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Sphero BOLT review: Ingenious upgrade to the app-enabled robot

8×8 LED Matrix gives it a personality • A very customizable experience through SpheroEDU • Three distinct modes to engage with BOLT • Fully redesigned hardware leads to impressive breakthroughs • A long term product you can grow with
Slow 6-hour charging time • No internal speaker
BOLT is the most refined product from Sphero yet, compete with hardware that finally matches a great app experience that merges fun, creativity, and learning. Most importantly, BOLT will last a while and can grow with the user.

Mashable Score4.25

Licensing deals don’t last forever, but product iterations do. Sphero’s latest robot keeps the original ball design, but BOLT has even more technology than the original.

It is a refinement of a design, as it’s still the same core base inside, mixed with new hardware that enables new features.

BOLT is launching today for $149, as both a playful fun toy and a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) device. Combining the aspects of play from previous robots, like the Disney ones and the Sphero Mini, with better hardware, it aims to refocus the company on the original app-enabled ball.

It hits a sweet spot regarding price robots, undercutting Anki’s forthcoming Vectors and Mattel’s Alpha Training Blue. But it does represent a price increase for Sphero. 

The extra $20 isn’t going into thin air — BOLT has IR sensors, a bigger battery, an LED matrix, and an upgraded charger. It also moves the see-through design of SPRK+ into the mainstream, which nerds like myself will love. 

So at $149, can Sphero’s BOLT survive in a home and a classroom alike? 

You can see what’s inside

It still looks like a Sphero on the outside, but redesigned internals steal the show.

It still looks like a Sphero on the outside, but redesigned internals steal the show.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Not only is the Sphero BOLT see-through, but the team labeled all of the tech inside to a painstaking degree. It’s the attention to detail like this and the openness of the product, that is still intact with the young company, that makes it extra-cool for geeks. 

At first glance, you can tell something is different with BOLT. Not only has the entire inside, meaning the physical hardware inside the clear ball, been redesigned but most notably the main center mast is gone. This allows for the battery to be bigger and one solid piece, along with the rest of the technology inside being redesigned to fit this new mold. The other big difference is a white screen of LEDs, which is an 8×8 LED Matrix. This is the first screen on a core Sphero app-enabled robot ball. Facing outward on the four corners at the top of the hull, you will see four black sensors and these are IR or Infrared. This allows the Sphero to map out the room to an extent and provide some sight.

You still have an accelerometer and gyroscope inside, along with a motor that can go up to 4.5 miles per hour. More importantly, Sphero has added a compass which can deliver a long wanted feature, but more on that in a bit. What you won’t find with BOLT is an internal speaker, an area of weakness for previous Sphero’s as well, but the company is not solving this as of yet. I imagine its exclusion has to do with the keeping the design sealed, as well as achieving a 2-hour battery life.

Even with all the new technology, sensors, and even a simple screen, Sphero has kept the size the same. Bolt is 73mm in height and width, with a weight of 200 grams. If you can hold a baseball, you can hold BOLT, as it is roughly that size. If you want something smaller, look towards the Sphero Mini, but it won’t be as advanced.

That polycarbonate outer layer is durable. During a briefing with founder Adam Wilson he slammed BOLT down on a table several times, and in my testing, I had it roll down a flight of stairs and even fall off a table. With each drop, I got a little nervous, but then remembered that it’s designed to take a beating. BOLT is a road warrior destined for education and rough terrain at times. So, don’t drop it from high distances on purpose, but if it happens, the damage will likely only be cosmetic.

Spotlight turns to coding

The BOLT works hand in hand with SpheroEDU, giving you three distinct modes to code and program-- BUT you now have an LED matrix built-in.

The BOLT works hand in hand with SpheroEDU, giving you three distinct modes to code and program— BUT you now have an LED matrix built-in.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Even with the licensed products like BB-8 and R2-D2 that brought their companion apps and delightful experiences, Sphero was still focusing on STEM and STEAM. Since the original Sphero and the iterations that followed, especially the SPRK+, a software development kit (SDK) was made available. Moreover, there was also SpheroEDU, which is how this robotics company can allow people of all ages to learn to code. 

This isn’t a dry experience, but rather a fun and collaborative one— I’ve spent the past few weeks playing with SpheroEDU and the BOLT. The experience is pretty powerful, and I’ve already learned quite a bit. Sphero doesn’t take the approach of having you learn a made up coding language that is only exclusive to this robot. Rather the strategy is built in a way that BOLT can grow with you.

You can chose between Draw, Block, or Text for ways to program.

You can chose between Draw, Block, or Text for ways to program.

Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable

The core block system makes for users of all ages to design a program.

The core block system makes for users of all ages to design a program.

Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable

From a student perspective, through the Draw control tool for coding, a kindergarten student could start with BOLT switch to the Blocks tool in 5th grade, and then move to the Text (aka Javascript) tool for high school. SpheroEDU lets you see how the code translates from one another, even though it starts pretty basic you begin to get a feel for it. In Draw mode, I could learn geometry by drawing different triangles and have a visual representation by BOLT mapping it out in front of me.  For learning styles, this is crucial, as BOLT engages the user with the process— from telling it what to do and then seeing it come to life. 

Moving into Blocks, Sphero isn’t reinventing the wheel with this drag and drop based interface. However, the organization of each block category and the color representations, make it intuitive. For instance, you can set up a distance to travel within a loop block that makes Bolt repeat it. However, thanks to the new technology within BOLT, some blocks let you have text appear on the LED Matrix or ones that allow you to draw emojis on it. You can even customize what graphics for games and activities. 

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In a demo with Sphero’s team, I was able to play duck duck goose with BOLT, which had some neat graphics appear. But through SpheroEDU I can create my program and run it, or pull from the community of creators. A lot more will populate post-launch, but in the meantime, you can have it become a magic 8 ball, deliver a surprise greeting, or even play tic tac toe. The last one makes use of the board on the screen, with x’s and o’s, but you place each one by tilting BOLT and shaking it to confirm. Once you’ve progressed through Blocks, you can move to Text and bring your code with you. It allows you to see the work you’ve done in real Javascript code. It’s pretty remarkable and part of what makes BOLT and Sphero as a whole a unique offering. This isn’t some one-off toy robot, but rather a fun and compelling one that won’t soon grow old.

BOLT auto senses direction thanks to a compass

A compass inside will let BOLT auto aim, but it doesn't work everywhere.

A compass inside will let BOLT auto aim, but it doesn’t work everywhere.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

A significant pain since the beginning of the Sphero was telling it the direction to travel in. You would turn the motor on the inside, and Blue light would appear, this would point towards the direction that Sphero would move in. 

With BOLT though, a compass is now onboard, and it works the same way that the one inside your iPhone does. It uses magnetic north to sense the correct direction of travel and this feature is called “auto aim.” In areas with a lot of signals and metal, it likely won’t perform that well, but Sphero is taking a novel step forward in the direction of making the product more comfortable to use for everyone. Plus, it’s easier than ever to get a Sphero rolling.

The core fun Sphero experience doesn’t go away

The BOLT still strikes as a lightning bolt of fun like previous Spheros.

The BOLT still strikes as a lightning bolt of fun like previous Spheros.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

You can put auto-aim to more use, as BOLT still does a core thing; generate fun through use. If anything that fun and joy that this app-enabled robot gets heightened thanks to the new technology and the coding aspect. Sphero has many games that will be available at launch, including bowling that you can use with household objects. But you can also just drive BOLT around, while it goes slightly slower than previous models, 4.5 miles per hour is still pretty good for a robot of this size.

Even better, that core Sphero experience mixed with the app enabled coding one doesn’t impact the battery life too much. In fact, BOLT can last around 2 hours on a full charge thanks to that larger battery inside. This gives you plenty of time to drive it around and have a dog chase it, in addition to spending some an ample amount of time coding the next big program. It gives you times to develop the code, test it, and make adjustments without the need to take breaks for a charge in the middle. Sphero is still using wireless charging, but this larger battery is working in conjunction with a faster charger.

While the charger isn't a fast one, seeing the large coil might give you the feeling it is working better.

While the charger isn’t a fast one, seeing the large coil might give you the feeling it is working better.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

The base has the same clear design language which lets you see what is going on, and the new charging coil is quite larger. You plug the charging base in with the included micro USB cable which can deliver a full charge in about 6 hours, so this isn’t really fast charging, but one can hope it arrives with future updates. It would also be nice to see Sphero switch to USB-C.

BOLT sets the course for the future

You won't be disappointed with Sphero BOLT.

You won’t be disappointed with Sphero BOLT.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

I am thoroughly impressed with Sphero BOLT. It beats out other connected robot toys in its price range for the sheer fact that the company has a track record of software updates, has an innovative STEAM approach, and the fact that it is a joy to use. 

The addition of an LED Matrix provides some visual cues to BOLT itself and rather than focusing on a character personality, Sphero put the focus on hardware and software for experiences that can be built upon. It is not the type of product that will be thrown away after a year; instead, BOLT shows this merge of creativity and education that results in an experience that you want to interact with. 

Inside the hardware, processors, motors, and sensors speak for themselves. The specs themselves don’t matter so much here; it is what you can do with it. The application unlocks the power of BOLT through three innovative modes that teach you to code. The community is also invested in a consumer and education experience, as people like to share what they have managed to make this robot do.

A key element is the price; at $149 the Sphero BOLT is great value. For the money, you get a cool little robot that might also inspire you to build something yourself. 

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PureVPN review: Even limited Netflix access can’t save this buggy VPN

Friendly design for VPN newbies • Netflix works • sort of
Connectivity issues • Inconsistent speeds • A no-log policy that may not be entirely true
PureVPN works, sometimes even with Netflix, but it has enough issues to keep the VPN from being your go-to choice for private internet access.

Mashable Score3.25

A virtual private network, or VPN, usually has its work cut out for it. A VPN needs to be accessible for a relatively large audience with a service that actually works. If a VPN does not deliver privacy or security, it fails. For some users, that failure can lead to some real-world consequences.

PureVPN delivers a smartly designed package that mostly succeeds in delivering security and privacy. Some features worked while others didn’t and you’re left with a good, not great, service that leaves you wanting more than a nice design.

Privacy by design

There’s a renewed interest in VPN services following a seemingly endless news cycle of new privacy concerns. Sure there are the high-profile ones, like everything that’s been going on at Facebook, but your security concerns start as soon as you decide to use the internet.

In order to access the web, you need an IP address. Your IP address is assigned to your computer by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). That means your ISP knows your address, personal information, and internet activity. You can see why that’s not a great situation to be in. ISPs may not be actively monitoring your activity and your data may not be readily accessible, but it’s out there. Regulatory rollbacks in the last year make it legal for ISPs to sell your data. These companies say they would never do that — have you ever known a company to lie?

If, for some odd reason, you don’t believe your ISP or want to ensure that you have some level of control, there are a few options. One of the most popular and direct solutions is to use a VPN service like PureVPN, which connects you to the internet through its servers and not your ISP’s. 

PureVPN has a free version with limited bandwidth. It’s a good way to see what it has to offer, but you’ll get sick of all the ads within the app. I decided to go ad-free and chose the more expensive $10.99/month option. The membership lets me use PureVPN on my mobile and desktop devices. You can also purchase a mobile-only subscription for $4.99.

PureVPN makes a good first impression. You’re greeted with a series of tiles based on different activities. There’s one for Stream, another for Internet Freedom, a third for Security/Privacy, and a fourth tile for File Sharing.

Modes for PureVPN

Modes for PureVPN

Selecting your purpose changes the options found in the third column of PureVPN’s home screen. By choosing Stream, I have a Channels section whereas Internet Freedom lets me choose different Purposes.

Starting off with Internet Freedom, I could optimize my VPN for usage in China. PureVPN identifies which countries to use and which to avoid if you want to bypass China’s “Great Firewall.” Unfortunately, there are many credible reports that PureVPN actually can’t bypass China’s security measures.  

PureVPN also suggests servers to use based on social-media usage, streaming preference, and VoIP usage. It’s all pretty handy and an intuitive approach to tailoring your VPN experience. Instead of configuring individual security features, you can choose the right activity for you.

Of course, you can further optimize your experience with additional security. You can select your encryption protocol, whether it’s the default UDP or the slower, but more secure TCP, or Split Tunneling if you want to select which apps will use PureVPN. 

Waiting for a connection

The Android app itself mostly performed well. I did experience connectivity issues from the default server on multiple occasions. Restarting the app didn’t help, and it took several tries before I was able to connect to the VPN. It was frustrating way to start, and there were no error messages before I was greeted with another green button imploring me to Connect. 

The initial PureVPN connection screen

The initial PureVPN connection screen

I restarted the app and tried again. Instead of choosing a U.S. server, I successfully connected to a server in the UK. That led to poor download speeds, which was pretty disappointing. I ran a speed test multiple times hoping to get download speeds above 10Mbps, but that never happened. Upload speeds fared better, around 20Mbps, but still disappointing. 

Unsatisfied with the U.K., I tried switching back to a U.S. server without any luck. I decided to chat with technical support. I explained my issue, and a gentleman named Lorenzo told me to try switching from UDP to TCP. It worked. The tradeoff was a near-40Mbps drop in download speed, while upload speeds were down a negligible amount in one test and down around 17 Mbps in another test. 

I explained that’s the reason why I didn’t want to use TCP and was noticing these slower speeds. I received a detailed answer regarding the different factors that affect speed. It’s informative, but doesn’t help explain why I had no other options but to select the TCP protocol. Maybe chalk it up to a random bad day, but it was still a frustrating experience. 

Now we're cooking.

Now we’re cooking.

I decided to use the Stream option to do a global channel surf to forget about the connectivity woes. I selected FranceTV to start, even though I wouldn’t understand what was going on. It worked fine. Switching over to the BBC, I was met with an error message. Even though my IP address was in Manchester, BBC detected I was using a VPN and blocked access. I got an error for Sony LIV, but I was able to connect to MatchTV, albeit with relatively long load times. 

PureVPN performed better on a Mac and as a Chrome extension. There are still tradeoffs, including inconsistent speeds, that hinder PureVPN’s performance.

Not so fast

After downloading PureVPN for my MacBook Air, I quickly connected to a server. However, speeds started to suffer once I traveled outside my default server. Leaving New York, I headed first to Atlanta. Upload speeds were down by 3Mbps, but download speeds were down over 30Mbps. I really started to notice slower speeds as I travelled further west to San Francisco. 

Speed from original ISP (no VPN)

Speed from original ISP (no VPN)

Speed from New York server

Speed from New York server

Speed from Atlanta server

Speed from Atlanta server

Speed from San Francisco server

Speed from San Francisco server

Speeds varied dramatically during my speed test. Sometimes the results would reveal a 15Mbps drop in download speeds while other tests had download speeds that couldn’t crack 10Mbps. Poor speeds plagued my experience in the UK with download speeds below 10Mbps and upload speeds in the teens. 

Netflix works (sort of)

Practically every VPN flaw could be forgiven if Netflix works on the service. The streaming service has ramped up its security protocols and that means most VPNs are shut out from Netflix. If you’re an American hoping to watch the best the U.K. offers on Netflix, you may be out of luck depending on what VPN service you use.

Netflix doesn't work most of the time with PureVPN, but you might have luck with the Chrome extension.

Netflix doesn’t work most of the time with PureVPN, but you might have luck with the Chrome extension.

Netflix was a firm no while using PureVPN for Android. It’s to be expected at this point that the streaming service will block access if it detects VPN or proxy usage. I struck out again on a Mac. However, Netflix did work when you use PureVPN as a Chrome extension. So you should skip the app and go straight to the extension if you want to bypass regional restrictions.

Privacy concerns

Doing a quick search of PureVPN prior to this review revealed two initial concerns. While PureVPN states it doesn’t collect logs, that’s not entirely true.

It’s highly recommended to read the privacy policy of any VPN service. PureVPN collects the usual information required for setting up an account, like your email and credit card information, along with cookies for ad delivery and to track website performance.

Despite its claims as a “no logs” VPN service, PureVPN does keep connection logs. Data in these logs include the day you connected to a VPN and your ISP. PureVPN says it does not collect the specific time you connected to a VPN, your original IP address, or your IP address after connecting to a VPN. PureVPN also collects bandwidth usage data to ensure quality and prevent usage abuse, according to the service. 

PureVPN notes that the information it does collect can’t be used to personally identify you or your internet activity. However, there are several VPN services that offer a true “no log” experience and that’s something to consider if you’re choosing between PureVPN and its competitors.

Working in PureVPN’s favor is where the company is headquartered. Some countries have strict internet regulations or a history of data surveillance, which would be a huge concern for any seeking internet privacy. There are also more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., Canada, the UK, Germany, and France, that have intelligence gathering agreements. Initially known as the Five Eyes alliance, the number of member countries has grown to 14.

So you’ll want to carefully consider where a VPN service is headquartered because they could hand over your data if compelled by the local government. PureVPN’s parent company is headquartered in Hong Kong, which has favorable data laws, and isn’t part of the intelligence-gathering alliance.

DNS leaks were another concern. If an online DNS leak test reveals two servers, you’re experiencing a domain name system (DNS) leak. It seems PureVPN has patched up this problem and my tests revealed no leaks. 

There are some things that I really like about PureVPN, but there are also some serious drawbacks. Connectivity issues, inconsistent speeds, and a few features that don’t work well are just a few knocks against PureVPN. However, you can bypass Netflix’s security using PureVPN’s Chrome extension. Even with that benefit, there may be too many reasons to skip PureVPN and try a more trusted service.

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Mattel Alpha Training Blue review: a cute lil’ robot raptor you can train

Heavy • durable plastic • Looks exactly like the dinosaur from the movie • Total Control Mode lets you control the dino like a puppet
Indoor only • Charging port hidden by screwed-on panel • Controller settings aren’t as intuitive as we’d like
Mattel’s Alpha Training Blue is a sure bet for anyone who loved the movie. Surprisingly expressive and fun to play with for hours.

Mashable Score4.0

Mattel’s newest Jurassic World toy, “Alpha Training Blue,” is an adorable, controllable, cheeky little robotic velociraptor that comes with dozens of animations and game modes. Mattel lets users take full control so that they can basically use the toy like a futuristic puppet, or, in our favorite mode, train the raptor to respond to different controller motions.

The dinosauar itself is inspired by the star of Jurassic World, the baby dino named Blue, and the technology packed into this product is quite impressive. Blue has a huge personality that expresses itself in unique ways depending on which game mode you’re playing in: Training Mode, Total Control Mode, Prowl Mode, and Guard Mode (more on those later).

Priced at $249.99, Alpha Training Blue is one of the better robotic toys we’ve tried in recent years. It’s cheaper than many similar toys on the market, especially compared to higher-end robotic toys like the $2,889 Sony Aibo. Better yet, you don’t have to pair Alpha Training Blue to a companion smartphone app in order to use it. Instead, you control the dinosaur with a physical remote, like an old-fashioned RC car.

The dinosaur and controller come packed with some pretty serious technology: small motorized wheels are attached the feet, an accelerometer is embedded in the controller for motion controls, noise and movement sensors are hidden on the dinosaur for more realistic interactions, and haptic feedback is included on the controller, which comes in handy when you’re playing any of the various game modes. For its price, it’s a fairly sophisticated toy.

But more than anything, Alpha Training Blue is just fun to mess around with, especially in Training Mode. Like the fictional character Owen, who Chris Pratt plays in Jurassic World, you can train this dinosaur by using a clicking sound to teach it different maneuvers. So how does this dinosaur stack up in the increasingly competitive world of robotic toys? Here’s how it breaks down:

Let’s talk hardware

Blue looks like Blue, and you can tell Mattel paid attention to details here.

Blue looks like Blue, and you can tell Mattel paid attention to details here.

Blue stands at an impressive 16-inches tall when she’s roaring, or when she turns her beak upward toward the sky. But that only happens when you make her angry in one of the game modes, or if you’re in full control and command her to do so. 

Most of the time, you’ll find that Blue stands at a comfortable 9-inch height. She’s quite long at about 25 inches and weighs about 4 pounds. It’s a beefy toy by comparison to most others on the market at this price point — but we’re happy Mattel put some extra love into the build quality because it really pays off while you’re playing around.

Blue’s trademark is, of course, the blue color markings over her military green body, and they were replicated really well on this product. The orange eyes also provide a pop of color that are noticeable enough to grab your attention if you catch them at a glance. They’re creepy — but in a good way! — and the motorized eyelids help bring this dinosaur to life.

Unbelievably detailed controls (through motion sensors, a joystick, and four buttons) let you make this dinosaur do whatever the heck you can think of. Mattel says the motions are based off the ones from the movie. We were just impressed by how specific you can get when controlling it.

In Total Control Mode, which lets you control the dinosaur like a puppet, you can move Blue’s eyes around, open and shut her eyelids, or whip her body around in any direction. You can also open and close her mouth, and make her tongue move. This is great for doing weird stuff like pretending that she’s laughing or eating. We had a kick out of messing around with this particular feature.

Hear me roar.

Hear me roar.

Image: jake krol/mashable

The details included in the build of this toy are on point, with even the teeth being hyperrealistic. It’s also worth saying that if you’re a parent, there’s no need to worry about the teeth hurting anyone because the jaw doesn’t clamp down very hard at all. Even if the dinosaur bites you, you’ll be totally fine because there’s very little chomping force.

In terms of movement, the dinosaur rolls on a small set of wheels beneath her feet. Unfortunately, you can’t drive on the carpet — only on hardwood floors. It didn’t really compromise our experience, but it’s worth noting in case some of you don’t have that as an option. Ideally, we’d like to have seen an all-terrain dinosaur, that could more easily handle carpeted floors. Oh, well.

An gaming-inspired controller

The remote is comfortable to hold, but the controls are very complex.

The remote is comfortable to hold, but the controls are very complex.

Image: jake krol/mashable

One of the better parts of the entire Alpha Training Blue kit is the physical controller that’s included. More and more often, toy companies are choosing to use a smartphone app as a controller for newer robotics toys. Not for Alpha Training Blue.

We were delighted to use a gaming-inspired physical controller to operate this toy. It’s pretty intuitive for anyone who’s ever used a Nintendo Wii controller. In most of the play modes, the joystick moves the dinosaur forward and backwards, and can also move the mouth and eyelids. The accelerometer embedded in the controller lets you different motions to move the dino’s head and tail.

There’s also an interesting piece of low-tech on the controller: a small “clicker” similar to the one that Chris Pratt’s character Owen uses in the movie to train Blue. The clicking sound is pretty loud by comparison to all other buttons and is generally used only in Training Mode.

While in Training Mode, the dinosaur will only respond to the sound of the clicks. This is enabled through microphones that are hidden on the body of the dinosaur and can detect the loud click from the controller. It’s a pretty interesting idea — one that directly mirrors the movie — and was one of our favorite parts of playing with this product. It might seem like a stretch, but for a hot second, I was living out my wildest Jurassic Park dream training a little baby velociraptor — just like Chris Pratt’s movie character.

In Total Control Mode Blue will move its head according to the controller.

In Total Control Mode Blue will move its head according to the controller.

Image: Brian wong/mashable

The only downside to the physical controller is that the number of buttons can be a little bit daunting if you don’t have the instruction manual nearby. It takes a while to remember what buttons correspond to different actions. The learning curve on this product is a little higher than your average toy.

Once you figure it out, it’s all smooth sailing. The buttons at the top of the controller change depending on which mode you’re in, making it a little confusing and hard to keep track of. 

Generally speaking, the joystick is used to drive and maneuver the dinosaur. The buttons at the top can either be used to reward the dinosaur by giving it a treat, or in Total Control Mode, to control the mouth and eyes. Two LEDs at the top of the device are meant to give you a visual cue about what mode you’re in — just be sure to write down what they mean otherwise you’ll get lost like I did.

Train Blue and become the Alpha

This is just one of the many snippets of a reaction that Blue can have during training.

This is just one of the many snippets of a reaction that Blue can have during training.

Image: Jake krol/mashable

I think the most exciting mode of Alpha Training Blue is Training Mode, which makes you the teacher. Using all aspects of the controller, including the physical clicker, you will walk Blue through 7 levels. 

The end result? You’ll understand that patience and precise movements are a must. So if a kid is performing training, there will likely be some frustrating moments before they totally figure it out. 

Working through the steps of training Blue can be a bit frustrating at first, but the payoff is worth it. 

In the beginning of Training Mode, you will need to train Blue to understand treats and other rewards. This step is crucial because it signals to the dinosaur during the training that Blue has completed the correct action. It’s similar to the process of actually training a pet to lie down. Blue picks up on the sound of the clicker and tracks the motion. Once she gets the treat, the left hand LED switches to orange, meaning that you have reached level 2. 

Blue won’t always get it on the first try, second try, or even third try. The learning process and software that powers Blue creates a unique reaction each time. Blue might get a little frustrated and shake her head, or deliver a roar. The payoff is the short dance she does after completing a level. You’ll know you did the move correctly when the controller vibrates four times and flashes green, one vibration with a red flash means it was unsuccessful.

As you progress through the seven levels of training, you become the Alpha.

As you progress through the seven levels of training, you become the Alpha.

Image: jake krol/mashable

The levels walk you through teaching the dinosaur simple head movements, turning, and even completing a spin. It goes up to level 7 and depending on the accuracy of the moves, you can finish training in about an hour. 

My only real complaint: The instructions for Training Mode could be much more explicit, since the ones included in the manual are easy to misinterpret. They mostly rely on photos and arrows, which are often confusing.

I spoke with Mattel’s lead project designer Michael Kadile and eventually figured out what I was doing wrong. My big takeaway from our conversation was to exaggerate my arm movements. Small movements won’t cut it because the accelerometer inside the controller won’t pick them up. After that explanation, I was able to train her successfully. 

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It’s important to note that while it might seem like a rather quick game mode, there are still three others to play around with. So there’s plenty of playtime to squeeze out of this somewhat expensive toy. Our only true criticism is that Mattel could do a better job on making the instructions clearer — because if the adults at our office had trouble figuring out how to use this toy, a child would probably be even worse off.

The other game modes

Besides Training Mode, Blue's other modes feel supplemental and aren't as much as a full blown play experience.

Besides Training Mode, Blue’s other modes feel supplemental and aren’t as much as a full blown play experience.

Image: jake krol/mashable

Prowl Mode lets you fully control Blue’s movement in almost any direction. She can go pretty fast, and you can have her sneak up on people, just be careful navigating around corners because she can fall over if she turns too quickly.

Total Control Mode lets you puppeteer Blue. Raising the controller up will make her head rise, the joystick controls the direction she moves in, and the buttons at the top let you take over her eyes and mouth. The level of control is pretty phenomenal and one of our favorite parts about playing with this toy.

Mattel’s take on a Guard Mode allows you to set her attitude; neutral, hostile, or friendly. This will determine her reactions if she detects motion while in this particular mode. In addition, the controller will buzz, allowing you to control the reaction.

Playtime is around an hour

Battery life allows for about an hour and a half of playtime, and thankfully fast charging is on-board.

Battery life allows for about an hour and a half of playtime, and thankfully fast charging is on-board.

Image: Brian wong/mashable

An interesting design choice is that the battery charging and software update port is in between the legs of Blue, in the nether region. To make matters worse, it’s behind a door locked with a screw. So have a Phillips-head screwdriver handy to charge the device. 

The saving grace here is that Blue should last for a minimum of an hour with each full charge. Switching between different modes, I got Blue to last for around an hour and 45 minutes. This was impressive because I was switching between the modes pretty much on the fly. Blue can fully charge via the proprietary cord in just 30 minutes. This charging to battery life ratio is 1:2, which means downtime is minimal.

An impressive, fun experience

Alpha Training Blue is not perfect, but it's a lot of fun.

Alpha Training Blue is not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun.

Image: jake krol/mashable

While Alpha Training Blue is not a perfect toy, it’s pretty darn close. At $249, it’s a little pricey, but you’re getting a pretty sophisticated robot that impresses right from the start. You can train it, drive it, and control it to an insanely high degree of precision. With all the tiny motors packed inside, the hardware is truly top-notch. 

Quite frankly, playing with Alpha Training Blue makes me feel pretty badass, especially after completing all 7 levels of training. 

The high learning curve and not being able to use it everywhere (i.e. on carpeted floors), left me wanting more. However, at the end of the day I am truly impressed with Mattel’s Alpha Training Blue.

It will delight kids and adults alike, especially if you’re a fan of robotics or more importantly of Jurassic World. And as a parting note to anyone who wants to buy this toy today: While you can pre-order Alpha Training Blue on Amazon now, it won’t ship until October. But, rest assured knowing she’ll be eager to jump into Training Mode as soon as you take her out of the box.

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WeMo Mini review: a world of flexibility in a tiny plug

Support for many smart home platforms • Slim design that doesn’t block other outlets • Affordable price point
WeMo app gets in the weeds • No energy monitoring
The WeMo Mini doesn’t impress with the standalone app, but a slim design and a large compatibility list for smart home platforms makes it a winner.

Mashable Score3.5

The smart home realm of 2018 is a confusing world for a consumer. But Belkin WeMo is here with an outlet that works with many ecosystems, and we’ll take all the help we can get.

WeMo’s Mini smart plug can turn a basic electric outlet into a smart one for just $34.99. Better yet, the veteran brand is reliably good about frequent software updates. The latest update brings Apple HomeKit support without the need for a “bridge,” (that clunky hunk of hardware that’s needed to connect with different smart homes and can be a hassle to maintain).

WeMo wants to attract new and old customers to adapt to this smart plug, which is smaller than competitors, but at $34.99 cheaper options are abound on Amazon from lesser known brands.

That said, does the WeMo Mini smart plug pack a punch with a small, nearly $35-package?

A simple design

The larger neon green box might fool you, but the Mini has a bare-bones design.

The larger neon green box might fool you, but the Mini has a bare-bones design.

Image: jake krol/mashable

There’s not much to the smart plug, physically speaking. It weighs 3.2-ounces and measures 3.8 inches wide x 1.4 inches tall x 2.4 inches thick. The design team went with a short, rectangular shape to allow space for two units to plug into the same outlet, which is an improvement upon previous models that were too big to share the use of other outlets.

The back has the name of the Mini, regulatory information, and instructions for restoring the plug.

The back has the name of the Mini, regulatory information, and instructions for restoring the plug.

Image: jake krol/mashable

WeMo opted for an all-white colorway, likely to blend easily into your room; the front features a faint WeMo logo, standard power port, and a power button. There’s also a small LED light for status. The back has the serial number, some model information, and a plug. In all, super minimal.

The WeMo app is a mixed bag

WeMo needs to work on the companion app.

WeMo needs to work on the companion app.

Image: jake krol/mashable

The companion app, however, is a different story. In order to setup with WeMo Mini smart plug, you’ll have to use a proprietary WeMo app for iOS and Android. If you already have other WeMo devices or plan on getting more in the future, this will be home base for all of them. Updating them, naming them, and keeping them in check all happens in the app. 

While the app’s aesthetics leave much to be desired, and it also lacks in features, the setup process is relatively simple, and WeMo makes it easy to connect to external smart home platforms. 

The setup process begins automatically as soon as you plug the WeMo Mini into an outlet for the first time and open the app. Rather than pair via Bluetooth, Z-Wave, or ZigBee, it connects through a WiFi account named “WEMO.”

The setup process takes a few minutes, which is frustrating, and I ended up quitting out of the app, reopening it, and giving it a few minutes before it finally connected.

But once connected, it’s easy to turn your WeMo unit on or off, set a schedule, and customize actions, all right from the app’s screen, and if you connect it through HomeKit, you open up the option of control via Siri on any iOS device, Apple TV, or a HomePod.

HomeKit joins the WeMo compatibility party

The box doesn't have a HomeKit logo, but support for this platform is available via a software update.

The box doesn’t have a HomeKit logo, but support for this platform is available via a software update.

Image: jake krol/mashable

Since HomeKit support was added in July, your WeMo Mini might have been packed prior and come to you without that update out of the box; it took about five minutes after I updated the unit before it appeared on my Home app, but once I saw it, the connection was easy. 

The WeMo app makes it very simple to integrate with external platforms.

The WeMo app makes it very simple to integrate with external platforms.

Image: jake krol/mashable

The WeMo Mini is the only WeMo product with HomeKit compatibility out of the box (otherwise you’ll need the aforementioned WeMo Bridge), but the company says it plans to release updates that add support to other devices. 

It’s also really easy to add compatibility with IFTTT, the Google Assistant, Nest, and Amazon Alexa.

The WeMo Mini is excellent at making older appliances smart ones.

The WeMo Mini is excellent at making older appliances smart ones.

Image: jake krol/mashable

Keeping cool with the WeMo Mini

It’s been a hot, humid summer where I live in New Jersey, so I wanted to see how the WeMo Mini could handle a non-smart device (my wall-mounted AC unit) and turn it into a smart one. The integration with HomeKit and Alexa was quite useful here.

Even better, the WeMo Mini remembers the WiFi network unless you restore it, which allowed me to move the plug around my house efficiently. 

Using the app, I was able to turn my AC on while still commuting home, and shut it off when I got cold in the middle of the night. Super convenient, but while some smart plugs offer ways to monitor your energy consumption, the WeMo Mini unfortunately does not have this feature.

An easy way to make a dumb outlet smart

At the end of the day, the WeMo Mini is an attractive item at just $34.99.

At the end of the day, the WeMo Mini is an attractive item at just $34.99.

Image: jake krol/mashable

Bottom line, at $34.99, the WeMo Mini is an affordable smart outlet that works with a plethora of smart home platforms. Without spending a chunk of change, you’re buying into a flexible system from a veteran brand that has a good chance of staying around for quite some time.

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Yes, you can boost your Mac with Blackmagic’s external GPU. But it’s so, so not worth it.

Super quiet • Pass-through charging for MacBooks with USB-C
Expensive • Non-replaceable graphics processor • Many apps aren’t optimized for eGPU • Most apps don’t support hot-plugging • eGPU support for macOS High Sierra and Mojave varies • Included Thunderbolt 3 cable is really short
Blackmagic’s eGPU is worth considering if you wanna give your Mac a graphics boost, but only if you have all the right equipment and don’t mind going through trial and error to see if your apps will benefit from it.

Mashable Score2.0

If you judged by how Apple presented the Blackmagic Design external graphics processing unit (eGPU) at its coming-out party for the latest MacBook Pro, turbo-charging your Mac with faster graphics performance was easy. Improving speed for things like exporting high-resolution video looked as simple as connecting the Blackmagic eGPU into one of the laptop’s Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Take it from me: It’s not.

After weeks of frustrated testing, I learned that there’s actually a very specific “correct way to use the $700 external graphics processor and I had been using it all wrong. 

But could you really blame me? None of the info to get the eGPU working properly is included in the instructions.

It was only after a long journey down Google search and seemingly endless back-and-forth emails with Blackmagic and a call with Apple that I was finally able to see faster and not slower graphics performance.

But first, some basics. The almost 10-pound eGPU houses a non-upgradeable AMD Radeon Pro 580 graphics processor with 8GB of VRAM. Unlike other eGPUs such as the Razer Core, you can’t swap the GPU. This non-upgradeability severely limits its usefulness if you want more power down the road.

The Radeon Pro 580’s not bad (it’s the same one in the 2017 5K 27-inch iMac), but its performance still pales in comparison to NVIDIA’s GTX 1080 and is nowhere as powerful as the AMD Radeon Pro Vega GPUs inside of the iMac Pro.

If you need even more graphics performance, you can also connect multiple Blackmagic eGPUs directly to each of your Mac’s Thunderbolt 3 ports. (Don’t daisy chain them, though, because that will overload the port, according to the company’s FAQ.) I didn’t get to test multiple Blackmagic eGPUs (I only had one to play with), but keep in mind that an app also needs to support multiple GPUs (external or not) in order for it to access the extra power.

The eGPU runs almost silent.

The eGPU runs almost silent.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

GPU choice aside, Blackmagic’s eGPU is well built and won’t easily be knocked over on desks (the included 20-inch Thunderbolt 3 cable is a tad short, though). I wouldn’t call it beautiful — the base is ugly in my opinion — but it blends in nicely with any space gray MacBook or iMac Pro. It kind of reminds me of the the trash can Mac Pro (Apple helped design this thing after all) and works similarly with air being sucked up from the bottom and released out through the top vent. Most impressive is how quiet it operates — it’s barely audible.

Lots of ports to plug your external display and accessories into. It's basically a huge dongle.

Lots of ports to plug your external display and accessories into. It’s basically a huge dongle.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Around the eGPU’s back is a healthy stable of ports for connecting accessories: two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI 2.0 port. 

The only indicator the eGPU is on is this light.

The only indicator the eGPU is on is this light.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Noticeably missing on the eGPU is a power button. The only way to know if the eGPU is on and connected properly is the white LED down below, which lights up when its in use. Also, on your Mac, the eGPU symbol appears in the menu bar.

One issue after another

My main beef with Blackmagic’s eGPU isn’t just that it’s expensive or that the GPU is non-upgradeable, but that there are a whole lot checkboxes you need to tick off to get it to actually work. Even worse, when it’s connected and not working, there’s absolutely no way to tell (unless you’re looking at the Activity Monitor or doing rigorous testing like me). It still lights up, and you still get the menu-bar icon.

When I first unboxed the eGPU, I thought I’d just plug it into my 2017 top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro (2.9GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, Intel HD Graphics 630, and Radeon Pro 560 discrete GPU with 4GB of VRAM) running the latest version of macOS High Sierra and — BOOM — faster graphics performance.

How wrong was I.

My first order of business was to test video exporting with and without the eGPU. I plugged the eGPU into the MacBook Pro and fired up both Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro CC. With the help of Mashable video producer Ray White we created several test projects to export.

(We did a 1080p export project, but to keep things simple we’ll focus on my 4K trials because 1080p performance was the same with and without the eGPU.)

For both video-editing apps, we created a 4K video project with the following components:

  • 12 video clips at 3,840 x 2,160 resolution and 30 fps (shot with a Sony A6300 camera) 

  • 3 simple transitions (dissolve, crossfade, and wipe)

  • 2 title cards (intro and outtro)

  • 3 of the 12 clips were stabilized

We exported the video at native resolution and framerate in H.264 and took the average of three trials for each test. Here’s what we got:

Final Cut Pro X video export in H.264

Without the eGPU: 

  • 2 minutes and 49 seconds

With the eGPU: 

  • 2 minutes and 13 seconds

Adobe Premiere Pro CC:

Without the eGPU: 

  • 8 minutes and 37 seconds

With the eGPU: 

After seeing a measly 36 seconds faster export time in Final Cut Pro X and surprisingly worse exporting times with the eGPU versus without in Premiere Pro CC, I knew something was perhaps… not right. So I did what anyone would do. I went to Google and found a shocking answer: The eGPU does nothing if it’s just plugged into a MacBook Pro by itself. 

If your Mac is running High Sierra, you need an external display plugged into the eGPU. This is because only one GPU can drive a Mac’s built-in screen and that’s the one already inside of it. 

(I later learned macOS Mojave does support eGPUs for a Mac’s built-in screen, but since the OS was still in beta at the time of testing, it didn’t work reliably.)

The proper way to use the eGPU: external display, MacBook Pro lid closed, and keyboard and mouse connected.

The proper way to use the eGPU: external display, MacBook Pro lid closed, and keyboard and mouse connected.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Okay, no biggie — just a minor setback! I borrowed an LG 5K UltraFine Display (it’s the only Thunderbolt 3 display that’s officially supported by the eGPU) and plugged it directly into my MacBook Pro with the eGPU also plugged into a separate port. 

I fired up both FCP X and Premiere Pro CC and again saw no improvements. Export times with the eGPU were again slower in Premiere CC compared to without it. What could be wrong now? More Googling and I find out graphics performance is only better if the monitor is plugged into the eGPU, which is then plugged into your Mac.

Ughhh. Alrighty, then!

With the correct wiring, I ran my tests and yet again saw exports that were either barely faster or somehow slower. I just wasn’t seeing faster performance.

Super annoyed, I combed Blackmagic’s website and noticed there’s no mention of faster graphics performance for any app but its own DaVinci Resolve video production software. Could it be that this eGPU is only good for one app? Because that would be really dumb. 

Besides, the description for the eGPU on Apple’s website says otherwise:

Get desktop-class graphics performance on your MacBook Pro with the Blackmagic eGPU. Featuring the Radeon Pro 580 graphics processor, the Blackmagic eGPU is built to make any Mac with Thunderbolt 3 ports a graphics powerhouse. Enjoy supersmooth gaming, accelerate graphics-intensive pro app workflows, and enable VR experiences or content creation. Built-in I/O connections drive a Thunderbolt 3 display, support multiple accessories, and charge your MacBook Pro at the same time.

Hmm, maybe it was something with High Sierra. I booted up another partition with the latest beta version of Mojave.

This was supposed to be easy. Instead, it was turning into a technical nightmare.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. Premiere CC on Mojave just wouldn’t work. It kept crashing and I never was able to export a single video at any resolution. About to lose my mind, I contacted Blackmagic to see if I could get to the bottom of all of these problems I was experiencing.

A spokesperson kindly provided some non-answers that basically blamed the issues on Adobe for optimizing Premiere Pro CC for eGPUs. At the same time, I was told the eGPU (any one from any company) “should not slow any app down.”

Really wanting to smash the eGPU to bits (physical abuse is never the answer, but just goddamnit), I switched back to High Sierra and ran my Premiere exports again. This time, I opened up the Activity Monitor and fired up the GPU history to see what the heck was going on.

To my surprise, the GPU History chart showed the app was using the MacBook Pro’s two built-in graphics processors (both the discrete AMD Radeon Pro 560 and the Intel HD Graphics 630) and not the eGPU like it should have been.

If there's no activity on the eGPU's chart (Radeon Pro 580), it means something is wrong or an app's not using the eGPU at all.

If there’s no activity on the eGPU’s chart (Radeon Pro 580), it means something is wrong or an app’s not using the eGPU at all.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

I went back to Google to find out if there was a way to force apps to use the eGPU. I found out on High Sierra, that’s not possible. But, on Mojave, there is a way to force apps to use the eGPU on an app-by-app basis. I cursed both Apple and Blackmagic.

I rebooted into Mojave and followed the steps to force Premiere CC to use the eGPU and then said a little prayer as I launched the app. Everything seemed to work until I hit the export button. The app crashed again

Even more frustrated than before, I decided to try something else. I loaded up Fortnite on the default “High” settings to see how playable the game would be. TL;DR: Not very. Not at High settings.

On High settings on just the MacBook Pro, the game recorded between 30-32 fps. With the eGPU, the game’s framerate jumped up to 40-45 fps. Both were below 50-60 fps, which is considered to be the optimal framerate for smooth gameplay by many players.

The game wasn’t unplayable at High settings with the eGPU, but there was still quite a bit of noticeable latency as I panned the camera around or shot at other players. The framerate took a bigger hit when there were multiple players onscreen.

Even crazier was that it took longer to boot the game up with the eGPU compared to without: about 55 seconds versus 30 seconds.

Dropping Fortnite’s settings down to Medium increased the framerate, but the graphics became so low-res, I would have been better off just playing it on iPhone.  

Instructions that should have come in the box

It looks clean, but wait until you connect power, a monitor, and accessories to the back and it becomes a mess of cables.

It looks clean, but wait until you connect power, a monitor, and accessories to the back and it becomes a mess of cables.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

I was all ready to give up on the eGPU until I reached out to Apple to see if I could make a last-ditch effort to troubleshoot my problems.

After chatting with an Apple hardware engineer I learned a few new things that (again) aren’t included in the instructions manual and is valuable for anyone who buys this eGPU.

Here’s what ultimately led to faster graphics performance with the eGPU:

  • Never mirror your Mac to the external display. It uses up some of the eGPU in order to do so and as a result will slow performance down.

  • If you’re using a MacBook like I did, make sure the lid is closed. Doing so forces the computer to always default to the eGPU when possible instead of using the internal GPU. Apple told me you don’t need to have the lid closed, but there’s a chance that it won’t tap the eGPU if you don’t.

  • Most apps will not support hot-plugging with the eGPU, which is the ability for the computer to recognize changes when an accessory is plugged in or removed. In other words, if you want to use the eGPU with, say, Premiere Pro CC, you need to quit the game and launch it again after you hook it up. I’m told only two known apps are hot-pluggable, one of them being Cinema 4D.

With all this in mind, I ran the same 4K and 1080p export tests. Here’s what I got after properly setting the eGPU up with my MacBook Pro. (As with the earlier tests, all times are the average of three trials each.)

Final Cut Pro X video export in H.264

Final Cut Pro X actually used all three graphics cards: two from the MacBook Pro and the eGPU.

Final Cut Pro X actually used all three graphics cards: two from the MacBook Pro and the eGPU.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

  • 2 minutes and 8 seconds

Adobe Premiere Pro CC 4K video export in H.264

Adobe Premiere Pro CC only used two GPUS: the MacBook Pro's Intel integrated graphics and the eGPU.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC only used two GPUS: the MacBook Pro’s Intel integrated graphics and the eGPU.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Without the eGPU:

  • 4 minutes and 27 seconds

With the eGPU:

For good measure, I also took the same 4K video project and exported it to a downscaled 1080p resolution. The leap in performance is much more drastic for rendering:

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

As you can see in the above export times, Final Cut Pro X doesn’t appear to benefit much from the eGPU. However, exporting video in Premiere Pro CC is way faster. With the eGPU, Premiere Pro CC shaved 1 minute and 29 seconds off. 

Where the eGPU seems most useful is for rendering things like effects and scaling. 

Fortnite

Note the framerate in the upper right corner.

Note the framerate in the upper right corner.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Playing Fortnite with the correct setup, I saw almost no change in average framerates:

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

Not sure why, but the latest version of Fortnite sometimes has these black glitching patterns.

Not sure why, but the latest version of Fortnite sometimes has these black glitching patterns.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Not worth the trouble (for now)

Unless you're willing to experiment, the Blackmagic eGPU is more trouble than it's worth.

Unless you’re willing to experiment, the Blackmagic eGPU is more trouble than it’s worth.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

I’ve been fascinated by eGPUs for as long as they’ve been around. The idea that you can soup up a thin and light computer designed for portability (but not performance) and transform it into a desktop-class beast for graphics-intensive tasks like video editing or gaming when you’re at home or at work is super appealing.

I was genuinely excited that, maybe — just maybe — Blackmagic had made an eGPU that any regular ol’ joe could easily set up and enjoy the benefits of.

While I did eventually get the Blackmagic eGPU set up right and saw minor boosts to performance in FCP X and and significant improvements in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, I nearly lost my marbles doing so.

My tests are by no means definitive — everyone uses different apps and has a different workflow demands — but they do suggest eGPUs have potential.

Ultimately, the the Blackmagic eGPU is useful if your Mac has a really old discrete graphics card or only Intel integrated graphics. You may see big graphics performance boosts or you may not. It’s gonna take a lot of trial and error.

If you’re willing to experiment, then by all means check out the eGPU. However, if you’re hoping the eGPU will make your Mac faster across the board for all your apps, that’s just not gonna happen. 

Maybe in a few years when eGPUs are mature and more apps use GPU-acceleration, but they’re still in their infancy right now. The fact that all of the issues I ran into took a bunch of Googling and chats with Blackmagic and Apple to resolve tells you all you need to know about the current state of eGPUs: It’s basically the Wild West.

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