The iRig Pro Duo makes managing advanced audio workflows simple anywhere

Connecting audio interfaces to the various mobile and computing devices we use these days can be a confusing headache. The iRig Pro Duo, which IK Multimedia announced this year at CES and recently released, is a great way to simplify those connections while giving you all the flexibility you need to record high-quality audio anywhere, with any device.

The basics

The iRig Pro Duo is a new addition to IK’s lineup based on the original iRig Pro, which adds a second XLR input, as the name implies. It’s still quite small and portable, fitting roughly in your hand, with built-in power optionally supplied via two AA batteries, while you can also power it via USB connection, or with an optional dedicated plug-in power adapter accessory.

Compared to desktop devices like the Scarlett Focusrite 2i2 USB audio interface that’s a popular standard among home audio enthusiasts, the iRig Pro Duo is downright tiny. It’s still beefier than the iRig Pro, of course, but it’s a perfect addition to a mobile podcaster’s kit for ultimately portability while also maintaining all the features and capabilities you need.

The iRig Pro Duo also includes balanced L/R 1/4″ output, built-in 48v phantom power for passive Macs, a 3.5mm stereo jack for direct monitoring, 2x MIDI inputs and dedicated gain control with simple LED indicators for 48V power status and to indicate audio input peaking.

Design

Beveled edges and a slightly rounded rectangular box design might not win the iRig Pro Duo any accolades from the haute design community, but it’s a very practical form factor for this type of device. Inputs go in one side, and output comes out the other. IK Multimedia employs a unique connector for its output cables, but provides every one you could need in the box for connecting to Mac, iOS, Windows and Android devices.


The whole thing is wrapped in a matte, slightly rubberized outside surface that feels grippy and durable, while also looking good in an understated way that suits its purpose as a facilitation device. The knobs are large and easy to turn with fine-grained control, and there are pads on the underside of the Duo to help it stick a bit better to a surface like a table or countertop.

The lighting system is pretty effective when it comes to a shorthand for what’s on and working with your system, but this is one area where it might be nice to have a more comprehensive on-device audio levels display, for instance. Still, it does the job, and since you’ll likely be working with some kind of digital audio workflow software whenever you’re using it that will have a much more detailed visualizer, it’s not really that much of an issue.

Bottom line

As mentioned, iRig Pro Duo works with virtually all platforms out of the box, and has physical connector cables to ensure it can connect to just about every one as well. IK Multimedia also supplies free DAW software and effects, for all platforms – though you do have to make a choice about which one you’re most interested in since it’s limited to one piece of software per customer.

If you’re looking for a simple, painless and versatile way to either set up a way to lay down some music, or to record a solo or interview podcast, this is an option that ticks essentially all the boxes you could come up with.

With feature updates and new accessories, the RODECaster Pro is a podcaster’s dream come true

You might have been considering – or have already started – picking up a new hobby this year, particularly one you can do at home. Podcasting seems to be a popular option, and RODE is a company that has done more to cater specifically to this audience than just about any other audio company out there. The RODECaster Pro ($599) all-in-one podcast production studio that they released in 2018 is a fantastic tool for anyone looking to maximize their podcast potential, and with amazing new firmware updates released this year, along with a host of great new accessories, it’s stepped up even further.

The basics

The RODECaster Pro is a powerful production studio, but it’s not overwhelming for people who aren’t audio engineers by trade. The deck balances offering plenty of physical controls with keeping them relatively simple, giving you things like volume sliders and large pad-style buttons for top level controls, and then putting more advanced features and tweaks behind layers of menus accessible via the large, high-resolution touchscreen for users who desire more fine-tuned manipulation.

RODECaster Pro includes four XLR inputs, each of which can provide (individually selectable) phantom power for condenser mics, along with four 1/4″ headphone outputs for corresponding monitoring. That’s great because it means if you have guests used to recording podcasts and high-quality audio, they can listen to their own input, or you can opt to just have one producer keeping track of everything. There’s also a left and right 1/4″ audio out for a studio monitor speaker or other output, as well as a USB-C connector for plugging into a computer, and a 3.5mm in for connecting a smartphone or other external audio source. Smartphones can also be connected via Bluetooth, which is very handy for including a call-in guest via wireless.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The main surface of the RODECaster Pro includes volume sliders for each available input and pre-set sound effects; volume knobs for each headphone and speaker output; buttons to activate and deactivate inputs; large buttons for playing back pre-set audio files and a large record button. There’s also a touchscreen which gives you access to menus and settings, and which also acts as a visual levels editor while recording.

RODECaster Pro is designed so that you can use it completely independently of any computer or smartphone – it has a microSD slot for recording, and you can then upload those files via either directly connecting the deck through USB, or plugging the card in to a microSD card reader and transferring your files. You can also use multitrack-to-USB or stereo USB output modes on the RODECaster Pro to effectively turn the studio hardware into a USB audio interface for your Mac or PC, letting you record with whatever digital audio production software you’d like, including streaming software.

Design

The RODECaster Pro’s design is a perfect blend of studio-quality hardware controls and simplicity, making the device accessible to amateurs and pros alike. I was up and running with the deck out of the box in just a few minutes, and without making any adjustments at all to the sound profile or settings, I had great-sounding recordings using the RODE PodMic, a $99 microphone that is optimized by RODE to work with the RODECaster Pro out of the box.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

All the controls are easy and intuitive to manage, and you shouldn’t need to read any instruction manuals or guides to get started. The eight button sound effects grid is likely the most complicated part of the entire physical interface, but even the default sounds that RODE includes can be useful, and you can easily set your own via the RODECaster companion app for Mac and PC, and in the box you’ll find guides that you can use to overlay the buttons and label them to keep track of which is which.

The sliders are smooth and great to use, making it easy to do even, manual fade-ins and fade-outs for intro and outro or pre-recorded soundbites. Backlit keys for active/inactive inputs, mute status and the large record button mean you can tell with a quick glance what is and isn’t currently active on the track.

RODE has smartly included a locking power adapter in the box, so that you won’t find the cord accidentally yanked out in the middle of a recording. Each of the XLR inputs also includes a quick release latch for secure connections. And while the RODECaster Pro definitely takes up a lot of space with roughly the footprint of a 13-inch MacBook Pro, it’s light enough to be perfectly portable in a backpack for on-location recordings.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The touchscreen display is another design highlight, since it’s high-resolution, with a matte cover that makes it viewable in a wide range of light, and very responsive touch input, It’s a great way to extend the functionality of the deck through software, while still ensuring nothing feels fiddly or hard to navigate, which can be the case with hardware jog controllers like you’d find on a Zoom recorder, for instance.

Features

Balancing simplicity and power is the real reason RODECaster Pro works so well. If you’re just starting out, you can basically just begin using it out of the box without changing anything at all about how it’s set up to work. That’s especially true if you’re using any of RODE’s microphones, each of which has built-in profiles included for optimizing sound settings instantly.

I mentioned above that the RODE PodMic is optimized for use with the RODECaster Pro in this way, and the results are fantastic. If the price tag on the RODECaster Pro is a deterrent, it’s worth considering that the PodMic is a fantastically affordable dynamic podcasting mic, which produces sound way above its class when paired with the deck. so the overall cost of a RODE podcasting setup using both of these would actually be relatively reasonable vs. other solutions.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

If you’re ready to dive in and customize sound, you can toggle features like built-in compressor, de-esser and other audio effects. You can also manually adjust each of these effects since the release of Firmware 2.1 earlier this month – letting you adjust the processing of each included sound effect through the RODECaster Pro companion app for a totally custom, unique finally sound.

The ability to pre-load and call up sound effects and other audio tracks on demand on the RODECaster Pro is another killer feature. It’s true that you could achieve a lot of this in editing post-recording, but having it all to-hand for use in live recording scenarios just feels better, and it also enables genuine interactions with your guests that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. That 2.1 firmware update also brought the ability to loop clips indefinitely, which could be great if you want to place a subtle backing track throughout your recording.

One final feature I’ll highlight because it’s fantastic especially in a world where it might be hard to consistently get guests in-studio is the smartphone connectivity. You can either plug in via cable, or connect via low-latency Bluetooth for terrific call-in interactivity, using whatever software you want on your smartphone.

Accessories

RODE has done a great job building out an ecosystem of accessories to further extend the capabilities of the RODECaster Pro, and enhance the overall user experience. Among its recent releases, there’s the Rode PodMic, mentioned above, as well as colored cable clips that correspond to each input backlight color for easily keeping track of which hardware is which, 1/4″ to 3.5mm stereo jack adapters for using standard headphones as monitors, a TRRS-to-TRRS 3.5mm audio aux cable for smartphone connections, and a USB power cable to replace the adapter for easier plug-in power on the go.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The small plastic cuffs for your XLR cables are simple but smart ways of keeping track of gear, especially when everyone’s using the same mic (as they likely should be for sound consistency) – and it helps that they enhance the look of your overall setup, too. And the USB power cable in particular is a great addition to any RODECaster Pro kit that you’re intending to use outside of your own recording studio/home, since you can use it with any USB charger you have to hand – so long as it can provide 5V/2.5A output.

The real must-have accessory for the RODECaster Pro, however, is the RODE PodMic. It’s a no-fuss, well-built and durable microphone that transports well and that can work flexibly with a wide range of mounting options, and in a wide variety of settings including open air and in-studio. Yes, you can get better sound with more expensive mics, but with the PodMic, you can afford a set of four to complement the RODECaster Pro for the same price you’d pay for one higher-end microphone, and most people won’t notice the audio quality difference for their podcasting needs.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Bottom line

The RODECaster Pro is a fantastic way to upgrade your at-home podcasting game – and a perfect way to take the show on the road once you’re able to do so. Its high-quality hardware controls, combined with smart, sophisticated software that has improved with consistent RODE firmware updates to address user feedback over time, are a winning combo for amateurs, pros, and anyone along the spectrum in between.

The Loupedeck CT is a fantastic, flexible editing console for Mac and PC

For photographers and videographers spending a lot less time on location and a lot more time at the desk right now, one great use of time is going back through archives and backlogs to find hidden gems, and hone those edit skills. One recently-released device called the Loupedeck CT can make that an even more enjoyable experience, with customizable controls and profiles that work with just about all your favorite editing apps – and that can even make just using your computer generally easier and more convenient.

The basics

Loupedeck’s entire focus is on creating dedicated hardware control surfaces for creatives, and the Loupedeck CT is its latest, top-of-the-line editing panel. It’s essentially a square block, which is surprisingly thin and light given how many hardware control options it provides. On the surface itself, you’ll find six knobs with tactile, clicky turning action, as well as 12 square buttons and eight round buttons, each of which features color-coded backlighting. There’s also a large central control dial, with a touch-sensitive display in-set, and a 4×3 grid of touch-sensitive display buttons up top – each of which also includes optional vibration feedback when pressed.

Loupedeck CT connects via an included USB-C cable (though you’ll need an adapter or your own USB-C to USB-C cable if you’re using a modern MacBook) and it draws all the power it needs to operate from that connection. Small, rubberized pads on the back ensure that it won’t slip around on your desktop or table surface.

When you first set up the Loupedeck, you’ll need to download software from the company’s website. Once that’s installed, the setup wizard should see your Loupedeck CT hardware when it’s connected, and present you with configuration options that mirror what will show up on your device. By default, Loupedeck has a number of profiles for popular editing software pre-installed and ready to use, and it’ll switch to use that profile automatically upon opening those applications.

The list is fantastic, with one notable (and somewhat painful) exception – Lightroom CC. This isn’t Loupdeck’s fault: Adobe has changed the way that Lighroom is architected with the CC version such that it no longer offers as much interoperability with plugins like the ones that make Loupedeck work with such high integration. Loupedeck offers a Lightroom Classic profile, and one of the reasons Classic is still available is its rich support for these plugins, so you can still access and edit your library with Loupedeck CT. Plus, you can still use it to control Lightroom CC – but you’ll have to download a profile that essentially replicates keystrokes and keyboard shortcuts, or create your own, and it won’t be nearly as flexible as the profiles that exist for Photoshop, Photoshop Camera Raw, and Lightroom Classic.

That one exception aside, there are profiles for just about any creative software a creative pro would want to use. And the default system software settings are also very handy for when you’re not using your computer for doing anything with image, video or audio editing. For instance, I set up basic workflows for capturing screenshots, which I do often for work, and one for managing audio playback during transcription.

Design

I mentioned it briefly above, but the Loupedeck CT’s design is at first glance very interesting because it’s actually far smaller than I was expecting based on the company’s own marketing and imagery. It’s just a little taller than your average keyboard, and about the same width across, and it takes up not much more space on your desk than a small mousepad, or a large piece of toast. Despite its small footprint, it has a lot of physical controls, each of which is actually potentially many more controls though software.

The matte black, slightly rubberized finish is pleasing both to look at and to the touch, and the controls all feel like there was a lot of care put into the tactile experience of using them. The graduated clicks on the knobs let you know when you’ve increased something by a single increment, and the smooth action on the big dial feels delightfully analog. The buttons all have a satisfying, fairly deep click, and the slight buzz you get from the vibration feedback on the touchscreen buttons are a perfect bit of haptic response, which, combined with the raised rows that separate them, mean you can use the Loupedeck CT eyes-free once you get used to it. Each knob is also a clickable button, and the touchscreen circular display on the large central dial can be custom configured with a number of different software buttons or a scroll list.

Despite its small size, the Loupedeck CT doesn’t feel fragile, and it has a nice weight to it that feels reassuring of its manufacturing quality. It does feel like a bit of a compromise when it comes to layout to accommodate the square design vs. the longer rectangle of the Loupedeck+, which more closely resembles a keyboard – but that has positives and negatives, since the CT is easier to use alongside a keyboard.

Ultimately, the design feels thoughtful and well-considered, giving you a very powerful set of physical controls for creative software that takes up much less space on the desk than even something like an equivalent modular system from Palette would require.

Features

The Loupedeck CT’s primary benefits are found in its profiles, which set you up out of the box to get editing quickly and effectively across your favorite software. Each feels like a sensible set of defaults for the software they’re designed to work with, and you can always customize and tweak to your heart’s content if you’ve already got a set of standard processes that doesn’t quite match up.

Loupedeck’s software makes customization and addition of your own sets of tools a drag-and-drop process, which helps a lot with the learning curve. It still took me a little while to figure out the logic of where to find things, and how they’re nested, but it does make sense once you experiment and pay around a bit.

Similarly, Loupedeck uses a color-coding hierarchy system in its interface that takes some getting used, but that eventually provides a handy visual shortcut for working with the Loupedeck CT. There are green buttons and lights that control overall workspaces, as well as purple actions that exist within those workspaces. You can set up multiple workspaces for each app, letting you store entire virtual toolboxes for carrying out specific tasks.

This allows the CT to be at once simple enough to not overwhelm, and also rich and complex enough to offer a satisfying range of control options for advanced pros. As mentioned, everything is customizable (minus a few buttons like the o-button that you can’t remap, for navigation reasons) and you can also export profiles for sharing or for use across machines, and import profiles, including those created by others, for quickly getting set up with a new workflow or pice of software.

The Loupedeck CT even has 8GB of built-in storage on board, and shows up as a removable disk on your computer, allowing you to easily take your profiles with you – as well a tidy little collection of working files.

Bottom Line

At $549, the Loupedeck CT isn’t for everyone – even though the features it offers provide efficiency benefits for many more than just creatives. It’s like having an editing console that you can fit in the tablet pocket of most backpacks or briefcases – and it’s actually like having a whole bunch of those at once because of the flexibility and configurability of its software. Also, comparable tools like the Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Editor keyboard can cost over twice as much.

If your job or your passion involves spending considerable time adjusting gradients, curves, degrees and sliders, than the Loupedeck CT is for you. Likewise, if you spend a lot of time transcribing or cleaning up audio, or you’re a keyboard warrior who regularly employs a whole host of keystroke combos even for working in something like a spreadsheet app, it could be great for you too.

I’ve tested out a lot of hardware aimed at improving the workflow of photographers and video editors, but none has proven sticky, especially across both home and travel use. The Loupedeck CT seems like the one that will stick, based on my experience with it so far.

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

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

Basics

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

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

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

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

Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

Jabra’s Elite Active 75t earbuds offer great value and sound for both workouts and workdays

Technology improvements over the past few years mean that most fully wireless earbuds are a lot better than they used to be. That has led to something of a narrowing of the field among competitors in this arena, but some of the players still stand out – and Jabra have definitely delivered a standout performer with its newest Elite Active 75t fully wireless earbuds.

Basics

Jabra’s Elite Active 75t is a successor to its very popular 65t line, with added moisture resistance designed specifically for exercise use, as indicated by the ‘Active’ in the name. At $199.99, these are definitely premium-priced – but they’re a lot more affordable than many of the other offerings in the category, especially with their IP57-water and sweat resistance rating.

The Elite Active 75t also feature an esteemed 7.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, and their compact charging case carries backup power that adds up to a total of 28 hours potential run time across a single charge for both. The case charges via USB-C and also offers a fast-charge capability that provides 60 minutes of use from just 15 minutes of charging.

While they don’t offer active noise cancellation, they do have passive noise blocking, and an adjustable passthrough mode so that you can tune how much of the sound of the world around you you want to let in – a great safety feature for running or other activities.

They use Bluetooth 5.0 for low power consumption and extended connection range, have an auto-pause and resume feature for when you take out one earbud, and include a 4-mic array to optimize audio quality during calls.

Design

Jabra has accomplished a lot on the design front with the Elite Active 75t. Their predecessor was already among the most compact and low-profile in-ear wireless buds on the market, and the Elite Active 75t is even smaller. These are extremely lightweight and comfortable, too, and their design ensures that they stay put even during running or other active pursuits. In my testing, they didn’t even require adjustment once during a 30-minute outdoor run.

Their comfort makes them a great choice for both active use and for all-day wear at the desk – and the 7.5 hours of battery life doesn’t seem to be a boast, either, based on my use, which is also good for workday wear.

Another key design feature that Jabra included on the Elite Active 75t is that both earbuds feature a large, physical button for controls. This is much better and easier to use than the touch-based controls found on a lot of other headsets, and makes learning the various on-device control features a lot easier.

Finally in terms of design, the charging case for the Elite Active 75t is also among the most svelte on the market. It’s about the size of two stacked matchboxes, and easily slides into any available pockets. Like the earbuds themselves, the case features a very slightly rubberized outer texture, which is great for grip but, as you can see from the photos, is also a dust magnet. That doesn’t really matter unless you happen to be tasked with photographing them, however.

One final note on the case design – magnetic snaps in the earbud pockets mean you can be sure that your headset buds are seated correctly for charging when you put them back, which is a great bit of user experience thoughtfulness.

Performance

It’s easy to see why the Jabra Elite Active 75t is already a favorite among users – they provide a rich, pleasant sound profile that’s also easily tuned through the Jabra Sound+ mobile app. Especially for a pair of earbuds designed specifically for active use, these provide sound quality that goes above and beyond.

Their battery life appears to line up with manufacturer estimates, which also makes them class-leading in terms of single charge battery life. That’s a big advantage when using these for longer outdoor activities, or, as mentioned, when relying on them for all-day desk work. Their built-in mic is also clear and easy to understand for people on the other side of voice and video calls, and the built-in voice isolation seems to work very well according to my testing.

In my experience, their fit is also fantastic. Jabra really seems to have figured out how to build a bud that stays in place, regardless of how much you’re moving around or sweating. It’s really refreshing to find a pair of fully wireless buds that you never have to even think about readjusting them during a workout.

Bottom Line

Jabra has done an excellent job setting their offering apart from an increasingly crowded fully wireless earbud market, and the Elite Active 75t is another distinctive success. Size, comfort and battery life all help put this above its peers, and it also boasts great sound quality as well as excellent call quality. You can get better sounding fully wireless earbuds, but not without spending quite a bit more money and sacrificing some of those other advantages.

Minecraft Dungeons has charm and potential, but needs lot more time in the furnace

Minecraft is one of the most popular games on the planet, so it’s natural that Microsoft, after buying creator Mojang some years back, would attempt to apply the genre’s playful, blocky aesthetic to other genres. After modest success with the Story Mode adventure game and Pokémon GO-like Minecraft Earth, they’ve tried their hand at a light action-RPG à la Diablo — and unfortunately come up rather short. For now, that is.

Minecraft Dungeons is a sort of my-first-dungeon-crawler type game, a friendly, streamlined version of the genre Diablo created where players enter a procedurally created dungeon or region, kill some monsters, get some loot, make it out alive and do it all over again.

That’s the idea in this game as well, but of course the whole thing uses the block-based look and feel of Minecraft. As you travel through different biomes to free villagers, destroy ancient forges and so on, everything from the levels and monsters to equipment and potions looks like it came straight out of the original game. They nailed the look perfectly.

It’s refreshing, because games like this tend to court a rather grim aesthetic, and when it comes to gameplay they pile on features and mechanics until it feels more like you’re playing a spreadsheet than a game. It’s clear from the start Minecraft Dungeons was intended to provide the fun of fighting, upgrading and exploring without the overly complex and dark trappings of the genre.

For instance, instead of having a handful of character classes each with their own skill tree, everything your character can do depends on their equipment. Weapons, armor and accessories all have unique bonuses and abilities. So if you want to be a bow and arrow-type fighter, wear the Ranger armor that gives you extra-ranged damage and ammo, and use accessories that empower your arrows. Want to be a melee guy? There’s armor and swords for that too.

Customization of your play style, an important part of these games, is achieved by judicious choice of a set of random upgrades on each item. When you gain a level, you get a point that can be used to activate, say, a passive ability that deflects enemy projectiles 20% of the time. Then it costs two points to upgrade it again, so it deflects 30% of the time.

You get those points back when you trash the item and can reapply them to a new one, providing low-risk, low-commitment progress — in time you’ll have lots of points banked to upgrade and experiment with whatever new item you find.

This approach is really a breath of fresh air after the convoluted overlapping systems of the likes of Diablo, Grim Dawn and Path of Exile. There was just the right amount of “this new sword is tempting but do really I want to recycle my old one?” tension, and although you will collect trash loot, it’s easy to check and dispose of.

I didn’t get a chance to test multiplayer, but the game is definitely designed with co-adventuring in mind. Couch co-op lets you drop in a second player with a controller or connect online with others on the same platform (cross-play is coming soon). A cross-platform casual dungeon crawler is something I’ve been wanting for a long time.

It’s too bad, then, that this is where the game runs out of really positive qualities. I’m keeping in mind that this is a $20 game designed with players new to the genre in mind — not to say kids exactly — so there’s no sense comparing it directly to a major mainstream gaming franchise. But even so, Minecraft Dungeons has some serious issues.

For one thing, it really needs more variety. Part of the fun of these games is traveling from region to region and fighting new types of monsters with different tactics and abilities. That really just isn’t there in this game. The 10 different areas are visually distinct, yes, but they’re linear, similar from one run to another, and don’t differ all that much gameplay-wise. One aspect of Minecraft I’ve always loved, exploration, is nearly absent. Getting up on a hill or down in some little valley or cavern you can see usually isn’t possible — they’re just walls or bottomless pits. Side paths often run quite a distance, but I eventually learned to stopped taking them because they were frequently empty and it always took forever to backtrack afterwards.

You’ll run into the same zombies, spiders and soldiers over and over, and get the same weapons and accessories dropped over and over, often with very similar stats. Although there seems to be a good variety at first, the abilities and weapons don’t seem particularly well-balanced, with some obviously and objectively better than others. Some are basically useless: One ability gives you a speedup for a few seconds after you dodge — but the game also slows you down for a few seconds after you roll, so they kind of just cancel each other out. Another returns a third of one percent of your health for every 100 blocks you uncover in the game. What?

This wouldn’t be an issue if the game had better difficulty tuning. I found in my playthrough that there was no challenge whatsoever 99% of the time, and then suddenly a situation would arise where I would be nearly instantly killed. These weren’t lesson-teaching deaths like other games — just sudden confluences of bad luck and, it must be said, some poor design.

Ranged attacks from enemies will often come from off-screen, for instance. And not just a stray arrow, but many simultaneously. Enemy projectiles also go through all other enemies, unlike your own, and are very difficult to dodge, especially when there are a dozen coming from different angles. So sometimes after spending the whole level barely taking a hit, you’re reduced to an emergency situation in a fraction of a second, with very little warning, by enemies you haven’t had a chance to react to or perhaps even see. The close-zoom camera shows details well but limits your understanding of what’s happening around you.

These brutal difficulty spikes aren’t always accidental. One enemy kept popping up that repeatedly spawned huge numbers of bear traps under my character’s feet that closed before any but a really expert player could be expected to dodge. Bosses are cheap, swarming players with minions, storms of enormous projectiles, and instant, undodgeable melee attacks.

The issue here isn’t just that it’s hard, but that the game doesn’t give you the tools you need to deal with it. Dodging feels clumsy and enemies block your movement; there is little in the way of active defense like a shield or accessory you activate to repel arrows for 5 seconds; you only have one slowly recharging healing potion and health doesn’t trickle back, so little mistakes add up over time. Not that it matters, since punishment is usually swift and extreme.

What all this amounts to is a game that alternates between monotonous and frustratingly hard, even for a fan of the genre like myself. And considering you’ll run through all the areas in the game in a handful of hours — there are 10 areas, each of which takes perhaps 20 minutes to clear — it’s expected that you’ll repeat them over and over to reach the gear level required to beat the final boss. I got all the way to that point and was insta-killed twice in a row.

I repeated a few areas but found them nearly indistinguishable from their earlier iterations. Ultimately I just wasn’t motivated to grind away just so I could unlock another, likely even more unfair, difficulty level.

I wouldn’t complain so much if this wasn’t, ostensibly, a game for beginners. Minecraft Dungeons innovates and simplifies in some really laudable ways, but the moment-to-moment game design is too uneven and the variety on offer isn’t enough even for a $20 game.

But it must be said that Minecraft itself also started out rather bare-bones and was built up over time into something remarkable and almost infinite. There are two DLC packs in the works for Dungeons, one rather crassly visible from the very start — nothing like being asked to pay more for a game you just bought. The good news is these packs will grow the game to a size that feels more like an adventure and less like a demo. I also expect that patches over the coming weeks and months will considerably tweak the equipment and difficulty — it can be, and needs to be, fixed.

A year from now Minecraft Dungeons could very well be a no-brainer purchase, a cross-platform casual hack-and-slash that you can play with your kids or your friends and have a great time without thinking too hard about it (or opening Excel). But right now it’s mostly potential. I’d hold off on picking this one up until it has been made into the game it’s meant to be.

NuraLoop buds deliver excellent customized sound in a portable profile

I’ve been following the Nura story since the Australian startup brought an unfinished prototype of its first headphones to our offices four years back. When I finally had the opportunity to review the Nuraphones the following year, I put the noise-adapting headphones at the top of my list of 2017’s best gadgets.

There was a lot to like about the product, which was clearly lovingly crafted, right down to the packing material it shipped in. The build quality was great, the app was well-designed and the custom audio fingerprinting felt downright revolutionary for home audio listening. There was, however, one thing I and everyone else who reviewed the original asked: why not earbuds?

One of the more peculiar things about the Nuraphones is that the sound was largely contained in a pair of earbud-style nubs that sit inside over-ear cups. The cups, meanwhile, largely existed to deliver a more immersive bass experience. But while bass is no doubt an essential part of music listening, it’s something many manufacturers have used to overcompensate for other shortcomings. Heck, that was Beats’ whole M.O. in the first place.

For me, the bass cups always felt like an interesting but inessential aspect of the experience. One of my earliest pieces of feedback to Nura was the fact that I would have happily traded it for something more portable. NuraLoop earbuds were finally unveiled at CES 2019 — albeit as dummy units. Now, a year-and-a-half later, they’re finally shipping.

Nuraphones

As with their predecessors, it’s clear a lot of thought went into the product here — a marked benefit of being a startup that has thus far produced two products in five years. Once again, even the packaging is nice here — albeit less elaborate. They also ship with a lovely little leather pouch — good for carting around both the headphones and their accessories.

Rather than going fully wireless — as is the trend of the day — the Loops are tethered. This serves a number of purposes, perhaps most important of which is an included magnetic adapter that turns them into hardwired headphones.

I suspect the feature will have limited applications for most users, as smartphones have largely abandoned the headphone jack. When the product was announced, CEO Dragan Petrovic told me the accessory was included for professional musicians who had asked for a hardwired version of the product to serve as stage monitors. It’s a niche category of user, naturally, but I appreciate the inclusion nonetheless as someone who uses hardwired headphones to edit my podcast on the fly.

The ability to snap two pieces together and plug into my MacBook is fantastic.The charger also takes advantage of the magnetic adapter. Once snapped in place, a white light will begin glowing softly to let you know it’s working. Ten minutes of charge should get you about two hours of battery. Fully charged, you should get more than a day’s worth of listening (rated at 16 hours), a nice benefit of the tethered design.

The buds themselves use an over-ear loop to stay in place — displacing a bit of the strain from their relatively large size, as well. I did start to find them a bit uncomfortable after wearing them for an extended period. Obviously ear sizes are a bit like snowflakes and your mileage may vary. The buds ship with three sizes of removable silicone tips, which are a bit shallower than the standard version.

Nuraphones

Fit is always important for a pair of earbuds, but even more so here. The company’s app needs a perfect seal to do its audio profile readings. Thankfully, unlike the original Nuraphones, I was able to get the fit working pretty quickly here. The original models are pretty frustrating to get working. The whole process takes a few seconds, vibrating the hair cells within your ear, which then send back an ”otoacoustic emission.” Once done, you have a customized profile, including a visualization of your hearing.

And once again, the headphones sound great. It’s remarkable what the company’s technology is able to do, building one of the best sound set of Bluetooth earbuds around. Music sounds fuller on the NuraLoop buds. There are subtle artifacts you miss on less sophisticated headphones — and likely enough details you may not have heard in familiar pieces of music. The bass is certainly less intense than on the over-ear models, but it’s still rich and fun. Better yet, it’s adjustable.

Each ear has touch control. Running your fingers around the dial on the right adjusts the volume and on the left, noise canceling/social mode. The noise cancellation leaves something to be desired, versus a product like the AirPods Pro, so if that’s your main concern, look elsewhere. I also found the connectivity to be a little spottier than other models when attempting to walk into another room.

Nuraphones

Those complaints are fairly minor though, for what’s a really great little package. You get a lot for $199 here. Nura missed out on quite a bit of potential market by waiting this long to release its first fully wireless earbuds. The space has grown a lot more mature — and crowded — since the company was founded in 2015. But if waiting meant getting the product right, I can’t complain.

And even with a crowded market, there’s still nothing else out there that’s quite like the NuraLoop buds. The underlying technology is excellent, and it’s wrapped up in a well-thought-out package. I suspect the Australian startup is a prime candidate for acquisition from some giant headphone maker eager to get its hands on the tech. For now, however, it’s great to have a unique startup that’s still able to turn the industry on its ear.

Microsoft Surface Go 2 review

The original Go was a mostly well-received addition to the Surface line when it arrived in late 2018. It was a nice, pint-sized alternatively, positioned fairly well to serve as a secondary device for some. It did the convertible double duty and traveled well, but otherwise was lacking in guts and versatility.

Launching at the height of a global pandemic, the Go 2 isn’t exactly the device of the moment. After all, the line has made a number of key sacrifices in the name of portability. It’s the kind of product whose shortcomings you’re willing to forgive for the ability to have it with you anywhere you need to be. Typing on it atop my home desk, on the other hand, only brings those shortcomings into sharp focus.

That’s not Microsoft’s fault, of course, and this too shall pass, as we keep telling ourselves. Between the device’s design and low starting price of $399, the new Go is still best contextualized as a second travel device, in spite of a larger screen and improved specs. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just worth noting before we get too far in that I can’t recommend the product as a primary device for most users.

It’s also worth noting what you actually get if you buy the $399 model. For starters, there’s no keyboard. And the keyboard is really the thing here. After all, that sort of convertibility is a huge part of the motivation for buying a Surface in the first place. Along with the full Windows 10 experience, you’ll want the sort of productivity that requires a keyboard. That will run you $99-$129.

A harder pill to swallow is the processor upgrade. Similar to the MacBook Air I just reviewed, the real top-line component refresh mentioned in the press material requires a not inconsequential premium. Microsoft heavily advertised the addition of the eighth-gen Intel core line, which was heralded as helping transform the Go into a proper laptop. The base level, however sports the Intel Pentium 4425Y, chip, far more in line with the original’s 4415Y — one of the bigger issues reviewers had with the first Go.

Models with the Intel Core M3 start at $630 (that price will also get the RAM and storage bumped from 4GB/64GB to 8GB/128GB). LTE is an option now, as well, but that model runs $730. You can see how things start to add up pretty quickly here. The LTE is certainly not a mandatory update for a majority of users, but I’d strongly recommend going with the M3 if you’re looking for anything but the most basic functionality here.

As configured, the system scored 739 and 1540 on the single and dual-core Geekbench 4 tests, marking a sizable performance bump over the previous generation. It’s a welcome change that will make notable difference in daily use — even if it’s one you have to pay extra for. With the upgrade in place, the Go starts to make a stronger case to become a daily driver for some users.

Expanding the screen from 10 inches to 10.5 is also welcome. At that compact size, even half an inch goes a long way. The nicest part is that Microsoft managed to so while maintaining a similar footprint as the original version. After all, make the device much larger and you’ll start to lose its core appeal.

The Go maintains the line’s signature rear-of-device kickstand, rather than relying on the keyboard case. This makes sense for those who want to use the tablet without the keyboard. Positioning the stand on the device itself means you can prop it up to, say, watch a movie without relying on an accessory.

My longstanding complaint about the setup stands, however. Attempting to use the laptop on, say, your lap, is just too awkward. The keyboard flops around and the tablet never stays up tight. You’ll spend half your time attempting to position it correctly. The typing experience itself isn’t bad. The Surface is pretty decent as far as tablet keyboard cases go — which is to say it’s not going to replace a dedicated laptop, but it works just fine. It’s a bit narrow and soft, but nothing you won’t get used to after a bit.

The port situation still leaves something to be desired. There’s one USB-C, a headphone jack and the proprietary Surface Connect port. It was time to retire the latter a few generations ago. I recognize the desire for backward compatibility, but it’s time add a second USB-C dock in its place. Meantime, you might want to consider investing $259 in that new Surface Dock 2.

The accessories and the upgrades add up pretty quickly. If you go in for the Core M3 Wi-Fi model, buy a keyboard case and the dock; that will set you back $1,017. It’s a far cry from the $399. At that point, it’s probably worth looking around at what the competition offers at that price point. If you don’t mind sacrificing a bit of functionality in order to save a few bucks, however, the Go continues to be a decent choice for those seeking a secondary Windows convertible.

Pedaling-in-place with the Cubii Pro

So it has come to this. I haven’t set foot outside my apartment for a week and a half. YouTube yoga has been a kind of lifesaver, and I happened to have a largely untouched 30-pound kettlebell lying around. My Apple Watch has been mostly untouched, however. The stark realities of woefully underperforming exercise minutes and step counts are just too much on top of everything else.

Honestly, I scoffed a bit when a friend initially recommended an under-desk elliptical. But those were better days, when I was still able to take the bicycle out for a socially distant spin. Due to doctor’s orders, however, I now find myself unable to travel beyond the mailbox in my building lobby — and even that feels like tempting fate some days.

Now here I am, peddling away, writing a review of the Cubii Pro. It’s not a new product, exactly. But it’s certainly having its moment. In normal times, the device seems a silly bit of office “fitness” paraphernalia, designed to counteract the dangers of prolonged sitting we’ve frequently been warned against.

But if sitting was the new smoking in 2019, it’s simply the new reality in this era of self-quarantine. We’ll take our exercise wherever we can sneak it in — even if that means little more than walking between the desk and the kitchen most days. The Cubii line of products are by no means a replacement for more full-bodied exercise, but they’re a valiant attempt to help falling victim to complete atrophy.

As the name implies, the Pro is a step up from the standard Cubii that was launched via a Kickstarter campaign back in 2016. At $349, it’s an investment, with the biggest upgrades coming in the form of Bluetooth connectivity. There’s an app for iOS and Android that connects to third-party tracking software like Apple Health. That’s a pretty solid add-on, frankly, for those who’ve put a lot of stock in closing their Apple Watch rings.

The device ships mostly assembled. You’ll need to take it the last mile by attaching the pedals. And hey, free screwdriver. That’s simple enough. Honestly, the biggest headache about set up is charging the thing. The Pro is significantly larger and heavier than I’d initially anticipated, and it charges via microUSB. That means unless you’ve got a long cable, you’re going to have to find a spot to stick it near an outlet for an extended period. I don’t have floor outlets in my small apartment, so I had to get creative.

Charging takes a while, too. It’s best done overnight, if you can manage. The good news on that front, however, is it will stay charged for a while. I don’t anticipate having to charge it more often than every few weeks.

The size is also a constraint from the standpoint of use. The device’s length meant I had to pull my desk out from the wall a bit to use it. I also find myself having to sit back a bit, so as to avoid banging my knees on the bottom of the desk. Honestly, it’s probably best used while seated on a couch, watching TV (a laptop is too much to ask without a desk). If your office chair rolls as mine does, you’ll once again find yourself getting creative. The aforementioned kettlebell is getting even more use these days, as it currently sits between chair legs, hampering me from rolling backward with every peddle.

Those quibbles aside, I’ve mostly been enjoying my time with the product. The movement is smooth, the Bluetooth connection works well (though you may have to open the app to get it started) and there are eight resistance settings to keep things fresh. In other circumstances, I couldn’t imagine spending that much on this sort of product, but these are unique times. For those who still have trouble leaving the home even after things go mostly back to normal, it’s a nice, portable alternative to far pricier home exercise devices, with a solid little app to boot.

Apple MacBook Air review

Let’s address the elephant in the room. There’s an undeniable irony reviewing an ultraportable laptop when you’re not allowed to leave your house. Of course, Apple didn’t see this coming. None of us did, with the possible exception of Bill Gates, I suppose.

I bring this up not as a reminder of everything that’s wrong with the world at the present moment — you certainly didn’t need a reminder of that. Instead, I just figured it was important to note here that the testing situation is less than ideal for the MacBook Air. I haven’t left my one-bedroom New York City apartment with the thing since it arrived this morning.

In fact, I’ve mostly been working with the laptop sitting directly in front of a larger computer. One that’s big and not designed to be moved. I was feeling adventurous, however, so now I’m sitting on my bed, writing this with the Air on my lap. Damn, it feels good to live again.

There’s not a lot I can tell you about the MacBook Air that you don’t already know. One of the mainstays of the MacBook line, the Air turned 12 in January. It’s a testament to the original that the design still feels fresh well over a decade into its existence. There have been important updates to the device over the years, of course, but the laptop that hit the market nearly a year to the day before Barack Obama’s first inauguration still very much forms the foundation of the device.

“Thin” and “light” are still very much the qualities that define the Air. It’s a product that trades the processing power of the rest of the MacBook family in favor of a design that slips comfortably into the seat-back pocket in front of you on the plane. Indeed, the device has never been the one you want for heavy video processing or other resource-intensive applications. And while the 2020 model gets some important internal updates, that remains the case here.

If, however, you’re worried about lower-back pain, this is probably the MacBook for you.

The familiar wedge shape is in tact, of course. A few generations ago, that design was married with the prevailing aesthetic of the rest of the MacBook line, with a unibody design and reflective Apple logo up top.

There are still just the two Firewire 3/USB C ports onboard. Once again, they’re both on the same side. This has always been one of the bigger complaints since the redesign. Two on either side would be the best-case scenario, but until then, I’d settle for one on either, so as to avoid blocking the other one and to make it easier to plug the power cable into either side, depending on where you’re sitting relative to the outlet.

The biggest design change to the 2020 is much more subtle, however. After a rough couple of years for MacBook keyboards that culminated with a couple of consumer suits and countless jammed keys, Apple introduced a new design on last year’s 16-inch MacBook Pro. Mercifully, that upgrade has also come to the Air.

The system has returned to a scissor-switch design, which, among other things, results in more key travel, meaning the keys actually retract as you type, like a traditional keyboard. It’s like night and day, honestly. The butterfly mechanisms were a clear misstep for the company. In addition to lacking the tactile feedback, the fact that they were more or less flush with the laptop meant that if any debris got stuck in there, the key might just stop working. I had at least one instance of requiring some emergency compressed air at an event after the S key jammed. That’s an important key, mind.

Unlike other iterative attempts to update the butterfly mechanism, the move back to a scissor switch is a marked improvement. The keys are still relatively soft compared to other systems, but the feel is much improved — not to mention not as loud while typing. The feeling here is pretty similar to what you get with Apple’s Bluetooth Magic Keyboard peripheral. Honestly, that makes it a valuable upgrade in and of itself. There’s no Touchbar up top, instead opting for the standard function keys. The best part of the Touchbar setup — TouchID — is present, however. 

A lot about the Air remains unchanged from the big 2018 overhaul. That was, of course, the first major update in some time, bringing, most notably, the Retina display to the model for the first time ever. That’s a 2560 x 1600 IPS. It’s higher res and much better viewing angles than previous models — a big update for a model that many thought had been largely abandoned by Apple.

That’s still here. What is new, however, are some key upgrades to the inside. The default configuration ships with a tenth-generation 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3. While the device has evolved over last year’s eighth-generation chip, that model shipped with the Core i5 standard. Apple’s clearly made some calculations to drop the base price of the system from $1,099 to $999. Apple likely wants to further differentiate the device from the rest of the line.

For even basic users, however, I’d recommend adding $100 back onto the system price in order to upgrade to an i5. That’s the chip ours came with. The system scored 5244 and 14672 on Geekbench 4’s single and multi-core tests, respectively, presenting a marked upgrade over the last model we tested, back in 2018.

The other meaningful update to the silicon is the switch from Intel UHD 617 to Iris Plus graphics. Among other things, that will help with the ability to support external monitors. The Air is capable of supporting up to a 6K external monitor, with help from display compression. RAM is once again 8GB by default (as in our configuration), upgradable to 16GB. Much bigger news on the storage side, however, as that’s been upgraded to 256GB on the base model (up from 128GB), and can be configured all the way up to a generous 2TB (from 1TB).

Interestingly, the stated battery life has actually contracted, from 12 down to 11 hours. That, of course, largely depends on usage. After several hours, I’m down to 35% left. I’ve had the brightness and everything else at default levels and have mostly been typing, using Chrome and Slack and listening to music on headphones via Spotify (along with the occasional benchmark).

All-day battery life seems like a fair enough description, when you’re multitasking; 11 hours is probably a stretch. It’s worth noting that this can vary quite a bit based on a number of factors. I’ve only really had a full day with the laptop, so I’ll update retroactively.

There are some nice upgrades here. Between the keyboard, processor and the overhaul the model got back in 2018, it’s nice to see Apple keeping the beloved line fresh a dozen years after it was first introduced.

I suspect that, for many, the fact that the laptop was introduced alongside the new iPad Pro (and its new keyboard) drove home how much the lines between the products are continuing to blur. The question comes up a lot when critics talk about Apple, as the company has traditionally taken a relatively minimalistic approach to product lines, versus, say, Samsung’s tendency to provide a wide range of different products.

But as personal computing has become more complex, so have our needs. And so, in turn, has Apple’s lineup. For a while there, it seemed like the MacBook Air was going to fade away, in favor of the standard MacBook. Ultimately, however, the Air won out, and understandably so. The focus on portability is a strong selling point, when coupled with the workflow versatility of MacOS (versus iPadOS). The Air looks like it’s going to be sticking around for a bit, and that’s something for Apple users to be thankful for.