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OnePlus’s 8T handset brings faster charging and a 120Hz display for $749 

By Brian Heater

OnePlus continues its twice-yearly smartphone cycle with today’s arrival of the 8T. The latest device isn’t a huge upgrade over April’s OnePlus 8, but continues the company’s longstanding tradition of offering some of the most solid Android handsets at a reasonable price point. The cost has edged up a bit in recent years, but $749 is still pretty good for what the 8T offers.

The big updates this time out are the 120Hz refresh rate for its 6.55-inch display and super-fast charging via the Warp Charge 65. That should get the 4,450 mAh of battery capacity up to a full day’s charge in 15 minutes, with a full charge taking a little less than 40 minutes.

There are an abundance of cameras here — four in total. That includes a 48-megapixel main (with built in optical image stabilization), 16-megapixel ultra-wide angle and, more surprisingly, a macro and monochrome lens. The handset joins the even more affordable Nord, which is set to arrive in the U.S. in the near future, sporting 5G at a sub-$500 price point.

OnePlus has been undergoing some corporate changes in recent weeks, as well. Co-founder Carl Pei recently announced he will be leaving the company. “These past years, OnePlus has been my singular focus, and everything else has had to take a backseat,” he told TechCrunch. “I’m looking forward to taking some time off to decompress and catch up with my family and friends,” he wrote. “And then follow my heart on to what’s next.”

For the theremin’s 100th anniversary, Moog unveils the gorgeous Claravox Centennial

By Devin Coldewey

It’s been a full century since Leon Theremin created the electronic instrument bearing his name, and to celebrate Moog is releasing what must surely be the best-looking (and may be the best-sounding) Theremin of all time: the Claravox Centennial.

With a walnut cabinet, brass antennas, and a plethora of wonderful knobs and dials, the Claravox looks like it emerged from a prewar recording studio, as indeed is the intention.

It’s named after Clara Rockmore, the Soviet musician who played the Theremin in the 1930s to wide acclaim (and probably puzzlement) and contributed significantly to the fame of the instrument and to its design.

The one she played, however, was a mere toy compared to the ones devised by electronic music trailblazer Bob Moog, who built his own from plans published in a 1949 magazine. Later he would iterate on and improve the instrument to make it the versatile yet distinctive Theremin that would become a staple in many genres alongside Moog’s own synthesizers.

[gallery ids="2064301,2064302,2064299,2064298"]

The Claravox isn’t meant to be a display piece, though. It’s the ultimate Theremin, packed with modern and old-school tech. You can customize and switch between analog and digital oscillators; the wave shaping circuit is from the Etherwave Pro; there’s a built-in delay and preset storage; the inputs and outputs allow for use with lots of sources and controllers; there’s even a matching stand (sold separately).

It works the same as Theremins always have: the antennas detect the position of one’s hands (or other objects) in the range of their electric fields, and one controls pitch while the other controls volume. Playing the instrument is as much a performance as the music itself, as this excellent rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” shows:

Interested (and deep-pocketed) Theremin aficionados can pre-order their Claravox Centennial today for $1,499. It should ship in December — just in time for the holidays, if you want to surprise that special, synth-loving someone.

Flair’s Smart Vent system is a big improvement for anyone looking to improve their home HVAC

By Darrell Etherington

Smart thermostats are fairly ubiquitous these days, but depending on which one you’re using, you could be getting a lot more from your home heating and cooling – with relatively simple DIY upgrades. The Flair Smart Vent system is one such upgrade, and though it costs a bit upfront to get going (each register is $79 to start depending on size), you won’t have to call an HVAC contractor or break down any walls to take advantage of what it offers.

The basics

Flair’s system is designed around a simple idea: Controlling the airflow across individual rooms can help you be more efficient about where you direct your heating and cooling, and when. The basic ingredients Flair uses to make this happen are its Smart Vents, which fit into existing floor and wall register slots in standard sizes. The Flair designs are low profile, with all the electronics contained in casing that rests under floor level. They can be hardwired for power, but they also ship with two C batteries the provide “years” of power before they require replacement.

Flair advises three different approaches to determining how many Smart Vents you need to complement your existing system: If you have one room that’s too cold when cooling and too hot when heating, just get a Smart Vent and Flair Puck for that room. If you have just one room that gets too little cooling, and too little heating, equip all your other rooms with Smart Vents and Pucks (or Ecobee sensors if you have an Ecobee thermostat, but we’ll get to that later). If your HVAC is already pretty even, but you just want more control and efficiency gains, then equip the whole house as a third option.

Each room will require a Puck, which is a small round device that includes temperature control and monitoring. The first of these needs to be hardwired to power via the included USB cable, since it acts a bridge connecting the Flair system to your home network. All the others can be powered by included AAA batteries, and they’re very power efficient thanks in part to the e-Ink display.

Flair works in a number of modes, including one that’s compatible with any thermostat where you simply set the temperature for any room, and the associated vent(s) will open or close depending on whether the temperature in that room matches up. It can also work directly with Ecobee and Honeywell smart thermostats for a much more intelligent mode where they receive or send the temperature to the smart unit, and coordinate their open/shut status depending on that. Google has changed the Nest API, so Flair is working on supporting similar features on Nest systems through that in future, but for now it works with Nest installations the same way it would with ‘dumb’ thermostats.

Design and features

Image Credits: Flair

Flair’s Smart Vents themselves are attractive, well-made hardware. The vent covers themselves are made of metal, with an attractive grill design that will go with most decors. They’re exclusively white, which could be an issue for dark flooring, but they’re definitely a step up from your average registers. One one side, they have an LED light strip that is used during setup for identifying which is which, and underneath, the have the battery housing, louvres and the motors that control their open and shut status.

As mentioned, the Smart Vents can be associated with a Puck, which will provide them the ambient temp information, as well as target temp, in order to set them open or shut. They can also use an Ecobee sensor to get their marching orders when set up for software integration with an Ecobee system. I installed my review units and first tried them with the Flair app providing target temp info to the Ecobee, but then switched it around so that the Ecobee determined the desired temperature, and the Flair units all inherited that info and set their open/close status accordingly.

At first, I found the Flair app a bit intimidating just because with a multi-vent system it presents a lot of information, and some degree of logic to initially set up. But once I got the Ecobee integration working, the whole Flair system just worked – and worked like magic.

In this configuration, you never even have to think about the fact that the vents are Smart; they just do whatever they need to in order to equalize the temperature and keep heating and cooling routing intelligently. It made an impressive difference in the amount of airflow circulating around my nearly 100-year old house – and my setup isn’t necessarily ideal because there are a few non-standard, larger registers around that can’t yet be Flair-equipped.

The Pucks themselves are well designed, with magnetic, stick-up and screw-in installation options, and readible, power-efficient e-Ink displays. Their bezel turns for temperature control, and they can also be placed out of sight if you really just want to use them as remote sensors.

Bottom line

You might think that whether a register is open or closed wouldn’t make much difference to the efficacy of a house-wide HVAC system, but in my experience, the before-and-after of Flair was dramatically different. I started out with one problem spot primarily (the master bedroom) and afterwards it got to target temp much more quickly, both in heating and cooling modes.

Even if you find your central air and heating are already pretty effective, Flair seems like a wise upgrade that will provide lasting benefits in terms of consistency and power efficiency. Plus, if you use Flair as the controller, you can set different target temps for different rooms depending on individual occupant preferences.

True zoned HVAC systems can cost thousands – especially if you’re replacing existing ducting in walls. Flair’s solution is a lot more affordable by comparison, and provides effective results with DIY installation that takes just minutes to set up.

The smart speaker market is expected grow 21% next year

By Brian Heater

New numbers from Canalys point to a strong growth in smart speaker shipments in Mainland China this year. The market is on track to grow 2020, having gotten the COVID-19 pandemic mostly under control in recent months. The rest of the world — much of which continues to struggle with the virus — is only expected to see a 3% growth this year.

The global market will return to greater growth, per the firm, with numbers hitting 163 million units in 2021, marking a 21% growth overall. In spite of a slow down in purchasing non-essentials, a prolonged shutdown in many areas should lead more consumers to consider the possibility of introducing new devices into their homes — or replacing older and outdated units.

The last couple of months have been fairly busy for such products. Amazon, Google and Apple have all announced refreshes or additions to their smart speaker line. Google recently refreshed its baseline Home devices with new hardware and a new name, as the Nest Audio. Various Echo devices were updated as well, and Apple has finally introduced the long-awaited — and significantly less expensive — HomePod mini.

Image Credits: Canalys

Canalys notes that Apple is the only one of the big three U.S. companies sell their own smart speakers in Mainland China, and the new price point could help the company build more of a footprint in the market.

“The US $99 price segment is pretty much a no-mans-land in China, yet adequate to appeal to Apple’s user-base,” analyst Cynthia Chen says in a release. “Apple should take this opportunity to drive the uptake of its music and other services consumed at home.”

Amazon Echo review: Well-rounded sound

By Brian Heater

Six years ago, Amazon essentially created a new consumer electronics category. Expectations weren’t particularly high when the first Echo device debuted in November of 2014. Amazon, after all, has never shied away from throwing a new device against the wall to see what sticks — if anything, that’s become a defining characteristic of the last half-dozen years of Alexa devices.

The Echo stuck. In 2019, 146.9 million smart speakers were shipped globally, according to figures from Strategy Analytics. That figure marked a 70% increase over the year prior. Of that figure, Amazon owned a 26.2% market share.

That’s a success story by any measure. Of course, any competition present is also a knock-on effect of Amazon’s success. Google’s original Home speaker was released two years later, and Apple’s HomePod came out the year after that. While each certainly offered their own unique take on the category, it’s hard to imagine them making the same mark had Amazon not helped define the smart speaker category way back when.

Along with being the smart speaker grandaddy, Amazon’s also updated its devices with the most frequency. Google Home just got its second iteration (now Nest Audio) and the original HomePod is still on its first version. Last month, we got the fourth generation versions of both the Echo and the Echo Dot. The refreshes are about more than just getting people to buy new devices (of course, that’s a big part of it, too) — they’re also about adapting to learnings about how people use these sorts of devices.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

After all, the original Echo had little to go on beyond internal testing. Take audio. The initial Echo was smart first and a speaker second. Sure it could play music, but that was really just a secondary feature. First and foremost, the product was about conversing with Alexa. In 2017, however, Apple showed everyone the importance of focusing on audio quality with the HomePod. For many consumers, it made a lot more sense to purchase a quality speaker with an assistant built in, rather than a purpose-built smart speaker with lousy audio quality.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Subsequent versions of the Echo started to prioritize audio. Of course, the company never really did so to such a degree that the entry-level product could stand toe to toe with, say, the HomePod (though the Echo Studio is an attempt to approximate that on a somewhat tighter budget), but audio has increasingly become less of an afterthought across the company’s product line.

This year’s redesign centers on an audio upgrade yet again, along with an aesthetic overhaul that attempts to focus some of that newfound sound. The fourth-generation Echo is, in a word, round. Eschewing generations of cylinders, the company has gone with a design that is perfectly spherical (except the flat bottom to stop it from rolling off your table top). I suspect one learning that lead to the new design was where users place speakers in their homes.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Previous generations have been focused on a more three-dimensional listening experience, assuming, I suppose, that people are sticking these speakers in the middle of a room, rather than up against the wall. While the new Echo is round, however, the hard plastic bottom arcs upward, monopolizing about two-thirds of the device’s back. This time out, the company’s opted for a pair of front-firing 0.8-inch tweeters (one more than gen-three), coupled with a three-inch woofer (same as last year).

The speaker leans a but too heavily on the bass by default for my tastes, though you can adjust those setting via the Alexa app (I took it down about two notches). The sound quality is solid for the size and price point. I was able to get pretty decent playback listening to Spotify. Head to head, I think the Nest Audio delivers a richer, fuller sound — and if you’re currently assistant-agnostic, that’s the one I’m recommending based purely on sound.

Of course, the sound is much fuller if you’ve got a pair of the $99 devices in stereo mode. Amazon thoughtfully sent along two for testing that feature specifically. A similar feature is available for both Google’s Nest devices and Apple’s HomePod and HomePod Mini. Given that two Echos are roughly the price of one Echo Studio, the math might make sense, depending on your home setup.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do like the design here. Though sitting next to the Nest Audio, it’s hard to shake a sense of convergent evolution with all of these smart speakers. As it happens, both of my review devices are the same color, and really look like they could have sprung out of the same product line, with their dark fabric coverings. I do, however, appreciate the design work that’s being done to make them feel a bit more subtle than previous generations — and in a sense part of the furniture.

As I mentioned in my recent review of the Echo Dot (which is physically identical to the Echo in all but size), I’m a bit less thrilled with the design to move the light ring to the bottom. I understand practically why the company did this: it wouldn’t have made sense to slice up the round design with a light ring. But the new design only makes sense if the Echo is close to eye level. Otherwise you’re reliant on its reflection from the surface on which the device sits.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The biggest upgrade here, however, may be the inclusion of a Zigbee hub, which negates the existence of the Echo Plus. It was only a matter of time before the Echo became a smart home hub, and it’s nice that Amazon’s found a way to incorporate that into a device at this price point. It’s a big part of the company’s push to corner the smart home control market. Notably, the new Nest Audio also offers the feature.

An interesting surprise addition is the temperature sensor. In addition to local weather, asking “Alexa, what’s the temperature in here?” it will offer up an average temperature for the room where the Echo resides. Not exactly necessary, but helpful information, I suppose.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon’s nearly annual updates to the line ensure that no new generation represents as radical an upgrade as the one we just saw between Google Home and Nest Audio. But all in all, Amazon’s presented us with a nice little refresh here.

Smartphone shipments rebound to an all-time high in India

By Manish Singh

Smartphone shipments reached an all-time high in India in the quarter that ended in September this year as the world’s second largest handset market remained fully open during the period after initial lockdowns due to the coronavirus, according to a new report.

About 50 million smartphones shipped in India in Q3 2020, a new quarterly record for the country where about 17.3 million smartphone units shipped in Q2 (during two-thirds of the period much of the country was under lockdown) and 33.5 million units shipped in Q1 this year, research firm Canalys said on Thursday.

Xiaomi, which assumed the No.1 smartphone spot in India in late 2018, continues to maintain its dominance in the country. It commanded 26.1% of the smartphone market in India, exceeding Samsung’s 20.4%, Vivo’s 17.6%, and Realme’s 17.4%, the marketing research firm said.

Image Credits: Canalys /

But the market, which was severely disrupted by the coronavirus, is set to see some more shifts. Research firm Counterpoint said last week that Samsung had regained the top spot in India in the quarter that ended in September. (Counterpoint plans to share the full report later this month.)

According to Counterpoint, Samsung has benefited from its recent aggressive push into online sales and from the rising anti-China sentiments in India.

The geo-political tension between India and China has incentivised many consumers in India to opt for local brands or those with headquarters based in U.S. and South Korea. And local smartphone firms, which lost the market to Chinese giants (that command more than 80% of the market today) five years ago, are planning a come back.

Indian brand Micromax, which once ruled the market, said this month that it is gearing up to launch a new smartphone sub-brand called “In.” Rahul Sharma, the head of Micromax, said the company is investing $67.9 million in the new smartphone brand.

In a video he posted on Twitter last week, Sharma said Chinese smartphone makers killed the local smartphone brands but it was now time to fight back. “Our endeavour is to bring India on the global smartphone map again with ‘in’ mobiles,” he said in a statement.

India also recently approved applications from 16 smartphone and other electronics companies for a $6.65 billion incentives program under New Delhi’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. Foxconn (and two other Apple contract partners), Samsung, Micromax, and Lava (also an Indian brand) are among the companies that will be permitted to avail the incentives.

Missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers such as Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme.

June’s third-gen smart oven goes up for pre-order, starting at $599

By Brian Heater

2020 is June’s time to shine. With an increasing number of people stuck and home, trying (and often failing) to fend for themselves in their kitchen, the smart oven startup has a solid opportunity to considerably expand its users base.

“The rise in at-home cooking has caused us to reevaluate June’s cook-programs to achieve more culinary possibilities not captured by a standard home oven,” CTO and co-founder Nikhil Bhogal said in a release.

Today it announced the launch of a third-generation oven, two years after its last major update. From the sound of it, the update is a relatively minor one. There are a handful of upgrades to the oven’s hardware, including a new handle, added guard rails on top of heating elements, quieter fans and a new chipset with better wireless connection.

Image Credits: June Oven

The biggest change to its functionality is the ability to control each of its six heating elements individually (whereas the previous model only controlled them as groups) for more even roasts. The software interface has gotten an upgrade, as well, and the on-board AI camera system is capable of recognizing where the food is placed for optimal cooking and can identify hundreds of different food types.

At $599, it’s still a pricy kitchen appliance. The system amounts to a large, smart toaster oven — albeit one with a bunch of different food-cooking options, from air frying to dehydrating and broiling. The price goes up from there. There’s a $799 bundle that adds a year to the warranty and includes a one-year subscription to the June premium service and a $999 version that includes a bunch of additional add-ons, including air baskets, a pizza and grill kit and additional thermometers.

Pre-orders open today. No word on exact launch date.

Apple HomePod update brings Intercom and other new features

By Sarah Perez

Apple HomePod owners, starting today, will be able to use the newly announced “Intercom” feature to send messages between their HomePod smart speakers. The feature, which arrives via a software update, brings this and several other new features to Apple’s smart speakers, including those introduced at Apple’s event last week where the company debuted its $99 HomePod mini.

Of these, Intercom is the most notable update, as it helps the HomePod catch up to rival smart speakers, like those from Apple and Google, which have offered similar broadcast messaging systems for years.

But in Apple’s case, Intercom doesn’t just send a user’s voice message — like “dinner’s ready!” or “time to go!” — across the family’s HomePod speakers. It’s also meant to work across Apple’s device ecosystem, by adding support for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and even AirPods and CarPlay.

This could be a competitive advantage for HomePod, particularly because Amazon — which leads the U.S. market with its affordable Echo devices — no longer has its own smartphone business.

However, Apple says Intercom’s expanded support for other devices isn’t being rolled out today. Instead, it will arrive through further software updates later this year.

To use Intercom, HomePod owners with multiple devices can say things like:

“Hey Siri, Intercom, Has anyone seen my glasses?”

“Hey Siri, tell everyone, Dinner is ready.”

“Hey Siri, Intercom to the kitchen, Has the game started?”

And to reply, users can say something like “Hey Siri, reply, Yes.”

In addition to the new support for Intercom, the software update also introduces deeper integration with Apple Maps and iPhone, the ability to set and stop timers and alarms from any HomePod, the ability to continue listening to a podcast with multiuser support, and more.

The deeper integration means HomePod owners can now ask Siri for information about traffic conditions, as well as nearby restaurants and businesses. A Siri suggestion will then automatically appears in Maps on your iPhone so the route is available as soon as you get in the car.

HomePod owners can also now ask Siri to search the web, which then sends results to the iPhone.

Two other new features will arrive later this year, including the ability to connect one HomePod (or more) to Apple TV 4K for stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos for movies, TV, games and more.

The other upcoming feature, called Personal Update, will soon let you ask Siri “what’s my update” or “play my update,” to get all the info you need to start your day, including news, weather, calendar events, and any reminders.

DJI’s Pocket 2 gimbal is an extremely fun way to grab impressive smartphone shots

By Brian Heater

The Pocket 2 is the kind of device that makes me wish I got out a bit more. I’ve been testing it out for a few days, and, while it’s done a reasonably good job making my life look a bit more interesting, there’s only so much such a little device can do during this lockdown. That’s no fault of DJI’s of course. There’s only so much that can be done — and at the end of the day, a camera can only really work with the content you give it.

Even so, I’ve enjoyed my time with the product. As I did with its predecessor, the DJI Osmo Pocket. The device returns this week with a truncated name and a handful of improvements. Nothing on board is particularly revolutionary, but the original device was such a cool and innovative product when it first arrived roughly two years ago, the company can be forgiven for mostly focusing on refinement.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The line builds on DJI’s know-how, developed with years of drone imaging and gimbal expertise. Unlike, say the Ronin or Osmo Mobile lines, however, the product works as a standalone, with a small built-in display that records directly onto a microSD card. But as with the original, the whole getup works a heck of a lot better when you’ve got an Android or iOS handset to work with. The Pocket still does the majority of the heavy imaging lifting, but your phone just works as a much better preview screen and control center than the measly one built into the device.

The system ships with a pair of connectors: USB-C and Lightning, depending on your device. It’s a solid setup, best controlled with two hands. I didn’t have any issues, but I don’t entirely trust the integrity of a connector enough to hold it with one. Better yet, there are wireless accessories that allow for you to control the system remotely via phone. And speaking of accessories, I highly recommend getting a mini tripod or splurging for the bonus pack that includes one. It can be tricky propping the system up correctly for those modes that require minutes-long record times. More than once a video ended when the device fell over due to a strong gust.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The underlying imaging hardware has been improved throughout. The camera now sports a larger sensor (64-megapixels) and wider lens, shooting better videos and stills than the original. The device can zoom up to 8x — though I’d recommend sticking with the 4x lossless optical, so as to not degrade those shots you’re taking. (HDR, incidentally, is coming at a later date.)

The mics, too, have been upgraded. There are four in total on board. Definitely use that optional wind noise reduction. For even better quality, the combo pack also includes a wireless microphone with windscreen, so that, too, may be worth investigating depending on what and where you plan to shoot. The three-axis gimbal does a good job keep things steady — and moves smoothly for a variety of different image and video capturing tasks. As with the last version, I found the battery to be lacking — that’s doubly the case for the gimbal charging up an attached phone by default.

As usual, the shooting modes are the real secret sauce. In particular, I’m really smitten with timelapse and hyperlapse. The former offers a sped-up image, using the gimbal to stabilize the shot as you move:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Hyperlapse takes it a step further, mechanically moving the gimbal from left to right in slow increments that give a sweeping shot of a space over time:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The system also borrows subject tracking from the drone line. Draw a rectangular around an object on the smartphone display and the gimbal will move along with it. The tracking proved to be pretty accurate, though I ran into some issues in the shadows and in situations when there’s a lot of divergent movement happening — like when I attempted to capture the runner in a softball game. On the whole however, it does a pretty solid job with people and animals alike.

The gimbal is also great for stitching together panorama shots — something that can be a pain on a standard smartphone. It can either do together a standard ultra wide 180-degree shot or create a highly detailed 3×3 image by essentially stitching together nine images in one:

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Pocket 2 occupies a strange territory. It’s essentially a $349 add-on designed to augment smartphone photography. It’s an easy shortcut for grabbing some really cool shots, but pros are going to be much more interested in shooting with, say, a Ronin and an SLR. That leaves hobbyists with cash to spend on something that will, say, really wow their friends on social media. It’s a way to capture some drone-style shots without ever having to leave the ground.

DJI’s clever little Pocket gimbal gets refreshed with improved video

By Brian Heater

It’s been nearly two years since DJI released the original Osmo Pocket. Honestly, the little gimbal is one of the most delightful products from a company that makes a lot of them. As — at best — an amateur smartphone photographer, I enjoyed my time with the product and am pretty psyched to get a little hands-on time with the sequel.

The new product streamlines the name a bit, dropping the “Osmo” to become, simply, the DJI Pocket 2. Like its predecessor, it works as both a standalone camera, or a smartphone accessory, using a handset and a large display to preview shots in real time. The three-axis gimbal can record 4K video at 60 frames a second. HDR video is now on board, as is a 8x hybrid zoom (or 4x optical). A four-mic system has been added to improve sound recording.

As ever with DJI, the software is a big piece. I was really impressed with the way the company was able to bring some of its drones’ more advanced shooting modes to the product, allowing for polished, cinematic shots on a pocket-sized device. The new version has a half-dozen or so different modes. Per DJI:

  • Pro Mode: Control advanced camera settings such as ISO, shutter speed, EV, and focus mode.
  • ActiveTrack 3.0: Select a subject and let DJI Pocket 2 keep it in the frame automatically.
  • Slow Motion: Capture the fast-moving world in slow motion with a max speed and resolution of 8x at 1080p.
  • Timelapse, Hyperlapse, Motionlapse: Speed up the world around you with the varying effects of three different time-lapse operations. Hyperlapse automatically integrates Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) for added smoothness. Users have the ability to save individual images separately, record in RAW format, and use ActiveTrack 3.0.
  • Panoramas:
  • 180° Pano: Captures four photos for sweeping landscape images.
  • 3×3 Pano: Merges nine images for a wide and detailed view.
  • Livestreaming: Livestream directly to Facebook, YouTube, or RTMP.
  • Story Mode: Preset camera movements, color profiles, and music make it easier to choose a template, record the moment, and share to social media instantly

The hardware’s been redesigned a bit this time out, with a removable baseplate for attaching a bunch of new accessories, including an additional microphone, charging case and wireless housing. There’s a wireless module as well, which lets it connect to a smartphone without having to plug it in directly.

Image Credits: DJI

It’s a pricey little deal, as far as mobile gimbals go, owing to all of the hardware on board. It retains the original’s $349 starting price, which includes a control stick and tripod mount. The $499 Creator Combo adds a wide-angle lens, wireless mic with windscreen and a mini tripod. Both are available through DJI’s site starting November 1.

Lux-backed Flex Logix announces availability of its fast and cheap X1 AI chip for the edge

By Danny Crichton

In the computing world, there are probably more types of chips available than your local supermarket snack aisle. Diverse computing environments (data centers and the cloud, edge, mobile devices, IoT, and more), different price points, and varying capabilities and performance requirements are scrambling the chip industry, resetting who has the lead right now and who might take the lead in new and emerging niches.

While there has been a spate of new chip startups like Cerebras, SiFive, and Nuvia funded by venture capitalists in the past two years, Flex Logix got its footing a bit earlier. The company, founded in 2014 by former Rambus founder Geoff Tate and Cheng Wang, has collectively raised $27 million from investors Lux Capital and Eclipse Ventures, along with Tate himself.

Flex Logix wants to bring AI processing workflows to the compute edge, which means it wants to offer technology that adds artificial intelligence to products like medical imaging equipment and robotics. At the edge, processing power obviously matters, but so does size and price. More efficient chips are easier to include in products, where pricing may put constraints on the cost of individual components.

In the first few years of the company, it focused on developing and licensing IP around FPGAs, or reprogrammable chips that can be changed after manufacturing through software. These flexible chips are critical in applications like AI or 5G, where standards and models change rapidly. It’s a market that is dominated by Xilinx and Altera, which was acquired by Intel for $16.7 billion back in 2015.

Flex Logix saw an opportunity to be “the ARM of FPGAs” by helping other companies develop their own chips. It built customer traction for its designs with organizations like Sandia National Laboratory, the Department of Defense and Boeing. More recently, it has been developing its own line of chips called InferX X1, creating a hybrid business model not unlike the model that Nvidia will have after its acquisition of ARM clears through regulatory hurdles.

With that background out of the way, Flex Logix unveiled the availability of its X1 chip, which is currently slated to be offered at four speeds ranging from 533Mhz to 933Mhz. CEO Tate stressed on our call that the company’s key differential is price: those chips will be priced between $99-$199 depending on chip speed for smaller orders, and $34-$69 per chip for large-scale orders.

It’s a chip, alright. Ain’t a lot of great stock art. But here is the X1. Photo via Flex Logix.

The reason those chips are cheaper is that they are significantly smaller than competing chips from Nvidia in its Jetson chip lineup according to Tate, up to 1/7 the size. Smaller chips generally have lower costs, since each wafer in a chip fab can hold more chips, amortizing the cost of manufacturing over more chips. According to the company, its chips outperform Nvidia’s Xavier module, although independent benchmarks aren’t available.

“Every customer we talk to wants more processing power per dollar, more processing power per unit of power … and with our die-size advantage we can give them more for their money,” Tate explained.

Customer samples for these new chips are expected to arrive in the first quarter next year, with scale manufacturing in the second quarter.

The company’s plan is to continue both sides of its business and continue to grow and mature its technology. “Our embedded FPGA businesses is now, as a standalone, profitable. The amount of money we’re bringing in exceeds the engineering and business. And now we’re developing this new business for inference which ultimately should be a bigger business because the market is growing very fast in the inference space,” Tate explained.

The company’s board consists of Peter Hébert and Shahin Farshchi of Lux, Pierre Lamond at Eclipse, and Kushagra Vaid, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft Azure. The company is based in Mountain View, California.

Amazon Echo Dot with Clock review: A mostly aesthetic update

By Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

Analogue takes on the TurboGrafx-16 with its Duo retro console

By Devin Coldewey

Analogue’s beautiful, functional retro gaming consoles provide a sort of “archival quality” alternative to the cheap mini-consoles proliferating these days. The latest system to be resurrected by the company is the ill-fated, but still well-thought-of TurboGrafx-16 or PC Engine.

The Duo, as Analogue’s device is called, is named after a later version of the TurboGrafx-16 that included its expensive CD-ROM add-on — and indeed the new Duo supports both game cards and CDs, provided they have survived all this time without getting scratched.

Like the rest of Analogue’s consoles, and unlike the popular SNES and NES Classic Editions from Nintendo (and indeed the new TurboGrafx-16 Mini), the Duo does not use emulation in any way. Instead, it’s a painstaking recreation of the original hardware, with tweaks to introduce modern conveniences like high-definition video, wireless controllers, and improvements to reliability and so on.

Image Credits: Analogue

As a bonus, it’s all done in FPGA, which implies that this hardware is truly one of a kind in service of remaking the console accurately. Games should play exactly as they would have on the original hardware down to the annoying glitches and slowdowns of that era of consoles.

And what games! Well, actually, few of them ever reached the status of their competitors on Nintendo and Sega consoles here in the U.S., where the TurboGrafx-16 sold poorly. But titles like Bonk’s Adventure, Bomberman ’93, Ninja Spirit, Splatterhouse, and Devil’s Crush should be played more widely. Shmup fans like myself were spoiled with originals and arcade ports like R-Type and Blazing Lazers. The Ys series ( also got its start on the PC Engine (if you could afford the CD attachment).

I wouldn’t mind having an HDMI port on the back of my SNES. Oh, Analogue makes one…

Analogue’s consoles are made for collectors who would prefer not to have to baby their original hardware, or want to upscale the signal and play wirelessly without too much fuss. I still have my original SNES, but 240p just doesn’t look as crisp as it did on a 15-inch CRT in the ’90s.

At $199, it’s more expensive than finding one at a garage sale, but good luck with that. The original and its CD add-on cost a fortune, so if you think about it from that perspective, this is a real bargain. Analogue says limited quantities are available, and will be shipping in 2021.

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

Basics

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

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

In the box, there’s a coiled 3.5mm for that vintage Marshall amp feel, as well as a USB-C cable for wired charging, which will provide a full 80+ hours of use from 3 hours – or 15 hours from just 15 minutes with a new quick charge feature.

Design and performance

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

Image Credits: Marshall

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

Basics

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

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

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

Design and performance

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

Sony’s $5,000 3D display (probably) isn’t for you

By Brian Heater

Sony just announced a $5,000 3D display, but odds are it’s probably not for you. Primarily known for its consumer goods, the company is targeting creative professionals with the Spatial Reality Display — more specifically, those working in fields like computer graphics and visual effects for films. Basically it’s a way for artists to view their 3D creations without having to wear a VR headset.

The company’s not the first to offer up this kind of technology for a fairly niche audience. The Looking Glass display is probably the best-known offering in the space up to this point. But unlike that massive 8K screen, Sony’s product is actually designed for a single user — specifically as a screen for their desktop PC. Also, it kind of looks like an Amazon Echo Show.

Image Credits: Sony

The big differentiator between the product and existing devices is the inclusion of a sensor that determines the user’s viewing position, including vertical and horizontal access, along with distance, and tailors the image to that specific angle, adjusting within the millisecond.

Sony says it’s a “highly-realistic, virtual environment.” It showed off an earlier version of the technology at CES this year, using a rendering of the Ecto-1 from the upcoming Ghostbusters sequel, and planned to give the press a demo of the final version of the screen, but we all had to settle for conference calls instead, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For that reason, I can’t really speak to the efficacy of the 3D imaging as of this writing.

The company consulted with its Sony Pictures wing, which used the technology for the development of CG effects for the aforementioned Ghostbusters film. Volkswagen has also been involved since the project’s early stages, looking toward the technology’s potential use in the ideation and design processes.

For everyone else, the display goes up for sale through Sony next month.

B&O’s BeoPlay H4 headphones offer great looks and comfort, but no noise canceling

By Brian Heater

It’s easy to be smitten with the H4 at first sight. They’re a great-looking pair of headphones — one of the best I’ve seen. They sport a simple, streamlined design that feels both like an homage to older models, but modern enough to avoid the nostalgia trap.

They’re comfortable, too. Like crazy comfortable. I say this as someone who is prone to dull earaches after wearing most models of over-ear headphones for an extended period. Since Bang & Olufsen sent me a pair to test a while pack, I’ve been wearing them for hours on end, prepping for a write-up during Work From Home Week.

The headphones sport an abundance of padding on the rim of their perfectly round cups. My ears sit snuggly inside, with none of the padding pressing on the ear — something that’s often a source of pressure after extended wears. They’re fairly lightweight — that helps. At 8.3 ounces they fall in between the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (8.2 ounces) and Sony WH-1000XM4 (8.96 ounces).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The cups are covered in leather — either matte black or limestone (kind of a cream) — coupled with a large brushed metal plate sporting the B&O logo. It complements the concentric circles. The right cup sports a volume rocker, power/pairing switch and a port for an auxiliary cable. The ear cups sport a nice, smooth swivel that should work well with a variety of different head sizes.

The sound is good. It’s nice and full — though B&O leans a bit too heavily on the bass for some tests. They’re not quite as egregious as other units, but it’s very noticeable, particularly with traditionally bass-heavy genres like hip-hop. If you’re looking for fuller, more true-to-life music replication, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.

The absence of active noise canceling is a pretty big blind spot for a pair of $300 headphones in 2020. Even if you think you don’t need the feature, trust me, there are plenty of times you’ll be glad you have it. Take my working from home adventures over the past six months: They just started construction directly outside of my window, and it’s the worst. The Bluetooth, too, is decent, but walking around my apartment, I found them quicker to cut out than, say, the Sonys.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are units with longer battery life, too. Given that the H4’s are collapsible and don’t have ANC, though, I’m guessing the company isn’t really targeting frequent fliers here. With a rated battery life of up to 19 hours, though, they’ll get you through a day of home use, no problem.

Whisper announces $35M Series B to change hearing aids with AI and subscription model

By Ron Miller

A few years ago, Whisper president and co-founder Andrew Song was talking to his grandfather about his hearing aids. Even though he spent thousands of dollars on a medical device designed to improve his hearing, and in the process his quality of life, he wasn’t wearing them. Song’s co-founders had had similar experiences with grandparents, and as engineers and entrepreneurs, they decided to do something about it, to try and build a better, more modern hearing aid.

Today, the company emerged from stealth with a new hearing aid built from the ground up. It uses artificial intelligence to learn and adjust in an automated way to different hearing situations like a noisy restaurant or watching TV. And you don’t pay thousands of dollars up front, you pay a monthly fee on a three year subscription, and you get free software updates along the way.

While it was at it, the company also announced a $35 million Series B investment led by Quiet Ventures with participation from previous investors Sequoia Capital and First Round Capital. The startup has raised a total of $53 million to build the hearing aid system that it is announcing today.

Those discussions with his grandfather prior to starting the company led Song to wonder why he wasn’t wearing those hearing aids, what were the challenges he was having and why that wasn’t working for him — and that led to eventually forming launching a startup.

“That really inspired us to build, I think, a new kind of product, one that could get better over time and better support the needs of people who use hearing aids, and be a hearing aid that gets better, but also one that could use artificial intelligence to actually improve the sound that somebody gets,” Song explained.

While the founding team had a background in technology and engineering, they did not have expertise in hearing science, so they brought on Dr. Robert Sweetow from the UCSF audiology department to help them.

The technology they’ve built consists of three main components. For starters you have the hearing aids themselves that fit on the ear along with a pocket-sized external box that they call the Whisper Brain, which the company says, “works wirelessly with the earpieces to enable a proprietary AI-based Sound Separation Engine,” and finally there is a smart phone app to update the software on the system.

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It is this AI that Song says separates them from other hearing aids. “In the day-to-day rough and tumble when you encounter a more challenging experience, what we call our sound separation engine, which is the kind of AI model that we’ve built to help with that, and that’s what’s going to be there to help do that signal processing — and we think that’s really unique,” he said.

What’s more, just like a self-driving car learns over time and benefits from the data being fed back to the company from all drivers, Song says that the same dynamic is at work with the hearing aid, which learns how to process signals better over time, based on an individual’s experience, but also all of the other Whisper hearing aid users.

The company is offering these hearing aids through a network of hearing aid professionals, rather than over the counter, because Song said that the company recognized that these are complex instruments and it is important to keep audiologists in the loop to help fit and support the hearing aids and work with Whisper customers over the life of the product.

Whisper offers these hearing aids on a subscription basis for $179 per month on a three-year contract, which includes all of the hardware, the software updates, on-going support from the hearing care pro, a 3-year loss and damage insurance and an industry-standard equipment warranty. They are offering an introductory price of $139 per month for a limited time.

At $179 per month, it comes to a total of $6444 over the three year period to essentially rent the aids. At the end of the subscription, customers can renew and get updated hardware or give the hardware back. They do not own the hearing aids.

It’s worth noting that other hearing aid companies also use AI in their hearing aids including Widex and Starkey, neither of which require an external hub. Many hearing aid companies also offer a variety of payment and subscription plans, but Whisper is an attempt to offer a different approach to hearing aids.

Google Pixel 5 review: Keeping it simple

By Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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