This week, we’ve got our regular gadget reviews plus our thoughts on a forthcoming video game. Cherlynn Low strapped on the Apple Watch Series 7 to see how it compares to the previous version and to find out how much of a difference the larger screen makes. Igor Bonifacic tested the 2021 Motorola Edge smartphone and found it offers a lot of high-end features — including a 144Hz display — at a budget-friendly price. Terrence O’Brien played with the effects and inputs on the Roland SP-404MKII and reported that it makes chopping samples more fun. Finally, Jess Conditt sat in the virtual driver’s seat to play Forza Horizon 5, a game she declares a perfect getaway in a time of travel restrictions.
Cherlynn Low acknowledges that the main difference between the Apple Watch Series 7 and the previous model is the larger screen, but she’s adamant that even this small change makes a big impact. The Series 7’s display is 20 percent larger than that of the Series 6, and has significantly smaller bezels. It’s also the first Apple Watch to be IP6X certified for dust resistance, making it more durable. Cherlynn said the larger display made things easier to read and navigate, and the extra screen space made it easier to enter in the right keys and see more of messages.
Apple also debuted some additional watch faces and a full QWERTY keyboard on the Series 7. Cherlynn says the new faces are designed to display more information at once. The full QWERTY keyboard provided more flexibility, but since she only got roughly a 60-percent accuracy rate when tapping on the display, Cherlynn said she still preferred using dictation. Apple still doesn’t offer advanced sleep tracking, though this model will log your respiration rate while you sleep and report back the next morning. If sleep tracking isn’t your main reason for wanting a smartwatch, Cherlynn says the Series 7 will be a satisfying purchase.
Of the various upgrades to the 2021 Motorola Edge, Igor Bonifacic thinks the 6.8-inch LCD 144Hz screen is the stand-out feature. The flat edges made it easier to hold and the improved refresh rate makes the Edge feel smooth and responsive. The screen is vibrant, bright and has support for HDR10, plus Igor says the 19.5:9 aspect ratio works well for scrolling through vertical apps. He also liked the move to a capacitive fingerprint scanner on the side-mounted power button because it made unlocking the phone while wearing a mask significantly easier.
However, there are some tradeoffs for the $550 smartphone, notably the LCD screen, which lacks the power efficiency and deep blacks that OLED can offer. The 144Hz display also produced some slight glitching. In addition, the device’s single speaker produced tinny sound, and he found the ultra-wide camera mediocre. But he did like the battery life, which lasted a whopping two days, and the extended 2-year software support. If you don’t mind a few compromises, Igor says the 2021 Edge is well worth checking out.
Though the new SP-404MKII sampler physically resembles previous versions, Terrence O’Brien says the new OLED screen and 16-pad layout are huge upgrades. The new display can show the actual waveform as it’s being edited, which makes recording and editing samples easier and more fun. And the 16-pad set up is not only more standard, but it also offers users more samples and patterns to make beats. Terrence also preferred the refreshed color scheme of grey and black with muted orange and white accents.
The SP-404MKII has a few more minor upgrades: it’s the first sampler in the line to feature velocity sensitive pads and it has MIDI out as well as MIDI IN connectors. This means the 404 can get hooked up to a PC via USB-C, or be used with external gear. Terrence played around with both the input effects, courtesy of the ¼-inch audio input and headphone jacks, as well as the bus effects and found that chopping samples on the machine is actually enjoyable instead of a chore. The SP-404MKII is also fairly portable: Terrence says it can fit in a bag easily enough and it can be powered with six AA batteries. And it's affordable at $500, which makes it a reasonable purchase even for those who are just looking to dabble in sampling.
Since she couldn’t get behind the wheel of a real-life 2021 Ford Bronco, Jess Conditt did the next best thing: she drove it around the race tracks and lush environments of Forza Horizon 5. Though she only had access to a preview build, she reports back that Horizon 5 is a mellower version of the motorsport game, spread across a fictionalized Mexico and featuring tricked out vehicles including a 2020 Corvette Stingray Coupe and a 1989 Porsche 911 Desert Flyer.
Regardless of which vehicle you choose, Jess says they’re all magical to (virtually) drive. They get window cracks and door dents but are largely indestructible and always land tires-down. She also appreciated the layers of customization within the game, from accessories to creating characters to upgrading vehicles with designs. On the Xbox Series S, the game ran smoothly and looked lovely at 1080p/60fps. Jess says even without ray-tracing, Horizon 5’s distinct biomes, weather and environments were all a treat to view, making it a perfect virtual escape.
It has been a busy couple of weeks at Engadget and we have many reviews to recap. Nathan Ingraham reviewed the newest base iPad as well as the Microsoft Surface Go 3, the latter of which he says lacks the processing power to be more than a secondary machine. Devindra Hardawar reviewed Windows 11, which he called both refined and frustrating, and the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio, which he enjoyed but found it to be underpowered for the price. Also, Dana Wollman checked out the Surface Pro 8 two-in-one, which solved some problems but created others with its new, higher price tag.
Dana Wollman was pleased to see that the Surface Pro 8 addressed some of our complaints about the previous version. It has a redesigned, larger display with skinnier bezels, improved resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate, along with 11th-gen Core i5 and i7 processors and a slightly higher-res rear camera. But the detachable keyboard is still sold separately for $180, and the two-in-one starts off more expensive at $1,100. It’s also 15 percent heavier at 1.96 pounds without the keyboard. Dana says that’s lighter than her MacBook Pro, but that doesn’t make it an ideal mobile device.
The built-in kickstand seems to indicate the machine is best used when docked, not held. Dana said the kickstand is premium, albeit a bit awkward to pull out due to the narrow divots. She was underwhelmed by the images from the 10-megapixel rear camera, though it can record in 4K, and she was more impressed by the webcam that proved to be capable even in mixed lighting. The 120Hz refresh rate is a major improvement and she says you won’t want to revert back to 60Hz even if it helps save a bit of battery life. She also appreciated the Slim Pen 2, which has a haptic motor that made it fun to use. However, she admits that the higher price point makes the Surface Pro 8 even more of a niche item.
Nathan Ingraham likes many of the features of the Surface Go 3: it’s well-built, has a lovely and responsive touchscreen, a strong kickstand and is extremely light and portable. However, like the Surface Pro 8, it doesn’t come with a keyboard and you’ll definitely need one as Windows 11 still doesn’t offer up a stellar tablet experience. The bigger issue for him was the underpowered specs and average battery life. The model he reviewed came with a 10th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
That makes for a mostly capable machine for basic tasks, but Nathan experienced occasional music stutters and had to reload tabs during his workday. He noticed lag while working in Adobe Lightroom, and had issues during video calls while jumping into other programs. During his normal work routine, the battery lasted five hours, which detracts from the device’s portability. However, he liked the 10.5-inch, 1,920 x 1,280 touchscreen and the 3:2 aspect ratio as well as the infinitely adjustable kickstand. While Nathan says he can see the Surface Go 3 working as a secondary machine for travel, it’s hard to recommend as a daily driver because of its performance and battery life issues.
One of the first Windows 11 PCs, the Surface Laptop Studio has a 14.4-inch screen with a speedy 120Hz refresh rate and weighs around four pounds. Devindra Hardawar says while it’s clearly not trying to be an ultraportable, it is ultra-adjustable thanks to the display that tilts it into various angles. The display itself entranced him with its flexible hinge, fantastic Dolby Vision support and refresh rate, though it is surrounded by chunkier bezels. He said the speakers are surprisingly powerful thanks to the two subwoofers on the sides and the tweeters blasting through the keyboard.
While Devindra found the Laptop Studio to be a solid performer for everyday computing tasks — and fast enough to play Overwatch at 90 and 100fps — it has only a quad-core chip, and that makes it hard to recommend when so many similar machines feature more powerful six- or eight-core CPUs. He was also annoyed by the anemic port situation: two USB-C ports, which support ThunderBolt 4, and a proprietary Surface Connect slot, but there’s no longer an SD card slot, which would have been an opportunity to outdo the competition. At least Microsoft included the excellent keyboard from the Book 3 and the new Surface Slim Pen 2. While Devindra genuinely liked using the Surface Laptop Studio, he said he still wanted more power overall.
Devindra Hardawar doesn’t think that Microsoft is trying to fix much with Windows 11. Although the new operating system is more of a coat of paint over Windows 10, he doesn’t feel that’s a problem. Devindra says the more he uses the OS, the easier it is to see how far the small design tweaks have taken the software. The taskbar now has centered icons, the Start menu has a redesigned look with pinned apps, windows have rounded corners and the icons, Explorer and Settings apps look sharp making for a more refined feel overall.
The system requirements are a bit more rigid: compatible Intel, AMD or Qualcomm processor, 4GB RAM, at least 64GB storage and you’ll have to enable Secure Boot and Trust Platform Module 2.0 which make it harder for spyware and malware to attack. This means there are some additional complications if you’ve got older hardware or if you’ve built your own PC. Windows 11 will also be the only way to use Microsoft’s DirectStorage technology, which Devindra says should dramatically speed up load times when it’s available. He says that the combination of a refreshed look, additional security and faster performance is a step forward — just not a momentous one.
The 2021 refreshed iPad isn’t for early adopters like Nathan Ingraham. The updated tablet now includes a 12-megapixel front camera with Center Stage support, double the base amount of storage, the new A13 Bionic chip and iPad OS 15. However, the hardware is largely unchanged from the previous two versions. It has basically the same size and weight and still includes a 10.2-inch, 2,160 x 1,620 touchscreen, an 8-megapixel rear camera and a Lightning port for charging.
That means that this is an iPad meant for those who want a tablet that’s fast, lightweight, easy to carry around and (relatively) cheap. For most standard iPad users — those who use a tablet primarily for things like playing games or browsing the web — the new chipset will provide more than enough power. Nathan didn’t notice any slowdowns while multitasking with several open apps, though he did notice that some apps needed to refresh more frequently during those periods. Also, while the screen was serviceable for watching videos and playing games, it can’t compare to the screens on the other iPads in the lineup. But for $330, as Nathan says, who cares? If your iPad is more than a few years old, you'll find some significant improvements in this one.
Though the first thing you’ll notice about the new Fitbit Charge 5 is the 1.04-inch color AMOLED touchscreen. Valentina Palladino says that the changes made to the wearable — rounded edges and a 10-percent thinner body — made it more comfortable to wear as well. The fitness band also now has some more advanced features like ECG measurements and EDA monitoring for stress levels. The ECG measuring is coming soon and Valentina said that the EDA monitoring wasn’t intuitive and left her frustrated. She had better luck with the built-in GPS, which immediately picked up her location and accurately mapped her running route.
Valentina also liked the alarm and timer apps, which she found helpful throughout the day. However, she was disappointed that Fitbit removed some of the music-focused features, which meant she had to pull out her phone to skip a track or control playback. She was also a bit irked to see that some of the Charge 5’s more advanced metrics, like select sleep and exercise data, were part of Fitbit’s subscription service that costs $10 per month. But she did applaud the battery life and the inclusion of Fitbit Pay with NFC. She says if what you’re looking for is a low-profile wearable with a focus on fitness and a multi-day battery life, then the Charge 5 will fit the bill.
Devindra Hardawar says there was plenty to like about the first-gen Sonos Beam. When it comes to the Beam Gen 2, he says the addition of Dolby Atmos means the device can deliver a wider, more immersive soundscape. With largely the same hardware — a center tweeter, four mid-woofers and three passive radiators — this soundbar relies on more processing power to simulate the Dolby Atmos experience. Devindra says it worked surprisingly well during his testing, but wasn’t a replacement for having actual speakers dedicated to blasting height channels.
He liked that the Beam Gen 2 was still surprisingly compact at 25.6 inches wide and weighing six pounds, and that it has the same Ethernet, HDMI and power ports on the rear. And he appreciated how easy the set up was via Sonos’s app. In testing, the new Beam excelled during action movies: while watching Baby Driver, Devindra said it was a richer experience and even the dialog sounded clearer, too. However, music playback wasn’t as dramatically different and Dolby Atmos support for Amazon Music will come later this year. Sonos also makes it easy to synchronize audio throughout your home and the Alexa integration works well. Devindra says it’s a solid sub-$500 soundbar to take your movie-watching up a notch.
With three oscillators, two envelopes, two LFOs, two filters, an analog overdrive and twelve digital effects, the Uno Synth Pro offers plenty of options for sound design. Terrence O’Brien tested the smaller $400 Desktop model, which features a set of touch keys and an all-plastic body (the synth also comes in a standard $650 Pro model with a 37-key Fatar keybed and a partially metal chassis). He said that the overall construction feels solid enough, the buttons are decent, the knobs offer good resistance and the screen, while small, provides all the information you need.
However, the gray, black and red color scheme made it difficult to quickly spot the controls, especially in darker environments. He also didn’t like the four top knobs that change all the parameters. But Terrence said his biggest issue was with the touch keys and strips — they felt unresponsive and would occasionally fail to detect touches, which was worse in three-voice paraphone mode. The pitch and mod strips behaved similarly. But his frustrations were largely forgotten once the synth started making noise: Terrence said the oscillators have body and grit and the saw wave just rips. Overall, he was impressed enough with the wealth of sound design tools and the quality of the oscillators and filters to call himself a convert.
After using both the second- and third-generation Smart Socks on my twins, I’d grown accustomed to being able to check in on their stats anytime from my phone. When they aged out of their socks, it was an uncomfortable transition — for me. Owlet says I’m not alone: 72 percent of the users they polled indicated they’d like to keep using the device to measure their children’s heart rate and pulse ox levels. In response the company updated its algorithm and made the Smart Sock Plus, which can accommodate children up to five years old or 55 pounds.
Aside from the larger sock and better algorithm, the Smart Sock Plus is much the same as the standard, third-gen device. In testing, the Plus seemed to fit better but I had to employ work-arounds to keep my kids from taking them off. I also noticed fewer alerts about a misaligned sock, which was a welcome update. At $359 the Smart Sock Plus is pretty pricey for new users, but the $69 expansion pack available for existing customers is likely to do well as it extends the life time of the sock considerably.
Kris Naudus is plain: the new Nintendo Switch OLED, while lovely, isn’t a must-have. Though the refreshed handheld system features a brighter, 7-inch OLED screen, a new stand ideal for tabletop mode, an Ethernet port and a new coating which feels good in hand, not much has changed under the hood. The CPU and GPU remain the same, ensuring the future game titles will be compatible with existing Switch and Switch Light devices, and the infamous Joy-Cons haven’t been redesigned (though hopefully the drift issues have been solved).
Kris was impressed by the new stand, which is a Surface-style panel that stretches the length of the entire unit and can be left in any angle you prefer. However, because the USB-C port is still on the bottom which means it can’t be charged while set in tabletop mode. She also liked the slimmer bezels and coating on the frame and said the new buttons look sleeker and feel better. It’s the same height and width as the original Switch, too, so it will fit with all existing accessories. And though the battery is the same, it appears to be more power-efficient thanks to the new OLED screen. Despite that, Kris says unless you’ve given up your original or really need the OLED screen, you’ll be fine sticking with your current system.
Daniel Cooper would tell you that he enjoyed his time with the pricey Carol smart exercise bike, a machine intended to be used in short workouts of eight minutes and 40 seconds. Using the methods employed by Reduced Exertion, High Intensity Interval Training (REHIIT), the bike features exercise videos that you can follow via the 10.1-inch color touchscreen if you subscribe to the company’s service. Because the screen is a Lenovo tablet, you can run third-party apps through it like Peloton’s so you could take classes from there, to. Daniel says the Carol app is clean and colorful: the UI flashes when you hit a high intensity phase and power output visualizations were particularly great.
The bike itself looks like any at-home exercise bike with a large, real-slung flywheel and a drive unit to house the system to electronically control the resistance. The short handles contain heart rate-monitoring electrodes and the height of the handlebars and seat height and distance are all adjustable. After spending time with it, Daniel admits he feels like his fitness and mood both improved, but the $2,400 price tag is especially hard to swallow.
Here’s something I didn’t know until I became a NICU parent: In the United States, one in 10 babies are born prematurely. Many preterm babies require a NICU stay, with the average length being 13.5 days. Though I had little idea of what I was doing when I brought home my twins from the NICU, I did know that I was going to continue to monitor their vitals stats using an Owlet sock. My partner and I had become accustomed to checking their heart rate and pulse ox levels on a hospital monitor, and being able to get that information at home helped us build confidence in our role as non-professional caretakers to two very tiny humans.
In both the NICU and online parenting forums, multiple people recommended the Owlet. It’s specifically these fans the brand was responding to with the recent release of $359 Smart Sock Plus, a larger sock with an updated algorithm that can be used on children up to five years old or 55 pounds. That’s a decent leap from the previous 18-month/30-pound cut-off that my kids just passed. The company claims that 72 percent of the parents it polled said they’d like to use their Smart Socks for longer, and that certainly included me.
The third-generation Owlet monitoring system featured a redesigned “butterfly” style sensor that fit into an updated fabric sock, and it’s more of the same with the Plus. You’ll find the same removable sensor with a protruding button that attaches to the Base Station for wireless charging when not in use, along with the same winged, Velcro attachments for switching it between socks.
It’s also still lightweight, easy to remove and replace, and fast charging. Owlet says a full charge takes an hour and a half, and you can get eight hours worth of use with only 20 minutes of charging. That bore out in testing when I was able to grab a full night's worth of battery life in the time it took to finish our bedtime routine with the kids. The compact, more subtle Base Station is also the same as the one found on the smaller smart sock model.
The new sock has a similar construction, too, including a soft, flexible fabric strip that fastens around the ball of the foot to keep the sensor at the outside of the little toe. And there’s an ankle band to secure the whole thing in place. The Smart Sock Plus comes with the same four initial sock sizes: left and right for under 12 pounds; and left and right for 12 to 30 pounds; plus an expansion pack of left and right socks for 30 to 55 pounds. It’s worth noting that currently the Smart Sock Plus is only available in the classic Mint Green shade, and not the Deep Sea Green or Dusty Rose colors.
I had issues with the fit on the last sock, and was pleased to find that the Plus version for larger kids (30-plus-pound) seemed less prone to unintentional slippage. I say unintentional because my kids have just learned to work Velcro so they can, very purposefully, take the sock off. While they were proud of themselves for their accomplishment, this underscores the challenge in offering a sock for older children: It might be a fight to get them to keep it on.
One of the user reviews I read for the original Owlet sock recommended putting a regular sock on over the smart one to keep it from sliding around. I tried that and found that it worked well for my son, but less so with my daughter who has better dexterity. That’s unlikely to solve the issue for the length of the sensor’s life, though I’d expect older children can be taught to wear the sock to sleep. I asked Owlet what they recommend to keep the sock in place in these instances, and they, too, suggest using a regular sock or footie pajamas. They also claim some parents wait until their kids are asleep to put the Smart Sock on, but those folks are braver than I.
Because the sock fits better, I had fewer disconnection error alerts. In fact, the only time I received alerts due to a misaligned sock were times when my kids had actually removed it. Given that frequent unexplained alerts were one of my pain points with the last version, it was nice to see that had improved. I got consistent readings when they were in fabric socks or footie pajamas, and also when they were under a blanket. What’s more, I had no problem keeping the Base Station in my office, next door to my kid’s room; it was still easily able to keep everything connected.
I will say that the sock still seemed to run out of battery quicker than the second-generation one did, but it was comparable to the third gen. While the sock could reliably make it through an evening of monitoring (roughly 7pm to 7am), I occasionally saw low-battery warnings in the morning. However, these warnings indicated that I had less than four hours of runtime, which seems like plenty of time.
Every time I set up an Owlet device, I hit a snag. This time, instead of connecting to the Owlet in my WiFi settings, I was instructed to go through the Privacy settings and toggle on the Local Network option. But the Owlet app kept telling me to check the permissions, even after I’d turned them on. And off. And on again. And closed and restarted the app.
Although this is the first time I had to call Owlet support for a resolution, I was able to easily get through to a live person and resolve the problem in a little over five minutes (thanks again, Jill!). I haven’t had any problems since.
As with the rest of the Plus experience, the app remains largely unchanged. The difference here are the updated algorithms that Owlet is using to calculate data for kids in the 18-month to five-year range. Because the sock can now fit more kids, the algorithm has to accommodate for physical changes over time. Owlet says a good example is heart rate, which changes as a child gets older.
Aside from that, you still get a dashboard to access each child’s profile, which contains their live heart rate and pulse ox data, the battery life of the sock and WiFi connection status. If you’re also using the Owlet Cam as a video monitor, you’ll see the feed here. Previous days’ data can be found under History, which includes an overview and info graphs. This has always been one of the most useful portions of the app for me, as it showed me the trends on when my twins were — and were not — doing well sleeping.
As I mentioned, I haven’t yet had any false alerts, though I’m not sure what to chalk that up to — faster internet at my new house? A better fit on the sock? Upgraded algorithms? Either way, it’s nice to report on a better experience, especially given the price difference between the $359 Plus and the $299 third-gen sock.
There aren’t a ton of products out there similar to Owlet’s sock. The company has seemingly cornered the market on baby wearables that measure pulse ox and heart rate, but there are a few other noteworthy devices in this space. One of them is the Nanit system, which pairs a camera with an item of the company’s Breathing Wear clothing to monitor respiration and sleep as well as provide a video feed. The Complete Monitoring System, which includes app subscription extras like two days of video history, comes in at $379. In testing, the Breathing Wear worked as advertised and the camera offered an impressively clear 1080p HD feed. I’ve also used the Pampers Lumi, a solid $187 camera-slash-wearable that only tracks diaper changes and sleep patterns. However, it looks like the sensor is hard to come by right now — we've reached out to Pampers to see if the Lumi sensor and companion diapers are still widely available.
The Owlet Smart Sock Plus fills a need for people who are already on the Owlet bandwagon: It allows parents to continue using a product they like and are comfortable with for a longer period of time. Other than better algorithms and a larger sock, there’s not much difference between the Plus and the third-gen device — which was absolutely an improvement over the version that came before it. I’d expect the $69 expansion pack to sell well, as it provides what current customers will need to upgrade to the next sock level, but $359 is a high barrier to entry for a baby monitoring system that may not work for your sleep routine. That said, if you’re an Owlet customer who is happy with your current smart sock, it’s unlikely you’ll regret snagging an expansion pack when your kiddo has gotten big enough.
It’s that time of year again: the latest Apple devices have arrived. We spent time with all of the company’s new products and reported back on their successes and missteps. First, Cherlynn Low tested out all four of the new iPhone 13 models to see which are worth your money this year. Valentina Palladino spent time carrying around the redesigned iPad mini, which does everything a small tablet should. Also, Devindra Hardawar found one more reason to recommend the Dell XPS 15, and Mat Smith took some average selfie’s with the ZTE Axon 30’s "invisible" front-facing camera.
On paper, Cherlynn Low says there’s not much to get excited about when it comes to the new iPhone 13 and 13 mini. The incremental upgrades like the bigger batteries, better displays and faster chips all feel like standard, annual improvements. The key features of the new handsets are the enhancements made to the cameras. The rear sensors have been improved, the ultra wide lens lets in more light and the A15 chip has a faster image signal processor.
Cherlynn particularly liked the addition of Photographic Styles, which allows the user to choose a profile of contrast levels and color temperature for photos. And she said Cinematic Mode, which blurs out the background behind a subject, was the most intriguing of the new video features. But at its default intensity, the blurriness looked strange and artificial — and Cinematic Mode only works at 1080p/30fps, regardless of the quality you’ve set your camera to record.
Other aspects of the handsets were largely similar to previous models: the speakers are still good enough for video watching, and both phones easily handled switching between multiple apps, uploading photos and other tasks. However, Cherlynn was quick to point out that the phones still feature 60Hz screens, which made them feel laggy in comparison to handsets that have speedier displays. Overall she said that, as expected, they’re excellent (if a bit boring) phones with little to complain about.
Cherlynn Low says make no mistake about it: The one thing that really makes the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max stand out is the new ProMotion display. With faster screens that can adjust their refresh rates depending on the task, the handsets are finally able to take advantage of their big OLED displays, whether you’re watching video or simply scrolling social media. The two new models are also 25 percent brighter for better outdoor viewing and, thanks to the 5-core GPU on the Pro, able to handle graphics-intensive tasks more quickly.
Cherlynn said that the A15 Bionic chip combined with the faster refresh rate made everything from YouTube and music streaming to Catan gaming and chatting with friends seem much more responsive. The two new Pro models also have an additional telephoto camera and a new macro photography mode, but all of that power comes with extra weight. The 6.1-inch 13 Pro is 7.19 ounces and the 6.7-inch 13 Pro Max clocks in at 8.46 ounces; Cherlynn said the bigger handset was uncomfortable to use one-handed for more than a few minutes. If that isn’t a dealbreaker, then she says either of the phones would make a worthy upgrade for iOS users.
While the iPad mini has a dedicated fan base, it hasn’t changed much since its debut nine years ago. But the 2021 release of the tiny tablet features enough upgrades to make it feel like a smaller iPad Air. Valentina Palladino says that the new “all-screen” design, flat edges, TouchID-capable top button, second-gen Apple Pencil support and USB-C charging all provide a much needed refresh for the tablet. The bezels helped her keep a comfortable grip on the device while reading and making FaceTime calls, and the lightweight 100-percent recycled aluminum body made it easy to tote around.
Valentina also liked that the new design allowed the second-generation Apple Pencil to magnetically stick to the right edge of the tablet. She reports that the mini makes a capable digital notebook thanks in part to the Pencil and the Quick Notes feature in iPadOS 15. Additionally, she said the A15 Bionic chip and the larger screen make it easy to use the device in place of an iPhone for a wide variety of tasks including video streaming and light gaming. However, the new mini only comes in 64GB and 256GB models — with a $150 price difference between them — and those are notable differences in capacity and cost. Valentina says the significant update will be great for small-tablet lovers, but she’s not sure if the iPad mini will win over others in the market for a standard-sized iPad.
Devindra Hardawar was already a fan of Dell’s excellent XPS 15 laptop, but he says the addition of an OLED screen makes the whole package even better. The star of the show, the 15.6-inch display, has some of the thinnest bezels on the market and uses a 3.5K OLED touchscreen that supports Dolby Vision HDR (of course, this panel costs extra, and there are two LCD options to choose from, too). While watching the new Matrix trailer, it displayed true blacks, brilliant elements like explosions and juggled scenes with bright and dark aspects.
Devindra said he’d never had as much fun scrolling through websites due to the incredibly crisp text. The only additional improvement he could think of was a faster refresh rate, however, he had no complaints about the performance from the eight-core Intel i7 CPU or the 45-watt version of NVIDIA’s RTX 3050 Ti GPU, which transcoded a one-minute 4K video file into 1080p in 35 seconds. Devindra says you can expect it to tackle most intense workloads with ease, and although it’s not a gaming machine, it’s capable of reaching 70fps in Overwatch at the highest graphic settings.
A sequel to the Axon 20, ZTE’s Axon 30 touts an improved 16-megapixel, under-display camera (UDC) with a dedicated chip that keeps the area consistent with the rest of the screen. In practice, Mat Smith was pleased to report that the UDC is nearly invisible but he was less impressed with the resulting photographs. His selfies had fuzzy details and suffered from lens flares and washout due to strong backlighting. Mat got much better images when shooting with the four-camera array on the back, which includes a 64-megapixel Sony sensor.
However, the Axon 30 has more to offer for its $500 price tag: The smartphone also features a 6.92-inch AMOLED screen with 2,460 x 1,080 resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate. And it’s powered by a Snapdragon 870 processor, which handled everything Mat threw at it from Stadia gaming to video streaming. It also has a stand-out battery that lasted two days of typical use with the 120Hz refresh rate off, and the handset can recharge to 100 percent in under an hour. Mat liked the new MyOS 11 skin, which closely mimics the stock Google experience, save for a few shortcuts and widgets. But the smartphone lacks wireless charging and certified resistance against dust and water, and Mat says the 5G support isn’t great in the U.S. as it will only work on T-Mobile’s midband 5G network.
This week we’ve got a few reviews for music and photography enthusiasts. First, James Trew put the GoPro Hero 10 Black through its paces and was impressed by the capabilities of the new GP2 processor. Next, Billy Steele listened to Jabra’s $80 Elite 3 earbuds and, due to the combination of price and features, deemed them one of the company’s best gadgets. Lastly, Terrence O’Brien played around with the Arturia SQ80V synth emulator only to be charmed by its fluid user interface and timeless sounds.
James Trew is plain about the new GoPro Hero 10 Black: it is remarkably similar to last year’s model, save for the impressive, new GP2 processor. That chip brings a boost in frame rates across the board, including 5.3K at 60fps. It’s also responsible for the updated HyperSmooth 4.0 stabilization technology, which makes for smoother shooting scenarios, a speedier user interface, faster offloading of media and even improvements to the front-facing display. GoPro says the GP2’s capabilities can help produce improved photos and videos as well.
In James’s testing, this was well born out: He saw noticeably better image quality from the Hero 10 Black than from the Hero 9. James said the difference in detail was instantly noticeable at 100-percent crop, where the Hero 10 was able to capture textures like road surface or leaves. He also enjoyed the added flexibility that came with the new resolution and frame rate combinations — another bonus of the GP2 processing power. The Hero 10 Black also adds a hydrophobic lens coating, which keeps water droplets from gathering in blurry drips, 4K video at 120fps for respectable slow-mo, and a good, old-fashioned wired transfer. With one of the only drawbacks being a shorter battery life, James says that the Hero 10 takes everything that was working for GoPro devices and builds on it.
The Jabra Elite 3 earbuds have a lot going for them: they’re affordable, have functional controls, a comfortable fit courtesy of a new design, impressive sound quality and a solid feature set. Billy Steele says they far exceeded his expectations and offer an incredible value for their $80 price tag. During testing, he was immediately impressed by the sound quality, which was adept at highlighting details like the rattle of a snare drum. While he found the call quality to be only serviceable, he found other features — like a mute control on the earbuds — well thought-out. He was also pleased with the nearly seven-hour battery life.
However, low-cost models will forgo some things you may take for granted on other earbuds, and here, the Elite 3 buds lack wireless charging and active noise cancellation. Billy said one of the few drawbacks with the Elite 3’s was the missing auto-pause feature — he found it annoying, but not a dealbreaker. He also mentioned that the only EQ customizations are available in presets, but that the Elite 3 outperformed similar models here due to its balanced tuning and great clarity. With few drawbacks, Billy deemed them one of the best wireless products from Jabra.
Terrence O’Brien spent some time tweaking the knobs on Arturia’s new SQ 80V, a synth emulator designed to mimic the dusty charm of the Ensoniq SQ-80. The device contains the original 75 waveforms as well as “hidden” waves from the SQ-80 to provide users with a wide range of sound design possibilities. The majority of the controls, three LFOs and four envelopes, are on a mouse-friendly synthesis tab, while you can change the oscillator waves and tweak the filter right from the device itself.
Terrence says the SQ80 V is ideal for crushed digital sounds, and the two sound packs released alongside the emulator are right in line with that feel. While those packs made it easy to find sounds in the included presets, Terrence said it’s simple to build your own patches as well because of the dropdown menus and tabs. He called the interface “clean, charmingly retro and easy to navigate.” Overall, Terrence said he digs the SQ80 V because it’s approachable to synth players while providing warm, timeless sound.
If you’re in the market for a baby monitor, now would be a good time to snap up a Eufy Spaceview set. The company has discounted its popular single-camera kit to $125 — just clip the on-page coupon for $15 off and use the code eufybbm20 at checkout to get the sale price.
That’ll get you the 720p HD camera plus the 5-inch 720p display. The camera has night vision and can pan 330 degrees and tilt 110 degrees so you can see your entire nursery. The default field of view is 50 degrees, but the kit comes with an additional 110-degree lens that you can install when your little one starts exploring.
While the SpaceView camera doesn’t support WiFi, that’s not a bad thing. Instead, it uses a FHSS connection to let you check out your kiddo’s activities securely in real-time, regardless of if your home’s internet is a bit spotty. The set-up supports a range of up to 1,000 feet so you can check in on them from anywhere in the house, and the 2,900mAh battery runs for 15-hours so the display won’t run out of juice overnight. It will also provide you with sound alerts and two way audio, and since it’s not connected to WiFi, you don’t have to worry about anyone hacking into it.
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We checked out a couple of ambitious Samsung products this week, plus a few other gadgets. Cherlynn Low tested the Galaxy Z Fold 3 smartphone, which is the third generation of Samsung’s foldable hybrid, and the Galaxy Watch 4, which is one of the first devices to run on the new Wear OS platform. James Trew popped off keys and customized the Keychron Q1 keyboard, while Daniel Cooper was pleased with his time with HP’s light yet capable Pavilion Aero 13 laptop.
Although Cherlynn Low likes a lot of the improvements made to the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and calls it an impressive piece of tech, she still isn’t sure it can replace a regular smartphone for most people. The third generation of the folding device has a stronger, redesigned screen, a streamlined hinge and a robust aluminum build, and Samsung says it’s 80 percent more durable than previous models. According to Cherlynn, it easily withstood being thrown in a purse full of sharp and heavy objects, and the IPX8 water-resistance kept it safe from water droplets.
The Fold 3’s external 6.2-inch, 2,268 x 832 display refreshes at 120Hz and uses a Dynamic AMOLED panel, which made for fast scrolling and vibrant images. The phone also has S Pen support, although the stylus costs extra and there isn’t a slot for it on the device. There’s also more software support to improve the full-screen experience, like Multi Window and Flex Mode panels, plus five onboard cameras, which generally produced bright and colorful shots. Despite these wins, she felt that the device was over-reaching and attempting to do too much to achieve mainstream adoption.
Cherlynn Low is candid about how the Galaxy Watch 4 makes her feel, calling it and the rest of Samsung’s smartwatches the best Android wearable options around. The combination of capable hardware with intuitive software features and comprehensive health tracking continue to provide a satisfying experience. The Galaxy Watch 4 adds some interesting marquee features with body composition scans and snore detection, but Cherlynn says she’ll need more time to determine how useful these features are as they are, for now, somewhat unreliable.
The Galaxy Watch 4 includes a sharp 1.4-inch screen with a 450 x 450 resolution, a touch sensitive rotating bezel, and an updated 5nm processor with more storage. It also supports gesture controls that allow you to respond to calls or messages, but Cherlynn says they don’t work very well yet. She was also disappointed with the watch’s battery life, which barely made it through a day. She was more impressed with how accurately and quickly it registered her walking, and she liked that the watch tracks 95 different workouts. She also was pleased that the Wear OS platform strongly echoed the intuitive UI strengths of Tizen, save for the new ability to download apps directly from the Play Store. Despite some hiccups, she’d still recommend the Galaxy Watch 4 or Watch 4 Classic to Android users.
Keychron is known for making economical keyboards and James Trew says its newest offering, the Q1, is affordable, easy to customize and full-featured. The Q1 has hot-swappable switches and an Aviator style USB-C, which should appeal to both avid tinkerers and those who are interested in getting deeper into the geeky details of mechanical keyboards. It comes with a keycap puller and a switch remover, plus keycaps for Windows and MacOS layouts, but it lacks Bluetooth so you’ll have to live with it as a wired peripheral.
The Q1 features the expected RGB key lighting, but has a south-facing integration for a more subtle effect. Inside are a noise-reducing foam deck and screw-in stabilizers for steadier keys. James particularly liked the option to etch a customized metal badge where the Insert key goes. He reported that swapping out keys was easy, and that using the companion Via app was a convenient way to customize the Q1. However, he points out that, at 3.5 pounds, the Q1 isn’t designed for portability and that its height cannot be adjusted.
Daniel Cooper found plenty of reasons to recommend HP’s new Pavilion Aero. The lightest laptop yet from the company weighs in at a mere 2.2 pounds and still manages to fit in a 13.3-inch, 16:10 display with 1,920 x 1,200 resolution. Rounding out the specs list on our review unit was AMD’s Ryzen 5800U with Radeon Integrated Graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. Daniel said the build quality is solid, save for the malleable display hinge; the keyboard is well-engineered and satisfying; and the trackpad has tolerable accuracy. He also approved of the battery, which lasted for 9 hours and 43 minutes during testing.
He was less thrilled that the keyboard wasn’t backlit by default, but you can pay $20 extra to get that. And while he was pleased by the performance of the WideVision 720p webcam, he said the downward-firing B&O speakers pumped out audio you could put up with but not fully enjoy. The preinstalled software was another annoyance — getting pop-ups for plugins is never appreciated. Being a relatively affordable laptop, Aero isn’t set up for intensive gaming but Daniel was able to play Fortnite pretty smoothly with medium graphics power. Overall, he says the Aero is clearly punching above its weight and could almost be recommended as an alternative to the Dell XPS 13 for those with tighter budgets.
Razer’s new 14-inch Blade laptop hits all the right notes for Devindra Hardawar: It’s plenty powerful thanks to an NVIDIA RTX 30-series GPU and AMD’s latest processor, and at just under four pounds, it’s still light enough to carry comfortably. Featuring a minimalistic design and a sleek black aluminum case, Devindra’s review unit came equipped with an RGB LED keyboard, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and a quad-HD 165Hz display. He reports that the laptop easily handled demanding games even in maxed-out settings and that the ray tracing performance was solid.
Devindra also liked the responsiveness of the keyboard, but said the layout felt a bit cramped for longer gaming sessions. During battery testing, the Blade 14 made it 10 hours and 50 minutes (running productivity tasks, not games). But during heavy gaming sessions, Devindra reports that the CPU reached up to 94 degrees Celsius, which is unusually high. Another downside? The RAM isn’t upgradeable like it is in the larger Blade 15 and 17 laptops. He says if those compromises aren’t deal breakers, then this is worth recommending given its $1,800 starting price.
Traveling with young children is like trying to turn a cruise ship: It’s cumbersome, takes a significant amount of planning and requires a team effort. Because I apparently lack any amount of common sense, I recently took a 3,000-mile RV trip with my partner and two toddlers. Traveling with little ones can be stressful because they rely so much on their established routines; anything that deviates from that is going to be hard for them and you.
While we tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy by bringing along familiar toys and blankets, we also took the advice of a close friend who is an early childhood development specialist. She recommended keeping our twins engaged and entertained by grouping toys or activities together and rotating them throughout the day. Here are a few things that we tried that we’ll be returning to the next time we travel.
Depending on how you’re traveling, music can be a great way to entertain tiny travelers. The repetition in children’s songs help kids learn patterns and expand their vocabulary. What’s more, musical play encourages movement along with both fine and gross motor skills. That’s great if you’re in a car where you can clap, sing and wiggle, but gets more challenging when you’re stuck on an aircraft with dozens of other people who don’t want to hear “Old MacDonald” seven(-ty-seven) times in a row.
My mom bought us this “CD player” for our trip and weeks later, the twins are still fighting over it. My daughter really likes the music, my son really likes taking the “CD” out repeatedly to figure out how the player works, and they both like the colorful book of lyrics. Fisher Price has a similar option with light-up buttons, which is perfect for occupying little hands.
Another cool gadget we’ve recommended in the past is the Blipbox, an entry-level synthesizer that comes with 300 melodies and a synchronized light show. It contains a digital synth engine that includes an amp envelope, two LFOs, a modulation envelope and a low-pass filter — perfect for teaching kids about creating music while also entertaining their caretakers.
When my twins were infants, the only thing that got them to sleep was playing Maxence Cyrin’s version of “Where is my mind?” on repeat. We still have a classical playlist of songs for when it’s time to sleep, but I also keep a playlist of songs that are entertaining for adult passengers as well (think: “Yellow Submarine” and songs by They Might Be Giants). It’s nice both to switch up the endless parade of nursery rhymes and expose them to different types of music.
On the other hand, kids respond to nursery rhymes because they incorporate simple melodies, repetition and actions (some of which can be easy to do while seated). YouTube has dozens of long playlists of classic nursery rhymes, some of which include the lyrics, which is helpful if you’re like me and have long forgotten the words to “Three Blind Mice.”
Older kids might enjoy one of the many educational podcasts out there. As a bonus, if they’re able to keep headphones on for a decent stretch of time, this makes for a good airplane option, too. As an avid podcast fan myself, I’m excited for my twins to be old enough to enjoy them with me, and I’ve already bookmarked several to try out. The But Why? podcast from NPR answers questions that kids send in themselves from “how do you make ice cream?” to “why do we wear clothes?” If your kid is into science, try Brains On or Tumble to explore topics like “how far can a cloud travel?’ and “how to become an astronaut.”
Being stuck in a car or plane seat for long periods of time can make it challenging to find activities that involve younger kids’ need to explore, but there are still a few options. Most notably, a kids camera, like the Action Cam or the Creator Cam from VTech, can help them stay amused. They can document the trip with photos, videos and use stop-motion or time-lapse effects. The Action Cam can be mounted on a bike and comes with a waterproof case, while the Creator Cam comes with a small tripod and includes more than 20 animated backgrounds that the kids can use to spice up their photos and videos.
For kids younger than the recommended age for a camera, I like busy boards. Car time with my twins has become a lot easier since we got a few of the soft, zippered activity books that feature a variety of buckles, zippers and clasps for them to fiddle with.
If your child is into arts and crafts, you’re not out of luck when traveling (although maybe leave the glitter at home). There are a few easy ways to travel with a crafty kid, like bringing along a trusty Etch a Sketch, which never needs batteries, or investing in an airplane busy box, which includes coloring books as well as activities like creating a puppet show or superhero mask.
If you’d like something a little more high-tech and easy to pack, try a color by numbers app for your phone or tablet, which are engrossing even for adults. Or there’s the Osmo kit for Fire tablets which incorporates games, drawing and problem solving via various games and animations.
My kids enjoy reading as much as I do, which means there are always at least a few books included when we travel. They’re not quite old enough for a Kindle Kids Edition yet, but it will be a great option when they graduate from board books. I honestly can’t wait to load up the Harry Potter series and a selection of Roald Dahl onto an e-reader for them.
In the meantime, I compromised by taking short videos of me reading through some of their favorites, like the Grumpy Monkey, and brought a selection of others like their Indestructible books. Not only are the Indestructible books rip-proof and chew-proof but they’re also washable so you don’t have to worry about them getting wet. My favorite part is that they’re very slim, so it was easy to pack several of them at once without adding a lot of bulk.
Of course, there are a few gadgets that will help make your life easier as a traveling parent. I’m thinking specifically of the Baby’s Brew portable bottle warmer I recently invested in, which made our trip significantly easier since my daughter refuses to have a cold bottle. It did take me a few tries to get the hang of the controls, which is embarrassing to admit since there is a single button on it, but it did the job well and solved my cold bottle problem.
I also brought along the Munchkin 59s portable sterilizer which uses UV to clean a pacifier in under a minute; that’s helpful since every pacifier winds up on the floor in under a minute. Lastly, if your kiddo has a prized blanket, pacifier or toy that is essential for soothing or sleeping, consider tagging it with a Tile or Chipolo tracker. If I had thought about it in time, I would have thrown one on my daughter’s fox lovey to save myself from constantly worrying that she’d left it in Nebraska.
This week was all about smartphones at Engadget. Cherlynn Low spent some time with the Galaxy Z Flip 3 to determine who it’s really for. Terrence O’Brien compared and contrasted the Pixel 5a against previous versions to find out where the value lies in the upgraded model. Cherlynn also put the ASUS-Qualcomm Snapdragon smartphone through its paces to see how it stacks up against mainstream devices.
Cherlynn Low was upfront about the Galaxy Z Flip 3 in her review. Not only is it the best foldable phone yet with a fast, large screen, neat software tricks and water resistance, but it’s also now available at a (relatively) reasonable $1,000. She says it’s basically a regular smartphone that folds in half with a satisfying snap. The stronger aluminum, refined hinge and tough screen made it the first foldable she was willing to throw into a purse without worrying about scratching. She liked the widgets available for the Cover Display window, the new color options and the Flex mode, which assisted with one-handed use.
Despite that, she still feels the Z Flip 3 is a hard sell. The battery life was woefully short and rarely lasted an entire day, and the software was a bit buggy. While most apps fit nicely on the screen, there was an occasional mismatch of aspect ratios that caused difficulties. For example, the pop-up dialogs in Settlers of Catan disappeared into the edges of the display. Plus, it was hard to find the benefit for more mainstream audiences who could purchase an iPhone or Samsung handset for the same price. For those who are nostalgic or curious enough to buy the Z Flip 3, they ‘ll find themselves with a capable device that has the best any foldable can offer.
Terrence O’Brien is quick to point out that the $449 Pixel 5a is a bit of a stop-gap: The Pixel 4a 5G was a solid offering and the Pixel 6 should be right around the corner. That being said, there’s still a few things about the 5a that make it worth considering. While the 5a keeps the same processor, RAM and camera experience as the previous version, it adds IP67 water and dust resistance and an incredible battery. Terrence said the 4,680mAh battery survived through nearly 23 hours of video play before powering down, and was still at 40 percent after 24 hours of general heavy usage.
The rest of the features on the 5a include a metal unibody with a matte texture, an upgrade to Gorilla Glass 6 and a 6.34-inch OLED panel with HDR support and 2,400 x 1,080 resolution. Terrence admits that the Snapdragon 765G processor is a bit outdated, but also says that the 5a still felt responsive and quick while reading email or playing The Elder Scrolls: Blades. However, it stuttered a few times while navigating YouTube and editing photos. The camera experience is also excellent, though the same as the features on the 4a 5G: an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, a 12.2-megapixel main lens and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle. Overall, Terrence’s biggest objection to the 5a was that it was a bit boring in that it’s very close to a reproduction of the 4a 5G.
Qualcomm and ASUS teamed up to create a smartphone for fans of the Snapdragon chipset, but Cherlynn Low says it's a bit too niche to broadly recommend. With a 6.8-inch screen and weighing in at 210 grams, this is one of the heavier phones that she’s tested recently — and its looks differentiate it from the competition. Cherlynn says its rounded-rectangle body, matte blue finish and shiny red accents make it stand out, but she was less fond of the illuminated icon on the rear which can glow on and off.
The rest of the $1,499 device includes a 144Hz refresh rate display, comprehensive 5G support and rapid charging. The AMOLED panel runs at a resolution of 2,448 x 1,080 and delivers vibrant colors and deep blacks. However, the 20.4:9 aspect ratio cut off some content like the ends of longer messages in Telegram. The phone includes a pair of wireless Master and Dynamic earbuds to pair with Qualcomm’s High Dynamic Range Audio Record to support high-res 24-bit 96kHz audio. However, there were several features that had yet to be released, and the phone did tend to run hot. Cherlynn says unless you’re a big Qualcomm fan or really need the refresh rate, you’ve got better options elsewhere.
First, James Trew wants you to understand what the Loupedeck Live is: a Mac or PC control surface with multiple configurable dials and buttons. He also wants you to understand what it’s best for, which is audio- or image-editing and a workflow of dynamic profiles. When using these profiles, the Loupedeck will automatically switch to the assigned buttons and rotaries you’ve selected for that program. This means the Live is adaptive and will follow you with a variety of actions and choices as you navigate.
That puts it in contrast to the competition, the Elgato Stream Deck, which works as more of a program launcher. The Loupedeck Live offers three models of control surface with each being physically distinct and intended for different uses; James says the Live version looked good on his desk. He particularly liked the mini LCD displays on the buttons, which show what each does, and the rotary dials, which he found useful for volume control or scrolling through a list. James felt the particular strength of the Loupedeck was the large amount of native-app support it offers — not only can it be helpful for streaming, but it will also lend a hand when editing or designing a logo.
After a brief hiatus, ICYMI is back to give you a helpful summary of all the gadgets and gizmos we’ve put to the test recently. This week, Billy Steele lent his ears to Samsung’s new entry level Galaxy Buds 2 to check out their new design and features. A little while ago, Terrence O’Brien created beautiful music on the Novation Circuit Rhythm sampler and struggled with the controls on the SkulptSynth SE. Devindra Hardawar also experienced immersive VR courtesy of two professional headsets from HTC. Lastly, Daniel Cooper checked out Framework’s repairable laptop to see just how easy it is to customize and fix.
Affordable wireless earbuds often come with compromises, but Billy Steele feels that Samsung has found a winning combination with the Galaxy Buds 2. Redesigned to include wireless charging and ambient sound at an entry-level price of $150, the Galaxy Buds 2 are 15 percent smaller and 20 percent lighter than the Galaxy Buds+, which makes them comfortable to wear. Billy says that the sound quality, though improved, doesn’t have quite the same clarity and depth, but the dynamic range is comparable. Low-end tones lack punch and tracks that should sound big and bombastic are a bit flat and subdued.
That being said, he was still impressed by the inclusion of active noise-cancellation, which Samsung says can reduce 98 percent of background noise. Billy could still hear a bit of his box fans and white noise machine during testing, but the feature was definitely better than relying solely on passive isolation. He felt that Samsung delivered on the call quality improvements as well, via a combination of machine learning, three microphones per bud and a voice-pickup unit to maximize clarity. He managed to get around seven hours of battery life from “regular” use (which included some ANC), but was disappointed that the Buds 2 only have an IPX2 rating, which could produce issues during sweaty workout.
Devindra Hardawar liked HTC’s Vive Pro 2 VR headset so much he called it “an enthusiast’s dream.” However, he’s quick to point out that its $1,399 price tag makes it a tough sell. The Vive Pro 2 offers a 5K 120Hz display with 2,448 x 2,448 pixels per eye. Additionally, the LCDs have RGB sub-pixels that help to produce the sharpest desktop VR experience that he’s ever seen. It also has solid ergonomics — Devindra says the headset is comfortable to wear for extended sessions due to its weight distribution and its plush cushioning on the front and back.
But even if you’re prepared to shell out for the headset, Devindra admits it comes with some drawbacks. First, the controllers are the same archaic, oversized ones that came with the original 2016 Vive. He also felt that the on-ear headphones produced some heat during use, as did the displays. But the biggest issue is the graphics power necessary to experience the device in its full glory: Devindra says you can probably forget about getting anything truly usable out of the system’s minimum requirements, which means you’ll need a lot of desktop power to get the most out of the Vive Pro 2. Despite those hurdles, he’s quick to call the Vive Pro 2 the highest quality desktop VR available right now.
Framework’s laptop isn’t eye-catching or showy. The design of the 13-inch notebook resembles an older MacBook, but with one noteworthy difference: it’s intended to be modded and repaired via the included Torx T5 screwdriver and the expansion cards. While testing how easy it was to replace a keyboard, Daniel Cooper said he felt fully confident that he could make multiple repairs to the machine — something that can’t be said for most consumer laptops.
In addition to being easy to upgrade and fix, the Framework features a solid spec list: a 13.5-inch, 3:2, 2,256 x 1,504 display with a backlight capable of 400 nits; a variety of inputs via the expansion cards as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack; a chiclet keyboard with 1.5mm of travel and an impressive 1080p, 60fps webcam with an 80-degree field of view. During testing, the $1,399 Performance model handled undemanding games well and scored an average 4927 in PC Mark 10. The only thing Daniel didn’t enjoy about the machine were the side-firing speakers, which produced weak, tinny sound.
Much like the Vive Pro 2, HTC’s Vive Focus 3 isn’t intended for the casual consumer. The $1,300 price point alone puts it on another level, likely best for business users who should be pleased with the superior hardware, ergonomics and build quality. Devindra Hardawar says the system has just about everything you would want in a modern headset: a sturdy yet light build with a design that’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and even has support for large glasses.
With a 5K resolution, a 90Hz refresh rate and a 120-degree field of view, the Vive Pro 2 delivered one of the most immersive standalone VR experiences that Devindra has seen. He had a realistic sense of walking through meadows and beaches in a nature trek VR program, and said he was consistently impressed by how great everything looked. However, he was disappointed by the limited software library that required him to remove the headset to purchase apps and games. After his time with the Focus 3, Devindra heartily felt that it is an ideal set up for companies who can take advantage of the business-focused apps and the hardware quality without cringing at the price point.
As a follow up to the original Skulpt, the SkulptSynth SE makes some upgrades to the build quality but comes in more affordable at $199. Terrence O’Brien spent some time with the instrument and determined that it’s still as powerful, compelling and confusing as the previous version. The SE features a total of 32 oscillators stacked in four voices which produces a thick tone that Terrence called inviting. He says the SE shines when the stacked oscillators are given a chance to really flesh out the sound. He also approved of the various modulation options, which give the device a surprising amount of depth.
Despite the improvements in the hardware (specifically firmer knobs), Terrence said that the SE still felt pretty wobbly and cheap overall. And he was still frustrated by the cramped layout and the navigation of the controls — he recommends keeping the included cheat sheet at hand to help with the latter. Additionally, the touch keyboard wasn’t always super responsive. However, using the app solved a lot of his complaints and he was excited about the MPE support, which is unheard of at the SE’s price point.
Devindra Hardawar is quick to acknowledge that the new NUC 11 Extreme, aka “Beast Canyon,” is pretty sizable. However, he feels the trade-off is worth it because the design provides support for a full GPU — something that should attract gamers to the unit. It’s also a bit cheaper than the last model and more flexible due to the fast 11th-gen Intel CPU (which can be purchased separately as an upgrade for NUC 9 Extreme owners).
This NUC was clearly designed with gamers in mind with an LED skull on the black metal case, mesh air vents and three large fans on top. Devindra was pleased to report that the case cooling on the device was excellent: the GPU never went above 75 celsius and the CPU stayed under 80 celsius. Additionally, because of the thoughtful modular design, he had no trouble fitting in large GPUs like NVIDIA’s RTX 3070 Ti or the Radeon RX 6800. The system also performed well in benchmark testing: in PCMark 10 it outpaced every Windows PC we’ve seen this year. Still, the $1,150 to $1,350 price tag for the NUC 11 is high, especially because owners will need to pay up for additional hardware and software.
Though physically similar to its cousin the Circuit Tracks, Novation’s Circuit Rhythm uses the popular screen-free workflow of the Circuit with the full-featured sampler and performance effects of the SP-303 to produce a device that is ideal for lo-fi hip hop and house music. Terrence O’Brien particularly enjoyed this simple workflow as well as the sampling and slicing features that are fun to use.
The Circuit Rhythm has 32 RGB, velocity-sensitive pads, 28 buttons for switching views and tracks, eight endless encoders and two knobs for volume and master filter. Terrence says those eight monophonic sampler tracks are the core of the Rhythm, and he was also impressed with its portability and 3.5-hour battery life. Though he would like to see some additional features like more fine-grained temp control, overall he deemed the Circuit Rhythm a strong contender for best entry-level sampler, particularly for anyone interested in hip hop or house music creation.