture of your sleep over the course of the night. While Apple’s offering largely revolves around things like time in bed and time asleep, Fitbit provides a fuller picture, including, importantly, sleep quality, broken up by REM, light and deep sleep. SpO2 and heart rate are also factored into the picture. SpO2, in particular, will become an increasingly important factor in sleep going forward, as these devices look to track things like sleep apnea.

Another big piece of sleep is battery life. That’s something Fitbit’s been good at for a while. The Sense is rated at six days. Your mileage is going to vary considerably, however, depending on whether you opt for the always on display and other features. As it stands, I was able to get several days on a single charge with the feature switched off. Frankly, that’s a pretty big advantage over Apple’s stated 18 hours. Charging each night before bed or first time in the morning isn’t ideal.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I appreciate Fitbit’s focus on mindfulness. I think it’s something we can all use a bit more of these days. I definitely include myself in that boat. Fitbit is one of a handful of smartwatch makers currently looking to push the concept beyond simple breathing exercises. That’s included in the Mindfulness tile. The company will quantify relaxation using the the on-board sensors. I honestly haven’t used it a ton, but anything that can help jumpstart a mindfulness practice is a net positive.

The Sense’s software continues to still be fairly basic. And while there are plenty of watch faces, the app selection lags behind some of the bigger names. It will be interesting to watch how Fitbit’s approach to software changes if/when the Google acquisition goes through. After all, wearOS has been around for a while and received plenty of updates, but still has its share of shortcomings.

The Sense’s strong suit is also Fitbit’s: a strong underpinning of health and fitness focus. The company certainly has a good, solid history of upgrades. But while it packs more sensors than the Versa 3, for many the difference will be relatively minor — and perhaps difficult to justify that $100 price gap. I’ve yet to spend a lot of time with the latest version of that device, but if past is any prologue, it’s a solid choice for those looking for an Android-compatible Apple alternative at a good price.

The Lumos Matrix is the ideal urban bike helmet for a smarter, safer day trip

With many of us are still more or less confined to our own homes and limited social spaces for the foreseeable future, and for a lot of you, that has led to a rediscovery of the joys of biking. Bike riding is a great way to spend time outdoors exploring your own town or city, and if you’re just getting into exploring this hobby, or if you’re a long-time bike rider looking for an upgrade, the Lumos Matrix smart helmet is a sensible piece of tech with a solid design that combines a number of connected features into one great package.

The basics

The Matrix is a version of Lumos’ smart helmet updated with modern, urban helmet aesthetics and a new large LED display on the back that can be programmed to show a variety of different patterns, including simple images. It includes a built-in front light in addition to the rear light panel, as well as integrated turn signals that work with an included physical handlebar remote, or in concert with an Apple Watch app. It’s available in either a gloss white finish, or a matte black (as reviewed).


Lumos has designed the Matrix to work with a wide range of head sizes, thanks in part to two sets of included velcro pads for the inside of the helmet, but due mostly to the adjustable, ratcheting sizing harness on the inside. This can be easily dialled to tighten or loosen the helmet, helping it fit heads ranging between 22 and 24-inches in size.

The exterior of the Lumos is made of an ABS plastic that provides full weatherproofing, so that you can wear it in the rain without having to worry about the condition of the embedded electronics. There’s also a MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) option that you can add on if you want an additional level of safety and security, though that’s not yet shipping and should be “available soon” according to the company.

A button integrated into the helmet’s strap lets you turn it on and off, and cycle between the built-in patters. You can pair the helmet via Bluetooth with your smartphone, too, and use the dedicated app to customize features including brightness, and even creating your own custom patterns for the rear display. In the box, you’ll also find a charging cable with a standard USB A connector on one end, and a proprietary magnetic charging surface on the other for powering up both your helmet and the handlebar remote.

Design and performance

The Lumos Matrix features a mostly continuous surface, with four vents on the top of the helmet for airflow, with an integrated brim built into the shell. As mentioned, there’s a front-facing light built-in to the helmet and protected by a transparent plastic covering, as well as a rear panel of 7×11 led lights, which create a dot matrix-style display that can display images or animations, including scrolling text. These LEDs are all full RGB, allowing the user to take full advantage for their own, or built-in display creations.

Lumos also makes the Kickstart, which features a more aerodynamic, thoroughly vented design. The look of the Matrix is more akin to helmets used in skateboarding, and for urban commuter bicyclists. Despite its more solid-looking design, in testing I found that it was actually very comfortable and cool, allowing plenty of airflow. The helmet sits a bit high on the head, but has ample hard foam padding and definitely feels like a solid piece of protective gear. Overall, the extreme quality of the construction and level of the finishes on the Matrix help it earn its higher price tag.

The Matrix is also comfortable, and the adjustable sizing straps ensure a snug fit that means the helmet won’t be shifting around at all while worn. The activation button located on the chin strap near your ear is easy to find and press, with a tactile response combined with an auditory signal so you’ll know it’s on. There’s also a built-in magnetic holder for the included two-button handlebar turn signal remote in the rear interior of the helmet itself, which is super useful when wearing the helmet out on errands.

In terms of the smart features, Lumos has created a very sensible set of defaults for the on-board lighting that make it easy to just turn on the helmet and get riding. The built-in patterns offer a range of options, but all do the job of increasing your visibility – and the bright lighting means that it adds to your ability to be seen by motorists, other cyclists and pedestrians even while you’re biking in bright daylight.

The customizability of the rear dot matrix display is also super handy. Even if you’re not interested in creating colorful designs to express your artistic self, you can use it for much more practical reasons – like displaying a simple scrolling message (ie. ‘biking with kids’) in order to alert anyone else around to reasons to pay heightened attention.

The included Lumos handlebar remote is paired out of the box, and is extremely reliable in terms of activating the turn signals on the helmet. Lumos’ smartwatch app was much more hit-or-miss for me in terms of recognizing my arm gestures reliably to automate the signalling, but that’s really a value-add feature anyway, and totally not necessary to get the full benefit of the helmet. The app’s integration with Apple Health for workout tracking while biking is also fantastic, and really adds to the overall experience of using the Matrix helmet.

Bottom line

The Lumos Matrix is a fantastic bike helmet, with an amazing integrated smart lighting system that’s both bright and highly customizable. There’s a reason this thing is carried at Apple Stores – it’s top quality in terms of construction, software integration and design. That said, its retail price starts at $249.95 – which is a lot when you consider that a good quality MIPS helmet without smart features will only set you back about $60 or so.

When you consider just how much technology is onboard the Matrix, however, the pricing becomes a lot easier to swallow. It’s true that dedicated lights also aren’t expensive, but the ones on the Matrix are very high quality and extremely visible in all lighting conditions. And the Matrix offers unique features you won’t find anywhere else, including active turn signals and automated brake lights, which really add to your ability to safely share the road with other cyclists and vehicles.

Microsoft Surface Duo review

In the early days, Microsoft had misgivings about calling the Surface Duo a phone. Asked to define it as such, the company has had the tendency to deflect with comments like, “Surface Duo does much more than make phone calls.” Which, to be fair, it does. And to also be fair, so do most phones. Heck, maybe the company is worried that the idea of a Microsoft Phone still leaves a bitter taste in some mouths.

The Duo is an ambitious device that is very much about Microsoft’s own ambitions with the Surface line. The company doesn’t simply want to be a hardware manufacturer — there are plenty of those in the world. It wants to be at the vanguard of how we use our devices, going forward. It’s a worthy pursuit in some respects.

After all, for all of the innovations we’ve seen in mobile in the past decade, the category feels static. Sure there’s 5G. Next-gen wireless was supposed to give the industry a temporary kick in the pants. That it hasn’t yet has more to do with external forces (the pandemic caught practically everyone off guard), but even so, it hardly represents some radical departure for mobile hardware.

What many manufacturers do seem to agree on is that the next breakthrough in mobile devices will be the ability to fit more screen real estate into one’s pocket. Mobile devices are currently brushing up against the upper threshold of hardware footprint, in terms of what we’re capable of holding in our hands and willing to carrying around in our pockets. Breakthroughs in recent years also appear to have gotten us close to a saturation point in terms of screen-to-body ratio.

Foldable screens are a compelling way forward. After years of promise, the technology finally arrived as screens appeared to be hitting an upper limit. Of course, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold stumbled out of the gate, leaving other devices like the Huawei Mate X scrambling. That product finally launched in China, but seemed to disappear from the conversation in the process. Motorola’s first foldable, meanwhile, was a flat-out dud.

Announced at a Surface event last year, the Duo takes an entirely different approach to the screen problem — one that has strengths and weaknesses when pitted against the current crop of foldables. The solution is a more robust one. The true pain point of foldables has always been the screen itself. Microsoft sidesteps this by simply connecting two screens. That introduces other problems, however, including a sizable gap and bezel combination that puts a decided damper on watching full-screen video.

Microsoft is far from the first company to take a dual-screen approach, of course. ZTE’s Axon M springs to mind. In that case — as with others — the device very much felt like two smartphones stuck together. Launched at the height of ZTE’s experimental phase, it felt like, at best, a shot in the dark. Microsoft, on the other hand, immediately sets its efforts apart with some really solid design. It’s clear that, unlike the ZTE product, the Duo was created from the ground up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The last time I wrote about the Duo, it was a “hands-on” that only focused on the device’s hardware. That was due, in part, to the fact that the software wasn’t quite ready at the time of writing. Microsoft was, however, excited to show off the hardware — and for good reason. This really looks and feels nice. Aesthetically, at least, this thing is terrific. It’s no wonder that this is the first device I’ve seen in a while that legitimately had the TechCrunch staff excited.

While the Surface Duo is, indeed, a phone, it’s one that represents exciting potential for the category. And equally importantly, it demonstrates that there is a way to do so without backing into the trappings of the first generation of foldables. In early briefings with the device, Surface lead Panos Panay devoted a LOT of time to breaking down the intricacies of the design decisions made here. To be fair, that’s partially because that’s pretty much his main deal, but I do honestly believe that the company had to engineer some breakthroughs here in order to get hardware that works exactly right, down to a fluid and solid hinge that maintains wired connections between the two displays.

There are, of course, trade-offs. The aforementioned gap between screens is probably the largest. This is primarily a problem when opening a single app across displays (a trick accomplished by dragging and dropping a window onto both screens in a single, fluid movement). This is likely part of the reason the company is positioning this is as far more of a productivity app than an entertainment one — in addition to all of the obvious trappings of a piece of Microsoft hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company took great pains to ensure that two separate apps can open on each of the screens. And honestly, the gap is actually kind of a plus when multitasking with two apps open, creating a clear delineation between the two sides. And certain productivity apps make good use of the dual screens when spanning both. Take Gmail, which offers a full inbox on one side and the open selected message on the other. Ditto for using the Amazon app to read a book. Like the abandoned Courier project before it, this is really the perfect form factor for e-book reading — albeit still a bit small for more weary eyes.

There are other pragmatic considerations with the design choices here. The book design means there’s no screen on the exterior. The glass and mirror Windows logo looks lovely, but there’s no easy way to preview notifications. Keep in mind the new Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr invested a fair amount in the front screen experience on their second-generation devices. Some will no doubt prefer to have a device that’s offline while closed, and I suppose you could always just keep the screens facing outward, if you so chose.

You’ll probably also want to keep the screens facing out if you’re someone who needs your device at the ready to snap a quick photo. Picture taking is really one of the biggest pain points here. There’s no rear camera. Instead, I’m convinced that the company sees most picture taking on the device as secondary to webcam functionality for things like teleconferencing. I do like that experience of having the device standing up and being able to speak into it handsfree (assuming your able to get it to appropriate eye level).

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But when it came to walking around, snapping shots to test the camera, I really found myself fumbling around a lot here. You always feels like you’re between three and five steps away from taking a quick shot. And the fact of the matter is the shots aren’t great. The on-board camera also isn’t really up to the standards of a $1,400 device. Honestly, the whole thing feels like an afterthought. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled after using the Note 20’s camera for the last several weeks, but hopefully Microsoft will prioritize the camera a bit more the next go-round.

Another hardware disappointment for me is the size of the bezels. Microsoft says they’re essentially the minimal viable size so as to not make people accidentally trigger the touchscreen. Which, fair enough. But while it’s not a huge deal aesthetically, it makes the promise of two-hand typing when the device is in laptop mode close to impossible.

That was honestly one of the things I was excited for here. Instead, you’re stuck thumb-typing as you would on any standard smartphone. I have to admit, the Duo was significantly smaller in person than I imagined it would be, for better and worse. Those seeking a fuller typing experience will have to wait for the Neo.

The decision not to include 5G is a curious one. This seems to have been made, in part, over concerns around thinness and form factor. And while 5G isn’t exactly mainstream at this point in 2020, it’s important to attempt to future proof a $1,400 device as much as possible. This isn’t the kind of upgrade most of us make every year or so. By the time the cycle comes back around, LTE is going to feel pretty dated.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Battery life is pretty solid, owing to the inclusion of two separate batteries, each located beneath a screen. I was able to get about a day and a half of life — that’s also one of the advantages of not having 5G on board, I suppose. Performance also seemed solid for the most part, while working with multiple apps front and center. For whatever reason, however, the Bluetooth connection was lacking. I had all sorts of issues keeping both the Surface Buds and Pixel Buds connected, which can get extremely annoying when attempting to listen to a podcast.

These are the sorts of questions a second-generation device will seek to answer. Ditto for some of the experiential software stuff. There was some bugginess with some of the apps early on. A software update has gone a ways toward addressing much of that, but work needs to be done to offer a seamless dual-screen experience. Some apps like Spotify don’t do a great job spanning screens. Spacing gets weird, things require a bit of finessing on the part of the user. If the Duo proves a more popular form factor, third party developers will hopefully be more eager to fine tune things.

There were other issues, including the occasional blacked out screen on opening, though generally be resolved by closing and reopening the device. Also, Microsoft has opted to only allow one screen to be active at a time when they’re both positioned outward so as to avoid accidentally triggering the back of the touch screen. Switching between displays requires doubling tapping the inactive one.

But Microsoft has added a number of neat tricks like App Groups, which are a quick shortcut to fire up two apps at once. As for why Microsoft went with Android, rather than their own Windows 10, which is designed to be adaptable to a number of different form factors, the answer is refreshingly pragmatic and straightforward. Windows 10 just doesn’t have enough mobile apps. Microsoft clearly wants the Duo to serve as a proof of concept for this new form factor, though one questions whether the company will be able to sufficiently monetize the copycats.

For now, however, that means a lot more selection for the end user, including a ton of Google productivity apps. That’s an important plus given how few of us are tied exclusively to Microsoft productivity apps these days.

As with other experimental form factors, the first generation involves a fair bit of trial and error. Sure, Microsoft no doubt dogfooded the product in-house for a while, but you won’t get a really good idea of how most consumers interact with this manner of device — or precisely what they’re looking for. Six months from now, Microsoft will have a much better picture, and all of those ideas will go into refining the next generation product.

That said, the hardware does feels quite good for a first generation device — even if certain key sacrifices were made in the process. The software will almost certainly continue to be refined over the course of the next year as well. I’d wait a bit on picking it up for that reason alone. The question, ultimately becomes what the cost of early adoption is.

In the grand scheme of foldable devices, maybe $1,400 isn’t that much, perhaps. But compared to the vast majority of smartphone and tablet flagships out there, it’s a lot. Especially for something that still feels like a first generation work in progress. For now, it feels like a significant chunk of the price is invested in novelty and being an early adopter for a promising device.