FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Review: Wireless headsets from Logitech, Audio-Technica, SteelSeries, HyperX and more

By Devin Coldewey

With the amount of time you’re spending at home these days, you deserve a better headset. A wireless one that works with your computer and maybe your console as well, with a mic for calls and great sound for games and movies. Fortunately there are a lot to choose from, and I’ve tested out your best options.

I asked the leading audio and peripheral companies to send over their flagship wireless headset, with prices ranging from about $100 to $250. Beyond this price range returns diminish swiftly, but right now that’s the sweet spot for comfort, sound and usability.

For years I’ve avoided wireless headsets because there were too many compromises, but I’m pleased to say that the latency has been eliminated and battery life in the ones I reviewed is uniformly excellent. (NB: If the wireless version feels too expensive, you can often get wired ones for $50-100 less.)

To test the headphones, I used them all for a variety of everyday tasks, from video calls to movies and music (with only minimal EQing to get a sense of their natural sound) to AAA games and indies. None require an app to work, though some have companion software for LEDs or game profiles. I have a fairly large head and medium-sized ears, for what it’s worth. All the headphones are rather bulky, though the angle I shot them at individually makes them look huge — you can see in the image up top that they’re all roughly the same size.

None of these headphones have active noise cancelling, but many offer decent physical isolation to the point where they offer a “monitor” feature that pipes in sound from the outside world — useful if you’re playing a game but waiting for the oven to preheat or something. Only the first set has a built-in mic, the rest have detachable ones of generally solid quality, certainly good enough for streaming and chatting, though for broadcast a separate one would be better. All these headphones use a USB-A style dongle, though the 7P/7X also has a USB-C connector.

SteelSeries 7P/7X – $149

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The 7P and 7X headsets, designed with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in mind (as well as PC) respectively, are my first and most unreserved recommendation.

The standout feature on these is, to me, a truly surprising sound with an almost disturbingly broad stage and clarity. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I put on some familiar tracks I use for reference. This isn’t a 7.1 simulation or anything like that — but no doubt the gaming focus led to creating a large soundstage. It worked!

I also found the headphones to be very comfortable, with a “ski goggle” strap instead of a per-band adjustment that lets them sit very lightly as well as “remembering” your setting. The spacious earcups rotate for travel or comfort.

The built-in mic is unobtrusive and stows away nicely, but if you’re picky about placement it was a bit floppy to adjust. Many of the other headsets have nicer mics that completely detach — maybe that’s a plus for you, but I tend to lose them.

My main issues with these are that the controls feel cheap and not particularly well laid out. The bottom of the headset is a jumble of ports and buttons and the volume dials don’t have much travel — it’s 0 to 100 in one full swipe. (Volume control is independent from system volume.)

The dongle is different from the others in that it is itself USB-C, but with a USB-A cable attached. That’s good for compatibility, but the cable is three feet long, making it kind of silly to attach to some laptops and whatnot. You could easily get your own short cord, though.

At $150 I think these are an easy recommendation for just about anyone looking at that price range.

Audio-Technica AT-GWL – $250

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The high price on these is partly because they are the wireless version of a headset that also comes wired, so if you want the solid audio performance and comfy fit, you can save some money by going wired.

The sound of the AT-GWLs is rich and naturally has a focus on the upper-mid vocal range, which makes voices in media really pop. I did find the sound a bit confined, which hitting the “surround” setting actually helped with. I know that this sort of virtualization has generally been frowned on, but it’s been a while since these settings have been over the top and distortive. I found surround better for games but not necessarily for music, but it’s very easy to switch on and off.

The headphones are light and adjusted with traditional, no-nonsense metal bands, with a single pad on the top. I would say they are the lightest-feeling pair I tested, with the SteelSeries and Razer coming in just behind owing to some extra weight and bulk. Despite being compact, the AT-GWLs felt airy but not big. The leather-microfiber combo cups are nice, and I think they’ll break in well to provide better isolation over time.

Where they fall short is in the interface. First, a note to Audio-Technica: Turn down the notification noises! Turning the headset on, the mic on or off or hitting the system-independent volume max produces loud, surprising beeps. Too loud!

Second, the buttons and dials are stiff, small and same-feeling. Lifting a hand quickly to turn down the volume (maybe after a huge beep) you may very easily mistake the power switch for the volume dial. The dial also doubles as a button for surround mode, and next to it is a microscopic button to turn on and off the sound of surroundings. It’s a bit of a jumble — nothing you can’t get used to, but considering how nice other headsets on this list made their controls, it has to be said.

HyperX Cloud II wireless – $100

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

HyperX (owned by Kingston) wasn’t exactly known for audio until fairly recently, but its previous Cloud headset got the crucial Wirecutter endorsement, and it’s easy to see why. For less money than any of the other headsets in this roundup, the follow-up to that headset (which I’m wearing right now) has excellent sound and isolation.

I was surprised to find a soundstage nearly as wide as the 7P/7X, but with more of a focus on the punchy lower register instead of on detail and placement. My music felt big and close, and the atmosphere of games likewise, more immediately present.

The Cloud II’s controls are simple and effective. The volume dial, tied directly to the system volume, is superb: grippy, with smooth motion and just the right amount of friction, and just-barely-there clicks. There are two good-size buttons, the power one concave and the mic mute (which gives different sounds for muted and active) convex.

It’s unfortunate that they’re not as comfortable, for me anyway, as the others on this list. The cups (though a bit on the warm side) and band are perfectly fine. It’s that there’s little rotation to those cups, meaning there’s no play to accommodate the shape of your head. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my big dome, but they were noticeably tighter at the front of my ear than the back, so I was constantly adjusting or trying to twist them.

I’ll say this: If they add a bit more adjustment to the cups, these would be my default recommendation over the 7P/7X. As exciting as the SteelSeries sound is to me, the Cloud IIs seem more like what people expect, and are $50 cheaper.

Logitech G-733 – $130

The matte texture of the G733s had a weird interaction with my camera — they don’t look speckly IRL. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

These are Logitech’s streamer-friendly, color-coordinated, LED-sporting set, but they’re better than the loud design would suggest.

The sound is definitely gaming-forward, with a definite emphasis on the low end and a very central, present sound that was a lot like the Cloud II.

To be honest, I was not expecting the G733s to be very comfortable — their stiff plastic look suggested they’d creak, weigh down my ears and crush my noggin. But in fact they’re really light and quite comfy! There’s a lot of play in the positions of the earcups. The fit is a little odd in that there’s a plainly inferior version of the 7P/7X’s “ski goggle” strap that really only has four settings, while the cups slide up and down about two thirds of an inch. It was just enough to accommodate my (again, apparently very large) head.

The mic boom is rather short, and sadly there is no indicator for when the mic is on or off, which is sometimes a minor inconvenience and sometimes a major pain. You can tell from the sound the mute button makes, though.

The volume dial is nice and smooth, though the “clicks” are really far apart. I like the texture of it and the mic mute button, the power button not so much. But it works.

The colors may not be to everyone’s liking, but I have to hand it to Logitech for going all the way. The headset, mic and even the USB dongle are all the same shade, making it much easier to keep track of them in my growing pile of headphones and widgets.

Logitech Pro-X – $200

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Currently Logitech’s most premium set of gaming headphones, the Pro-X abandon the bright, plasticky look of its other sets and goes for understated and black.

The sound of the Logitech is big and very clear, with almost a reference feel in how balanced the bands are. I felt more presence in the mid-lows of smart bass-playing than the other sets. There is a “surround” feel that makes it feel more like you’re in a room of well-configured speakers than headphones, something that I think emerges from a de-emphasis of the center channel. The media is “out there,” not “in here.” It’s not a bad or a good thing, just distinct from the others.

The controls are about on par with the Cloud II’s: a nice frictiony volume wheel controlling system volume, a nice mic toggle button and a fairly meaty on-off switch you’re unlikely to trip on purpose.

Also like the Cloud IIs, there is no rotation to the earcups, making them less comfortable to me than the ATs and SteelSeries, and Logitech’s cheaper G-733s. A larger head than my own, if that’s possible, would definitely feel clamped. I do think these would wear in well, but all the same a bit of play would help a lot.

The external material, a satinized matte plastic, looks truly lovely but is an absolute fingerprint magnet. Considering you’ll be handling these a lot (and let’s be honest, not necessarily with freshly washed hands), you’re going to need to wipe them down rather more than any of the others I tested.

Razer Blackshark V2 Pro – $180

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The understated Razer Blackshark V2 Pro soon became my go-to for PC gaming when the SteelSeries set was attached to the PS5.

Their sound is definitely gaming-focused, with extra oomph in the lows and mid-lows, but music didn’t sound overly shifted in that direction. The soundstage is full but not startlingly so, and everything sounded detailed without being harsh.

The Razers look heavy but aren’t — it varies day to day but I think they’re definitely competing for “most comfortable” with the A-Ts and SteelSeries. The cups feel spacious and have a nice seal, making for a very isolated listening experience. Adjustment is done with the wires attached to the cups, which is nothing special — I kind of wish this setup would let you adjust the cant as well as the height. The material is like the Logitechs — prone to fingerprints, though a little less so, in my experience.

Their controls are very well designed and laid out, all on one side. The protruding (system-independent) volume knob may seem odd at first but you’ll love it soon. The one big notch or click indicates exactly 50%, which is super useful for quick “calibration,” and turning the knob is smooth yet resistant enough that I never once accidentally changed it. Meanwhile there are conveniently placed and distinguishable buttons for mute and power, and ports for the detachable mic, charge cord and 3.5mm input.

I’m hard pressed to think of any downsides to the Blackshark except that it doesn’t work with consoles.

Slay Every Sauce and Soup With This $100 Stick Blender

By Joe Ray
Braun's new powerful and easy-to-use immersion blender is an essential kitchen upgrade.

Apple’s New iPad Air Is a Great Tablet With a Few Quirks

By Lauren Goode
The 2020 edition of the iPad Air is light, powerful, convenient. It's a good buy as long as you don't mind a few small annoyances.

Double Your Laptop’s Screen Size With a Portable Monitor

By Christopher Null
The Vissles-M is an excellent and easy-to-use touchscreen monitor that sits next to your computer, embiggening your WFH workspace.

Yes, Chef: Here Are the Year’s Best Cookbooks

By Joe Ray
We’re all cooking more than ever in 2020. These six selections offer some new kitchen adventures.

The Surface Laptop Go Is Great—If You Can Get Past Its Screen

By Scott Gilbertson
Microsoft's most affordable laptop is a great machine for simple tasks, but it skimps out on the thing you'll stare at the most.

This Lower-Cost Roomba Needs Some Navigation Help

By Adrienne So
This is iRobot’s cheapest robot vacuum with automatic dirt disposal. But it also sacrifices some key navigational features.

Batch's Trusty E-Bike Won't Let You Down

By Parker Hall
This Bosch-powered electric bike doesn't look as elegant as its competitors, but it's more affordable and reliable.

Google Nest Audio Packs Great Sound and Smarts for Just $100

By Parker Hall
If Assistant is your jam, then this mid-sized smart speaker is one of the best around.

Charge’s City is an e-bike for everyone

By Gregory Manalo

Charge Bikes founder Nick Larsen and VP of product Peter Vallance wanted to reduce the pain points of buying and owning an electric bike to attract everyday folks and cycling enthusiasts alike.

The company offers three models: the Comfort for weekend leisure rides, the City for commuters and the XC for off-road enthusiasts. I got to spend some time with the City and took it on a quick grocery to see what it could do.

The bbike features a 250w geared hub motor with a max speed up to 20 MPH, pedal assist and throttle, front and rear lights, a locking removable battery that’s capable of 50 miles on a single charge, folding handlebar and pedals, puncture-resistant Goodyear tires, tire pressure sensors, an easy to read display with speed and power assist selector, disc brakes, Shimano Tourney 7 speed shifter, fenders, a rack and a handy dandy kickstand. All of that weighs in at just 45 pounds.

Charge Bikes

Source: Charge

Unboxing was simple, and I was happy the company skipped the styrofoam packing. I really like working with my hands and building things, but this was almost too easy. Just unfold the handlebar and pedals, attach the front wheel and adjust the seat post. Once you fill the tires with air and charge the battery, you’re ready to ride.

I started my ride on flat ground and mostly used the throttle at the highest setting — because, why not? The seat, grips, and riding position were comfortable, and I could see myself easily riding for longer.

The foldable pedals felt strange. There was some flex and bowing, which made me think I might be losing some crank power going to the wheel. I was afraid I might break them. However, the foldable handlebar felt securely locked in and didn’t give me any worry.

Source: Charge

One of the company’s marketing messages — “Get there and back, no sweat” — didn’t ring entirely true, at least for me. While it’s plenty fast and assists great on flat land, it’s not the hill flattening bike that I hoped it would be. We’ve got a lot of foothills out here in Oakland and my route to the local grocery store had several varying inclines. Some of the steepest had me cranking hard to make five miles an hour at assist level five.

It’s definitely better to have the electric power than not. I certainly wouldn’t attack any of these hills on my regular bike. I normally drive to this grocery store, but having an e-bike gave me the option of leaving the car parked and I like that.

Some critical points about the bike but aren’t dealbreakers are the fenders. While a great feature, they’d bend out of place often rubbing against the tires. The foldable pedals are a nice idea, but I’d likely swap them out for standard ones with straps.

I ran into gear-shifting issues mid hill climb which is the worst time for it not to shift into an easier gear. This was happening with my thumb on the throttle full blast. I also had an issue with the charger not charging the battery 100% overnight. It happened a couple times and I’m not sure what the issue was. I unplugged everything and plugged it back up, and that seemed to do the trick.

Source: Charge

Overall, the City is a great utilitarian bike for daily riding for everyday folks. From purchasing the bike to storing it, they really have reduced the friction points of owning an e-bike. You can purchase the City bike on their site for $1,499.

 

Thank you, Chrome team

By Alex Wilhelm

Since Chrome came out back in 2008, it’s been a constant companion in my life. In fact, Chrome’s launch is how I helped get the startup I worked for at the time onto TechCrunch for the first time.

We did shots to celebrate. Chrome rocked, and we were Day One Fans.

But over time what was once a romance began to sour, as Chrome got a bit slower, a bit heavier and a bit worse over the years.

The devolution felt a bit like what was happening to Google search, in which a very good idea was slowly turned into something that made more money at the cost of functionality, speed, and user happiness (more on that natural terminus of that progression here).

And because I am a petulant child, I have been very annoyed by what has happened to Chrome, software that I have never paid a single dollar to use. To make this point, I went out to round up a tweet or two from myself complaining about Chrome over the years, but after finding at least nine examples since May I started to feel bad (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine). So let’s move on.

What went wrong with Chrome? I don’t know. Over time its taste for RAM, lag, and being generally annoying grew. But as I was living in a G Suite world, sticking to Chrome made sense — so I endured.

And now, I may not have to any longer. This week Google detailed an impending set of Chrome updates that are amazing to read through and imagine the real-world impact of. Big Goog appears to have gone deep into its browser’s code, finding ways to make it faster, lighter on memory usage, and smarter.

I am so very excited.

What’s coming? Pulling from Google’s Chromium blog instead of its more consumer-friendly post (a big thanks to The Verge for bringing this set of updates to my attention), here are the highlights as far as I am concerned (Bolding: TechCrunch in each block quote):

Even if you have a lot of tabs open, you likely only focus on a small set of them to get a task done. Starting in this release, Chrome is actively managing your computer’s resources to make the tabs you care about fastwhile allowing you to keep hundreds of tabs open—so you can pick up where you left off.

In this release, we’re improving how Chrome understands and manages resources with Tab throttling, occlusion tracking and back/forward caching, so you can quickly get to what you need when you need it.

Google this is literally me. I feel incredibly seen. Thank you.

We investigated how background tabs use system resources and found that JavaScript Timers represent >40% of the work in background tabs. Reducing their impact on CPU and power is important to make the browser more efficient. Beginning in M87, we’re throttling JavaScript timer wake-ups in background tabs to once per minute. This reduces CPU usage by up to 5x, and extends battery life up to 1.25 hours in our internal testing.

When the world works again, I want to buy lunch for everyone who took part in this effort.

Next, we’re bringing Occlusion Tracking–which was previously added to Chrome OS and Mac–to Windows, which allows Chrome to know which windows and tabs are actually visible to you. With this information, Chrome can optimize resources for the tabs you are using, not the ones you’ve minimized, making Chrome up to 25% faster to start up and 7% faster to load pages, all while using less memory.

Hell yes.

How many times have you visited a website and clicked a link to go to another page, only to realize it’s not what you wanted and click the back button? […] In Chrome 87, our back/forward cache will make 20% of those back/forward navigations instant, with plans to increase this to 50% through further improvements and developer outreach in the near future.

I didn’t even know I needed this, but I do. And I can’t wait to have it.

All in all, as I write this short post to you inside of Chrome, I cannot help but be freaking excited about New And Improved Chrome. More later after I get some testing in, but, honestly, yay!

 

Apple's New MacBook Air With M1 Is a Huge Leap Forward

By Julian Chokkattu
Ditching Intel has removed the shackles from the $999 laptop, unleashing a force to be reckoned with.

The new Mac mini: The revival of the no-compromise low-cost Mac

By Matt Burns

There’s nothing small about the latest Mac mini.

Never mind the Mac mini’s tiny size or low price. This diminutive desktop is a revolution for most users, thanks to Apple’s new chipset. Called the M1, this chip platform replaces the Intel CPU long found at the heart of Apple’s desktop and portable computers, and the results are impressive.

Using the M1 Mac mini feels like using a new iPad or iPhone. Everything satisfyingly snaps into place. I keep waiting for my test machine to start lagging, and nearly a week later, it’s just as fast as the day I started using it. The new Mac mini is surprising, and most users will find it a major upgrade over existing Mac computers. It’s hard to beat regardless of the price.

For casual users, those who live in a web browser or Apple’s apps, the Mac mini is a no-brainer option. This is the desktop I would buy for myself. Even for power users, those who run bespoke applications, the Mac mini should be seriously considered. Most mainstream applications excel on the new Mini — especially apps with a creative tilt toward photography or video.

The Mac mini has long been a forgotten friend among the Mac lineup. Hardly updated and never promoted, it sat on the bench for years, watching as Apple’s portables received updates and refreshes as the world became more mobile. But here we are in the midst of a never-ending pandemic. With coffee shops closed and business travel limited, the COVID-19 crisis could lead to the rediscovery of the desktop computer.

The M1-powered Mac mini is a winner.

Review

There are several things you should know. One, the new Mac mini runs the M1 SoC, which is fundamentally different from its Intel predecessor. Instead of a CPU, it’s an SoC — System on a Chip, which comes with advantages and concessions. The chipset is built around an ARM design with more integrated components than its CPU counterparts. In many ways, it’s more similar to the system powering phones and tablets than the chips used in traditional computers. Because of this design, components that used to be discrete are now integrated directly into the chip.

Second, Apple provided a 6K 32-inch Pro Display XDR with my test Mac mini (these will be returned to Apple). I’m also running a 24-inch display over HDMI. According to the Mac mini’s product page, the system is limited to two monitors. I was able to hook up a third monitor through 3rd party software but it was unstable and should not be considered a capability.

Lastly, you should know TechCrunch also reviewed the new 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. We benchmarked these systems with similar conditions to demonstrate the differences between the units. You can find the reviews here for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

In our tests, we found Apple’s M1 system on a chip (SoC) to outperform its rivals, regardless of price. With the M1 at its core, the Mac mini is faster in most regards than every Apple computer available except for the ultra-expensive Mac Pro — and sometimes the Mini is faster than the Mac Pro, too. What’s more, this performance increase is noticeable throughout the system and not just limited to raw computing tasks in purpose-built applications. The system is snappy, responsive and feels like the start of a new era of computing.

https://techcrunch.com/2020/11/17/macbook-air-m1-review-the-right-apple-silicon-mac-for-most/

The new Mac experience

Snappy hardly describes the experience of the new Mac mini. This system flies. Users will instantly notice the increase in speed, too, from startup time to launching apps. In the past, even on powerful machines, macOS has always felt heavy compared to iOS, but not anymore. With the M1 chip, macOS (Big Sur) is light and free and a joy to use.

Even better, the ARM-based M1 chip allows Macs to run iOS applications, and they run as smoothly on the Mac as they do on an iPad.

There’s likely a hesitation around embracing a new Intel-less Mac. Will your legacy applications run on these machines? Will they run well? I can’t answer every variable. I installed and ran dozens of applications during my few days with the system and never experienced a roadblock. Even with older programs, everything ran as advertised, and in most cases, ran better on this M1-powered Mac mini than on my few-months-old 15-inch MacBook Pro. I didn’t find one application unable to run on the new platform.

The largest speed increases are most noticeable when using native apps for the M1 processor. With Apple’s Final Cut Pro, the application loads seemingly instantly — two seconds from button press to it being open and ready to go.

With the M1 chip, it’s less painful to edit 8K footage in the native Final Cut Pro app than it was to edit 4K footage on an Intel Mac. Exporting the files still takes time, though, and this is one of the few tasks where Intel’s platform outperforms the M1.

Even when using legacy software, the system preformed with ease. Edits in Photoshop seemed more fluid. Lightroom loaded photo albums quicker and without hesitation. Editing video in Premiere was easier and less painful as I scrubbed through 6K footage. Even unzipping files was much quicker.

Image Credits: Matt Burns

This is a silly demonstration, but watch the GIF above. Applications open instantly — all of them at the same time. If Apple put a beachball in this system, I haven’t found it yet.

The M1 chip is based on an ARM design, which required Apple to rework macOS to run on this new computing platform. While it looks mostly the same, the macOS is now purpose-built for Apple’s own silicon. To take full advantage of the redesigned chip, applications need to be re-coded into an Arm-friendly design. And yet, we found something surprising: Even the apps that are not re-coded yet are still impressively fast thanks to Apple’s Rosetta 2 that enables software encoded for Intel’s platform to run on the new Apple platform and take advantage of the M1’s power.

For most uses, this holistic approach of building the hardware and software results in major advantages. Common system-level tasks like launching apps, waking from sleep and unzipping files are lightning-fast. Other items like rendering video and editing photos are just as fast, too. Right now, at launch, all of Apple’s apps — from Music to Photos to Safari — are re-encoded for the M1. Like those from Adobe, other apps are not yet native, but the older versions run fine, and in most cases, run better on the M1 than an Intel platform.

The M1 platform lacks a dedicated graphics processing unit. It’s built-into the core of the chip. Thanks to a memory dedicated to machine learning, this lack of a discrete GPU is hardly noticeable for professional users. Still, those who do intensive graphics work (like professional gfx visual artists) should hesitate. Even then, this conclusion could change once the applications become native to the new ARM architecture.

The M1 also lacks the ability to use an eGPU — an external graphics card — but most users should not fret. It could be a problem for pros who found the Intel-based Mac minis paired with a powerful eGPUs as a viable, low-cost alternative to the Mac Pro. However, based on our testing, the GPU performance in these M1 systems are impressive and could be good enough for most, even in creative media editing applications.

In addition to common workflows, I ran through some industry benchmarks to see how the system responds and came away impressed. We took it one step further, too, and charted the performance between Apple’s top-of-the-line systems and the new 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Benchmarks often oversimplify results, but in this case, they seem necessary. This puts systems on common ground. By looking at multiple tests, the results draw a common conclusion. The M1 is really good.

The new Mac lineup

The Mac mini has two siblings. The M1 is also available in Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. The differences are minor. The same computing platform powers all three but feature different cooling schemes in the MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Because of the improved cooling, the MacBook Pro and Mac mini are better suited for sustained performance.

In our testing, all three machines performed similarly. The Air started to fall short in the longer tests, and that’s likely due to its passive cooling that does not feature a fan. In the MacBook Pro and Mini, the SoC is cooled by a fan, while a heatsink is used in the Air.

What does this mean for you? For most users, the Air’s performance is sufficient as it only slows down during long, intensive tasks. For browsing the web, editing photos and watching videos, the Air is perfect.

There’s one downside to the new Mac mini over its Intel sibling. The M1 Mac mini only sports two Thunderbolt 4 inputs — that’s because the M1 chipset has an integrated Thunderbolt controller and it supports up to two of these ports. For some users, this could be a deal-breaker, though it’s not for me. There are countless ways to expand the Thunderbolt capability of the Mac mini, and to me, the performance of the machine outweighs the port limitation.

The M1 Mac mini also lacks a 10GB Ethernet option, limiting its use as a server for some users. This is also likely an M1 limitation, and something I would expect would be addressed in future chipset revisions.

Multiple monitor support is a major downside to the M1 Mac mini. It only supports two monitors: one through Thunderbolt and one over HDMI. I was able to get a third monitor running at low resolution through third-party software, but it was unstable and performed poorly. To some, including me, multiple monitor support is a major issue and two monitors are often not enough.

Benchmarks

Apple, when promoting the M1-powered computers, laid out some wild claims about the chipset. We found most of the claims to be factual. We ran a handful of benchmarks on the M1 systems, comparing them against the most recent Macs, including the Mac Pro.

Benchmarks paint with a broad stroke and often miss nuances. That’s the case here. While the first few benchmarks demonstrate the speed of the M1, the final test fails to capture a critical aspect of Final Cut Pro. Sure, it’s slower to export than an Intel-based system, but using the M1-native version of Final Cut Pro is much smoother than what’s available on older systems. I was able to easily manipulate, scrub and edit 8K footage without even a hiccup. Rendering takes longer, but editing is seemingly easier.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Here we downloaded the Xcode 12.3 beta. It’s an 11.57GB file that extracts a 28.86GB folder. Lower times are better.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Here we compile WebKit. Lower times are better.



With Geekbench, we ran two tests: One, using Rosetta 2 to demonstrate the system’s power when running legacy applications. Then we ran Geekbench in an M1 native mode to test Apple’s silicon. Higher is better.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

For Final Cut Pro, we timed the rendering of an 8K video (80GB). Lower is better.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Breakthrough performance for the price
  • Easily able to run legacy (Intel) and iOS apps
  • Cool and quiet

Cons

  • Support for only two monitors
  • No eGPU support
  • Only two Thunderbolt 4 ports

Test Mac mini specs

  • Apple M1 chip with 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU
  • 16-core Neural Engine
  • 16GB unified memory
  • 1TB SSD storage
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Price as tested: $1,299

The new Mac mini is a fantastic machine and feels like the start of a quiet revival. In another era, Apple was known for its solid, fairly-priced desktops, which is a great description for this Mac mini.

As a longtime fan of the Mac mini, I’m thrilled to see it once again as a great option for those of us who live at a desk .

With the M1 chipset, Apple is moving onto a new chapter in its long history of personal computers. This chip redefines the computing paradigm by offering stellar performance in a small, power-efficient package. In the Mac mini, the M1 shines as a stable workhorse that provides a new experience to Mac desktops. In the new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, the M1 is just as solid while offering substantially better battery life than previous offerings. Read those reviews here and here.

Should you get the new Mac mini? If you’re stuck at a desk, yes. The new Mac mini is fantastic.

https://techcrunch.com/2020/11/17/macbook-air-m1-review-the-right-apple-silicon-mac-for-most/

MacBook Air M1 review: The right Apple Silicon Mac for most

By Brian Heater

Reviewing hardware is an act of minutia. Occasionally something new or potentially earth-shattering comes along, but on the whole, it’s about chipping away. Documenting small, gradual changes designed to keep product lines fresh and — if you play your cards right — differentiating yourself from the competition.

Apple’s as guilty of this as anyone, of course. That’s just the nature of a 12 to 24-month product cycle. Every refresh can’t be a revolution. Every so often, however, a game-changer comes along — something undeniable that sets the scene for a more profound shift for a product line. The trio of Macs launched at the company’s third major press conference in three months certainly apply.

It’s been 15 years since Apple made the jump to Intel processors from PowerPCs, a chip technology it had relied upon for more than a decade. That move came as the company was butting up against the limitations of its chosen technology. PowerPC took them far at the time, but it couldn’t deliver on the processing power it desired for the next generation of portables.

As with that transition, the move toward Apple silicon has been years in the making. The company has been making a concerted effort to wean itself off of third-party components. Among other things, it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate your product when you’re essentially using the same parts as everyone else on the market. Creating your own processors is, of course, a long and difficult process. Thankfully, however, the company had a head start.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Arm-based chips that power the company’s mobile devices are a great starting point. The company can build on several generations of learning, while moving ever closer to that perpetual Holy Grail of Apple software: perfect cross-ecosystem compatibility. Elements of iOS have been trickling down into MacOS for years now (a trend that includes, and arguably accelerates with, Big Sur), while the company eased the transition for Intel Mac owners with the Catalyst.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

After countless rumors and months of wait, the first three Apple Silicon Macs are finally here. And the results are, in a word, impressive. You’ve no doubt seen some of the benchmarks that have popped up over the past several days that have left many in the community taken aback. While it’s true that Apple talked up performance in its own presser, it’s easy enough to discount those numbers without more specific benchmarks. We’ve split our testing of the three systems among three editors — and it’s pretty safe to say we were blown away by what the systems can do.

Okay, so, a brief break down of the M1:

  • Eight-core CPU with a stated 2x performance gain
  • Seven- or eight-core GPU (depending on the Air model you go in for) with up to a 2x graphical upgrade
  • 16-core neural engine
  • Increased power
  • Improved image signal processing

The Air, in particular, presents some truly robust gains of the most recent versions of the system, released back in March. That may feel like forever ago, given everything that has transpired, but that’s a mere eight months. The system excels at two benchmarks in particular: battery life — measures by a simple video playback — and Geekbench, which tests a system’s CPU and GPU performance by simulating real-world situations. Anecdotally, things are just faster all over the place.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Apps open almost instantly and resource-intensive tasks like editing 4K video are surprisingly zippy. Some of these are changes you’ll likely notice right away, even if you’re not pushing the system to the limit. Take the neat trick of waking up instantly from sleep. It’s something we’ve taken for granted on mobile devices but haven’t seen as much on desktops.

These advances, perhaps unsurprisingly, arrive in the same package. Like the new Mac mini and 13-inch Pro, the Air is identical to the one released early this year. Perhaps the company is seeking to maintain consistency on the outside as the products undergo rather dramatic changes under the hood. Maybe a redesign didn’t line up with the move to Arm. Or, hey, maybe Apple thinks the current design represents some sort of platonic ideal for thin and light laptop.

Whatever the case, you’d be hard-pressed to pick the new Air out of a lineup. I’ve been using the system in public, and no one’s been any the wiser that I got a slight head start on the next generation of Macs. If I’m being honest, I’d have liked it if Apple had ushered the moment in with some befittingly dramatic redesign — but at least no one can accuse Apple of introducing change for the sake of change. And let’s be honest, while the physical design of the Air hasn’t changed much in recent generations, it remains one of the most iconic and better-looking laptops on the market.

That includes the same thin and beveled design that differentiates the product from the rest of the MacBook line, and at 2.8 pounds, it’s 0.2 pounds lighter than the 13-inch MacBook. That’s not a huge spread, but it’s something that will make a difference to your lower back over time — I say that as someone who lugged the system around on a 15-mile walk over the weekend.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Once again, there are two USB-C ports, both positioned on the same side. I’m always going to argue for more ports, especially given the fact that one will semi-regularly be monopolized by a charging cable. I’m also a fan of spreading them out a bit more — preferably on either side of the machine for those instances when you just can’t get enough slack from the cable or have something a bit wider plugged into the port. Of course, there’s no surprise on that front, unlike the new 13-inch Pro, which lost two ports in the process of upgrading.

That will likely sting for some users attempting to figure out whether to upgrade here. The change appears to be connected to some limitations of the new M1 SOC. If I was a betting man, however, I would suggest that there’s a pretty reasonable possibility that whatever pro-focused version of the chip comes next will support more ports for upcoming devices like the first Apple Silicon 16-inch MacBook Pro.

In fact, the company is likely reserving a number of upgrades to differentiate this round from some new pro-focused devices likely to arrive at some point next year. It’s all part of a kind of configuration of Apple’s Mac strategy that we’re seeing play out in slow motion. The new Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini represent the entry-level tier for the Mac line. It’s a category that’s become an increased focus for the company in recent years — and one we’ve seen play out across the iPhone and Apple Watch lines.

There is, of course, still truth in the longstanding notion of the premium “Apple Tax,” but the company has expended its approach to improve things on the lower end. One of the more surprising aspects of this strategy on the Mac side is just how much the company has closed the gap between the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook. There are differences between the two devices, of course. For many or most, the biggest is the $300 price gulf between the $999 starting price for the Air and $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro.

So, how does Apple justify the price difference? And more to the point, will the upsell make a difference for a vast majority of users? Before we go any further, let’s break down the key differences between the new Air and Pro.

  • Stated Battery – Pro: Up to 20 hours, Air: Up to 18 hours
  • Display – Pro: 500 nits of brightness, Air: 400 nits
  • Microphone Array – Pro: Studio-quality three-mic array, Air: Three-mic array
  • Touch Bar – Pro: Yes, Air: No
  • Speakers – Pro: Stereo speakers with high dynamic range, Air: Stereo speakers
  • Fan – Pro: Yes, Air: No

The last bullet is the most important when it comes to performance. The arrival of the M1 made a fanless MacBook Air a possibility — something that was unheard of in early models. It bodes well for the thinness of future MacBooks, and more immediately, it means extremely silent performance. And, indeed, no matter how much stress testing I’ve managed to do over these past few days, the system has remained eerily silent — though I’d caution you that the passive cooling system can result in a rather toasty Air if you really push things. And, more importantly for a workload standpoint, the system will throttle during resource-intensive tasks — but you’ll have to push it.

Take, for example, the five-minute, 8K clip we exported in Final Cut Pro. At 33:13 minutes on the Pro and 32:59 minutes on the Air, the end result was, honestly fairly negligible (the Mac Pro, meanwhile, blew them both away at a blazing five and a half minutes). Ditto for running a WebKit compile. That took 25 minutes and five seconds on the Air and 20 minutes and 43 seconds. That’s not entirely negligible, but both systems beat out the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro’s 26 minutes and 56 seconds. And both systems took far less of a battery hit, losing around 9% during the process, versus the 16-inch’s 39%.

The new M1 chips are remarkably energy efficient, even when performing more resource-intensive tasks. In a video playback test, I got 16 hours of life. That’s less than the maximum 18 hours stated by Apple’s numbers, but it’s an impressive figure, nonetheless. I would certainly feel comfortable leaving the house without a charge.

Per Matthew’s numbers, the Pro fares even better. He was able to get right around the stated 20 hours. That higher figure likely comes due a higher capacity battery courtesy of the thicker laptop footprint. In both cases, however, the systems blew away last year’s 13 and 16-inch Pros, which got eight hours and eight minutes and six hours and 40 minutes, respectively. That’s a tremendous bump in an important metric.

So let’s break down those Geekbench 5 numbers. The new Air and Pro’s numbers are quite similar. That’s to be expected given their respective internals. Again, you’re going to have to really push the system — likely for a prolonged amount of time — before the Air take a noticeable hit due to its fanless design. The Pro scored a 1711 on single core and 7549 on the multi-core. The Air got an average of 1725 and 7563, respectively (for good measure, I’ll add that the the Mini hit a similar 1748 and 7644).

Here’s some more historical context from Geekbench. A few relevant examples: the Core i7 MacBook Air from earlier this year averaged 1136, while the 13-inch Pro hit 1240. Running the Intel version of the benchmark (using the Rosetta 2 emulator), the numbers predictably took a hit, but still best the Intel systems. And, indeed, Intel-designed apps performed quite smoothly.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Most of the benchmarks we ran found the two systems scoring remarkably close to one another. In other words, I think it’s a safe bet a majority of people searching for systems at this tier won’t be bumping up against those kinds of limits too often. Those who do find themselves frequently performing tasks that challenge those hardware limitations are going to have the difficult choice of buying the new 13-inch Pro now or waiting the see what models like the 16-inch have in store. For more information on that front, spend some time with Matthew’s review of the new 13-inch.

Image Credits: Apple

What I can say with more certainty, however, is that Apple’s got a much stronger case for its rediscovered focus on creative pros. While the category has long been its bread and butter, a case can be made that the company has surrendered some of that market to the likes of Microsoft’s Surface line and others. Apple made the case that the Touch Bar found it rekindling that relationship, but I think there’s a much stronger case to be made for a MacBook Air that can process much heavier workloads than its predecessors.

And, frankly, I haven’t missed the Touch Bar. My primary laptop is a 15-inch Pro with Touch Bar, but it’s a feature that hasn’t really impacted my workflow — and it’s not for a lack of trying. I suspect that for those attempting to distinguish between the Pro and Air the missing feature will barely register. And besides, my favorite part of the Touch Bar addition — TouchID — is here as it was on the last Intel version of the Air. On a whole, I’ve found the ability to log in with a fingerprint more useful than scrolling through photos or emojis on the thin touch strip.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Speaking of touch — there’s another elephant in the room here. Obviously the touchscreen Macs some predicted didn’t arrive at the event early this month. Even so, it seems reasonable to expect that they will at some point in the not so distant future, with the lines continuing to blur between macOS and iOS. Look no further than Big Sur, which continues the recent trend of adopting key features from the mobile operating system.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As I noted in my recent writeup of macOS 11.0, a number of features are practically begging for touchscreen interaction. Take the sliders in the newly added Control Center. Sure, the trackpad works fine, but it sure would be satisfying to swipe them over with a finger. This becomes even more pronounced when playing certain iOS optimized games, which now play natively on the M1. Take “Among Us.” I played the wildly popular social game on the new Air — and while the gameplay was predictably smooth, playing with the trackpad feels less natural than touch.

In this implementation, you either have to use the pointer to control an on-screen joypad or simply point the character in the right direction. There’s also the fact that the game occupies a fixed window that you can’t expand to take up the full display. The M1 chip goes a long ways toward opening up the available Mac ecosystem, making porting an iOS app as simple as ticking a box to make it available through the Mac App Store, but in many cases, additional optimization for these systems is warranted particularly for more professionally minded applications.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As for the other primary input device, the keyboard is pretty much the same as the latest Intel Air — which is to say head and shoulders above early versions. That’s no doubt a dark couple of generations of keyboards Apple would like to forget. They were solid as a rock, and insufferably loud. They also caused a lot of users undue stress by getting jammed. The latest version of the scissor mechanisms are far superior to the early butterflies. I won’t go so far as saying it’s the best laptop typing experience, but it’s like night and day compared to early models.

Another aspect that warrants mention is the webcam. It’s a feature that rarely warrants a sentence in most laptop reviews, but this is 2020. It’s a weird year with weird demands and here we are carrying out the vast majority of our interaction with other human beings over Zoom. It sucks, but it’s life. Many people have no doubt already invested in external webcams as part of the shift toward working from home. For the first time in — well, probably ever — webcams are an important factor in purchasing for many or even most people.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Apple has, indeed, upgraded the camera for the latest Air — but not entirely. That is to say the sensor is the same, and the camera is still stuck at 720p. But the new image signal processor (ISP) included as part of the M1’s SOC design does result in a better image. You can see the difference above. Frankly, neither is great to be honest, but one is decidedly less bad than the other. On the left you’ll see the Air’s image.

The resolution is still low, but the color — among others — is certainly improved. The white balance is more inline with reality and it handles shades better. I’m going to still defer to my external webcam for things like Extra Crunch panels, but for a quick meeting, sure, I’m fine letting the Air do the job. This would have been a perfect time for Apple to go all-in with a webcam refresh on these systems. Common wisdom says there are limitations on camera hardware give the thickness of the laptop lid, but if I had to venture a guess here, I’d say the company is looking at webcam video as another point of differentiation for Pro models.

The microphone, meanwhile, remains a point of distinction between the Air and Pro. I’ve included voice recordings from the Intel and Arm Airs above. See if you can tell the difference. Honestly, I can’t, really. As with the webcam, they’re fine for a casual chat, but I wouldn’t want to, say, record a podcast on the thing.

These three new systems represent the first step toward Mac’s future. And there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the potential of Apple Silicon. The M1 chip already displays some pretty dramatic performance gains for a lot of tasks, coupled with substantial increases in battery life, courtesy of decreased power consumption.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are some limitations worth noting on these models. Two USB-C ports appears to be the maximum in the current configuration and all three models currently top out at 16GB of RAM. If either of those are dealbreakers, the company will happily still sell you an Intel model for the foreseeable future.

When Apple Silicon was announced at WWDC back in June, Tim Cook noted that it would take two years to transition the full line. That means we’re very much at the beginning of this journey and there’s a lot left to reveal, including how dramatically different the true Pro tier of MacBooks look.

For most users with most needs, the Air is a fine choice. If I had to buy a new MacBook today I would pull the trigger on Air and upgrade the memory and storage for good measure. It’s a surprisingly powerful machine in a compact package.

2 Years After Its Debut, This Smart Oven Is Still Underdone

By Joe Ray
The Brava oven arrived with a splash in 2018. We've revisited it now that the guided cooking tech has had time to mature. Only it hasn't.

Zojirushi’s Newest Toaster Oven Excels at All the Basics

By Joe Ray
It’s nothing fancy (and there are better ways to make toast), but this countertop device will roast, bake, or reheat just about anything you want for dinner.

Demon’s Souls: The first truly next-gen game is a lopsided but impressive showcase

By Devin Coldewey

The next generation of gaming is here with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — except it isn’t, because there are almost no next-generation games to play on them. Demon’s Souls is the first title that can truly be called next-gen, and it shows — even though it’s a remake of a PS3 game… which also shows.

The original Demon’s Souls was an incredibly influential game. Its sequel, Dark Souls, was more popular and improved on the first quite a bit, but much of what made the now major series good had already been established. “Souls-like” is practically a genre now, though the originals are unsurprisingly still the nonpareil.

The comparative few who played Demon’s Souls were elated to hear that it was being remade, and by Bluepoint at that (who also remade the legendary Shadow of the Colossus), but worried that the game might not stand up by modern standards.

Can an old game, the essentials of which are a decade behind its descendants, be given a really, really, really ridiculously good-looking coat of paint and still act as a blockbuster next-gen debut? Well, it kind of has to — there’s no other option! Fortunately the game really does hold up, and in fact makes for a harrowing, cinematic experience despite a few significant creaks.

I don’t want to give a full review of the game itself; let it suffice to say that, although it looks and runs much better, the core of the game is almost entirely unchanged. Any review from the last decade is still completely relevant, down to the “magic is overpowered” and “inventory burden is annoying.”

As a next-gen gaming experience, however, Demon’s Souls is as yet without comparison. It serves as a showcase not only for the PS5’s graphical prowess, but its sound design, haptics, speed and OS.

Image Credits: Sony

First, the graphics. It’s clear that Sony and Bluepoint intended this to be a truly lavish remake, and the game’s structure — essentially five long, mostly linear levels — provides an excellent platform for breathtaking visuals carefully tuned to the user’s experience.

The environments themselves are incredibly detailed, and the various enemies you fight very well realized, but what I kept being impressed by was the lighting. Realistic lighting is something that has proven difficult even for top-tier developers, and it’s only now that the hardware has enough headroom to start doing it properly.

Demon’s Souls doesn’t use ray-tracing, the computation-heavy lighting technique perennially on the cusp of being implemented, but the real-time lighting effects are nevertheless dramatic and extremely engaging. This is a dark, dark world and the player is very limited as far as personal light sources, meaning the way you experience the environment is carefully designed.

Although the detailed armor, props and monsters are all very nice, it’s the realistic lighting that really sets them off in a way that seems truly new and beautiful. Dynamic range is used properly, to have actually dark areas illuminated dramatically, such as the still-terrifying Tower of Latria.

Image Credits: Sony

The game isn’t a huge leap over the best the PC has to offer right now, but it does make me excited for game designers who really want to use light and shadow as gameplay elements.

(Incidentally, don’t bother with the “cinematic” option versus “performance.” The latter keeps the game silky smooth, which for Souls games is a luxury, and the other setting didn’t improve the look much if at all, while severely affecting the framerate. Skip it unless you’re taking glamour shots.)

Similarly sound is extremely well done in the game, though I’m cautious about hyping Sony’s “3D audio” — really, games have had this sort of thing for years on many platforms. Having a decent pair of headphones is the important bit. But perhaps the PS5 offers improved workflows for spatializing sound; at all events in Demon’s Souls it was very good, with great separation, location and clarity. I have reliably dodged an enemy attack from offscreen after recognizing the characteristic grunt of an attacking foe, and the screeches and roars of dragons and boss monsters (as well as the general milieu of Latria) were suitably chilling.

A Sony DualSense controller seen from above.

Image Credits: Sony

This combined well with the improved haptics of the DualSense controller, which seemed to have a different “sensation” for every event. A dragon flying overhead, a demon stomping the ground, a blocked attack, an elevator ride. Mostly these were good and only aided immersion, but some, like the elevators, felt to me more like an annoying buzz than a rumble, like holding a power tool. I hope that developers will be sensible about these things and identify vibration patterns that are irritating. Fortunately the intensity can be adjusted universally in the PS5’s controls.

Likewise the adaptive triggers were nice but not game-changing. It was helpful when using the bow to know when the arrow was ready to release, for instance, but beyond a few things like that it was not used to great advantage.

Something that had a more immediate effect on how I played was the incredibly short load times. The Souls series has always been plagued by long load times when traveling and dying, the latter of which you can expect to do a lot. But now it’s rare that I can count to three before I’m materializing at the bonfire again.

This significantly reduces (but far from eliminates) frustration in this infamously unforgiving game, and actually makes me play it differently. Where once I could not be bothered to briefly travel to another area or the hub in order to accomplish some small task, now I know I can return to the Nexus, fuss around a bit with my loadout and be back in Boletaria in 30 seconds flat. If I die, I’m back in action in five seconds rather than 20, and believe me, that adds up real fast. (Load times are improved across the board in PS4 games running on the PS5 as well.)

Aiding this, kind of, is the new fancy pause screen Sony has implemented on its new console. When hitting the (annoyingly PS-shaped) PS button, a set of “cards” appears showing recent achievements and screenshots, but also ongoing missions or game progress. Pausing in Latria to take a breath, the menu offered up the ability to instantly warp to one of the other worlds, losing my souls but skipping the ordinarily requisite Nexus stop. This will certainly change how speedruns are accomplished, and provides a useful, if somewhat immersion-breaking option for the scatterbrained player.

The pause menu also provides a venue for tips and hints, in both text and video form. Again, this is a funny game to debut these in (I don’t count Astro’s Playroom, the included game/tech demo, which is fun but slight), because one of the Souls series’s distinctive features is player-generated notes and ghosts that alternatively warn and deceive new players. In another game I might have relied on the PS5’s hints more, but for this specific title they seem somewhat redundant.

As arguably the only “real” PS5 launch title, Demon’s Souls is a curious but impressive creature. It definitely shows the new console to advantage in some ways, but the game itself (while still amazing) is dated in many ways, limiting the possibilities of what can be shown off in the first place.

Certainly the remake is the best (and for many, only) way to play a classic, and for that alone it is recommended — though the $70 price (more in Europe and elsewhere) is definitely a bit of a squinter. One would hope that for the new higher asking price, we could expect next-generation gameplay as well as next-generation trimmings. Well, for now we have to take what we can get.

Garmin's Entry-Level Venu Sq Is a Great Square Tracker

By Adrienne So
Every basic fitness watch now has to be square (or sq?). We don’t make the rules.

Apple HomePod Mini review: Remarkably big sound

By Brian Heater

It’s hard to shake the sense that the smart speaker market would look considerably different had the HomePod Mini arrived several years back. It’s not so much that the device is transformative on the face of it, but it’s impossible to deny that it marks a dramatically different approach to the category than the one Apple took almost three years ago with the launch of the original model.

Apple has never been a particular budget-conscious company when it comes to hardware — terms like “Apple tax” don’t spring out of nothing. But the last few years have seen the company soften that approach in an effort to appeal to users outside its traditional core of creative professionals. The iPhone and Apple Watch have both seen the company more aggressively pushing to appeal to entry-level users. It only follows that it would follow suit with its smart speaker.

Couple that with the fact that the Echo Dot and Google/Nest Home minis pretty consistently rate as the best-selling smart speakers for their respective company, and arrival of a HomePod Mini was all but inevitable, as Apple looks to take a bite out of the global smart speaker market, which currently ranks Amazon and Google at around 40% a piece. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the HomePod, but the Mini is, simply put, its strongest push in that direction to date.

Launched in early 2018 (after delays), the HomePod was a lot of things — but no one ever claimed it was cheap (though no doubt they found a way to spin it as a good deal). The $349 price tag (since reduced to $299) was hundreds of dollars more than the most expensive models from Amazon and Google. The HomePod was a premium device, and that was precisely the point. Music has always been a cornerstone of Apple’s philosophy, and the HomePod was the company’s way of embracing the medium without cutting corners.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As Matthew wrote in a David Foster Wallacesque “four sentence” review, “Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the seven years Apple has been working on it.”

He called it “incredibly over-designed and radically impressive,” while bemoaning limited Siri functionality. On the whole, the HomePod did a good job in being what it set out to be — but it was never destined to be the world’s best-selling smart speaker. Not at that price. What it did do, however, was help convince the rest of the industry that a smart speaker should be, above all, a speaker, rather than simply a smart assistant delivery device. The last several generations of Amazon and Google products have, accordingly, mostly brought sound to the forefront of product concerns.

Essentially, Amazon and Google have become more focused on sound and Apple more conscious of price. That’s not to say, however, that the companies have met somewhere in the middle. This is not, simply put, the Apple Echo Dot. The HomePod Mini is still, in many ways, a uniquely Apple product. There’s a focus on little touches that offer a comparably premium experience for its price point.

That price point being $99. That puts the device in league with the standard Amazon Echo and Google Nest, rather than their respective budget-level counterparts. Those devices run roughly half that price and are both fairly frequently — and quite deeply — discounted. In fact, those devices could nearly fall into the category of loss leaders for their respective companies — dirt-cheap ways to get their smart assistants into users’ homes. Apple doesn’t appear particularly interested in that approach. Not for the time being, at least. Apple wants to sell you a good speaker.

And you know what? The HomePod Mini is a surprisingly good speaker. Not just for its price, but also its size. The Mini is nearly exactly the same size as the new, round Echo Dot — which is to say, roughly the size of a softball. There are, however, some key differences in their respective designs. For starters, Amazon moved the Echo’s status ring to the bottom of the device, so as to not impede on its perfectly spherical design. Apple, on the other hand, simply lopped off the top. I was trying to figure out what it reminds me of, and this was the best I came up with.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design decision keeps the product more in line with the original HomePod, with an Aurora Borealis of swirling lights up top to show you when Siri is doing her thing. It also allows for the inclusion of touch-sensitive volume buttons and the ability to tap the surface to play/pause music. Rather than the fabric-style covering that has dominated the last several generations of Google and Amazon products, the Mini is covered in the same sort of audio-conductive mesh material as the full-size HomePod.

The device comes in white or space gray, and unlike other smart speakers, seems to be less about blending in than showing off. Of course, being significantly smaller than the HomePod makes it considerably more versatile. I’ve been using one of the two Minis Apple sent on my desk at home, and it’s an ideal size. On the bottom is a hard plastic base with an Apple logo.

There’s a long, non-detachable fabric cable. It would be nice if the cord was user-detectable, so you can swap it out as needed, but no go. The cable sports a USB-C connector, however, which makes it fairly versatile on that end. There’s also a 20W power adapter in the box (admittedly, not a sure bet with Apple, these days). It’s disappointing — but not surprising that there’s no auxiliary input on-board — there wasn’t one on the standard HomePod, either.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Where Amazon switched to a front-facing speaker for the new Echo, Apple continues to focus on 360-degree sound. Your preference may depend on where you place the speaker, but this model is more versatile, especially if you’re not just seated in front of the speaker all day. I’ve used a lot of different smart speakers in my day, and honestly, I’m really impressed with the sound the company was able to get out of the 3.3-inch device.

It’s full and clear and impressively powerful for its size. Obviously that goes double if you opt for a stereo pair. Pairing is painless, out of the box. Just set up two devices for the same room of your home and it will ask you whether you want to pair them. From there, you can specify which one handles the right and left channels. If you’d like to spread out, the system will do multiroom audio by simply assigning speakers to different rooms. From there, you can just say, “Hey Siri, play music in the kitchen” or “Hey Siri, play music everywhere.” You get the picture.

In fact, the whole setup process is pretty simple with an iPhone. It’s quite similar to pairing AirPods: hold the phone near the speaker and you’ll get a familiar white popup guiding you through the process of setting it up, choosing the room and enabling voice recognition.

The speakers also get pretty loud, though if you need clear sound at a serious volume, I’d strongly recommend looking at something bigger (and pricier) like the original HomePod. For the living room of my one-bedroom in Queens, however, it does the trick perfectly, and sounds great from pretty much any angle in the room.

As a smart assistant, Siri is up to most of the basic tasks. There are also some neat tricks that leverage Apple’s unique ecosystem. You can, say, ask Siri to send images to your iPhone, and it’ll oblige, using Bing results. The fact of the matter is, however, that Amazon and Google got a pretty major head-start on the smart home assistant front and Apple is still catching up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There have, however, been some key strides of late — particularly as it pertains to Home/HomeKit. The last couple of iOS updates have brought some solid smart home updates; 14.1 brought intercom functionality specifically for HomePods and 14.2 extends that to other other devices. So you can say, “Hey Siri, intercom everyone, dinner is ready,” and beam it to various devices. The feature joins similar offerings from Amazon and Google, but does so on a wide range of (Apple) products, sending a pre-recorded snippet of your voice to the devices.

The system works out of the box with HomeKit-compatible devices — it’s a small list, compared to what’s currently offered for Alexa and Google Assistant, but it’s growing. You can check out the entire list of compatible smart home devices here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I found the voice recognition to be quite responsive to voice, even when the music is playing loud. Beyond Siri, there are a couple of ways to interact with the device. In addition to a single tap on the top to play/pause, a double-tap advances the track, triple-tap goes to the previous track and touching and holding fires up Siri. Unlike other smart speakers, there’s no physical button to turn off the mic — and you can’t ask Siri to do this either. The device is only listening for a “hey Siri” trigger and audio isn’t stored, but the feature would be nice for additional peace of mind.

You can also control music from your iPhone using AirPlay 2. That’s my preferred method, because I’m a bit of a micromanager when it comes to music. You’ll need to hit the AirPlay button to do that — or you can simply hold the iOS device near the HomePod Mini to take advantage of handoff using the U1 chip (iPhone 11 or later). That’s a neat little trick.

As someone who’s more accustomed to using Spotify than Apple Music, one thing that tripped me up a bit, however, is that when you ask the HomePod to play music, it will pick up from the last time you verbally requested playback, rather than treating all of your Apple Music listening sessions as a single stream. I prefer Spotify’s unified cross-device approach here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, a nice little iOS 14.2 addition brings your aggregated listening history (Apple Podcasts and Music) to a single stream accessible by long-pressing your HomePod in the Home app. From there you can tap on an album or podcast to automatically send them to the smart speaker.

All told, I’ve quite enjoyed my time with the little smart speaker. As I noted at the top, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Apple had launched the Mini alongside the initial HomePod. I suspect the company would still be a ways from market share domination, but the product really could have eaten into Amazon and Google’s lead. Instead, Apple waited — likely in hopes of getting the package right. That’s certainly understandable. Apple’s never been one to rush into a product, and the HomePod Mini sounds all the better for it.

The Boox Poke 3 is my new favorite e-reader

By Devin Coldewey

There are plenty of e-readers to choose from out there, but never enough for me. I’m always questing for the one that will make me forget that there are others available, and in the Onyx Boox Poke 3, I think I have found it — at least for now. The Chinese e-paper device maker has nailed the size, the screen, and added a sprinkle of versatility that I didn’t know I was lacking.

The Poke 3 fits in the same “original flavor e-reader” category as the Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Clara HD: 6 inches, 300 PPI or so (which makes for very clear text), and somewhere between $100 and $200.

These readers fit easily in a pocket, unlike the larger Oasis and even larger Forma; they tend to lack anything but a power button and are very focused on books and saved articles.

But the Kindle and Clara both have major flaws. The Kindle is tied to Amazon in all the ways I can’t stand, including on-device ads by default, and the Clara… well, beside the screen, the hardware is honestly just bad. Kobo made my previous favorite e-reading device, the compact and flush-front Aura, and I’ve finally found a worthy successor to that beloved gadget.

The Poke 3 is the latest device to come from Boox, the e-reader line from parent company Onyx. The company has mostly been a presence in Southeast Asia, particularly its home country of China, so don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it. Boox makes a wide variety of e-paper devices (which I will evaluate in a separate article), and the Poke 3 is the simplest and smallest of them.

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader in a hand.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

I’ll highlight the device’s strengths first. Most importantly, it is a lovely piece of hardware. The flush front is a pleasure to read on, as there is no raised bezel to shade the text or collect grime. The power button is well located and clicky. There’s just enough border to hold onto without worrying about smudging or activating the screen, and a bit of extra space at the bottom enables plenty of comfortable grips.

It’s thinner than the competition and the build quality is excellent. The front is hardened glass from partner Asahi, which will hopefully prevent it from needing a cover.

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader side-on.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The finish is, to be honest, something of a fingerprint and oil magnet, and could be grippier. The Paperwhite has it beat on texture but I prefer the smooth back to the weird perforated one of the Clara.

At 150 grams it’s 16 lighter than the Clara and 32 lighter than the Paperwhite. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re holding a device for hours straight every little bit counts, and at this size it also helps with balance.

Its 6-inch screen is not meaningfully different from the Kindle or Kobo devices out there in terms of resolution or font rendering. I scrutinized the Poke 3 next to the Clara HD and Forma and found no differences that anyone would notice reading from 10-20 inches away.

Screen of a Boox Poke 3 e-reader

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

It does differ in its approach to illumination, though whether meaningfully so is a matter of opinion. Instead of having a brightness slider and a temperature slider, it has a warm and cool slider, and increasing or decreasing either one changes both the brightness and temperature. You can also turn either one off entirely or link them together so they are adjusted as one.

If it sounds more complicated… it is. I don’t see that it adds any real new capabilities, but once you get the feel for it, it isn’t that much harder to use, either. I do wish that when you linked the two sliders, they kept their positions relative to one another. The whole system seems a little baroque and I hope Boox streamlines it. That said, the quality of the light is equally good and once you dial it in, it looks great.

Type formatting is good, and has plenty of options for tweaking how any of the many (too many…) included fonts look, even weight and contrast adjustments to really fine tune them. Adding custom fonts is as easy as dragging and dropping them, just like documents.

The operating system of the Boox provides far more options than either Kobo or Kindle. Amazon keeps tight control over its ecosystem and outside of a handful of associated services the devices can’t do much. Kobo at least allows for more file formats to be loaded directly on, and now has excellent Pocket integration for saving articles from the web. Boox takes things two steps further with a custom Android launcher that you can download full apps onto.

A Boox Poke 3 e-reader

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Now, there are really only so many apps that you actually might want on an e-reader like this one. And not everything works as well as I’d like. But for the first time I can actually get Simplenote on my e-reader.

It’s not as simple as it would be on an ordinary Android device, though. Because the Poke 3 comes from China, it doesn’t have access to Google services right off the bat. You can add it through settings, which isn’t hard, but there’s also a sideloading store built in with recent (if not quite brand new) install packages of popular, vetted apps for the device.

Let’s just admit right now that compared to the simplicity of Kindle and Kobo, this is already a bit out there. And whether you feel comfortable logging into a version of Evernote that you can’t (without a bit of work) verify the contents of… well, it’s not for everyone. But to be clear on this, Boox isn’t some fly-by-night operation — they may not be well known over here, but it’s hard to argue with the quality of the devices. The problem is simply that localizing an OS built for users in China has some fundamental challenges.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Fortunately for everyone, the basic capability to load books on there and read them is solid and it’s what you’d be doing most of the time. There may be a busy interface when you’re doing other stuff, but you can easily hide all indicators like progress and title while you’re reading, dedicating every square inch of the screen to actual reading.

It has 32 gigs of internal memory, making storage of audiobooks (it has Bluetooth for sound) and bulky documents easy, and connects quickly as a drive when you plug in its USB-C cord.

The Poke 3 will cost $189 when it ships next week, which is on the high end for this type of device. That’s $30 more than a Kindle Paperwhite and $70 more than a Clara HD. But I honestly think it is worth the premium. This is a better e-reader, period; despite the sometimes fussy interface, I enjoy using it, and appreciate that it provides capabilities that its competition doesn’t. If you need simple and don’t mind a cheap build, the Clara is a great cheaper option, but for a step up consider the Poke 3.

❌