Amazon’s Echo gets a decent-sounding refresh

Amazon seemingly didn’t realize what it had on its hands with the original Echo. Released five and a half years back for a select number of Amazon Prime users, the first Alexa device ushered in a consumer electronics revolution.

According to numbers from Canalys, 26.1 million smart speakers were shipped in Q2 2019. That’s a hefty 55.4% growth from the year prior, with Amazon capturing just over a quarter of the total global market. Much of Amazon’s growth (up 61% y-o-y) is courtesy of its rapidly growing line, which now ranges from the $50 Echo Dot to the $200 Echo Studio.

At $100, the Echo sits right in the middle. And unlike Google, which has left the Home largely unchanged during its two-year existence, Amazon’s now on the third generation for its own base-level device.

The latest version of the device, announced at an Alexa event at Amazon HQ in Seattle earlier this month, ditches the swappable face gimmick of the previous generation. Instead, the company has focused on the speaker part of the smart speaker. It was something that was too often neglected by earlier devices, which were primarily viewed as a conduit for voice assistants.

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Of course, if someone is simply looking for a cheap and easy way to introduce a smart assistant into their home, they can pick up an Echo Dot or Nest Mini for a fraction of the price — or, for that matter, the $25 Echo Flex wall plug.

The new Echo slots pretty nicely between the Dot and Studio, Amazon’s new HomePod competitor. It’s probably not where you want to do all of your music listening, but it’s a nice addition to a desk at home or work, or a room like the kitchen where music listening is secondary. More importantly, software updates like stereo pairing with two Echo devices and multi-room music, paired with hardware add-ons like Echo Sub, Link and Input, have made the $99 product a potential addition to a larger, better sound system.

The third-generation Echo certainly marks an improvement sound-wise over earlier models. It offers decent 360 sound and surprisingly heavy bass, courtesy of a 3.0-inch woofer and 0.8-inch tweeter. There’s also a 3.5-inch audio jack for inputting or outputting sound. The setup is essentially the same as last year’s Echo Plus, only without the increasingly less important smart home hub functionality.

In fact, the device looks almost identical to the second-gen Echo Plus, leaving many wondering if the product is long for this world. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the company phase out the product entirely after selling through this batch during the holiday season.

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With four different colors, the Echo should fit in well with most surroundings. The rounded, fabric-covered model is a far cry from the early days of hard plastic. There is a prominent light ring up top to let you know when the Echo is listening, along with a quartet of buttons: volume up/down, microphone and the action button, which performs a variety of tasks, including firing up Alexa and turning off timers.

Maybe it’s the fact that I just reviewed the Nest Mini, but touch functionality would be a nice addition here. When you move your hand toward the speaker while it’s playing music, a pair of lights illuminate for volume. Tapping the middle of the device would play or pause music. It’s a simple but handy addition.

All in all, solid additions on the hardware front, coupled with the continued addition of things like selectable music services make for a solid upgrade to the company’s base smart speaker.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

Life with the Samsung Galaxy Fold

Avoid pressing hard on the screen.

Tap lightly to keep it safe.

Your Galaxy Fold isn’t water or dust resistant.

Don’t allow any liquids or foreign objects to enter it.

Don’t attach anything to the main screen, such as a screen protector.

So begins your journey. It’s the story of one of the most fascinating product releases in recent memory. It’s also the story of the most polarizing product I’ve ever reviewed…twice.

The Galaxy Fold is at once a hopeful glimpse into the future and a fascinating mess. It’s a product I can’t recommend anyone purchase, but it’s one I’m still glad Samsung had the guts to make.

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What’s perhaps most frustrating are the glimpses you get using the device, those moments it transcends lovely and is legitimately useful. And when you leave the device at home, you actually start to miss the 7.3-inch display.

Two scenarios in particular have really highlighted the value of Samsung’s strong-headed approach to pushing boundaries.

First is the gym. Unfolding the device and propping it up on the control panel of a piece of exercise equipment is a beautiful thing. Full-screen Netflix, baseball games from MLB At Bat. Watch the minutes and the calories just fly away. The Fold also works great with the Galaxy Buds, which are legitimately one of the best hardware products Samsung has produced in ages.

Second is the subway. I’ve been prepping for interviews by reading Pocket stories on the train, with the Notes app open in a side window. This is great. Like a seriously awesome thing. And this is coming from someone who still has trouble embracing smartphones as serious productivity devices. There are just too many limitations to that small screen. When I want to get work done, the laptop comes out. I’m not suggesting the Fold completely changes the math here, but it does edge ever closer, blurring that line a bit in the process.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

So there you go. That’s two distinct examples, covering both entertainment and productivity. The fact is the same as ever: big screens are good. The question is how we get there. It’s a true fact, of course, that plenty mocked Samsung with the first Note device. It seems hard to believe, but in 2011, 5.3 inches seemed impossibly large for a phone. By 2018, however, 5.5 inches was the most popular screen size for handsets. And that number appears to still be growing.

Clearly Samsung was right on that one, and the Note played an outsized role in pushing those boundaries.

After years of teasing flexible and foldable displays, the tech world was understandably excited when the Galaxy Fold finally arrived. Honestly, there were long stretches of time when it felt like the handset would never arrive. As such, it feels strange to suggest that the product was somehow rushed to market.

It’s important to remember, of course, that part of the mainstreaming of big phones has been the technologies supporting the large screen. Samsung, Apple, Huawei, et al. have done a good job consistently increasing screen to body ratios. The new Notes may have bigger screens than ever, but other breakthroughs in manufacturing means we’re not walking around with bricks.

Similarly, this decidedly first-generation device is big and thick. Anecdotally, reactions have been…mixed. The two separate rounds of review devices I’ve received from the company (round two, for reasons we’ll get into in a second involved two devices) have coincided with big TechCrunch-hosted events in San Francisco. First TC Sessions: Robotics in April and then Disrupt last week.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Take some of this with a grain of salt, because my co-workers can be pretty damn cynical about new technologies (and yes, I’ve been at this long enough to include myself in this). Reactions ranged from genuinely wowed to disappointed bafflement. There was also one co-worker who repeatedly threatened to eat the device because she said it looked like an ice cream sandwich, but that’s a story for another blog post.

There are plenty of things to be critical from a design standpoint. The “first-gen” feel runs very deep with the device. When closed it’s quite thick — like two phones stacked atop one another. The crease is visible, as has often been reported. And the front display isn’t particularly useful. I get why it’s there, of course. There are plenty of moments when you just want to check a quick notification, bit it’s incredibly narrow and sandwiched between two massive bezels.   

None of those really matter much compared to the device’s fragility. The Fold will forever be the device whose release date was pushed back after multiple reviewers sent back broken devices. Mine worked fine. The company went back to the drawing board for several months and came back with a more robust device that patched up some holes and reinforced the folding mechanism. Mine broke.

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After about 27 hours with the device, I opened it up in line at CVS and noticed something weird about the screen. Sitting between the butterfly wings was a mass of pixels I referred to as an “amorphous blob.” I’d been fairly gentle with the thing, but, as I put it in a followup, “a phone is not a Fabergé egg.” In other words, it’s understandable that the product isn’t designed to, say, survive a drop onto hard concrete or a dunk in the toilet.

While it’s true that many other modern phones have evolved over generations to withstand such accidental bumbles, it’s also understandable that the Fold is a little more fragile. We can’t say Samsung didn’t warn us, and I do appreciate that Samsung was able to go back to the drawing board before wide release, but there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that a smartphone that needs to literally ship with warnings like the ones stated up top isn’t fully ready for prime time.

CNET recently got its hands on a folding machine and found that the handset could withstand 120,000 fold. That’s a little more than half of the promised 200,000. Another third-party test found similar results. Not ideal, but not terrible. It’s about three years’ worth of folds. If you’re dropping $2,000+ on a phone, you may well want it to last closer to the promised five years — though if you have that sort of disposable income, who knows?

Samsung Galaxy Fold

I would honestly be more concerned with the kind of day to day issues that could potentially result in damage like what I saw. It’s possible that mine had a defect. I’ve been using a replacement that Samsung dropped off after collecting mine to send back to Korea for testing. Granted, I’ve been using it even more gingerly than its predecessor, but so far, so good.

This morning I saw a report of a user experiencing what appears to be the same defect in the same spot. A commenter astutely pointed out the placement of a screw discovered during a recent teardown that could be the source of these issues. As ever, it will be interesting to see how this all…unfolds.

I’m not going to get too far into the other specs here. I wrote thousands of words in my original review. Nothing about the underlying technology has changed between versions one and two. All of the big updates have been to the folding mechanism and keeping the device more robust.

It’s fitting, I think that my model had 5G built-in. Both technologies feel like a glimpse into the future, but there’s little to recommend plunking down the requisite money to purchase either in 2019. The clear difference is that slow saturation of next-generation cellular technology is a bit more understood at this point. Telling someone that their fingernails can damage their $2,000 phone is a different conversation entirely.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

I do think that Samsung’s committed to the Galaxy Fold long-term. And I do believe that there will eventually be a place for the products in the market.

The biggest short-term concern is all the negative press following the first wave of devices. The FlexPai felt more like a prototype than consumer device. The Fold feels like something of an extended public beta. And the Huawei Mate X, which, although incredibly promising, is still MIA, as the company does another pass on the product. Global availability is another question entirely — though, that’s due to…other issues…

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Knowing Samsung, the company will return from all of this with a much stronger offering in generation 2. There are a LOT of learnings to be gleaned from the product. And while it offers a glimpse into the promise of foldable, you’re better off waiting until that vision is more fully realized.

Apple Watch Series 5’s banner feature needs to be turned up to 11

Reviewing Apple Watch Series 5 is not hard. It is so largely similar to last year’s Series 4. It carries with it all the things that made its predecessor great — the large display, haptics-enhanced Digital Crown and fall detection — and marches forward with one defining feature: the always-on display. Back-to-back years of seminal moments for the Watch is an impressive feat.

From an accessibility perspective, everything that was (and remains) great about Series 4 is there in Series 5. It is the best Apple Watch to date, and it is certainly the most accessible smartwatch on the market, period. But there are a few caveats.

Always-on

The longer I wear Apple Watch Series 5, a 44mm space-gray aluminum review unit from Apple, the more torn I feel about the device’s always-on display.

On one hand, I readily acknowledge the significance of the new display as it relates to the watch as a whole. On the other hand, however, I find the always-on display to be somewhat of a letdown in practice. It isn’t that the always-on display is bad; it’s not. It’s that the current implementation isn’t that conducive to my visual needs.

The issue is brightness. The always-on display right now isn’t bright enough for me to quickly glance down at my wrist to see the time. As someone who requires maximum brightness on all my devices in order to see well, this is problematic. Other reviewers have mentioned how nice it is to just casually look down at the watch to see the time, as you would on a mechanical watch. My peers must have substantially better eyesight than I do, because I literally cannot do that. In my usage, I have found I’m still flicking my wrist like I have any previous Apple Watch to see the time. When you do so, the Apple Watch’s screen fully illuminates (to max brightness, per my display settings), and that’s how I can tell time.

The whole point of buying Series 5 is for the always-on display. I could turn it off, but that defeats the purpose.

It makes no difference whether I’m using an analog or digital watch face. The exception is when using the new Numerals Duo face with the “filled” styling. The digits are so large that I have no trouble seeing the time. This face would be a good solution for my woes if not for the fact it doesn’t support complications. Otherwise, Numerals Duo is a great workaround for the always-on display’s lack of light.

At a technical level, I understand why watchOS dims the display. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate there is no way to adjust the brightness while in “always on” mode. Perhaps Apple will add such a feature in the future; it would make sense as an accessibility setting. As it stands today, as good as the always-on display is in general, I can’t say it makes much sense for me. I’m effectively using Series 5 the same way I use my Series 4. Because of this, Series 5 loses some of its appeal. The whole point of buying Series 5 is for the always-on display. I could turn it off, but that defeats the purpose, and I may as well stick with last year’s model.

On the flip side, if and when the always-on display improves for me, another benefit is it will save me from having to raise my arm so often. I wear my watch on my right wrist, which is notable because the right side of my body is partially paralyzed due to cerebral palsy. As such, raising my wrist to tell time or check a notification can sometimes be painful and fatiguing. The always-on display mitigates this because, by virtue of its persistence, you don’t necessarily have to contort your arm to look at your watch — thereby alleviating pain and fatigue for me and others.

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Problematic packaging

From the original Apple Watch (colloquially known as “Series 0”) through Series 3, Apple packaged the watch as an “all-in-one” product. Which is to say, the band was fastened to the watch. You could grab it and go — take the watch out of the box and immediately see how it looks on you, even before pairing it with your iPhone.

With last year’s Series 4, Apple changed how they package Apple Watch, whereby the band and watch were separate entities. In order to wear it, you first need to attach the band to the watch. In my review, I called out this change as regressive despite recognizing why it made sense operationally. The revised layout continues in Series 5, which is disappointing.

Everything should be as accessible as possible.

The issues this setup raises are the same ones I expounded upon last year. To wit, it’s easy to see how some people could get flustered with the watch and band being piecemeal; it can be challenging in terms of cognitive load and fine-motor skills. Even as a seasoned product reviewer, I freely admit to again feeling a tad disjointed as I was piecing together my review unit.

Like the always-on display’s dimmed state, I totally get why Apple chose to overhaul how they package Apple Watch. It makes complete sense in context of the new Apple Watch Studio, where you can mix and match finishes and bands. This is a prime example of why reporting on accessibility and assistive technology matters so much: esoteric details like how a product is packaged can really matter to a person with disabilities. Part of the reason Apple products are so revered is precisely because of the elegant simplicity of its packaging. The unboxing is supposed to be one of the best parts of a new Apple Watch or iPhone or iMac — especially for disabled people, the initial experience leaves a lasting impression if you have to fiddle as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. I can manage, but many cannot. And it’s important to bear in mind. Everything should be as accessible as possible.

The bottom line

There is no doubt Apple Watch Series 5 is great. It retains the title of Best, Most Accessible Apple Watch Yet, but with an asterisk. I don’t have a burning desire to upgrade — although admittedly, the titanium’s siren song has been calling me ever since last month’s event. The problem I have with the display can be easily remedied with a software update; if Apple shipped a brightness slider tomorrow, I’d order one pronto. Today, though, always-on isn’t always bright — and that sucks.

In the end, I still heartily recommend Apple Watch Series 5 to everyone. My low vision makes the always-on display difficult to see as-is, and I surely can’t be the only one. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the watch is still the best, most accessible smartwatch by a country mile. I’m confident the always-on display will be iterated and refined over time. In the meantime, Series 4 and watchOS 6 is a pretty bad-ass combination for me.

Gnarbox 2.0 backup SSD is a photographer’s best friend in the field and at home

Working photographers, and enthusiasts who just love taking plenty of pictures, know that even the biggest SD cards can sometimes fill up, especially when you’re working with large file sizes, shooting both JPG and RAW, and shooting 4K video. The solution? A good mobile backup drive. There are a number of options out there that fit the bill, but the newly released Gnarbox 2.0 might be the best of them all, because it works like a miniature independent photo computer in addition to packing speedy SSD storage onboard.

This is the second generation of Gnarbox’s backup solution, and while I used the original, HDD-based version to great effect for a long time, the 2.0 version adds a ton of useful features, including super-fast SSD storage ranging from 256GB to 1TB in capacity, a new OLED display that makes it even easier to use in the field, and a removable battery that means you can pack spares to stay powered up and ready.

Simple, no fuss backup

It’s not the fanciest feature that the Gnarbox 2.0 offers, but it might be the one you use most: Quick and painless backup of SD cards. There’s an SD port on the device itself that can transfer at speeds up of to 75MB/s, and it has USB-C ports that can transfer direct from cameras or from card readers at up to 350MB/s depending on their transfer capabilities. When you plug in an SD card or camera, you get an option on the screen to totally back up the contents of the attached drive with one click, which makes it incredibly easy to dump and delete and clear up space to keep shooting.

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During a 9-day trip that included two events and a vacation to shoot, I made frequent use of this feature. Shooting with the new Sony A7R IV in both RAW and JPG, even my 128GB SD + 64GB SD backup cards filled up pretty quickly, but I would just slide one of the cards into the Gnarbox’s slot and hit the backup button before changing venues and it’d be fully backed up within a few minutes.

In my experience, this process has been rock-solid reliable, and gives me effectively 10x the space for a shoot vs. just relying on my cards alone (I don’t typically have a similar sized backup SD card on the road, let alone 10). By default, the Gnarbox 2.0 stores all your media in backup folders organized by capture date, too, which makes them super easy to sort through once you get back to base.

A mobile review and rating machine

Once all that great capture content is on your Gnarbox 2.0, you can also very easily connect to the drive using Gnarbox’s mobile apps to either review what you’ve got, or go through and rate your photos quickly to make the process of working through them once you’re installed at your workstation easier.

There are two apps from Gnarbox available right now, including Gnarbox Safekeep and Gnarbox Selects. Safekeep gives you access to all your device’s settings and can also act as a file browser for shuttling photos between apps. But Selects is probably what you’re going to be using most – it not only offers fast RAW previews (compatible with every major camera’s RAW formats) but also lets you quickly add ratings, keyboard tags and more to make sure your collection is primed for edit when you get back to your desktop.

With Selects, you can review either files on the Gnarbox SSD itself, or on attached memory cards or storage media (so yes, you can use this with something like a Samsung T5 if you’re already using that as a backup solution). All this info will then show up in applications like Adobe Lightroom to expedite your workflow.

This can shave hours off the process of organizing your photos, since it means you can do the rating and reviewing up front without having to wait for everything to import and then trying to recall what you were going for with the shoot in the field after the fact.

Easy sharing from the field

Speaking of saving time, the Gnarbox 2.0 also helps you move more quickly from capture to sharing, which is incredibly useful if you’re working on a live event or doing photojournalism of something happening in the moment. The device supports Lightroom mobile out of the box, meaning you can navigate to it as a source for a new collection and move files over directly when connected to your phone or tablet. This makes it awesome for adding quick edits to RAW files, exporting finished JPGs and sharing directly to social apps and websites.

With Apple’s new iOS 13 filesystem changes, the Gnarbox 2.0 can also be addressed as a mass storage device, so you should be pretty wide open in terms of options for working with various editing software. This is also great for mobile video workflows, since Gnarbox 2.0 works just as well for storing video capture as well as photos.

Home workstation companion

Gnarbox 2.0 3The Gnarbox 2.0 is great on the go, but it’s also perfect for plugging in as a home work drive once you’re back from the shoot. I’m reviewing the 1TB version, so the amount of available on board storage is a big advantage here, since it can essentially provide all the space you need to give you all of your working files in one place.

As mentioned, it supports high-speed USB-C transfer, which makes working with the files directly from the drive on your main workstation much more pleasant. That also means you don’t necessarily have to move things over local to get to work, which saves you a step and spares your computer’s disk space.

Gnarbox 2.0 switches to USB Mass Storage mode pretty easily, using the onboard OLED menu system. You do need to make this switch manually however, because by default the USB-C port that it uses to make the computer connection is used for charging the Gnarbox’s battery. Once you’re in that mode, however, it’s as easy as connecting Gnarbox 2.0 to your computer and then navigating to it as you would any other connected mass storage device.

Photos on the drive are organized by capture date, as mentioned (you can customize how it creates its folder structure if you want) and you can also select it as an import target in any photo editing software, like Lightroom or Capture One.

Bottom line

Gnarbox 2.0 5Gnarbox has taken their time to create a thoughtful and thorough successor to their original product with the Gnarbox 2.0. It’s a unique blend of field photo server and mini computer, made more versatile with clever touches like the removable battery packs and dust/splash resistance. Ultimately, there really isn’t anything in the market that can compete with the Gnarbox 2.0 on everything it provides, though devices like WD’s My Passport Wireless Pro and the LaCie Rugged Boss SSD can offer some key parts at lower prices depending on your needs.

At $899 for the 1TB version I reviewed, ($499 and $599 for the 256 and 512GB versions, respectively), the Gnarbox 2.0 clearly isn’t for everyone. It’s a professional tool for a professional workflow, and it’s priced as such. That said, the value it provides for busy photographers who need a companion storage solution with utmost flexibility for working both at home and on the road is definitely going to make it worth the cost of admission for some.

How Peloton made sweat addictive enough to IPO

It makes lazy people like me work out. That’s the genius of the Peloton bicycle. All you have to do is velcro on the shoes and you’re trapped. You’ve eliminated choice and you will exercise. Through a succession of savvy product design choice I’ll break down here, Peloton removes the friction to getting fit. It’s the leader in a movement I call “pushbutton health”. And this is why I think Peloton will be a big succes no matter what short-term investors do when it IPOs this week after raising $994 million in venture capital.

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The bike

Basically, Peloton is a $2300 stationary bike with an iPad stuck to the front. The $40 per month subscription unlocks thousands of live and on-demand video cycling classes where instructors positively yell at you. When you think you’re tired already, they look into your eyes, tell you “you got this”, the soundtrack crescendos, you crank up the resistance, and you pedal harder at home. The resulting endorphin rush is addictive, and you find yourself persuading friends they need a Peloton too.

That viral loop which adds to its 500,000 subscribers is how Peloton plans to raise ~$1.16 billion going public this week at an ~$8 billion valuation. Its revenue doubled this year as it began to dominate the connected exercise equipment market, though losses quadrupled as it burned cash to become a household name. But after riding 110 of 150 days I’ve been home since buying its bike, I’m confident in the company. Whatever it invests now to build its lead will likely be paid back handsomely by its increasingly handsome customers who can’t bear to clip out. Here’s why.

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Peloton classes are recorded in front of a live studio audience of riders

The Brilliance Of This Bike

The Shoes – Usually the activation energy to start a workout requires dragging yourself to the gym or suiting up to face the elements outside. That can be daunting enough that you rarely do. But once you slip into the Peloton bike shoes, you can hardly walk normally which means you can hardly procrastinate. You’re home so you don’t even need clothes. Just a few velcro straps and you’re over the hump and resigned to exercise.

The Clips – Home gym equipments reduces the barrier to entry but also the barrier to exit. You can tell yourself you’ll keep doing push-up sets or squats jumping rope, but you can stop any time. Yet after you’re clipped into the Peloton bike, you’re almost assured to keep pedaling until the instructor gives you that end-of-ride congratulations.

Peloton Shoes

Just put the shoes on and you’ll exercise

The Schedule – You can get a sweat in just 10 or 20 minutes going hard on a Peloton. Combined with zero commute, that means you’ll practically always be able fit in a ride regardless of how busy you are. No more “I don’t have time to make it to the gym so I’ll just skip out”. When my calendar gets crunched or I dawdle a little before deciding to ride, classes as short as 5 minutes ensure there’s no weaseling out.

The Instructors – I wish I had these coaches to motivate me through sorting email. Peloton’s 20+ instructors range from hippie-dippie gurus to no-nonsense trainers that fit your personality type. You find yourself craving your favorite’s special brand of relentless positivity. I burn far more calories in a shorter time than exercising solo because they inspire me to push a little harder or they slow their countdown to add a couple all-out seconds to the end of a sprint. They’re even becoming celebrities, with bankers lining up for selfies during Peloton’s IPO road show. Sick of them? You can always Scenic Ride through video of some of the world’s prettiest bike paths.

Peloton Instructors

Peloton instructors (from left): Alex Toussaint, Emma Lovewell, Ben Alldis, and Leane Hainsby

The Intimacy – You’re eye-to-eye with those instructors as they stare into the camera and out of the giant screen bolted to your handlebars. That generates intimacy despite them broadcasting to thousands. Even in person, a SoulCycle coach across the room can feel further away. You’re mostly guided by audio cues, but their gaze compels you to perform. Peloton almost feels like FaceTime, and that’s a sense of connection many long for more of these days.

The Pavlovian Response – Your brain quickly begins to associate the sounds of Peloton with the glowing feeling of finishing a workout. The rip of the velcro shoe straps, the click of clipping into the bike, but most of all the instructor catch-phrases. You get hooked on hear the bubbling British accent of “I’mmmm Leeaannne Haaaaainsby” as she introduces herself, Ben Alldis’ infectious “You got 5, you got 4…” countdowns, or Emma Lovewell reminding you to “Live, learn, love well”. That final ‘namaste’ followed by wiping down the bike and jumping in a cold shower forms a ritual you’re inclined to repeat.

Peloton Class

Eye-contact with the instructors creates an intimate bond

The Soundtrack – Popular songs are more than just a pump-up accompaniment to Peloton classes. Your pedaling pace is often pegged to the tempo, with sprints starting when the beat drops. As your legs tire, you feel obliged to maintain your speed so you don’t fall behind the drums. You can even search classes by music genre and preview each’s playlist. Peloton has paid out $50 million in royalties for its music, and faces $300 million-plus in lawsuits for copyright infringement. But having the best tunes to bike to might end up worth the penalty since it helped Peloton race ahead in a lucrative market.

The Bike As Decor – Most home exercise equipment ends up in a closet or as a clothing rack. By designing its bicycles for beauty, Peloton coerces you to place them conspicuously in your home. You might have seen the hysterical Twitter thread parodying this practice, but it’s funny because it’s true. You’re a lot more likely to ride it if it’s central to your home (ours is between our bed and the doors to the veranda), and you’ll be embarassed if visitors ask about it and you haven’t hopped on recently.

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“A good place for your Peloton bike is between your kitchen and your living room facing the cactus garden so you always remember virtual spin class” –ClueHeywood on Twitter

The Network Effect – Many of these smart product design moves could be copied by competitors. But by amassing a community of 1.4 million members to date, Peloton benefits from social features and economies of scale. You can ride together with pals over video chat, send each other digital high fives, or race and compare achievements. Each friend that joins Peloton is one more reason not to sign up for a competitor. The whole concept virtual personal training is being legitimized. And the cost of producing more classes gets spread wider as membership grows.

The Shared Accounts – Peloton has even built in a way to feel noble about your sanctimonious prosyletizing about how it “jumpstarted your metabolism”. Each $39 on-bike subscription allows unlimited accounts on up to three devices, so you can hook up some friends if you convince them to buy the big-budget gadget.

Peloton High Five

High-five fellow riders as you virtuall pass them

The Growth Hacks – Peloton streaks are for adults what Snapchat streaks are to kids: a clever way to reward consistent usage. But beyond the achievement badges displayed on your profile, you’ll get in-ride leaderboards full of people to proudly pass, progress bars to fill by pedaling, and kilojoule output high scores to beat. Peloton makes exercise a game you want to win.

The Shoutouts – Yet Peloton’s most explicit levering of our psychology comes from the in-class name-drop shoutouts instructors give. Whether mentioning the screen names of a few participants at the start of a session or congratulating users hitting their 50th, 200th, or 500th ride, the recognition pushes people to join the dozen live-streamed classes each day that add urgency to the on-demand catalog. Proof it works? People strategize to ensure their 100th ride is a long live class to maximize the chance of a shout-out.

Peloton Century Club Free Shirt

A free cult shirt after your 100th ride

The ‘Transcendence’ – Peloton minimizes the isolation from working out at home. In fact, its whole product enables people to feel ‘glamorous’ and ‘manifested’ yet nonchalant in ways going to a sweaty gym or using a personal trainer can’t. It’s like being able to buy a little piece of the smug satisfaction and in-group affiliation of going to Burning Man. That’s why the company even sends you a free “Century Club” t-shirt when you hit your 100th ride. You’re meant to feel cool sharing that you “Peloton”, using the startup’s name as a verb.

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Conspicuous Self-Actualization

Still, Peloton has plenty left to optimize. There’s room to expand use of its camera to offer premium one-on-one coaching, head-to-head racing, group video chat with friends, and augmented reality filters to make people feel comfortable on screen and take shareable selfies. A wider range of intense but short classes could appeal to overworked professionals who picked Peloton precisely because they don’t have an hour for the gym.

Novelty could come from celebrity guest instructors, or themed classes for pre-gaming for a night out, fans of a particular artist, or songs about a certain topic. And it should definitely have some iconic sounds like an om or singing bowl chime that play before each class to center you and after to release you.

Most excitingly, the Peloton screen has the potential to be a platform for exercise-controlled gaming and apps. Whether pedaling to escape zombies chasing you or piece together a puzzle, maintaining an output level to keep your cross-hairs locked on an enemy plane as you dogfight, or making a garden bloom by growing each flower during a different interval, Peloton could evolve riding to be much more interactive. Apps could offer training simulators for different sports focused on sprints for basketball or marathons for soccer. Or just put Netflix on it! By opening up to outside developers, Peloton could build a moat of extra experiences competitors can’t match.

With the strengths and opportunities of its core product, Peloton is poised to absorb more of your fitness time and money. It’s already branching out with yoga, meditation, lifting, bootcamp, and jazzercise classes you can do standing next to your bike or without one on its $19 per month app. Its second gadget is a $4300 treadmill.

From there it could break into more of the “pushbutton health” business. I categorize these as wellness products and services that rely on convenience instead of your will power. Think delivery health food instead calorie-counting apps that are a chore. My pushbutton regimen includes Peloton, six salads per week dropped off in batches by Thistle, monthly packages of Nomiku vacuum-sealed meals that RFID scan into its sous vide machine, and a Future remote personal trainer who nags me by text message.

Peloton Coaching

It’s easy to get hooked on the positivity

Peloton could easily dive into selling meal kits, personal training, or a wider range of workout clothes to compete with Lulu Lemon. If it’s the center of your fitness routine, the company could become a gateway to new health products it owns or partners with.

I’m bullish on Peloton because I’m betting people are going to stay busy, lazy, and competitive. It offers the effectiveness of a spin class but with scheduling flexibility. It removes every excuse for staying on the couch. And in an age of visual communication where many seek to share both the journey to and the destination of an Instagrammable body and the discipline to ge there, Peloton provides conspicuous self-actualization through consumerism. Plus, finishing a ride feels damn good.

Ricoh’s Theta Z1 is the first truly premium consumer 360 camera

Ricoh has a well-earned good reputation when it comes to building smart, technically excellent photographic equipment – including the almost legendary Ricoh GR series of pocketable APS-C cameras, which are a favorite among street photographers everywhere. Earlier this year, the company released the Ricoh Theta Z1, which builds on its success with its pioneering Theta line of 360-degree cameras and delivers a step-up in terms of image quality and build that will feel at home in the hands of enthusiast and pro photographers.

The Theta Z1 is what happens when you push the limits of what’s possible in a portable form factor 360 camera, both in terms of build materials and what’s going on on the inside. Like its more affordable, older sibling the Theta V, it shoots both stills and video in 360 degrees – but unlike the V, it does so using two 1-inch sensors – unprecedented for a 360 camera in this category. Sony’s celebrated RX100 series was pushing boundaries with its own 1-inch sensor in a traditional compact camera, and the Ricoh is similarly expanding the boundaries of 360 photography by including not just one, but two such sensors in its Z1. That translates to unmatched image quality for 360 photographers – provided you’re willing to pay a premium price to get it.

Design and build

The Ricoh Theta Z1 feels a lot like previous iterations of the Theta line – it’s essentially a handle with two big lenses on top, which is a pretty optimal design overall for a device you’re mostly going to be using to hold up and take 360 photos and video. It’s a bit bulkier than previous generations, and heavier, too, but it’s still a very portable device despite the increased size.

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With the bulkier build, you also get a magnesium outer case, which is textured and which feels fantastic when held. If you’ve ever held a pro DSLR or mirrorless camera, then the feel will be familiar, and that says a lot about Ricoh’s target audience with this $1,000 device. The magnesium alloy shell isn’t only for making it feel like it’s worth what it costs, however; you also get big durability benefits, which is important on a device that you’re probably going to want to use in remote locales and off the beaten path.

The build quality also feels incredibly solid, and the button layout is simple and easy to understand. There’s a single shutter button on the front of the camera, just above an OLED display that provided basic info about remaining space for images or video, battery life and connection status. A single LED indicates both mode and capture status information, and four buttons on the side control power on/off, Wifi and Bluetooth connections, photo and video mode switching and enabling basic functions like a shutter countdown timer.

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Using the hardware buttons to control the Theta Z1 independent of your smartphone, where you can remotely control all aspects of the camera when connected via WiFi and using the app, is intuitive and easy, and probably the way you’ll use the Z1 more often than not when you’re actually out and about. There’s little to worry about when it comes to framing, for instance, because it captures a full 360 image, and since you can handle all of that after the fact with Ricoh’s editing tools prior to sharing.

On the bottom, there’s a USB-C port for charging and wired data transfer, and a 1/4″ standard tripod mount for attaching the Z1 to tripods or other accessories. This is useful, because if you use a small handle you’ll get a better overall image, since the Z1’s software automatically edits out the camera, and, to some extent, the thing that’s supporting it. There’s also a small lug for attaching a wrist strap, but what you won’t find is a flap or door for a micro SD card – the Theta Z1 relies entirely on built-in storage, and offers just under 20GB of usable storage.

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Still images

Ricoh’s Theta Z1 has two 1-inch sensors on board, as mentioned, and those combine to provide an image resolution of 670×3360. The camera caputres two 180-degree fields of view from each lens, and automatically stitches them together in software to produce the final image. The result is the sharpest, most color-accurate still photos I’ve ever seen from a 360-degree camera, short of the kind of content shot by professionals on equipment costing at least 10x more.

The resulting images do incredibly well when viewed through VR headsets, for instance, or when you use Theta’s own 360 viewer for web in full-screen mode on high-resolution displays. They also make it possible to export flat images that still look sharp, which you can crop and edit in the Theta+ app. You can create some truly amazing images with interesting perspective that would be hard to get using a traditional camera.

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Indoors in low light situations, the Ricoh Theta Z1 still performs pretty well, especially compared to its competitors, thanks to those big 1-inch sensors. Especially in well-lit indoor environments, like in the restaurant example below, details are sharp and crisp across the frame and colors come out great.

In settings where a lot of the frame is dark or unevenly lit, as in the example at the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo below, the results aren’t nearly as good when operating in full automatic mode. You can see that there is some blur in the parts of the scene with motion, and there’s more grain apparent in parts of the frame, too. Overall though, the audience is pretty well captured and the colors still look accurate and good despite the many different tones from different sources.

The Ricoh Theta Z1 still does its best work in bright outdoor settings, however – which is true for any camera, but especially for cameras with sensors smaller than full-frame or APS-C. It’s still definitely capable enough to capture images you can work with, and that provide a great way to revisit great events or memories in a more immersive way than standard 2D images can accomplish.

You can adjust settings including aperture to optimize your photo capture, including choosing between f/2.1, f/3.5 and f/5.6, with higher apertures offering higher resolution images. The built-in lens has been designed to reduce ghosting, purple fringe artifacts and flare, and it does an outstanding job at this. RAW capture allows you to edit DNG files using Lightroom, and it works amazingly well with Lightroom mobile for advanced tweaks right on the same device.

Video

The Ricoh Theta Z1 does video, too – though the specs for the video it produces are essentially unchanged from the Theta V on paper. It can capture 4K video at 30 fps/56 mbps or 2K video at 30fps/16mbps, and live stream in both 4K and 2K. There’s a four-channel built in microphone for immersive audio recording, and it can record as much as 40 minutes of 4K or 130 minutes of 2K footage, though each individual recording session is capped at 5 minutes and 25 minutes for 4K and 2K respectively.

Ricoh has tougher competition when it comes to video in the 360 camera game – Insta 360’s One X has been a clear winner in this category, and has led to this camera even finding some fans when compared to action cameras like the GoPro Hero 7 and the DJI Osmo Action, thanks in large part to its fantastic built-in image stabilization.

The Ricoh Theta Z1 just frankly doesn’t impress in this regard. The sensors do allow for potentially better image quality overall, but the image stabilization is definitely lacking, as you can see below, and overall quality just isn’t there when measured against the Insta360 One X. For a fixed installation for real-time live-streaming, the Ricoh probably makes more sense, but video isn’t the device’s strength, and it’s a little disappointing given its still shooting prowess.

Features and sharing

The range of editing options available either via Theta+ or using the DNG files in both mobile and desktop phot editing software for the Theta Z1 is outstanding. You can really create and compose images in a wide variety of ways, including applying stickers and text that stick to the frame as a viewer navigates around the image. Sharing from the Theta app directly works with a number of platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and theta360.com, where you can get embeddable 360 images like those found in this post above.

Ricoh has done a great job making sure you can not only capture the best possible 360 images with this camera, but also share them with others. It’s also leading the pack when it comes to the range of options you have for getting creative with slicing up those 7K spherical images in a variety of ways for traditional flat image output, which is not surprising given the company’s heritage.

Bottom line

Simply put, the Ricoh Theta Z1 is the best 360 camera for still photos that you can buy for under $1000 – even if just squeaks under that line. It’s the best still photo 360 camera you can pick up for considerably more than that, too, given its sensor arrangement and other technical aspects of the device including its selectable aperture settings and RAW output.

The $999.95 asking price is definitely on the high end for this category – the Theta V retails for less than half that, as does the Insta360 One X. But I mentioned the Sony RX100 above, and the pricing is similar: You can get a compact camera for much less money, including very good ones, but the latest RX100 always commands a premium price, which people are willing to pay for the very best in-class device.

If want you want is the best still photography 360 camera on the market, than the Ricoh Theta Z1 is easily it, and if that’s the specific thing you’re looking for, than Ricoh has packed a lot of cutting edge tech into a small package with the Z1.

Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box

Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming, and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV let you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room where unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.

Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added  Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat, and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls to smaller form factors.

The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat smart screen. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop for $199 to $179. Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.

Facebook Portal Lineup

“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device” says  Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”

The new Portals all go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in the US and Canada plus new markets like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, and France (though the Hey Portal assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.

Portal Mini Black

The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to compete where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.

“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.

Battling The Creepiness

The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive”, we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.

To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removeable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off, and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”

Portal TV Closeup

One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”

But if Portal if battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the call from the perspective of accessibility. “We say ‘oh they’re good enough” but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impedentment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.

Portal Privacy Set Up Notice Screen

Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel – ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why’.”

Hands-On With The New Portals

If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room.

Portal Specs

The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel, they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram, or Camera roll photos.

Portal Mini Portal TV

Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation, first spotted as “Codename: Ripley” by Jane Manchun Wong and reported by Alex Heath for Cheddar a year ago. It has an integrated stand for placing on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8 mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room. TechCrunch.

Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users piece of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control felt a tad sluggish but passable.

Portal TV and Remote

Portal’s software is largely the same as before with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp, and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame as zoomed in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.

The Portal app platform that features Spotify and Pandora is gaining Amazon’s suite of apps, starting with Prime Video while Ring doorbell and smart home controls are on the way. Beyond Messenger calls and AR Storytime where you don related AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there are new AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.

Portal Mini Alexa

WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages which would be exceedingly helpful.

Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the potential of Portal: passive hang out time.

PortalTV CoWatching

“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling, I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some  reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pre-text, to have an excuse to go be together.”

This is Portal’s true purpose. Facebook has always been about time spent, getting deeper into your life, and learning more about you. While other companies’ products might feel less creepy or be more entertaining, none have the ubiquitous social connection of Facebook and Portal. When your friends are on screen to, a mediocre game or silly video is elevated into a memorable experience. With Portal TV, Facebook finally has something unique enough to offset its brand tax and earn it a place in your home.

Apple Watch Series 5 review

Apple’s iPhones numbers may have suffered in recent years, but when it comes to smartwatches, the company remains utterly dominant. Recent figures from Counterpoint put Apple Watch growth at 48% year over year for the first quarter, commanding more than a third of the total global smartwatch market. Samsung’s myriad different models, meanwhile, put the company in a distant second with 11%.

All of that is to say that Apple’s clearly doing something right here, and competitors like Fitbit and Fossil (the latter of which has been working closely with Google) have plenty of catching up to do on the smartwatch front. Given the company’s sizable head start, it probably comes as no surprise that the latest version of the watch is more interested in refining the device, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Announced alongside a repositioned line of iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t include any hardware additions quite as flashy as the LTE functionality and ECG (electrocardiogram) monitor it introduced with previous updates. There’s an always-on display and a built-in compass — as far as smartwatch features go, neither is the sort of thing that’s likely to win over longtime holdouts. But taken as a whole, the new features go a ways toward maintaining the device’s spot at the top of the smartwatch heap.

Visually, Watch remains largely unchanged from previous generations, aside from the increased display size that arrived on the Series 4. The addition of the always-on display, however, addresses a longstanding issue with the device. When not in use, the Watch has traditionally been a blank screen. It seems like a massive oversight, but it’s also an understandable one. Battery life has always been a big concern with products this size, and keeping a screen on at all times is a surefire way to make sure you’ll run out of juice before the end of the day.

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While improved battery life would almost certainly be a welcomed feature in future updates, Apple’s made a bit of a compromise, offering an always-on watch that lasts the same stated 18 hours as its predecessors. I found I was, indeed, able to get through a day no problem with standard use. My own usage had the product lasting closer to 20 hours without the need to recharge, but even so, the device needs to get charged once a day, regardless — otherwise you’ll almost certainly be out of juice the following day.

The long-awaited addition of sleep tracking failed to materialize for this model — one of the few places where Apple continues to lag the competition. Of course, adding such a feature would require a much more robust battery than one capable of getting 18 hours on a charge.

Apple’s employed some clever fixes to ensure that the new feature won’t totally sap battery life. Each of the faces gets a low-power, always-on version. In the case of the Meridian face that I’ve been using (new for WatchOS 6), it’s white text on a black background. Hold the watch up to your face, however, and the colors invert. The active version is easier to see, and the always-on version uses less power.

The low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide display (LTPO), meanwhile, adjusts the refresh rate based on usage. It’s a broad spectrum: 60Hz at the high end and as little as 1Hz on the low. The ambient light sensor also automatically adjusts the brightness to help conserve power. Covering the watch with your hand will jumpstart the low-power mode.

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While complications and other features are still on display, they’re simplified, removing any power-hungry features. That means the second hand disappears on the standard watch face, and when the watch is in workout mode, the milliseconds will disappear until you bring the watch back up to your face.

The ambient light sensor also works to dim the display in those situations when a bright always-on screen are a genuine nuisance, like watching a movie in a theater. Though while it’s fairly dark, you’re probably better off switching the watching into Theater mode, which turns the screen off altogether until you press the crown.

The other big update on the hardware side is the addition of a built-in compass. Like LTE and the speaker before it, the feature represents another case of bringing more smartphone features over to the watch. At present, there are only a handful of Watch applications that utilize the new feature, the most prominent being Apple’s own Maps. The addition of the compass makes it much easier to navigate directly from the wearable itself.

It’s a handy offering on that front. If you don’t mind the smaller screen size, it’s great being able to find your way around a new area without pulling out your phone.There’s also Apple’s own Compass app, which could prove handy when going for a hike, and also includes a new elevation reading taken from a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS, map data and barometric pressure to determine your positioning relative to sea level.

Given that the product isn’t actually available yet, the number of third-party apps that take advantage of the feature is still pretty limited. That said, the much-loved star map app Night Sky offers a pretty compelling use for the compass, as you swing your arm around to get a better notion of your own place of the massive, ever-expanding cosmos.

The last big addition is Emergency SOS. Of course, it’s not always possible to test out every new feature on a device for obvious reasons. We’re going to have to take Apple’s word for it on this one. The feature, which is only supported on the cellular version of the Series 5, brings the ability to call local emergency services when traveling abroad — even when there’s not a phone nearby. The feature also works with the fall-detection feature announced the last time around, sending an emergency SOS if the wearer takes a spill.

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The new watch will also feature a number of software additions new for WatchOS 6, including Cycle Tracking, which makes it possible to log menstrual health, symptoms, period and fertility windows. There’s also the Noise app, which utilizes the Watch’s built-in microphone to track when noise levels get beyond 90 decibels — at which point they can begin to cause hearing loss.

The Series 5 starts at $399 for the standard version and $499 for cellular. Prices go up from there, including the lovely new titanium version, which will ruin you $799. The ceramic is arguably the best looking of the bunch, but $1,299 disqualifies that model for the vast majority of us. No one ever said good looks came cheap. There are countless other combinations beyond that, which will be available for mix and match at Apple’s retail locations. Everyone you know may be wearing an Apple Watch, but it’s still possible to make yours stand out a bit.

In keeping with the addition of a low-cost iPhone 11, the company’s keeping the Series 3 around at $199, offering a much more accessible price point for first-time buyers. For those who already own the device, there’s probably not enough here to warrant an upgrade from last year’s model, but some welcome new features like the always-on help keep the line fresh.

Fitbit Versa 2 review

The Versa didn’t single-handedly save Fitbit, but it gave the struggling wearable company a way forward. The smartwatch demonstrated the potential for life beyond the fitness tracker. It also proved that Fitbit was finally ready to offer a product that could compete with the utterly dominant Apple Watch.

Last year’s Versa Lite was, by all accounts, a misstep. The device was an attempt to capitalize on one of the Versa’s strongest selling points: price. It was a miscalculation, however. The discount wasn’t enough to justify the missing features, and Fitbit’s financials took a hit as things finally appeared to be heading in the right direction.

By that account, the Versa 2 arrives just in time to help offset soft smartwatch sales numbers, a year and a half after the first device arrived. The new device doesn’t represent a radical departure from the first version. Nor should it. After the disappointing Ionic, Fitbit got things pretty right with the original Versa.

The smartwatch offered a solid, fitness-focused alternative to the Apple Watch for Android users and those looking for something cheaper than that $400 wearable. At $200, it’s priced the same as its predecessor. And that feels just about right, given the design and feature set.

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Honestly, you can’t mention the design without invoking the Apple Watch. I’m sure Fitbit would rather have a conversation about the device that isn’t utterly dominated by Apple, but, well, the evolution of the Versa’s design is asking for it. Here’s what CEO James Park told me when the product launched:

“With phones, it’s like every phone starts to look the same. But for us, we try to blend a round design and the square design into what we call the squircle design that tries to capture both one that looks more like a traditional watch piece but still has a squareish form factor to display information. So we think we’ve struck the right balance. And I think whether it looks like an Apple Watch or not is kind of irrelevant. We’re trying to look at the customer experience and try to see what’s best for the user.”

There’s probably something to that, though to be fair, the default watch design is round, not square, and most non-Apple products have gone that route. That said, Fitbit did acquire the Pebble design team, and the argument can certainly be made that the new device shares some clear characteristics with the pioneering startup’s products.

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Moving beyond those superficial interests, the hardware is quite nice, particularly given the $200 price point. The display has been upgraded from LCD to AMOLED, though it’s still surrounded by a pretty massive black bezel on all sides. The casing is a nice brushed metal — a dark gray in the case of the one I chose. I also opted for the 44mm version. It’s the larger of the two models, but it fits great — it was even reasonably comfortable to sleep in, which can’t be said for most smartwatches.

Good on Fitbit for making a 40mm version available, as well. This was a major oversight on past devices from a company with such a larger female user base.

There’s a single button on the device, which doubles as power and an Alexa trigger. That’s one of the bigger additions here. After spending millions on acquisitions to build its own OS and ecosystem, a smart assistant is probably a bridge too far at this point. A deal with Amazon, however, is mutually beneficial to both parties. Fitbit gets access to a leading smart assistant with little to no investment and Amazon gets a leg up on wearables.

Interestingly, there’s no speaker on the device. Alexa can hear you via the built-in mic, but it can’t respond accordingly. That means the answers are displayed visually instead. It’s a novel way to interact with Alexa and in most cases probably easier than holding your watch up to your ear. That said, Alexa was always irritatingly slow, first listening, then thinking, then returning the result. I’m not sure if that’s an easy software fix for Fitbit but it’s less than ideal.

The app selection has thankfully improved since last time as well. Fitbit’s still got a long ways to go to compete with Apple, but the addition of Spotify feels like a pretty big win for the company. It’s a big step up from the Deezer integration the Ionic launched with.

FitbitOS is fairly simple, but that’s fine. It works well with the small screen size. A decade of experience means Fitbit’s got a solid selection of health software features. It will be interesting to see what the company adds to the device with its $10 a month Fitbit Premium service. I’ve got some doubts on that one, but I’m willing to hold off judgement until I try it. Unlike Apple, Fitbit has offered sleep tracking for some time (expected to come to the Watch with tomorrow’s update). There’s a new Sleep Score feature, as well, which distills your patterns into something a bit more easily digestible.

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The battery has been improved to five days, which was about right in my testing. That’s certainly a big plus over the Apple Watch, particularly for a device that’s meant to be worn regularly to bed. Obviously that number will fluctuate quite a bit depending on usage and whether you opt for the always-on display — another nice feature.

The Versa 2 is a nice update over the original. There’s not enough here to warrant an upgrade, but it should help maintain Fitbit’s spot as one of the few viable Apple Watch competitors. And that $200 price point certainly doesn’t hurt.