All posts in “Reviews”

The Moto Z2 Force Edition makes sacrifices for the sake of modularity

Last year, the Moto Z legitimized modular phones. Plenty had tried and failed to deliver a device with swappable hardware components, but Lenovo/Motorola managed to pull it off — and sold “millions and millions” of phones in the process. In fact, the first Moto Z did so well the company made the line its flagship product — a bold move for a device many wrote off as a gimmick.

The arrival of the Z2 line is a moment of truth for the line — and modular phones in general. The product’s novelty was enough to generate plenty of interest for the first generation, but a year after its release is the perfect time to reassess what the inclusion of swappable Moto Mods actually brings to the product.

The first Moto Z succeeded by being a solid piece of hardware with the added bonus of modularity. Even if you avoided Moto Mods altogether, you still got a pretty decent phone out of the deal. That’s especially good in light of the fact that users haven’t been particularly bullish about the Mods themselves so far — buying between one and two for every handset purchased. And its hard to make a compelling case that any Mods released since then qualify as essential.

Thankfully, Motorola is still focused on making a good phone underneath all the Mods. You’ve got your standard selection of flagship features here, including the latest Snapdragon chip, healthy heapings of RAM and storage (4GB and 64GB) and a “shatterproof” display. But let’s be real: people are buying these for the Mods.

All mod cons

Here’s a list of all the available and upcoming Moto Mods at the time of this writing:

  • Battery pack (x3)
  • Speaker
  • Vehicle dock
  • Pocket projector
  • Hasselblad camera
  • 360 camera
  • Gamepad
  • Wireless charging pad

The number is definitely expanding — those last three are new for this year. That’s not exactly exponential growth, but it’s something. More important than the number of Mods available, however, is the question of how many are actually useful — and how many require modularity for that use? There are three different battery packs, but does the fact that they’re modular battery packs make a big difference over buying a battery case? No, not really.

It’s hard to make the case that any of the above add-ons gain a lot by being modular. In fact, the Mods system has a number of downsides. For one thing, you’re limited by the number of companies that are currently developing hardware for the platform. In most cases, you’re stuck with a single product from one company.

Andy Rubin pointed out another key issue with the Moto Z system when he introduced his own modular phone a few months back: This specific form of modularity is limiting. Given the way the Mods occupy the entire back, Motorola’s locked itself into a specific form factor. In order to remain backwards compatible, future Moto Z phones are going to have to stay more or less the same size — a big issue in this age of ever-shifting screen sizes.

The company recently noted plans to release around a dozen Mods a year — a list that’s likely to include some redundancy, as in the case of the multiple battery packs. For now, the system is still awaiting that killer Mod. The 360-degree camera and gamepad are nice additions, but Motorola has yet to discover the add-on that makes the modular system a must have.

Free the Z

Modularity does come with a few other benefits, thinness being chief among them. The phone is a full millimeter thinner than iPhone 7, a feat the company accomplished in large part by offloading a fair bit of functionality to the Mods. Battery takes the biggest hit here, slimming last year’s 3,500mAh to a much more anemic 2,730. In an era when most companies (Motorola included) have been beefing up batteries, this feels like a step backward. Certain non-essential functions can be left to Mods, but everyone needs a battery.

The other sacrifice is less surprising. The headphone jack is MIA once again, after making a return on the Z2 Play earlier this year. Earlier this year, a Moto rep told me the company is still committed to helping get rid of the jack, but is still keeping it around for lower-priced phones. The thought there is that people who aren’t shelling out money for flagship handsets are likely not buying Bluetooth headphones yet, either. Fair enough, but losing functionality by buying a more expensive phone is just one of those fun bits of consumer electronics irony.

Depth of field

Motorola’s Shattershield technology made the cut this time around. The technology encases the screen in a couple of thick layers of plastic to help avoid cracking/shattering when dropped from a (reasonable) height. Any tech that makes phone screens more rugged is welcome, especially with a handset as thin as the Moto Z.

The proprietary technology, however, comes with a major caveat: That exterior screen scratches like crazy. After carrying the phone around in my backpack for a day, the front screen looked like it had been put through the wash. I shudder to think of what the phone would look like after another few months of that treatment.

As has been reported, the outer layer also makes an audible clicking sound when you press down near the fingerprint reader or camera. Not exactly a hallmark of high quality. Fortunately, the front bit is replaceable — unfortunately, unlike past models, users can’t do it themselves.

The device also gets rugged support from the same grade of alloy you’ll find in the latest iPhone — good news given its slender frame. Strangely though, Motorola decided to forgo the level of water resistance you’ll find on most modern flagships. It seems like an odd oversight for a company that has focused on ruggedness in recent years.

The latest Moto also catches up to fellow flagships with the addition of a second rear camera. The Mod form factor means both are placed in the center of the rear, as part of a notable camera bump that juts out about the width of a nickel from the phone’s otherwise svelte frame.

The addition of a second camera brings some cool new tricks to the phone, including the ability to create a makeshift bokeh effect — blurring out the background of a photo to highlight the subject. By playing around with the phone’s editing software, you can also make different portions of the image black and white and swap backgrounds — though the latter looks like a bad green screen effect.

Calling for backup

The addition of a second camera is a nice touch that brings the Z2 up to speed with fellow flagships. And Shattershield is a welcome addition, as well, though the ease with which it collects scratches does negate some of those benefits. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot here that distinguishes the handset from fellow flagships, aside, of course, from the Mods.

The Moto Mod system remains one of the more compelling features in modern smartphones, but the line is still in search of a killer app. As it stands, there are just too many sacrifices on-board for the sake of modularity. Things like battery life shouldn’t require a user to plug in an accessory.

If none of the current Mods strike you as necessary, it’s probably best to take a wait and see approach to Motorola’s growing modular universe. As it stands, at $720, plus the price of the Mods, which range upwards of $200, it’s a pretty high barrier of entry.

Logitech Circle 2 is a great surveillance system, but for a price

Accessible home monitoring should be more than just being able to buy a security camera. It means having a packaged software experience, where you should be able to link cameras over a secure cloud connection while mounting them on walls, glass or the outdoors.

Because we live in the age of connected devices, being able to interface with Alexa and HomeKit software should not only be a bonus but a given. Luckily for you, the Circle 2 does all of it.

The only nagging requirement is setting aside a personal surveillance budget, but otherwise the Circle 2 is a great monitoring device.

Now you can spy… or catch the package thief

If you wanted to catch a thief at the door before they run away with your package — I may be projecting here, but it happens — then a single Circle 2 is great for that. However, if your goal is to catch a break-in, you would at least need a camera at the entrance and another in the living room or kitchen, with accessories to match.

A speaker/microphone duo exists in the camera, allowing you to communicate briefly with whomever you see via the Logi Circle iOS/Android app. It functions as a push-to-talk feature within the app or a signed-in desktop.

Video quality is solid, outputting up to 1080p HD video with a 180-degree wide-angle lens. Though maybe not as impressive, the automatic night vision has visibility up to 15 feet and lets me see moving objects, not including a stray cat.

Regarding software, there’s a neat feature that lets you avoid sitting and watching a whole day’s worth of footage to find something of interest. Within the Logi Circle app you can scroll through time, every two to six minutes or so, or have it compressed into a “day brief.”

The next time someone says they knocked on your door, you can hold them (or yourself) accountable thanks to the app.

Getting more of the Circle 2… requires more money

So, you have your first Circle 2 camera, which is great! Now, what if you’d like to say, mount it to a glass panel, mount it outdoors or, better yet, make it wireless and keep it anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi connection? You’re going to need accessories — a lot of them.

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The window mount ($39), battery pack ($49) and outdoor mount ($29) are just a few offerings from Logitech that extend the Circle 2’s functionality. If you buy three cameras, plus the mentioned accessories for a two-bedroom apartment, your total comes out to $657 (excluding taxes).

But wait, there’s more! Circle Safe, the service Logitech built with AES 256-bit dual-layer encryption, only enables person detection and motion zone awareness (say you wanted to monitor movement at a front door) with a premium subscription plan. This service costs $10/month or $99 /year, per camera. For comparison’s sake, Canary’s connected cameras cost $10/month to run, but support three cameras as a start.

Assuming you went with the monthly plan, that’s $30 to maintain three cameras, every month. It’s true, the Circle 2 platform works well and has great software, but to keep the show running can be pricey.

Thankfully, if you’re going for the wireless Circle 2 ($199), it comes bundled with the $49 battery pack, so you do save a little on accessories there. It’s something to be mindful of.

Bottom line

Costly or not, Logitech has a great home security tool here. If you pay the premium for software and accessories, there’s not much you won’t be able to keep a visual on. Honestly, a lone wired Circle 2 unit is enough for basic monitoring.

However, it would benefit the consumer if Logitech created a starter bundle, with more than one camera unit and a few accessories to share between them.

Because now, if from the palm of your hand you’re trying to know what goes on in every direction, you may find yourself running in circles due to upkeep.

Price as reviewed: $179 at Logitech 

Sling Studio makes multi-camera video production so damn easy

I like making videos — it’s what I do. So when I come across a product that makes my life easier I get pretty excited and pumped about it and decide to film a review. The Sling Studio is a fun little piece of hardware that fits all the fun of a multi-camera video production into my backpack… and that is no joke. I was very impressed with all the power and efficiency that was packed into this little studio-on-the-go. I have some information and photos below, but everything you need to know about it is in the video, so prepare the popcorn, invite the family over and enjoy.

I fit all the hardware for a fully functional multi-cam shoot in my backpack.

Some photos of the product

Final thoughts (in case you just want to know what I think and not watch the video):

The Sling Studio System does have some limitations, like only being able to connect up to four cameras, and you can only record to Facebook Live and YouTube live. But the company says in the future you’ll be able to add your own custom RTMP. You also can’t add your own custom motion graphics at the moment, but can add still logo and images or use the limited graphics they have available. The lag between what you see in real life and on the iPad is very noticeable; you really have to just focus on the feed and not look or listen to the live action or it will mess you up. Also a small annoyance: If you switch between different internets the system doesn’t know and doesn’t update the info to tell you the speed of the current internet speed —  you have to manually click to update the information.

Even with those hindrances, Sling has created something that lowers the barrier to entry for full live-switched productions and it’s awesome; I mean, just being able to fit the whole thing in a backpack and set up and switch a shoot quickly, then edit it is a game changer. If you’re running a small production company, it’s going to save you time and money on post-production. The live streaming looks amazing, and is easy and clean.

A full-on Tricaster has all the bells, and we won’t be getting rid of ours anytime soon, but if you’re looking for a solid alternative to the Tricaster or to add another weapon to your production arsenal, I would definitely give the Sling Studio a go.

Video Credits

Written by: Tito Hamze
Hosted by: Tito Hamze
Filmed by: Gregory Manalo, John Murillo, Tito Hamze
Edited by: Tito Hamze

Special Thanks to Mitch Eason, Joe Seiler, Keven Hempel and Jenni Curtice for letting me shoot at her tea shop, Luna Tea.

Even’s H2 headphones produce sound based on your hearing ability

Based out of Israel, Even is an audio startup that designs headphones tailored to the listener’s hearing. It starts with a short audio test of the frequencies you can hear in each ear, with an algorithm Even says stitches the resulting data into a sound profile called, your “EarPrint”.

It’s an interesting concept that works well in the instances I’ve used it. At the same time, this is a feature I’d like to see having a proven advantage, rather than anecdotal experiences.

What is an “EarPrint” and how does it help listeners?

Before I describe what Even’s headphones are doing to produce a sound that is “tailored” to your hearing, I have to provide some disclaimers.

Unlike your eye prescription, to-date there are no scientific or medical institutions that have stated an “ear print” to be an official measurement of your auditory abilities. That being said, Even’s argument for the H2 serving as “glasses for your ears”, does have some merit.

Due to the fact that not all humans have the same hearing, your left and right ears receive and translate vibrations traveling through the air differently. Aging, exposure that may damage the cochlea, etc. are all variables that can alter your auditory perception over time.

Meanwhile, just about every pair of consumer headphones in existence is designed on a one-size-fits-all (or hears) basis. So in theory, you’re never really getting the most out of them.

Short version: the algorithm understands your sense of hearing’s upper and lower limits for different sound frequencies. The H2 headphones then pushes sound to the frequencies that you’re best at hearing, first.

Using tailored headphones everyday

Seen above, the iOS/Android app allows you to single out which frequencies are tailored for you and what instruments/sounds they represent.

Using the H2 headphones without the sound tailoring is pretty good. Mids, highs and lows are balanced. This applies to both the wired and Bluetooth modes.

If you’re used to noise-cancelling, over-ear headphones then it comes as a helpful surprise that the on-ear H2 has a tight seal, without too much outside interference.

Turn on the EarPrint mode (via the app or the dedicated button) and the listening experience completely changes. Normally, I’d review a headphone based on what I hear (balance, quality, mixing, etc.), but the Even H2 tackles how I hear.

I’d say with EarPrint turned on all music sounds closer to the ear than a normal on-ear headphone. It’s almost uncanny, since I do like bass with my music, but not in an overwhelming manner (ahem, Beats).

Songs are more intimate, clear and very balanced, with a touch of bass exactly where I want it. I can enjoy listening to anything from Lana Del Rey to Playboy Carti, without using high volume levels to compensate for lack of bass or treble.

By the way, lower volume levels preserve your hearing in the long-run.

But here’s the most interesting thing! To another listener, my EarPrint sounds “too intense”. In this case, I’d just get a friend to perform their own EarPrint test, where the response would usually positive.

But I’ve also noticed a drawback: like in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, where a tiny bit of quality is sacrificed from filtering noise in your environment, some sound fidelity feels like it’s been lost.

It’s not detrimental to the sound experience, but the difference is even more apparent when I switch to the regular, stereo mode or if I grab another pair of good headphones and listen to the same track.  If the EarPrint technology is to be believed, non-tailored sound is what I’ve been used to my entire life, so of course I would find differences between the H2 and another pair of headphones.

Bottom Line

These are not the most aesthetically pleasing pair of headphones; what they lack in style and form they make up with serious audio quality and customization. Sony, Bose, Sennheiser and others take note: the future of personal audio might just involve creating your own, personalized listening profile based on your hearing.

It’s just too cool a feature to not want alongside the stereo, Dolby and noise-cancelling headphones of the world. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try these out, starting today Even is selling the H2 directly and listing it on Amazon soon after.

However, I’d wait and see where this trend (and further research) goes before I settle on listening to what the H2 thinks I should hear.

Price as Reviewed: $299 at Even

Optoma’s UHD60 projector delivers great, affordable 4K performance

If you’re among those who use a projector for your home theater, you haven’t really had a great option for jumping on the 4K bandwagon, and you might be feeling left out now that the high-resolution tech is more common among TV manufacturers. But now there’s a great, relatively affordable way to get onboard 4K with a projection-based setup, thanks to Optoma’s new UHD60.

The UHD60 is the lower priced of two new 4K projectors Optoma first revealed at CES, and recently put on sale. Priced at $1,999, the UHD60 offers 4K thanks to a new Texas Instruments DLP chip. And while it’s true that this chip actually uses some software processing to double the resolution of its actual 2,716 x 1,528 output signal, thus achieving UHD, you’ll never know you’re not looking at a true 4K image – even if you’re already used to a 4K LCD or OLED TV.

I’ve been testing the Optoma UHD60 for a couple of weeks now, and it has really blown me away in terms of how much of a difference it makes vs. even very good full HD resolution projector hardware. The difference is immediately apparent, offering a sharpness that to my eyes was similar to the difference between Retina resolution and what came before on Apple computers and smartphones. Included below are some images, and while it’s hard to convey the effect of actually seeing it in person, keep in mind that this is being displayed at about 140-inches on a standard, white-painted wall – during the day with some light leak from outside.

Getting that image quality wasn’t hard, either: Optoma’s focusing controls (on the lens itself) and zoom and height adjustment features were all easy to find and use, and I had the picture geometry and orientation tuned to my liking within about five minutes of unboxing the unit.

Another highlight here is brightness. The UHD60 boasts 3,000 lumens, which makes for a very bright picture that’s visible even during the daytime with some ambient light filtering in. It also delivers very clear blacks, both on a portable Epson screen made for projector use, and on a blank white wall. Wall color tonal presets are also built-in, so you can configure it for a range of projection surfaces.

Combined with sources like the Nvidia Shield TV, which outputs 4K HDR content from Netflix, Amazon Video and Google Play Movies, this is the best projector I’ve ever used, and a way to finally upgrade to 4K for projector-based home theaters. It also worked great with content from the PlayStation 4 Pro, as well as my Bell Fibe TV 4K box, and from a high-end Falcon Tiki gaming PC powered by an Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU.

Here’s the bottom line: If you’ve been waiting for 4K in a projector, this is the one to get. It’s about double the size of your average home theater projector, so be cognizant of the physical footprint, but it supports a wide range of mounting options and projection angles, so you should be able to get it working for your existing setup with relative ease. The Optoma UHD60 delivers unrivaled image quality at this price (and beats a lot of higher priced options), while also offering HDR support and decent onboard speakers.