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Netgear’s Meural Canvas II is a better version of the best home gadget for photographers

By Darrell Etherington

Netgear has released the first updated Canvas digital art from from Meural since acquiring the company last September, and the next-generation connected frame comes with some decent quality-of-life improvements as well as a new, additional size. It’s not a dramatic change from the original Meural Canvas, but it means that a product that was already great is now even better.

The Meural Canvas II from Netgear comes in two sizes, including a smaller 16×24-inch frame that provides a 21.5-inch diagonal picture (starting at $399.95), and a 19×29-inch frame with a 27-inch diagonal display (starting at $599.95). Both screens are 1080P full HD resolution, and both feature ambient light sensors (which are relocated to a better location under the mat that surrounds the screen for improved light detection) that will automatically adjust the brightness of your image to make it appear more natural and less like a screen.

The Canvas II features built-in Wi-Fi, which is also upgraded with this generation (Netgear, which makes routers and other Wi-Fi products, seems to have brought its expertise to bear here) and they offer new Ethernet connectivity, as well as full-size SD ports. They also can hang either vertically or horizontally, and a new accessory mount for this generation (sold separately) allows for even easier switching between the two orientations via simple rotation.

For the virtual art collector

Meural is controlled primarily from the Meural companion app, though you can also access a web interface to accomplish much of the same thing from a desktop browser. The app features curated collections of artwork, which is available both via a paid monthly subscription and via direct, one-time purchases. One of the changes that the Meural service has undergone is that the subscription membership now gets you some, but not all, of the art available — some premium content is still an additional charge. It’s definitely not as good from the user’s perspective as when everything was free once you’d paid the subscription fee, but paying monthly still nets you 20GB of cloud storage for uploading your own art, discounts on the stuff that is available for purchase and access to a much larger library than you get without any membership.

Subscriptions go for either $8.95 per month, or $69.95 per year, and they’re probably plenty to satisfy most casual art lovers who just want some recognizable or interesting works to adorn their walls, and want to be able to change that on a fairly regular basis. And when you use the art provided through Meural’s various collections, you can take a look at credits and descriptions right on the display — available quickly via a motion control swipe up gesture made possibly by the sensors built into the frame.

A note on those motion controls — they allow you to navigate between artwork, and even change playlists and access a menu of other options related to the frame. Basically, you wave your hand near the bottom of the Meural to make this work, and it’s great when it does work, but it definitely takes some learning to figure out how and where to swipe to make it reliably respond. It’s convenient that it’s an option, but controlling the display with the iOS or Android app is a lot more pleasant, generally speaking.

The built-in library that Meural provides is definitely a selling point, and Meural is regularly adding new art collections, both for paid purchases and to build out the library of those works available included in the subscription. It just added a bunch through a new partnership with Marvel, in fact, including movie posters from a long list of their cinematic universe releases.

For the amateur/enthusiast/pro photographer

The primary reason I think the Meural Canvas II is a fantastic product has very little to do with its subscription-based art collection, however. Instead, it’s all about the flexibility and convenience that the Canvas provides when it comes to displaying your own photos. It’s incredibly easy to upload your photos from your mobile device or your desktop, and you can organize them in playlists, add descriptions and titles, and crop them manually or have the frame crop them automatically to display in its 16×9 aspect ratio.

As a display for your own photos, the Meural Canvas II is hard to beat: It’s a lot more flexible and cost effective than getting high-quality prints made, as you can rotate them out as often as you feel like, and the display’s color rendering and matte finish, while obviously not as good as a professional photo print, is nonetheless very pleasing to the eye. When you take as many photos as we collectively do now, but seldom have anywhere to show them off, the Canvas provides the perfect opportunity to ensure they have a great place to shine at home.

The included SD card reader means it’s easy to load up images and put them on the Canvas locally, but I also found that uploading from whatever Wi-Fi-connected device I had access to around the house was easy and fast (again, seems like Netgear’s core expertise came into play here). The ability to quickly change the orientation, which is fast and simple even without the rotation mount accessory, is another big plus for your own photos, as it means you can show off both portraits and landscapes.

Oh, and the ability to load your own artwork isn’t limited to just your photography, of course — any image in a standard format, including animated GIFs, can work on the Meural, which means it’s really only limited by the scope of what’s available on the internet.

Bottom line

Between the frame options, which you can swap out for different color options eventually when they’re sold separately, and the ability to upload your own content to the Canvas, it’s easily the most customizable piece of home decor you can find right now. For some, opting to move up to something like Samsung’s The Frame TV might be a better option, but that’s much larger, much more expensive, much heavier for mounting and not as flexible when it comes to playlists and your own curation of art to display.

The Meural Canvas II provides largely the same visual experience as the generation it replaces, but the other improvements make this a much better product overall, with faster, more reliable Wi-Fi connectivity, improved motion controls, more flexible on-device storage and new mounting options. If you like some variety in your wall art, or you’ve just been trying to figure out how to do something interesting with all those pictures you take, the Meural Canvas II is a great option.

Shark IQ Robot Review: Convenience Makes Up for a Low IQ

By Adrienne So
Shark’s first robot vacuum has a self-emptying bin, but it struggles to make a map.

The $189,000 DBX SUV Is Here to Save Aston Martin

By Alex Davies
The esteemed brand is following the luxury SUV trend in a bid to expand and diversify its customer base.

Hands-on with DJI’s Osmo Mobile 3

By Veanne Cao

Hello, it’s your video-making friends at TechCrunch again. This time, DJI sent us the latest iteration of their mobile phone gimbal to try out for a couple of weeks. While I took mine to Budapest and Vienna, Gregory tested his demo unit all around the Bay Area.

 

With added tools like gesture control, story mode, Hitchcock dolly zoom and hyper-lapse, the Osmo 3 breaks up the monotony of regular footage and makes shooting more fun. It’s a great hardware design upgrade for DJI and a must-have for content creators, influencers and regular folks. For anal-retentive video makers like us, we just need a little bit more control.

The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

By Darrell Etherington

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

Google Stadia Review: It's Getting There

By Jess Grey
Google is a streaming game company now, for better and worse.

Google Maps tests a social networking feature with the ability to ‘follow’ Local Guides

By Sarah Perez

Google Maps will soon begin testing a new feature that’s more common to social networks like Facebook, rather than a maps app: the ability to find and follow other users. In Google Maps’ case, it’s specifically rolling out the ability to follow top “Local Guides” — its community members who actively review business and share photos and other knowledge to Google Maps, as part of a larger rewards program.

The Local Guides program launched in 2015 as a way to take on Yelp Elites, by allowing the most active Maps contributors to earn status as a tastemaker of sorts for their own hometown. Guides write more in-depth business reviews and post photos in order to help other Google Maps users learn about the area.

In exchange, they receive a variety of perks like early access to new features, exclusive local meetups, free access to Google services, discounts and coupons, and more.

Now, Google says, it it’s kicking off a pilot program that will allow Google Maps users in select markets to follow top Local Guides by clicking a new “Follow” button on these users’ profile pages. By doing so, the Guides’ recommendations will be surfaced for you when you’re using Google Maps. In a new section on the “For You” tab in the app, you’ll find the area recommendations from the Local Guides.

Google is piloting the program in Bangkok, Delhi, London, Mexico City, New York, Osaka, San Francisco, São Paulo, and Tokyo, for the time being. Presumably, if all goes well, it would expand to more markets.

The feature is the latest move by Google Maps to take on Facebook as the first stop for discovering area businesses and keeping up with their news, events, sales, and more. Just over a year ago, Google rolled out a “Follow” feature for tracking businesses on the Maps app, which later expanded to iOS. This summer Google launched a host of tools for local businesses that allowed them to update their photos and profiles on Google Maps, claim a short URL, and send offers to customers — all features that challenge Facebook Pages.

But until now, Google’s focus has been on getting users to follow and interact with businesses themselves, not other users.

Of course, there’s one big caveat to the Local Guides program in terms of using it as a good source for business information: it’s crowdsourced info from regular people, not professional critics or reviewers. That means the quality of the Local Guides’ reviews can be fairly hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, Google seems more concerned with Local Guides’ engagement and quantity of reviews, rather than review accuracy or quality.

Often, the Local Guides’ reviews lack any criticism, but are simply non-detailed posts about the business in question. For example, many restaurant reviews don’t say much more than “the food is amazing! can’t wait to go back!,” or some variation of this with a few more words. They often read no better (and sometimes much worse) than the other user reviews on the Google Maps app. That’s not to say all Local Guides’ reviews are unhelpful — many do make an effort — but just seeing a review labeled as being from a “Local Guide” is no indication of the review’s quality.

However, the new recommendations feature coming to these 9 test markets will focus more on the Local Guides’ photos, rather than their words. On the “For You” tab of Google Maps, their recommendations will be on display in the form of photo collages — only by clicking through will you see what they wrote. The effect is one where there’s a bit of an Instagram-like feel to the Google Maps app.

The new feature was announced at Google’s annual Local Guides summit. Here, Google also shared how its Local Guides community has grown to around 120 million people across 24,000 cities and towns. But this is another confirmation that the company is celebrating user growth, but not necessarily with an eye on review quality. Unfortunately, if Local Guides can’t all be trusted to offer compelling, detailed and fair reviews, people will not consider them of interest, and won’t be compelled to “follow” anyone here for those sorts of recommendations.

Google didn’t say when the “Follow” feature would launch into pilot testing in these markets, just that it would be arriving “soon.”

Liv Thrive E+ EX Pro Review: An E-Bike Made Just for Women

By Stephanie Pearson
The designers of the Liv Thrive E+ EX-Pro posit that bicycle frames can be tweaked to accommodate the specific needs of more petite, more powerful riders.

The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

By Darrell Etherington

Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address — and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today — and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro — but the latest noise-canceling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travelers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the “Pro” designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only has auxiliary audio in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it has been rock solid, with easy pairing and setup, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again, you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode — but you get up to four more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less, at $49.99 each.

Apple AirPods Pro Review: The Best Earbuds for iPhone

By Parker Hall
With a comfortable fit, great sound, and awesome noise canceling, these are the best AirPods ever.

Review: Samsung’s Space Monitor is handsome and minimal — if you have the desk for it

By Devin Coldewey

When Samsung announced the Space Monitor, I knew in an instant that it was going to be something I had to try out in person. Now that I’ve had time to do so, I’m happy to say it’s much as advertised, a streamlined and solid monitor with a smart new design — but not necessarily one for everybody.

Samsung Space Monitor

Pros:

  • Clever space-saving design
  • Quiet, attractive look
  • Solid color out of the box

Cons:

  • Doesn’t rotate and height depends on distance from wall
  • Sub-par viewing angles
  • Doesn’t work with every desk

Price: $400 (27-inch); $500 (32-inch)

We don’t review a lot of monitors at TechCrunch — none, really. This was more of a curiosity to me. I’m interested in design and monitors are usually ugly at best. But I was impressed with Samsung’s approach here and wanted to see if it worked in real life.

The big advance of the Space Monitor is its very low-profile mount, which grips the edge of your desk on the wall side and can be folded up flat against said wall. It can rotate up and down, the monitor tilting to taste — not so far as the Surface Studio, but with that same general range of motion.

The monitor itself comes in two varieties: a larger 32-inch 4K one and a smaller 27-inch one at 2560×1440. I reviewed the smaller one, as the large one has a lower refresh rate and I really don’t have any use for 4K in my workflow.

The ideal situation for this thing is a relatively small work space where having the monitor actually sitting on your desk kind of invalidates all the space around it. With the Space Monitor, the stand is flush with the wall, clearing up the area below and in front of it even when it’s folded outwards. It’s easier than piercing the wall for a free-floating display.

The performance of the monitor, as far as I am able to tell, is good but not great. The colors are vibrant and the default settings are solid, if perhaps a little warm (easily adjusted, of course). The refresh rate goes up to 144 Hz, which is more than enough for gaming, and can easily be tweaked to 120 for those of us who are very picky about video pulldown and other deep frame rate stuff.

One thing that isn’t impressive is the viewing angle. I feel like the sweet spot for this monitor is far narrower than on the Dell Ultrasharp IPS panel I’ve used for years. If you’re not sitting directly in front of it, you’re going to get color and brightness falloff at the edge you’re farthest from.

The bezel is narrow, a bit more than a quarter inch, a little thicker on the bottom side. It’s also nearly flush on the top and sides so you don’t feel like the bezels protrude toward you. All in all it’s a very handsome and understated design, as these things go. It’s worth noting that Samsung appears to have fudged the press imagery a bit and the microscopic bezel you see in official images is not actually what you get.

Installation isn’t quite as easy as just setting something down on your desk, but if you have a compatible desk, it’s literally as easy as sliding the clamp on and tightening it. A custom cable (optional, but convenient) combines HDMI and power into one, and fits into a groove on the back of the stand, eliminating clutter.

But you’ll want to take a good look at your desk to make sure it is compatible. I didn’t, and had to jury-rig a solution.

Basically, unless your desk is more or less solid and has a ledge that the clamp can close down on, you might have a problem. My desk is solid and about an inch and a half thick, but has a sort of wall that juts down about two more inches. I removed and reattached the bottom part of the clamp so it could just barely be slipped around the wall, but then the screw wouldn’t reach the bottom surface of the desk, so I had to fill the gap with a book. (It’s okay, I’ve got lots.)

The stand is plenty stiff and the monitor stays exactly where you’ve put it, but it is a little wobbly — understandable, given that it sits at the very tip of a 14-inch-long arm. I only really noticed when I was typing very hard or bumped the desk, when I noticed it wobbled more and longer than the Dell on its traditional stand.

Now, if you’ve looked closely at the way this monitor and stand is set up, you may have noticed something else: this thing can’t rotate. Yes, unfortunately, the nature of the Space Monitor means that it must always be parallel to the desk edge it’s attached to, and can only move directly perpendicular to it. There is also no way to slide the monitor up and down, or rather to do so you must also move it toward or away from you.

For some this is unacceptable. And although it’s fine for me as a primary monitor, it would never work as a secondary one, like the Dell I now have angled toward me adjacent to the Samsung.

That does significantly limit its use cases, and the spaces in which it works well. But I still feel it’s a great option for some. If you have limited space and plan to primarily work from the sweet spot directly in front of it, this is a solid monitor big enough for productivity, movies and games.

For those seeking a low-profile, space-saving alternative to the usual monitors, the Space Monitor is a great option. But for multiple-monitor setups or people who shift the angle a lot, it probably isn’t the best. At $400 it has strong competition from the usual suspects, but for some people the slight increase in image quality or the ability to slide the monitor up and down isn’t worth losing the desk space or having a clunky design. The Space Monitor is available now, at Samsung’s site or your usual electronics retailer.

Google Nest WiFi Review: Home Networking Made Easy

By Scott Gilbertson
If you're already on the Google bandwagon, the Nest WiFi fits well with the company's vision of a connected home.

The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 is a truly great game controller

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft’s original Xbox Elite controller was a major step up for gamers, with customizable buttons, changeable physical controls and adjustable sensitivity for serious personalization. The new Xbox Elite Controller Series 2 has just landed, and it offers similar features, but with new and improved features that add even more customization options, along with key hardware improvements that take what was one of the best gaming controllers available and make it that much better.

USB-C

This might seem like a weird place to start, but the fact that the new Xbox Elite 2 comes with USB-C for charging and wired connections is actually a big deal, especially given that just about every other gadget in our lives has moved on to adapting this standard. Micro USB is looking decidedly long in the tooth, and if you’re like me, one of the only reasons you still have those cables around at all is to charge your game controllers.

In the box, you get a braided USB-A to USB-C charging cable, which at nine feet is plenty long enough to reach from your console to your couch. Of course, you also can use your phone, tablet, MacBook or any other USB-C charger and cable combo to power up the Elite 2, which is why it’s such a nice upgrade.

This is big for one other key reason: Apple recently added Xbox controller compatibility to its iPad lineup, which also charges via USB-C. That’s what makes this the perfect controller for anyone looking to turn their tablets into a portable gaming powerhouse, as it reduces the amount of kit you need to pack when you want to grab the controller and have a good option for digging into some iPad gaming.

Adjustable everything

Probably the main reason to own the Elite 2 is that it offers amazing customization options. New to this generation, you can even adjust the resistance of the thumbsticks, which is immensely useful if you’re a frequent player of first-person shooter (FPS) games, for instance. This lets you tune the sensitivity of the sticks to help ensure you’re able to find the right balance of sensitivity versus resistance for accurate aiming, and it should help pros and enthusiasts make the most of their own individual play style.

The shoulder triggers also now have even shorter hair-trigger locks, which means you can fire quicker with shorter squeezes in-game. And in the case, you’ll find other thumbsticks that you can swap out for the ones that are pre-installed, as well as a D-pad you can use to replace the multi-directional pad.

On top of the hardware customization, you also can tweak everything about the controller in software on Windows 10 and Xbox One, using Microsoft’s Accessories app. You can even assign a button to act as a “Shift” key to provide even more custom options, so that you can set up key combos to run even more inputs. Once you find a configuration you like, you can save it as a profile to the controller and switch quickly between them using a physical button on the controller’s front face.

Even if you’re not a hardcore multiplayer competitive gamer, these customization options can come in handy. I often use profiles that assign thumbstick clicks to the rear paddle buttons, for instance, which makes playing a lot of single-player games much more comfortable, especially during long sessions.

Dock and case included

The Xbox Elite 2 includes a travel case, just like the first generation, but this iteration is improved, too. It has a removable charging dock, which is a quality accessory in its own right. The dock offers pass-through charging even while the controller is inside the case, too, thanks to a USB-C cut-through that you can seal with a rubberized flap when it’s not in use.

In addition to housing the charger and controller, the case can hold the additional sticks and D-pad, as well as the paddles when those aren’t in use. It’s got a mesh pocket for holding charging cables and other small accessories, and the exterior is a molded hard plastic wrapped in fabric that feels super durable, and yet doesn’t take up much more room than the controller itself when packed in a bag.

The case is actually a huge help in justifying that $179.99 price tag, as all of this would be a significant premium as an after-market add-on accessory for a standard controller.

Bottom line

Microsoft took its time with a successor to the original Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, and while at first glance you might think that not much has changed, there are actually a lot of significant improvements here. The controller’s look and feel also feel better, with more satisfying button, pad and the stick response, and a better grip thanks to the new semi-textured finish on the front of the controller.

[gallery ids="1908338,1908336,1908334,1908333"]

USB-C and more customization options might be good enough reason even for existing Elite Controller owners to upgrade, but anyone on the fence about getting an Elite to begin with should definitely find this a very worthwhile upgrade over a standard Xbox One controller.

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure is a silly, gentle way to shape up

By Devin Coldewey

Nintendo has a long history when it comes to exercise-driven games. I’m dating myself, but I can say I remember playing Track & Field on NES with the Power Pad. How far we’ve come! Ring Fit Adventure is a full-body workout for grown-ups, but fun, gentle, and ridiculous enough to forget it’s exercise.

The game and accessories were announced in September, coming as a complete surprise even considering Nintendo’s constant but hit-and-miss attempts at keeping its players healthy. What really threw people off was that this game actually looked like… a game. And so it is!

Ring Fit Adventure has you, the unnamed and (naturally) mute protagonist, journeying through a series of worlds and levels chasing after Dragaux, a swole dragon who’s infecting the land with… something. Maybe he’s not wiping down the equipment afterwards. Come on, man.

Playing with these virtual versions of the controllers gives you a real feel for how solid the motion detection is.

Anyway, you do this by using the Joy-Cons in a new and strange form: the Ring-Con and leg strap. The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but the ring must be explained. It’s a thick plastic resistance ring that you squeeze from the edges or pull apart. It detects how hard you’re squeezing it through the other Joy-Con, which slots into the top. (The strap and ring grips are washable, by the way.)

The two controllers combined can detect all kinds of movements, from squats and leg lifts to rotations, presses, balancing, and yoga poses. You’ll need them all if you’re going to progress in the game.

Each level is a path that you travel down by actually jogging in real life (or high stepping if you’re in goo), while using the Ring-Con to interact with the environment. Aim and squeeze to send out a puff of air that opens a door or propels you over an obstacle, or pull it apart to suck in distant coins. Press it against your abs to crush rocks, do squats to open chests — you get the idea.

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I haven’t gotten this one yet, but it looks handy. I could use a stronger arm-based multi-monster attack.

Of course you encounter enemies as well, which you dispatch with a variety of exercises targeting different muscle groups. Do a few arm presses over your head for some basic damage, or hit multiple enemies with some hip rotations. Each exercise has you do a number of reps, which turn into damage, before defending against enemy attacks with an “Ab Guard.”

The ring and leg strap seem almost magical in their ability to track your motion in all kinds of ways, though some are no doubt only inferred or fudged (as when you lift the leg without the strap). A missed motion happened so rarely over thousands of them that I ceased to think at all about it, which is about the highest compliment you can give a control method like this. Yet it’s also forgiving enough that you won’t feel the need to get everything right down the millimeter. You can even check your pulse by putting your thumb on the IR sensor of the right Joy-Con. Who knew?

As you progress, you unlock new exercises with different uses or colors — and you soon are able to fight more strategically by matching muscle group coloring (red is arms, purple legs, etc) with enemies of the same type. It’s hardly Fire Emblem, but it’s also a lot more than anyone has every really expected from a fitness game.

The red guys are like, “yeah… do him first.”

In fact, so much care and polish has clearly gone into this whole operation that’s it’s frequently surprising; there are so many things that could have been phoned in an not a single one is. The exercises are thoughtfully selected and explained in a friendly manner; the monsters and environments show great attention to detail. There’s no punishment for failure except restarting a level — the first time I “died,” I expected a little sass from my chatty companion, Ring, but it just popped me back to the map with nary a word.

Throughout is a feeling of acceptance and opportunity rather than pressure to perform. You can quit at any time and it doesn’t chide you for abandoning your quest or not burning enough calories. If you decide not to do the warm-up stretch, Tabb just says “OK!” and moves on. When you perform a move, it’s either “good” or “great,” or it reminds you of the form and you can try again. Whenever you start, you can change the difficulty, which I believe is reps, damage, and other soft counts, since it can’t increase the resistance of the Ring-Con.

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Seems familiar…

There’s no pressure to change your body and no gendered expectations; Your exercise demonstration model/avatar, Tabb, is conspicuously androgynous. Your character is a pretty cut specimen of your preferred gender, to be sure. And Dragaux himself is a sort of parody of oblivious, musclebound gym bunnies (“He’s working out while planning his next workout,” the game announced one time as he skipped an attack to do some bicep curls). But even he, Ring mentions at one point, used to be very insecure about his body. Importantly, there’s nothing about the game that feels targeted to getting a certain type of person a certain type of fit.

I’m not a trainer or fitness expert, but so far the variety of exercises also feels solid. It’s all very low-impact stuff, and because it’s resistance ring and body weight only, there’s a sort of core-strengthening yoga style to it all. This isn’t about getting ripped, but you’ll be surprised how sore you are after taking down a few enemies with a proper-form chair pose.

If you don’t want to play the adventure mode, there are minigames to collect and short workouts you can customize. Honestly some of these would make better party games than half the stuff on 1-2-Switch.

As I’ve been playing the game and discussing it with friends, I found myself wanting more out of the game side. I’m hoping Ring Fit Adventure will be a success so that Nintendo will green light a new, deeper version with more complex RPG elements. Sure, you can change your outfit here for a little extra defense or whatnot, but I want to take this concept further — I know the fundamentals are sound, so I’d like to see them built on.

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It feels like until now there have been few ways to really gamify fitness, except the most elementary, like step tracking. The two separate motion controllers and the smart ways they’re used to track a variety of exercises really feel like an opportunity to do something bigger. Plus once people have bought the accessories, they’re much more likely to buy matching software.

My main criticisms would be that it’s a bit limiting at the beginning. There’s no choice to, for example, prioritize or deprioritize a certain type of exercise. I could probably stand to jog more and do arm stuff less, and I dreaded having to resort to squats for the first few worlds. And the constant instruction on how and when to do everything can be wearing — it would be nice to be able to set some things to “expert mode” and skip the tutorials.

The game and accessories will set you back $80. If you consider it simply as buying a game, it’s an expensive gimmick. But I don’t think that’s the way to think about it. The target audience here is people who likely don’t have a gym membership, something that can cost $50-$100 a month. As a fun and effective fitness tool that does what it sets out to do and does so in a praiseworthy way, I think $80 is a very reasonable asking price.

The GoPro MAX is the ultimate pocketable travel vlogging camera

By Darrell Etherington

GoPro’s first foray into the 360-degree action was the GoPro Fusion, and while it was a strong first offering, the new GoPro MAX ($499) is a very different — and much improved — immersive action camera that has a lot to offer experienced videographers and voices alike. To be sure, the MAX has trade-offs, but taken together, it presents arguably the best overall combination of features and value for travel and adventure vloggers who don’t want to break the bank or haul a huge amount of kit while they get out and explore.

It’s hip to be square

The new GoPro MAX’s form factor is both familiar and different for fans of the company’s Hero line. It’s almost like you stacked two Heros on top of each other, with a square box instead of a small rectangle as a result. The design helps accommodate both the dual optics that GoPro uses to achieve its 360-degree capture, as well as the built-in touchscreen display that can be used as a selfie viewfinder, too, when operating in Hero mode.

The ruggedized case can survive submersion in water up to 16 feet deep, and it’s splash-proof as well. There are additional protective lenses for the two dome-shamed cameras in the box, as well, which GoPro advises you use in potentially messy environments to protect the optics. Both front and back sides of the camera also feature grills for microphones, which can capture 360 immersive audio when the camera is operating in 360 mode, or act as truly impressive directional shotgun mics when vlogging or working in Hero mode.

GoPro MAX 3Like the new Hero 8, the MAX has built-in GoPro accessory mounts that fold out of the body on the bottom. This ensure you won’t have to pack the MAX in an external cage to attach it to the wide range of available GoPro mounts that exist out there, cutting down on bulk and the amount of stuff you need to pack when you take it out on the road.

The rubberized coating ensures you can keep a firm grip on the camera when you’re using it without any accessories, and GoPro’s easy to access and prominently placed external buttons mean you can control shutter and power while you’re using it in even the messiest circumstances. Removable batteries mean you can charge and keep a few on hand to ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to get some great footage.

360 or not to 360

The MAX is a very capable 360-degree camera, on par with some of the best in the market. It handles stitching automatically, and when paired with the MAX Grip + Tripod, it’ll even get rid of any awkward stitch lines where you’re gripping the camera. Using their software, you can then use the 360 footage to create a lot of compelling effects during edits, including panning and transitioning between views, zooming in and out and basically pulling off final edits that you wouldn’t even be able to get with a few different cameras and shooters all going at once.

That said, there are some limits to the 360 shooting: You can see where GoPro’s software has stitched together its two wide-angle captures to achieve the effect, for instance, even if only slightly. And while the tools that GoPro provides for stringing together edits are surprisingly user-friendly, you will need to spend some time with it in order to make the most of the tools available — novices can easily create somewhat disorienting cuts before they get their bearings.

The beauty of the MAX, however, is that 360 is just one of the capabilities it offers — and in fact, that provides the basis for much more interesting things that most users will get plenty more value out of. Foremost among these is HyperSmooth, which, when combined with MAX’s exclusive horizon-leveling feature, makes for some of the smoothest, best-quality stabilized video footage you can get with any camera without a gimbal.

By default, horizon-leveling on the MAX will work in both landscape and portrait modes, and switch between those orientations when you turn the camera 90 degrees. But if you lock the orientation to landscape, you can rotate the MAX freely and the horizon stays level, with footage staying smooth and stable — to an almost spooky degree.

There can sometimes be a slightly noticeable fuzziness when you pivot from one orientation to the other in captured footage, but it’s barely detectable, and it only happens if you rotate fully 90 degrees. Otherwise, the horizon stays and footage stays smooth, regardless of how much movement, bounce or jitters you have holding the camera. It’s amazing, and should be experienced in person to truly appreciate how much tech went into this.

The perfect run-and-gun mix

That is one reason this is the camera you want with you when you’re out and about. But it’s not all the MAX offers in this regard. GoPro has made use of the 360 capture to implement so-called “Digital Lenses,” which change the field of view, and adjust distortion to get at final results that can really change the look and feel of the video you capture. There’s a new “Narrow”‘ mode that’s even more constrained than the typical “Linear” mode GoPro offers, and a new Max SuperView mode that pushes wide beyond previous limits for a really dramatic look.

Because the camera is capturing 360 content at 6K, you don’t get 4K resolution when it’s cropped down to Hero mode. But you do get up to 1440p as well as 1080p options, which are plenty for most vlogging and travel log purposes. This is one area where there’s a compromise to be made in exchange for some of the flexibility and convenience you get from the MAX, but in my opinion it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

As mentioned, you also get a ruggedized camera that can even snorkel with you, as well as a selfie screen and highly capable microphones built-in (in the video above you’ll notice that there is some deterioration in sound when it detects water). It really seems like GoPro did everything they could to ensure that if you wanted to, you could easily just grab the MAX and get out there, without worrying about packing any accessories beyond maybe their Shorty tripod or that MAX grip I mentioned.

GoPro MAX 2Bottom line

GoPro’s Fusion was a compelling camera for a specific set of users, but the MAX feels like it might be flipping the script on the whole GoPro lineup. In short, the MAX seems like a great default option for anyone new to action cameras or looking for a comprehensive all-arounder that’s easy to learn, but becomes more powerful in time.

The MAX’s amazing stabilization is also probably better suited to vlogging and social video than it is to the actual action camera set, because it’s so smooth and refined. You can alter to what extent it triggers, of course, but overall MAX just seems like a device that can do magic with its built-in software for aspiring content creators who would rather leave the DSLR and the gimbal at home — or who never thought to pick one up in the first place.

Braun MultiServe Coffee Machine Review: Finally, a Great Single-Cup Coffee Brewer

By Joe Ray
Braun’s new MultiServe coffee machine can brew batches of different volumes, from one cup to a full pot. And they all taste great. Bye-bye, K-Cups.

Ford Is Bringing Huge Screens—and Live Updates—to Its Cars

By Alex Davies
The bigger screens can display a map, phone, and radio simultaneously. Ford says it won't be too distracting. 

Pixel 4 review: Google ups its camera game

By Brian Heater

Google’s first-party hardware has always been a drop in the bucket of global smartphone sales. Pixel devices have managed to crack the top five in the U.S. and Western Europe, but otherwise represent less than 1% of the overall market. It’s true, of course, that the company got a late start, largely watching on the sidelines as companies like Samsung and Huawei shipped millions of Android devices.

Earlier this year, Google admitted that it was feeling the squeeze of slowing smartphone sales along with the rest of the industry. During Alphabet’s Q1 earnings call, CEO Sundar Pichai noted that poor hardware numbers were a reflection of “pressure in the premium smartphone industry.”

Introduced at I/O, the Pixel 3a was an attempt to augment disappointing sales numbers with the introduction of a budget-tier device. With a starting price of $399, the device seemingly went over as intended. The 3a, coupled with more carrier partners, helped effectively double year over year growth for the line. Given all of this, it seems like a pretty safe bet that the six-month Pixel/Pixela cycle will continue, going forward.

Of course, the addition of a mid-range device adds more onus for the company to differentiate the flagship. With a starting price of $799, the Pixel 4 certainly isn’t expensive by modern flagship standards. But Google certainly needs to present enough distinguishing features to justify a $400 price gulf between devices — especially as the company disclosed software upgrades introduced on flagship devices will soon make their way onto their cheaper counterparts.

Indeed, the much-rumored and oft-leaked devices bring some key changes to the line. The company has finally given in and added a dual-camera setup to both premium models, along with an upgraded 90Hz display, face unlock, radar-based gestures and a whole bunch of additional software features.

The truth is that the Pixel has always occupied a strange place in the smartphone world. As the successor to Google’s Nexus partnerships, the product can be regarded as a showcase for Android’s most compelling features. But gone are the days of leading the pack with the latest version of the operating system. The fact that OnePlus devices already have Android 10 means Google’s going head to head against another reasonably price manufacturer of quality handsets.

google pixel 4 009

The Pixel line steps up a bit on the design side to distinguish the product from the “a” line. Google’s phones have never been as flashy as Samsung’s or Apple’s, and that’s still the case here, but a new dual-sided glass design (Gorilla Glass 5 on both), coupled with a metal band, does step up the premium feel a bit. The product is also a bit heavier and thicker than the 3, lending some heft to the device.

There are three colors now: black, white and a poppy “Oh So Orange,” which is available in limited quantities here in the U.S. The color power button continues to be a nice touch, lending a little character to the staid black and white devices. While the screen gets a nice update to 90Hz OLED, Google still has no interest in the world of notches or hole punches. Rather, it’s keeping pretty sizable bezels on the top and bottom.

The Pixel 4 gets a bit of a screen size boost from 5.5 to 5.7 inches, with an increase of a single pixel per inch, while the Pixel 4 XL stays put at 6.4 inches (with a PPI increase of 522 to 537). The dual front-facing camera has been ditched this time out, instead opting for the single eight megapixel, similar to what you’ll find on the 3a.

Storage hasn’t changed, with both 64 and 128GB options for both models; RAM has been bumped up to a default 6GB from 4GB last time out. The processor, too, is the latest and greatest from Qualcomm, bumping from a Snapdragon 845 to an 855. Interestingly, however, the batteries have actually been downgraded.

google pixel 4 013

The 4 and 4 XL sport a 2,800 and 3,700mAh, respectively. That should be augmented a bit by new battery-saving features introduced in Android 10, but even still, that’s not the direction you want to see these things going.

The camera is, in a word, great. Truth be told, I’ve been using it to shoot photos for the site since I got the phone last week. This Google Nest Mini review, Amazon Echo review and Virgin Galactic space suit news were all shot on the Pixel 4. The phone isn’t yet a “leave your DSLR at home” proposition, of course, but damn if it can’t take a fantastic photo in less than ideal and mixed light with minimal futzing around.

There’s no doubt that this represents a small but important shift in philosophy for Google. After multiple generations of suggesting that software solutions could do more than enough heavy lifting on image processing, the company’s finally bit the bullet and embraced a second camera. Sometimes forward progress means abandoning past stances. Remember when the company dug its heels in on keeping the headphone jack, only to drop it the following year?

google pixel 4 010

The addition of a second camera isn’t subtle, either. In fact, it’s hard to miss. Google’s adopted a familiar square configuration on the rear of the device. That’s just how phones look now, I suppose. Honestly, it’s fine once you conquer a bit of trypophobia, with a pair of lenses aligned horizontally and a sensor up top and flash on bottom — as one of last week’s presenters half joked, “we hope you’ll use it as a flash light.”

google pixel 4 008

That, of course, is a reference to the Pixel’s stellar low-light capabilities. It’s been a welcome feature, in an age where most smartphone users continue to overuse their flashes, completely throwing off the photo in the process. Perhaps the continued improvements will finally break that impulse in people — though I’m not really getting my hopes up on that front. Old habits, etc.

The 4 and 4 XL have the same camera set up, adopting the 12.2-megapixel (wide angle) lens from their predecessors and adding a 16-megapixel (telephoto) into the mix. I noted some excitement about the setup in my write-up. That’s not because the two-camera setup presents anything remarkable — certainly not in this area of three, four and five-camera flagships. It’s more about the groundwork that Google has laid out in the generations leading up to this device.

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Essentially it comes down to this: Look at what the company has been able to accomplish using software and machine learning with a single camera setup. Now add a second telephoto camera into the mix. See, Super High Res Zoom is pretty impressive, all told. But if you really want a tighter shot without degrading the image in the process, optical zoom is still very much the way to go.

There’s a strong case to be made that the Pixel 4’s camera is the best in class. The pictures speak for themselves. The aforementioned TechCrunch shots were done with little or no manual adjustments or post-processing. Google offers on-screen adjustments, like the new dual-exposure control, which lets you manually adjust brightness and shadow brightness on the fly. Honestly, though, I find the best way to test these cameras is to use them the way most buyers will: by pointing and shooting.

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The fact is that a majority of people who buy these handsets won’t be doing much fiddling with the settings. As such, it’s very much on handset makers to ensure that users get the best photograph by default, regardless of conditions. Once again, software is doing much of the heavy lifting. Super Res Zoom works well in tandem with the new lens, while Live HDR+ does a better job approximating how the image will ultimately look once fully processed. Portrait mode shots look great, and the device is capable of capturing them at variable depths, meaning you don’t have to stand a specific distance from the subject to take advantage of the well-done artificial bokeh.

Our video producer, Veanne, who is admittedly a far better photographer than I can ever hope to be, tested out the camera for the weekend. 

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Although Veanne was mostly impressed by the Pixel 4’s camera and photo editing capabilities, here are three major gripes.

“Digital zoom is garbage.”

Google Pixel 4 digital zoom is garbage

 

“In low lighting situations, you lose ambiance. Saturday evening’s intimate, warmly lit dinner looked like a cafeteria meal.”

Pixel 4 camera sample

 

“Bright images in low lighting gives you the impression that the moving objects would be in focus as well. That is not the case.”

Other additions round out the experience, including “Frequent Faces,” which learns the faces of subjects you frequently photograph. Once again, the company is quick to point out that the feature is both off by default and all of the processing happens on the device. Turning it off also deletes all of the saved information. Social features have been improved, as well, with quick access to third-party platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Google keeps pushing out improvements to Lens, as well. This time out, language translation, document scanning and text copy and pasting can be performed with a quick tap. Currently the language translation is still a bit limited, with only support for English, Spanish, German, Hindi and Japanese. More will be “rolling out soon,” per the company.

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Gestures is a strange one. I’m far from the first to note that Google is far from the first to attempt the feature. The LG G8 ThinQ is probably the most recent prominent example of a company attempting to use gestures as a way to differentiate themselves. To date, I’ve not seen a good implementation of the technology — certainly not one I could ever see myself actually using day to day.

The truth is, no matter how interesting or innovative a feature is, people aren’t going to adopt it if it doesn’t work as advertised. LG’s implementation was a pretty big disappointment.

Simply put, the Pixel’s gestures are not that. They’re better in that, well, they work, pretty much as advertised. This is because the underlying technology is different. Rather than relying on cameras like other systems, the handset uses Project Soli, a long-promised system that utilizes a miniature radar chip to detect far more precise movement.

Soli does, indeed work, but the precision is going to vary a good deal from user to user. The thing is, simply detecting movement isn’t enough. Soli also needs to distinguish intention. That means the system is designed to weed out accidental gestures of the manner we’re likely making all the time around our phones. That means the system appears to be calibrated to bigger, intentional movements.

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That can be a little annoying for things like advancing tracks. I don’t think there are all that many instances where waving one’s hands across a device Obi-Wan Kenobi-style is really saving all that much time or effort versus touching a screen. If, however, Google was able to customize the experience to the individual over time using machine learning, it could be a legitimately handy feature.

That brings us to the next important point: functionality. So you’ve got this neat new piece of tiny radar that you’re sticking inside your phone. You say it’s low energy and more private than a camera. Awesome! So, how do you suggest I, you know, use it?

There are three key ways, at the moment:

  • Music playback
  • Alarm Silencing
  • Waving at Pokémon

The first two are reasonably useful. The primary use case I can think of are when, say, your phone is sitting in front of you at your desk. Like mine is, with me, right now. Swiping my hand left to right a few inches above the device advances the track. Right to left goes a track back. The movements need to be deliberate, from one end of the device to the other.

And then there’s the phenomenon of “Pokémon Wave Hello.” It’s not really correct to call the title a game, exactly. It’s little more than a way of showcasing Motion Sense — albeit an extremely delightful way.

You might have caught a glimpse of it at the keynote the other day. It came and went pretty quickly. Suddenly Pikachu was waving at the audience, appearing out of nowhere like so many wild Snorlaxes. Just as quickly, he was gone.

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More than anything, it’s a showcase title for the technology. A series of five Pokémon, beginning with Pikachu, appear demanding you interact with them through a series of waves. It’s simple, it’s silly and you’ll finish the whole thing in about three minutes. That’s not really the point, though. Pokémon Wave Hello exists to:

  1. Get you used to gestures.
  2. Demonstrate functionality beyond simple features. Gaming, AR — down the road, these things could ultimately find fun and innovative ways to integrate Soli.

For now, however, use is extremely limited. There are some fun little bits, including dynamic wallpaper that reacts to movement. The screen also glows subtly when detecting you — a nice little touch (there’s a similar effect for Assistant, as well).

Perhaps most practical, however, is the fact that the phone can detect when you’re reaching for it and begin the unlocking process. That makes the already fast new Face Unlock feature ever faster. Google ditched the fingerprint reader this time around, opting for neither a physical sensor nor in-screen reader. Probably for the best on the latter front, given the pretty glaring security woes Samsung experienced last week when a British woman accidentally spoofed the reader with a $3 screen protector. Yeeesh.

There are some nice security precautions on here. Chief among them is the fact that the unlock is done entirely on-device. All of the info is saved and processed on the phone’s Titan M chip, meaning it doesn’t get sent up to the cloud. That both makes it a speedier process and means Google won’t be sharing your face data with its other services — a fact Google felt necessary to point out, for obvious reasons.

For a select few of us, at least, Recorder feels like a legitimate game changer. And its ease of use and efficacy should be leaving startups like Otter.ai quaking at its potential, especially if/when Google opts to bring it to other Android handsets and iOS.

I was initially unimpressed by the app upon trying it out at last week’s launch event. It struggles to isolate audio in noisy environments — likely as much of a hardware as software constraint. One on one and it’s far better, though attempting to, say, record audio from a computer can still use some work.

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Open the app and hit record and you’ll see a waveform pop up. The line is blue when detecting speech and gray when hearing other sounds. Tap the Transcript button and you’ll see the speech populate the page in real time. From there you can save it with a title and tag the location.

The app will automatically tag keywords and make everything else searchable for easy access. In its first version, it already completely blows Apple’s Voice Memos out of the water. There’s no comparison, really. It’s in a different league. Ditto for other apps I’ve used over the years, like Voice Record.

Speaking to the product, the recording was still a little hit or miss. It’s not perfect — no AI I’ve encountered is. But it’s pretty good. I’d certainly recommend going back over the text before doing anything with it. Like Otter and other voice apps, you can play back the audio as it highlights words, karaoke-style.

The text can be saved to Google Drive, but can’t be edited in app yet. Audio can be exported, but not as a combined file. The punctuation leaves something to be desired and Recorder is not yet able to distinguish individual voices. These are all things a number of standalone services offer, along with a web-based platform. That means that none of them are out of business yet, but if I was running any of them, I’d be pretty nervous right about now.

As someone who does interviews for a living, however, I’m pretty excited by the potential here. I can definitely see Recorder become one of my most used work apps, especially after some of the aforementioned kinks get ironed out in the next version. As for those who don’t do this for a living, usefulness is probably a bit limited, though there are plenty of other potential uses, like school lecturers.

google pixel 4 005

The Pixel continues to distinguish itself through software updates and camera features. There are nice additions throughout that set it apart from the six-month-old 3a, as well, including a more premium design and new 90Hz display. At $799, the price is definitely a vast improvement over competitors like Samsung and Apple, while retaining flagship specs.

The Pixel 4 doesn’t exactly address what Google wants the Pixel to be, going forward. The Pixel 3a was confirmation that users were looking for a far cheaper barrier of entry. The Pixel 4, on the other hand, is priced above OnePlus’s excellent devices. Nor is the product truly premium from a design perspective.

It’s unclear what the future will look like as Google works to address the shifting smartphone landscape. In the meantime, however, the future looks bright for camera imaging, and Google remains a driving force on that front.

Masterbuilt 330G Propane Smoker Review: As Good as Wood

By Joe Ray
Some pit masters may look down on smoking with propane, but this smoker could convert them.

4 College Admissions Essay Editing Services Reviewed: Scribendi, Wordvice, Elite Editing, Scribbr

By Christopher Null
College applicants seeking an edge can turn to online services which, for as little as $14, will spruce up their admissions essays.
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