Reviews

The Geesaa automates (but overcomplicates) pourover coffee

Posted by | Coffee, coffee maker, Crowdfunding, food, Gadgets, geesaa, hardware, Kickstarter, Reviews, TC | No Comments

Making pourover coffee is a cherished ritual of mine on most mornings. But there are times I wish I could have a single cup of pourover without fussing about the kitchen — and the Geesaa, a new gadget seeking funds on Kickstarter, lets me do that. But it’s definitely still a ways from being a must-have.

I’m interested in alternative coffee preparation methods, low and high tech, so I was happy to agree to try out the Geesaa when they contacted me just ahead of their Kickstarter campaign going live (they’ve already hit their goal at this point). I got to test one of their prototypes and have used it on and off for the last couple of weeks.

The Geesaa is part of a new wave of coffee makers that make advances on traditional drip techniques, attempting to get closer to a manual pourover. That usually means carefully controlling the water temperature and dispensing it not just in a stream powerful enough to displace and churn the ground coffee, but in a pattern that’s like what you’d do if you were pouring it by hand. (The Automatica, another one with a similar idea, sadly didn’t make it.)

Various manufacturers do this in various ways, so Geesaa isn’t exactly alone, though its mechanism appears to be unique. Instead of using a little showerhead that drips regularly over the grounds, or sending a moving stream in a spiral, the Geesaa spins the carafe and pours water from a moving head above it.

This accomplishes the kind of spiral pour that you’ll see many a barista doing, making sure the grounds are all evenly wet and agitated, without creating too thin of a slurry (sounds delicious, right?). And in fact that’s just what the Geesaa does — as long as you get the settings right.

Like any gadget these days, this coffee maker is “smart” in that it has a chip and memory inside, but not necessarily smart in any other way. This one lets you select from a variety of “recipes” supposedly corresponding to certain coffees that Geesaa, as its secondary business model, will sell to owners in perfectly measured packets. The packet will come with an NFC card that you just tap on the maker to prompt it to start with those settings.

It’s actually a good idea, but more suited to a hotel room than a home. I preferred to use the app, which, while more than a little overcomplicated, lets you design your own recipes with an impressive variety of variables. You can customize water temperature, breaks between pouring “stages,” the width of the spiral pattern, the rate the water comes out and more.

Although it’s likely you’d just arrive at a favorite recipe or two, it’s nice to be able to experiment or adjust in case of guests, a new variety of coffee, or a new grinder. You can, as I did, swap out the included carafe for your own cone and mug, or a mesh cone, or whatever — as long as it’s roughly the right size, you can make it work. There’s no chip restricting you to certain containers or coffees.

I’m not sure what the story is with the name, by the way. When you start it up, the little screen says “Coffee Dancer,” which seems like a better English name for the device than Geesaa, but hey.

When it works, it works, but there are still plenty of annoyances that you won’t get with a kettle and a drip cone. Bear in mind, this is with a prototype (third generation, but still) device and app still in testing.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the temperature seems too low in general. Even the highest available temperature, 97 C (around 206 F), doesn’t seem as hot as it should. Built-in recipes produced coffee that seemed only warm, not hot. Perhaps the water cools as it travels along the arm and passes through the air — this is nontrivial when you’re talking about little droplets! So by the time it gets to the coffee it may be lower than you’d like, while coming out of a kettle it will almost always be about as hot as it can get. (Not that you want the hottest water possible, but too cool is as much a problem as too hot.)

I ran out of filters for the included carafe so I used my gold Kone filter, which worked great.

The on-device interface is pretty limited, with a little dial and LCD screen that displays two lines at a time. It’s pre-loaded with a ton of recipes for coffee types you may never see (what true coffee-lover orders pre-ground single-serve packets?), and the app is cluttered with ways to fill out taste profiles, news and things that few people seem likely to take advantage of. Once you’ve used a recipe you can call it up from the maker itself, at least.

One time I saw the carafe was a bit off-center when it started brewing, and when I adjusted it, the spinning platform just stopped and wouldn’t restart. Another time the head didn’t move during the brewing process, just blasting the center of the grounds until the cone was almost completely full. (You can of course stop the machine at any point and restart it should something go wrong.)

Yet when it worked, it was consistently good coffee and much quicker than my standard manual single cup process.

Aesthetically it’s fine — modern and straightforward, though without the elegance one sees in Bodum and Ratio’s design.

It comes in white, too. You know, for white kitchens.

The maker itself is quite large — unnecessarily so, I feel — though I know the base has to conceal the spinning mechanism and a few other things. But at more than a foot wide and eight inches deep, and almost a foot tall, it has quite a considerable footprint, larger than many another coffee machines.

I feel like the Geesaa is a good coffee-making mechanism burdened by an overcomplicated digital interface. I honestly would have preferred mechanical dials on the maker itself, one each for temperature, amount and perhaps brew style (all at once, bloom first, take a break after 45 seconds, etc). Maybe something to control its spiral width too.

And of course at $700 (at the currently available pledge level) this thing is expensive as hell. The comparisons made in the campaign pitch aren’t really accurate — you can get an excellent coffee maker like a Bonnavita for $150, and of course plenty for less than that.

At $700, and with this thing’s capabilities, and with the side hustle of selling coffee packets, this seems like a better match for a boutique hotel room or fancy office kitchen than an ordinary coffee lover’s home. I enjoy using it, but its bulk and complexity are antithetical to the minimal coffee-making experience I have enjoyed for years. Still, it’s cool to see weird new coffee-making methods appear, and if you’re interested, you can still back it on Kickstarter for the next week or so.

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Focals by North review: The future is (almost) here

Posted by | augmented reality, focals, Gadgets, North, Reviews, smartglasses, Startups, TC, Wearables | No Comments

The concept of an IRL heads-up display has been a part of science fiction since basically the beginning. Big players have tried their hand at it with less than stellar results — most notably Google with Glass, and more recently Intel’s Vaunt. But North may have cracked the nut on smart glasses with Focals.

They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — they’re slightly heavy and don’t feel quite as seamless as science fiction promised they would — but this may be the best pair of smart glasses yet.

Who

Focals were created by North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $200 million in funding. Around the time Google Glass was released, founders Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey and Stephen Lake were working on a smart arm band. They were disenchanted, as were many, with Glass and sought to make something better.

Their first priority? Make a great pair of glasses, then outfit them with technology. In order to do that, they had to allow for prescription lenses, which means the lenses of their product had to be curved. This throws a huge wrench in the idea of lens-projected notifications and content, so Focals created its own special projector.

The company also felt that the touchpad on the side of Google Glass was overly cumbersome, leading them to build the Focals Ring to let users navigate the menu.

What

The Focals are technically AR glasses, but they’re not focused on gaming or content consumption. The product is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch for your face.

These notifications include the date and time, the weather, text notifications, email, Slack, Apple News alerts, Uber notifications, sports scores, turn-by-turn navigation and more. Users navigate this content using the Ring, outfitted with a nub of a joystick, which is meant to be worn on the index finger of your dominant hand.

Users can proactively seek information by clicking the joystick and scrolling, but the headset also serves up information in a push notification, including incoming messages and emails.

Importantly, North implemented a smart response system to keep users from having to pick up their phone each time they get a notification. The system gives users two options: choose from a list of smartly generated responses, or use speech-to-text through Focals’ built-in Alexa integration (the system is listening via built-in mic — but wearers have to opt-in during set up).

However, one of the great advantages for the Focals is also one of its weaknesses. The company chose to build a custom pair of glasses that could work with Rx lenses. That also means that the eyebox (the surface where you can see the projection) is smaller than other AR gadgets, which often use waveguides. In other words, your Focals have to be positioned pretty near perfectly to see the image. The company works hard to make sure that’s the case, fitting the glasses to your specific face. But glasses shift and move throughout the day, which means there’s plenty of re-adjusting in order to see the picture.

All that said, the Focals look surprisingly good. In fact, passersby would be hard-pressed to detect that they’re smart glasses in the first place. They aren’t comfortable enough to wear all day — the extra weight on the front means they get a bit uncomfortable after a few hours. But overall, these are pretty discreet as far as smart glasses go.

How

It’s a relatively time-consuming process to get your hands on a pair of Focals. Because the fit and size are so important to usability, users interested in purchasing a pair must go to one of North’s two stores (there’s one in Toronto, and one in Brooklyn, NY).

The visit to the store is by appointment. Upon arrival, store associates will take you into a booth where you’ll sit before 11 cameras that will 3D model your head, determining where your eyes and ears sit relative to the rest of your face. The cameras also try to understand your gaze.

From there, you get a demo with a standard (not fitted) pair of Focals, during which you learn how to align the Focals and use the Ring. It takes a few weeks for your custom-fit Focals to be ready to pick up, at which point you go through a final sizing with an optician.

It’s tedious, and will be difficult for the company to scale, but it’s part of what gives Focals an edge in quality. Luckily for folks outside of Toronto and NY, Focals is heading off on a pop-up tour. You can check out the tour dates and locations here.

Why

“Why?” is perhaps the toughest question to answer when it comes to the Focals. The goal, as outlined by the company, is to keep you connected to the digital world without taking you out of the real world. In short, stop looking down at your phone.

That said, Focals also take away the option. When your phone rings, or even when your Apple Watch buzzes, you have a choice to make: look down, or ignore. When you’re wearing the Focals, that decision is eliminated.

For this reason, I feel like this product is meant for early adopters and folks who enjoy being ultra-connected to the digital world. If you’re already addicted to the sweet chime of your phone, the Focals may very well keep you more connected to the real world, and potentially save your neck from some stiffness. But if you do well to live in the real world and don’t appreciate the constant flow of notifications to your phone, the Focals likely won’t help you maintain that separation.

There are also some minor issues with the Focals themselves. The Ring isn’t super comfortable, particularly when typing on a computer (something most of us spend hours each day doing). The Ring also seems like something that would be very easy to lose or break — this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (For now, North is replacing broken Rings for free.)

With the Focals themselves, I’d like to be clear when I say that I was pleasantly surprised with the overall experience. The UI is pleasant to look at, and the little chime of a notification that whispers in your ear is most certainly addictive.

However, I found my eyes getting tired after more than an hour wearing the Focals. Using the Focals means that you’re constantly changing the focus of your eyes from close to far away, which can be tiring. Moreover, if the glasses shift a bit on your face, the text of the notification can become fuzzy, making the experience even more tiring.

Plus, the glasses are built to bend halfway through the arms, as opposed to where the arms meet the frames. This means you can’t hang the Focals off the front of your shirt, which is an admittedly minor gripe, but it bugged me throughout the review process.

Add to that the fact that Focals start at $600 and this product is really for technophiles. For now.

North is on the right track. The company is constantly developing new features that are released each week — they recently launched Google Fit support to check your steps, as well as language lessons to brush up on your French during your walk to work. And they’ve started with the right priorities in mind. The Focals are fine looking glasses, and in general, the tech works. Now it’s about refinement.

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‘Gato Roboto’ and ‘Dig Dog’ put pixelated pets to work in gleeful gaming homages

Posted by | games, Gaming, Nintendo Switch, Reviews, Switch, TC | No Comments

Drawing inspiration from games of yore but with dog and cat protagonists that signal light adventures rather than grim, dark ones, Gato Roboto and Dig Dog are easy to recommend to anyone looking to waste a couple hours this weekend. Not only that, but the latter was developed in a fascinating and inspiring way.

Both games share a 1-bit aesthetic that goes back many years but most recently was popularized by the inimitable Downwell and recently used to wonderful effect in both Return of the Obra Dinn and Minit. This is a limitation that frees the developer from certain concerns while also challenging them to present the player with all the information they need with only two colors, or in Dig Dog’s case a couple more (but not a lot).

In the latter game, you play as a dog, digging for bones among a series of procedurally generated landscapes populated by enemies and hazards. Dig Dug is the obvious callback in the name, but gameplay is more bouncy and spontaneous rather than the slower, strategic digging of the arcade classic.

On every stage you’re tasked with collecting a bone that’s somewhere near the bottom, while avoiding various types of enemies and traps or, if you so choose, destroying them and occasionally yielding coins. These coins can be traded with a merchant who appears on some stages, offering various gameplay perks like a longer dash or higher jump.

Get it! Get the bone!

The simple controls let you jump, dig, and do a midair dash that kills enemies — that’s pretty much it. The rest is down to moment-to-moment choices: dig around that enemy or go through them? If I go this way will I trap myself in this hole? Is it worth attacking that bat nest for a coin or will it be too hard to get out alive?

Collected bones contribute towards unlocking new stages with different, more dangerous enemies and devious traps. It gives a sense of progression even when you only get a bone or two, as does your dog rocketing back upwards in a brief but satisfying zoomies celebration every time. So even when you die, and you will die a lot, you feel like you’re working towards something.

It’s a great time-waster and you won’t exhaust its challenges for hours of gameplay; it’s also very easy to pick up and play a few stages of, since a whole life might last less than a minute. At $4 it’s an easy one to recommend.

Interestingly, Dig Dog was developed by its creator with only minimal use of his hands. A repetitive stress condition made it painful and inadvisable for him to code using the keyboard, so he uses a voice-based coding system instead. If I had been told I couldn’t type any more, I’d probably just take up a new career, so I admire Rusty Moyher for his tenacity. He made a video about the process here, if you’re curious:

Gato Roboto, for Switch and PC, is a much more complicated game, though not nearly so much as its inspirations, the NES classics Metroid and Blaster Master. In Gato Roboto, as in those games, you explore a large world filled with monsters and tunnels, fighting bosses and outfitting yourself with new abilities, which in turn let you explore the world further.

This one isn’t as big and open as recent popular “metroidvanias” like Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest — it’s really much more like a linear action-adventure game in the style of metroidvanias.

The idea is that you’ve crash-landed on a planet after tracking a mysterious signal, but the spaceman aboard the ship is trapped — you play his cat, Kiki, who must explore the planet in his stead.

At first (or shall I say fur-st) you really are just a cat, but you’re soon equipped with a power suit that lets you jump and shoot like any other action game. However, you frequently have to jump out of it to get into a smaller tunnel or enter water, in which the suit can’t operate (and the cat only barely). In this respect it’s a bit like Blaster Master, in which your pilot could dismount and explore caves in top-down fashion — an innovation that made the game one of my favorites for the system. (If you haven’t played the Switch remake, Blaster Master Zero, I implore you to.)

Gato Roboto isn’t as taxing or complex as its predecessors, but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a non-stop romp where you always have a goal or an obstacle to overcome. The 1-bit graphics are so well executed that I stopped noticing them after a minute or two — the pixel art is very clear and only rarely does the lack of color cause any confusion whatever.

Like Dig Dog and Downwell before it, you can pick up color schemes to change the palette, a purely aesthetic choice but a fun collectible (some are quite horrid). The occasional secret and branching path keeps your brain working a little bit, but not too much.

The game is friendly and forgiving, but I will say that the bosses present rather serious difficulty spikes, and you may, as I did, find yourself dying over and over to them because they’re a hundred times more dangerous than ordinary enemies or environmental hazards. Fortunately the game is (kitty) littered with save points and, for the most part, the bosses are not overlong encounters. I still raged pretty hard on a couple of them.

It’s twice the price of Dig Dog, a whopping $8. I can safely say it’s worth the price of two coffees. Don’t hesitate.

These pleasant distractions should while away a few hours, and to me they represent a healthy gaming culture that can look back on its past and find inspiration, then choose to make something new and old at the same time.

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‘Observation’ is a tense, atmospheric puzzler where you play a modern HAL 9000

Posted by | devolver digital, Gaming, Reviews, TC | No Comments

When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, do you find yourself criticizing HAL 9000’s machinations and thinking, “I could do better than that!” If so, Observation may be right up your alley. In it you play a space station AI called SAM that is called upon by the humans on board to help resolve a deadly mystery — though you may be a part of it yourself.

The game takes place in the near future on board the titular space station, a sort of expanded version of the ISS. You are booted up by astronaut Emma Fisher after an unspecified event that seems to have damaged the station. You, as the Systems Administration and Maintenance AI, are tasked with helping her as she first tries to simply survive the immediate aftermath, then starts to investigate what happened.

To do so you perform various tasks such a digital agent would do, such as unlocking and opening hatches, checking for system errors, collecting information from damaged laptops and so on. It’s mostly done through the many cameras mounted throughout the station, between which you can usually move freely and change the angle so you can get at this hatch or that scrap of paper on the wall.

But from the beginning it’s clear that this is not a simple case of a micrometeorite or some other common space anomaly. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that like in 2001, the mystery runs deeper than that, and SAM itself is implicated.

Observation is a puzzle game that plays out in real time, though you are rarely presented with a task that needs to be completed in a rush — your commands are rarely an urgent “Open the pod bay doors, SAM!” and more “Something’s wrong with the cooling system, so this hatch won’t open, can you look into it?”

And so you search using your cameras for, say, the server that controls that system, or the scrap of paper that has its schematic so you can reboot it. These solutions are usually just a matter of being, well, observant, but occasionally can be frustrating gadget hunts where you don’t know what you’re looking for among the busy background of a working space station and the detritus of the disaster.

If you’re having trouble with something, chances are you’re overthinking it. I had to look up the solution to one situation, and it turns out I had simply overlooked some interactive objects because they looked so much like background. (For the record, it turns out you can turn stuff on and off at power outlets.)

When you have to operate something, like an airlock, there is usually a little minigame to complete in which you must figure out which series of buttons to hit or hold — nothing too taxing, just a way to make it so you aren’t just pressing the Action Button all the time. The controls can be a bit clunky, such as one that had me hold down s to do one thing, then press and hold w at the same time. Do they not understand the same finger does both those things? Fortunately you can remap controls and although mouse movement is a bit stiff, there’s no need for twitchy response time.

Although the puzzles are a bit simplistic, it’s a pleasure navigating the station because it is so beautifully realized. The creators clearly did a ton of research and Observation, that is to say the station, is a convincing 21st century operation — cameras and laptops are stashed everywhere, and there are sticky notes from the Russian and Chinese denizens, luggage and experiments tucked away or half finished.

It’s also all viewed through a combination of post-processing effects that make it all feel like you really are viewing it through a security camera system. These effects are a bit inconsistent — at one time you’ll hear what sounds like the whine of an 80s drive or system spinning up; others reflect a sort of Windows 98SE aesthetic; your own interface looks like something out of Terminator. It isn’t cohesive, exactly, but the truth is neither are the systems on board the ISS and other space hardware. And it’s a nice touch that lets the developer differentiate each part of the station and the different devices you connect to.

The modeling of the main character, Emma, is also excellent, though lapsing a bit into uncanny valley territory due to some clunky animations here and there. Maybe it’s just the microgravity. But one thing that can’t be faulted is the voice acting — Emma’s actor is brilliant, and other voices you encounter are also well done. Considering the amount of dialogue in the game, this could have been a dealbreaker, but instead it’s a pleasure to hear. Ambient audio is likewise lovely — wear headphones.

The atmosphere is oppressive and tense, but not exactly scary; don’t expect a xenomorph to bust out of any vents, but also don’t expect Space Station Simulator 2019. This is a serious, adult (though not explicit or violent) sci-fi narrative and, from what I’ve played, a smart and interesting one.

I haven’t finished the game (which was sent to me in advance for review… but I’ve been in an intense love/hate relationship with Mordhau), but based on what I’ve played I can easily recommend Observation to anyone with a mind to take on mildly difficult puzzles and experience a well-presented story in a carefully crafted environment. Space buffs will also enjoy. At less than $25 right now (less with this week’s sale going on), I’d say it’s a no-brainer.

Observation released earlier this week on the Epic Games and PlayStation stores.

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OnePlus redefines premium with the 7 Pro

Posted by | hardware, Mobile, OnePlus, Reviews, smartphones | No Comments

OnePlus has never been particularly beholden to industry trends. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than with the 7 Pro. In the face of a stagnated smartphone market, Apple, Samsung and Google all went budget, releasing lower-tier takes on their pricey flagships to appeal to consumers looking for something akin to a premium experience without having to shell out four figures.

The 7 Pro, on the other hand, is OnePlus’ most premium device to date. But while the shift marks a break from much of the industry, it’s a very logical step for the company’s current trajectory. OnePlus made a name for itself creating low-cost flagship devices with features that were just slightly behind the bleeding edge.

In recent years, however, the company has looked to change that perception, becoming one of the first Android phones with an in-display fingerprint sensor and promising to be among the first to deliver 5G. The 7 Pro, however, marks a new era for the company. The existing six-month release strategy is still in place here (fittingly, given that Google has recently adopted something similar with its Pixel line), but the language OnePlus is using has shifted.

In a meeting ahead of launch, a rep for the company told TechCrunch OnePlus considers its twice-yearly phones to all be “flagships,” but the new model introduces the paradigm of “premium flagship” and “ultra-premium flagship.”

That’s a markety speak way of saying the company doesn’t compromise — which I think is a fair point. Oftentimes the concept of a “budget flagship” is heavily weighted toward the budget side of things. But OnePlus long ago established its knack for providing well-rounded, high-end smartphone experiences at well below the price of premium handsets.

The 7 Pro’s $669 starting price hedges much closer to the iPhone XR and Samsung Galaxy S10e’s $749 than the Pixel 3a’s $399. It’s also a pretty significant bump over the OnePlus 6T’s $549 starting point. It’s likely enough to make longtime fans of the service do a double take, but the sizable increase does come with a truly premium handset.

That starts with the design (though it’s certainly more than skin deep). This is immediately apparent with the 6.67-inch display. If curved sides of the edge to edge design are familiar, it’s because it was built custom for OnePlus by Samsung. And while it’s similar, it is, in fact, a custom design for the line, meaning that it’s still distinguished from the Galaxy line — namely the 516ppi density and a 90Hz refresh rate.

What’s really notable, however, is the complete absence of a notch or a pinhole. The 7 Pro takes another key step toward a world of uninterrupted screen time. Open the camera app, flip to front-facing and wait just under a second, as it mechanically extends on top of the device.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen the technology — fellow Chinese manufacturers Oppo and Vivo have already introduced us to pop-up cameras. But given OnePlus’ ongoing T-Mobile partnership, this is arguably the first time this technology has really been available to mainstream U.S. consumers.

The execution is quite good. As someone who almost never takes selfies, I’ve come to appreciate the semblance of privacy of a hidden front-facing camera. If I need it, it’s just a tap of the screen away. There are some safety features built in, as well. Should it slip from your grip while the camera is out, the phone uses the accelerometer to automatically retract it. It will also automatically return home if the phone goes to sleep with it out.

OnePlus won’t say what this specifically means for things like water resistance. In fact, the company’s a little cagey on the subject — even recently taking to Twitter to brag that it didn’t submit for an IP rating, in order to lower the cost of the devices for the end user. Here’s a video of it dropping the new phone in a bucket:

Do with that what you will. It’s certainly clear why OnePlus would decide to skip elements it deemed unnecessary, but there is a certain peace of mind in knowing that a product has been submitted to rigorous testing by outside parties. The closest we got to a definitive answer was a recommendation against attempting to take an underwater selfie with the phone. So take that as you will.

On the rear of the device is a three-camera system that pairs a beefy 48-megapixel lens with a 78mm telephoto and 117-degree ultra-wide angle. I’ve had some opportunity to play with the phone, and this really does seem to be the most utilitarian set up for a three-camera system, and the camera software does a nice job transitioning between lenses as you zoom in.

This is a premium device inside, as well. The Snapdragon 855 is coupled with 6-12GB of RAM and either 128 or 256GB of storage. The battery is a beefy 4,000 mAh, which will get you through more than a day on a single charge, no problem. The “Warp Charge” maintains the company’s fast-charging tradition, letting you fill up around half the battery in 20 minutes using the included adapter.

OnePlus has really outdone itself here, once again proving that a truly premium device doesn’t require a four-digit investment. Other companies have explored a similar price point with varying degrees of success. For OnePlus fans not ready to take the step up, the company will continue to provide a more more affordable line going forward. For now, however, the 7 Pro is easily one of the best ways to get a truly premium smartphone experience without paying an arm and leg.

The 7 Pro will be available online May 17 through OnePlus’ site and T-Mobile.

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Samsung Galaxy Fold review: future shock

Posted by | foldables, galaxy fold, hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Samsung, samsung galaxy fold, smartphones | No Comments

The Galaxy Fold has been the most polarizing product I can recall having reviewed. Everyone who saw it wanted to play with the long-promised smartphone paradigm shift. The results, on the other hand, were far more mixed.

If nothing else, the Fold has a remarkably high Q-Rating. Each person who saw me using the product had at least a vague idea of what it was all about. I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve had that reaction with a non-iPhone device. That’s great from brand perspective. It means a lot of people are curious and potentially open to the notion that the Samsung Galaxy Fold is the future.

Of course, it also means there are a lot of people looking on if you fail.

In some ways, this past week with the Samsung Galaxy Fold has been an extremely public beta. A handful of samples were given out to reviewers. Most worked fine (mine included), but at least three failed. It’s what we in the industry call a “PR nightmare.” Or at least it would be for most companies.

Samsung’s weathered larger storms — most notably with the Galaxy Note 7 a few years back. Of course, that device made it much further along, ultimately resulting in two large-scale recalls. The nature of the two issues was also vastly different. A malfunctioning screen doesn’t put the user at bodily risk like an exploding battery. The optics on these things don’t get much worse than having your smartphone banned from planes.

As of this writing, the Fold is still set to go on sale, most likely this year. To be perfectly frank, the April 26 release date seemed overly optimistic well before the first reports of malfunctioning units. It’s never a great sign when a device is announced in February and is only made available for review a few weeks ahead of launch. It’s kind of like when a studio doesn’t let reviewers watch a film before release. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

That’s the thing. The Galaxy Fold is the kind of device you want badly to succeed. You want it to be great and you want Samsung to sell a billion because it’s a genuinely exciting product after a decade of phones that look mostly the same. There’s also the fact that Samsung has essentially been hyping this thing for eight years, since it debuted a flexible display at CES 2011.

In spite of that, however, the home stretch feels rushed. Samsung no doubt saw the writing on the wall, as companies like Huawei readied their own foldable. And while Royole beat the fold to market, Samsung still had a very good shot at the claim of first commercially viable foldable on the market, with a decade of Galaxy devices under its belt and hand-in-hand work with the Google team to create an Android UX that makes sense on a pair of very different screens.

[Source: iFixit]

But this iFixit teardown speaks volumes. “Alarmingly” isn’t the kind of word you want/expect to hear about a company like Samsung, but there it is, followed directly by “fragile” — itself repeated five times over the course of the write-up. iFixit’s findings match up pretty closely with Samsung’s own reports:

  1. A fragile display means knocking it the wrong way can result in disaster.
  2. A gap in the hinges allows dirt and other particles to wedge themselves between the folding mechanism and screen.
  3. Don’t peel off the protective layer. I know it looks like you should, but this is probably the easiest way to wreck your $2,000 phone that doesn’t involve a firearm or blender.

What makes all of this doubly unfortunate is that Samsung has about as much experience as anyone making a rugged phone that works. I feel confident that the company will do just that in future generations, but unless the company can come back with definitive evidence that it’s overhauled the product ahead of launch, this is a difficult product to recommend.

Samsung knew the first-gen Galaxy Fold would be a hard sell, of course. The company was pretty transparent about the fact that the experimental form factor, coupled with the $1,980 price tag, meant the device will only appeal to a small segment of early adopters.

Even so, the company managed to sell out of preorders — though it didn’t say how large that initial run was. Nor are we sure how many users have canceled in the wake of this past week’s events. Certainly no one would blame them for doing so at this point.

But while the apocalyptic shit-posters among us will declare the death of the foldable before it was ever truly born, whatever doesn’t kill Samsung has only made it stronger. And this misfire could ultimately do that for both the company and the category, courtesy of its informal beta testing.

Rewind a mere week or so ago (seriously, it’s only been that long), when we finally got our hands on the Galaxy Fold. I was impressed. And I certainly wasn’t alone. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a glow that first time you see a device that’s seemingly been teased forever. The fact that it exists feels like a kind of victory in and of itself. But the Fold does an admirable job marrying Samsung’s hardware expertise with a new form factor. And more importantly, it’s real and works as advertised — well, mostly, at least.

The truth is, I’ve mostly enjoyed my time with the Galaxy Fold. And indeed, it’s been fun chronicling it on a (nearly) daily basis. There are some things the form factor is great for — like looking at Google Maps or propping it up to watch YouTube videos on the elliptical machine at the gym. There are others when the bulky form factor left me wanting to go back to my regular old smartphone — but those trade-offs are to be expected.

I both like the Fold’s design and understand the criticism. Samsung’s done a good job maintaining the Galaxy line’s iconic design language. The foldable looks right at home alongside the S and Note. That said, the rounded backing adds some bulk to the product. And while open, the device is thinner than an iPhone, when folded, it’s more than double the thickness, owing to a gap between the displays. It’s quite skinny in this mode, however, so it should slip nicely into all but the tightest pants pockets.

In practice, the folding mechanism might be the most impressive part of the product. The inside features several interlocking gears that allow the product to open and shut with ease and let users interact with the device at various states of unfold. I found myself using the device with it open at a 90-degree angle quite a bit, resting in my hand like an open book. The Fold features a pair of magnets on its edges, which let you close it with a satisfying snap. It’s weirdly therapeutic.

Really, the biggest strike against the device from a purely aesthetic standpoint is that it’s not the Mate X. Announced by Huawei a few days after the Fold’s big unveil, the device takes a decidedly more minimalist approach to the category. It’s an elegant design that features less device and more screen, and, honestly, the kind of thing I don’t think most of us expected until at least the second-generation product.

The gulf between the two devices is especially apparent when it comes to the front screen. The front of the screen is around two-fifths bezel, leaving room for a 4.6-inch display with an awkward aspect ratio. The Mate X, meanwhile, features a 6.6-inch front-facing AND 6.4-inch rear-facing display (not to mention the larger eight-inch internal display to the Fold’s 7.3).

There’s reason to recommend the Fold over the Mate X, as well. I can’t speak to the difference in user experience, having only briefly interacted with the Huawei, but the price point is a biggie. The Mate X starts at an even more absurd $2,600, thanks in part to the fact that it will only be available in a 5G version, adding another layer of niche.

That price, mind you, is converted from euros, because 1) The product was announced at MWC in Barcelona and 2) U.S. availability is likely to be a nonstarter again, as the company continues to struggle with U.S. regulators.

Of course, the Fold’s U.S. availability is also in limbo at the moment, albeit for very different reasons.

I ultimately spent little time interacting with the front screen. It’s good for checking notifications and the like, but attempting to type on that skinny screen is close to impossible, with shades of the new Palm device, which implements its own shortcuts to get around those shortcomings. The inside, meanwhile, takes a butterfly keyboard approach, so you can type with both thumbs while holding it open like a book.

There’s also the issue of app optimization. A lot of this can be chalked up to an early version of a first-gen device. But as with every new device, the equation of how much developer time to invest is largely dependent on product adoption. If the Fold and future Fold’s aren’t a success, developers are going to be far less inclined to invest the hours.

This is most painfully obvious when it comes to App Continuity, one of the device’s primary selling points from a software perspective. When working as advertised, it makes a compelling case for the dual screens. Open something on the front and expand your canvas by unfolding the device. Google is among the companies that worked directly with Samsung to optimize apps this way, and it’s particularly handy with Maps. I used it a fair amount on my trip last week to Berkeley (shout out to the fine people at Pegasus Books on Shattuck).

When an app isn’t optimized, Samsung compels you to restart it, or else you get a nasty case of letterbox bars that retain the aspect ratio of the front screen. Continuity isn’t designed to work the other way, either — opening something on the large screen and then transferring to the front. That’s a bit trickier, as shutting the phone is designed to offer a kind of finality to that session, like hitting the power button to put the device to sleep.

I get that, and like many other pieces here, it will be interesting to see how people utilize it. Aside from the obvious hardware concerns, much of the work on the second-generation device will center around learnings from how users interact with this model. I know I surprised myself when I ended up using the 7.3-inch screen to snap photos. It felt silly — like those people who bring iPads to photograph events. But it’s ultimately a much better viewfinder than that measly 4.6-incher.

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg for the inside screen, of course. The size, which is somewhere between phablet and mini tablet, provides ample real estate that can still be held in one hand. It’s a great size for short videos. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube on this thing, though the speakers (a small series of holes on the upper and lower edges) leave a lot to be desired.

And the seam. I found myself uttering the phrase “it could be worse” a lot. Like so much of the general aesthetic (including the odd green-gold color of my Fold’s casing), it’s lighting-dependent. There are plenty of times when you don’t see it all, and other when the glare hits it and makes it look like a line right down the center.

I realized after snapping a couple of photos that it’s particularly apparent in many shots. That probably gives a false impression of its prominence. It sucks that there’s one at all, but it’s not a surprise, given the nature of the design. You mostly don’t notice it, until your finger swipes across it. And even then it’s subtle and totally not a dealbreaker, unlike, say, the massive gap that made the ZTE Axon M look like two phones pasted together.

I love the ability to stand the device up by having it open at a 90-degree angle, so I can watch videos while brushing my teeth. But this orientation blocks the bottom speakers, hampering the already iffy sound. Thankfully, your $1,980 will get you a pair of the excellent Galaxy Buds in box. It’s hard to imagine Apple bundling AirPods with the next iPhone, but I guess stranger things have happened, right?

Multi-Active Window is the other key software piece. It’s something that has been available on other Samsung devices and certainly makes sense here. Open an app, swipe left from the right side of the screen and a tray will open. From there, you can open up to three apps on the display. Once open, the windows feature a small tab at the top that lets you rearrange them.

It’s handy. I used it the most during those times I had a video playing on an exercise machine, so I didn’t have to close out of everything to check emails and Twitter. I’m a gym multi-tasker. I’m sorry, it’s just who I am now.

It worked quite well on the whole, courtesy of robust internals, including 12GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 855. The primary issue I ran into was how some of the apps maintained that half-screen format after I closed out and reopened. I’m sure some people will prefer that, and I’m honestly not sure what the ideal solution is there.

The Fold’s also got a beefy battery on board. Like Huawei’s, it’s split in two — one on either side of the fold. They work out to a beefy 4,380 mAh. That’s just slightly less than Huawei’s 4,500, but again, the Mate X is 5G by default — which means it’s going to burn through mAhs at a faster rate.

Ultimately, the Fold’s greatest strength is Samsung itself. I understand why you probably just did a double take there in the wake of the company’s latest hardware scandal, but the fact is that the company knows how to build phones. The Fold was very much built atop the foundation of the successful Galaxy line, even while it presents a curious little fork in the family tree.

That means a solid and well-thought-out user experience outside of the whole fold thing.

That list includes great cameras with excellent software features and clever tricks like the new Wireless PowerShare, which lets you fold up the phone and charge up those Galaxy Buds or another phone while it’s plugged in. For better or worse, it also includes Bixby. Our model was a European version that didn’t have the full version, but I think I’ve made my thoughts on the smart assistant pretty well known over the last couple of years.

The devoted Bixby button is very much here. And yes, I very much accidentally pressed it a whole bunch. The headphone jack, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent, which is no doubt a big driver behind the decision to include Galaxy Buds. The Fold is an anomaly in a number of ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this might finally represent the beginning of the end for the port on Samsung’s premium devices.

Also absent is the S Pen. The stylus began life on the Note line and has since branched out to other Samsung devices. I suspect the company would have had a tough time squeezing in space for it alongside the dual batteries, and maybe it’s saving something for future generations, but this does feel like the ideal screen size for that accessory.

I’m parting ways with the Fold this week, per Samsung’s instructions. Unlike other products, giving it up won’t feel that tough. There wasn’t a point in the past week when the Fold didn’t feel like overkill. There were, however, times when my iPhone XS screen felt downright tiny after switching back.

In many ways, the foldable phone still feels like the future, and the Fold feels like a stop along the way. There are a lot of first-gen issues that should be/should have been hammered out before mass producing this device. That said, there are certain aspects that can only really be figured out in real-world testing. Take the fact that Samsung subjected the device to 200,000 mechanical open and closes. That’s a lot, and probably more than the life of just about any of these devices, but people don’t open and close like machines. And when it comes to the screen, well, a little dirt is bound to get between the gears, both metaphorically and literally.

As I close this Galaxy Fold a final time, it seems safe to say that the device represents a potentially exciting future for a stagnant smartphone space. But that’s the thing about the future — it’s just not here yet.

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Yoshi’s Crafted World is classic gaming joy, Nintendo-style

Posted by | Gaming, Mario, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, Reviews, yoshi | No Comments

In 1995, Yoshi had his moment. The character’s Super Mario World debut was so strong, Nintendo handed the dinosaur sidekick his own sequel. A surprise divergence from the Mario franchise found the character escorting a baby version of the plumber in search of his kidnapped twin.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was regarded as an instant classic for the Super Nintendo. The positive reaction was due, in part, to some bold aesthetic choices. The game featured a shaky line style, both in keeping with the playful infant motif and to further highlight that the title wasn’t just another Mario game.

Yoshi’s island has received a number of its own sequels and spinoffs over the years. This is, after all, Nintendo we’re talking about here. The company has turned riding out IP into a kind of art form. But while many of those followups were generally well-received, but none managed to capture the pure joy of the original.

2015’s Yoshi’s Wooly World came close, but ultimately failed to meet the high standards of many Mario fans. And the fact that the Wii U was ultimately a doomed console didn’t help matters much.

From a design perspective, Yoshi’s Crafted World clearly shares a lot of common DNA with that predecessor and, for that matter, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, with developer Good-Feel being a common denominator in all three.  But the Switch title is a far more fully realized and cohesive package than the Wii U title. And like Yoshi’s Island before it, it’s a joy to play.

The first time I saw gameplay footage, I’d assume the game was a bit more of an open-world adventure — the Yoshi’s Island to Super Mario Galaxy’s Super Mario World. But while the new title gives you some choices, it never lets you stray too far from the standard platformer path.

To this day, side scrollers continue to be Nintendo’s bread and butter, even as it pushes the boundaries of gaming with other titles. At its worst, that means redundancy. At its best, however, Nintendo manages to put a fresh spin on the age old genre, as is the case here.

Clever mechanics like 3D world flipping and paths that point Yoshi down roads in a third dimension keep gameplay interesting. The addition of seemingly infinite Mario 3-style cardboard costumes, coupled with the DIY crafted design language, meanwhile, make it downright joy to play.

Yoshi’s Crafted World is an all-ages title, through and through. In fact, on first playing, the game asks whether you want to play “Mellow Mode” or “Classic Mode,” reassuring you that you can switch things up at any time. Even in Classic Mode, the game does a fair bit of handholding.

But the game’s simple and slow pace is more comfort than annoyance for even older players. The title plays like a casual game, writ large with a fun through line that finds Yoshi hunting down scattered “Dream Gems,” like so many Dragon Balls. It’s never as immersive or addicting as a title like Mario Galaxy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the kind of game you can happily play in spurts and come back to, after you’re done living your life.

It’s a reminder that games can be an escape from, rather than cause of, frustration and stress. And it’s definitely the best Yoshi star vehicle in nearly 25 years.

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Samsung Galaxy S10+ review

Posted by | galaxy s10, hardware, Mobile, mwc 2019, Reviews, Samsung, samsung galaxy, TC | No Comments

Launching around the globe a few days ahead of the world’s largest mobile show was the ultimate big-dog move. Samsung celebrated the 10th anniversary of its flagship phone line by launching its latest device on Apple’s sometimes-stomping grounds at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Center.

The timing was less than ideal for all of us jet-lagged gadget reviewers, but the effect clearly paid off. Dozens of the world’s highest-profile reviewers have been roaming the streets of Barcelona with the S10 in hand and Galaxy Buds in ears. You couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity.

And, naturally, none of us minded testing those new photo features in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

But the 10th anniversary Galaxy arrives at a transitional time for Samsung — and the industry at large. The last couple of years have seen smartphone sales plateau for the first time since anyone started keeping track of those sorts of numbers, and big companies like Samsung and Apple are not immune.

That manner of existential crisis has led to one of the most eventful Mobile World Congresses in memory, as companies look to shake the doldrums of a stagnant market. It also led Samsung to open last week’s Unpacked event with the Galaxy Fold — first the cryptic product video and then the product unveil.

It’s a heck of a lead in, and, quite frankly, a recipe for disappointment. Here’s a look at the future, and now let’s talk about the present. Several people saw that I was carrying around a new Samsung device, got excited and were ultimately disappointed with the fact that I couldn’t unfold the thing.

None of this is any reflection on the quality of the S10 as a device, which I will happily state is quite high. But unlike the iPhone X, Apple’s 10th anniversary handset, the new Galaxy isn’t an attempt at a radical departure. Instead, it’s a culmination of 10 years of phone development, with new tricks throughout.

The Galaxy S10 doesn’t offer the same glimpse into the future as the Fold. But it does make a strong claim for the best Android smartphone of the moment. Starting at $1,000, it’s going to cost you — but if Samsung’s $1,900 foldable is any indication, smartphones of the future could make it look like a downright bargain.

Screen time

The Samsung Galaxy S10+ has been my daily driver for a week now. It joined me on an international road trip, through several product unveils from the competition and is responsible for all of the images in this post. Sometimes the best camera is the one in your pocket, as the saying goes.

Like other recent Samsung flagships, it’s going to be a tough device to give up when review time comes to a close. It’s a product that does a lot of things well. Tending, as Samsung often does, toward jamming as much into a product as possible — the polar opposite of chief competitor Apple’s approach.

But in the case of the Galaxy line, it all comes together very nicely. The S10 doesn’t represent a radical stylistic departure from its predecessor, maintaining the same manner of curved design language that helps the company cram a lot of phone into a relatively limited footprint, including a 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio in the case of the S10+.

That means you can hold the handset in one hand, in spite of the ginormous 6.4-inch screen size. This is accomplished, in part, by the curved edges of the display that have been something of a Samsung trademark for a few generations now. It has also helped the Infinity-O design display, a laser cutout in the top-right of the screen, to fit the front-facing camera in as small a space as possible. In the case of the S10+, it’s more like an Infinity-OOO display.

Samsung was going to have to give in to the cutout trend sooner or later, opting to go ahead and skip the whole notch situation. The result is a largely unobtrusive break in the screen. Just for good measure, the phone’s default wallpapers have gradually darkening gradients that do a good job obscuring the cut out while not in use.

But while the whole more-screen-less-body deal is generally a good thing, there is a marked downside. I found myself accidentally triggering touch on the sides of the display with the edge of my palms, particularly when using the device with one hand. This has been a known issue for some time, of course.

Oh, and there’s one more key aspect in helping the S10+ go full screen.

Putting your finger on it

As with many of the features here, Samsung can’t claim to be the first to have the under-display fingerprint sensor. OnePlus, in a rare push to be first to market, added a similar technology to the 6T, which arrived last fall. But Samsung’s application takes things a step further.

The S10 and all of its variants are among the first to implant the fingerprint technology that Qualcomm announced at its Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii last year. The key differentiator here is an extra level of security. If the OnePlus’ fingerprint sensor is akin to your standard face unlock, this is more in line with what you get on the iPhone or LG’s latest handset.

The ability to sense depth brings another layer of security to the product — quite literally. Here’s how Qualcomm describes it:

Combining a smartphone’s display and fingerprint reader for a seamless and sleek look, 3D Sonic uses technological advances and acoustics (sonic waves) to scan the pores of a user’s finger for a deeply accurate 3D image. An ultra-thin (0.2 mm) sensor enables cutting-edge form factors such as full glass edge-to-edge displays, and can be widely used with flexible OLED displays.

Setup proved a bit fussier than the standard physical fingerprint button. Once everything is squared away, the reader is actually fairly responsive, registering a rippled water animation and unlocking the phone in about a second.

Getting your finger/thumb in the right spot might take a couple of tries on the first go, but after that, it’s muscle memory. There’s also a small fingerprint shaped guide that pops up on the lock screen for help. It can still be a bit tricky for those times you’re not looking directly at the display, or if you switch between hands.

It’s also worth noting that the unlock can be tricky with some screen protectors. Samsung will be working with accessory manufacturers to design compatible ones, but picking the wrong company could severely hamper the unlock function.

In some ways, though, the in-display fingerprint reader beats face unlock. I tend to lay my device down next to my keyboard when I work. Lifting the phone up to my eyes in order to read notifications is a bit of a pain. Same goes for when I need to check messages in bed. Here you can simply touch, check the notifications and go on with your life.

Ports in a storm

Around the edge is a mirrored metal band that houses the power button on one side and volume rocker and devoted Bixby button on the other. Yes, the Bixby button is back. And no, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Samsung is wholly devoted to the smart assistant, and the company’s mobile devices are the one foothold Bixby currently commands.

The complaint about the Bixby button mostly stems from the fact that the assistant was, quite honestly, pretty useless at launch — particularly when compared to Android’s default assistant. In fact, when Google announced this week at Mobile World Congress the upcoming arrival of Assistant buttons on third-party devices, the news was generally welcomed by the Android crowd.

Samsung, meanwhile, gets hounded about the Bixby button, as though its inclusion is a way of forcing its assistant on users. Once again, Samsung relented, giving users the ability to remap the button in order to launch specific apps instead. This has played out time and again with the last several Galaxy devices.

The fact is, after an admittedly rocky start, Bixby has slowly been getting better, feature by feature. But the assistant still has catching up to do with Google’s headset, and frankly doesn’t offer a ton of reasons to opt into it over Android’s built-in option. Samsung has certainly made big promises of late, coupled with the imminent arrival of the Galaxy Home Hub.

Of course, that device was announced more than half a year ago, and when it does finally arrive, it will likely be carrying a prohibitive price tag. Beyond that, Bixby is currently the realm of things like Samsung refrigerators and washing machines. None of this adds up to a particularly compelling strategy for a multi-million-dollar AI offering that has become something of an inside joke in the industry.

But Samsung sticks to its guns, for better or worse. Sometimes that means Bixby, and sometimes that means defiantly clinging to the headphone jack. Turns out if you avoid a trend for long enough, you can become a trendsetter in your own right — or at least a respite from the maddening crowd.

It’s been a few years since the beginning of the end came for the jack, and the whole thing still leaves plenty of users with a sour taste. Even the once-defiant Google quickly gave in and dropped the jack. Samsung, however, has stood its ground and the decision has paid off. What was ubiquitous is now a differentiator, and even as the company hawks another pair of Bluetooth earbuds, it’s standing its ground here.

All charged up

The back of the device, like the front, is covered in Gorilla Glass 6. The latest from Corning, which debuted over the summer, promises to survive “up to 15 drops.” But don’t try this at home with your shiny new $1,000 smartphone, as your results may vary.

The material also helps facilitate what is arguably the device’s most compelling new feature: Wireless PowerShare. Samsung’s not the first company to roll out the feature — Huawei introduced the feature on the Mate 20 Pro last year. Still, it’s a cool feature and, perhaps most importantly, it beat Apple to the punch.

The feature needs to be activated manually, by swiping down into notifications (it will also automatically shut off when not in use). From there, tapping Wireless PowerShare will pop up a dialog box, letting you know the feature is ready to us. Turn the phone face down on a table and place a compatible phone on top, face up, and the S10 will go to work charging it.

Placement can be a bit tough to get right the first couple of times. The trick is making sure both devices are centered. Once everything is where it should be, you’ll hear a quick notification sound and the phone will register as charging. In the case of the new Galaxy Buds, the sound is accompanied by the appearance of the case’s charging light.

It’s a neat feature, for sure. I can certainly imagine lending some ill-prepared friend a little juice at the bar one night. I wouldn’t go throwing out my power bank just yet. For one thing, one of the phones needs to be face-down the whole time. For another, wireless charging isn’t nearly as fast as its wired counterpart, so beyond the initial novelty of the feature, it may not ultimately be one you end up using a lot.

And, of course, you’re actively draining the battery of the phone sharing power. It’s a little like a Giving Tree scenario, albeit with the lowest stakes humanly possible. Thankfully, the handsets all sport pretty beefy batteries. In the case of the S10+, it’s a massive 4,100 mAh (with the 5G model getting an even nuttier 4,500 mAh).

It’s clear the days of Samsung’s Note 7-induced battery cautions are well behind it, thanks in no small part to the extensive battery testing the company implemented in the wake of a seemingly endless PR nightmare. As it stands, I was able to get around a full day plus two hours with standard usage while roaming the streets and convention center halls of Barcelona. That means you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of energy by day’s end — and you may even have a bit to spare before it’s all over.

Camera ready

You know the drill by now, Samsung and Apple come out with a new flagship smartphone, which quickly shoots to the top of DxOMark’s camera ratings. The cycle repeats itself yet again — with one key difference: It’s a three-way tie.

[Left: Standard, Right: Full zoom]

Really, there’s no better distillation of the state of the smartphone industry in 2019 than this. The latest iPhone, which is now half-a-year-old, is now a few spots down the list, with Samsung in a three-way tie for first. The other two top devices are, get this, both Huawei handsets. It’s been a banner year for the Chinese handset maker on a number of fronts, and that’s got to leave the Apples and Samsungs of the world a bit nervous, all told.

For now, though, there’s a lot to like here… 109 points’ worth, in fact. The last several generations of camera races have resulted in some really well-rounded camera gear. It’s a setup that makes it difficult to take bad shots (difficult, but hardly impossible, mind), with the combination of hardware and software/AI improvements we’ve seen over the course of the last few devices.

The camera setup varies from device to device, so we’re going to focus on the S10+ — the device we’ve spent the past week with (though, granted, the 5G model’s camera warrants its own write-up). The plus model features a three-camera array, oriented horizontally in a configuration that brings nothing to mind so much as the original Microsoft Kinect.

[Left: Samsung S10+, Right: Pixel 2]

It’s been fascinating watching companies determine the best use for a multi-camera array. Take Nokia’s new five-camera system, which essentially compiles everything into one super-high-res shot. Here, however, the three lenses capture three different images. They are as follows:

Wide (Standard): 12 MP, 26mm
Telephoto: 12 MP, 52mm
Ultrawide: 16 MP, 12mm

The system is configured to let you seamlessly switch between lenses in order to capture a shot in a given situation. The telephoto can do 2x shots, while the ultrawide captures 123-degree shots. The 5G model, meanwhile, adds 3D-depth cameras to the front and rear, which is a pretty clear indication of where Samsung plans to go from here.

That said, the current setup is still quite capable of pulling off some cool depth tricks. This is no better exemplified than with the Live Focus feature, which applies a Portrait Mode-style bokeh effect around the objects you choose. The effect isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty convincing. Above is a shot I took on the MWC show floor and used in the led for a story about the HTC Vive.

There are some fun tricks as well, like the above Color Point effect. I’m not sure how often I’d end up using it, but damn if it doesn’t look cool.

All of that, coupled with new touches like wide-image panorama and recent advances like super-slow-motion and low-light shooting make for an extremely well-rounded camera experience. Ditto for scene identification, which does a solid job determining the differences between, say, a salad and a tree and adjusting the shooting settings accordingly.

Oh, and a low-key solid upgrade here are the improved AR Emojis, as seen above. They’re 1,000 times less creepy than the originals. I mean, I’m still not going to be sharing them with people unironically or anything, but definitely a step in the right direction.

Today’s Galaxy

The present moment is an exciting one for the mobile industry. There were glimmers of promise all over the MWC show floor and a week prior at Samsung’s own event. A stagnant industry has caused the big players to get creative, and some long-promised technologies are about to finally get real.

The Samsung Fold feels like a clear peek into the future of one of the industry’s biggest players, so it’s only natural that such an announcement would take some of the wind out of its flagship’s sails.

The S10 isn’t the smartphone of the future. Instead, it’s the culmination of 10 solid years of cutting-edge smartphone work that’s resulted into one of today’s most solid mobile devices.

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Bioware’s high-flying ‘Anthem’ falls flat

Posted by | Anthem, BioWare, game review, Gaming, review, Reviews, TC | No Comments

Anthem is the first attempt by Bioware (of Mass Effect and Dragon Age fame) to tap into the well of cash supposedly to be found in the “game as platform” trend that has grown over the last few years, with Destiny, Warframe and Fortnite as preeminent exemplars. After a botched demo weekend dampened fan expectations, the final game is here — and while it’s a lot better than the broken mess we saw a few weeks ago, it’s still very hard to recommend.

I delayed my review to evaluate the game’s progress after an enormous day-one patch. While it is always premature to judge a game meant to grow and evolve by how it is immediately after launch, there are serious problems here that anyone thinking of dropping the $60 or more on it should be aware of. Perhaps they’ll all be fixed eventually, but you better believe it’s going to take a while.

I’d estimate this is about half the game it’s clearly intended to be; it seems to me we must soon find out that most of Anthem, supposedly in development for five years or more, was scrapped not long ago and this shell substituted on short notice.

The basic idea of Anthem is that you, a “freelancer” who pilots a mechanized suit called a “javelin,” fly around a big, beautiful world and blast the hell out of anything with a red hostility indicator over its head, which in practice is damn near everything. Once you’re done, you collect your new guns and gadgets and head back to base to improve your javelin, take on new missions and so on.

If it sounds familiar, it’s basically an extremely shiny version of Diablo, which established this gameplay loop more than 20 years ago; its sequels and the innumerable imitators it spawned have refined the concept, bolstering it with MMO-style online integration, “seasons” of gameplay and, of course, the inevitable microtransactions. People play them simply because it’s fun to kill monsters and see your character grow more powerful.

So Anthem is in good company, though of course for every success there are probably two or three failures and mediocre titles. Destiny has thrived in a way only because of its fluid and satisfying gunplay, while a game like Path of Exile leans on bulk, with skill trees and content one may never reach the ends of.

Anthem, on the other hand, lacks the charms of either. It is wildly short on content and its moment-to-moment gameplay, while competent and in some ways unique, rarely has you on the edge of your seat. It’s a very mixed bag of interesting concepts and disappointing execution, coupled with some truly baffling user experience issues.

I’ll cover the good parts first: the basics of flying around and shooting guys are for the most part solid. There’s a good variety of weapons, from hand cannons to shotguns and sniper rifles, with meaningful variations within those groups (though they usually boil down to rate of fire). You feel very cool during engagements, picking off enemies, dodging behind cover, flying to a new vantage point and so on.

Each of the four javelins has a good pile of themed special abilities that significantly affect how you play; for instance, the Storm starts out with (basically) non-damaging ice shards that freeze enemies, setting them up for a damaging combo from its lightning strike — but soon you can swap those out for fiery explosions and a charge-up blast of cold, and so on. The synergies are somewhat limited in that some abilities clearly only work with some others, but there’s fun to be had experimenting. I played with three of the four javelins available (more to come, apparently) and they were all very distinct styles.

Damn.

The graphics really are lovely, from the future-past desert chic of Fort Tarsis to the lush jungle cliffs of the world you’ll be exploring. The light and landscapes are beautiful, and the character models are, too. Firefights look chaotic and splashy, which they are. There are also lots of customization options, in terms of colors and materials anyway — there’s a puzzling lack of cosmetics to buy with in-game or real currency; only two or three are available right now.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the extent of what Anthem gets right — and to be clear, it really can be fun when you’re actually in the middle of a firefight, blasting away, doing combos with friends, taking on hordes of bad guys. The rest is pretty much a mess. Here’s the greatest hits of how Anthem fails to operate, to respect the player’s time and, generally speaking, to be a good game.

First and perhaps most egregious, the load screens are frequent and long. I timed it at more than five minutes from launch, and at least three or four different load screens, before I could actually play the game.

Get ready for a lot of this! And incidentally, many fire attacks don’t actually set up combos.

A long load time to bring up a huge world like Anthem’s I can understand. But load times to enter the screen where you change your gear? Load screens when you enter a small cave from the map? A load screen when you stray too far from your teammates and have to be teleported to them? A load screen when you finish a mission, then another before you can return to base — and another before you can equip your new gun? Oh my god!

This is compounded by a sluggish and over-complicated UI that somehow manages to show both too much and not enough, while inconsistent keys and interaction elements keep you guessing as to whether you need to press F or space or escape to go forward, hit or hold escape to go back, use Q or E to go through submenus or if you have to escape out to find what you’re looking for.

Equipment and abilities are mystifyingly under-explained: no terms like “+15% gear speed” or “+/-10% shield time” are explained anywhere in the tutorial, documentation or character screen — because there is no character screen! For a game that depends hugely on stats and getting an overall feel for your build and gear, you have to visit five or six screens to get a sense of what you have equipped, its bonuses (if comprehensible) and whether you have anything better to use. Even core game systems like the “primer” and “detonator” abilities are only cursorily referenced, by cryptic icons or throwaway text. The original Diablo did it better, to say nothing of Anthem’s competition at the AAA level.

Navigating these menus and systems is doubly hard because you must do so not by just hitting a key, but by traveling at walking speed through the beautiful but impractical Fort Tarsis. It took a full 30 seconds for me to walk from my suit (the only place where you can launch missions) to a quest giver. And when you start the game, you start in a basement from which you have to walk 20 seconds to get to your suit! Are you kidding me?

A common sight.

Even when you’re doing what the game does best, zooming around and getting in firefights, there’s a disturbing lack of mission variety. Almost without exception you’ll fly to a little arena — some ruins or a base of some kind — and are immediately alerted of enemies in the area. They warp in at a convenient distance, often while you watch, and attack while you stand near a gadget (to advance a progress bar) or collect pieces to bring back. Some more powerful guys warp in and you shoot them. Fly to the next arena, rinse and repeat.

Sure, you could say “well it’s a shooter, what do you expect?” I expect more than that! Where are the aerial chases the intro leads you to believe exist? Enemies all either stand on the ground or hover just above it. They don’t clamber on the walls, get to the top of towers, shoot down on you from cliffs, climb trees, build gun emplacements. You don’t defend a moving target like the “Striders” (obviously AT-ATs) you supposedly travel in; bridges and buildings don’t crumble or explode; you don’t chase a bad guy into a big cave (or if you do, there’s a loading screen); the “boss-type” enemies are often just regular guys with more life or shields that recharge in the time it takes you to reload. Where are the enemy javelins? The enemy Striders? Ninety percent of what you kill will be ground-bound grunts taken down in a flash. For a game in which movement is emphasized and enjoyable, combat involves very little of it.

The campaign, which is surprisingly well acted but forgettable, seems like it was tacked on in a hurry. Amazingly, a major cutscene details a much more interesting story, in which a major city is overrun and destroyed and only a few survive. It struck me at the time that this might have been the original campaign and starting mission, after which you are logically relegated to the nearby Fort Tarsis and forced to fight for scraps. Instead you have a series of samey missions with voice-overs telling you what’s happening while you stand there and watch progress bars fill up.

At one point you are presented with four ancient tombs to track down, only to find that these amazing tombs aren’t missions but simply checklists of basic game activities like opening 15 treasure chests, killing 50 enemies with melee and so on. At a point, increasing these numbers was literally the only “mission” I had available in the game. And when I tried to join other people’s missions to accomplish these chores, half the time they were broken or already finished. Even trying to quit these missions rarely worked! (Some of these bugs and issues have been mitigated by patches, but not all.)

Spoiler warning! What do you think is in the tombs? A taxing dungeon full of traps, monsters and ancient treasure? Nope! Literally just a tiny, empty room. And yes, there’s a loading screen — both in and out.

Oh, and because many of the missions are difficult or tedious to do solo, you’ll want to team up — except if you’re slow to load, the mission will commence without you and you’ll miss the VO. Whoops! And by the way, if you just want to test out a new gun or power, you’ll have to join a multiplayer “freeplay” session to do it, which is another handful of loading screens. I’m not even going to get into the failings of the multiplayer. Because you can’t communicate it’s basically like playing with bots. By the way, there’s no PvP, so forget about skirmishing with your friends or randoms.

Even the loot you get is frustratingly low-quality and unimaginative. Every gun or component is a standard model almost always with just slightly better damage than the last one you found, and perhaps a stat bonus. But the stat bonuses are boring and often nonsensical: do I really want an assault rifle that gives me 10 percent better damage with heavy pistols?

Where’s the fun? For comparison when I was playing Diablo III recently I found a pair of leg armor early on that produced a powerful poison cloud whenever I was touching three or more enemies. Suddenly I played differently, rushing into crowds of monsters and leaping out, then immobilizing them while their life ticked down. I changed out my weapons, focused on physical defense, poison buffs… all because of a pair of pants!

I’ve encountered nothing like that in 25 hours of Anthem. Every new power and gun is the same as the old one but with a higher number. Where’s the lightning bolt that also sets people on fire, or the plasma blast that always knocks down flying guys? The pistol that does double damage against one class of enemy, the sniper rifle that automatically chambers a new round instantly in one out of five shots?

You do eventually find some “Masterwork” items that have unique qualities, but even these are compromised by the fact that their stats are completely random (such as a bonus to the wrong damage type), necessitating a grind to make or find them over and over until you get one with bonuses that make sense.

So much of Anthem seems like it’s just missing. The campaign is half there; the controls and UI are half there; the loot is half there. The multiplayer is half there. Everything lacks a critical piece that makes it more than basically functional, and considering the game’s highly polished competition, this is inexplicable and inexcusable. I find it hard to believe this was in the works for five years when such elementary aspects like a character screen and working item descriptions aren’t included at launch.

It’s more than possible that with perhaps half a year of work the Bioware team — which seems to be painfully aware of the game’s shortcomings, if their responses to detailed litanies of complaints on the game’s subreddit are any indication — could make this game worth the price of entry. But right now I couldn’t recommend it to anybody in good conscience, and I’m disappointed that a developer that’s created some of my favorite games dropped the ball so badly.

It’s too bad, because I feel the pull of the game, the basic chaotic fun at the heart of any good looter-shooter, because I feel like this can’t really be it. This can’t really be all my abilities, right? This can’t be every weapon? I liked Anthem when it was at its best, but that was so very little of the time I spent in it, and it took so much effort and patience on my part to even make those moments a possibility. I’ll be checking back in with the game in the hopes that it makes a Destiny-esque turnaround, but for now I have to say Anthem suffers from a failure to launch.

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Review: The iPad Pro and the power of the Pen(cil)

Posted by | Apple, Apple Pencil, computing, editor, Gadgets, hardware, Intel, iOS, iPad, iPad Pro, iPads, iPhone, Mac OS X, Microsoft, Reviews, surface pro, tablet computers, TC | No Comments

Laptop users have been focused for a very long time on whether the iPad Pro is going to be forced upon them as a replacement device.

Depending on who you believe, Apple included, it has at one point been considered that, or a pure tablet with functions to be decided completely by the app development community, or something all its own.

But with the iPad Pro, the Smart Keyboard and the new version of Apple’s Pencil, some things are finally starting to become clear.

The new hardware, coupled with the ability and willingness of companies like Adobe to finally ship completely full-featured versions of Photoshop that handle enormous files and all of the tools and brushes of the desktop version, are opening a new door on what could be possible with iPad Pro — if Apple are ready to embrace it.

Pencil

Does the double-tap gesture feel natural? Yep. I’ve been using electronic drawing surfaces since the first generation Wacom that had a serial port connector. Many of them over the years have had some sort of “action button” that allowed you to toggle or click to change drawing modes, invoke erasers or pallets and generally save you from having to move away from your drawing surface as much as possible.

That’s the stated and obvious goal of the Apple Pencil’s new double tap as well. Many of the internal components are very similar to the first-generation Pencil, but one of the new ones is a capacitive band that covers the bottom third of the pencil from the tip upwards. This band is what enables the double tap and it is nicely sensitive. It feels organic and smooth to invoke it, and you can adjust the cadence of tap in the Pencil’s control panel.

The panel also allows you to swap from eraser to palette as your alternate, and to turn off the “tap to notes” feature, which lets you tap the pencil to your screen to instantly launch the Notes app. When you do this it’s isolated to the current note only, just like photos. One day I’d love to see alternate functions for Pencil tap-to-wake, but it makes sense that this is the one they’d start with.

I never once double tapped it accidentally and it felt great to swap to an eraser without lifting out of work mode — the default behavior.

But Apple has also given developers a lot of latitude to offer different behaviors for that double tap. Procreate, one of my favorite drawing apps, offers a bunch of options, including radial menus that reflect the current tool or mode and switching between one tool and another directly. Apple’s guidelines instruct developers to be cautious in implementing double tap — but they also encourage them to think about what logical implementations of the tool look like for users.

The new Pencil does not offer any upgrades in tracking accuracy, speed or detection. It works off of essentially the same tracking system as was available to the first Pencil on previous iPad Pros. But, unfortunately, the Pencil models are not cross-compatible. The new Pencil will not work on old iPad Pros and the old Pencil does not work on the new model. This is due to the pairing and charging process being completely different.

Unlike the first one, though, the new Pencil both pairs and charges wirelessly — a huge improvement. There is no little cap to lose, you don’t have to plug it into the base of the iPad like a rectal thermometer to charge and the pairing happens simultaneously as you charge.

The “top” (for lack of a better term) edge of the iPad Pro in horizontal mode now features a small opaque window. Behind that window are the charging coils for the Pencil. Inside the Pencil itself is a complementary coil, flanked by two arrays of ferrite magnets. These mate with magnetic Halbach arrays inside the chassis of the iPad. Through the use of shaped magnetic fields, Apple pulls a bit of alignment trickery here, forcing the pencil to snap precisely to the point where the charging coils are aligned perfectly. This enables you to slap the pencil on top quickly, not even thinking about alignment.

The magnetic connection is tough — almost, but not quite, enough to hold the larger iPad Pro in the air by the pencil — and it should hold on well, but it’s fairly easy to knock off if you come at it from the side, as you would when pulling it off from the front.

There’s also a pleasant on-screen indicator now that shows charge level.

When the Pencil launched, I brought it to my Dad, a fine artist who sketches more than anyone I know as a part of his creative process. He liked the tracking and the access to digital tools, but specifically called out the glossy finish as being inferior to matte and the fact that there was no flat edge to rest against your finger.

The new Pencil has both a matte finish and a new flat edge. Yes, the edge is there to stop the pencil from rolling and also to allow it to snap to the edge of the iPad for charging, but the ability to register one edge of your drawing instrument against the inside of your control finger is highly under-valued by anyone who isn’t an artist. It’s hugely important in control for sketching. Plenty of pencils are indeed round, but a lot of those are meant to be held in an overhand grip — like a pointing device that you use to shade, for the most part. The standard tripod grip is much better suited to having at least one flat edge.

Your range of motion is limited in tripod grip, but it can provide for more precision, where the overhand grip is more capable and versatile; it’s also harder to use precisely. The new Pencil is now better to use in both of these widely used grips, which should make artists happy.

These fiddly notions of grip may seem minor, but I (and my drawing callous) can tell you that it is much more than it seems. Grip is everything in sketching.

The Pencil is one of the most impressive version 2 devices that Apple has ever released. It scratches off every major issue that users had with the V1 — a very impressive bit of execution here that really enhances the iPad Pro’s usability, both for drawing and quick notes and sketches. The only downside is that you have to buy it separately.

Drawing and sketching with the new Pencil is lovely, and remains a completely stand-out experience that blows away even dedicated devices like the Wacom Cintiq and remains a far cut above the stylus experience in the Surface Pro devices.

Beyond that there are some interesting things already happening with the Pencil’s double tap. In Procreate, for instance, you can choose a different double-tap action for many different tools and needs. It’s malleable, depending on the situation. It’s linked to the context of what you’re working on, or it’s not, depending on your (and the developer’s) choices.

One minute you’re popping a radial menu that lets you manipulate whole layers, another you’re drawing and swapping to an eraser, and it still feels pretty easy to follow because it’s grounded in the kind of tool that you’re using at the moment.

Especially in vertical mode, it’s easy to see why touch with fingers is not great for laptops or hybrids. The Pencil provides much-needed precision and delicacy of touch that feels a heck of a lot different than pawing at the screen with your snausages trying to tap a small button. Reach, too, can be a problem here, and the Pencil solves a lot of the problems in hitting targets that are 10” away from the keyboard or more.

The Pencil is really moving upwards in the hierarchy from a drawing accessory to a really mandatory pointing and manipulation tool for iPad users. It’s not quiiiite there yet, but there’s big potential, as the super flexible options in Procreate display.

There’s an enormous amount of high-level execution going on with Pencil, and by extension, iPad. Both the Pencil and the AirPods fly directly in the face of arguments that Apple can’t deliver magical experiences to users built on the backs of its will and ability to own and take responsibility of more of its hardware and software stack than any other manufacturer.

Speakers and microphones

There are now five microphones, though the iPad Pro still only records in stereo. They record in pairs, with the mics being dynamically used to noise cancel as needed.

The speakers are solid, producing some pretty great stereo sound for such a thin device. The speakers are also used more intelligently now, with all four active for FaceTime calls, something that wasn’t possible previously without the five-mic array due to feedback.

Let’s talk about ports, baby/Let’s talk about USB-C

I’m not exactly an enormous fan of USB-C as a format, but it does have some nice structural advantages over earlier USB formats and, yes, even over Lightning. It’s not the ideal, but it’s not bad. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see Apple conceding that people wanting to use an external monitor at high-res, charge iPhones and transfer photos at high speed is more important than sticking to Lightning.

The internal and external rhetoric about Lightning has always been that it was compact, useful and perfect for iOS devices. That rhetoric now has an iPad Pro-sized hole in it and I’m fine with that. A pro platform that isn’t easily extensible isn’t really a pro platform.

It’s not a coincidence that Apple’s laptops and its iPad Pro devices all now run on USB-C. This trickle down may continue, but for now it stems directly from what Apple believes people will want from these devices. An external monitor was at the top of the list in all of Apple’s messaging onstage and in my discussions afterwards. They believe there is a certain segment of Pro users that will benefit greatly from running an extended (not just mirrored) display up to 5K resolution.

In addition, there are a bunch of musical instruments and artist’s peripherals that will connect directly now. There’s even a chance (but not an official one) that the port could provide some externally powered accessories with enough juice to function.

The port now serves a full 7.5W to devices plugged in to charge, and you can plug in microphones and other accessories via the USB-C port, though there is no guarantee any of them will get enough power from the port if they previously required external power.

Pretty much all MacBook dongles will work on the iPad Pro, by the way. So whatever combos of stuff you’ve come up with will have additional uses here.

The port is USB 3.1 gen 2 capable, making for transfers up to 10GBPS. Practically, what this means for most people is faster transfer from cameras or SD Card readers for photos. Though the iPad Pro does not support mass storage or external hard drive support directly to the Files app, apps that have their own built-in browsing can continue to read directly from hard drives and now the transfer speeds will be faster.

There is a USB-C to headphone adapter, for sale separately. It also works with Macs, if that’s something that excites you. The basic answer I got on no headphone jacks, by the way, is that one won’t even fit in the distance from the edge of the screen to the bezel, and that they needed the room for other components anyway.

The new iPad Pro also ships with a new charger brick. It’s a USB-C power adapter that’s brand new to iPad Pro.

A12X and performance

The 1TB model of larger iPad Pro and, I believe, the 1TB version of the smaller iPad Pro, have 6GB of RAM. I believe, according to what I’ve been able to discern, that the models that come with less than 1TB of storage have less than that — around 4GB total. I don’t know how that will affect their performance because I was not supplied with those models.

The overall performance of the A12X on this iPad Pro though, is top notch. Running many apps at once in split-screen spaces or in slideover mode is no problem, and transitions between apps are incredibly smooth. Drawing and sketching in enormous files in Procreate was super easy, and I encountered zero chugging across AR applications (buttery smooth), common iPad apps and heavy creative tools. This is going to be very satisfying for people who edit large photos in Lightroom or big video files in iMovie.

The Geekbench benchmarks for this iPad are, predictably, insane:

As you can see, the era of waiting for desktop-class ARM processors to come to the iPad Pro is over. They’re here, and they’re integrated tightly with other Apple-designed silicon across the system to achieve Apple’s ends.

There have basically been two prevailing camps on the ARM switch. One side is sure Apple will start slowly, launching one model of MacBook (maybe the literal MacBook) on ARM and dribbling it out to other models. I was solidly in that camp for a long time. After working on the iPad Pro and seeing the performance, both burst and sustained, across many pro applications, I’ve developed doubts.

The results here, and the performance of the iPad Pro, really crystallize the fact that Apple can and will ship ARM processors across its whole line as soon as it feels like it wants to.

There are too many times where we have ended up waiting on new Apple hardware due to some vagary of Intel’s supply chain or silicon focus. Apple is sick of it; I’ve heard grumbling for years about this from inside the company, but they’re stuck with Intel as a partner until they make the leap.

At this point, it’s a matter of time, and time is short.

Camera and Face ID

The camera in the iPad Pro is a completely new thing. It uses a new sensor and a new five-element lens. This new camera had to be built from the ground up because the iPad Pro is too thin to have used the camera from the iPhone XR or XS or even the previous iPads.

This new camera is just fine, image quality-wise. It offers Smart HDR, which requires support both from the speedy sensor and the Neural Engine in the A12X. It’s interesting that Apple’s camera team decided to do the extra work to provide a decent camera experience, rather than just making the sensor smaller or falling back to an older design that would work with the thickness, or lack thereof.

Interestingly, this new camera system does not deliver portrait mode from the rear camera, like the iPhone XR. It only gives you portrait from the True Depth camera on front.

iPad photography has always gotten a bad rap. It’s been relegated to jokes about dads holding up tablets at soccer games and theme parks. But the fact remains that the iPad Pro’s screen is probably the best viewfinder ever made.

I do hope that some day it gets real feature-for-feature parity with the iPhone, so I have an excuse to go full dad.

Of similar note, both hardware and software updates have been made to the True Depth array on the front of the iPad Pro in order to make it work in the thinner casing. Those changes, along with additional work in neural net training and tweaking, also support Face ID working in all “four” orientations of the iPad Pro. No matter which way is up, it will unlock, and it does so speedily — just as fast as the iPhone XS generation Face ID system, no question.

I also believe that it works at slightly wider angles now, though it may be my imagination. By nature, you’re often farther away from the screen on the iPad Pro than you are on your phone, but still, I feel like I can be much more “off axis” to the camera and it still unlocks. This is good news on iPad because you can be in just about any working posture and you’re fine.

Keyboard

Like the Pencil, the Smart Keyboard Folio is an optional accessory. And, like the Pencil, I don’t think you’re really getting the full utility of the iPad Pro without it. There have been times where I’ve written more than 11,000 words at a stretch on iPad for very focused projects, and its ability to be a distraction-free word production machine are actually wildly undersung, I feel. There are not many electronic devices better for just crashing out words without much else to get in the way than iPad with a good text editor.

Editing, however, has always been more of a mixed bag. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet with the latest iPad Pro, but it’s a far better scenario for mixed-activity sessions. With the help of the Pencil and the physical keyboard, it is becoming a very livable situation for someone whose work demands rapid context switching and a variety of different activities that require call-and-response feedback.

The keyboard itself is fine. It feels nearly identical to the previous keyboard Apple offered for iPads, and isn’t ideal in terms of key press and pushback, but makes for an OK option that you can get used to.

The design of the folio is something else. It’s very cool, super stable and shows off Apple’s willingness to get good stupid with clever implementation.

A collection of 120 magnets inside the case are arranged in the same Halbach arrays that hold the pencil. Basically, sets of magnets arranged to point their force outwards. These arrays allow the case to pop on to the iPad Pro with a minimum of fuss and automatically handle the micro-alignment necessary to make sure the the contacts of the smart connector make a good connection to power and communicate with the keyboard.

The grooves that allow for two different positions of upright use are also magnetized, and couple with magnets inside the body of the iPad Pro.

The general effect here is that the Smart Keyboard is much, much more stable than previous generations and, I’m happy to report, is approved for lap use. It’s still not going to be quite as stable as a laptop, but you can absolutely slap this on your knees on a train or plane and get work done. That was pretty much impossible with its floppier predecessor.

One big wish for the folio is that it offered an incline that was more friendly to drawing. I know that’s not the purpose of this device specifically, but I found it working so well with Pencil that there was a big hole left by not having an arrangement that would hold the iPad at around the 15-20 degree mark for better leverage and utility while sketching and drawing. I think the addition of another groove and magnet set somewhere on the lower third of the back of the folio would allow for this. I hope to see it appear in the future, though third parties will doubtlessly offer many such cases soon enough for dedicated artists and illustrators.

Design

Though much has been made about the curved corners of the iPad Pro’s casing and the matching curved corners of its screen, the fact is that the device feels much more aggressive in terms of its shape. The edges all fall straight down, instead of back and away, and they’re mated with tight bullnose corners.

The camera bump on the back does not cause the iPad to wobble if you lay it flat on a counter and draw. There’s a basic tripod effect that makes it just fine to scribble on, for those who were worried about that.

The overall aesthetic is much more businesslike and less “friendly” in that very curvy sort of Apple way. I like it, a lot. The flat edges are pretty clearly done that way to let Apple use more of the interior space without having to cede a few millimeters all the way around the edge to unusable space. In every curved iPad, there’s a bit of space all the way around that is pretty much air. Cutting off the chin and forehead of the iPad Pro did a lot to balance out the design and make it more holdable.

There will likely be, and I think justifiably, some comparisons to the design of Microsoft’s Surface Pro and the new blockier design. But the iPads still manage to come in feeling more polished than most of its tablet rivals, with details like the matching corner radii, top of the line aluminum finish and super clever use of magnets to keep the exterior free of hooks or latches to attach accessories like the Smart Keyboard.

If you’re debating between the larger and smaller iPad Pro models I can only give you one side of advice here because I was only able to test the new 12.9” model. It absolutely feels better balanced than the previous larger iPad and certainly is smaller than ever for the screen size. It makes the decision about whether to move up in size a much closer one than it ever has been before. Handling the smaller Pro in person at the event last week was nice, but I can’t make a call on how it is to live with. This one feels pretty great though, and certainly portable in a way that the last large iPad Pro never did — that thing was a bit of a whale, and made it hard to justify bringing along. This one is smaller than my 13” MacBook Pro and much thinner.

Screen

The iPhone XR’s pixel masking technique is also at work on the iPad Pro’s screen, giving it rounded corners. The LCD screen has also gained tap-to-wake functionality, which is used to great effect by the Pencil, but can also be used with a finger to bring the screen to life. Promotion, Apple’s 120hz refresh technology, is aces here, and works well with the faster processor to keep the touch experience as close to 1:1 as possible.

The color rendition and sharpness of this LCD are beyond great, and its black levels only show poorly against an OLED because of the laws of physics. It also exhibits the issue I first noticed in the iPhone XR, where it darkens ever so slightly at the edges due to the localized dimming effect of the pixel gating Apple is using to get an edge-to-edge LCD. Otherwise, this is one of the better LCD screens ever made in my opinion, and now it has less bezel and fun rounded corners — plus no notch. What’s not to like?

Conclusion

In my opinion, if you want an iPad to do light work as a pure touch device, get yourself a regular iPad. The iPad Pro is an excellent tablet, but really shines when it’s paired with a Pencil and/or keyboard. Having the ability to bash out a long passage of text or scribble on the screen is a really nice addition to the iPad’s capabilities.

But the power and utility of the iPad Pro comes into highest relief when you pair it with a Pencil.

There has been endless debate about the role of tablets with keyboards in the pantheon of computing devices. Are they laptop replacements? Are they tablets with dreams of grandiosity? Will anyone ever stop using the phrase 2-in-1 to refer to these things?

And the iPad hasn’t exactly done a lot to dispel the confusion. During different periods of its life cycle it has taken on many of these roles, both through the features it has shipped with and through the messaging of Apple’s marketing arm and well-rehearsed onstage presentations.

One basic summary of the arena is that Microsoft has been working at making laptops into tablets, Apple has been working on making tablets into laptops and everyone else has been doing weird-ass shit.

Microsoft still hasn’t been able (come at me) to ever get it through their heads that they needed to start by cutting the head off of their OS and building a tablet first, then walking backwards. I think now Microsoft is probably much more capable than then Microsoft, but that’s probably another whole discussion.

Apple went and cut the head off of OS X at the very beginning, and has been very slowly walking in the other direction ever since. But the fact remains that no Surface Pro has ever offered a tablet experience anywhere near as satisfying as an iPad’s.

Yes, it may offer more flexibility, but it comes at the cost of unity and reliably functionality. Just refrigerator toasters all the way down.

THAT SAID. I still don’t think Apple is doing enough in software to support the speed and versatility that is provided by the hardware in the iPad Pro. While split-screening apps and creating “spaces” that remain in place to bounce between has been a nice evolution of the iPad OS, it’s really only a fraction of what is possible.

And I think even more than hardware, Apple’s iPad users are being underestimated here. We’re on eight years of iPad and 10 years of iPhone. An entire generation of people already uses these devices as their only computers. My wife hasn’t owned a computer outside an iPad and phone for 15 years and she’s not even among the most aggressive adopters of mobile-first.

Apple needs to unleash itself from the shackles of a unified iOS. They don’t have to feel exactly the same now, because the user base is not an infantile one. They’ve been weaned on it — now give them solid food.

The Pencil, to me, stands out as the bright spot in all of this. Yes, Apple is starting predictably slow with its options for the double-tap gesture. But third-party apps like Procreate show that there will be incredible opportunities long term to make the Pencil the mouse for the tablet generation.

I think the stylus was never the right choice for the first near decade of iPad, and it still isn’t mandatory for many of its uses. But the additional power of a context-driven radial menu or right option at the right time means that the Pencil could absolutely be the key to unlocking an interface that somehow blends the specificity of mouse-driven computing with the gestural and fluidity of touch-driven interfaces.

I’m sure there are Surface Pro users out there rolling their eyes while holding their Surface Pens — but, adequate though they are, they are not Pencils. And more importantly, they are not supported by the insane work Apple has done on the iPad to make the Pencil feel more than first party.

And, because of the (sometimes circuitous and languorous) route that Apple took to get here, you can actually still detach the keyboard and set down the Pencil and get an incredible tablet-based experience with the iPad Pro.

If Apple is able to let go a bit and execute better on making sure the software feels as flexible and “advanced” as the hardware, the iPad  Pro has legs. If it isn’t able to do that, then the iPad will remain a dead-end. But I have hope. In the shape of an expensive-ass pencil.

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