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Harman Kardon Invoke review: The first Cortana speaker sounds amazing

Smart speakers are everywhere this year. So far, we've seen new entries from Apple, Amazon, Google and Sonos. Now, Microsoft is finally ready to join the party. The Harman Kardon Invoke is the first speaker to feature Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistant. Since it's coming from a brand known for audio gear, it promises better sound than the competition. And for the most part, it succeeds. The Invoke is miles ahead of Amazon's original Echo and Google's Home when it comes to audio quality. But Cortana still has to mature a bit before it can successfully take on Alexa.

Hardware

The Invoke is a large, cylindrical speaker that bears a striking resemblance to the Echo. It's just as tall as Amazon's, except wider toward the bottom. There's also a huge difference in build quality: The Echo is made entirely of plastic, while the Invoke features a more premium feeling metallic case, with only a bit of plastic around the base. Even the control dial feels much better than the Echo's; it's turns more smoothly and seems like you're controlling a piece of high-end audio gear. Don't forget, Harman Kardon has been building things like receivers and speakers for years.

There's a touch-sensitive area at the top, as well as a frosted display that shows you when Cortana is listening and the volume level. That top portion also houses the seven far-field microphone array, which lets the speaker hear you no matter where you are in a room. Overall, it's a pretty streamlined device. There are only two buttons in the back, which let you mute and pair the speaker with Bluetooth devices. There's also a diagnostic micro-USB port nestled near the power connection (which could be used for upgrading firmware or troubleshooting issues). My only real issue with the speaker is its ridiculously short three-foot power cord. You can easily augment that with an extension cord, but would it have been that hard include something longer?

Under the hood, the Invoke features three tweeters and three woofers that fill up most of the case. In comparison, the new Echo has just one woofer and tweeter. The Invoke even has more speaker hardware than the Sonos Play 1, which only has a single woofer and tweeter as well. Apple's forthcoming HomePod, meanwhile, has four small tweeters and a woofer. I'll admit, it's tough to compare speakers when you're just looking at what they're made of. What's more important is how they sound, and this speaker sounds great.

In use

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

To set up the Invoke, you'll need Cortana's iPhone or Android app. Alternatively, you can use a Windows 10 PC. The speaker shows up as a device in Cortana's settings, and it takes just a few seconds to connect to it. After that, all you need to do is say "Hey Cortana" and start issuing commands. You could ask about the current weather, the latest news, or for directions. For the latter, it'll read off basic navigation instructions and send a copy to the Cortana app on your phone. These are all things Cortana has been able to do for years on PCs and smartphones, but having it available in a standalone speaker is quite useful.

I started out testing the Invoke by doing just about everything I do with my Amazon Echo. It played New York City's NPR station from TuneIn when I asked it to "Play WNYC." And it had no trouble relaying the weather when I asked. (That might sound dull, but it's something I end up asking my Echo several times a day.)

The Invoke's biggest weakness at this point is the limited selection of audio streaming services that Cortana works with. So far, the list includes, Spotify, Tunein, and iHeartradio. There's no Pandora support yet, which is a big disappointment considering this is being positioned as a music-first device. Still, Microsoft says it's in talks to sort that out. The company also intends to work with other services like Soundcloud and Deezer, but it's unclear when we'll see those available on the Invoke. In Spotify, the speaker found my Discover Weekly playlist when I asked for it, and it also easily played music from specific artists and albums. It's also a Spotify Connect device, meaning you can control what the Invoke is playing from any of the service's apps, either on your computer or mobile.

I've mentioned this already, but it's worth repeating: The Invoke sounds fantastic. Music from every genre sounded immersive, with detailed mid-range, crisp highs and some decent low-end thump. It can easily fill a room -- but more than that, it does so in a way that's enjoyable. It sounds more like a decent bookshelf speaker than a mere smart gadget. The better sound quality also makes radio shows and podcasts sound more natural. The Invoke simply blows the original Amazon Echo away. I haven't tested out the new model yet, though, which is supposed to sound better.

I've listened to the Echo daily for years, and generally I've found it good enough for casual listening, but that's it. The difference between Amazon's speaker and Harman Kardon's is readily apparent when you switch between the two back and forth (which is pretty easy using Spotify Connect). With Flying Lotus's tracks in particular, the difference between the two is stark. The Invoke's audio is much richer and nuanced, while the Echo sounds cheap and flat by comparison.

Cortana's voice also sounds much more natural than Alexa at this point. When I asked her to tell stories and jokes, it was difficult to notice that I was listening to something completely artificial, and not lines read by her voice artist. Alexa is getting steadily better, but it still sounds vaguely robotic.

Amazon's voice assistant wins out when it comes to controlling smart home devices, though. Cortana works with Wink, Nest, Smartthings and Hue, but it doesn't integrate with devices from Sonos or Logitech's Harmony platform like Alexa does. I was also disappointed at how unreliable Cortana was when it connected to my Philips Hue smart lights. At first, it had no problem turning lights on and off, or changing scene colors. Several hours later, though, it stopped working entirely. Resetting my Hue Hub and all of my settings didn't help; it's as if Cortana got into a fight with Philips and refused to talk to my lights anymore. I'll chalk this up to growing pains for now, but I hope Microsoft irons out these issues soon.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Since Amazon has had a head start in the smart speaker arena, it's managed to get developers aboard faster. Altogether, they've built more than 20,000 Alexa skills. Microsoft only opened up Cortana's Skills API in May, and it launched with just 46. That number is growing, but it has a long way to go before it catches up to Alexa.

One unique feature the Invoke offers is Skype calling. You can call other Skype users directly, along with normal phone numbers in your contacts and local businesses. When I asked it to call my friend, it found the appropriate contact and dialed the number without issue. He was able to hear me clearly, but he noted that it sounded like a speakerphone. While you can make calls to other Alexa users with an Echo, that's not nearly as convenient as ringing a normal phone. Amazon's Echo Connect changes that a bit, but it requires a landline. Unfortunately, while you can pair your devices with the Invoke over Bluetooth for music playback, you can't use it as a speakerphone when it's connected to your smartphone. (But that's something the Echo can't do either.)

Pricing and the competition

The Invoke's $199 price puts it at twice the price of the new Echo, and $50 more than the smart home hub-equipped Echo Plus. It's also significantly more than the $129 Google Home. Still, it's cheaper than Apple's $349 HomePod, which is also aiming for high-quality sound.

Really, though, your choice with all of these smart speakers really comes down to which ecosystem you want to be a part of. If you want something that works with the most services possible, than Amazon's Echo line makes more sense. Android fanatics might be better off with Google Home and its integration with that company's virtual assistant. Logically, you can assume the Invoke works best for Windows users. And while that's true, it's also a compelling option for anyone who values music quality. With Cortana available on iOS and Android, you don't need a Windows PC to take advantage of this speaker.

Wrap-up

The Invoke is great piece of hardware hamstrung by Cortana's fledgling ecosystem. It could get better over time, but most consumers would likely be better off with a competing smart speaker that might not sound as good, but can do much more. But if Cortana catches up and the Invoke's price goes down, it could end up being a truly compelling smart speaker for music lovers.


GoPro Hero 6 review: Slow-mo, stabilization and subtle refinements

If you look at the GoPro Hero 6, it's nearly impossible to tell it apart from the Hero 5, even on close inspection. The older, silver GoPros used to have the model number marked in black text on the front. The only way to tell the most recent cameras apart is small gray-on-gray text on the left side of the camera, and the word "power" on right (replacing "mode"). I even have to hold the camera up to the light to make sure the tiny number 5 isn't a 6 (and vice versa).

But use the Hero 6 for more than a few minutes, and the improvements become apparent. There are three standout features that I think make the world of difference between these otherwise-identical GoPros. Here's what they are and why they matter.

Image stabilization (EIS)

Before the Hero 5, GoPro cameras didn't have any kind of image stabilization built in. Your options were to either make sure you have a steady hand or fix in post. The former is harder than you think depending on what you're doing; the latter is a pain in the ass for most people. The Hero 5 introduced Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS), which cropped the image 10 percent in exchange for smoother video. The EIS only worked on two axes in most resolutions, and not at all in 4K or over 60 frames per second (FPS).

EIS certainly helped smooth out your clips, but if you were moving at a certain angle, there was often notable warping or artifacts. The Hero 6 offers improved stabilization with an extra axis added, meaning diagonal/rotational movements are much less of an issue. It also works at 4K30 and up to 120fps in 1080p. The Hero 6 also has dedicated hardware to remove any warping right in the camera. Perhaps most important, the crop is now only 5 percent, so you're losing less image in exchange for that stability.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This one feature is my favorite upgrade between the Hero 5 and the 6. I took both cameras out, mounted side-by-side under different conditions (walking, skateboarding and so on), and every time the difference between the two was stark. The Hero 6 consistently comes out looking not just smoother, but more natural, with almost no visual distortion. If you're mounting the camera in a place that's already fairly stable (your head, in a gimbal, or on a car, for example), it's better not to use EIS and keep the stabilization out of the mix. But for most hand-held recording or mounting on shaky surfaces, it's a godsend.

Professional "pixel pushers" will still lament that the stabilization is being handled by software (rather than the superior optical "OIS" method), but for most users, it's a solid tool. We'd all love OIS to come to future GoPros, of course, and maybe it's on the roadmap, but for now, the Hero 6 is close to what most people need.

Slow-mo

When the Hero 4 arrived, it ushered in the era of usable 4K for GoPro. Older cameras (the Hero 3 and 3+) could shoot in UHD, but only at low framerates (15fps), which wasn't entirely useful. The Hero 4 did 4K at 30fps, though, making it the go-to setting for maximum impact (and large file size).

Shooting in 4K still isn't all that practical for most people; even pros don't use it all that much yet, but people like to have the option. That 30-fps limit meant no chance for slow-mo, though. Your perfectly landed lazerflip would either look choppy, slowed down to 15fps or, you would have to choose a lower resolution to get smooth slow-mo. Hero 6 can shoot 4K at 60fps, giving you a modest UHD slow-mo option for the first time on GoPro. Yi's 4K+ action camera has offered this combination for a while, but it's still not that common, even in phones.

What's really useful is that every other resolution has pretty much had its framerate doubled compared to the Hero 5. Now you have options for 2.7K at 120 and FHD/1080p at 240fps. That last combination -- 1080p/240 -- is going to be your go-to slow-mo setting for anything action-related. That's an eight-fold slowdown over regular 30fps -- perfect for catching exciting moments in high definition. Note that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus also shoot in 4K/60 and 1080/240, so if you use your phone for a second angle, you can match the slow-mo shots at the same framerates -- handy. Sadly, Google is a little behind here -- the Pixel 2 shoots only 4K/30 and 1080/120.

There's something important to note at this point. While GoPro's new camera can pump out high-framerate video, it's using HEVC compression for most of the new speeds. This file format isn't universally supported yet. Mac users, for example, can't open these files on anything other than High Sierra without downloading dedicated (and often not very good) media players. I tried the latest DivX player, which claims to do it, and ended up going in circles trying to get it to work. VLC opens the files but barely plays them (for me). Elmedia player works, but it's frankly not much use.

That's a huge inconvenience if you're a casual user and want to edit these clips (and you probably do). Until your operating system catches up, you'll need to string together a few workarounds, but with Apple also adopting HEVC in iOS 11, be sure that compatibility will improve swiftly. The upside is that HEVC helps keep file sizes down. Shooting 4K at 60fps is doubling the number of 4K frames of an already large image, so files get huge, fast. With HEVC, files are anywhere between half and 80 percent the size of h.264 (the previous encoding format) at the same framerate.

Image quality

Image stills taken from video recording. Left: Hero 6; Right Hero 5.

Features like slow-mo and stabilization are nice to have, but they count for nothing if the basic image isn't good. With the Hero 6 (and its GP1 chip), GoPro has made some subtle tweaks to the image quality that should give on-the-fence upgraders a nudge over the edge. Technically, this isn't "one" feature, but rather a collection of tools and improvements that conspire to make the Hero 6's imaging capabilities superior to that of its predecessors.

The first improvement I noticed with the Hero 6 is that everything looks sharper. I flew with both cameras in the Karma and shot a landscape with water, buildings and grass, which really spelled out the differences. For example, leaves on trees are much more textured with the Hero 6, even when the Hero 5 is closer. Likewise, water in the distance appears as a fairly plain gray-blue mass on the Hero 5, but the new GoPro shows shadows and ripples that I couldn't see before. The same with the sky. Hero 6 showed a level of detail and contrast with clouds that the Hero 5 simply couldn't muster.

The sharpness is aided by improved color, too. Everything on the Hero 6 (using the "GoPro" color mode) simply pops. While flying over gravel and asphalt, the Hero 5's images looked dull and gray, while the Hero 6 showed a broader range of colors, even within the same dull parking lot.

If there's a downside to this, it's that sometimes, colors on the 6 can look too poppy. On a day out in the California sunshine, the blue of the sky was so saturated in shot that it almost looks unreal (it was very, very blue, but still). There is a natural/flat color mode if you find the GoPro levels not to your liking, but in general use, it wasn't unnatural. Side note: The Hero 6 now has an HDR mode for still photos (the Hero 5 has something called "WDR"). This is good news for those who want to take snaps, but also an encouraging sign that we might get HDR video in the future.

You have to dig a little deeper into the settings, but there are a few options that also bolster the Hero 6's image cred. GoPro's "ProTune" menu has had advance controls over your exposure for a while, but the shutter speed and white-balance menus now offer more options, allowing you to dial in your shot, and ISO control has been split into min/max rather than the single max option from before. Small details, for sure, but for those who like to get hands-on with their settings, these really make a difference. I personally like being able to lock the ISO to a set number, making sure I get the sharpest image possible at all times.

The last feature in this section is the new linear-zoom option. Before, you basically chose between narrow, medium or wide FOV. With the Hero 6, you use a slider to dial in the amount of zoom/field of view that you want, giving you much more control over what's in the shot. The good news is that zoom also works with the horizon-friendly Linear mode, too. Being able to digitally frame your shot via the camera is a godsend for casual users (pros will likely prefer to do that in post).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So, it's hardly a surprise that the Hero 6 is better than the Hero 5. But it's better in important ways, rather than just "lots" of (less important) ways. Voice control and other auxiliary features are nice, but it's good ol' photography that really matters, and there's enough improvement here that I think it warrants the upgrade.

That said, the Hero 6 is pricier than the Hero 5, which retains its $399 launch price to this day. You'll have to cough up an extra $100 for all the features I mentioned above, making the Hero 6 an expensive investment for most people. Most of the features mentioned here are available on rival cameras, but with trade-offs. Sony's $400 X3000 has better (OIS) stabilization but lacks many of the higher framerate options. The budget Yi 4K+ cam ($300) offers 4K/60, but the GoPro still bests it for slow-mo at most other resolutions, but it's always worth looking at those to see if they suit your needs too. But at the end of the day, if you want a GoPro, the choice is clear, even if it comes at a price.


Sonos One review: The best-sounding smart speaker you can buy

When Sonos released the Play:5 speaker in late 2015, the Amazon Echo was still an unproven tech curiosity. But since then, Alexa and the Echo have grown rapidly in both popularity and functionality, inspiring competition from the likes of Google and Apple. Talking to a speaker is totally normal now -- but Sonos users haven't been able to that. They've instead had to choose between the convenience of products like the Echo and Google Home and the superior audio quality that Sonos speakers offer.

Sonos has known for some time that this is a problem. In early 2016, then-CEO John MacFarlane cited the Echo as primary competition and promised that voice recognition would be a key technology for the company moving forward. Now, we're finally seeing the fruits of that effort. The Sonos One takes everything that worked in the company's entry-level Play:1 speaker and adds in support for Amazon's Alexa, which means you can finally talk to a Sonos speaker and have it play music for you. But with Google, Amazon and Apple all working on music-focused speakers of their own, Sonos could get buried if the One doesn't do everything right.

Hardware

If you've used the $199 Play:1 speaker, you'll feel right at home with the Sonos One. At a glance, it features the same rounded rectangular shape as the Play:1, but adds a few new design flourishes to match Sonos' current design language. The top of the One is completely flat now, with no physical buttons like the ones on the Play:1. Instead, the One's top surface doubles as a touch panel, with a play/pause button dead center. On either side are spots to tap to raise and lower volume, and sliding your finger left to right lets you skip to the next track. This setup is identical to what Sonos first introduced on the Play:5 and carried over into the recently-released PlayBase; I'm glad to see it here as well.

There are two LED lights on top of the speaker. One is a status light to show you when the device is working or having trouble connecting to the internet; the second is underneath a little microphone icon. As you'd expect, this shows you whether the six-microphone array in the One is active. Tap the mic icon to keep the speaker from listening in, and the light goes out.

Other than updates to the top or the speaker, the only external difference between the One and Play:1 is that the grille is now color-matched to the rest of the speaker, which comes in black or white. The Play:1's grille is gray, regardless of what color the rest of the exterior is.

The Sonos One uses the same audio components and speakers as those found in the Play:1, but the internal layout had to be completely redesigned in order to fit the microphones. But Sonos was able to make the necessary changes without affecting the size or weight of the One -- these specs remain unchanged from the Play:1.

Setup

Once you plug in the Sonos One, all of the setup is done on your smartphone. If you've never set up Sonos products before, you'll need to create a Sonos account; from there you just need to connect the speaker to your WiFi network. You'll then want to sign in to the music services that you use -- Sonos supports essentially every available option, including Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music, Pandora, Tidal, Amazon Music and many more.

The next part of the setup process is entirely new: enabling Alexa. You'll need to have the Alexa app installed on your smartphone -- the Sonos app will direct you there, at which point your new speaker will show up as ready to be configured. It's a pretty simple process, but you'll then have to enable your music services in Amazon's app as well.

That's where I encountered a hiccup with. The speaker only works with music services supported by Amazon and Alexa, which currently only includes Amazon Music (naturally), Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Even though Spotify works with other Alexa-enabled devices, it doesn't yet work on the One, though Sonos says it'll be ready soon. Other music services that aren't supported by Alexa will work with the One through the app, and you'll still be able to use voice commands to pause, resume and skip tracks. But you won't be able to ask Alexa to play specific albums or playlists from your Play Music or Tidal account, at least for now.

One last word on setting up voice services. Over the years, Sonos has committed to supporting every audio service that it could, and it wants to do the same with voice control systems as well. As such, the Google Assistant will come to the Sonos One sometime early next year. So, if you prefer Google's voice assistant, know that it should be available before too long. In particular, those using Google Play Music or YouTube Music will want to give this a shot.

Audio quality

Since the Sonos One has the same audio hardware as the Play:1, sound quality was essentially indistinguishable between the two, and that's a good thing. The Sonos One impressed me with clear, dynamic and loud sound that far outstrips Google Home or the original Echo (the second-generation model, announced three weeks ago, is supposed to have better audio). Of course, you're paying a bit more for the One,, but $199 is a totally reasonable price for the sound quality you get here. The One lacks the bass performance, stereo separation and improved clarity you'll get from a larger, more expensive speaker like Sonos' own Play:5 or the forthcoming Google Home Max, but the price-performance ratio here is excellent.

As with the rest of the Sonos lineup, you can tune these speakers using a feature called "TruePlay." It uses the mic on your iPhone to analyze your room and optimizes the sound of the speaker based on where it has been placed. I've been impressed with TruePlay since it was unveiled two years ago, but it's worth noting that Google and Apple are both releasing speakers that can tune themselves any time you move them. Since no Sonos speaker (until the One) has had working mics, this hasn't been possible, and the One still uses the same tuning process as the rest of the Sonos lineup.

The downsides to the One mostly come down to bass, as I mentioned earlier. There's only so much you can get out of such a compact speaker. The sound still sounds balanced -- I didn't feel like the music was lacking when listening to the One on its own -- but the low end is not as strong as what you'll get from larger (and more expensive) speakers.

The One is also a mono speaker, but you can pair two of them together to get stereo sound as well as increased volume. I've tried this before with a pair of Play:1 speakers and it makes a significant difference in the music quality and listening experience. One speaker is just fine for background music, but people serious about audio quality will appreciate having a stereo pair.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to pair a Sonos One and Play:1 together in stereo, despite the fact that they're essentially the same speaker. Sonos said that most customers pair speakers together when they buy them in a pair, but there are also probably people who've bought one Play:1 to try Sonos out who'd be interested in adding a One for voice control and stereo playback. The company did at least say that this feature could be added in the future via a software update.

Otherwise, the One works with the rest of the Sonos lineup just as well as you'd expect. If you have other Sonos speakers and want to group the One with them for multi-room playback, you can do that right in the Sonos app.

Alexa integration

But if you're buying the Sonos One, you don't want to use the music player app -- you want to control it with your voice. Assuming you're using a service that works with Alexa, this works basically the same as an Echo. This means that you can ask your One to start play any song, album, artist, playlist or anything else in your music library. The Alexa app also lets you pick different services for your "music library" and "stations," if you're so inclined. That lets you access playlists and albums from one service but have another play genre-based stations (what Pandora has focused on for so many years).

Once you've started playing some tunes, you can ask Alexa to raise and lower the volume, skip tracks or pause your music entirely. You can also send music to other Sonos speakers in your setup using Alexa. You can tell Alexa to play music on other speakers the names that you've assigned them in the Sonos app (living room, office, etc.). Overall, music control with voice works just fine, whether using a music session you kicked off with your voice or something you started in the Sonos app. If you've used Alexa on one of Amazon's own devices before, you'll mostly be right at home with the Sonos One voice commands.

Unfortunately, there were a few times I ran into some strange and frustrating bugs -- the speaker wasn't recognizing that it was playing music, so "pause" or "next track" requests didn't work. Amazon Music also occasionally got confused and told me it was playing on another device so it couldn't play on the speaker I asked for. Sonos helped me troubleshoot the problem -- just asking Alexa to "discover devices" cleared things up. It seemed to re-sync the Sonos skill with the speaker, essentially, and then I was happily playing tunes again.

I also occasionally had trouble getting the One to hear my cries of "Alexa" when I wanted its attention. That was only when I had music playing pretty loudly, and I'm pretty sure that was the cause of my problem. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's probably worth noting that you might have a hard time getting Alexa's attention if you're cranking some tunes.

Alexa integration means the One can also do almost anything that Echo devices can do. You can install skills for managing smarthome devices, sync your calendar and reminders to Alexa, get weather forecasts and news updates, ask random trivia questions and add the many third-party skills that Amazon's service supports.

There are a couple of notable Alexa services that aren't enabled when using the Sonos One: voice calls and messaging. Those features are saved for Amazon's own hardware at the moment. Sonos said that those features could be added in the future, but the company wanted to focus the experience more on music than the full suite of Alexa features -- a reasonable claim, but the One can do nearly everything else that Alexa can do, so it feels more like this is something Amazon wanted to save for itself. This one feature aside, though, the Sonos One is a strong option for getting an excellent music speaker that also taps into nearly everything that Alexa can do.

The competition

Sonos products have historically been pretty unique, but as we've mentioned, the last year has seen some major players get into the music speaker market. With Alexa on board, the new Echo and Echo Plus are the Sonos One's most direct competitors. We haven't fully reviewed either, but I'd be surprised if either offered audio quality that's on part with the One. But at only $99, the standard Echo will offer an improved speaker compared to its predecessor. Plenty of people were already listening to music on the Echo, and now new buyers will end up with an even better speaker. For lots of people, the Echo speaker will be good enough.

The Echo Plus is slightly bigger than the standard Echo, and as such has a bigger tweeter. That said, improved audio over the standard Echo isn't a selling point Amazon has mentioned, so it's safe to assume it'll provide a similar listening experience. We can't say for sure yet, but we'll be reviewing both of them soon.

Apple and Google are both launching their own music-focused, voice-controlled speakers this winter: the HomePod and Home Max, respectively. Based on the various demos we've had, both seem like they'll outperform the Sonos One from an audio standpoint. But, that's to be expected -- the Home Max costs twice as much ($399), and the HomePod comes in just under that at $350. And in both cases, you won't have access to Alexa; you'll have to be content with the Google Assistant or Siri as your digital assistant.

If you're thinking of spending that much money on a speaker but would prefer the Sonos ecosystem, you might as well consider the $499 Sonos Play:5. No, it doesn't have voice control built in, but you can pair it with an Echo Dot and get the same level of voice control that the Sonos One offers, with audio quality that far surpasses any other connected speaker you could buy.

None of these options match the Sonos One's $199 price point; the speaker really does sit alone in this category. It's better than an Echo or Google Home, but probably not as good as what Google and Apple have coming up. But if you have even a passing interest in playing music around your house, the Sonos One hits a sweet spot, offering great music quality without breaking the bank.

Wrap-up

The Play:1 has been Sonos' best-selling speaker, and with good reason. It offers significantly better music quality than your average Bluetooth or smart speaker without breaking the bank. It's also a great first step into a multi-speaker setup for your home. The Sonos One does all of that and adds voice controls without raising the price. Those voice controls may have a few bugs to work out, but aside from one frustrating afternoon it worked well for me.

Anyone who is considering an Echo or Google Home would do well to consider the Sonos One, as well. In a world where white earbuds, laptop speakers and Bluetooth devices have come to dominate the music-listening experience, a lot of people have forgotten how good a dedicated music speaker can sound.

The Sonos One is a great way for most people to significantly upgrade your audio setup while also getting the convenience of voice controls. I wish that both Spotify voice commands and the Google Assistant were supported at launch, but this speaker will keep getting more features through upcoming software updates. Given that, I have no problem recommending it now. It'll work right out of the box as an Alexa-enabled device, it'll support more music services over time and it's a great way to dip your feet into the Sonos ecosystem. Just don't be surprised if you end up wanting to buy a few more.


Pixel 2 and 2 XL review: Google’s best phones get even better

Google's first Pixel smartphones weren't just smartphones; they were a proclamation that Google was more than just a software giant. They were proof that it could craft first-class devices that showed off what Android was really capable of. The new Pixel 2 and 2 XL continue that new tradition and offer some major changes to the Pixel formula. They're also among the first devices to highlight what's new and notable in Android 8.0 Oreo. While they don't get absolutely everything right, Google's new phones have still managed to further the Pixel's reputation for Android excellence.

Hardware

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Having two nearly identical Pixels last year was a blessing -- the choice between them just boiled down to what size you preferred. Things are different now. The Pixel 2 isn't just the smaller of Google's new phones; it's also the more traditional. That's mostly because of a boxy design that features a 5-inch 1080p OLED screen and some big top and bottom bezels. To anyone hoping for a sleeker small PIxel this year, I'm sorry: the bezels are just about as big now as they were before.

At least this time Google made use of that real estate by squeezing stereo speakers above and below the screen. While I'm glad those bezels serve a purpose this time, they still make the Pixel 2 look and feel a bit outdated. While it's been said that the Pixel 2's look was tailored to fit the company's "design ethos," it seems much more like an engineering compromise. Even so, the Pixel 2's smaller screen isn't without upsides. It makes for a device that's remarkably comfortable to hold and use, and the phone's excellent build quality means the Pixel 2 feels like it's built to last.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The Pixel 2 XL, meanwhile, offers more of what you'd expect from a flagship smartphone in 2017. It's a bigger, more elegantly designed machine, with a gently curved glass panel draped over its 6-inch P-OLED display. The bezels that run around that screen are much smaller too. At first I was a little let down that Google didn't take a more aggressive approach to eradicating bezels on the new XL. But the logic became clear after about a day: The slim bands of space on either side minimized the number of accidental touches when I reached across the screen with my thumb.

It's quite manageable for a big phone too. Phablet detractors might still have some trouble using the larger XL. But, thanks in part to its tall and narrow 18:9 aspect ratio, I had little trouble getting my average-size hands around it. And if nothing else, Google's updated design language works better when applied to a bigger phone -- the glossy glass window around back doesn't take up as much space, and the camera sits closer to the phone's midline. It's a small touch, but the camera placement just looks nicer on XL.

As always, though, the two versions of the Pixel 2 are more alike than different. Like most other flagships we've seen this year, the Pixels use the high-end Snapdragon 835 chipset, paired with 4GB of RAM and the Adreno 540 GPU. Both are encased in handsome glass-and-metal bodies with 12-megapixel camera bumps jutting slightly out of the phones' glass "windows." Both are available in 64GB and 128GB options, with no option to add more storage with a microSD card. Both have always-on displays that show off the time and notifications as they roll in. The list goes on.

Intriguingly, the Pixels also pack what was once an HTC-exclusive feature: pressure-sensitive edges that can be squeezed to activate Google's Assistant. It's a neat feature for anyone who hates the idea of saying "OK, Google" in public, though I'll never stop hoping Google will let us remap the pressure trigger for other things. Oh, and for the first time, we have a pair of Pixels that are actually IP67 water-resistant. This might not sound like a big deal, but it's a feature that has become common among premium smartphones. Obviously, taking a dip with a Pixel in hand is a lousy idea, but this additional life-proofing is definitely a welcome addition. (Just ask anyone who ever got pushed into a pool.)

Sadly, Google pulled an about-face on the headphone jack. It's gone, and it seems pretty unlikely to ever return. In fairness, Google worked with some wireless headphone makers to improve the Bluetooth pairing process -- the company provided a pair of Libratone Q ADAPT headphones for review to prove the point -- but the trend is still disquieting. It's particularly odd since Google poked fun at the iPhone's lack of a headphone jack last year and LG's V30 (which is a close relative of the Pixel 2 XL) managed to pack the one in just fine.

Display and sound

Chris Velazco/Engadget

It might be bound by big bezels, but the Pixel 2's AMOLED screen is definitely no slouch. In fact, I was surprised to see that the smaller Pixel's display showed off crisper, livelier colors than its big brother. A 1080p panel might seem a little passé in this world of super-high-resolution screens, but the pixel density is more than enough to pick out nitty-gritty details in photos. Viewing angles were great too, and quite honestly, I'm very pleased with how the junior Pixel's screen turned out

Meanwhile, the Pixel 2 XL's screen was more of a mixed bag than I expected. It's bigger and more pixel-dense, but colors aren't quite as punchy as on its smaller sibling. Google attributes this to the XL screen's tuning -- the official line is that the company was aiming for more "natural" colors, with the potential for the display's wide color gamut to offer up punchier visuals when necessary. (There's an option for "vivid colors" that's enabled by default in both phones' display settings, but it didn't seem to change much of anything on the 2 XL.) The result is that the 2 XL's screen often produces colors that seem flatter than those on other phones on the market, but I wouldn't necessarily call that a deal-breaker.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Less pleasant is the bluish tint that appears when you look at the XL's screen from an angle. I wouldn't call this a deal-breaker either -- the V30 suffers from a similar shift -- but it's a notable shortcoming for a phone that costs this much. Since your phone is going to be smack in front of your face most of the time, it'll be a non-issue for some people. Still, I just can't unsee it. At least the Pixel 2 XL's P-OLED panel doesn't suffer from the same blotchy, uneven look as some V30 screens at low brightness. I used an app called Reading Mode to lower the 2 XL's screen brightness beyond what Android normally allows, opened a pure gray test image and didn't notice anything unusual. Whew. Maybe I'm being a little nitpicky, but you'll definitely find better big screens elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised by Google's decision to put front-facing stereo speakers on both Pixel 2s. Sadly, neither set is all that impressive. Alt-rock songs like Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta" sounded fuller on the XL, while the regular 2 tends to overemphasize mids and highs. That meant the Pixel 2 delivered crisper vocals, while the XL let them languish in the mix. Ultimately, there isn't a clear winner in the sound department. Neither set of speakers is well suited for the entirety of my weirdo music collection, so the pack-in USB C–to–3.5mm adapter or Bluetooth headphones were a must.

Software

The Pixel 2 and 2 XL are among the first devices to ship with Android 8.0 Oreo, and if history is anything to go on, most Android users won't get it for quite a while. You can expect a full review soon, but for now, let's take a quick look at how it runs on the new Pixels.

First off, I've found Oreo to be much cleaner and easier to start working with than earlier versions. The new Settings app is a great example: Google has reduced the number of sections to dig into, and more advanced settings are tucked away in drop-down menus. That means you may need to do a little more tapping to find what you're looking for, but overall, it's friendlier to newcomers. Besides, you can just use the system-wide search to find what you need. Meanwhile, smaller additions like system-wide Autofill make it dead simple to log into accounts and services without struggling to remember your password.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Maybe the most obnoxious thing about smartphones is the constant influx of notifications, but Oreo handles them with elegance. The notifications shade, for instance, has been divided into three basic sections. Notifications for ongoing processes, like music and navigation, get top billing. After that, you'll find all the notifications your apps generate, same as always. The last section is the one you might miss -- Google refers to it as a spot for "By the Way" notifications, which typically include traffic updates and the weather. Basically they're like a less intrusive Google Now.

App notifications can now be categorized into channels by developers -- the Play Store specifies six of them, for instance -- and you can define how they present themselves to you. I definitely don't want my Pixel to play a sound every time one of my apps is updated, but I may want to see the notification LED blink. Alternately, I might want to mark Play Store account alerts as "urgent" so they make a sound and pop up on-screen. Not every app supports this kind of nuanced notification handling, and most people probably won't bother. Still, there's a lot of depth to Google's approach, and power users should have a great time with them. If you're less discerning about these kinds of things, you can also just tell apps to shut up for an hour.

Apps have notification dots now too, though they don't actually tell you how many associated notifications there are. That's fine by me -- iOS's notification badges make me anxious when the numbers get high enough. In Oreo, the dots are color-coded to match the app icon, and long-pressing the icon offers a quick glance at what just rolled in.

Oreo also picks up a picture-in-picture feature that first appeared on Android TV last year. It's surprisingly useful on smaller screens. Tapping the home button while watching a video shrinks the window and sticks it in a corner. You can flick it around the screen as needed. Still, the experience hasn't been perfect: not a single non–YouTube Red video app I've tested so far works with picture-in-picture, and having to pay Google $10 a month to use the feature with the company's most popular video service kind of stinks. It's much more effective with Google Maps, though. Minimizing the app allows you to see live navigation directions in the corner of your screen while, say, finding a new song to listen to in Spotify.

One of the most jarring changes deals with what's left of Google Now. It's been a platform mainstay since the Jelly Bean days, but the focus has definitely shifted since then. To the left of the home screen is what Google refers to simply as your "feed," which offers info cards on subjects you've recently searched for or topics Google already knows you're interested in. Oh, and every single emoji has been redesigned. Rest in peace, my dear blob friends.

So yeah, there aren't a ton of shiny new user-facing features in Oreo. Instead, Google went big on structural changes that should improve the way devices handle over the long haul. Project Treble, for instance, separates Android's core from manufacturers' software tweaks, which should make it easier and faster to roll out updates. Though I'll believe it when I see it. Another feature, Vitals, is a series of system optimizations and analytics tools for developers so they can see if their apps are working as intended. I'll continue to fiddle with Oreo as I work on our full review, but one thing seems clear: it's the most powerful, accessible version of Android I've played with so far, and that bodes well for the Pixel 2 and 2 XL.

The Pixel experience

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The appeal of Google's Nexus line was that you would get a clean, unfettered taste of what the latest version of Android had to offer. Here's the rub, though: any hardware maker can whip up a smartphone and load it up with stock Android. Software cleanliness alone is no longer a sufficient reason to drop hundreds of dollars on a smartphone, and Google gets that -- that's why the Pixel 2 and 2 XL pack a handful of features you won't find on other devices.

Let's start with the Pixel Launcher -- it's changed a lot since last year. The Google pill thing is gone, replaced by a persistent search bar that lives just below the Favorites tray. It's now much, much easier to reach with a thumb and start searching. The new At a Glance widget lives where the search bar used to, and it's been handier than I expected. In addition to offering the time, date and temperature, it highlights traffic alerts and your next calendar appointment (before any reminder notifications pop). It has already warned me about a few scheduled phone calls that I'd forgotten about, and for that Google has my thanks.

If you want them to, the Pixels will also quietly listen for music playing around you. When they identify a song, the results appear at the bottom of the always-on display, and a quick double tap offers more information via Google Assistant. It's undeniably useful, but also a little creepy -- the privacy implications of a phone that's always listening are hard to ignore. For what it's worth, Google says none of the audio or data ever leaves your phone, and it's powered by machine learning processes right on the device. Even so, it's probably a good thing that Now Playing is off by default. Oh, and, for better or worse, this is one feature that can't be ported to the older Pixels, since it relies on some specific hardware.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Also present is a preview version of Google Lens, the image recognition tool the company announced at this year's I/O conference. The concept is simple: Snap a photo of something and Lens will attempt to figure out what it is and offer you additional information. If that sounds a lot like Samsung's Bixby Vision, well, you're spot-on. The difference is that even in its decidedly beta form, Google Lens seems more capable than Bixby. That's partly because Google has dedicated gobs of money and brainpower to image recognition, and because the Knowledge Graph is better suited to returning information about what's in front of the camera. Sure, if you want to try and identify some wine or buy something on Amazon, Bixby might have an edge. Otherwise, Google's Lens seems like the project that really deserves watching.

Both versions of the Pixel also work with Google's Project Fi wireless service, but there's a twist. While all versions of the phones have the usual nano-SIM card slots, Fi users can activate and use an embedded SIM, making these two the first mass-market phones to use non-physical SIMs. The best part is, Fi customers will basically never notice the difference. I was able to transfer my Fi service to the Pixel 2 XL in mere moments, and it's been working perfectly ever since. Oh, and Pixel customers have a dedicated support team just a tap away in the settings. If something's gone awry, you can fire up a chat or request a call from a Google tech to help you sort things out.

Beyond the usual Pixel niceties, there are a few smaller changes that are still worth pointing out. Holding down the power button brings up a neat little window with options to power off or restart right next to your finger, making it faster to shut the phone down. You have a little more control over media volume; instead of the usual 15 clicks it takes to go from mute to full blast, there are 25 on the Pixels. Oh, and if you're using a Pixel 2 XL, you can pinch to zoom to expand YouTube videos to fill the entire screen rather than viewing them with black bars on the sides. (Apps like Google Play Movies can also play videos using the whole screen, but pinch to zoom doesn't won't work there.)

Camera

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The Pixel 2 and 2 XL share the same 12.2-megapixel camera, and it's already been hyped like crazy -- in DxOMark's rankings, the Pixels seemed to blow rivals like the iPhone 8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 away. I don't think things are quite that simple. Over a week of testing, both versions of the Pixels proved themselves to be highly impressive performers, to the point that the 2 XL has become my go-to smartphone camera. It's that good, but this race is closer than you might think.

In solid lighting conditions, the Pixels absolutely shine. Images came through with plenty of detail and vibrant colors, which have been great for capturing the contrasts of New York City in the fall. It helps that the Pixels shoot in HDR+ by default -- the feature stitches together multiple brief exposures to improve the resulting photo's dynamic range and detail. In case you couldn't tell, it works really, really well. There were only a handful of times when I preferred an iPhone or Note shot over a Pixel photo, and that's a serious testament to how good Google's computational photography skills have gotten.

The Pixels are very good in low light too, offering up photos with surprisingly pleasant colors and minimal blur. Problem is, the sensors aren't as good as the Note 8's when it comes to eradicating noise. Look closely and you'll spot plenty of it. There is a trade-off, though: while the Note 8 retains a little more detail and manages to expose dim shots better right off the bat (a function of its slightly better aperture), the Pixels did a better job at reproducing colors naturally.

When it comes to zooming, the Pixels are at a clear disadvantage. The dual cameras used in the Note 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus allow for optical zoom, while the Pixels are stuck with digital only. As a result, zoomed photos of objects in the distance have noticeably less detail -- looks like Google's computational approach can't fix everything. It is, however, very good for simulating more complex optics when shooting in Portrait mode. I've been really impressed with how good Google's algorithms are at differentiating between what's in the foreground and what's not. That goes for selfies too. Since the Pixels don't need additional hardware to produce bokeh behind a subject, photos using the 8-megapixel front-facing camera look excellent. (It helps that the Pixels' cameras use a retouching feature to lightly clean up faces.)

Before and after Portrait mode.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

A lot of work went into making the Pixels two of the best no-nonsense smartphone cameras out there. But for some, it might be a little too simple. There's no Pro mode for manual control, and the only options to tinker with are a focus and exposure lock button and an exposure compensation slider. That's it. Now, are you ready for the really crazy part?

There's actually a new image-processing chip baked into the Pixel 2s -- the Pixel Visual Core -- that Google hasn't activated and didn't tell anyone about. It's an octa-core processor Google designed itself that delivers additional horsepower for imaging and HDR processing. Google says it'll push an update in the coming weeks to fire it up. That Google designed its own mobile chip is surprising enough; even more impressive is that every test photo I've taken that used HDR+ hasn't even touched that extra chipset yet. More important, Google says that third-party camera apps will also be able to shoot with the Pixel 2's HDR+ mode when it activates the chipset in the coming weeks. The ability to shoot improved photos from right inside an app like Instagram is a very strong (not to mention surprising) reason to pick a Pixel over the competition.

All told, some of the Pixels' camera rivals can outperform it in some areas, and in areas where the Pixels pull ahead, they don't do so dramatically. Even so, if I had to choose a smartphone camera to take with me everywhere, it'd be one of the Google Pixels. They're effortlessly good. It's just too bad that Pixel 2 owners don't get the same sweet deal offered last year. You can store all your full-resolution photos to Google's servers for free as usual, but only until 2020 -- if you're still using a Pixel 2 after that, your uploads will be compressed.

Performance and battery life

Chris Velazco/Engadget

I'm sure this won't come as a surprise, but the Pixel 2 and 2 XL are incredibly fast. Part of that is obviously due to the high-end Snapdragon chipset Google used, but we also have some of the under-the-hood performance tweaks to thank. All of that comes together for an experience that's among the smoothest I've encountered: frenzied multitasking (even in split-screen mode) is an absolute breeze, and none of the graphically intense games I threw at it gave me any trouble whatsoever. Flagship performance has become almost ubiquitously good this year, but the Pixel's dearth of software bloat gives it an edge over devices like the Note 8. It just feels faster.

Still, it's not perfect. I ran into some occasional issues with games like Tempest, a pirate-themed RPG that has you cruising the open seas searching for trouble. While most games I tried handled the Pixel 2 XL's longer screen without issue, Tempest left a chunk of empty space between the edge of the app window and the on-screen navigation keys. This is something developers will need to keep in mind as these kinds of displays become more popular.

Google Pixel 2 Google Pixel 2 XL Google Pixel Google Pixel XL Galaxy Note 8
AnTuTu (total) 152,491 159,382 139,218 141,065 16,673
3DMark IS Unlimited 38,898 39,235 28,645 29,360 38,960
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 52 52 46 48 55
CF-Bench N/A N/A 39,997 39,918 67,415

Meanwhile, Google basically nailed its battery life proclamations. The smaller Pixel 2 packs a 2,700mAh battery. And yes, that's just a hair less capacious than the original Pixel's was. Still, it was more than enough to get me through a full day and then some. You could feasibly stretch that out to a day and a half if you use the phone sparingly. The XL's larger 3,520mAh battery is clearly the one worth yearning for, though. It routinely lasted at least through a day and a half of nearly constant use. And I could easily have dragged that out to two full days had I not spent so much time sucked into a freemium Digimon game all week.

The competition

On the Android side, Google's fiercest competition comes from -- who else? -- Samsung. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus were released at the beginning of the year, and they use the same Snapdragon brain as both of the PIxel 2s. Beyond that, their expansive Infinity Displays are almost beyond reproach and easily outshine the panels Google used this year. Both also have excellent cameras, and while I prefer what Google has achieved with the Pixels, the S8s have a slight edge in low-light photography. Honestly, the decision boils down to software: The S8s still run a version of Android 7.0 Nougat painted over with Samsung's custom interface. It's swimming in Samsung apps too, including the lackluster Bixby virtual assistant. Google's cleaner approach, coupled with the promise of software updates for three years, will make the Pixels more attractive to some.

If you're not already wedded to Android, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are also strong options. Don't let their traditional designs fool you: both of Apple's new smartphones feature terribly fast A11 Bionic chipsets, and Apple's constellation of quality apps is nothing to sneeze at. Things get a little trickier when it comes to photography, though. While the 8 Plus's dual camera certainly gives the Pixel 2 XL a run for its money, the smaller Pixel 2 easily outclasses the iPhone 8's single sensor.

Wrap-up

Chris Velazco/Engadget

I find it difficult to make sweeping statements like "This is the best phone out there, period," because such generalizations are prone to be wrong for a lot of people. That said, I can safely say the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the best Android phones I've used all year (and I've used a lot of them). While I don't agree with all of Google's choices, something special is bound to happen when a company as smart as Google takes such strict control over how its vision of smartphones should be realized. The optimist in me thinks we haven't seen Google at its best yet, either -- remember, Google's hardware team just picked up 2,000 new employees from a company that itself made some truly memorable phones over the years. I fully expect things to get even better in time, but for now, Android fans shouldn't miss the Pixel 2 and 2 XL.


The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update bets big on mixed reality

Microsoft's next major Windows 10 release for 2017, the Fall Creators Update, doesn't make any huge waves. But you might have gathered that from its name alone. In many ways, it's a continuation of what the company started with this spring's Creators Update, which added Paint 3D, game mode and a slew of improvements focused on making things, be it art or a simple spreadsheet. (I've heard the word creation so many times this year from Microsoft reps, it's beginning to sound like a cultish chant.)

With its latest OS, available today, Microsoft is preparing for the arrival of virtual reality headsets. At the same time, it's delivering some genuinely useful quality of life improvements for Windows 10 users.

Stepping into "mixed reality"

Microsoft just has to be different. It's not giving up on the name "mixed reality" anytime soon, primarily because it sees it as a combination of virtual and augmented reality. Aside from the pricy HoloLens, though, most of what we've seen from Microsoft falls strictly into the VR side of things. With the Fall Creators Update, the company is officially supporting VR headsets from partners like Acer, Dell and Samsung. The big difference from other VR platforms? Some of the headsets are inexpensive, at around $300, and they don't require any complex sensor setups.

While I didn't have any of the headsets to test for this review, I've tried out several over the past few months. The early demos started out as fairly simple experiences, but they've steadily gotten better. Last week, I tried out Lenovo's headset together with Microsoft's new motion controllers (which will be bundled together for $450), and I came away impressed. It fit comfortably, looked sharp (thanks its 1,440 by 1,440 per eye resolution) and featured solid motion tracking.

I checked out a few 360-degree videos, strolled around Microsoft's mixed reality living room environment and played a bit of the Halo Recruit experience. Don't get too excited about Halo in VR, though. It's basically just a simple shooting gallery at this point. You get to pick up guns and take aim at a wave of enemies. But it's arranged like a carnival game, with you standing in one place while cutouts of the baddies slowly stroll by.

If you don't have a VR headset, you can still check out Microsoft's new Mixed Reality Viewer. It uses the cameras on your device, be it a webcam or a rear shooter on a Surface, to overlay digital objects in the real world. You can change their sizes and orientations, but beyond that the app is more of a preview than a serious introduction to mixed reality.

Photos get remixed

The impressive Story Remix feature Microsoft debuted at Build this year is here -- but it's baked into the Windows 10 Photos app. Basically, it lets you easily create short films from your photos and videos. Don't expect to throw in any 3D objects in those movies, though. Microsoft says that feature -- which was easily Story Remix's most impressive aspect -- still needs more work. Windows Insiders will be able to preview the 3D object integration in a few months, but it's unclear when average users will get it.

As it stands, though, the Story Remix features we get in the Fall Creators update are still useful. I threw together several photos of my cats, hit the create button, and within seconds I had a 15 second short film. If you don't like what the app gives you at first, you can also hit the remix button to change things up. Alternatively, you can also hop into the film and edit it yourself. I ended up moving some photos around and choosing some dramatic adventure music that perfectly suited my cats.

I've been looking for a decent photo manager to replace Google's aging Picasa on my Windows PC. With these new capabilities, it looks like Microsoft's app might be the best option.

OneDrive on-demand

For some reason, I've never felt compelled to set up OneDrive syncing on Windows 10. Maybe I'm just a little old school, or perhaps I could just never get the hang of configuring OneDrive in a way that made it useful on my desktop. With the new Files On-demand feature, though, those worries are a thing of the past. It lets you see all of the files and folders in your OneDrive without having to manually synchronize them. They simply show up in Windows Explorer. When you need a file, you just have to double-click to download it. Sure, it could lead to some confusion if you work offline a lot, but for many always-connected users, it could end up saving some valuable hard drive space.

What's up, MyPeople

MyPeople, an app that was initially supposed to debut with the last Creators Update, is finally making its Windows 10 debut this fall. It lets you easily get in touch with your closest friends and family via a new section in the task bar. From there, you can quickly send them an email, Skype message or even a note on Xbox Live, all without opening any external apps. If you spend most of the day chatting with a handful of people, it could end up saving you plenty of time.

When we first caught wind of this feature, it sounded as if it was turning Windows 10 into a more empathetic OS. Well, we're not quite there yet. After pointing it to my Gmail contacts, it only showed me a handful of people that I don't talk to very much. It turns out most of my friends don't really use Microsoft services much. Still, it's early days for MyPeople; I'm hoping it'll improve over time.

Better security

Windows users probably don't think much of Defender, Microsoft's homegrown security app. But it's been a lifesaver for IT departments and people who inevitably end up troubleshooting issues for friends. Now, Microsoft is making Defender even more useful. It's new Exploit Guard feature, for example, will prevent zero-day exploits from taking over your system. If you've got multiple computers in your house, or you're on a corporate network, the new Device Guard will also keep serious infections from spreading to others.

Odds and ends

Microsoft

Here are a few other aspects of the Fall Creators Update to note:

  • You can now place 3D objects in PowerPoint slides.
  • Speaking of PowerPoint, the Surface Pen now doubles as clicker to advance through slides. You just need to hit the eraser button.
  • Cortana received the usual voice improvements, and she has a handy panel for displaying search results and other information.
  • Windows now supports eye tracking using Tobii's hardware, which could be useful for those who can't use hand-based gesture controls.
  • The task manager can now track GPU performance alongside CPU and memory.

Wrap-up

If anything, the Fall Creators Update is a reminder of the new Windows world we're living in. Microsoft is upgrading its desktop OS faster than ever -- even outside of these major releases. So even if you can't take advantage of Microsoft's big push into mixed reality, remember that the next update isn't too far off.


Amazon Fire HD 10 review (2017): A $150 tablet that’s actually good

It's hard to get excited about an Android tablet in 2017. Samsung is still trying to take on the iPad with its premium Galaxy Tab S lineup, and there are countless slates from other companies that seem more obligatory than innovative. Mostly it boils down to one thing: Google hasn't done much to make Android tablet-friendly. That makes Amazon's newest Fire HD 10 tablet all the more special. It features a great 10-inch screen, it's fast enough to run plenty of apps, and, most important, it costs just $150.

Hardware

From the beginning, Amazon took a different route with its Fire tablets. They use Android at their core, but they feature a custom "Fire OS" that puts all of the shopping giant's services front and center. In a way, they're basically digital Amazon catalogs, allowing you to easily shop and catch up on the latest Prime Video shows. While the company dabbled in the high-end arena with its Fire HDX line, it eventually shifted focus entirely to inexpensive tablets. They're not exciting, but they're ideal for people who want a cheap and easy-to-use slate that can run the occasional Android app.

In that vein, not much has changed with the new Fire HD 10. It has the same overall design as the 2015 model, with a plastic body and large bezels around the 10.1-inch screen. Notably, there's no aluminum case, like there was with last year's entry, but that makes sense, since Amazon was clearly trying to cut costs. At 9.8 millimeters thick, the Fire HD 10 isn't exactly slim, but its rounded edges make it easy to hold. It's only a tad heavier than the 9.7-inch iPad, clocking in at 1.1 pounds.

I don't expect much from a $150 tablet, but the Fire HD 10 surprised me -- first, with its sturdiness. The plastic case didn't flex when I tried to bend it, and there weren't any any noticeable creaking noises either. It feels like something that could take a tumble with ease. That makes it particularly well suited to children and the chronically clumsy. It's odd that Amazon didn't make an extra-strong "Kids Edition," even though it did for the smaller Fire 7 and HD 8. Those are more expensive than the standard versions, but they come with protective cases and, most important, a two-year warranty against all sorts of damage.

The most immediate upgrade is the Fire HD 10's 1080p screen (224ppi), which is a solid bump up from the 720p (1,280 x 800–pixel) display of its predecessor. Under the hood, it packs in 2GB of RAM (twice as much as before), as well as a 1.8GHz quad-core processor, which Amazon claims is 30 percent faster than the last model's. The tablet also includes 32GB of storage, and you can add an additional 256GB via the microSD slot.

The Fire HD 10 features two stereo speakers, as well as Dolby Atmos for headphones, which helps to make surround-sound audio more immersive. Amazon also included a 2-megapixel camera on the rear, which is a laughably low resolution for a front-facing camera these days, let alone a primary shooter. There's also a front-facing VGA (640 x 480 pixels) camera that feels like a blast from the past. It's been more than a decade since I last saw such a low-res camera on anything. Beyond that, the HD 10's hardware is fairly straightforward. It still charges over micro-USB -- you'll have to wait a bit longer for Amazon to jump on the USB-C bandwagon.

Software

While we've seen Alexa in the Fire HD 8 before, the new Fire HD 10 is Amazon's first tablet to offer completely hands-free communication with its virtual assistant. Instead of pressing a button to issue commands, you can simply say "Alexa" out loud, even when the tablet is asleep. It works much like Amazon's Echo devices, except you also get some on-screen feedback in addition to the assistant's voice responses.

Aside from the addition of hands-free Alexa, Amazon's Fire OS hasn't changed much. It's still broken down into several columns: "For You," which directs you to Kindle and Prime Video content in your library; "Home," where all of your apps live; and sections for books, videos, games, apps, Audible and newsstand content. And, of course, there's also one category dedicated to shopping on Amazon. It's all fairly straightforward, though the huge variety of sections can be intimidating at first.

In use

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

I'll admit, I typically dread testing out Amazon's tablets. They're not bad, especially given their low prices, but they're much slower than the gear I normally use. Not so with the Fire HD 10. It's the first inexpensive Amazon tablet that's fast enough to keep up with my needs. That's mostly because the company has finally moved beyond a paltry 1GB of RAM. But I also appreciated having some extra CPU horsepower under the hood.

It didn't matter whether I was scrolling through Twitter feeds, browsing demanding websites, playing Amazon Prime movies or hopping between apps -- the Fire HD 10 handled it all without slowing down. Surprisingly, the stereo speakers sound great, even at high volumes. The tablet can even run some games decently, though it would stutter with anything graphically demanding. While the tablet has received a huge performance boost, its GPU is still underwhelming.

Really, though, the biggest improvement you'll notice in the Fire HD 10 is its 1080p screen. That might not sound very exciting these days, but it's a significant leap for Amazon. The higher resolution makes videos and photos much clearer than before, and the improved brightness makes everything pop. It's also sharp enough to display text clearly, which is ideal for Kindle books. Sure, the screen doesn't hold a candle to the insanely bright OLED displays Samsung is using in the Galaxy Tab S2 and S3, but they're also far more expensive.

If you haven't been bitten by the Amazon Echo bug yet, the Fire HD 10's Alexa integration will give you a taste of what you've been missing. You can ask the virtual assistant to do things like tell you the weather, set timers and relay the latest news. But it also takes advantage of the tablet's screen to display cards with more information. For example, when you ask about the weather, you also get a preview of what's to come over the next few days. Alexa can also start playing a video or song on Prime services at your request -- unfortunately, that doesn't work for other platforms like Netflix. The tablet has only one microphone, but it managed to hear my voice requests most of the time, even in noisy environments.

Compared with other Android tablets, Amazon's interface feels far more refined, despite being a bit cluttered. You're never more than a few swipes away from a new TV show to binge, a book to read or a pair of Cole Haan boots. It's a consumption machine, for better or worse. The Fire HD 10 lasted nine hours and 45 minutes while playing a downloaded HD video on loop. That's pretty close to Amazon's 10-hour battery life claim.

While you can install popular Android apps on the Fire HD 10, like Netflix, Evernote and Spotify, Google's services are noticeably absent from Fire OS. That means no Gmail, no Google Maps and no Google Calendar. Of course, that's been the case with all of Amazon's tablets, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. You can, of course, use the built-in email app and Amazon's Silk browser, but they're no match for native Android Gmail and Chrome. There are also ways to hack the Fire HD 10 and install Google's services, but that's not something that'll help mainstream users.

Given just how much Amazon had to customize Android for Fire OS, there's little chance Google would ever grant access to its apps. But since Android slates have been in a death spiral over the past few years, it'd be wise for Google to work more closely with the one company that's built successful tablets on its platform. Let's face it: The search giant needs to do more than just shove Android apps into Chromebooks.

Pricing and the competition

In addition to the standard 32GB Fire HD 10 for $150, there's a 64GB model going for $190. You can also remove Amazon's special-offer ads on both for an additional $15. While there are plenty of cheap Android tablets on the market, there aren't many I'd actually recommend. Even Google has given up on its Nexus tablet lineup (a shame, because the Nexus 7 was great).

Consequently, Amazon basically competes with itself when it comes to low-end slates. The new Fire HD 8 starts at $80, with 16GB of storage, and the svelte Fire 7 goes for just $50, with 8GB. If you're worried about the portability of the HD 10, the 8-inch model might be a solid compromise.

If you want something even more powerful, with a wider assortment of apps (including Google's), then it's worth looking at Apple's newest iPad. It's just $329 and features a much better screen and superior hardware. Of course, that means hopping over to iOS, but your only other alternative in the Android arena is the Galaxy Tab S2, a two-year-old slate that still sells for $300. It has a gorgeous screen and it's incredibly thin, but its aging hardware doesn't seem like a good investment today. (If you find it on sale, though, it's worth a close look.)

Wrap-up

The Fire HD 10 is a glimmer of hope in the barren Android tablet wasteland. It fixes everything we didn't like about the last model, while dropping down to an incredibly low price for a 10.1-inch slate. It's just a shame that such a well-crafted Android device can't run Google's services. As it stands, though, the Fire HD 10 is still the cheap slate to beat this year.


Google Home Mini review: Taking aim at the Echo Dot

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, Amazon must be tickled pink right now. The obvious inspiration for last year's Google Home was the Amazon Echo, and it's just as obvious that the new Google Home Mini is taking cues from the Echo Dot. To be fair, it's a logical strategy: by packaging all of Alexa's features into a smaller and cheaper package, Amazon expanded the Echo ecosystem and made it easier to blanket your house with voice-activated assistants.

Google is now doing the same, right down to the price. The $49 Home Mini does almost everything the larger Home does, at a price that makes the idea of buying three or four to place around the house a lot more palatable. For that to be worthwhile, though, the Google Assistant /and/ the Home Mini hardware both need to seamlessly integrate themselves into your home and make your life easier.

Hardware

Google describes the Home Mini hardware as a donut, and that's not a bad comparison. It's about the same size as my favorite pastry (though there's no hole in the middle). To me, it looks more like someone turned the original Google Home upside-down and flattened it. Instead of having a white top and a colored bottom, the Mini offers the opposite. But the top of the Mini is made of a new fabric that Google designed specifically for its pair of new smart speakers (the Mini and its giant brother the Home Max). The soft look of the light grey fabric and the Mini's rounded corners make this a much friendlier gadget than the Echo Dot, and one that be happy to put just about anywhere in my house.

The company says it designed the fabric to be both acoustically and visually transparent so you can see the Mini's four status lights when it's listening and "thinking." Those lights are much less gaudy than the Echo Dot's bright LED ring, but they're also not quite as good at showing you when the Home is in use. As for the fabric top, one potential downside is that it could get dirtier than a standard plastic shell and won't be as easy to clean. There's also no way to change out the top, unlike the bigger Google Home, which has a swappable base.

That said, I don't think the Home Mini will get too grimy, because I rarely needed to touch it. Tapping the left and right sides of it turns the volume up or down, but it's just as easy to do that with a voice command. Until a few days ago, you could also tap and hold on the center of the Home Mini to activate the Google Assistant, but Google just permanently disabled this feature. A few Home Minis were suffering from a bug where their touch panels activated inadvertently -- this meant the device was able to record audio and transmit it to Google without a user's consent, a privacy nightmare in the making.

Google acted quickly in disabling the feature, and a review of all the voice commands the Home Mini sent showed no unusual activity for me. I believe that Google has fixed the issue, but it's still something to be aware of if you're on the fence about having a voice assistant in your house. For extra privacy, you can mute the device's microphone with a switch on the back. Once muted, the four lights on the top of the Home Mini light up in orange. It's a bit less elegant than the button found on the larger Google Home, but it does the job.

Setup

Setting up the Home Mini is identical to setting up the full-size Home. You plug it in, and the Google Home app walks you through the rest. Punch in your WiFi credentials, assign it to a room and you're ready to roll.

But to get the most out of a Google Home, you'll want to to customize a few things. In the Home app, you can sign into various music and video services including Spotify (free or premium), Pandora, TuneIn or IHeartRadio so that you can tell the Home Mini to play your streaming library. If you use Google-owned services like Play Music and YouTube, they'll be automatically set up. Supported video services include CBS, the CW (both added over the last year) and Netflix.

You can also customize "My Day," a daily briefing that tells you what's on your calendar, what your commute is like, what the weather in the area is like, all pulled from your Google account. It also can follow that up with a quick news program, so it's worth taking a minute to pick your favorite sources. Options include "traditional" news like Bloomberg, NPR and the Wall Street Journal, but you can also get programs focused on specific topics like technology and sports.

In use

Once you're all set up, you can start asking the Home Mini questions and the Google Assistant will answer based on the company's massive knowledge graph. You can also ask it to give you just about any info you've stored in your Google account, like calendar appointments, reminders and your commute, but there's a bit caveat. It only works with personal Google accounts; G Suite is not supported. That's crazy, particularly a year after the first Home arrived. Even Amazon supports G Suite calendars on the Echo! As someone who uses his work calendar much more than the personal one, I'd really like the Mini to work with G Suite accounts.

The Home Mini can stream audio, video or images from Google Photos to any Chromecast-enabled device (including another Google Home). Controlling audio and video was one of my favorite features with the original Google Home and that's still the case here. The speaker is too small for dedicated music playback (more on that later), but I used the Mini to cast music and video to various speakers and TVs in my house with no issues.

Additionally, there's a ton of other services you can talk to across categories like education, productivity, entertainment, games and trivia, news and more. They're similar to Alexa's skills, but you don't have to "enable" these. You can just say, "OK Google, talk to the Wall Street Journal" to get whatever info the publication has posted recently. The best place to see everything you can ask the Google Assistant is currently in the official Assistant app, not the Home app you use for setup. That was a little confusing, but once I had both installed it was pretty easy to learn more about what the Home Mini was currently capable of.

Other features include getting step-by-step recipe directions from the Food Network, Dominos pizza delivery, calling an Uber, making a reservation with OpenTable and more. Naturally, the Home Mini can connect to a variety of smart home devices, as well. Google says that Home supports 1,000 devices from "more than 100" home automation partners. And you can use IFTTT to build your own custom actions, as well. One of the nicer things about the Google Assistant is that you don't need to sign in or set up much before you start using these actions -- I asked the Mini to make me a reservation for dinner tonight and went through the process without having to go back to my phone, which is how it should be.

What's changed

That said, there are some differences to note about the Home Mini compared to the original, almost all of which come down to one thing: audio quality. Obviously, the much smaller Mini has a much smaller speaker, and that makes a huge difference for audio playback. It works fine for voice responses, alarms, timers and the like, but it's not something you'll want to use for music. The bigger Google Home doesn't have outstanding audio, but it's definitely better than your laptop speakers or most cheaper Bluetooth speakers. The Mini, on the other hand, is severely lacking in the bass department and generally lacks the clarity you'd want for listening to music.

For $49, that's totally excusable, but it's something worth being aware of. For what it's worth,, the Mini absolutely outclasses the Echo Dot in audio quality. The Dot sounds tinny and hollow when Alexa speaks to you, and music playback is even worse. I compared the same songs across both devices and the Dot consistently came up short, without even a hint of a bass. I personally wouldn't want to use the Home Mini for music outside of a few limited circumstances -- I could see putting on a few songs while cleaning up the bedroom, for example, but for any longer listening session I'd rather just pop in some headphones than keep the Mini playing. Your milage may vary, of course -- if you listen to a lot of audio through your phone's speaker, the Mini will be an improvement.

The Mini's tiny design also affects microphone performance. The Google Assistant hears me just fine, but voice calling is another story. When I called a few friends with the Mini, they all said that I sounded terrible. At least I could hear things fine on my end. This isn't just a problem with the WiFi calling protocol that Google is using, either. I called the same people on the full-size Google Home and everyone said things sounded significantly better. If you were going to buy a Home product with the intent of using it as a voice-activated speakerphone, you'll be better off springing for the larger model.

In addition to voice calls, new Google Assistant features including adding calendar items and reminders (something that really should have been there day one). Voice Match, which lets multiple users get personalized responses from the Home, was probably the biggest and most useful addition so far. If you want to try shopping with your voice, Google Express now lets your order products from giant retailers like Walmart and Target.

Google also announced a number of new features when it unveiled the Home Mini last week; unfortunately some of the most notable ones aren't live yet. Users can build "routines" that stack a few actions together the way the "my day" briefing gives you a handful of different pieces of info. Saying "good morning" could turn on lights, set your thermostat, turn on the coffee pot and tell you what's first on your calendar (provided you have the right smart devices to do those things, of course).

Another new feature will let you use the Home devices as an intercom — you'll be able to "broadcast" a message from the Google Assistant (on your phone or through Google Home) to all other Home devices in the house. The Home also lets you send info from it to your phone if you need to see something visual, like directions.

The competition

The question everyone will have to ask when considering the Home Mini is how it compares to the Echo Dot. The Mini beats the Dot in terms of audio quality, and I personally prefer its looks. But the Dot still has broader third-party support, with 20,000 "skills" and more added every week. The real question is whether Google supports the smart home products and features that you need, and at this point the Home Mini can control a wide variety of smart home devices. Amazon's head start and the fragmented nature of the smarthome device market gives the Echo a lead, but I'm no longer convinced that going with Amazon is a must to have the best smarthome experience.

If you're deep in Google's ecosystem and prefer using its products and services, the Home Mini is a natural choice -- provided you don't rely heavily on a G Suite account, in which case the Echo is still somehow a better option.. And Google's implementation of voice calling is much better, but the Mini's terrible call quality negates that advantage

Wrap up

There's no doubt that Google Home's capabilities have improved significantly over the last year. I called the original device "little more than a toy" last year, but now it's a legit competitor to what Amazon's Echo and Alexa. The Echo might technically have a lead in compatible devices, but I'd urge you to do some research before committing to a smart speaker -- chances are good that the Home Mini can do what you need it to.

Google's undeniable advantage comes from the amount of info Google has about both the world and your own activities. Its knowledge graph is unrivaled, and Google is very good at answer any query you might have. As for the hardware itself, the Home Mini has a better speaker, a more attractive appearance and superior voice-calling features -- it's just too bad that the microphones don't offer better call quality. Google has done a strong job closing the gap between the Assistant and Alexa over the last year -- as long as the Home Mini works with devices and services you use, it's well worth a look.


Jaybird Run review: The perfect truly wireless earbuds for workouts

Completely wireless earbuds are everywhere this year. Call it the Apple AirPods effect, or perhaps it's just a matter of the right components being available at the right time. But now that completely cordless designs are less novel than they used to be, companies have to work harder to stand out. Jaybird, which has had years of experience in wireless audio, is taking a stab at the increasingly crowded field with its $180 Run earbuds. They're comfortable, sound great for their size, and offer solid reception (for the most part).

Hardware

The Jaybird Run don't look particularly distinctive, aside from a small logo on the outside. At this point, most companies seem to be settling on a similar style for fully wireless earbuds. They generally try to make them as small as possible -- a departure from the clunky Bluetooth headsets you might be used to. One unique element here is the metal ring around the outer edges of the Run serves as the antenna, which should technically give it a leg-up on reception over competitors with internal antennas. They're about as subtle as the earbuds from Her -- noticeable, but they don't call attention to themselves either.

The differences between wireless buds really come down to the earpiece design. They need to stay in your ears reliably -- there's no cord to save them from falling on the ground, after all -- and ideally, they should be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time. This is one area where the Jaybird Run excels: It features the "fin" typically found on the brand's headphones, which fits into the upper groove of your ear to hold them in place. Once you get them in, it's hard to notice you're wearing them.

Jaybird gives you four sets of silicone tips: small and large round options, as well as two different oval-shaped tips. There are also three different types of fin accessories, along with a finless one if you have very small ears. And, as you'd imagine, the Run are both sweatproof and water resistant. Jaybird says they feature a "double hydrophobic nano coating" to deal with sweat, which is much tougher on gadgets than plain water.

The Jaybird Run also comes with a chunky carrying case, which adds another eight hours to their advertised four-hour battery life. The case is too large to fit comfortably in your pocket, but it's easy to chuck into a messenger bag or backpack. It can also give the Run earbuds one hour of juice with just a five-minute charge. The case could use a more secure latch, though. It popped open in my bag on several occasions, which made my iPhone automatically connect to them. That was particularly annoying when it was causing my phone to de-prioritize my other devices.

In use

Setting up the Run earbuds was a cinch. Within 30 seconds of tearing open the packaging, I had them securely in my ears and paired with my iPhone 6S. I was lucky enough to have a perfect fit with the default buds. It was definitely the fastest setup period I've seen with any pair of wireless headphones, even my BeatsX.

The right Run earbud handles all of the connectivity with your phone. You can choose to wear it by itself if you'd rather keep one ear open (which is how I typically walk around New York City). The left earbud automatically connects to the right one over Bluetooth when you turn it on, and the sound carries over without any interruption. Everything sounds a bit compressed when you're just using the right earbud, but the audio field expands seamlessly once you turn on the left bud.

You don't have many options for controlling the Run. Each earbud has just one button. Powering them on and off takes one long press, but you can also skip forward to the next track by double-clicking them. The buttons are easy enough to find, but they're difficult to press. Pushing them simply felt painful, since doing so also jams the Run deeper into your ear. Because of that, I avoided the buttons entirely while wearing the earbuds.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

When it comes to sound quality, the Run delivers far more than you'd expect, given its tiny frame. My usual round of test music tracks, including "Like A Dog Chasing Cars" from the Dark Knight soundtrack, and Little Dragon's "Klapp Klapp," all sounded great, with a healthy amount of detail and a surprising bass. The JayBird Run unfortunately had trouble with complex high notes; cymbals sometimes sounded like a distorted mess. They certainly didn't sound as good as the BeatsX or the Jaybird Freedom, though, both of which deliver quality that's almost on par with wired headphones.

The Jaybird Run were especially great for podcasts. Dialog sounded rich and natural, with none of the tinniness you get from some wireless headphones. And since podcasts are usually recorded at a much lower fidelity than music, they ended up being ideal for the Run's more limited audio range. I caught up on a big chunk of my podcast backlog while testing them, simply because they were so convenient to wear.

If you like to customize your audio experience, you can also use Jaybird's mobile app to tweak the Run's sound profile. It's flat by default, but the company provides a variety of options like "Bring the bass," which boosts the low-end, or "Extended listening," which cuts down harsh high notes. There are also custom profiles from athletes like Nick Rimando and Kerri Walsh Jennings, and you can find profiles from other Jaybird users as well. If you want, you can also adjust your levels manually. (I opted for the "Signature" settings, which boosts bass and high notes a bit.) The app changes the Run's sound at the firmware level, so any tweaks will apply no matter what you're listening to. If you need help finding exercise tunes, there's also a curated selection of Spotify playlists within the app.

With no wires in the way, the Jaybird Run made listening to just about anything feel completely seamless. It takes just a few seconds to pop it out of the case, and they paired with my phone quickly too. Since they're so comfortable, I occasionally forgot I was even wearing them. At times, too, it felt like they were simply an extension of my hearing. They didn't fall out of my ears once after hours of testing, and after a while my low-level anxiety about dropping them on a New York City sidewalk evaporated.

My honeymoon with the Jaybird Run almost ended abruptly during my first jogging session. They simply couldn't stay synchronized in stereo mode while I was moving, a problem multiple reviewers have brought up over the past few weeks. When I asked Jaybird for comment, a spokesperson said that the unit I was testing were pre-production, and not the final hardware consumers would get. Typically I'd find that answer suspicious, but since the Run aren't actually shipping to customers until later this month, all I can do for now is take the company at their word.

So that's the story of how I received a second Jaybird Run pair to review. I immediately took them out for a two-mile run around Brooklyn's Prospect Park , and thankfully didn't experience any further synchronization issues. My podcasts and exercise playlist all played without incident. Compared to the Jaybird Freedom, which are wirelessly connected to your phone, but still have a thin cable attaching the earbuds, the Run offered a completely different experience.

It's one thing not to have to worry about managing a headphone cable, but running through the park unencumbered by any cables felt truly liberating. I still experienced minor synchronization issues when walking around Manhattan, but that's something I've also noticed with other wireless buds. Extreme radio interference is part of the cost of living in a dense urban environment.

Jaybird's four-hour battery life claim for the Run was close to what I actually saw. The buds would typically last for around three hours and 45 minutes during my testing. As you'd expect, that timing changed a bit if I was listening to quiet podcasts, or loud music most of the time. Together with the battery case, the Run typically lasted around two to three days, depending on if I could fit in a jogging session. As our resident marathoner, Engadget's executive editor Dana Wollman notes that the Run's battery life should be fine for most runners. But you'd probably want a wired pair if you're hitting the pavement beyond four hours.

Pricing and the competition

At $180, the Jaybird Run are slightly more expensive than competing wireless earbuds. Apple's AirPods go for $159, while Bragi's "The Headphone" comes in at $149. If you want to cut the cord mainly for exercise, though, the added cost will likely be worth it for the Run's sweat and water resistance. Jabra's Elite Sport are another solid workout alternative, but they're a lot pricier at $250.

If you're considering wireless headphones, it's worth taking a step back and considering how you plan to use them. If you're a fitness fanatic, it makes more sense to forgo wires entirely with the Jaybird Run. But if you care more about having higher audio quality, and only need headphones for occasional exercise, you might be better off with something like Jaybird Freedom or BeatsX, which still have short cables.

Wrap-up

Jaybird didn't disappoint with the Run. They're everything I'd want in a pair of truly cord-free headphones. While they still require sacrificing a bit of audio quality, that's true of everything else in this category. Losing a bit of fidelity is worth it, though, if you've ever dreamt of going for a run while losing yourself to music and not worrying about any annoying cords.


Cadillac’s hands-free feature fixes the worst parts about driving

The 145-mile jaunt between Flagstaff, Arizona, and Phoenix is almost entirely downhill. With a drop of approximately 5,800 feet between the two cities, the road that joins them -- Interstate 17 -- has multiple warnings about saving your brakes (meant mostly for big rigs) and is peppered with sharper twists and turns than your typical highway. Yet, while I was behind the wheel, I did almost nothing for the entire drive thanks to Cadillac's new Super Cruise feature on the 2018 CT6.

Super Cruise is Cadillac's answer to semi-autonomous features from BMW, Mercedes and of course, Tesla's Autopilot. But unlike those systems where you're chastised by the car within moments of removing your mitts from the wheel until you return them, Super Cruise is totally hands-free.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the car and Super Cruise, let's talk about the steering wheel with a built-in light. I'll admit when Cadillac announced its semi-autonomous feature and showed off the light-infused steering wheel, I rolled my eyes. It seemed gimmicky and more importantly, ugly. When you drop a big wad of cash on a luxury car, the last thing you want is a feature that just annoys your senses. And yet, when I sat behind of the wheel CT6, it didn't seem so bad. While I was actually driving, the wheel's notification lights made sure I knew exactly which driving mode I was in.

When the car is in Super Cruise mode, the wheel glows green. When it determines that you're not paying enough attention to the road it flashes green and when you've ignored that or the vehicle encounters something it can't handle on its own, it flashes red.

Super Cruise also has a sort of "standby" mode -- if you take the wheel to switch lanes (the car will not switch lanes for you) the lights will pulse blue to indicate that as soon as the car is back in the middle of a lane, Super Cruise will take over again.

This all leads me writing something I didn't expect: I like the light on the steering wheel. It's helpful without being overbearing. Yeah, I'm also surprised by that admission. But there you have it. Yes, having a light bar embedded in a steering wheel is slightly odd, but it adds a layer of safety to a feature that'll be brand new to most of the people that buy this car. Changing the way people drive usually involves changing the way they interact with their vehicles, especially when they're told they can take their hands off the wheel for an extended period of time.

Because you can leave your hands by your sides, the system uses an infrared camera mounted on the steering column to make sure you're still ready to take over if things go south. It tracks your eyes, nose, mouth and ears and figures out where you're looking. If you're looking forward out the windshield or checking your mirrors, you're fine. But let's say you start staring out the side window or worse, at your phone, the car prompts you to start paying attention by flashing the green steering wheel light. If you ignore that, the flashing light on the wheel and accompanying audible warning for too long, the car will slow down, stop, turn on the flashers and call the authorities via OnStar.

I did turn my head to test the feature (while keeping a side eye on the road), and the car reacted by first flashing green then red to get my attention. Even when I was wearing dark sunglasses, it was able to determine where I was looking. Cadillac says that if the IR camera can't see your eyes, it uses the rest of your facial features to see where you're looking. The only time the system failed is when it had direct sunlight blinding its sensor. In the nearly 1,000 miles I drove the car that only happened for about 10 minutes. I continued on the same heading on the painfully straight Interstate 10, the sun moved slightly in the sky, and the feature was back in business and I was back to sort-of driving.

During my two very long drives with the 2018 $85,300 high-end Platinum trim level of the CT6 with Super Cruise (first from Sante Fe to Phoenix then from Phoenix to LA), 80 percent of the time the car was doing all the work while I rested my hands on my legs. Like all new semi-autonomous features, it was initially unnerving to give up that much control while cruising down the highway at 70 miles per hour. I've seen videos of, and experienced, features like this suddenly jerk out of their lane so as we started to pass our first big rig I had my hands hovering over the steering wheel.

In fact, I did that for the first dozen or so semitrucks, and yet at no time did the car drift into danger or deviate from the center of the lane. By the end of the first day's drive, Super Cruise's promise of truly hands-free cruising down the freeway had delivered. Sure there were a few hiccups; none of these systems are infallible and you should always, ALWAYS, give the road your full attention and be ready to take over control at any time. But I'm a fan of Super Cruise even though it comes with a few caveats.

First off, it's geo-fenced to divided highways without any sort of cross traffic. You can't trick it into working on a back road or highway with grade crossing. But as the saying goes, that's not a bug, it's a feature. A big portion of the system that makes Super Cruise possible is the high-definition LiDAR maps that ship with every car.

Cadillac teamed up with mapping company Ushr to create LiDAR maps of approximately 160,000 miles of divided highway in the United States and Canada. The automaker uses those maps along with the car's high-precision GPS, long-range radar and camera to keep the car centered in a lane. Cadillac says the LiDAR maps are precise within 10 centimeters and are updated quarterly to take into account changes to the roads.

While the maps help power a feature that keeps the CT6 centered, it also removes any chance that you'll be able to use this feature anywhere Cadillac has deemed unworthy of Super Cruise. This could turn off some potential buyers. For others, it's a stop gap from them trying to make the car do something it's not ready to accomplish. I don't see it as an issue and judging by the amount of YouTube videos of Tesla owners "hacking" their cars to run hands-free in environments Autopilot is not built to handle, it's probably a worthy restriction at least for the sake of other drivers on the road.

Super Cruise will work between zero and 85 miles per hour, which makes it great for long boring road trips and the worst part of driving: commuting. In addition to solidly staying in a lane for long periods of time at highway speeds, it was also handled dense Los Angeles traffic with ease for the most part.

Cadillac annotated its LiDAR maps with information about interchanges, on- and off-ramps, lane endings, toll booths and other items you'll encounter on the road. When those are approaching, the system will instruct you take over driving. Because the map can see 2,500 meters (about 1.5 miles) in front of the car, it's usually before the driver notices something is about to happen.

On more than a few occasions, I was prompted take control for a mysterious reason that would later reveal itself. While driving on Interstate 10 through the Arizona and California desert, those instances were few and far between. Los Angeles' complex interchanges (which frankly confuse most humans) on the other hand meant I was taking control of the car on a regular basis. It wasn't annoying but it's worth noting. Yet it was when LA traffic came to a standstill that the value of Super Cruise was really apparent.

The ability to track the vehicle ahead of it and stop and start with traffic while staying in its lane is a blessing for commuters. Yes, you're still stuck in traffic, but your stress level is going to go down because the car is doing all the monotonous work. A few vehicles did cut me off and the CT6 reacted by slowing down or stopping without my input, but one driver decided to throw caution to the wind and turned into my lane with only inches to spare and the car had me take over. It's a nice reminder that you need to stay alert with these systems and that people are horrible drivers.

All that tech is crammed into the luxury CT6 sedan that we reviewed last year. Other than Super Cruise, it's essentially the exact same car. It's comfortable and chock full amenities like massaging seats and rear passenger video screens. The Platinum edition I drove had twin-turbo 3.0 liter engine pumping out 404 horsepower and 400 pounds of torque. It's a beast that cruises smoothly on the high, but when it's needed can chew up the pavement. I'm still not a fan of the eight-speed automatic transmission during spirited driving, but the paddle shifters are solid in that type of environment and frankly 95 percent of the time, it's not even remotely an issue.

Of course all that fancy and Super Cruise means you're going to be shelling out some big money. On the Premium trim of the car, which starts at $66,300, Super Cruise is part of a $5,000 option that includes adaptive cruise control. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line Platinum edition starts at $85,300 with Super Cruise standard.

While Super Cruise is currently only available on the CT6, expect to see it land on the Escalade in the next few years and if enough buyers tack it onto their cars, it's very likely the feature will permeate the entire Cadillac line and other GM vehicles.

Will those cars get the light steering wheel though? It's tough to tell. As drivers become more accustomed to semi-autonomous features determining which mode a car is in might become second nature. For now, though, Super Cruise is a surprisingly solid solution to highway driving with a totally not annoying green light at the top of the wheel leading the way.


Apple Watch Series 3 review: A good watch, a so-so phone replacement

With each generation, the Apple Watch's purpose has seemed to shift. The first one demonstrated what Apple thought a wearable should be, and the second tried to be the perfect workout companion. When it came time to build the Series 3, though, Apple took everything it got right with the fitness-friendly Series 2, polished it up, and threw an LTE radio inside.

And lo, the $399 Apple Watch Series 3 became the first of a new breed of Apple devices -- it straddles the line between smartwatch and phone, with a dash of iPod thrown in for good measure. For those who'd rather play it safe, Apple also built a $329 Series 3 with just GPS and no cellular connection. In fact, that safe bet will probably pay off for most people -- the cellular Series 3 is a little too inconsistent for my taste.

Hardware and design

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Despite what some redesign rumors suggested ahead of the big event, this year's Apple Watch looks... just like an Apple Watch. Shocking, I know. As ever, the Series 3 comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes, so earlier bands will continue to fit just fine. And, as with the Series 2, all versions feature a built-in GPS radio and 50-meter water resistance. Don't let that classification fool you, though -- you can take the Watch for a swim, but you almost certainly shouldn't take it 50 meters underwater. (Why the watch industry continues to use such counterintuitive terminology is beyond me.)

Not much has changed with the display either -- we're still working with a tiny OLED screen running at 390 x 312, covered by a plate of Ion-X glass. (The stainless-steel and ceramic models instead use tougher sapphire crystal, but this Watch's glass face was very good at resisting nicks as I accidentally banged my hands into walls and fixtures.) Max brightness still tops out at 1,000 nits, which is more than enough to keep notifications and apps readable under bright sunlight. More interesting is the way the screen doubles as the Watch's wireless antenna; it's a nifty feat of engineering that seems to get the job done well.

In any case, I've been wearing a 42mm Apple Watch on and off since the first version launched in 2015, and the fit and finish of my 42mm cellular review unit is first-rate, as always. It's impossible to tell that the Series 3 is slightly thicker than the models that came before it, and thankfully, it's just as hard to feel the difference when it's strapped to your wrist. That's because the Watch's aluminum squircle of a body hasn't changed -- the ceramic hump around back housing the heart rate sensor is, according to Apple, two sheets of paper thicker than it was before. The 42mm body's weight hasn't changed either, which is pretty impressive considering the extra stuff needed to turn this wearable into a tiny, functional phone. Throw in an improved, dual-core S3 chipset and a slightly bigger battery, and we've got a remarkably snappy little package.

Until you start talking into your wrist, there's only one way to tell if a Watch is LTE-enabled or not: You need to spot the red dot. This red highlight serves no technical purpose; it's purely for looks, and if you're the type who likes visual metaphors, you'll notice a certain symmetry with the Watch's red notification dot. I get the need for some sort of visual signifier, but fashionistas, beware: That red flourish clashes with a lot of Apple Watch bands out there.

As a traditional smartwatch

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The original Apple Watch gave shape to the company's vision for wearable computing, but, man, it was frustratingly slow sometimes. Fast-forward two years, and we finally have an Apple Watch that feels as fast as it should. Swiping between watch faces is smoother than before, and launching apps seems to take considerably less time, all thanks to Apple's updated S3 chipset. Series 1 and 2 owners might not find the difference that pronounced, since both devices have dual-core processors of their own, but the fractions of a second I'm saving every time an action works more smoothly becomes time I get to spend doing something else that matters to me.

One of the best ways to see all this power in action is by talking to Siri -- and, for once, the experience won't make you want to tear your hair out. Siri can finally speak to you on the Series 3, and it uses the same natural-sounding voice you'd hear it use on an iOS device running iOS 11. I never really used Siri on the Series 2, because it required me to glance down at my wrist all the time. This year, Siri's audible responses and generally spot-on voice transcription meant I could ask it to send a message or email for me and not worry too much about what happened next. Yes, this eventually bit me in the ass, but never too badly. Beyond handling messages and tasks, Siri has also been helpful for navigating to hole-in-the-wall restaurants and answering various random questions.

As useful as Siri is now, it still has its limits. For one, you need to be careful with how you ask for things -- "open News" does what you'd expect it to, but "show me the news" kicked me out to external search results. Oh, and don't forget that the Watch's screen has to be on to get Siri's attention with a voice command. A version of Siri that constantly listens for commands would be ideal, but that'd probably wreak as much havoc on battery life as, well, a cellular radio would.

The Series 3's new watch faces sure are... interesting.

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Beyond just Siri, Apple's new watchOS 4 offers a few other new features as well. There are new customizable kaleidoscope watch faces, along with a handful of faces starring characters from Toy Story. The music app has been updated with a new look and slightly more seamless syncing -- some playlists, like "New Music" and "Favorites," are transferred over by default while the Watch charges for the first time. Individual tracks and playlists can be moved over easily enough too, but literally any support for podcasts would've been nice. To make the most of the Watch's music player, though, you need to be an Apple Music subscriber; the Watch still offers media controls for whatever audio is playing on the iPhone, but you're out of luck if you'd prefer to interact with Spotify's superior playlists.

The Series 3 technically works as a standalone device, but let's be real: We're so attached to our phones that the Watch will spend most of its time connected to an iPhone anyway. I'm not complaining either, mostly because the Watch has very good battery life as a result. I usually pull my Watch off its charger at around 8AM, and I've routinely seen it chug along until midafternoon the next day if I didn't make many voice calls on it. Over the weekend, when my phone was gloriously quiet, I got nearly two full days of screen-on time before needing to charge the Watch again. Apple bumped up the Series 3's battery capacity to maximize cellular usage time, so while I'm pleased that tethered battery life has improved, I'm not surprised.

As a standalone device

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The connection between the Apple Watch and an iPhone is the core of Apple's wearable experience, and for the first time, the company gave the Watch the tools to function independently. Seeing the Watch hop onto an LTE network and use your same phone number is undeniably neat, but honestly, it's not something I'd want to do very often.

First off, yes, you're going to have to pay your carrier $10 a month for the privilege, not to mention an activation fee once this first wave of promotions dies down. Setting up the Watch with my AT&T phone plan was mostly a breeze, but some reviewers have experienced issues getting everything squared away, especially when older rate plans were involved. Your mileage may vary, but I suspect most of you won't need to worry much.

Actually using the phone is easier than expected -- you can either punch in a number or select one of your contacts -- and call quality was generally very good. In a majority of conversations I had, the people on the other end couldn't even tell I was talking into a watch. That can change suddenly, though. Earlier this week, I parked myself outside the office to take a few phone calls, and the signal indicator bounced between two and four dots of coverage while I was just sitting there.

As a result, call quality got really strange -- I could hear the other party just fine, but I sounded like a mess to them. This happened only one other time, in a completely different location, and I'm at a loss as to why. In any case, if you're interested in taking calls on a Series 3, a Bluetooth headset is a must. It'll also help in situations where the Watch's speaker just isn't loud enough, which is most of the time, frankly.

Messages rolled in quickly too, but here's the thing: Not all messages are treated equally. As long as you have some kind of wireless signal, iMessages will be delivered just fine. Text messages are usually subject to a delay, since they're routed through your iPhone, but this also means that SMSes won't come through at all if your iPhone is dead. Emails running through Apple's Mail app worked fine but took longer than usual to pop up on my wrist, so I wouldn't advise going watch-only when urgent business is in the offing. And most of the Watch apps I installed worked normally, though a few -- like Slack and Twitter -- either did nothing or force-quit when I tried to use them.

Early review models also seemed prone to connectivity issues stemming from a Wi-Fi bug -- in a bid to conserve battery life, the Series 3 tries to latch onto wireless networks your other Apple devices have flagged as being suitable for use. The problem was, not every network was flagged correctly, so captive portals (like those used at, say, Starbucks) would get the OK and the Watch would try to connect, with no way of getting past whatever interstitial screen popped up. It's not that the Watch was going out of its way to jump onto unfamiliar networks -- it's that some of the networks it thinks are kosher actually aren't.

This is a major goof, but I can see why it might have escaped detection -- I have had precisely zero issues with my Series 3 attempting to latch onto bum networks. Then again, I'm one person, and I find it hard to believe that not a single engineer testing the Series 3 prior to launch ran into this. I'm fairly sure you won't run into this very specific kind of trouble, but it remains a risk; Apple promised a fix after catching some well-deserved flak, but it still hadn't materialized when we published this review.

Really, my biggest concern is much more mundane: Going completely iPhone-free means the Watch's battery life will take a huge hit. After an early-morning run while listening to music and using the GPS, followed by a couple of test calls, the Series 3 was on its last legs by early afternoon. Apple has always been clear that the Series 3 is more of a temporary phone substitute than an actual replacement, so this probably won't seem shocking to you. Still, if this morning routine sounds like your idea of a good time, remember to have a charger handy.

I don't mean to make the Series 3 sound terrible at this stuff -- when everything works properly, it makes for an adequate untethered companion. It's just too bad that those moments weren't as common as I expected.

As a fitness tracker

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With the Series 2, Apple decided the Watch should be a serious fitness wearable, and its focus on getting people out of their chairs clearly isn't going away. Thankfully, the Series 3's blend of capable hardware and thoughtful software make it a great choice for people who take their workouts seriously, but not that seriously.

The Series 3's step counts were in line with other wearables I tested it against, though accuracy is a weird thing to look for in cases like these. Every fitness tracker I've ever worn seemed to interpret my steps a little differently, but the Series 3 was consistently within +/- 10 steps of my own counts (in my head, up to 250). Strangely, I guess I define "a flight of stairs" differently from how the Watch's new barometer does, since it consistently underestimated me on days when I decided to avoid the office's elevators. Meanwhile, the updated Workout app packs support for new workout types (perfect for you crazy high-intensity interval people) and easier controls for setting time or calorie burn goals for your swim, walk or run.

Speaking of running, I've had no issue with GPS accuracy either -- I run the same route a few times a week, and the distance was basically bang-on every time. Granted, I don't precisely know how long that makeshift course is, so hardcore runners (like Engadget marathoner-in-residence Dana Wollman) may be better served by more purpose-built wearables that can more accurately measure one's pace. Now, once I get moving, I don't have too much trouble powering through to the end; the real trouble comes in getting off my ass to start with. For better or worse, Apple's three-ringed activity app now offers more proactive notifications, the most effective of which tells me roughly how much longer I'd need to walk to hit my goals at the end of the day. It's just enough of a push to get me where I want to be, and I'm surprised Apple didn't implement this sooner.

Your author really needs to chill out.

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Even though I'm not the exercise nut I used to be, I appreciated Apple's enhanced focus on your heart. The Watch tries to get more accurate readings of your resting heart rate by checking it when it knows you haven't been moving, and it plots your heart rate readings on handy graphs to show you changes over time.

It's especially helpful for tracking your recovery after intense exercises, but that's one of the few areas where the Watch offers a little more data than casual users are probably interested in. All told, this a wearable best suited for generalists. Good thing for Apple, then, that there are a lot of them out there. Hardcore athletes may get more mileage out of a wearable that measures even more, like blood oxygenation. (Curiously, the Apple Watch's heart rate sensor works in such a way that it could also function as a pulse oximeter, but the feature has never been activated.) What's more unfortunate is that two features that should be great for exercise buffs -- Apple Music streaming over LTE and integration with gym equipment through GymKit -- won't be ready for a few more weeks.

The competition

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There haven't been too many Android Wear 2.0 watches released this year, which leaves the LG Watch Sport at the top of the proverbial pack. Chatting with Google Assistant is mostly a pleasure, and it uses a rotating crown button for navigation, just like the Series 3. One of Android Wear's biggest assets has always been its visual flexibility, and I've spent more time than I care to admit sifting through watch faces in the Play Store in hopes of finding the perfect look for my wrist. The Sport can also jump onto cellular networks, but LG's approach is problematic: There's an actual SIM card inside, so the watch's body is huge, and the antennas extend into the watch's unremovable bands. It's a solid option if you're a smartwatch shopper who doesn't care for Apple, but beware of its compromises.

Samsung's Gear S3 Frontier comes to mind too, since it also packs an eSIM and an LTE radio for truly phone-free use. It's a bigger, more masculine-looking watch than the Series 3, and it's a little less comfortable, but its rotating bezel remains one of the most inspired interaction methods I've ever used on a smartwatch. It's effing excellent, and so is its Spotify streaming support. The Frontier can also tell when you've started to work out and will track your movements accordingly, an intelligent touch that (sadly) doesn't always work as well as it should. The biggest knock against the S3 Frontier, however, is its Tizen OS. Who cares if you can install apps in the woods if they're mostly apps no one cares about?

Wrap-up

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The Apple Watch Series 3 often feels like two devices in one. When it's connected to a phone, it's an improvement over its predecessors in just about every way that matters. More important, the tight integration of improved hardware and more thoughtful software give the Series 3 a very notable edge over its smartwatch competition. It's that good. As a standalone device, though, the Series 3 can be maddeningly limited. Over time, I'm sure apps will grow to take advantage of persistent data connections, and still other kinks will be worked out entirely. For now, though, the kinks remain and the overall experience suffers as a result. Apple's vision of a wearable that remains forever connected to the things that matter to you is an enticing one, and the Series 3 is an important first step down that path. Here's hoping Apple's next step is as consistently good on its own as it is when connected to a phone.