All posts in “Reviews”

Jaybird’s Run totally wireless earbuds are wire-free wonders for everyone

The market for totally wireless earbuds is really maturing fast, with many entries from both new and established companies. Jaybird recently joined the crowd, with its own Run earbuds. The Logitech-owned company has long been a really solid competitor when it comes to Bluetooth headphones, and its Freedom and X-line, and in fact made some of the very first wireless sport earbuds that proved you could also get good sound with Bluetooth.

Now, the Run proves that Jaybird can play well in the totally wire-free market, too. It’s the company’s first attempt at the category popularized by Apple’s AirPods, but it’s a strong first effort: The Run come with sound that’s on par with Jaybird’s other headsets, and they also benefit from the company’s ample experience helping to provide the right fit for a variety of ear shapes and sizes.

Jaybird also gave the Run four hours of battery life under normal conditions, along with and additional 8 hours of charge built into the battery case they ship with. The header’s also sweat-proof and water-resistant for workouts in all conditions, and you can alter the sound with the companion Jaybird app for mobile devices, or use the ‘Find My Buds’ feature to locate them if you happen to misplace one or both (this comes in very handy, I can tell you from personal experience).

The best thing about the Jaybird Run, however, is how quickly you’ll forget you’re wearing them. They’re incredibly comfortable (especially if you spring for the Comply foam tips that are available as an aftermarket add-on), and they produce a pleasing, full sound that’s suited both to music and to spoken work playback including podcasts and audiobooks. And Jaybird also does what the company does best, engineer these for use in sweat-heavy conditions including outdoor runs, which is how I used them for the bulk of my testing.

Jaybird also put button controls on the Run, with each earbuds’s primary surface acting as a pressable physical control. You can use the left bud to activate either Siri or Google Assistant with a single press, and you can also play and pause music or podcasts with a button press of the right. This will also allow you to accept a call, and you can double press to skip to the next track on the right bud.

If there’s one thing I would’ve liked to see Jaybird add, it’s volume control via some means of additional button presses. You can tweak settings for the buttons in the companion app to change a single press on the right to be volume up, and a single post on the left to be volume down, but that means sacrificing the play/pause and Siri/Assistant features, which isn’t ideal.

Otherwise, these are a great offering in the totally wireless earbud category. They’re flexible, produce good sound, are as durable as the rest of Jaybird’s lineup and maintain a good solid connection with your Bluetooth smartphone or other device. And at $179, they’re not all that expensive when compared to other headphones in this segment. Jaybird definitely isn’t first in with this emerging space, but they took the time and made a good product that you’ll almost certainly enjoy using.

Amazon’s original Echo gets a much-needed upgrade

With a good software-driven product, the hardware is almost inconsequential. After the unboxing and the setup, it just sort of fades into the scenery. That was always the case with Amazon’s original Echo, but even as Alexa continues to do all of the hard work, the grandaddy of smart speakers was in dire need of an update.

It’s been nearly two full years since the first Echo was made available to Amazon Prime subscribers. In that time, the company added six new members to the Echo family (seven if you count the Tap, which Amazon kind of, sort of does) — and in the case of the Echo Dot, did one full product refresh. Google entered the space in a big way with Home, and both Apple and Microsoft have their own takes arriving by year’s end.

While it’s true that Amazon’s products have rarely been about the hardware itself, the original Echo was long overdue for a rethink, as devices like the Dot started blowing past it on the company’s Top Seller charts. Announced at an event at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters last month, the all-new Echo finds Amazon looking to remain competitive in the field it pioneered.

The new Echo is more compact than the original. It’s also better looking, with five swappable shells designed to help it better blend in with its surroundings. The sound has been improved this time out, finally embracing the “speaker” part of the smart speaker category. Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s cheap. At $100, the new Echo is a full $80 cheaper than its predecessor — and $30 less than its closest competitor, Google Home.

It’s Amazon doing what Amazon does best: undercutting the competition.

Undercover Echo

Rumors started circulating about a new Echo a few months back. The line was long overdue for an update, the competition was intensifying and Amazon appeared to be working its way through the last of its Echo back stock. At the time, leaks positioned the product as a HomePod competitor, a high-end device with a new design and premium audio positioned to compete against Apple’s $349 Siri speaker.

Of course, ultra-premium has never really been Amazon’s speed. The Echo’s populist approach has always been a big part of its appeal — a fact the Dot’s $50 price tag really drove home. Alexa users are primarily interested in finding an affordable way to make the smart assistant a part of their home, so the new Echo splits the difference on pricing, while delivering some additional hardware perks that help it stand apart from the best-selling Dot.

It also splits the difference on sizing. The company has shaved about four inches off the original Echo, bringing it down to just a hair under six inches, with a footprint roughly the size of a pint glass (albeit without the tapered sides). It’s not nearly as compact as the Dot, but you’ve got to have a little height to thing if you want to get anything out of those on-board speakers.

The top of the Echo has the same button layout as the second-gen Dot, including volume up and down and Action, which does a variety of different things, including waking the Echo, turning off times and enabling WiFi setup mode. And, perhaps, most importantly, there’s the Microphone Off button, which allows a little extra privacy. Tapping that will turn the LED ring around the perimeter a bright, unmistakable red.

When listening for a command, the ring lights up blue, as always — though, the Echo is always listening, of course, lying in wait for its wake word. Conversations are sent to Amazon’s servers in encrypted form, “including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word,” according to a statement the company offered up to us earlier this year. But a safe rule of thumb is, if you don’t want what you’re saying sent to the cloud, turn the microphone off.

On the bottom is a small hole you push a finger through to remove the case, of which there are a half-dozen available at the moment, including three fabric colors (black, gray and off-white), two faux wood colors and a shiny silver cover. The swappable cases were a smart move for Amazon — the novelty of owning an Echo-style device has worn off slightly in recent years and many users likely want a product that mostly blends into the background.

The unit Amazon sent along came with the heather gray fabric case, which, as one coworker quickly pointed out, looks as though it’s drawn some pretty direct inspiration from Google’s Home/Pixel design language. Whatever the case, the options here are definitely better for most homes than the RadioShack-style black plastic design of the original Echo.

Sound system

In the past year, sound quality has become a much bigger priority for smart speakers. There’s the HomePod, of course, and the Google Home Max — both of which are being positioned as speakers first, with a smart assistant built in. There’s also been a recent deluge of third-party manufacturers like Sonos, Sony and Harman building their own premium systems, featuring Alexa and Google Assistant.

The new Echo is not that. The sound is definitely improved over the earlier model, but for the time being, the company seems to content to let those third parties do heavy lifting when it comes to building audio-first systems. That, after all, would mean a marked increase in sticker price, making the standard Echo prohibitively expensive for many users.

The addition of the 2.5-inch woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter (same as on the new Echo Plus) means the Echo’s not bad for a $99 speaker. It gets reasonably loud — I had it on a max volume for a bit in the office, and it was distracting but not deafening (sorry coworkers). It’s about the quality you’d expect from a cheap, portable Bluetooth speaker.

It’s good for listening to music or podcasts while washing the dishes or cleaning the apartment, but I wouldn’t want it to be my main home speaker. I’d take something like the similarly priced JBL Charge 3 for that purpose, any day of the week. The good news on that front is that, in addition to multi-room audio through other Echos, the device can be paired to another Bluetooth speaker during setup and features an auxiliary out jack on the back.

Amazon’s standard seven microphone array is back, as, of course, is its far-field tech, which allows different Echos to work in tandem, defaulting to the unit closest to the person speaking. Amazon’s got the microphone down. It was able to recognize my hushed tones from around 20 feet away. Though playing music loudly does impact its ability to hear well, cutting that range by about half in my testing.

Mad skills

Amazon has had a steady march of new skills since releasing the first Echo back in 2014. Earlier this year, the company announced that it had topped the 25,000 mark. Of course, it’s a pretty broad spectrum, as far as usefulness is concerned. Some are pretty game changing for the line. Calling is a big one, letting the device ring other Echos or smartphones. Ditto for voice recognition — Amazon was a bit late to the game on that, but the ability to distinguish speaking voices is a big deal for Echo homes with multiple residents.

Alexa is about to get a big connected home overhaul, as well, bringing new controls to the app and the addition of Routines, which lets users customize multiple features into scenes like “morning” and “evening.” Neither were actually available at the time of testing, but both will be rolling out soon, as the company looks to become an increasingly important presence in the smart home category. In fact, that’s essentially the Echo Plus’ raison d’etre, which is basically the new Echo, only with easier smart home on-boarded (and an additional $50 price tag).

Increased competition from Google, et al. has been a great driver for the line. The new Echo is pretty much exactly what it should be: it’s smaller, better looking and has improved audio, all while staying under $100. The space is only going to continue to heat up over the next several years, and Google is certainly giving Amazon a run for its money with an extremely capable system and far better mobile distribution.

But the line is still synonymous with smart speakers, and Alexa gets more and more capable with each day. It’s not as affordable as the Echo Dot/Home Mini or as flashy as the HomePod/Home Max, but the new $99 Echo is going to sell like hotcakes this holiday season.

Sonos One and Alexa is an audio marriage made in heaven

This sounds amazing.

That’s what I thought when I got all my Sonos speakers playing the late Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down and the first floor of my home filled with his distinct, Gainesville, Florida, twang. 

I chose that song with my voice and not by speaking to the first-generation Amazon Echo I have in my home, but by speaking directly to the brand new Sonos One smart speaker.

Sonos is just one of an increasing number of third-party partners integrating Amazon’s soon-to-be ubiquitous digital voice assistant Alexa. On the one hand, this seems redundant. Why do I need a Sonos Alexa-enabled speaker when I already have the Amazon Echo to drive what was my two-speaker Sonos system?

For one thing, the long-promised Sonos skill on Echo didn’t arrive until very recently and, for another, my Amazon Echo’s speaker doesn’t even compare to the audio a single Sonos speaker can produce, let alone an array of them. 431a 3bac%2fthumb%2f00001

The other major benefit of using the Sonos system is its often-lauded set-up and sound management system. All Sonos speakers are WIFI-enabled (you can plug them directly into an Ethernet port if you have one) and once you have one Sonos speaker on your network, adding new ones is almost as easy as plugging them into a power outlet.

In addition, Sonos speakers can act as a single unit so each one can play different music. 

Now, imagine if you could control all that audio goodness with your voice and get all the other benefits of the Alexa system.

That’s the dream of the Sonos One and, mostly, the reality.

Getting started

Unpacking my black Sonos One, I was instantly struck by its similarities to and differences from the original Sonos Play:1. At 6.5-inches tall by 4.75 inches wide, the Sonos One is approximately the same size as the Sonos Play:1 speakers I have in my home. Gone, though, are the physical buttons on top, replaced with touch controls that match what you’ll find on the Sonos PlayBase and Play:5. Overall, it’s a subtle design that helps the Sonos One fade into the background.

The Sonos One does, according to Sonos, match the Play:1’s audio capabilities with one tweeter, two Class-D digital amplifiers, and one mid-woofer. It adds to that mix a six-microphone array to, for the first time, listen for your voice. 

Yup, Sonos makes you sign in, too.

Yup, Sonos makes you sign in, too.

Image: sonos

Sonos asks you to name your account, but this is not tied to your actual account name. I did it, but I don't know why.

Sonos asks you to name your account, but this is not tied to your actual account name. I did it, but I don’t know why.

Image: sonos

It would take a little while before I could experience the sound or talk to Sonos One.

Setting up Sonos speakers has always been easy and as soon as I launched the new redesigned Sonos App, it found my existing network and added the Sonos One to it. It also let me identify where in my house I placed it, a critical component for sending specific music to specific rooms. I also, in anticipation of using the new system, signed up for Amazon Prime Music, so I’d have access to the widest array of music with my voice. Sonos already supports most of my other favorite music services. Including Sirius XM and Pandora. Spotify support was not ready in time for testing. With the Play One, I can ask the speaker to “Play Pandora” and it will ask me what kind of music and, if I say “Classic Rock, it will then ask if I want to add a classic rock station to my Pandora account presets.

Naming these speakers for the room they're in is a crucial part of the Sonos experience.

Naming these speakers for the room they’re in is a crucial part of the Sonos experience.

Image: sonos

Normally I would use Trueplay to turn the Sonos for my room, but the feature is not supported for my iPhone 8 Plus (I’m not that sad since the audio sounds great without it and Trueplay, with all the phone waving around I’d have to do, is a pain to set up).

This was the easy part. Getting Alexa and Amazon Music to work seamlessly with the speaker took a while. Amazon and its partners clearly have some work to do on account integration. During setup, I had to create a Sonos Account (no, despite having a Sonos system, I never created an account with them; it wasn’t necessary) and sign into my Amazon account at least three times. Worse yet, the process kept throwing me over to Amazon and my Alexa app where I had to enable the Sonos skill. 

Though "wireless.," you do have to plug the Sonos One in. I like the way it hides the plug.

Though “wireless.,” you do have to plug the Sonos One in. I like the way it hides the plug.

Image: lili sams/mashable

There's a button on the back that you'll use to recycle the connection and reset the device. Below that is the Ethernet port.

There’s a button on the back that you’ll use to recycle the connection and reset the device. Below that is the Ethernet port.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Suffice to say, this is a pain point that, unless someone cleans it up, could be enough to make someone quit the whole thing, but I urge you to tough it out, because it is so worth it.

Music time

If you already have an Echo device, using Alexa on the Sonos One will be refreshingly familiar. Sonos One is, unless you touch the Microphone button on top to turn off listening, waiting for your command or query. It would be nice if Sonos made the mute option a little more visually obvious. The listening light is a tiny white LED. If you turn it off by touching the microphone button, there’s no visual indication that Sonos isn’t listening.

I started by asking Alexa to play Tom Petty. Sitting next to the speaker, I said, “Alexa,” and the speaker made a tone and the power button brightened, but did not match the Echo’s blue-listening glow. I quickly followed with “Play Tom Petty.”

There are no physical buttons on top of the Sonos One, just touch-sensitive areas

There are no physical buttons on top of the Sonos One, just touch-sensitive areas

Image: lili sams/mashable

Initially, the classic song just played on the Sonos One, where it sounded great. There’s tremendous oomph and clarity in these pint-sized speakers. I went into the app and linked all my speakers to let it fill my home with Petty. I could also use my voice to raise and lower the volume.

I told Alexa to stop and then I asked Alex to play music in the Living Room, which is the name of the Sonos Play:1 in my living room. The music played there. I soon found I could use Alexa to drive different music in each room.

I switched back to having all my Sonos speaker play the same song and then started asking the Sonos One some Alexa-style questions. 

“Alexa, what’s’ the weather?” The speaker partially muted the music – it did not pause or turn it off – and gave me a weather update. I was also able to check my schedule.

Because I’d already added a bunch of smart home skills to my Alexa app, I could also do things like control my Nest climate control system. I told Alexa to raise the upstairs temperature to 73. She complied and I checked my Nest app to see that the thermostat had been raised to 73.

I could also ask general interest questions like, “Who is your favorite Beatle?” and “What’s 36 divided by 3?” The speaker does not support Alexa’s relatively new voice calling capabilities. 

If you don't want to use your voice, you can still touch Sonos  One to control it.

If you don’t want to use your voice, you can still touch Sonos  One to control it.

Image: lili sams/mashable

I moved about 10 feet away from the speaker and started speaking in a normal voice. Alexa responded each time. I moved Alexa to my office, which has a persistent HVAC fan hum that seemed to hinder the Sonos One’s listening capabilities a bit; I found myself repeating some queries.

There were some other issues like the known bug in the system that wouldn’t let Alexa read me my flash news briefing. I would ask for it, Alexa would respond, “Here’s your flash briefing,” and then say nothing. Well, I guess no news is good news.

The Sonos One didn’t always understand what I said. One evening, I asked Alexa to play dinner music on my “Portable” Sonos One and she responded with a collection of Latin music.

At $199, the Sonos One Smart Speaker immediately undercuts Apple’s upcoming Siri-powered $349 HomePod and Google’s $399 Home Max. Granted, those are bigger, more powerful speakers, but Sonos One has the advantage of integrating with an existing speaker system and working with the Alexa platform, which, frankly, has a significant head-start on the smart home integration front.

Sonos One smart speaker

The Good

Integrates with existing Sonos system Includes Amazon Alexa Amazing sound

The Bad

Alexa setup is not nearly as easy as it should be A tiny bit buggy

The Bottom Line

If you already have a Sonos sound system, the Sonos One is the right smart speaker upgrade for you. 91fa 944a%2fthumb%2f00001

Windows 10 Fall Creators Update is great… if you’re into 3D b7aa dc15%2fthumb%2f00001

“Windows 10 Fall Creators Update” is a long, unwieldy name that should mean absolutely nothing to you.

Yes, I know, Microsoft is hell-bent on convincing us that this Windows is, even more than the last Windows update with the very similar name, all about Creators. And yes, it has many new tools for helping you make stuff. 

But Microsoft’s almost fetish-like obsession with 3D creation tools can obscure the fact that in the last few years Windows 10 has, thankfully, changed only incrementally and in largely beneficial ways.

It is increasingly a holistic system that ferries your Windows identify and content from one app, device, and even platform to the next.

Honestly, it’s the cloud that has transformed Microsoft and Windows, not 3D. But, yes, 3D creation is in there, and I’ll get to it in a minute.

Hello, familiar

If you’ve been using or adopted Windows at any time in the last three years, Windows 10 Fall Creators Update will feel like an old friend. There have been no major feature relocations or deletions (okay, maybe one) and you should have no trouble finding your now well-organized app list under Start, Windows Settings or the updated Actions an Notifications center (a swipe in from the right edge of the screen or a tap on the icon in the right corner).

Windows 10 Fall Creators Update  has a lot of newcreative tools, but is still utterly familiar.

Windows 10 Fall Creators Update  has a lot of newcreative tools, but is still utterly familiar.

Image: lance ulanoff

The system can still transform into a tablet interface that no one I know one who runs Windows really likes, but you can control that.

The Taskbar, which Microsoft has been refining since Windows 1.0 in 1985, gets a few small, but useful updates including the ability to pin important people to it. My wife’s contact info now resides under an icon down there. I can even drag and drop things I want to share with her. At one point I created a 3D heart and dropped it onto her icon. I still had to open the Mail app to send it. For the next Windows update, I’d like to build in a preset for, say, SMS so I can just drop something and text her all in one step.

If I used the Microsoft Edge Browser — yes, there are good reasons to do this — I can also pin favorite websites to the Taskbar. Then it only takes one click to launch the browser and open them. Naturally, I added Mashable.

There's a new People icon that suggests contacts I might want to pin to my Task Bar for quick access.

There’s a new People icon that suggests contacts I might want to pin to my Task Bar for quick access.

Image: microsoft

Cortana, Microsoft’s digital voice assistant continues her residency in the search box next to the Start button, anxiously waiting for you to ask her a question. You can type just about anything into the box, launching a search for files, apps, images, and random information found only on the web (Bing does the searching). Cortana doesn’t care, she’s ready to deliver it all, including more complex queries like, “Can I see my photos from October 5?” The microphone icon is there if you prefer to speak to Cortana, but you probably won’t, at least until you start using the upcoming Harman Kardon Invoke, a smart speaker with Cortana built right in.

Oddly missing from this build is the nifty Timeline, which lets you jump back to whatever you were working on with a visual interface, and Clipboard, which supports copying and pasting between you PC and smartphone. These were features Microsoft teased at this year’s Build developers conference, but now Microsoft says only that they’re coming in a future Windows update.

Make something new

Where Microsoft poured most of its attention and where you’ll find some of Windows 10’s most radical updates is in Photos, 3D Paint and its nascent Mixed Reality platform.

Photos will suck in the photos and videos in any folder I point it at and it was easy to let it auto-generate movies out of entire folders of photos. If I didn’t like what it created, I just hit the Remix button and it came up with a new cut (including new music).

Some of what it created was pretty good. I could use the editor, which is the least intimidating video editor I’ve ever seen to drag an drop video segments around, trim them and add simple filters and effects, which are especially useful on photos. While it’s easy enough to trim a video clip, I do wish the  editor let you split clips, as well. 

Your Start Menu will be familiar.

Your Start Menu will be familiar.

Image: Microsoft

Cortana is ready to help.

Cortana is ready to help.

Image: microsoft

Windows 10 is still built for a mouse and keyboard, but it’s equally adept at touch and ink. Windows Ink, the ability to use the Bluetooth Surface Pen to mark up apps, images and documents; take notes; draw; and create impressive art, is more pervasive than ever in Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. In addition to the Windows Ink icon in the task tray and in the Microsoft Edge Browser, you can now ink up photos in the new creator-friendly Photos app and videos right inside the video playback and in the rudimentary video editing tool. 

I find inking excellent for marking up web pages to share with others, for taking quick notes, and for drawing in art apps and Windows 10’s own Sketchpad, but it does take some skill to, for instance, integrate something visually appealing in a video. 

Part of the problem is that the tools and how to use them are not entirely obvious. It took me a little while to realize that the ink I drew would appear where (or should I say when) in the video timeline a drew it. In addition, pinning a doodle to an object is easy, if you realize you must tap the anchor icon on top of the doodle so it turns blue and locks the doodle to the live-action object.

Yes, Windows can even help you find your lost Surface Pen.

Yes, Windows can even help you find your lost Surface Pen.

Image: Microsoft

Using my Surface Pro, I shot a short video of the Empire State Building. Then I opened it in the video playback app, selected draw, and drew a gorilla holding onto the Empire State Building spire. He appeared at the right moment in the video, but he also didn’t stay fully pinned and then, when the video zoomed in on the building, the doodle disappeared.

With enough practice, I bet I could get pretty good and creative with this, but I’m not certain how I’d use it.

Microsoft’s other big Windows 10 Fall Creators Update innovation, 3D Paint, is an even more powerful tool with somewhat questionable utility.

Before I go any further, I should tell you Paint is not gone. When I type “Paint” into Start, it still appears and loads instantly, but Microsoft does plan on moving 

Paint 3D, the app Microsoft wants you to use is so much more powerful and cleanly designed than the old Paint. As the name suggests, it has impressive 3D creation tools that, even if you’ve never touched a 3D creation app, you’ll be able to make something.

My best 3D Paint work usually started with someone else's excellent 3D creation from Remix 3D's online community/

My best 3D Paint work usually started with someone else’s excellent 3D creation from Remix 3D’s online community/

Image: microsoft

Getting to that something, though, does require patience. Working in three dimensions takes practice and so does getting the hang of Microsoft’s 3D object tools. 

I spent a lot of time simply dropping in and doodling 3D objects and manipulating them with the bounding box and 3D controls. I even figured out how to draw on top of my 3D objects so the lines wrapped around the objects, just as they would in the real world.

Yet most of what I created looked silly and rudimentary.

Objects you create in 3D paint can be exported and saved to 3D libraries. In fact, 3D Paint has access to an impressive online library of pre-made 3D objects from the Remix community. Most of them looked amazing. They didn’t look as good when I added my amateurish creations.

3D Paint shows real potential.

3D Paint shows real potential.

Image: Mcirosoft/lance ulanoff

3D creations can live in the real world.

3D creations can live in the real world.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

Much like inking capabilities, Microsoft is spreading 3D awareness across the Windows platform and into its Office productivity suite. In PowerPoint, for example, I added a 3D globe that I spun until North America faced me, tilt it up slightly and send it backward behind my text. 3D objects really add a professional-looking touch and I think business people will love them. 

I’m supposed to be able to add 3D creations to video, but I could never get this to work.

Not only can you take your 3D images into other apps, you can take them out into the real world. Mixed Reality does require more specialized PC hardware. Fortunately, Microsoft has a hardware support check app you can download.

Finally, a better way to access emoji inside Windows.

Finally, a better way to access emoji inside Windows.

Image: Microsoft

There’s a mixed reality button in 3D paint and once I selected that, it turned on my Surface Pro’s rear camera. I could see what was behind the laptop and the 3D object floating in space. I tapped on it and it dropped onto the real surface of my table or should I say close to it. The meshing of the real and 3D was somewhat imperfect. The 3D object tended to shift around a bit and float a millimeter or so above the surface of the table. Even so, it’s a cool effect and I could even pick up the laptop and move around the virtual object.

There are other useful features in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update like annotating ebooks in Edge, the ability to continue what you’re doing on your phone on the desktop. That only works for web browsing and if you’re running the very new Microsoft Edge for iOS or Android, but it’s a handy little feature. And there’s an easy-to-access emoji list. You just have to press the Windows key and a period and it pops up right over the Start button.

You can now pin your favorite Web sites to the task bar, as long as you use Microsoft Edge.

You can now pin your favorite Web sites to the task bar, as long as you use Microsoft Edge.

Image: Microsoft

I ran the final build of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update on a new Surface Pro, hoping to give the OS a fresh start. It was, mostly, smooth sailing. However, there were some bugs, like losing the connection to my Bluetooth keyboard and the number 3 repeating over and over in an open Word document. 

Restarting fixed both problems.

As a long-time Windows user, I’m pleased with the direction Microsoft is taking its venerable operating system. Windows 10 Fall Creators Update richer, faster, cleaner and, yes, more secure than ever (there are even built-in protections for ransomware). If you’re already a Windows 10 user and allow system upgrades, you really don’t have a decision to make. You’re getting this update. Whether you choose to use all that inking, 3D, and Mixed Reality creative power is up to you.

Windows 10 Fall Creators Update

The Good

Powerful Easy to install and use Familiar Enormous creative power

The Bad

Creative tools are not always as easy to use as they should be Some bugginess

The Bottom Line

Windows 10 Fall Creators Update builds on an already strong platform and points toward a more creative future — if that’s your thing. 0cea 2fd7%2fthumb%2f00001

Google Pixel 2 review

Google wanted to announce more than just a boatload of products at its event the other week. The company hoped to foster a new conversation around consumer hardware, moving from a narrative about specs to one about artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The Pixel 2 is the centerpiece of that idea. The sequel to last year’s hit phone isn’t a radical upgrade. If it were an Apple product, the company would put a somewhat resigned “S” after the model number as an affirmation that this is one of those in-between years. It’s an evolution of a good phone that helps the device keep pace with the market, but lacks the sort of wow factor that drives early adopters to trade in last year’s model.

But while Google managed to wow many reviewers with its self-branded entry into the market, the Pixel line was arguably never really just about hardware to begin with. It’s about developing hardware and software together.

It’s a synergy few outside of Apple have been able to accomplish, but as Microsoft has done with its surprisingly successful Surface line, the phones are showcases for the power of pure, uncut Android. It’s a line developed with the Android experience at its core — a marked change from many of the company’s hardware partners, where OS is more of an afterthought.

There’s little doubt that the company is doing some of the industry’s most compelling work in terms of consumer-facing AI and machine learning. Years of research and development on those fronts are beginning to bear fruit and have converged here in some very interesting ways. Taking a step back to examine Google’s long-term goals with software offerings like Assistant and Lens, it’s easy to envision a future where hardware becomes relatively incidental.

But that’s going to be a hard-fought, uphill battle, after a decade of tech companies bombarding us with tech specs, Clockwork Orange-style. And as the company happily admitted to us following the event, it still has some work to do on the hardware side, including the eventual addition of an edge-to-edge display.

Google is definitely doing some interesting work with existing hardware. You need look no further than the camera for evidence. Imaging was one of the highlights of last year’s model, and the company has stretched essentially the same camera even further, including the ability to shoot in portrait mode without the need for a second camera.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are good phones, mostly because they’re building on top of solid foundations and because of what they portend for the future of mobile handsets. But convincing consumers to rethink their mobile priorities is a larger, nuanced argument. It’s a lot to ask from a single handset.

Pixel by Pixel

Google made a less than subtle dig at Apple during the Pixel event, telling the crowd, “We don’t set aside better features for the larger device.” That’s not entirely true. The XL has a few standout features — most notably the lovely 6-inch pOLED display(versus the Pixel 2’s five-inch AMOLED) , which brings higher resolution, better color reproduction and more consistency. Otherwise, however, the insides are basically the same. Google sent us each phone for perusal, but for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to be focusing this review on the larger of the two devices.

The first Pixel marked a dramatic change for Google’s hardware approach. The company would no longer let its partners call the shots. Instead, it would lead development in-house, in an attempt to get as close to pure hardware/software synergy as possible — a feat few companies outside of Apple are able to accomplish. The result was a hardware product distinct enough to make Google an instant contender alongside the likes of Samsung and Apple.

The new devices don’t mark a major depart design-wise, but do bring some welcome changes. That two-tone back is still in place, but this time the company has opted for a much sturdier aluminum unibody design that gives the phone some added heft, without making it overly bulky. As with the previous models, the Pixel XL isn’t flashy compared to premium devices like the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X, but it’s a sturdy device that feels comfortable in hand.

Google’s chiseled away at the bezels up front, as well, helped along by the subtle curvature of the front glass on the left and right side. Unlike Samsung and Apple, the company wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on an edge-to-edge display, however. Pricing was likely a big driver in the decision — after all, the display is a major driver in the iPhone X’s astronomical price tag — $849 isn’t exactly a steal, but it’s certainly not out of the standard six-inch premium smartphone range.

Of course, Google certainly sees things heading that way. As the company’s VP of product management, Brian Rakowski, told me the day of launch, “It’s a new technology, but we’re really excited about the possibility of being able to wrap the screen around the side.” That certainly points at a company waiting for the price on the technology to come down.

Sound and vision

It was also mentioned in reference to the fact that Google went ahead and dropped the headphone jack from the bottom of the phone, after mocking the Apple for dropping it last year. Back then, the company jokingly listed the “3.5 mm headphone jack satisfying not new” as one of the first Pixel’s big features on the product page. It’s gone now, and in its place a $20 adapter included somewhat ironically for the cause of making the whole thing more elegant.

There is, however, a marked upside to the decision. Dropping the jack clearly played a part in Google’s decision to invest more on the headphone front. There are those compelling Pixel Buds that offer real-time language translation that I personally can’t wait to take for a spin. The push toward Bluetooth was also no doubt a driving force behind the addition of “Fast Pair,” ostensibly the company’s take on Apple’s W2 offering, which takes a lot of the pain point out of Bluetooth syncing.

The feature isn’t quite as well-integrated as Apple’s AirPod connectivity yet, but it has some marked advantages. For one thing, it will work with select third parties; our review unit shipped with a pair of on-ear Libratone headphones, as the Pixel Buds aren’t ready for prime time as yet. For another, the company plans to offer it on all Android phones running Nougat or higher. That means a heck of a lot more opportunities to take advantage of the feature than Apple’s walled ecosystem.

As with the first Pixel, there’s no Home button on the front of the device. The top and bottom bezels have shrunk down a fair bit and are now home to a pair of front-facing speakers. It is, perhaps, some last vestige of companies willing to include those sorts of features up front, as the industry marches toward the inevitability of all-screen fronts. So enjoy it while it lasts. On-board audio has been mostly an afterthought for phone makers, and things will likely continue to stay that way as aesthetic decisions take precedence.

The speaker grilles are well-positioned for watching YouTube videos and the like — and they get pretty loud, as advertised. That said, I’ve yet to encounter a pair of phone speakers I would recommend for anything beyond watching a quick video, and the Pixel XL’s don’t really do much to buck that trend.

The screen, on the other hand is lovely. That much is clear from he moment you fire up the phone and see the live wallpaper in action. As goofy a feature as it is, the default bird’s eye view of waves crashing on a beach do a great job demonstrating the color and detail of the pOLED screen (that’s LG’s OLED tech of choice). It’s the same one — or at least really similar — you’ll find on the LG V30.

That’s a good thing. LG’s offering is a top contender for the best screen on a smartphone right now, alongside Samsung’s new flagship and the iPhone X (which uses Samsung’s panels, incidentally).

Users may also notice a distinct change in the color gamut. Things appear darker at first — the reds are almost a muddy brown. This change was by design. Android Oreo brings the operating system color profile support, and Google’s taking full advantage of it, by offering a what it’s determined is a truer to life display. It’s a bit of a jolt at first, which the saturation bumped down a fair bit, but you get used to it after using the phone for a day or two.

The new color profile offering is open to hardware and software developers, so you may start seeing it become more widespread on OLED displays. Though says it’s also open to the possibility that the transition might be too much for some users, so it could loosen up on the decision or offer people more control over their own color gamut depending on feedback.

The best of squeeze

No surprise, Google found another key hardware partner in the form of HTC. The Pixel 2 was well underway before the two companies sealed the deal, with Google buying up the phone maker’s assets, but HTC’s role in the success of the phone’s predecessor made the company a no-brainer for the sequel.

Nowhere are HTC’s fingerprints clearer than Active Edge. Named Edge Sense when it launched with the U11 earlier this year, Google has adopted the side squeezing gimmick for its own flagship. In a conversation at the Pixel 2 launch event, the company told me it developed its own version of the offering from the ground up. It’s hard to say how much of that is true, and how much is simply the company’s reluctance to shout-out hardware partners — but either way, the tech works the same in principle.

It’s still a silly gimmick, adding sensors to the device’s frame in lieu of an additional, single service button (which Samsung took a lot of flack for with Bixby), but it does make more sense on a device where Assistant is central to the product’s functionality. It’s certainly understandable if you’ve opted to disable the “Okay Google” wake word feature for battery reasons, or over rising privacy concerns around always-listening devices (the Google Mini story is only the last to raise red flags).

A quick squeeze fires up Assistant from anywhere — that includes the lock screen, though you’ll have to actually unlock the phone to get your answer. The feature is quite responsive and customizable in settings. It worked just fine through the case the company shipped the Pixel 2 with, and offers a satisfying tactile buzz to let you know it’s picking up what you’re putting down.

The feature also is interesting from the standpoint of a company looking to move its assistant beyond just a voice interface. Amazon has stayed pretty firm in its commitment to Alexa as almost exclusively voice input, but both Google and Amazon have looked to broaden their offerings, using their proprietary systems to unite all manner of different features across the devices.

A squeeze of the side and a tap of the keyboard icon inside the Assistant window offers a way to interface with it without using your voice at all. That could ultimately prove helpful in, say, a loud environment, or if you don’t want to be “that guy” (or lady) on a crowded public bus asking, “Okay Google, what’s that smell?”

The Pixel 2 doesn’t really raise the squeeze beyond novelty, but Google never really positioned it as much more — where HTC sold it as downright revolutionary. As an added feature, it’s got some potentially interesting use cases, though, in most cases your voice will probably get the job down even better.

Lens crafters

A big part of keeping the two devices on level footing from a hardware standpoint is the decision to only include a single camera. From a pure feature standpoint, that means the Pixel line is getting left in the dust by practically every flagship, as Apple and Samsung push their own solutions and Qualcomm makes multiple camera implementation that much easier for the rest of the industry. The inclusion of multiple cameras has several benefits — a lot of it is dependent on specific implementation, but it can include things like better picture quality, optical zoom and improved depth sensing.

But while the camera hardware isn’t much changed from last year’s model, Google has once again managed to do a lot of heavy lifting on the software side of things. In conversations with TechCrunch, the company has noted that the future may well be leading to more and more cameras (“maybe 40,” one executive joked during our meeting), but in the meeting, the company is determined to make the most of a single lens.

Depth sensing is going to continue to become more and more important with the proliferation of products like ARCore and ARKit, but Google’s managed to get good results here without leaning on the parallax effect from two cameras. Instead, it’s able to use pixel distance on a single lens. The most immediate result is the implementation of Google’s own version of portrait mode — that faked bokeh effect that blurs the background to make a subject pop.

The result is actually pretty impressive. Granted, I had a bit of an issue getting it to work perfectly in some low-light situations, but on a whole, the camera’s portrait mode is up there with many other flagships that use a pair of cameras to achieve the effect. It’s not able to perfectly capture, say, a messy hairline, but that’s fairly common on these devices. Like Samsung’s latest offering, Google Photos will save a raw and bokehed version of the photo, though it doesn’t offer a slider that lets you adjust the blur to your liking.

Google also happily touted the Pixel 2’s DxOMark score of 98 at the event. It’s an impressive score. The site’s not exactly a household name for phone buyers, but it’s an important benchmark. While it’s important to note it’s not a 98 out of a possible 100, it’s an extremely impressive score — in fact, it’s the highest the site has given, and doubly so given the fact that the Pixel was able to hit it (surpassing last year’s also impressive 90) with a single camera.

As advertised, the camera also performs admirably in low- and mixed-light settings, grabbing tough shots with minimal noise. The auto setting will work well for most users in most settings, but Google’s included some additional controls, like white balance and exposure compensation. It’s not quite the same level of control featured in other smartphone camera apps, but should be plenty for most people.

And then, of course, there’s Motion Photos. Google no doubt found a bit of inspiration in Apple’s similarly named offering. The principle is essentially the same — by default, the camera captures what’s essentially a proprietary version of an animated gif. The animation is fairly smooth, even with a shaky hand, courtesy of the Pixel’s new video stabilization technology, as evidenced by the Motion Photo converted into a video, converted into a gif of my rabbit Lucy seen above. That can then be set as a wallpaper, exported as a two-second video or shared via Google Photos — though I was only able to view it in motion on Chrome.

Lens, meanwhile, is probably the most meaningful software addition to the Pixel 2’s camera offering. It’s still in Beta, and won’t be coming to consumer units for a few weeks now, but it’s an impressive and compelling feature nonetheless, leveraging Google’s extensive search matrix to offer context to the shots you take.

Like Samsung’s Bixby offering, it’s able to work with landmarks and buildings — an impressive feat, given the infinite number of ways it’s possible to shoot one of those objects. At the moment, monument recognition is a bit of a mixed bag. You’re going to want to make sure you’re close enough to get an unobstructed view, while making sure you’re far enough away to get the full thing in frame — it’s a tough task, as seen with the above attempted shot of the World Trade Center.

It works well with books and records, and I was able to get it to recognize the aforementioned Lucy as a “domestic rabbit” and identify a tree as a tree. The system them presents a dialog box from Google Search offering up additional context. I was pretty impressed with its capabilities at this early stage, drawing upon Google’s vast knowledge base, and it’s sure to only get better as more and more people us it.

It’s not a super useful tool at the moment. Detecting well-known monuments in perfect conditions from the right distance is a fairly narrow case use. Until it works most of the time, it will be a novel but slightly frustrating feature.

But it’s an important sign post for Google’s use of AI and machine learning to augment its offerings. It also points to the company’s ability to use cloud-based computing and on-board software to augment the capabilities of handheld devices.And then there’s that dormant chip that could point a way forward for third-party developers.

You can check out an even more in-depth look at the camera features here.

Double stuf

Software is, of course, the key place Google looks to distinguish itself — a difficult task, given the fact that most of the competition will also receive many of these features via Android updates. The new Pixel isn’t the first device to ship with Android Oreo — though that title belongs to the Sony Xperia XZ1, which doesn’t mean a heck of a lot to users here in the States.

When notification dots are the most notable feature in your major software update, it probably goes without saying that it’s not the most compelling new operating system update. In fact, when it arrived, Frederic called it “probably one of the least exciting operating system updates in recent memory.” Notification dots and app shortcuts (accessed by giving an app a long press) are both a bit of catch-up with offerings that have been present in iOS for a while. Picture-in-picture, meanwhile, is a nice addition to Nougat’s split-screen mode, taking advantage of additional screen real estate so you can watch a video while using another app.

But it wouldn’t be a proper piece of Google hardware if the company didn’t use it to launch a few new compelling features. Always On Display is the one you’ll notice first, for obvious reasons. It’s a handy little addition, adding time and date and popping up notifications as they come across. Anything that’ll help keep our faces out of our phones for any period of time is probably a welcome addition. In Always On, the screen stays black, with white text, really the only option that won’t drain the battery in the process.

Always On is also home to one of Android’s more fun new features, Now Playing. It’s a sort of built-in Shazam killer that automatically identifies songs as they play. The artist name and song title pops up at the bottom. Clicking through will bring you to its entry in, naturally, Google Play. It’s a great little feature and stupidly simply — though it was a bit of a mixed bag in my own testing.

It did a pretty solid job with the PA system in the coffee shop I was working in and recognized songs by bigger-name artists like Kanye and Fleetwood Mac. It even got the occasional indie, like Courtney Barnett (great album, listen if you haven’t already), but came up short with prominent indie rock artists like Built to Spill and Guided by Voices. And frustratingly, there’s no “no match found” option, so you find yourself waiting and wondering a lot longer than the 10 or so seconds it should take.

Turns out the system uses an on-phone database pulled from Google Play that contains somewhere in the tens of thousands of songs. This is done for privacy reasons, so the phone isn’t constantly sending information about your listening habits to Google. The downside is it’s only tuned to “popular songs;” a bit ironic, given that there’s likely more of a need to hunt for obscure titles, rather than Ed Sheeran.

In the future, the company will be adding a more direct Shazam competitor to Google Assistant, so you just ask “what’s this song?” Another fun addition in the same vein lets you search for a song by mumbling a few lyrics. The song will generally pull up some answers via YouTube, so you can cross-reference your findings. The results, again, are a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s easy to see where Google’s going with Assistant: building an AI that can serve some useful function in every aspect of our day to day lives — and using its robust search platform as an important stepping stone.

The Pixel’s big sell

The Pixel 2 doesn’t make a particularly compelling upgrade case for users of last year’s model. The hardware isn’t a radical departure, and many of the new software features will be coming to the first-generation model — after all, Android support for older devices is one of the key tenants of Google’s first-party software approach. The device also doesn’t push the boundaries of what a mobile device is as much as other recent flagships.

Instead, it’s a good update built on a solid foundation that makes an interesting case for the importance of moving beyond a purely spec-based approach to devices. It’s true that Google will have an uphill battle convincing consumers to look beyond the pure numbers, but there are enough additions on-board to paint a picture of a compelling and well-rounded hardware product.

The Pixel 2 isn’t exactly future-proofed. Google told us that it’s looking toward an edge-to-edge display for future models, and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of joining the rest of the industry’s embrace of multiple cameras. These sorts of hardware features will likely play a big role in the sorts of AI and ML features the company is currently implementing with Assistant and across Android in general.

The new phones offer a glimpse at that future and, in the case of the device’s camera, show what can be done without having to charge users $1,000 for a device.