All posts in “Reviews”

Nomad’s new wireless charging hub is a traveler’s best friend

If you spend any meaningful amount of time in hotels, you’ll know that many of them are still living in the age of the 30-pin adapter, even though most of us have already moved on to Lightning, wireless charging and USB-C. So it’s essential to pack charging equipment to handle any need that might arise — and usually that means a lot of dongles. Nomad’s new wireless USB hub really cuts down on clutter, and makes it easy to charge what you need to charge, when you need to charge it.

The hub looks a bit like a sleek bag burger designed by someone who makes luxury car interiors for a living. It sounds like a weird description, but it’s not a bad thing — the black puck is basically at home in any decor, so it’s a good bedside companion for home as well as away. On top, the hub has a wireless charging pad with a 7.5W max output (the max supported input the iPhone X, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus can accept).

Inside, however, there’s plenty more in the way of charging options, including one USB-C port capable of 3A output, a high-speed 2.4A USB-A port for charging up an iPad or the like and two 1A USB outputs for stuff like AirPods. Each has its own LED indicator (which are faint enough that they won’t disturb even the most sensitive sleeper), and there’s built-in cable management to keep obvious desktop clutter to a minimum.

A single 1.2 meter power cable is included and connects to the wall plug to give the hub its combined 30W max output, and rubberized footing gives it a stable stickiness on almost any surface. There’s a matte rubber ring on top, too, which is great for the iPhone X and 8, which can slide gradually off even other non-stick surfaces, even if they’re seemingly lying perfectly flat.

In terms of how it works in practice, I used the Nomad Wireless Charging Hub all throughout my recent trip to Las Vegas for the annual CES gigantic crazy consumer tech shitshow and it performed very, very well — in fact, after a colleague took off with my only Lightning cable, it was the only way I could reliably make sure my iPhone was topped up for the next grueling day of slogging through gadget booths.

You can definitely get sleeker, smaller wireless chargers, but at $80, Nomad’s option is only really twice as expensive as a lot of the good options out there, and yet it also packs a lot of additional charging versatility for when you need it. If you’re looking for an all-in-one travel charging companion, this is definitely a top choice.

Google Home Max review

The days of buying devices or smart assistants will be over soon enough. Amazon and Google have both made clear their intention to make their respective AI device agnostic, so the days of the standalone Google Home or Amazon Echo might well be numbered.

Assistant and Alexa are already being built into everything from thermostats to lamps. In order for smart speakers to continue to have a spot in the home, they’re going to have to be speakers first, smart second. Proprietary products are already competing with offerings from big-name audio brands like Sonos, Sony and JBL. It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve seen Amazon, Apple and Google all head in that direction in recent months.

The new Echo kind of, sort of, edges in that direction with improved audio, but the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod offer up similar visions for a future in which smart assistants are a nice bonus on a device focused on delivering high-quality, floor-rumbling, room-filling audio. And with prices approaching $400 a piece, it had better be.

Maxed out

The Google Home Max isn’t effing around here. It’s big and it’s heavy. The thing weighs 12 pounds. I am painfully aware of this fact because I stupidly had Google deliver it to our office, and I then threw it in a backpack to take home to test. I am currently investigating our company’s worker’s comp policies for the strained muscle in my back.

I’m a weird outlier, of course (in many ways, but let’s focus on this one for now). The Home Max is very much not a portable speaker. In fact, if aesthetics dictate purpose in this case, it’s practically a piece of furniture, with a fabric-covered front inline with the rest of the Google Home offerings.

The Home Max isn’t a flashy speaker from a design perspective. Like the rest of the Home line, the Max is designed to blend in with its surroundings. It’s a boxy design that comes in black or white (charcoal or chalk, if you will). The Max is a minimalist, exchanging buttons for a simple touch panel on top, and interacting with a quartet of LED dots that shine beneath the fabric front. It’s a nice-looking device; understated, really.

The touch panel on top controls volume and turns the system on an off — though on occasion I had trouble getting it to work just right. Also of note is a switch on the back of the device that disables the microphone — a key privacy feature, though it would have been nice if the company had made it a bit more prominent the way Amazon does with the Echo line.

Back to the wall

What’s perhaps most interesting from the design perspective is that Google shied away from 360-degree audio here. Pretty much every standalone smart home speaker is built that way, ditto for the HomePod. The idea here, however, is that most people don’t actually plop their speakers in the middle of the room. That’s certainly the case with me. I brought the Max home and found a wall to place it up against.

Like the HomePod, the Max promises a customized audio footprint based on its surroundings. But instead of attempting to create some full audio picture of its surroundings, the system bases its audio fingerprint on the back wall, because much of what you’re hearing is that sound reflected back at you.

Google has deemed the feature “Smart Sound,” adjusting audio equalization based on the wall. The system utilizes on-board microphones to listen to the bass as it bounces against the wall, adjusting the sound settings accordingly. According to Google, the whole process only takes a few seconds, but the system draws this out to 30 seconds in order to gradually ease into a new sound.

The adjustment is subtle and fairly hard to detect. And, honestly, you probably won’t be running up against this too often, given what a pain in the ass (and lower back) the system is to move.

Maximum rock and roll

The Max sounds good. But is it $399 good? In a word, no. Given the way the smart speaker market has been playing out, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a price drop soon after the holidays — but as it stands, the Max doesn’t really live up to the expectations of such a pricey system.

But it does sound good enough that many users will be perfectly happy. The audio is loud and clear, and the bass bumps like a mofo, courtesy of a pair of 4.5-inch woofers. The audio quality is solid enough the company doesn’t have to sweeten things up with added bass, but the lows are pretty intense. Thankfully, you can tweak those settings to your liking through the Google Home app.

The whole “room filling” experience isn’t a problem, either. Granted, I’ve got a New York City apartment, so my space isn’t the most… demanding, but the single Max more than did the trick and continued to sound great, even at high volumes, much to the chagrin of my poor neighbors (but those jerks knew what they were signing up for when they moved in next door to a tech writer).

For those who need more than Max firepower, buying two will turn them into stereo speakers, enhancing the experience — and driving the price up to around $800, of course.

A helping hand

The Max is an audio-first device, but Assistant is where the system shines. In a way, it’s not surprising. Assistant isn’t just a platform for the company. It’s the culmination of much of what the company has been working on over the past decade and a half. It’s contextual search, AI and machine learning all rolled up into one. All of that helps Assistant with contextual search — using other information to grab the right results, rather than taking a shot in the dark.

It’s got that leg up on Alexa, though it’s still not perfect. My biggest annoyance with the system came when I was attempting to test its lyric feature. It’s a cool addition to Assistant’s music functionality, where you can say “play me the song that goes ‘I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham’ ” and it will play Up the Junction by Squeeze.

Or, as happened to me multiple times, it will play “Play that Song” by Train and you’ll want to toss the Max out a window, because Train is a terrible band that no one should listen to. Thankfully, it costs $399 and weights 12 pounds, so you leave it be and move on.

That said, the system’s voice recognition is solid, and I was impressed by its ability to recognize the “OK Google” and “Hey Google” commands, even when it was playing music at loud volumes. Also, kudos to Google for letting you set up a third-party music service as a default. Too often these devices are about locking users into a particular ecosystem. Here, I was able to set up Spotify out of the box (you also can use YouTube music and Pandora). So you don’t have to specify that you want to play a song on a given service.

If you want to play back audio from YouTube, on the other hand, you’ll need a YouTube Red account. Thankfully, the speaker ships with a free 12-month plan. The least Google could do with a $399 speaker.

Maxed out

That $399 price tag will be pretty hard for many to stomach, especially as more and more third parties come out with their own smart Assistant speakers. It says a lot that it’s $50 more than Apple’s premium speaker. Though the Home Max has some decided advantages over the HomePod, not the least of which is that it’s actually on the market right now. Apple’s offering, meanwhile, is slated for some time early next year.

On the whole, it’s a solid offering. Google Assistant is tough to beat and the hardware mostly stands on its own. It’s not the most stellar piece of audio equipment at its price point, but Google’s engineered something that works right out of the box, while Smart Sound means you won’t have to do any EQ fiddling in the off-chance that you end up moving it from its current position.

If you want to further customize it, that’s possible, too. The Google Assistant app is much more robust than Alexa. But plug-and-play capabilities will likely appeal to many users simply looking for a nice-sounding system that also can help get them ready for work in the morning.

Erato’s lightweight Verse wireless earbuds deliver solid sound at a good price

Erato, one of the first companies to make and sell fully wireless earbuds, has a new product available called the Verse that’s more affordable than its flagship Apollo 7 buds, but with great sound quality, a lighter form factor, and innovative graphene drivers that provide quality audio with fewer compromises. The small, bullet-shaped earbuds are a good alternative for would-be AirPod customers who either don’t have the right ear shape, or are looking for better sound isolation as compared to Apple’s fully wireless buds.

The Verse buds do have one significant flaw compared to other wireless buds – they have an advertised battery life of just three hours of music playback, which is at least an hour less than most of the other options out there. They do come with a battery-packing case that can recharge them on the go, however, and ultimately Erato says that they’ll provide up to 15 hours of playback between case and earbuds on a full charge (though you’ll have to recharge the buds by stowing them every three hours or so).

The case itself is actually very reminiscent of Apple’s AirPods case – it’s a matte black, and a bit bigger, but it has a similar pivoting top, and even makes a sound that’s an awful lot like the AirPods case click when closed. A label on the stainless steel hinge for the case’s top also reads “Designed by Erato in California, Assembled in China” in case you had any doubts about where they were getting their inspiration.

As for the buds themselves, they’re shaped just like the Apollo 7s, which is to say they look like bullets with rubber tips on the end, and with a small button at the wide end of each bud. The earbuds also have a matte black (or white, depending on which model you buy) finish, which makes the plastic feel higher quality. Also, they’re incredibly light – so light they feel like props rather than actual functioning electronic devices.

Despite their lightness, they sound good – and substantial. They have more bass than their Apple equivalents, and in general you’ll enjoy a more full sound, made better because the “spin-fit” silicon tips that Erato includes with the buds are much more likely to provide a stable fit in your ears.

The other improvement Erato has made here is in the case – it’s far better than the one that shipped with the Apollo 7, providing a much more reliable connection with the buds themselves for charging. Its rounded edges and snap shut lid also make it a pretty fantastic fidget object, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Erato’s offering is a strong one in the $150 price range, where it earns the honor of being the best-sounding option currently out there. If battery life was a bit better, they’d be a no brainer, but as it is, you might want to consider other options if that’s your most important buying criteria.

Dyson’s Pure Hot+Cool Link is your household air’s best friend

Dyson may be busy building cars these days, but it’s also still making its bread and butter, including vacuums and other home appliances. The connected Pure Hot + Cold Link fan, heater and air purifier combo is one of those, and it’s an awesome way to spend some of that holiday cash coming your way.

It’s not for everyone – it’s a $500 ($700 here in my local Canadian currency) addition to the household, after all. But it offers a unique combination of features that make it an ideal fit for anyone looking for a way to keep their houses a bit warmer during winter, a bit cooler during summer, and in general a bit more breathable in terms of overall air quality.

The Pure Hot+Cool Link’s features are laid out in its rather long, somewhat tongue-twisting name; it combines Dyson’s air purifying tech, which extracts allergens and pollution from the air, with a built-in heater and a multi-speed fan. All of this is also connected (hence the ‘Link’), letting you connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network and then control and schedule your device, and monitor the air quality remotely via the Dyson smartphone app for iPhone and Android.

Dyson’s app will show you the air quality condition in your house, as detected by the purifier, and represented with an easy-to-understand graphic that also optionally shows you the air quality in general in your area, provided you enter in your fan’s location. It also detects humidity and temperature, and you can use its sensors to put the fan in an automatic mode that will have the fan work towards achieving an air quality goal for whatever room it’s in.

You can also use the app to set a schedule, and to manually control all aspects of the fan/purifier/heater, including setting a desired temperature for the heating function, increasing fan speed, or setting oscillation. It’s incredibly convenient, and something you’ll quickly find yourself wondering how you lived without on older, less connected fans and heaters.

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Other convenience features Dyson offers include an automatic night-time mode that dims all the external display lights and runs the fan at quieter settings so as not to disturb light sleepers, as well as a filter life indicator that lets you know when you need to swap yours out for a new one. And it works with Dyson’s Alexa skill, so you can very easily issue voice commands to get the purifier to start or stop, or to heat to a specific temperature, for instance.

Dyson also nailed the basics with this fan/purifier/heater combo – it can move a lot of air at its stronger settings, and it puts out a surprising amount of heat, too. For smaller apartments, one is probably all you need to go from draughty to cosy in a relatively short period of time. I found I had to turn it down from what I expected to need in terms of heating a basement bedroom that’s usually chilly pretty much year-round.

The design of the Pure Hot+Cool Link is also an advantage in terms of comparing it to other products out there. It comes in three different colorways, but each is better looking than the average fan, heater or air purifier. It bears Dyson’s signature shiny plastic, futuristic look – but he darker color options blend into the background with relative ease, while there’s an electric blue option if you’re feeling like making more of a statement.

Again, it’s an expensive option overall (even with its current discount), but it’s also typical in terms of Dyson tech as something that’s put together with care and utmost attention to quality, and something you can trust to last. It’s also a big improvement even over previous generation of Dyson fans in delivering airflow quietly – even at lower settings, it heats and cools effectively, and you’ll barely realize it’s even on.

ZTE’s dual-screen phone is a fascinating mess

In a perfect, world, we’d all be rewarded for our bold choices. Trying something new would be enough to justify a product’s existence. This, however, is not the world that ZTE’s dual-screen Axon M was born into.

Ever since they ditched the keyboard, the screen has been the biggest constraint in the evolution of the smartphone. Not surprising, companies have spent the past decade trying to fix this.

Screens keep getting larger, and have started pushing closer and closer to the edge. It’s remarkable what some of the bigger names have managed to do in recent years, in terms of screen-to-body ratio. But even with the countless R&D dollars that have poured into maximizing screen real estate, things like watching movies and multitasking still aren’t ideal on smartphones. Really, it’s the whole reason the tablet market exists.

The foldable smartphone is a solution that’s been bandied about over the decades as a potential workaround. There’s been no shortage of concepts, but the tech has tended to be too far off, or just way too difficult or expensive to produce in a truly scalable way. So ZTE decided to just bite the bullet. While the world was focused on bigger names like Apple and Samsung, one of the industry’s great workhorses went ahead and released a dual-screen smartphone.

But the Axon M’s dual-screen technology isn’t the result of industry breakthroughs. All of those foldable screens we’ve seen paraded at trade shows over the years still seem a ways off. It’s an improvement over earlier attempts at a dual-screen phone — Kyocera’s Echo springs to mind. Even the most middling new handsets are far more capable than high-end devices from a half-dozen years ago.

That said, ZTE hasn’t delivered the high-end specs to really back it up. At its heart, the Axon M is an average phone with one (admittedly compelling) gimmick to justify its flagship price.

Screening room

Expectations, ultimately, are what make the Axon M so disappointing. ZTE makes budget phones all the time, and nobody bats an eye. When the Axon M was first revealed, however, a co-worker implored me to get this “magnificent monster” in for a closer look.

The system is comprised of two 5.2-inch 1080p screens, joined together by a hinge. Opened up, they measure 6.75 inches. That is, admittedly a lot of screen, dwarfing even the massive 6.3-inch Galaxy Note8. And certainly there’s something appealing in the idea of folding all of that up and sticking it in your pocket.

Not surprisingly, the Axon M is a chunky thing. It’s thick and heavy, and the hinge mechanism that holds the two screens together isn’t particularly ergonomic. When shut the screens occupy the front and the back of the device, meaning there’s really no way to hold it without smothering the second screen in handprints. It also means that every time you put the phone down, you’re going to be resting on one of the two screens, so take your pick.

There are other strange little design decisions that are seemingly forced by the clamshell design. Take the camera. Two screens, one camera — and it’s located above the primary display. That’s, in part, because the rear of the device is actually inside the clamshell. To get around this fact, firing up the camera will switch screens, making the secondary screen the primary. It’s weird, and it takes some getting used to, but this is the price we pay for being bleeding edge, I guess.

The phone sports a solid 3,180 mAh battery. That’s smaller than the Note8’s offering (3,300), but larger than the iPhone X’s (2,716 mAh). Used in single screen mode, you’ll be able to get through a day, no problem. Open up that second screen, however, and you’re roughly halving that battery life.

Fall into the gap

The biggest design pitfall, however, is right there, smack dab in the middle of those two screens. Current tech limitations put a gap in-between the two displays. It’s not really a big deal if you’re using the phone in multi-tasking mode, but man, that seam really ruins any attempt to watch a full-screen video on both displays. It’s a bit like getting seated behind a pole at a concert. You still get the full effect, but you really wish you’d looked at the seating map beforehand.

The Axon M’s overall execution leaves something to be desired, but there are still compelling glimmers that point to some potential usefulness for the form factor. An “M” button below the display lets you toggle between different screen modes. There’s “dual mode,” which puts two different things on each screen; “extended,” which makes the two screens into one large image; and “mirror mode,” which, well, mirrors the image.

Dual is far and away the most useful of the three — in fact, it’s really the one compelling use case for the handset. Here you can have two apps open at the same time, for true multitasking. The phone is powered by the year-old Snapdragon 821 processor, but it mostly does an admirable job here, assuming neither of the apps are too tasking.

Extended is a bit of a wash, given the aforementioned gap issues, and mirror — I had a really tough time coming up with a decent use case. ZTE’s site shows the phone propped up in tent mode, so users can “Sit across from your friends and watch the same content on one device.” I honestly can’t remember the last time I really could have used that feature. For starters, it shrinks the available screen size back down to 5.2-inches on either side, while assuming there will be scenarios where sitting next to a friend just won’t cut it.

Split screen

ZTE’s already proven that’s it’s not afraid to take chances. Take Project CSX, the company’s attempt and crowdsourcing a phone. Like that project, the Axon M is an interesting idea that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts — though at least here, the company was able to cross the finish line and bring it to market. The value of the phone ultimately hinges on how much you appreciate the novelty of the whole thing, but even then, $725 is a really tough price to justify for a phone with so many dated specs.

Earlier attempts at dual-screen devices were pretty clear signs that the technology simply wasn’t ready to take the next step. Perhaps a handset packed with the latest and greatest technology could prove that the world is finally ready — though the bottom line on such a device would potentially make the iPhone X look like a steal.

In its attempt to keep the Axon M reasonably affordable, ZTE has cut too many corners and a (literal) hole at the center of the device. Perhaps some day a phone will convince me that two screens are better than one. The Axon M is not that phone.