BeatsX review

I like using Bluetooth headsets. It is great not to have to worry about cables, and the slight loss in audio quality does not really bother me. With the new generation of Bluetooth headsets – Apple AirPods, Bragi the Headphone, Sol Republic Amps Air, … – I am exploring which one to get. So far, on paper, there does not apear to exist a product without compromises, so I have started to think that I’ll just have to try them.

I have started with the BeatsX headphones, from Beats by Dre. I have been using them for about a week and the experience has been very interesting.

beatsx-2

Likes
* Design
* Stays very well put on my neck
* Fast charging with lightning cable
* Battery life
* Presence of inline controls

Dislikes
* Cable noise (microphonics)
* Bass is hardly present if the earbuds are not perfectly fit
* I have found it hard to get a nice fit, despite the 4 different earbuds
* I am unsure about how they look when wearing them the whole day everyday

User Experience
Apple gets full points from me when it comes to the user experience. All the daily activities required in managing/using the headphones work very well. Consequently, it makes it very pleasant and hassle-free to use:
1. Charging is done with the lightning cable, which is great as I can then use the same cable for my phone and earbuds.
2. It charges really fast, which is very convenient. Fast fuel is not just a silly marketing term, it does work in practice.
3. Battery life is acceptable for me, and I use it a lot during my workdays. I just charge it in the morning for a moment.
4. They are very easy to pair initially and they connect/disconnect with a simple press of the button.
5. They sit very nicely on the neck and when not in use, the little buds stay together with magnets.
6. The carrying case is minimal, but actually works quite well.

The only thing it has me wanting is that it automatically turns off the audio when I take out the earbuds or link them with the little magnets. I guess that was just a bit too much.

Sound quality
The user experience is very important, but they are headphones, and they should sound well. So how do they fair?

I am no audiophile, but as long as you can get a good seal, the sound is good, rich while still being balanced. Similarly, when the seal is good, the passive noise cancellation is spot on. If the seal is not complete, though, I found the bass to lack quite significantly.

Given the importance of a good seal, I should point out that the earbuds come with 4 different tips. I managed to get a reasonably good fit with one of them. The tips are mostly the regular ones, with nothing fancy. The issue, for me, is that when I found a good seal, I started to hear certain sounds very amplified, such as my own breathing, swallowing, even the blood in my ears, which is not pleasant. Also, they really block you out from the world around you.

Therefore, it seems that with these headphones I have to choose between good sound or a comfortable experience. That is not really a trade-off I would like to make.

Also, there is another important drawback that I would like to point out. The earbuds, while bluetooth, have quite a bit of cable. On the one hand that is very convenient (see my user experience notes above), but when I was wearing button up shirts (or a coat), I would get a lot of microphonics (or cable noise) and movement of the cable would slightly loosen the earbud, causing me to re-adjust the fit a bit too frequently for my liking. With t-shirts this happened a lot less, but it is something worth taking into consideration.

Comfort
They are in-ear earbuds, so if you don’t like that, you should not even try them. However, for being in-ear, I think they are reasonably comfortable. They did not end up hurting, but I guess like all headphones, fit is very personal. In any case, for me they fit better than the Apple Airpods.

Conclusion

These ear buds have quite a bit going for them: the user experience and the sound quality are good to very good. However, for the price, I am not sure I would like to accept my two major drawbacks: 1. the trade-off between a comfortable listening experience vs good sound and 2. the presence of microphonics.

Like I said, in this segment there are few head phones without compromise, so up next are the Bragi the Headphone.

Pixel: a miscalculation by Google

Last week, Google presented in the USA two new phones: The Pixel and Pixel XL. Without wanting to be negative, I think these phones will be a flop, at this moment in time.

The phones look great and apparently have a very solid build, according to early hands-on reports. The specs are completely up there, so performance should be fine. The camera is claimed to be amazing, and I reckon it’ll be good. So far, so good…

The problem with the phones is the price point in combination with its unique selling points.

Android phones will always have a challenge: there is direct competition from other OEMs, like OnePlus, LG, Samsung, Sony, Huawei, … The package Google presents therefore needs to have a few outstanding features, and I feel it is not enough. Let’s review the main unique selling points: 

  • Direct OS updates from Google. Although the geek is interested in this, the masses don’t understand the value of it, and generally don’t even understand that they can do it. 
  • Free cloud storage of pictures and videos. This is a great feature and they should really tout it. People love their phone cameras, and Google Photos is a great service. Besides emphasising the free storage, it should also communicate its many intelligent features. 
  • Google Assistant. Although the geeks are again very interested in playing with this, a recent survey I saw indicated that only 10% of the active smartphone users have actually used their assistant on the phone (Google Now, Siri, Cortana).

I very much like the future that Google paints for us with its emphasis on deep/machine learning. And I feel that they have done a pretty great job integrating the Assistant in these phones, as well as the Google Home appliance. However, it seems that the masses are not yet ready for this and certainly will not pay a premium for it.

And that – the price – is the nail in the coffin, I am afraid. This phone cannot be priced at the same level as the iPhone. Practically no hardware manufacturer can compete head-to-head with the iPhone. Pixel, with its limited outstanding features in a competitive Android environment and an iPhone-like price point, is doomed to fail.

POP Home Switch Simple smart home control for the whole family

I recently installed some Hue lights in my home, as I wanted to start dabbling my foot into the Smart Home products and services arena. The stuff is reasonably easy to set-up, really. You just put a hub in your house which connects to the router and light bulbs. You then install the app on your phone, and you can control them from the Hue app or, alternatively, via Siri. 

I purchased the Hue Lights, as they work with Apple’s HomeKit, which is what I’d like to use to tie everything together. It should make it easier to manage everything, I expect.

Then yesterday I all of a sudden saw the programmable switches from Logitech (linked above), which would be a great thing to have in my house, so that the kids can also control the lights with an actual button. Upon further reading on their web site, I see that the switches also come with a hub.

Now this made me wonder: is my house going to be full of hubs for the different Smart Home products? One for the lights, one for the switches, one for the security camera, one for the smart wall sockets, one for the …. Like I said, I want the different products to be HomeKit compatible, but now that I think about it more, that is clearly not enough.

No consumer wants to have to deal with managing multiple hubs and multiple apps to control their house. That makes things more complicated, not more convenient – not even mentioning the security implications of having all these different hubs connected to your home network. Apple HomeKit as well as Android @ Home (with Brillo and Weave) seem like good steps, so that products from different vendors are controlled by one main control app. However, I feel that the hardware aspect is more difficult to solve and looks to be quite the hassle.

The IoT industry needs to come together to solve this, if they really want the general population to adopt these technologies. One hub and one app that controls it all is key for mass adoption. 

POP Home Switch Simple smart home control for the whole family

Google IO’s keynote was fantastic

Yesterday, I watched the Google IO 2016 Keynote presentation and I actually felt giddie: it was fascinating, albeit a little scary, to see how a company with that amount of resources and focus can make such large advancements towards a more technological society.  Of all of the things they covered, a few things stood out for me.

Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is something that will probably be big. There are too many big companies pushing it and the experience is too immersive not to become a big thing. Exactly what role it will play in our lives is still to be determined, as so far only the Early Adopters are playing with it and they are by no means an accurate indicator of what the majority of people will do with it. That being said, Google is leading the pack here by integrating VR into their main OS, Android, and by pushing it on YouTube. Moreover, they are sharing spec sheets of what a Smartphone, headset and remote should have in order to work properly with Virtual Reality, or at least Google’s version (called Daydream).

Google Assistant
This is the next step of Google Search/Now. We can already talk to Google, but this is Google trying to make the service more conversational as well as context aware. In order to do that, they are linking up all of their efforts in modelling the world, natural language processing and machine learning. I am sure that the first steps will be slow, but this shows promise. Furthermore, Google Assistant appears to be a building block that can later on be found in many other products and services.


Google Home
One of those is Google Home. Goolge Home will be your home hub where the Google Assistant is basically the main actor. It will allow you to make queries, get things done, control your smart home and play media. The video they shared of the product is fascinating. It is incredible to see that we are already so close.


Allo
Messaging is an important platform for the near future. Google has tried with Google Talk in the past, more recently with Hangouts, and its next bet is Allo. Frankly, this will be an uphill battle for Google as it’s competing with some very big incumbents, particularly Facebook and Apple. That being said, Google is trying some new things here, amongst which is the inclusion of the Google Bot, which in reality seems to be the Google Assistant. You can include it in chats so that it can help get things done.


Machine Learning
Although there was no direct product announcement, machine learning is everywhere in Google’s services. The advancements they are making are incredible. And the scary thing is, it looks like progress will only become faster. The final words from Pichai were great. They are on such a mission to advance in these things and the world could be a better place for it.  

Are we ready for our machine overlords?
While I am excited about these products and services, they are all slightly scary. In order for them to really useful to me, I need to share personal things about me with Google. In fact, the benefits I, as a user, reap are directly proportional to the information I give Google. And this, in a nut shell, is the biggest challenge Google will face: making people overcome their fear of sharing with them. Getting and maintaining that trust.

I think Google can do it, though. I have written in the past about how I erase my Google history every month, but at the same time I am saving all my Photos with Google and wouldn’t want it any other way, because of the benefits it offers me. It’s all a trade-off. For me it was Google Photos and for someone else it could well be Google Assistant, but eventually we all need to make a decision: do we want the benefits enough so as to trust Google with our information? I think it is only a matter of time.  

Furthermore, we have to trust in Google’s self interest as well. Google does not directly make money on me, e.g. storing my photos with them. The transaction is indirect: they need to know as much as possible about me, so that they can earn the most presenting me with ads. As a result, I trust, to a healthy extend, that they will do everything in their power to not endanger the trust I have put into relationship.

I, for one, will get Google Home as soon as it is released, and I will be happy to try out Google Assistant and Allo as soon as it ships. It’s a bit scary, though, and I hope Google will not fail my trust.

LG G4 – An “Oldie” But A Very Goody

I have an LG G4 for trial for a while, and even though the G5 has just been released, I was still interested in reviewing the G4. Mainly because I have little experience with LG smartphones – outside the Nexus 4 and 5 – and I always feel they are undervalued. For instance, right now, the LG G4 seems to me to be the best value-for-money smartphone one can buy. In this review I’ll be looking at it from that angle and in the process will compare it to my recent experiences with the Moto X Style, Nexus 6P and iPhone 6S Plus.

Hardware

Design and build quality

The G4 is a very interesting phone when it comes to this aspect. The design is not impressive. This is due to the materials used, to a large extend. In a world of glass and aluminium, the plastic finish of the G4 is somewhat disappointing. I realise that the G4 has the option of a leather back plate and I am pretty sure this will improve its looks, but I have not been able to try that.

Where its pure esthetic design is slightly disappointing, the ergonomics of the design are great. It has a curved back that is really pleasant to hold. Generally speaking it is sufficiently grippy and fits really nicely in the hand. The most pleasant phone I have held in the last year, I can confidently say.

The LG G4 is a large screened phone, but they have done a great job of keeping the dimensions of the phone as reduced as possible. This naturally helps with the ergonomics.

Having the LG G4 in one pocket and the Nexus 6P in the other, I can’t stress enough how much nicer using the LG G4 felt for me. 

Buttons and hardware controls

One of the things that LG introduced a few years back is placing the power and volume buttons on the back of the phone. Coming from the Nexus 6P, I already look for something on the back (which is where the Nexus 6P has its finger print reader), so the switch was not completely foreign. That being said, I am not enamoured with the set-up. A double tap to wake the phone makes it workable, though, in terms of turning the phone on. Still, I don’t really like the volume buttons on the back. The G5 will have the volume buttons on the side and a fingerprint scanner on the back. This lay-out makes more sense in my opinion (although I still slightly prefer Samsung and Apple’s configuration of a fingerprint scanner on the front of the phone).

The lack of a fingerprint scanner on the G4 is a real shame. However, I forgive the phone for that, given the great price and the otherwise fantastic hardware. Interestingly, I could not forgive the Moto X Style that suffers also from a lack of a fingerprint scanner (as it does not have the great hardware that this G4 has to compensate the lack of the scanner).

Screen

The screen on this phone is absolutely gorgeous. The resolution (which is QHD), the brightness, automatic brightness adjustment, contrast and viewing angles are all top notch. In reality, it puts the Nexus 6P screen to shame. Well done, LG. Not much more to say, but given that the screen is the main aspect of the phone that the user interacts with, it is necessary to nail it, and LG did so.

Speakers

Something LG did not nail is the speaker. It is a tinny, lowish volume speaker. I did not like it, and they have to do better. Personally, I use the phone speaker daily for listening to podcasts, audiobooks and music as well as view videos. The poor performance takes away from those experiences.
 

Connectivity

As with all modern phones, it had no problems establishing and keeping the necessary connections with the WIFI router, mobile phone network and bluetooth accessories.

Performance

The G4 comes with a Snapdragon 808 chip paired with 3GB of RAM. This is the same set-up as the Moto X Style. I find it to offer a sufficiently smooth experience. It is not a multitasking powerhouse, such as the Nexus 6P, but I found that animations and operations were reasonably smooth for an Android phone. Not top of the line, perhaps, but certainly a good experience. 

Camera

The camera is another stand-out feature on the G4. It has all the right specs: high resolution sensor, optical image stabilisation, and wide aperture. In addition, LG has shown to have created very good image processing algorithms, making the best use possible of the information gathered by the sensor.

The camera is joy to use. The camera is quick to launch, focuses reasonably quickly and allows you to review the picture quickly in the Gallery app. Moreover, the camera app is easy to use, while offering full manual control for those that want it. 

I can’t say enough positive things about this. It is up there with the best in the market, such as Samsung and Apple. 

Software

As with most manufacturers, LG has its own skin on Android. The only skin I have found acceptable in the past was the HTC UI on the HTC One M8. All the rest of the skins are just not very good. I am afraid that LG’s version of Android is also not great. It is mostly different for the sake of being different, and sometimes even breaks things.

One of the examples of what seems to be broken is the expandable notifications. That only works when the phone wants to. Not cool.

In turn, the addition that I personally did like was all the toggles on the notification tray, for things like airplane mode, bluetooth, wifi, torch, etc. Samsung has something very similar, and I find that works nicely. 

In any case, I quickly installed SwiftKey for the keyboard, Google Calendar for the calendar, Google Now Launcher for the home screen, Nine for email, MX Player Pro for videos, and Solid Explorer for the file manager. After that, it mostly worked just like any other Android phone. I just wonder why LG spends any time/resources on developing alternatives that are not any better than the Google-supplied apps. I realise this stems from a period where this seemed like a good idea, but I don’t think it is worth more money from the point of view of the consumer.

The phone I trialled ran Android 5.0.1. Supposedly, LG has already Marshmallow available, but I am afraid this was not available for my testing. Still, LG was pretty quickly out of the door with the 6.0 update and that is laudable. 

Price and value-for-money

Right now, the LG G4 costs 370 euros on Amazon in Spain. For that amount of money you get a great smartphone that only really lacks a finger print scanner and a quality speaker. In terms of price only the OnePlus 2 comes close, but I don’t feel that it offers the same quality.

I will certainly be recommending this phone to people that are looking to spend around 350 euros on a smartphone. I think it is the best you can buy with that budget in mind. And my experience with this phone, also makes me very curious about the LG G5.

AMP by Google is revolutionary

I currently use a Google Nexus 6P. This is one of the best smartphones out there, but the web experience is still somewhat lacklustre. Some sites work well, but I dread opening a page from, for instance, The Verge on my phone.

Google has been working on an iniciative that should significantly speed up the mobile web, called Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). I have just experienced this on Nuzzel when visiting an article from the Verge and the experience was revolutionary, from a user point of view.

What is Nuzzel? 

Nuzzel is an easy way to see news from your friends. You can use Nuzzel to discover the best news stories shared by your friends on Facebook and Twitter without being overwhelmed or missing anything. Nuzzel is an app that supports Google AMP, for those news sources that also support it. One of those news sources is the infamous The Verge, which is a notoriously heavy site, particularly for Android smartphones.

Well, when I hit a link in Nuzzel to an article from The Verge it took a mere 2 seconds to fully load, compared to 10 seconds when loading it on Chrome for Android. Moreover, the scrolling experience in Nuzzel was great whereas the article in Chrome would stutter immensely.

What is Google AMP? 

Google AMP, however, is not limited to Nuzzel. Any mobile app can include it, and Twitter announced that it will support AMP at launch. The Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project is an open source initiative that embodies the vision that publishers can create mobile optimized content once and have it load instantly everywhere.

Currently an interesting set of publishers will support it at launch, including sites like BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mashable, The Verge, and many more. 

After having had a taste of this, I am looking forward to a mobile future filled with Google AMP.

The internet of things will turn our machines against us

Talking about being a bit pessimistic! This article does have a point, though. Something I have been trying to say in my last few posts as well: the security of the Internet of Things should be extremely high on the agenda of the manufacturers. It is not a sexy feature, but instead a baseline feature. For some manufacturers, it could even be their main selling point.

The internet of things will turn our machines against us