Tag: review

HP’s wearable VR system is an unnecessary luxury

You've never seen a PC like HP's Omen X Compact Desktop. It's a powerful gaming rig, and it's small enough to do double duty as a pseudo console under your TV. But it also has a built-in battery. And when attached to HP's revamped VR backpack accessory and its mixed reality headset, you can experience high-end virtual reality in a completely new and freeing way. The only problem? The entire package will cost you close to $3,500. That puts it far out of reach for the vast majority of gamers, even those who don't mind shelling out for the latest hardware.

Hardware

True to its name, the Omen X Compact Desktop is sleek and relatively portable. On its own, it weighs 5.5lbs -- lighter than popular gaming notebooks from Alienware and Razer. The desktop also shares the same aesthetic as HP's Omen 15 and Omen X laptops. It's got a sharp, angular design with a stylish black case and red accents. It makes a statement on its own, but it really shines when you place it in the bundled dock, which turns it into a monument to PC gaming.

The dock gives you an easy way to connect the desktop to your workspace, and quickly remove it, without having to deal with plugging in cables. The front features two USB 3.0 ports, as well as USB-C. While the back has another 3 USB connections, an ethernet jack, as well as DisplayPort and HDMI. There's also a power connection for recharging the batteries from HP's VR backpack.

The compact desktop, meanwhile, has two USB ports up top, USB-C, HDMI, MiniDisplayPort, a headphone jack, and, conveniently enough, a power connection for the HTC Vive headset. On top of that, there are also two USB ports along the lower side of the desktop. There's no SD card slot on the the computer or its dock, which seems like a surprising omission for such a fully featured setup.

As for HP's Mixed Reality headset, it's in line with what we've seen from other Windows VR gear. It's relatively light and, most importantly, easy to put on and take off. There's a liberal amount of padding around the face area and head band, which insures a comfortable fit. There also aren't too many straps to mess with: you just loosen the headband with a rear dial, and tighten it once you've put it on. Thankfully, you can flip the visor portion up, allowing you to see the real world without removing the entire devices. That's one of the more useful features we've seen from Mixed Reality devices.

Each of the headset's lenses features a 1,440 by 1,440 resolution at 90Hz -- the same specs we've seen on most Windows Mixed Reality headsets. There's a headphone jack along the bottom (you'll have to supply your own), as well as a short built-in cable. The latter is particularly helpful, since it lets you use a long cable to connect to the dektop normally, but you can also swap it out for a shorter cable to use with the backpack.

As you'd expect, HP also includes two mixed reality controllers. Each features a large sensor ring for spatial tracking, as well as a thumbstick, and a trackpad that can also be recognized as four separate buttons. There are also the usual things we see on every VR controller these days: trigger and grab buttons, along with menu and home options.

Tying all of these new gaming devices together is HP's VR backpack, which is meant to let you experience virtual reality without being tied down to a large desktop. It sports padded straps and a plastic panel, which the Compact Desktop slides onto securely. It also has two side holsters for battery packs. HP includes four batteries with the backpack, so you can keep one pair charged while you're using the other.

Performance and battery life

PCMark 7 PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated) 3DMark 11 3DMark (Sky Diver) ATTO (top reads/writes)
HP Omen Compact Desktop (2.9Ghz-3.9GHz i7-7820HK, NVIDIA GTX 1080 [overclocked]) 7,040 N/A E21,786 / P19,286 / X9,144 34,094 3.1 GB/s / 1.65 GB/s
HP Omen 15 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1060) 6,727 6,436 E14,585 / P11,530 / X4,417 20,659 1.7 GB/s / 704 MB/s
ASUS ROG Zephyrus (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 6,030 7,137 E20,000 / P17,017 / X7,793 31,624 3.4 GB/s / 1.64 GB/s
Alienware 15 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1070) 6,847 7,100 E17,041 / P16,365 20,812 2.9 GB/s / 0.9 GB/s
Alienware 13 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1060) 4,692 4,583 E16,703 / P12,776 24,460 1.78 GB/s / 1.04 GB/s
Razer Blade Pro 2016 (2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 6,884 6,995 E18,231 / P16,346 27,034 2.75 GB/s / 1.1 GB/s
ASUS ROG Strix GL502VS (2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ , NVIDIA GTX 1070) 5,132 6,757 E15,335 / P13,985 25,976 2.14 GB/s / 1.2 GB/s
HP Spectre x360 (2016, 2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,515 4,354 E2,656 / P1,720 / X444 3,743 1.76 GB/s / 579 MB/s
Lenovo Yoga 910 (2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, 8GB, Intel HD 620) 5,822 4,108

E2,927 / P1,651 / X438

3,869 1.59 GB/s / 313 MB/s
Razer Blade (Fall 2016) (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,462 3,889 E3,022 / P1,768 4,008 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s
Razer Blade (Fall 2016) + Razer Core (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 5,415 4,335 E11,513 / P11,490 16,763 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s
ASUS ZenBook 3 (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,448 3,911 E2,791 / P1,560 3,013 1.67 GB/s / 1.44 GB/s
Razer Blade Stealth (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,131 3,445 E2,788 / P1,599 / X426 3,442 1.5 GB/s / 307 MB/s

The Compact Desktop is actually made out of laptop hardware. It's powered by an Intel Core i7-7820HK CPU, which is unlocked to make it easier to overclock. It also features NVIDIA's GTX 1080 notebook GPU (overclocked out of the box) with 8GB of video RAM. Additionally, the Compact Desktop packs in 16GB of DDR4 memory and a 1TB SSD. Clearly, HP didn't skimp on components -- this thing can easily take on full-sized gaming rigs.

In Gears of War 4 running in 4K with high settings, it managed an impressive average framerate of 56FPS. Stepping down to 1,440p, it reached 90FPS with Ultra settings, and 121 FPS in 1080p. Basically, it'll handle every modern game without trouble. Given its diminutive size, it could also serve as a home theater PC that can blow away the latest 4K ready consoles, like the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4. (Of course, that should be expected when it costs five times as much.)

The desktop also has a built-in battery, which lasted 1 hour and 10 minutes while running the PC Mark 8 benchmark. Clearly, it's not something you're meant to use unplugged for very long. It's still convenient though, since it means you can connect the Compact Desktop to the VR backpack accessory, and swap out extra external batteries, without shutting it down. That's a simple thing you can't do with other VR backpack systems.

Devindra Hardawar/AOL

Using virtual reality

In desktop mode, HP's mixed reality headset was a cinch to set up. All you have to do is plug in an HDMI and USB cable. There aren't any sensors to install, like with the Oculus Rift and Vive. Everything on Microsoft's VR platform relies on built-in sensors, instead.

When you put on the headset, you're thrown into the Windows Mixed Reality Portal, which is where all of the VR magic happens. You'll be asked how you want to use your headset: in walking mode, which replicates the room-scale VR we've seen on the HTC Vive, or sitting and standing in place. If you choose the latter, you can immediately start moving around Microsoft's virtual living room and testing out mixed reality apps. If you want to walk around VR environments, though, you'll need to clear out nearby furniture and trace a virtual boundary using the headset first. It's all meant to keep you from bumping into your desk and nearby walls.

Compared to the virtual living rooms from Oculus and HTC Vive, which serve as a home base for everything you're doing in VR, Microsoft's feels comfortable. And even though there are only 60 virtual reality apps in the Windows Store so far, including notable entries like Superhot and Arizona Sunshine, there's still plenty to do. Superhot, feels just as smooth and immersive as it did on the HTC Vive. And since the headset is higher res, everything looked sharper as well. Watching trailers in the virtual screening room almost felt like I was in a theater. And it handled 360-degree videos well. The Star Wars Rogue One behind-the-scenes experience felt just as immersive as other headsets.

Microsoft also wisely partnered with Valve to bring SteamVR over to Mixed Reality headsets. Steam automatically recognized HP's model when I started it up, and I was able to hop into Rez Infinite. After playing for a while, though, it's clear that Microsoft's VR controllers aren't nearly as ergonomic as Oculus's excellent Touch controllers. Hitting the trigger and grip buttons don't feel very natural, and since they have straight handles, they don't fit easily into the natural curve of your hands. Hopefully, that's something Microsoft can fix with its next controllers.

When it comes to HP's backpack accessory, I was honestly surprised how much I enjoyed using it. It made diving into VR more immersive, since I didn't have to worry about getting tangled in any cables tied to a large desktop. Sure, the setup is a bit more involved: You've got to attach the compact desktop, slide in the battery packs, and make sure everything is connected properly. The backpack feels surprisingly comfortable to wear, thanks to its padded shoulder straps and two front straps. The entire setup clocks in at 8.3 pounds, which isn't much more than what I typically lug around every day in my backpack.

While playing Superhot, I was able to dodge bullets and take out bad guys far more easily, since I was free to move and bend in ways I couldn't with a typical VR setup. Of course, there's also the danger of hitting a wall and running into furniture. Even if you set up virtual borders, it's easy to miss those when you're swept up in the game world. And, oddly enough, you can't quickly set up new borders in backpack mode -- you can only do it in desktop mode with a monitor attached. So while you can conceivably take the entire VR backpack setup anywhere -- as I did around our offices -- you're stuck using it without anything to warn you about walls or obstacles.

HP claims each pair of batteries adds one hour of juice to the backpack setup, on top of what you get from its built-in power source. In my testing, 15 minutes of gaming typically used up around 10 percent of battery life. (I wasn't able to stay in VR long enough to drain the batteries completely.) Of course, that timing will depend on what, exactly, you're doing. Sitting back and watching a video, or just browsing the web, could stretch the battery life longer.

But, I can't help but be a VR backpack sceptic. Wireless VR solutions are already here, and they're only going to get better over the next year. VR backpacks are already an incredibly niche category, but it won't be too long until they're completely unnecessary.

If you want to use HP's headset with the backpack, you'll also have to pick up a $10 virtual display dongle. That's due to an issue with Windows, which simply doesn't spit out an image to mixed reality headsets unless it detects a connected display. While it would make more sense for HP just to include one of those adapters in the box, the company says it's hoping Microsoft comes up with a software fix instead. Oddly, the backpack setup will work fine with an HTC Vive without that workaround.

Pricing and the competition

You'd really need a lot of extra spending money to dive into HP's VR ecosystem. The compact desktop costs $2,499, while its mixed reality headset is an additional $449. And don't forget about the backpack, which adds another $499. It's so costly, that it's even out of the realm of many early adopters. It's more suited for developers who want to explore what's possible with portable VR.

There are, of course, other VR backpack options on the market, like those from Zotac and MSI. They're all bigger and clunkier than HP's system, but at least they're not as expensive. Zotac's VR Go starts at $1,800, and it includes both the desktop and backpack accessory. You'll still need to add your own headset, though.

Wrap-up

Kris Naudus/AOL

Ultimately, the Omen X Compact Desktop's power and unique capabilities helps it stand out from the gaming crowd. HP's mixed reality headset, meanwhile, is a solid entry into new territory, one that's bolstered by Microsoft's growing VR platform. And even though VR backpacks might not be around for long, and they're certainly not something most people should consider, HP's entry remains the best one we've seen so far.


Razer Phone review: A tough sell, even if it’s great for gamers

Razer is mostly known for its gaming hardware, so it was a little surprising when the company acquired phone-maker Nextbit earlier this year. Eleven months later, and it finally revealed the results of that acquisition: The Razer Phone. Just like the rest of Razer's lineup, the company's first smartphone was built with gaming in mind. Even so, the Razer Phone has features that would please non-gamers too. Whether it's worth $700, however, is another question.

Hardware

At first glance, the Razer Phone looks like a larger, sturdier version of the Nextbit Robin, except that instead of plastic, the Razer is wrapped in anodized aluminum. I have to admit, however, that I was not immediately impressed with the Razer Phone's design. It just looks like a boring black slab that doesn't appear remarkably different from other Android handsets.

Measuring 6.24 inches long by 3.06 inches wide by 0.32 inch thick and weighing 6.95 ounces, it's also sort of hefty. It was pretty hard to use one-handed with my small hands. What's more, the Razer Phone has straight sides and sharp corners all the way around, which can dig into your hands. Still, the all-aluminum body does give the phone a premium feel, which can't be said about the Robin.

Like the Robin, the Razer Phone has a power button on the right side that doubles as the fingerprint sensor. It worked well in my tests, and I was able to wake the phone with a slight touch. Sitting right above the power button is a slot for both the SIM and a microSD card. On the left side are two volume buttons, while the front-facing 8-megapixel camera sits above the display. On the back of the phone is a 12-megapixel dual-lens camera; one wide-angle lens with a f/1.7 aperture and a f/2.6 telephoto zoom lens. There's a dual-tone LED flash next to the camera as well.

On the bottom is a lone USB-C port, and -- just like the latest iPhones and Pixels -- the Razer Phone does not have a headphone jack. Instead, it comes with a USB-C-to-headphone adapter that packs a 24-bit THX-certified digital-to-analog converter. Or, of course, you could just use a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Internal specs include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, an Adreno 540 GPU, 8GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and support for up to 2TB microSD cards.

Display and sound

If you're going to boast that your phone is "made for gamers," then the display had better deliver. Thankfully, for Razer, it certainly does. The screen is an absolutely gorgeous Sharp IGZO 5.7-inch QHD (1440 x 2560) IPS edge-to-edge display, with bright, rich colors and brilliant detail. What's even more impressive is that the screen refreshes at rates as high as 120Hz, which is really unheard of in a globally available smartphone like this one -- it's the same refresh rate found on the iPad Pro and a Japan-only Sharp Aquos R Compact.

What this translates to is a wonderfully smooth gameplay experience, which is especially useful in action-packed titles like Titanfall Assault or Final Fantasy XV. Not all games can take advantage of the 120Hz refresh rate -- most developers cap their games' FPS in order to support all displays -- but Razer is working with select devs to optimize their games for its display. Developers for games such as Shadowgun, Arena of Valor and Final Fantasy XV are already on board. Thankfully, you don't need to be gamer to appreciate this higher-than-usual refresh rate: sifting through apps and scrolling down long webpages look smoother and more natural than on other devices. Once you see this super-fast refresh rate in action, you'll wish it was the smartphone standard rather than the exception.

That's not to say the screen itself is perfect, though. While it's perfectly usable (and playable) indoors, the display is, unfortunately, hard to see in bright daylight. I often had to shield the screen with my hand just to check my notifications, and trust me, that's not a great way to live.

Sandwiching the display on the top and bottom are two front-facing speakers, which are probably the best speakers I've heard on a smartphone. Each has its own amplifier and, as the phone is tuned with Dolby Atmos for Mobile, there's hardly any distortion or crackling -- even at high volumes. In short, the audio is loud, immersive and an absolute treat when playing games, watching shows on Netflix or just playing your favorite tunes on Spotify.

Software

The Razer Phone ships with Android 7.1 (Nougat) and though the UI is fairly clean, it does ship with the Nova Prime launcher preloaded. A favorite among Android users, the Prime launcher lets you customize everything from the look and feel of the desktop to mapping gestures to a variety of different functions. For example, you can map it so that swiping up will expand notifications, or so that double-tapping triggers Google Assistant. Of course, if you'd rather have vanilla Android, you can always remove the launcher. Razer is confident that it'll get Android 8.0 (Oreo) in early 2018.

On top of that, Razer is also working with several game publishers to create custom themes that you can download from the Razer Theme Store. You'll have to create a Razer ID account for this, but once you do, you can download and apply whichever gaming-inspired theme you fancy.

One preloaded app that I particularly like is called Game Booster. This app lets you customize the frame rate, resolution and processor clock speed for each individual game, which is great if you'd rather not make global changes that affect the entire phone. For example, if you want your games running at 120, you can set that accordingly, while leaving the rest of the phone at a lower refresh rate to conserve battery. The app also has a couple of automated adjustments. There's Power Save mode, which automatically downscales settings to save battery, and Performance mode, which maxes out all the settings for the best gameplay experience possible.

When you do optimize the game for performance, the results are pretty great. I played a few graphically-rich games like Alto's Adventure and Titanfall Assault and was very pleased with the rich colors and sharp detail. To be fair, they were very good even without the optimizations, but the higher resolution and increased refresh rate made them look that much smoother and sharper.

A word of caution: If you were expecting the cloud-backup solution that Nextbit's Robin was known for, you won't find that here. Instead of the phone offloading unused apps like Nextbit did, you'll just have to store them the old-fashioned way -- on local storage. Thankfully, the Razer Phone's sizable 64GB of space (and up to 2TB of additional storage via microSD card) should be good enough for most people. As for documents and photos, you can store them in the cloud, thanks to Google Photos and Google Drive, just like any other Android phone.

Camera

The Razer Phone's built-in camera is very basic, with the ability to toggle flash, HDR and a few extra features like a visual grid and a timer, but not much else. I appreciated the tap-to-focus ability, but that's standard for most phones these days. Shutter speeds feel a touch slow, and if you do decide to use HDR, it's even slower, with a delay of one to two seconds. You can quickly launch the camera by double-pressing the power key, and holding down the shutter button will take photos in burst mode. That's really it.

The front-facing 8-megapixel camera takes decent selfies, with bright colors and sharp detail, but there was nothing that made me prefer it over other selfie cams. As for the photo quality of the rear camera, the results were OK but not great. Pictures taken in daylight were plenty sharp, but colors were a bit muted and weren't as rich as I would like. Low-light photos were hit or miss as well -- some looked acceptable given the right lighting conditions, but the ones that were less adequately lit looked fuzzy and noisy. As far as cameras go, you can do much, much better.

On the one hand, it's really no surprise the camera is in the shape that it's in. This is Razer's first phone, and as we've seen with devices like the Essential PH-1, it's very difficult for a team without loads of experience to nail a smartphone camera on their first try. That said, the Razer Phone's camera falls well short of what we expected from a device that costs this much -- I'm pretty sure gamers like to take nice photos, too. For what it's worth, Razer has acknowledged these camera issues and it says it's working on updates to improve the experience. We'll see how things change once those updates are released, but for now, merely OK photos are the best you can hope for.

Performance and battery life

As mentioned earlier, the Razer Phone ships with a Qualcomm 835 Snapdragon processor as well as an Adreno 540 GPU and 8GB of RAM. I spent most of my time with the Razer Phone checking email, looking at Twitter, watching YouTube videos and playing games, with a lot of multitasking in between. For the most part, I had no noticeable issues with lag or slowdown. There were a few occasions when apps crashed during gameplay, but that didn't happen often.

I was particularly impressed with the Razer Phone's 4,000 mAh battery. During moderate use peppered with several intense gaming sessions, the phone easily lasted a day and a half between charges. I should note here that I used the phone under default settings, where the screen refreshes at 90hz and then changes depending on whether a higher frame rate game is running. The phone does get a little hot if you're playing a particularly action-intensive game -- Titanfall Assault, for example -- but it cools down quickly. The Phone also comes with Qualcomm QuickCharge tech that lets it charge from zero to around 85% in just under an hour.

The competition

Due to the Razer Phone's price, I thought it fair to compare it to phones of a similar price range. The Essential, for example, initially sold for around $700 (it's since dropped to $500, however) and has a 5.7-inch QHD screen too. It doesn't have the same refresh rate as the Razer, but that display is nothing to sneeze at, either. Yet, the Essential falters when it comes to its speakers and doesn't do well when it comes to photo quality.

When compared to other Android flagships, the Razer Phone holds its own in terms of price and battery life. The Pixel 2 is $649 while the Pixel 2 XL is $849, and both also promise a pretty impressive battery life, each lasting more than a day with average use. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus up the ante with Super AMOLED "Infinity Displays" that wrap all the way around, with a design language that is far sexier than the Razer's blocky look. The Samsungs also have great battery life, with the S8 Plus lasting around two days on average. But you'll have to pay for that, as the S8 and S8 Plus are $750 and $850 each.

Wrap-up

Razer definitely nailed the "phone for gamers" ethos, with its beautiful display, buttery smooth performance and ear-tingling speakers. Its performance as a regular ol' phone isn't too bad either, as those same qualities are great for other fun activities like watching videos and listening to tunes. Plus, battery life is stellar, which is great news for gamers and non-gamers alike. That said, if you wanted a stylish phone with a good camera and a display that works great outdoors, we'd advise you to look elsewhere. For those who care about gaming above all else, though, Razer has your back yet again.


ZTE’s dual-screen Axon M is fascinating and flawed

Six years ago, a smartphone maker without much clout in the US designed an Android device with a novel second screen that turned a thick phone into a small tablet. That company was Kyocera, that device was the Echo, and uh, it totally flopped. (David Blaine doing magic tricks under 10,000 gallons of water at the phone's unveiling was, in hindsight, not a great omen.)

Rather than leave the idea of a dual-screen phone in the dustbin, ZTE ran with it and last month released the Axon M, an AT&T exclusive. It's hard not to look at the thing as a $725 curiosity, but don't be fooled: It's a lot more than that. It's an argument that smartphones can and should be more than the flat slabs we've grown so used to. Too bad that argument isn't compelling.

Having twice as much screen as usual may seem tantalizing, but chances are you won't be using both displays all the time. When it comes to using the Axon M as you would a normal phone, the compromises ZTE had to make become especially conspicuous. When closed, the phone is half an inch thick, making it the chunkiest smartphone I've tested all year. Now, I'd gladly trade smartphone sleekness for better battery life, but the Axon M uses a 3,180mAh cell that's enough to get through just a single day and not much more. Bear in mind, that's when you're only using one screen at a time; prolonged multitasking all but guarantees you'll need to keep the charger handy.

And then there are the screens themselves. ZTE went with two 5.2-inch LCD panels: one baked into the phone's chunky body and another wedged into a sliver of metal that flips arounds on a hinge and locks into place with a satisfying click. Sadly, these displays are wholly unremarkable. They're middling 1080p panels with lackluster colors and decent viewing angles. Neither of them gets as bright as other devices I've tested this year. For a phone as uniquely screen-focused as this one, it's disappointing that ZTE didn't go with more-impressive panels. It's not hard to see why, though: The Axon M would have been even more expensive.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

While the Axon M's flip-open design might initially seem clever, in practice it's flawed. When closed, both of the Axon's screens face outward, sort of like an inside-out Nintendo DS. Even the earlier Echo device, which was otherwise a resounding failure, kept its second screen protected. The hinge is also wedged into the right side of the phone, forcing ZTE to stick the volume rocker, power button and camera key on the phone's left edge. This runs counter to just about every other smartphone other there, and even after weeks of use, I still haven't gotten used to this layout. Since there's a screen on the other side, you'd think there would be a way to use it as the main display, so the phone's controls are on the usual side. Nope! You're stuck with ZTE's awkward design choices.

In daily use, the glass covering both sides of the phone makes it surprisingly slippery. And since both screens always face outward, there's twice as much screen to shatter when the phone does take a tumble. Going off the number of busted phones I see in use every day, I'm already concerned for Axon M owners. After all, if you screw up one of the screens, you've basically destroyed the only reason to own this phone.

The screens are also flanked on the top and bottom by some thick bezels, though that was probably unavoidable -- after all, the engineers had to stick the mediocre 20-megapixel camera somewhere. The camera is always pointed straight at you, and you use the second screen around back, then fire up the camera app. It's a clever approach, but image quality is middling at best -- a far cry from the performance you'd normally expect from a $700+ phone.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Honestly, one of the few nice things I can say about the Axon's design is that the phone feels sturdier when it's fully open than I had expected; the two screens sit flush with each other, and the hinge feels strong. To actually make use of both screens, you'll have to tap the "M" (you know, for "multitasking") key next to the standard navigation keys. This is where things start to get wild.

In addition to using the Axon M as you would a normal phone, there are three ways to make use of that extra screen. You can mirror the contents of one screen onto the other, so you can, say, watch a YouTube video with someone sitting across from you. There are some theoretical business use cases too, such as propping the phone up like a tent and walking someone through a PowerPoint presentation, but this is easily the most forgettable of the Axon's multiscreen modes. Dual mode, which gives you the power to run two distinct apps on their own screen, is more obviously useful. It's a year old at this point, but Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chip plus 4GB of onboard RAM keep pairs of apps moving with respectable fluidity. Occasional instances of lag are to be expected, but giving two apps screens of their own generally works well.

You definitely shouldn't run two games side by side, but everything else is fair game. I've taken to leaving YouTube running on one screen while I dash off emails in another. And trying to get through The New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle isn't so difficult when I have Google search results for tricky clues beneath it. For all the quirks and strange design choices, multitasking on the Axon M can be useful. Here's the rub, though: The primary way people multitask on their smartphones is by jumping in and out of different app windows, and despite everything, we've gotten good at it. As a result, I quickly ran out of reasons to run different apps on these screens. After a while, I was doing it just to do it, not because using both screens made me any more efficient.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The coolest -- and most problematic -- option is what ZTE calls Extend mode. Through some clever software trickery, the Axon M treats the two displays as one big one, and the effect is generally impressive. When the phone's screens are side by side, you'll get a perfectly square 6.2-inch screen that handily blurs the line between phone and tablet. The only downside: a noticeable gap separates the screens. It's a constant reminder that major tech companies still haven't mastered the kind of foldable smartphones we're excited about. ZTE worked with software developers to optimize some apps for this larger canvas, but to get the most use out of it, you'll need to toggle a setting that forces all apps to stretch across those screens. To ZTE's credit, I haven't run into any showstopping issues, but you should expect a few hiccups. The most glaring occurs when scrolling through content that spreads across both screens. The secondary display sometimes lags behind the main one, so it's not uncommon to see one half of, say, a news article moving faster than the other.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The irony here is that even though the Axon M has two screens, videos that stretch across them don't appear much bigger than they would on a single phablet screen. Let's say you're watching an episode of Stranger Things. With the Axon M set to extended mode, the size of the video spread across both panels is roughly equivalent to watching the same episode on an iPhone 8 Plus. "Roughly equivalent" is pretty generous too: The sizes of the video windows are close to equal, but you'll never unsee the gap that separates the Axon's two screens. In fairness, neither ZTE nor AT&T have claimed this mode is a particularly great way to watch video, though it's a little odd that the phone has a "TV mode" that launches a predefined video app with a long-press of the camera key.

The awkward way the Axon M handles video is proof that two screens aren't necessarily better than one. Still, that's not to say the Extended mode is useless. I stopped carrying my Kindle around because I could just flip open the Axon M, fire up the app and thumb through a novel on the subway. The combined size of the two screens eclipsed my Kindle Voyage, and thanks to apps like InPen's Reading Mode, the Axon M doubles as an e-reader without much hassle. In fact, this is probably what I used the Axon M for the most.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

That said, the idea of shelling out more than $700 to make reading slightly more pleasant is a silly one. I'm wading into iffy legal territory here, but the most fun I had with the Axon M came when I used it to play backed-up Nintendo DS games. (A note to our lawyers and Nintendo's: I own physical copies of all the games whose ROMs I loaded onto the Axon M.) In those moments, when I could lose myself in a game I'd beaten countless times before, the Axon felt like something special. Then I'd exit the game and find myself left with this ambitious but flawed machine.

By now, it should be clear that you don't need this phone. There is, however, something to be said for chutzpah. In building the Axon M, ZTE has displayed a kind of disregard for the smartphone status quo that is both interesting and genuinely refreshing. This might be a concept we've seen before, but there can be no progress without experimentation. If nothing else, this attempt at a dual-screen phone is much more well-rounded than the first. Ultimately, though, the Axon M feels like just that: an experiment, albeit one that's as promising as it is frustrating. I'm glad it exists, just not enough to go out and buy one myself.


Google Pixel Buds review: You (and Google) can do better

When Google revealed its new Pixels earlier this year, it made a tacit statement: the age of headphone jacks on smartphones is over. So, what's a diehard Google phone fan to do? Buy Google's new wireless earbuds -- in theory, at least. Several leaks ensured we knew they were coming, but the Pixel Buds were still a surprise because they emphasized functionality over convenience. Obviously, you can listen to music with them, but you can also sift through notifications and translate languages on the fly. Still, despite lots of potential, Google's Pixel Buds just don't live up to the hype.

Getting started

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Assuming you've got an Android device running Nougat or newer, the setup process couldn't be easier: Open the case next to a compatible phone, and you'll get a pop-up that walks you through the process. Keep in mind, though, that this dead-simple pairing only works with the first phone you set it up with; otherwise, you have to press and hold a button inside the case to put the Pixel Buds into pairing mode. From there, you pop into the Bluetooth settings and pair them the old-fashioned way. This is also the setup process you'll use if you want to use the Pixel Buds with an iPhone. It would've been nice if the Pixel Buds paired as seamlessly with the second or third device as they do with the first, but really, that's the least of the problems here.

Design

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Each Pixel Bud has two distinct sections: the part that sticks in your ear and the tiny bulb that sits outside it. Because of the way these two parts are connected, the Pixel Buds ultimately rest right on the edges of your ears -- it took me a few days before I could plop the Buds into the sweet spot without any extra fiddling. The bulbs are admittedly a little odd-looking, but they're still more subtle than, say, Apple's AirPods.

The Buds are connected by a nylon cord. I know, I'm not a fan either. While a fully wireless design might have looked better, the cord dangles around your neck unobtrusively and makes the buds harder to lose. (Unless you're me — I once draped them around my neck and forgot they were there for an entire day.) Chances are you'll barely notice the cord while you're wearing these.

You'll definitely notice it when it's time to charge the Buds in their cloth-covered case. Google's preferred method involves popping the Buds into their respective nooks, wrapping the length of the cord around an inner column and shoving the remainder into the space where the Buds sit. I joked on Twitter last week that I'd never remember how to do it, but it's much easier than my glibness let on.

That doesn't mean it's not annoying. If the cord isn't snugly wrapped, it could prevent the case from closing properly. That doesn't keep the Buds from charging, but it does mean the case is prone to pop open accidentally — that already happened in my backpack once, and by the time I got where I was going, the Buds had worked their way free of the case entirely. You're also meant to make tiny loops by pulling the nylon cord near the buds to make sure they anchor sturdily in your ears. I did, but they ultimately made no difference -- the Pixel Buds stayed put in my ears during runs regardless of whether I made those loops. Your mileage will vary though: I've let a few other people try the Buds, and the loops didn't prevent them from falling out of place.

In use

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Personally, I prefer in-ears that sit snugly in the ear canal. They just sound better. That said, I was pleasantly surprised with Google's first-generation earbuds. You'll notice more definition with wired in-ears, but the Pixel Buds produced loud, clear audio with more oomph than Apple's AirPods. My test tracks ran the gamut from EDM to Jazz to lots of weird Japanese stuff, and just about all of it came through with a surprising sense of substance. If you like a lot of bass in your music, though, the Pixel Buds will probably leave you wanting. For people who really care about audio quality, there are much better ways to spend $160. Still, for a set of nearly wireless earbuds, the Buds sound pretty good.

Unfortunately, You're going to hear a whole lot more than just your music. Since the Pixels Buds sit right on the edge of your ear, you're going to notice a lot of ambient sound leaking in unless you have the volume cranked up. That's not necessarily a bad thing. If you're a city dweller who often has to navigate busy streets and intersections, the Pixel Buds still allow you to hear oncoming traffic. Of course, if you're toiling away in a noisy office, the Pixel Buds do nothing to block out the sound of raucous conversations around you. If you're like me and need to shut out the world to get work done, the Pixel Buds will disappoint.

When it's time to actually interact with the Pixel Buds, you'll need to reach for your right ear. A quick tap on the touch-sensitive right bud plays or pauses whatever you're listening to, and swipes forward and back along the surface raise and lower the volume, respectively. Compared to the limited controls on Apple's AirPods, the Pixel Buds' are considerably more nuanced — the AirPods can play/pause and skip tracks with a double-tap, but not both. You have to jump into settings to change what that action does. The Pixel Buds let you do it all, and with surprising competence; since each gesture is so different, I never accidentally turned up the volume when I meant to listen to my notifications or pause a song.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The problem is, the touch surface is easy to activate by accident, especially when the Buds are dangling around your neck. I burned through the Pixel Buds' batteries twice because my neck had un-paused Spotify without me noticing, leaving my screwed for the commutes home. The fact that this happened twice is surprising if only because of the Buds' battery life — in general, they last between four to five hours on a charge,

Of course, the Pixel Buds mainly exist as a vessel for Google's Assistant. You access it by saying -- what else? -- "OK, Google" or by holding your finger against the right earbud, but the tell-tale Assistant bloop only happens when you do the former. It should really happen when you press the earbud, too, if only to make absolutely clear when the Assistant has actually started listening for a command.

Once you get the hang of things, the experience of talking to Google Assistant through the buds is mostly identical to using it on your phone or through a Google Home. That's often a good thing, but I wish Google had done a little more to tune Assistant for wearable use. When I ask it to play a certain song, for instance, Assistant only does so after telling me the name, the artist and the service it's playing on. Uh, maybe just play the damn track, Google.

Sometimes, Google Assistant appears to listen to what I'm saying and then fails to do anything about it. These weren't arcane commands, either — I asked the Assistant to play a song or playlist I had requested multiple times before, and it just hung. This was such a pervasive issue that I sent my first review unit back to Google on the suspicion that it was defective. The replacements I received didn't exhibit the same problem quite as often, but it still happened once or twice. My network connection was strong, and I make it a point to speak extra clearly to virtual assistants, so I can't really explain what's causing these failures.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

You can use the Pixel Buds as in-ear translators, too -- a use case Google specifically highlighted at its most recent launch event, last month. The idea of having an in-ear translator (like an inorganic Babel fish) is a compelling one, but in practice we're still a ways off from seamless, cross-language conversations. To get started, Google suggests you say things like "I need a [language] translator" to launch the Google Translate app in the correct mode. Fair enough, but on a few occasions, the buds just spit a snippet of a foreign language into my ears when given that command. Weird.

When Translate does launch normally, you lay a finger on the right bud and start talking. Your words then get rendered into one of forty target languages, and the native speaker listening holds down a button on the Pixel to start responding. The translation process itself typically happened in mere moments, but this really boils down to the strength of your network connection. When I tried using the feature where AT&T coverage was sort of lousy, it took a few extra seconds to get the spoken translation. Responses rendered in your language get routed right into your ears, but for such exchanges to work best, you'd have to hand over your phone so the other person can hold down the button and respond when appropriate. Depending on where you are, that might not be such a great idea.

And, of course, since Google Translate is doing the cross-cultural heavy lifting, expect a few misfires here and there. Engadget's video producer Brian Oh is a native Korean speaker, and for every mostly accurate translation I ran by him, there was one that just made him roll his eyes. Ditto for the handful of Vietnamese friends I tested the feature with. As always, Google Translate is super literal about what you say so the idioms that pepper our daily conversations rarely make sense when rendered in another language. If you were planning to rely the Pixel Buds in some far-flung locale, it's probably best to keep your utterances succinct.

Wrap-up

Chris Velazco/Engadget

I'm not entirely sure why Google released the Pixel Buds in their current form. At best, they're decent. At worst, they feel unfinished. The concept certainly has promise, and I appreciate that Google wanted the Pixel Buds to be feature-rich compared to its most notable rival. Ultimately though, it feels like Google was more concerned with getting these things out the door (and maybe making a few bucks over the holidays) than giving them the polish necessary to be truly valuable. It's possible that Google will iron out some of these issues over time with software updates, and if that's the case, we'll update this review. Until then, though, you can do better.


Steam tweaks community reviews to fight spam

Valve has known that its platform Steam, the biggest marketplace for PC titles, has had a review problem for years. Groups of users abuse a game's rating by 'review bombing' them, propping up negative feedback with far more 'this was helpful' votes than is humanly possible. While Valve tried a passive solution two months ago, but it didn't fix the problem. So the company is trying a couple more changes: Diluting the effects of likely review-manipulators and making sure a game's top ten reflect the title's overall approval rating.

In other words, if 80% of a game's players left a favorable review, eight out of its top ten reviews will be positive. That will help keep the small amount of artificially-inflated 'bombed' posts from drowning out feedback that's representative of the community's opinion.

The other fix tracks how many times an account votes that reviews are 'helpful' for a single game. Most users just mark a few reviews as helpful or not, and that feedback will continue to be counted normally. Those that blatantly mass-downvote other reviews -- typically around 10,000 times on a single game, the Steam blog noted -- will see each additional vote diluted more and more.

It's continual tinkering that reflects how difficult it is to provide democratic and current feedback for a game to prospective buyers. Recently, Steam implemented a change that heavily weighted recent reviews to reflect the current state of the game and highlighted those with the highest percentage of 'helpful' votes; This unintentionally enabled 'review bombing.'

This won't be the last fix coming to Steam's review system, either: Future tweaks will address how players feel about a game now after updates and changes, as well as filtering to account for issues that only affect players in certain regions.

Via: Gamasutra

Source: Steam


Master & Dynamic’s concrete speaker is equal parts sound and spectacle

If you're a fan of well-designed headphones that have a unique aesthetic, Master & Dynamic should be at the top of your list. The company has been pairing colored leather and metal accents for years now, creating some of the best looking audio accessories available. Earlier this year, the company ventured into another product category: wireless speakers. In true M&D fashion, it didn't cut corners on design, materials or sound and even opted to make its first model out of concrete. Sure, it's been done before, but concrete speakers are still a novelty. It looks great and, as I discovered after spending several weeks with one, the MA770 is more than capable when it comes to audio quality. But, it's not for everyone.

For the MA770, Master & Dynamic teamed up with Sir David Adjaye, an architect you may know from his work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The collaboration resulted in a speaker that exhibits physical weight and dramatic angles, so the ties to Adjaye's work are obvious. To construct the MA770, the company developed a unique type of concrete to increase the material's sound dampening properties and overall acoustics. The shell is also one solid molded piece.

As you might expect, a speaker made out of concrete is pretty heavy -- 35 pounds to be exact. It's definitely a "lift with your legs, not with your back" type situation. The extra heft means you have to give some thought to where the MA770 will sit. Most bookcases and tables will have enough strength to support the audio gear, but you'll need to look beyond a flimsy shelving unit or a small mantle. For me, a dresser was a good spot to accommodate the overall size of the speaker and give it the recommended clearance from the wall. The speaker is much larger than something from the likes of Sonos, Sony and others so placement took some planning. The MA770 is more comparable in size to Bang & Olufsen's BeoPlay A6, another speaker that will put a dent in your wallet.

A concrete speaker is something you're going to want to show off in your home, and Master & Dynamic is well aware of that fact. On the face of the MA770, there's a magnetic metal grille that's easily removed to expose the device's dual speakers and single tweeter. You can see through the grille already, but just in case you want to display that bare concrete facade, you're able to do so. Along the bottom of the speaker's front is a metal strip that holds the MA770's four onboard buttons and an LED indicator for which connection is active. The controls are for volume, play/pause and selecting a source and that light will tell you if you've picked Cast, Bluetooth, aux or optical to play your tunes. Since most music apps have audio controls, I only had to get up to change the source rather than to tweak the volume or pause a song.

Once you've found a place to put it, the MA770 is easy to set up. All you have to do is plug it in and download the Google Home app on a phone or tablet. Since Master & Dynamic's speaker uses Chromecast for its WiFi connectivity, you'll need the Google app to get it connected to your home network. In my testing, the speaker was recognized immediately and the setup was complete in less than five minutes. Sometimes connected speakers can take a while to get going or require multiple attempts to get them online. That wasn't the case here, thankfully.

From there, broadcasting audio via WiFi to the MA770 is a matter of firing up your favorite compatible audio app and hitting the Cast button. For me, that's a mix of Spotify (through Spotify Connect) and PocketCasts. Bluetooth is available for all of the options that don't play nice with Chromecast, like Apple Music. It works fine, but I rarely used it. And let's face it: If your go-to audio apps are Chromecast-enabled, there's little reason to.

You can also opt to use two MA770 units as a stereo pair for both wired and wireless audio. I wasn't able to test this out as I only had one unit on hand, but if you feel the need to splurge for two, just know this feature is available. In terms of wired connectivity, there's a 3.5mm aux input around back as well as an optical input. Unfortunately, I'm not (yet) a turntable owner so I wasn't able to put the MA770 through its paces with vinyl.

If the audio quality I experienced over Chromecast is any indication, you can expect Master & Dynamic's trademark sound no matter the input method. It's an audio profile that's more "natural," than Vizio and Sony speakers I've tested. I've always liked it on the company's headphones, especially when a lot of other options tend to overly favor the low end. There's also 100W of power at work, so the concrete speaker can blast those tunes at a high volume without sacrificing overall quality.

Most genres shine on the MA770, but I found bluegrass, jazz and rock sounded best. The Punch Brothers and Miles Davis especially since they have a ton of detail that can get lost on lesser speakers and headphones. The music was crisp and clear, which allowed the finer points to come through. Indeed, the more conservative approach to bass does have an effect when listening to hip-hop and other genres that need serious low end. Don't get me wrong, Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels and Big K.R.I.T. all sound great, but a little more bass could make the MA770 better suited for every genre instead of a few standouts. Sonos is still my top choice -- the sound quality you get for the price is unmatched. With a smidge more bass, the MA770 could put up more of a fight, but as it stands, Sonos is still the first on my list.

Of course, the most pressing issue for many would-be buyers is the price. The MA770 costs $1,800, putting it on a Band & Olufsen level of luxury. Sure it sounds really good, has a unique look and the allure of using a rather unique material, but that's a lot of money to drop on one piece of audio gear. Even if the price tag is a deal breaker for most people, the MA770 is a lofty first voyage into speakers for Master & Dynamic, and one that checks all the boxes in terms of design, audio and ease of use.

Indeed, Master & Dynamic will likely introduce more speakers down the road and the financial commitment should be a little easier to swallow. Consider B&O: The company built its reputation on stellar audio at astronomical prices before introducing the more consumer friendly BeoPlay line, with a variety of speaker options from $2,699 down to $169. The options may not be as diverse as B&O's lineup, but hopefully we'll see some more affordable speakers from Master & Dynamic soon enough. Until then, most will choose to admire the MA770 from afar. If the price isn't a concern, the company is showing off the speaker at its first retail location in NYC's SoHo neighborhood from November 30th through December 24th. You can at least see it in the flesh before you take a chunk out of your savings account.

Photos by Edgar Alvarez


The iRig Keys I/O makes it easy to streamline your studio

Whether you're demoing a song for your band or recording a masterpiece to share on Soundcloud, you'll likely need a couple of things to connect to your computer. If you're planning on having any real instruments or vocals, you'll need some sort of audio interface to turn your analog sounds into digital ones. I have an M-Audio MobilePre USB for that task, which runs about $180 on Amazon. In addition, you probably want to have a MIDI controller, to "play" all those sounds you don't have real instruments for. These can typically cost $250 - $500 or so, depending on features. At $300, IK Multimedia's iRig Keys I/O 49 comes in at the lower end of this bracket.

As the name suggests, it's a MIDI controller with 49 full-sized piano keys and one important addition: a built-in audio interface that records 24-bit audio at a 96kHz sampling rate. As with similar controllers, the iRig Keys I/O works with PC, Mac and iOS devices and whatever software you're already familiar with. The keyboard powers via USB from your computer, a DC charger (not included) or four AA batteries, making it a super portable solution.

The physical layout of the iRig Keys is intuitive, with big, easy to access controller buttons, knobs, and touch-sensitive sliders above the piano keys. As with most MIDI controllers, there's the usual complement of pitch shifters, modulation controls, velocity-sensitive pads and other programmable buttons.

I love having physical controls to control the various sounds I'm playing with on a keyboard like this, and the iRig unit has them all laid out in an intuitive way: pads on the right, knobs in the center and sliders to the left. Everything is labeled nicely, though you'll need to know what each does if you're playing in a dark bar or recording studio without a mini light clipped on -- none of the labels light up.

The ports and the switches on the back of the iRig I/O 49 cover all the bases, too. There's a toggle for USB power, a DC port, and then a Mini-DIN MIDI port for the included USB or Lightning cables that connect the keyboard to your device. Importantly, there's the aforementioned headphone jack and balanced outputs for connecting to a PA or amp.

The keys are unweighted and made of plastic, so if you're looking for a higher-end feel, you might want to go elsewhere. Still, playing the iRig Keys feels as good as any other USB controller I've played. The general build quality is pretty high-end, down to the soft rubber feet on the bottom to keep it from sliding around on the table. It's hard to overstate the joy of playing with keys that are the same size as a real piano. If you've ever tried to hit chords with a mini-sized rig, you know just what I mean; my fat fingers need as much space as possible to hit even the most basic of chords.

Of course, any MIDI controller is only as good as the software it can access, and the iRig Keys I/O comes with some decent free apps on iOS and Mac/PC, including IK Multimedia's own SampleTank, Ableton Live 9 Lite and Studio One Prime. Your purchase also nets you a couple of different orchestral and synth sound banks and T-Racks Deluxe mastering software (a $300 value in itself). If you don't already have a preferred music-making app already, the included software is a good start, though getting the sounds from SampleTank for Mac was a rather tedious affair, thanks to the multi-part download.

I mostly use GarageBand on iOS and Mac, since that's the system I'm most familiar with these days. Connecting the controller was a simple plug and play affair -- I never had to worry about extra cables or dongles, or even power plugs. I just sat down, plugged the iRig Keys into my iPad and I was up and running, playing all sorts of electronic and orchestral sounds with ease.

I've been using MIDI controllers of various stripe for years, connecting keyboards large and small to my Macs and iOS devices. I've messed around with tiny keyboards that have a much smaller footprint. I've played with full-sized, weighted keyboards that needed a separate MIDI box to connect to my computer. I've recorded in decently-sized home studios with mixers and input racks and all kinds of expensive equipment, and I've recorded some stuff in tiny little apartments with cords strung across the living room.

These days, I connect my guitar, bass, or microphone to my Mac via a basic USB audio interface. I use a full-size Roland synth that also doubles as a controller to lay down stuff like strings, unearthly-sounding pads and things I don't have readily available, like horns or woodwinds. It's a ton of stuff that I have to unpack, set up on a table, and then put away when I'm done.

What excites me about the iRig I/O is that I can just have one main box on the table now, powered via USB. I can quickly plug in my guitar, bass or iPhone to the keyboard, monitor through the unit itself via headphones or a little studio monitor. When I'm finished, I simply unplug a couple of cables and lean the iRig up against the wall. The 49 keys allow me to stretch out across several octaves easily, and the smallish footprint lets me a create a fairly competent home studio right on my coffee table.

I'm looking forward to playing live with this thing, too -- we already have a keyboard player with a full-sized instrument on stage, but being able to drop in some AA batteries and connect the iRig Keys I/O to my iPhone for extra sounds is a pretty great thing. Our practice studio isn't super huge, and I already have a guitar, pedalboard and microphone in front of me.

All of that ability and potential adds up to a much more streamlined, capable rig for recording and performing. That it's only $300 is a huge plus, as well. I paid almost as much for my current audio interface alone, and it doesn't have a MIDI keyboard controller with programmable buttons attached. Making music quickly and in a small space is exactly what I do; having the iRig Keys I/O makes doing so much more easy and cost-effective.


The iRig Keys I/O makes it easy to streamline your studio

Whether you're demoing a song for your band or recording a masterpiece to share on Soundcloud, you'll likely need a couple of things to connect to your computer. If you're planning on having any real instruments or vocals, you'll need some sort of audio interface to turn your analog sounds into digital ones. I have an M-Audio MobilePre USB for that task, which runs about $180 on Amazon. In addition, you probably want to have a MIDI controller, to "play" all those sounds you don't have real instruments for. These can typically cost $250 - $500 or so, depending on features. At $300, IK Multimedia's iRig Keys I/O 49 comes in at the lower end of this bracket.

As the name suggests, it's a MIDI controller with 49 full-sized piano keys and one important addition: a built-in audio interface that records 24-bit audio at a 96kHz sampling rate. As with similar controllers, the iRig Keys I/O works with PC, Mac and iOS devices and whatever software you're already familiar with. The keyboard powers via USB from your computer, a DC charger (not included) or four AA batteries, making it a super portable solution.

The physical layout of the iRig Keys is intuitive, with big, easy to access controller buttons, knobs, and touch-sensitive sliders above the piano keys. As with most MIDI controllers, there's the usual complement of pitch shifters, modulation controls, velocity-sensitive pads and other programmable buttons.

I love having physical controls to control the various sounds I'm playing with on a keyboard like this, and the iRig unit has them all laid out in an intuitive way: pads on the right, knobs in the center and sliders to the left. Everything is labeled nicely, though you'll need to know what each does if you're playing in a dark bar or recording studio without a mini light clipped on -- none of the labels light up.

The ports and the switches on the back of the iRig I/O 49 cover all the bases, too. There's a toggle for USB power, a DC port, and then a Mini-DIN MIDI port for the included USB or Lightning cables that connect the keyboard to your device. Importantly, there's the aforementioned headphone jack and balanced outputs for connecting to a PA or amp.

The keys are unweighted and made of plastic, so if you're looking for a higher-end feel, you might want to go elsewhere. Still, playing the iRig Keys feels as good as any other USB controller I've played. The general build quality is pretty high-end, down to the soft rubber feet on the bottom to keep it from sliding around on the table. It's hard to overstate the joy of playing with keys that are the same size as a real piano. If you've ever tried to hit chords with a mini-sized rig, you know just what I mean; my fat fingers need as much space as possible to hit even the most basic of chords.

Of course, any MIDI controller is only as good as the software it can access, and the iRig Keys I/O comes with some decent free apps on iOS and Mac/PC, including IK Multimedia's own SampleTank, Ableton Live 9 Lite and Studio One Prime. Your purchase also nets you a couple of different orchestral and synth sound banks and T-Racks Deluxe mastering software (a $300 value in itself). If you don't already have a preferred music-making app already, the included software is a good start, though getting the sounds from SampleTank for Mac was a rather tedious affair, thanks to the multi-part download.

I mostly use GarageBand on iOS and Mac, since that's the system I'm most familiar with these days. Connecting the controller was a simple plug and play affair -- I never had to worry about extra cables or dongles, or even power plugs. I just sat down, plugged the iRig Keys into my iPad and I was up and running, playing all sorts of electronic and orchestral sounds with ease.

I've been using MIDI controllers of various stripe for years, connecting keyboards large and small to my Macs and iOS devices. I've messed around with tiny keyboards that have a much smaller footprint. I've played with full-sized, weighted keyboards that needed a separate MIDI box to connect to my computer. I've recorded in decently-sized home studios with mixers and input racks and all kinds of expensive equipment, and I've recorded some stuff in tiny little apartments with cords strung across the living room.

These days, I connect my guitar, bass, or microphone to my Mac via a basic USB audio interface. I use a full-size Roland synth that also doubles as a controller to lay down stuff like strings, unearthly-sounding pads and things I don't have readily available, like horns or woodwinds. It's a ton of stuff that I have to unpack, set up on a table, and then put away when I'm done.

What excites me about the iRig I/O is that I can just have one main box on the table now, powered via USB. I can quickly plug in my guitar, bass or iPhone to the keyboard, monitor through the unit itself via headphones or a little studio monitor. When I'm finished, I simply unplug a couple of cables and lean the iRig up against the wall. The 49 keys allow me to stretch out across several octaves easily, and the smallish footprint lets me a create a fairly competent home studio right on my coffee table.

I'm looking forward to playing live with this thing, too -- we already have a keyboard player with a full-sized instrument on stage, but being able to drop in some AA batteries and connect the iRig Keys I/O to my iPhone for extra sounds is a pretty great thing. Our practice studio isn't super huge, and I already have a guitar, pedalboard and microphone in front of me.

All of that ability and potential adds up to a much more streamlined, capable rig for recording and performing. That it's only $300 is a huge plus, as well. I paid almost as much for my current audio interface alone, and it doesn't have a MIDI keyboard controller with programmable buttons attached. Making music quickly and in a small space is exactly what I do; having the iRig Keys I/O makes doing so much more easy and cost-effective.


Surface Book 2 review: Microsoft gets closer to the ‘ultimate laptop’

Microsoft's Surface Book 2 is an even stronger MacBook Pro competitor than before. Mostly, that's because there's finally a 15-inch model for people who need a bit more screen real estate. But the company has fixed most of the issues we had with last year's 13-inch model, as well. That's particularly true when it comes to the Surface Book 2's unique hinge, which lets you remove and flip around the display. It's the ideal follow up -- one that does everything its predecessor did well without any compromises. It's another strong entry for Microsoft, in a year where it already launched the excellent Surface Laptop and Surface Pro.

Hardware

As a sequel, the Surface Book 2 focuses on refinement. The smooth, all-metal case makes a return, and it's as sturdy as ever on the larger 15-inch model we received for testing. I didn't feel any flex in the keyboard base or display -- it's almost like a solid slab of metal. Of course, the same was true for the original Surface Book, but it's good to see that design scales well.

As you can imagine, the larger Surface Book 2 is heftier than typical 13-inch systems we see today, at 4.2 pounds. Apple's comparable MacBook Pro, meanwhile, weighs in close to four pounds and it's significantly thinner. (The Surface's hinge, unfortunately, adds a bit of thickness.) The 13-inch Surface Book starts out at 3.38 pounds with integrated graphics, but if you opt for the NVIDIA GPU it jumps up to 3.68 pounds. The similarly-sized MacBook Pro wins out when it comes to overall size, since it's just a mere 3 pounds.

It's been awhile since I've used a 15-inch laptop regularly, but I had no trouble getting used to the Surface Book 2. Despite its added heft, it's comfortable to hold and easy to use on your lap. Of course, it has a larger footprint than most Ultrabooks, but I still managed to get work done in cafes and even on a plane tray table. You'll have to live with a bit of top-heaviness, though, since its hardware is split across its screen and keyboard base. Standard notebooks can get away with incredibly thin displays, since they don't have to stuff an entire computer's worth of hardware behind the screen.

With the 15-inch Surface Book 2, you're also getting a sizable resolution bump up to 3,240 by 2,160 pixels (260 ppi). Sure, it's not 4K, but honestly that doesn't matter much in a laptop this size. It's sharp enough that you won't notice any pixelation in text or images, even when you bring the screen right up to your face. Microsoft is sticking with the boxy 3:2 aspect ratio, rather than 16:9 widescreen. That's helpful when it comes to productivity apps, since it gives you more vertical screen space, but it means you'll have to live with black bars when you're watching movies.

Edgar Alvarez/AOL

Instead of changing the laptop's overall design, it's clear that Microsoft spent more time revamping the Surface Book 2's hinge. That's what sets it apart from other convertible Windows laptops. The screen pops out to be used as a tablet. Or, you could turn the display around and dock it backwards, which effectively turns the keyboard base into a stand. There's a stronger connection between the screen and base now, which, for the most part, removes the annoying wobbling we saw with the first Surface Book.

There's still a slight amount of shakiness while you type, but it's dramatically less than before. With the last model, it was sometimes difficult to follow what was happening on the screen as it was bobbing up and down. The Surface Book 2's screen detachment feature worked pretty smoothly: Just hit the detach button, wait for the green light, and lift up the display. Removing and reattaching the screen felt smoother than the last model.

The screen is in line with the gorgeous displays we've seen from the Surface family. It's bright enough to use outside, and colors practically pop off the screen. It makes just about everything look great, be it text, photos or movies. While I'd like to see OLED screens appearing in more laptops today, Microsoft is still getting great results from LCDs.

Edgar Alvarez/AOL

In tablet mode, the Surface Book 2 is almost comically large, but it's still relatively easy to hold and only about as heavy as a hardcover graphic novel. It's not meant to completely replace smaller slates, instead it's a screen you can yank out when you need to read a long article or just watch a movie in bed.

The laptop still features an excellent keyboard, with a satisfying amount of travel distance and a smooth, accurate touchpad. There's some extra wrist pad room to balance out the larger display. Around the sides, it has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, and for the first time on a Surface, there's a USB-C port. While it's not compatible with Intel's Thunderbolt technology, which supports speeds up to 40 Gbps, instead of USB 3.1's 10 Gbps. Still, you'll at least be able to plug in devices using the new standard, like hard drives and smartphones. You can also charge the laptop over USB-C, but you'll need to buy a separate adapter that can deliver enough juice.

Since it's meant to function as a tablet, the Surface Book 2 also includes a rear 8 megapixel camera, as well as a 5 megapixel front-facing shooter. And just like all of the other Surface laptops, there's a Windows Hello authentication camera on the front, which lets you log in with your face. The Surface Book 2 also supports the Surface Pen, which is particularly useful when using it as a tablet. Though it'd be even better if Microsoft included it in the box, instead of making you pay an extra $100 for it.

Performance and battery life

PCMark 7 PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated) 3DMark 11 3DMark (Sky Diver) ATTO (top reads/writes)
Surface Book 2 (15-inch, 1.9Ghz - 4.2Ghz Core i7-8650U, 6GB NVIDIA GTX 1060) 6,195 4,882 E14,611 / P11,246 / X4,380 15,385 2.25 GB/s / 1.26 GB/s
Surface Book (2016, 2.6GHz Core i7-6600U, 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M) 5,452 4,041 E8,083 / P5,980 / X2,228 11,362 1.71 GB/s / 1.26 GB/s
Surface Pro (2017, Core i5, Intel HD 620) 5,731 4,475 E2,782 / P1,666 / X431 4,260 1.6 GB/s / 817 MB/s
Surface Laptop (Core i5, Intel HD 620) 5,075 4,279 E2,974 / P1,702 / X429 3,630 658 MB/s / 238 MB/s
ASUS ROG Zephyrus (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 6,030 7,137 E20,000 / P17,017 / X7,793 31,624 3.4 GB/s / 1.64 GB/s
Alienware 15 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1070) 6,847 7,100 E17,041 / P16,365 20,812 2.9 GB/s / 0.9 GB/s
Alienware 13 (2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1060) 4,692 4,583 E16,703 / P12,776 24,460 1.78 GB/s / 1.04 GB/s
Razer Blade Pro 2016 (2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 6,884 6,995 E18,231 / P16,346 27,034 2.75 GB/s / 1.1 GB/s
ASUS ROG Strix GL502VS (2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ , NVIDIA GTX 1070) 5,132 6,757 E15,335 / P13,985 25,976 2.14 GB/s / 1.2 GB/s
HP Spectre x360 (2016, 2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,515 4,354 E2,656 / P1,720 / X444 3,743 1.76 GB/s / 579 MB/s
Lenovo Yoga 910 (2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, 8GB, Intel HD 620) 5,822 4,108

E2,927 / P1,651 / X438

3,869 1.59 GB/s / 313 MB/s
Razer Blade (Fall 2016) (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,462 3,889 E3,022 / P1,768 4,008 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s
Razer Blade (Fall 2016) + Razer Core (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 5,415 4,335 E11,513 / P11,490 16,763 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s
ASUS ZenBook 3 (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,448 3,911 E2,791 / P1,560 3,013 1.67 GB/s / 1.44 GB/s
Razer Blade Stealth (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,131 3,445 E2,788 / P1,599 / X426 3,442 1.5 GB/s / 307 MB/s

Microsoft also packed in some major hardware upgrades in the 15-inch version: An 8th generation Intel quad-core i7 processor and NVIDIA GTX 1060 graphics. The smaller model, meanwhile, starts with a 7th gen Core i5 CPU and integrated graphics, but you can bump it up to the new i7 chip and a GTX 1050 GPU.

Its hefty CPU and graphics capabilities make it well suited to heavy-duty content creation, like video editing and 3D rendering. And of course, that also means it's a decent gaming machine. The Surface Book 2 achieved a solid 60 frames per second in Gears of War 4 while running in 1080p with high graphical settings. And in Forza 7, it clocked between 50 and 60FPS in 1080p with Ultra quality levels. Sure, dedicated gaming laptops can get even better results, but the Surface Book 2 is still impressive.

While Microsoft claims the computer will get 17 hours of battery life while playing video, it actually lasted a surprising 20 hours and 50 minutes in our testing. And that's without any battery saving features turned on. But of course, that's just when it comes to dealing with a local video file. Battery life will depend on what, exactly, you're doing with the Surface Book 2. During my daily workflow, it lasted between 12 to 14 hours. And after one hour of gaming, it lost around 20 percent of battery life.

Surface Book 2 15-inch 20:50
Surface Book with Performance Base (2016) 16:15
Surface Laptop 14:49
Surface Pro 13:40
ASUS ROG Zephyrus 1:50
Surface Book with Performance Base (2016) 16:15
Apple MacBook Pro 2016 (13-inch, no Touch Bar) 11:42
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015) 11:23
Apple MacBook Pro 2016 (15-inch) 11:00
HP Spectre x360 15t 10:17
Apple MacBook Pro 2016 (13-inch, Touch Bar) 9:55
ASUS ZenBook 3 9:45
Apple MacBook (2016) 8:45
Samsung Notebook 9 8:16
Alienware 13 7:32
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 7:15
HP Spectre 13 7:07
Razer Blade Stealth (Spring 2016) 5:48
Razer Blade Stealth (Fall 2016) 5:36
Dell XPS 15 (2016) 5:25 (7:40 with the mobile charger)
Alienware 15 4:31
Razer Blade Pro (2016) 3:48
ASUS ROG Strix GL502VS 3:03

Pricing and the competition

The 15-inch Surface Book 2 starts at $2,499 with a 256GB SSD, 16GB of RAM and NVIDIA GTX 1060. You can go all the way up to a 1TB SSD for $3,299. In comparison, Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro goes for $2,399, but its Radeon Pro graphics aren't as powerful as NVIDIA's.

If you're looking at the smaller Surface Book 2, we'd recommend jumping to the $1,999 Core i7 model with NVIDIA graphics. It's $500 more than the entry-level version, but the added cost is worth it for power users. If you have lighter computer needs, the Surface Laptop and Pro might be better options, instead of the cheapest Surface Book 2. And if that's too expensive for you, Dell's XPS 15 costs just $1,299 with GTX 1050 graphics.

Wrap-up

The Surface Book 2 is exactly what we've wanted from a high-end Microsoft laptop. It's powerful, sturdy and its unique hinge doesn't come with any compromises. While there are cheaper Windows laptops out there with similar specs, the Surface Book 2 stands apart by bringing together some of the best hardware around with the flexibility of a convertible notebook. It's the closest a PC maker has come to taking on the MacBook Pro, both in style and substance.

Photos by Edgar Alvarez.


A dedicated AI chip is squandered on Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro

Let's face it: The AI hype train isn't going away and soon all our devices will be run by artificial intelligence. While Apple's answer to the AI takeover is to just call its new A11 processor "Bionic", Huawei has taken a more concrete approach. The company embedded a neural processing unit (NPU) on its Kirin 970 chip, which it claims can run AI tasks faster and with less power than others. The newly launched Mate 10 Pro is the first phone to use the Kirin 970, and it's meant to demonstrate the wonders of deeply embedded AI. So far though, it's a capable, well-designed phone that has yet to fully explore what a dedicated NPU can do.

When Huawei asked a group of reviewers what we wanted from AI, I didn't have a real answer, though my peers pointed out things like natural linguistics and battery management. But after a few days with the Mate 10 Pro, I've realized what I want.

My ideal AI would basically be able to predict what I wanted based on how and when I'm using my phone. For example, if I'm holding my phone up at eye level in my apartment at about the same time every day, I'm most likely starting one of my daily selfie sprees. It should know then to automatically activate (or at least suggest) the Portrait mode on my front camera and even take a series of photos when I push one button. It gets tiring having to keep pressing the volume down button to take dozens of pictures.

The Mate 10 Pro doesn't live up to my unrealistic expectations, but it marks a step in the right direction. The phone can recognize things you're pointing the camera at, like food, pets, flowers or buildings, and adjusts settings like ISO, shutter speed and saturation to make your photos look good. For now, the Mate 10 Pro only identifies 13 scenes, but Huawei says it will continue adding situations that the phone will recognize.

In other words, the Mate 10 Pro is smart enough to be both camera and photographer. That is, in theory anyway. While the Mate 10 Pro does take lovely pictures that are bright, sharp and accurately colored, I suspect that has more to do with its camera hardware than clever AI. The two cameras on its rear both feature an aperture of f/1.6 -- the widest yet on a smartphone (tied with the LG V30). That hardware not only allows for clearer pictures in low light, but also creates a pleasantly shallow depth of field.

When I compared pictures I took in manual mode to those where the AI decided what settings to use, I had a hard time seeing a difference. My photos of flowers appeared as saturated whether the AI was at work or not, and the depth of field looked the same either way. The main difference I saw was a stronger bokeh effect applied by the AI. I guess this is kind of the point -- the AI was as good as me, a human, at determining the best settings.

Although the Mate 10 Pro's tweaks aren't very noticeable, its scene-recognition is mostly quick and accurate. However, some situations stumped the Mate 10 Pro, like my messy dinner of chicken covered with onions and peppers in a chili paste. Then there are the many objects that the phone can't identify yet -- like a group of players on a basketball court or a pair of pretty shoes. Huawei also needs more data before the phone can learn the best settings for those situations -- whether it be bumping up the shutter speed to capture fast moving soccer balls or producing shallower depth of field around shoes. The company said it will keep analyzing pictures (not user-generated) in the cloud and push out software updates to continually improve its camera software. No, Huawei isn't spying on your photos -- these are pictures it got elsewhere (the company hasn't told us the source yet).

The AI is absent on the front camera, but I still loved the selfies I took with the Mate 10 Pro. Huawei's Portrait Mode uses face detection instead of depth-sensing like the iPhone X, which creates a softer depth of field that's sometimes less defined than Apple's. But the pictures from Huawei's phone are more flattering. The iPhone X's Portrait Mode selfies are so sharp that every imperfection and stray hair is obvious.

The primary benefit of having a dedicated neural processing unit on the phone's CPU is that machine learning tasks can be executed more quickly. Things like image recognition or language translation can be carried out in tandem with other general functions so your phone shouldn't slow down just to find the 3,500th picture of your cat's face. With Huawei's Kirin 970 chip, app developers can tap into the NPU by using either the Kirin API or popular machine learning frameworks like Google's Tensorflow or Facebook's Caffe 2.

The problem is, not many apps have done this yet. So far, only Huawei's own camera software and Microsoft Translator tap the NPU for improved performance. The latter comes preinstalled in the Mate 10 Pro, by the way, and only its image-based translating tool is optimized right now. I took a picture of the phrase "You're so pretty" in Mandarin and barely a second later Translator told me it meant "You're beautiful." Close enough. Subsequent attempts with the same printout yielded dubious results, though, with the app often translating the words to "Hello, Drift." This is more likely an issue with Microsoft's engine than the Mate 10 Pro.

I tried the same thing out on a Galaxy Note 8 and an iPhone 8 Plus. All three phones performed within half a second of each other -- with the Huawei frequently finishing the fastest. Sometimes the iPhone took the lead, but for the most part none of them lagged far behind the rest.

Aside from its camera and the Translator app, the Mate 10 Pro also uses AI to learn your habits over time so it can pre-allocate resources to the apps it thinks you'll launch next. From my few days using the phone, it's hard to judge how effective this has been, but the Mate 10 Pro certainly keeps up with my incessant selfie taking, Instagram binging and light emailing.

So far, the Mate 10 Pro has too few AI integrations for me to really notice the benefits of a dedicated NPU. It's a sleekly designed handset, though, and I love showing off the attractive "Signature" stripe on its elegant, shiny rear. The epic battery life is also a bonus. It easily gets through two days on a charge, and I can go four days without plugging it in under extremely light usage. I wish its display were sharper than 1080p, but that's a minor complaint. Since Huawei hasn't shared the US price and availability yet, I can't definitively say if the Mate 10 Pro is a better deal than its competitors. But it's an intriguing preview of the good that can come from a phone powered by AI.