Welcome to Bag Week 2018. Every year your faithful friends at TechCrunch spend an entire week looking at bags. Why? Because bags — often ignored but full of our important electronics — are the outward representations of our techie styles, and we put far too little thought into where we keep our most prized possessions.
I’ve always been wary of modular, rail-based bag systems. They’ve always struck me as rather military and imposing, which I suppose is kind of the point. Even Mission Workshop, whose other bags I have always enjoyed, put out one that seemed to me excessive. But they’ve tempered their style a bit and put out the Radian, a solid middle ground between their one-piece and modular systems.
The Radian is clearly aimed at the choosy, pack-loving traveler who eschews roller bags for aesthetic — which describes me to a tee. Strictly rolltop bags (originating in cyclist and outdoors circles) end up feeling restrictive in where you can stow gear, and rollers are boxy and unrefined. So the Radian takes a bit from both, with the added ability to add bits and pieces according to your needs.
What it is: Adaptable, waterproof, well-designed and not attention-grabbing
What it isn’t: Simple or lightweight
The core pack is quite streamlined, with no protruding external pockets whatsoever. There’s the main compartment — 42 liters, if you’re curious — and a cleverly hidden laptop compartment between the main one and the back pads. Both are independently lined with waterproof material (in addition to the water-resistant outer layer) and the zippers are similarly sealed. There’s also a mesh pouch hidden like the laptop area that you can pop out or stow at will.
You can roll up the rolltop and secure it with velcro, or treat it as a big flap and snap it to a strap attached to the bottom of the bag — the straps themselves are attached with strong velcro, so you can take them off if you’re going roll style. The “Cobra” buckle upgrade is cool but the standard plastic buckles are well made enough that you shouldn’t feel any pressure to pay the $65 to upgrade.
Access is where things begin to diverge. Unlike most rolltop packs, you can lay the bag on the ground and unzip the top as if it were a roller, letting you access the whole space from somewhere other than the top. The flap also has its own mesh enclosure. This is extremely handy and addresses the main ergonomic issue I’ve always had with strictly top-loading bags.
In a further assimilation of rolltop qualities, there’s a secret pocket at the bottom of the bag that houses a large cloth cover that seals up the pack straps and so on, making the bag much more stowable and preventing TSA or baggage handlers from having to negotiate all that junk or bag it up themselves.
Of course, a single large compartment is rarely enough when you’re doing real traveling and need to access this document or that gadget in a hurry. So the Radian joins the Mission Workshop Arkiv modular system, which lets you add on a variety of extra pockets of various sizes and types. Just be careful that you don’t push it over the carry-on size limit (though you can always stuff the extra pockets inside temporarily).
There are six rails — two on each side and two on the back — and a handful of accessories that go on each, sliding on with sturdy metal clips. The pack I tested had two zippered side pockets, the “mini folio” and the “horizontal zip” on the back, plus a cell phone pocket for the front strap.
They’re nice but the rear ones I tried are a bit small — you’d have trouble fitting anything but a pocket paperback and a couple energy bars in either. If I had my choice I would go with the full-size folio, one zippered and one rolltop side pocket. Then you can do away with the cell pocket, which is a bit much, and have several stowage options within reach. Plus the folio has its own rails to stick one of the small ones onto.
There’s really no need to get the separate laptop case, since the laptop compartment would honestly fit two or three. It’s a great place to store dress shirts and other items that need to stay folded up and straight.
As far as room, the 42 liters are enough on my estimation to pack for a 5-day trip — that is to say, I easily fit in five pairs of socks and underwear, five t-shirts, a sweater or two, a dress shirt, some shorts, and a pair of jeans. More than that would be kind of a stretch if you were also planning on bringing things like a camera, a book or two, and all the other usual travel accessories.
The main compartment has mesh areas on the side to isolate toiletries and so on, but they’re just divisions; they don’t add space. There are places for small things in the outside pockets but again, not a lot of room for much bigger than a paperback, water bottle, or snack unless you spring for the folio add-on.
As for looks — the version I tested was the black camo version, obviously, which looks a little more subdued in real life than my poorly color-balanced pictures make it look. Personally I prefer the company’s flat grey over the camo and the black. Makes it even more low-profile.
In the end I think the Radian is the best option for anyone looking at Mission Workshop bags who wants a modular option, but unless you plan on swapping pieces out a lot, I’m not personally convinced that it’s better than their all-in-one bags like the Rambler and Vandal. By all means take a look at putting a Radian system together, but don’t neglect to check if any of the pre-built ones fit your needs as well.
Sleek and compact design • Alexa works even when soundbar is playing loudly right next to it • Super easy setup process • Comes with Ethernet adapter and IR extender cable
Not all apps support full Alexa voice controls • Not compatible with projectors • Can’t control channels picked up OTA via TV antenna • No option for ‘Nintendo’ for switching inputs • Doesn’t work with universal remotes like Harmony Hub
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is a good glimpse at how Alexa can be used to control your home entertainment system, but it’s in need of a lot of polish.
Considering how great the Echo and the Fire TV 4K are, it’s more shocking that it took the company this long to combine the two. I mean, it was inevitable that we’d all want to control our TV and entertainment systems with voice after we let Alexa come into our homes.
With the $120 Fire TV Cube, Amazon sorta delivers on the futuristic dream of using voice commands to control your TV content instead of having to fiddle with remote controls.
Much like the original Echo, the Fire TV Cube is a glimpse of the future. The groundwork for a remote control-less home entertainment system future is all there on this product, but there’s still some work to do before that future truly takes shape.
Fire TV Cube basics
Like all of Amazon’s hardware, the Fire TV Cube is as basic as it gets. The no-frills 3.4 x 3.4 x 3.0-inch black cube is intended to blend effortlessly with your TV, soundbar, A/V receiver, cable box, game console, or whatever else you may have in your media center.
Its glossy plastic sides, however, do mean you’ll never see it clean again once you peel away the plastic wrap. The Fire TV Cube picks up fingerprints and dust like there’s no tomorrow.
Along with the Fire TV Cube and power adapter, you also get a 2-in-1 Ethernet/microUSB adapter, a 7.5-foot long infrared (IR) extender cable, and an Alexa Remote with two pack-in AA batteries.
Missing in the box is an HDMI cable, which you’ll need to connect the Fire TV Cube to your TV. But chances are you already have a spare or can reuse one if you’re just replacing another set-top box with the Fire TV Cube.
As for buttons, the Fire TV Cube’s top has the same four from the Echo smart speakers: volume up and down, mute, and push-to-activate Alexa). It’s all pretty self-explanatory.
The Fire TV Cube is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core processor and comes with 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. It supports 4K video playback at up to 60 fps, HDR 10, and Dolby Atmos. Of course, you will need a TV and speakers that support these features if you want the highest audio and video fidelity.
And that’s really the full tour of the Fire TV Cube. There’s an LED strip on the front that lights up when Alexa is activated and the four sides of the Fire TV Cube are “IR transparent” so you can still use your existing IR-based remote controls to control the devices that are connected to the cube.
Overall, I like the Fire TV Cube’s looks. It’s small and compact and doesn’t hog up much space near my TV.
Simple set up
As much as I love new gadgets, I absolutely, absolutely, hate futzing around with my entertainment system.
My setup isn’t grand by any means, but it is a monstrosity that’s the result of years of adding and removing new devices and tweaking TV settings every now and then to get them all talking to each other just right. Oftentimes, if you mess with one thing, something else breaks so I try not to “improve” on it too frequently. If it works, it’s good, right?
Fortunately, hooking up the Fire TV Cube to my existing setup was a simple process and didn’t break anything.
You plug the power adapter in, connect the Fire TV Cube to your TV via HDMI and then follow the on-screen instructions to setup WiFi and sign into your Amazon account.
After that, the Fire TV Cube walks you through selecting your streaming services, enabling Alexa, adding your soundbar or receiver, and then runs through some shorts tests to make sure everything’s working properly.
A few minutes later and you’ll be staring at a slightly tweaked, but still familiar Fire TV home screen laid out with your usual movie and TV content and apps.
If you’ve downloaded apps on a previous Fire TV, you’ll need to re-download them. Similarly, you’ll also need to sign into any third-party apps like Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, etc. again. Using the Alexa Remote to peck at an on-screen keyboard, especially for complicated passwords, is still a pain in the ass, though. It would be amazing if Amazon could come up with a universal single sign-on for all your media apps and services.
I also later had to go into the settings tab to adjust a few more things like assigning my game consoles a preset HDMI input name in order to use Alexa to switch between them, but that’s really it. (Hey Amazon, it’s nice to see Xbox and PlayStation and Apple TV as HDMI options, but where’s Nintendo? I had to assign my Switch the generic “Game Console” for the input name.)
If you’ve got a cable or satellite box or any other device that’s controlled with IR and you have it hidden away inside of cabinet, you can use the included IR extender cable. Additionally, if you’d rather connect your Fire TV Cube to the internet through Ethernet instead of WiFi, make sure to use the included adapter.
The amount of time it takes to fully set up your Fire TV Cube will depend on how many devices you need to connect and how many logins and passwords you’ll need to enter. But once I finished and cracked open a nice cold beverage, the hard work was mostly worth it, even though I encountered a few bugs and glitches, and ran into some limitations for what I could and couldn’t do with Alexa.
Alexa replaces your remote control?
The whole point of the Fire TV Cube is to use Alexa voice commands to do everything you’d normally do with a remote control.
Now, you can already use Alexa to control your Fire TV if you own an Echo — it’s just a matter of pairing them together. However, this combo doesn’t let you control your soundbar or A/V receiver, which the Fire TV Cube does.
I own both an old Fire TV and an Echo, but like I already told you, I’m really lazy when it comes to messing with my existing entertainment setup. I tried to get my Echo to control my TV setup with the Logitech Harmony Hub and after too many hours of cursing out my tech, I gave up. (On a related Logitech note: The Fire TV Cube isn’t compatible with universal remotes like the Logitech Harmony.)
That’s why I like the Fire TV Cube. It was easy to setup with my ancient Sony Bravia HDTV I bought almost a decade ago and a Sonos Playbar.
Using voice controls instead of a remote worked just as easily, but it wasn’t perfect.
Using voice controls instead of a remote worked just as easily, but it wasn’t perfect.
With eight far-field microphones listening through the top of the Fire TV Cube, I was happy to find Alexa just as responsive on my OG Echo.
Amazon recommends placing the Fire TV Cube 1-2 feet away from any speakers, including the soundbar that might be sitting in front of or below your TV.
Since my poor man’s “media center” is just two IKEA Lack tables smushed together, that didn’t give me much room. Still, I placed the Fire TV Cube inches to the left side of my soundbar and Alexa had no problems hearing from my sofa 12 feet away.
I’ve got an IKEA Expedit bookshelf next to my TV and could have placed the Fire TV Cube there to meet Amazon’s recommended placement distance, but that wouldn’t have given the cube’s IR blaster a direct line of sight for my remotes (which, TBH, I didn’t use much after).
Alexa on the Fire TV Cube does everything an Echo does. You can do all the basics like ask it for the weather, play music, check your calendar, tell jokes, control your smart home devices, etc. If you’ve got a smart camera, like Amazon’s own Cloud Cam or a Nest Cam, you can also tell Alexa to show you what it’s seeing with an “Alexa, show [camera name],” command. It’s the same as on the Echo Show.
If an Alexa skill comes with a visual it’ll display it on your TV. For the weather, you’ll get a weekly forecast or for music in Amazon Music or Spotify, you’ll see album art and lyrics (if they’re available) — you get the idea. It’s a very similar experience to the Echo Show, which is no surprise since the interface was based off the Show’s.
These are all things I expected the Fire TV Cube to nail and it did it with aplomb. Controlling your TV, soundbar, and content is a bit more of a hit or miss.
Simple commands like asking Alexa to turn my TV and soundbar on and off worked fine. But I noticed some irregularities when I attempted to use Alexa voice controls as my only method of control.
For example, I set up an Alexa Routine for when I returned home. With an “Alexa, I’m home” routine, the voice assistant should turn my Philips Hue smart lights on in my living room and bathroom, turn on the TV, turn on the soundbar, and then report the weather.
Because I had a soundbar connected, the weather report should have come through it with the forecast shown on the TV screen. But for whatever reason, the weather report always came through the Fire TV Cube’s tinny speaker instead. At first I thought it might have been the order in which the soundbar turned on — if it’s the last action in the routine, it might not be able to catch up to Alexa — so I swapped the commands so that the soundbar and TV would switch on first, but that didn’t fix it.
At other times, the weather report would come out of the soundbar, but cut off the beginning because it must have been in the middle of switching between the Fire TV Cube’s speaker to the soundbar.
Using Alexa to launch apps, find content, and navigate around the Fire TV interface is straightforward. I could say “Alexa, show more” to scroll up and down and left and right to see more content. To select content, an “Alexa, select [name of content or the number listed next to the title]” did the job.
Amazon’s own apps like Prime Video and Music are Alexa-optimized for voice controls, but they’re also not perfect, either.
A few times, Alexa on the Fire TV Cube failed to understand “next song” or “skip song” when playing music on Amazon Music. Another time, I asked Alexa to play Lady Gaga and the Echo Dot in my bedroom heard it first and started playing it instead. When I followed up with Alexa on my Fire TV Cube to play Daft Punk, it informed me that it was already playing on another device and if I wanted to play it over my soundbar instead. I said yes and “Poker Face” blared through my soundbar, but it didn’t stop on the Echo Dot.
For videos, it was also very wonky sometimes. I could tell Alexa to play The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and load up the last episode I watched, but it couldn’t understand me when I told it to go to a more specific episode like “Alexa, play The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Episode 6.”
On too many occasions, voice controls either sorta worked or didn’t work at all.
Other times, I’d tell Alexa to go to the “next episode” and it’d play a trailer for “The Goliath” leaving me wondering WTF happened. Whenever Alexa failed to understand (not hear) my voice command like this one, I ended up reaching for the Alexa remote to fix the issue, which defeats the whole purpose of having voice controls in the first place.
Even in an app like PlayStation Vue, where you can access live TV channels (“Alexa, tune into CNBC on PlayStation Vue”) and switch between them seamlessly without having to repeat the app’s name with every command (“Alexa, tune to CNN”), I still had to use the remote to access some functions.
Alexa voice controls are magical… when they work. But it’s still very early days for the Fire TV Cube. On too many occasions, voice controls either sorta worked or didn’t work at all.
Take Netflix — Amazon told me Netflix is one of the more notable apps getting the complete voice control treatment. Unfortunately, the feature wasn’t available yet when I tested the Fire TV Cube. But that wasn’t entirely true. I was able to tell the Fire TV Cube to play Mad Men and it’d load the first episode and play/pause voice commands sometimes worked. When I asked Alexa to “skip forward a minute” it’d only skip 10 seconds.
These are clearly bugs that need to be fixed, but it’s all the more frustrating when they sorta work, but don’t really.
Amazon says full Netflix voice controls should be rolling out shortly after the Fire TV Cube ships to customers. I’ll have to revisit it and update this review once I’ve tried it.
I think the biggest problem with the Fire TV Cube and Alexa voice controls is that you can now see what Alexa’s failing to understand. On the Echo, if Alexa doesn’t understand a command, you’re more forgiving because you assume it genuinely doesn’t know how to do something you’ve asked it for. But on Fire TV, I found myself more frustrated because I could see buttons for things like like “forward” and “back” in apps like Netflix, but voice controls didn’t do anything.
This visual frustration is all the more annoying for apps you’d naturally want to use voice for — like the Silk or Firefox browser — but don’t have the support yet.
Voice controls are the future, but it’ll take more time
When I was first briefed on the Fire TV Cube, I was all ready to declare the death of the remote. Now that I’ve used it myself, I can safely say the venerable remote control need not go coffin shopping just yet.
Even with all the bugs and limitations, the Fire TV Cube’s Alexa voice controls are still impressive to start. But they lack polish, and even Amazon knows this.
Amazon told me it’s really only “day one” for the Fire TV Cube. They’re planning to improve the voice control navigation and content discovery with customer feedback. Not to mention it’ll be on developers to update their apps with Alexa voice controls.
Just as Amazon wasn’t totally sure what kind of useful or weird skills would be created for Alexa, Amazon’s not sure how developers will integrate Alexa voice controls into their own apps.
My advice: go for broke. I want to see every feature within an app have full-on Alexa voice controls integrated at the deepest level. Because, again, what’s the point of buying a device with hands-free voice controls if you’re still forced to use the remote control sometimes? Yes, I know a remote is convenient if, say, you can’t talk to Alexa because maybe you might disturb someone sleeping or it’s late or something. But, like, still, that doesn’t mean Alexa controls shouldn’t be 100 percent capable of replacing the remote because it should be able to.
As it stands, the Fire TV Cube is a half-baked promise of the future. I have no idea if it’ll get significantly better in six months, a year, or two years from now. But the early adopter in me is hopeful that developers will embrace voice for the Fire TV the same way they did for the Echo. I mean, I think we can all agree that turned out pretty well for what was an equally half-baked product.
If you live life on the edge and aren’t afraid of the growing pains, by all means get a Fire TV Cube. It’s a neat step into the voice-controlled entertainment center of tomorrow. But if you need your living room centerpiece to work perfectly every single time, maybe wait until most of the kinks are ironed out.
Have volume buttons on right earbud • Great sound quality with good bass • Water-repellent • Fit very snugly in ears
Audio lag makes them unusable for video • Large size • Bulky charging case • Charging case uses Micro USB • Only last up to 5 hours on one charge • Quick charging is slower than competitors
Bose’s SoundSport Free wireless earbuds sound better than AirPods, but the design, poorer battery life, and higher price translate into a poor AirPods substitute.
If you think Apple’s AirPods look goofy in your ears, you’re not going to like Bose’s SoundSport Free wireless earbuds. They’re arguably a bigger fashion blunder.
But if you can get over their bulbous size and middling battery life, you’ll find a pair of true wireless earbuds that sound very good — better than AirPods, in my opinion — whether you’re at your desk, running, or working out.
At $200, Bose’s wireless earbuds cost $40 more than the $160 AirPods. So, are they worth spending the extra dough?
Design and comfort
Look, I was the first to give Apple hell for making AirPods look so dorky. They still look ridiculous with their stems sticking out, but I’ve stopped caring about how they look. (Though I still chuckle whenever I see how terribly they fit in other people’s ears.)
The same mentality applies for the SoundSport Frees. They’re much larger than AirPods and look silly in your ears. It helps a little that they come in black (also in “midnight blue” with yellow accents and “bright orange” with blue accents) and don’t draw as much attention as the blinding white AirPods, but they’re still abnormally bulbous. Anyway, forget how they look.
Their larger size means they have one thing AirPods don’t: physical buttons. On the left earbud is a power/pairing button; on the right are buttons for volume and a middle button for play/pause/skipping tracks, accessing Siri, and accepting or ending phone calls. By contrast, AirPods have just a touch-sensitive button on the right bud, but it only lets you tap to play/pause or double-tap to call up Siri, which I find very limiting.
These buttons all work, but they’re a little stiff. I felt like I was going to accidentally yank the right earbud off when pressing them. This was especially noticeable during runs, as it’s a little more challenging to press them while in motion.
Otherwise, the SoundSport Frees fit pretty well in my ears. They come with three different “StayHear+ Sport Tips” — an all-in-one ear tip design with the “fin” or “ear hook.” Not gonna lie: I expected the big-sized earbuds to fall out, but they never did.
They’re also water-repellent, so they’ll survive a splash from the rain or a thorough sweating. Just don’t wear them in the shower or in the pool.
Pairing and using the Bose Connect app
Pairing the earbuds to your phone is easy once you’ve downloaded the app. You can also pair them through your device’s regular Bluetooth settings, but I had mixed reliability with it. For whatever reason, my iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL had trouble discovering the earbuds through the Settings apps.
Once the app detects the wireless earbuds, it simply asks you to slide down on the screen, and they’ll connect.
Unlike other headphone apps that usually come with features for adjusting a volume equalizer, the Bose Connect app doesn’t. It’s comparatively spartan.
On both the iOS and Android versions, you can use the “Find My Buds” feature to locate them. Like the similar Find My AirPods feature, the app only shows an approximation of where they were last; it doesn’t show you exactly where you left them. And you still need to play a sound or music to pinpoint them.
The iOS app also connects with Apple Music and shows your music, but I’m not sure why you’d ever do that, since the Apple Music app is right there. The Android app has no such integration with Apple Music.
Bose claims the SoundSport Frees have a 30-foot range from the paired audio source. I was able to get an even longer range than that, maintaining a solid connection between 40 and 50 feet away from my work desk. More than that and the connection would drop out. Mind you, the Bluetooth connection connects through the right earbud, so if you lose that one, you’re screwed. Unlike AirPods, you can’t buy a single one of Bose’s earbuds separately. You’ll need to get brand new pair.
I also would have liked to see more detailed battery info in the app. It only shows the battery percentage for both earbuds total, but not for each individual earbud the way an iOS device does for AirPods.
Wireless earbuds aren’t usually known for sensational audio quality. As much as I love my AirPods, they’re average at best, barely better-sounding than EarPods.
The SoundSport Frees are a small step better than AirPods. There’s much clearer separation between the left and right earbuds. It’s especially noticeable on acoustic songs like “Real Friends” by Camila Cabello. The plucking of the guitar strings sounded more distinct and less muddled, even with noisy subway rails grinding in the real world background.
The wireless earbuds also pack just a little more oomph when it comes to bass. Listening to LOGIC — in particular, a track like “Wrist” where the bass pulses — I could really hear the low-end bellow through, even as Pusha T’s spitting his lyrics.
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memory sounded warmer to my ears, with with clearer mids and highs compared to on AirPods. One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Instant Crush,” sounded lighter, probably because of the wider sound stage.
Overall, I was quite pleased with the SoundSport Frees’ sound. They’re no substitute for a great pair of wired earbuds, but as far as true earbuds go, they’re great if sound quality is a top priority. That said, the better sound can be lost if you’re using them during a physical activity like running. It’s hard to hear a difference when you’re focused on pounding the pavement.
The only shortcoming I noticed with the SoundSport Free’s was playback for video. The wireless audio just can’t stay in sync with video at all. Many forum users have complained about this, but Bose’s FAQ page lists it as an issue that customers should be aware of, which pretty much rules out any firmware update from fixing it.
I tried watching YouTube and Netflix on my iPhone, iPad, Pixel 2 XL, MacBook Pro, MateBook Pro X, pretty much every platform available. The audio was always a second or two behind the video.
That’s annoying, and it sucks. If you’re thinking of buying these wireless earbuds and using them to watch video, you should consider a different pair, like AirPods. I’ve never experienced any latency issues using AirPods for video.
There’s always a tradeoff when you decide to choose a pair of wireless headphones, and it’s all the more important to pay attention to that when looking for true wireless earbuds.
Because they’re more compact than over- or on-ear wireless headphones and don’t have a cable to attach a battery to — you know the ones I’m talking about, like the BeatsX, or OnePlus Bullets Wireless, or the many “neck buds” designs — the batteries are usually smaller and therefore don’t last as long.
Bose says the SoundSport Frees last up to 5 hours on a single charge, and that’s more or less what I got. Five hours of listening time is the same as what you get from Samsung’s Gear IconX 2018 true wireless earbuds, but it’s nowhere near the AirPods’ 8 hours of continuous battery life.
The charging case provides two additional charges, good for another 10 hours, so the wireless earbuds should be able to last up to a full work week if you’re only using them for a 1-hour commute like I did. But that still pales in comparison to the four extra full charges the AirPods case affords.
One thing Bose could have improved is quick charging. With AirPods, a 15-minute drop in its charging case gives you 3 hours of battery life; a 15-minute charge gets the Gear IconX an hour of battery life; and a 10-minute charge on the OnePlus Bullets Wireless gets you 5 hours of power.
On the SoundSport Free, a 15-minute charge is only good for 45 minutes of listening time. That’s way below its competition and kind of embarrassing when they’re also more expensive.
Good wireless earbuds, but no AirPods
The Bose SoundSport Free wireless earbuds released last fall for $250. At the time, there was no way I would’ve recommended them over $160 AirPods or $200 Gear IconX 2018.
Since then, they’ve dropped down to $200, and you can find them even cheaper online. They’re a better buy now than before, and a good value, considering the sound quality.
It’s been a year and a half since AirPods launched. Hundreds of true wireless earbuds have followed with the goal of toppling them, with myriad designs and price points. Even so, AirPods remain the gold standard if you ask me. They cost less than the SoundSport Free’s, are super compact, have a longer battery life, and work the best with iOS devices.
The reason to choose the SoundSport Free’s over AirPods is if you really care for what is, in my opinion, audio that’s only marginally better. Or if you prefer earbuds that aren’t white, or really, really love Bose. None of these are compelling enough reasons for me, but your math may differ.
Personalized recommendations learn what you like • Massive content catalog • Seamless integration with Google Assistant
Subscriptions don’t download automatically • No ratings or review system
The Google Podcasts app is great for podcast newbies, but power users will be disappointed.
Google is finally filling a major hole in its mobile offerings: a dedicated app for podcasts.
Though Google has long had podcast support in Google Play Music and, more recently, within the Google app, both of these experiences have felt clunky at best. Now the company is hoping to fill the gap with a very long overdue podcast app.
Launching today on Android, the company’s new Podcasts app feels like an app Google should have launched years ago. But, even though it’s coming late, it offers a promising window into why Google might still be able to make a difference in an area where so many competitors have a years-long head start.
Heavy on content, but light on features
The biggest selling point of Google Podcasts is the size of its catalog. Because the app automatically pulls in everything that’s indexed by Google, it has a much more thorough catalog, with about 2 million podcasts, according to product manager Zack Reneau-Wedeen.
“We even have the people who are too lazy to put it on Tunes,” he told Mashable. And while many people will likely be looking for the bigger-name shows, it should be equally easy to find shows with smaller followings.
Despite the large number of shows, the app itself is pretty simple. You can search for and subscribe to podcasts, and shows you follow will appear in a queue on the app’s home screen. If you don’t know what you want to listen to, you can scroll down on the home screen to see recommendations based on trending and popular podcasts in different categories.
In the beginning these will be generic recommendations based on what’s popular, but they’re supposed to get more personal over time once the app learns your tastes. I’ve only been using the app for a couple of days, but in the short time I was using it, I could already see my suggestions improving.
You’re going to want these suggestions, by the way, because it’s the only way to discover new stuff in the app. Unlike Apple’s Podcasts app, there are no charts to peruse (perhaps understandable, considering Google Podcasts has only just launched), or ratings and reviews to check out.
What you see on the home screen is pretty much what you get: search, subscriptions, and recommendations. There are the basic playback controls, so you can skip ahead or rewind a few seconds, and you can adjust the playback speed (an essential feature for the especially dedicated podcast addicts who listen at two or three times the normal speed).
Interestingly, one of the app’s best features is one that’s easy to miss: its integration with Google Assistant. Because the app is tied to your Google account, the Assistant can help you pick up where you left off on a podcast regardless of what device you’re using. This is particularly useful if you have a Google Home speaker, because it makes it easy to transition to listening from your phone to your Google Home.
Still, many features you’d take for granted on a podcast app, like automatically downloading subscriptions, are frustratingly absent — at least for now.
Reneau-Wedeen notes that more features, including some geared more toward “power users,” will be added in future updates and emphasizes that this initial release is meant to be “a jumping-off point.”
It’s all about the future
It’s taken Google a long time to finally launch a dedicated app for podcasts (the company used to have an app called Google Listen, which was shut down way back in 2012), and some may be disappointed with how simple the app is, given the long wait.
But while other apps might have more features, Google does offer a compelling vision for what a podcast app can be, thanks to tie-ins with some of the other things the company tends to be really good at.
Like what? Like voice recognition. One feature Reneau-Wedeen says Google is currently experimenting with is an automatic transcription feature for podcasters, so they could offer their podcasts in text form if they wished. This is an area Google is better positioned than any other podcast platform.
Transcriptions have long been a vexing problem for podcasters as most services are either expensive, inaccurate, or both. If Google could use its machine-learning prowess to make transcriptions automatic, it would be game-changing from an accessibility point of view alone. But it goes farther than that.
Transcriptions would improve the searchability of podcasts as people would be able to search based on the contents of a podcast, not just the basic details like title, category, and guests.
“It starts to get even cooler when you think about some of the basic features you can build,” Reneau-Wedeen says. “One of them is closed captioning — the ability follow along with a transcript of a podcast. That ladders up to the next step, which is using Google Translate to show closed captions in any language.”
Of course, these features are still a ways off — Reneau-Wedeen declined to provide a specific timeline of when transcriptions and other advanced features appear. But the promise alone makes Google Podcasts worth paying attention to.
For now, Google Podcasts is pretty basic. But, for the longest time, Apple’s Podcasts app was too, and since Google’s offering is ideal for people who are relatively new to podcasts, it could open up the medium to a whole new audience on Android. And if Google is serious about giving the app the runway it needs, it’s not a stretch to imagine a future version where the Google Podcasts experience becomes the one to beat.
Colors are true to that of the iMac G3 • Two-layer build provides protection from drops
Quite difficult to take the case off • Inconsistent matte vs glossy design
The Spigen Classic C1 will stoke all your Apple nostalgia feelings in just the right way. But considering the relatively high price and how difficult it is to remove, the retro look is the only reason to get this case.
You may not know it by its exact name, but if I showed you a photo of the iMac G3, chances are you’d recognize it.
The familiar all-in-one design with a bulbous cathode-ray tube screen would certainly bring back memories of the ads, which were ubiquitous in the late ’90s. And now, you can get that same transparent-backside look for your iPhone.
Spigen’s Classic C1 line of cases pays homage to the iMac G3 on its 20th anniversary. These cases let you bring back the look and partially the feel of the classic iMac to your iPhone X.
A rainbow of colors
While there’s no flower-power edition Classic C1 yet, Spigen did manage to get the classic colors: Bondi Blue, Snow, Graphite, Sage, and Ruby make up the collection. And they stay true to the original colors of the iMac G3.
These colors were translucent and let you see the internals of the iMac; Spigen’s cases mimicked this effect. As underneath the color polycarbonate case, you have a liner that looks like the internals of a computer (though it’s pure decoration — these aren’t real components).
Motherboards, memory cards, and other components give you the feel of a computer. And it certainly makes for a unique first impression. You even are presented with a warning over what appears to be a crucial component — “WARNING Authorized Service Provider Only.” Apple’s strict policies on service providers go back to the beginning.
The attention to detail is really nice to see — the side of the device appears to have a vent design that continues the effect, along with holes for screws scattered throughout. A square window on the back keeps the Apple logo from being covered and gives it a slight tint in color.
While all of the Spigen cases feature the same design, Bondi Blue has a matte finish like the original iMac G3 of the same color. Spigen wants to emulate the original product as much as possible with the Classic C1 line. The rest of the cases opt for a glossy finish. I found with daily use that the matte finish gives you a firmer grip than the glossy ones.
Two layers of protection
In addition to providing a nice look that can complement the iPhone X and also disguise it as an iMac, protection is essential for a case. Spigen opted for a rubbery thermoplastic polyurethane or TPU inner liner. It has air-cushion technology in the corners that helps to absorb the pressure of any drops.
While this inner piece does feel a bit flimsy on its own, it gets more rigid when it’s around the iPhone. But the one area that still doesn’t have support without the plastic would be around the buttons and ports. It feels a little too thin for comfort, and I worry a bit that down the line it could rip.
The TPU liner also has a lip on the front, which protects the screen if it falls on it. It should stop the display from cracking, and acts as an additional area to hold the phone.
Luckily, the polycarbonate pieces for the back provide more support. You slide the top shell piece on first and then lock it in, as the tracks don’t work that well. The bottom piece slides up from the bottom and hooks into the top component, providing a seamless back.
While it is a process to get the case on, it is nowhere as difficult as getting the case off.
Painful to get off
Whether you’re the type of person who swaps out a case every day or the kind of person who leaves it on for months, eventually the case has to come off. Given that the Classic C1 is a two-piece case, with a soft inner liner and an outer hard plastic layer, this is more complex with the Spigen than you might expect.
To remove the case, you take the bottom piece off, slide the top piece off, and then peel back the inner layer. Sounds easy, but I had to use what I would call brute force to pull off the bottom piece, especially if the case has been on for a while.
Once you have the bottom piece off, its easier to pull the top portion off than sliding it. It seems that the hard shell plastic almost sticks to the inner layer, which gives the case a solid feel.
The downside is it can be a bit tougher than it should be to remove the case.
Given that the case does pack some thickness to the device, with an additional two layers, you might be wondering about ports and connectivity.
The Classic C1 still works with wireless chargers and gives you full access to the lightning port.
Nostalgia wins in the end
Bringing back classic designs or anything nostalgic is an easy way to win over consumers. While Spigen’s Classic C1 case is not perfect, the nostalgia wins over the imperfections.
Being able to pay homage back to a classic design, with an array of colors too chose from, is nice. I found that the case can be a talking point amongst friends and even strangers.
At $40 it’s priced on the higher end of iPhone X cases. But I don’t think you will be disappointed with the design and level of protection it provides.