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9
Dec

Google Pixel XL review


Since launching in 2009, the Nexus line has been a loosely collected family of phones from Google. Whereas they may be designed as a series of devices, they have thus far been perceived as one-off models launched roughly once per year.

Initially, the Nexus One was introduced as somewhat of a benchmark device from Google. As the first year or so of Android was off to a slow start, Google was hoping for a quickened pace. In its eyes, phones needed to be at a higher level than where they were. At the rate things were moving it would take forever for Android to hit its stride. Processor speeds, memory, and storage were almost all identical across the smartphone landscape. Google expected more. Enter the HTC-built Nexus One.

nexus_oneThe Nexus One not only moved the needle in terms of hardware, it was also the first to launch with Android 2.1 Eclair. In short, this was the latest in greatest in software and included features such as live wallpapers and speech-to-text.

The Nexus One, for its part, was an interesting gamble for Google mostly because it was sold unlocked and direct to consumers. Sure, there would ultimately be other ways of getting the phone, but this was a bold move for Google. While everyone in the US was content to sign contracts for their phones, Google was going straight at buyers with a $530 price tag.

The years that followed saw Google releasing successors from other manufacturers including Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Motorola. Each would be branded with some form of Nexus classification, but it was not a simple case of adding a new number to each iteration.
Although fanboys and enthusiasts would be able to identify the various Nexus models and their respective specs, the casual buyer often couldn’t. Given that some models would be sold through carriers and others wouldn’t, it was hard to draw a line through them. It didn’t help that the method of selling would vary for every single Nexus device. Simply put, the Nexus line had a hard time gaining real-world attraction.

As service providers began to loosen their grip with contracts, consumers were soon to learn the true cost of phones. Five years ago it would not be uncommon for a flagship phone to be $200 with a two-year plan. Ask a typical consumer how much the phone costs without subsidy and you’d likely get met with blank stares.

With each successive model came different sizes and specifications, and that also meant different prices, too. Whereas launch prices were as low as $299 at one point, they have also been as high as $699.

One common thread among the Nexus phones is that it debuts with a new version of Android. It has so far been the benchmark experience device in Google’s opinion and is designed with the new software features in mind. Not only the freshest build of Android but one that would receive direct and timely updates from Google.

A New Era

If you want the premier Android experience as intended by Google, there’s no way around it; you have to buy a Nexus phone. All of that changed in 2016 when Google introduced a different model and branding convention. October 4, 2016 saw the debut of the Google Pixel and its larger counterpart, the Pixel XL.

google_pixel_xl_03The Pixel, like the Nexus, is the full Android-at-its-very-best smartphone that Google envisions for its customers. But, rather than working in tandem with a hardware partner, Google appears to have exercised more control over the experience. Further, it’s not just Android that consumers get in the Pixel; this is the first smartphone to employ the Google Assistant. A gateway to a much larger world of knowledge and information curation, it’s the same tech that powers its standalone Google Home, too.

Further, the Pixel and Pixel XL are the first phones with certification for the Daydream View VR headset. Thanks to its advanced internal hardware, the handsets feature more accurate sensors, better displays, and stellar processor performance.

In terms of sheer hardware specs, the Pixel and Pixel XL share nearly every component. Save for their display size and battery, both are the same and offer up some of the best smartphone packages to date.

Key features:

  • Operating System: Android 7.1 Nougat
  • Display: 5.0″ or 5.5″ AMOLED
  • Cameras: Rear: 12.3 MP • Front: 8 MP
  • Processors: Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor
  • Memory & Storage: RAM: 4GB | Storage: 32GB & 128GB
  • Dimensions & Weight: Pixel: 5.66 x 2.74 in | Pixel XL: 6.09 x 2.98 in
  • Battery: Pixel: 2,770 mAh | Pixel XL: 3,450 mAh
  • Network: Worldwide network/carrier compatibility
  • Materials: Anodized aluminum | Corning Gorilla Glass 4

Design

Although it looks every bit a “Google” product, the Pixel phones were quietly manufactured with help from HTC. If you’ve paid close attention to what HTC’s recent phones look like, you’ll certainly see traces of the design language. In other words, the aluminum unibody, radius corners, chamfered edges, and premium heft is likely all HTC’s doing.

google_pixel_xl_08The phone itself feels solid in the hand. Really, that’s likely the best word I can use to describe the way it comes across. It’s comfortable to hold, but when using one hand it tends to feel a little top-heavy at points. It could be that my hand’s not as big as it should be; the Pixel feels more natural and easy to use with one hand.

Flip the phone over and there’s no mistaking the Pixel or Pixel XL for any other phone. Sure, it’s definitely more than a wee bit iPhone-ish on the front, but many models can be accused of the same. The rear, though, has roughly two-thirds of it covered in aluminum while the top third is glass backed with a plastic insert. The glass, for its part, allows for slightly more grip than the rest of the body. The trade-off by going this route, though, is that it picks up micro scuffs and fingerprints; it can be cracked much easier than aluminum.

The fingerprint sensor sits in the middle of the glass panel and in a spot that feels natural when you hold the phone. It’s the same area that the Nexus 6P has its scanner and right about where the LG G series puts its power and volume buttons. In the weeks I’ve used the phone I’ve become very comfortable with where it’s located. Moreover, I appreciate the subtle Pixel Imprint feature which allows for a quick swipe to check notifications.

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One of the pain points of having a rear fingerprint scanner is that it’s not all that easy to press to wake it up. You have to pick the phone up entirely to press it on the rear and look at the display. Just as I was putting this review together I learned that a software update will bring a couple of new “Moves” to the Pixel, one of which being tapping the display to wake the phone. Problem solved – if only in theory.

The rear camera on the Pixel and Pixel XL sits flush with the glass in the top left corner of the phones. You’ll find a circular dual-LED flash off to the left though it does have an ever slight raised chrome ring. On the right of the camera are the rangefinder for laser autofocus and microphone.

The SIM tray is located on the left edge of the phone while the right side houses the volume rocker and power button. The buttons provide excellent tactile feedback and a clear click when pressed. The power button has a textured design to it making it easily identifiable when blindly fumbling for it.

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The Pixel and Pixel XL come with a 3.5mm headphone jack which located on the top edge of the phones. Along the opposite edge, the USB Type-C port and down-facing speaker are found. The charging port, it should be noted, supports USB 3.0 protocols.

In broad terms, the Pixel XL is a rather boring looking phone, if not for the back. The Quite Black model we have might as well be called Slate Grey because that’s essentially the color. The Very Silver, for its part, is more of a white. There’s nothing that we specifically found wrong with the phone, but we’ve seen far sexier designs.

Display

The Pixel has a 5.0-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 while the larger Pixel XL packs a 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display. At five inches and above we expect a flagship phone to have this resolution and we were glad to see Google deliver here. Going lower resolution, even on the Pixel, would bring the cost down, but it would also muddy the overall experience and confuse consumers. Is this a premium device or not? Why doesn’t the screen look as nice as other models? Sticking with the 2560 x 1440 stuff sends a more clear signal.

While brighter (about 400 nits) than what we saw in the Nexus 6P, its direct predecessor, the Pixel XL’s peak brightness comes in lower than some other counterparts. Some LG and Samsung screens, for instance, can get much brighter. And, because Google doesn’t have a boost mode that activates under automatic settings, it stays put. We would love to see something that kicks the brightness up to around 600 nits or higher, especially with its price tag.

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Because it’s an AMOLED display, you get excellent black levels and a seemingly endless set of color contrasts. It might not be all that recognizable on its own, but put the Pixel XL up to a phone with an LCD screen and the distinction is almost night and day, if not black and grey. Color accuracy is also great in this phone, though we would like some user-defined settings for warmth.

Camera

Much has been said in the press and by Google about the camera experience on the Pixel and Pixel XL. As it turns out, it’s deserved fanfare; the camera quality is better than all comers, though its app could use some help.

The Pixel phones employ a 1/2.3″ Sony IMX378 Exmor RS sensor which takes pictures at 12.3-megapixels in a 4:3 aspect ratio. And, because it offers a larger 1.55µm pixel, it leads to better dynamic range with more light in each pixel. Further, the IMX378 sensor is special in that it includes support for phase detect autofocus (PDAF). Toss in the laser and contrast autofocus and you’re looking at improved accuracy and speed in scenes with good lighting.

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The HDR+ processing is terrific in that it combines multiple fast exposures to create a single image. Other phones, by comparison, tend to combine two different exposure levels. This can often lead to slower speeds in taking higher quality pictures. This is not so with the Pixel line. Pictures are taken and compiled quickly; it’s on by default.

Google says these phones don’t have any shutter lag when using HDR+ and we found this to be mostly accurate. It’s not until you start to snap a successive group of photos that you see it slow to roughly one photo per second, perhaps a smidge faster. Generally speaking, the camera can blow through pictures in most light settings, capturing pictures as good, if not better, than other phones.

The Pixels inherit their front-facing cameras from the Nexus 6P, an 8-megapixel Sony IMX179 Exmor R sensor with 1.4µm pixels and an f/2.4 lens. The Pixels do not have a dedicated LED flash for selfies; and there’s no screen flashing feature with the default app either.

As for the actual camera app, I like it but don’t necessarily love it. There’s something to be said about the simplicity that comes with the default app, but we do occasionally want for more. With that said, the out of box app experience is easy to figure out and allows for quick hopping to and from the different modes.

The camera app doesn’t complicate itself with too many options or previews of different filters and effects. If that’s the sort of thing you are into, download a standalone app and use it. I was almost always pleased with the UI and settings presented in the app. Given we’re often quick to see something we want to capture, it’s nice to open it up and have it ready to roll on HDR.

A key benefit to owning a Pixel or Pixel is the lifetime cloud storage of your photos — at original resolution. If you’re like me, you could have dozens of pictures almost every other day. Sprinkle in some 1080p or 4k quality video and you could be using up a pretty sizable amount of storage. Google will house these for you at no cost and without downgrading the quality. This is a big plus for photo lovers.

Software

The Pixel and Pixel XL are powered by the latest version of Android in 7.1 Nougat. Moreover, it’s a “stock” version of Android meaning it doesn’t come with any preloaded carrier apps and services; there’s no customization done to the platform by the phone maker, either. In short, this is the best in Android coupled with the best in Google hardware.

As someone who is fond of the custom launcher in Nova Prime, I am often quick to replace the interface that comes with phones. This is not to suggest that there’s anything particularly wrong with the various models and software builds. Rather, it’s more of a me picking up exactly where I left off by exporting and importing settings. For what it’s worth, I always leave the defaults alone before forming an opinion or publishing a review.

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After spending some weeks with the Pixel XL, I am still using the stock release of Android 7.1. I find it to be very cohesive and much more clean and intuitive than previous builds. And, when you have the hardware that comes with this phone, it zips right along.

In addition to slight updates and tweaks to the standard feel and functions of Android, the Pixel comes with a couple of other modifications. First up is the Pixel Launcher, which is more or less an evolution of the Google Now launcher experience.

A simple swipe to the right of your screen brings up a list of Google Now cards based around the user’s preferences and account settings. This is one of those things that simply gets smarter the more you use it. Swipe to this screen and you’ll have a list of recommended news articles, sports updates, weather, and more.

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While it might feel natural to swipe from the G logo and bar on the top left, it’s not required. You can swipe from anywhere on the main panel. By tapping the G it opens up a search bar for doing your typical Google searches for both online and in-phone.

Accessing the app drawer is much easier in this version of Android as it’s not tied to a particular icon. Instead, things function more like a shade allowing you to swipe up from anywhere in the bottom row of icons. This took some getting used to as I’ve been programmed and conditioned by years of looking for a singular icon.

Upon opening the app drawer, users see all of the icons listed in an alphabetical order. The most popular apps used, however, get their own row at the very top. So, once you’ve had the phone for a few days and settled into routines, you can swipe up from the bottom and find your commonly used apps and games at the very top.

Long-pressing app icons on the home screen or in the app drawer is pretty now as it operates differently than in the past. As somewhat of a cross between a multifunction widget and an Apple 3D Touch, icons can now be used to access common shortcuts.

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Long press on the Gmail icon and it offers up a shortcut to directly compose an email. Doing so on Google Keep brings up “New audio note”, “New photo note”, “New list”, and “New note”.  Results will vary across the different Google apps and their actual usefulness can be debated. I liked having some of them, though, as it alleviates an extra press or two in getting to where I wanted in select apps.

Another key addition to the Android experience here is the inclusion of Google Assistant. This is not so much of a new technology but more of an evolution of things already started by Google Now. Tapping into the Google Knowledge Graph, it’s really smart stuff that only promises to get better. If you are the kind of person who likes to use Google with voice searches or commands, you’ll love Google Assistant.

Using Google on phones up until now has been more of a question and answer process. With Assistant, however, it becomes less mechanical. By that I mean you don’t have to necessary think of the best way(s) to ask a question. Simply talk to it or ask it in a way that feels natural to you. Sure, there are still limitations and tricks to getting certain things to work properly, but you’ll have no trouble figuring it out. Google Assistant is more conversational in nature and it’s a whole lot smarter than you might think.

pixel_assistant

 

It’s worth noting that while Google Assistant is exclusive to the Pixel and Pixel XL, it’s only temporary. Looking down the road it ought to roll out to other phones, especially the Nexus line.

The Android 7.1 experience is smart, easy to use, and, I suspect, quite simple to master. Thanks to software migration and settings tools, it should be a breeze to switch from Apple or transfer from another device.

Is it perfect? No. There are still minor quibbles. Circular icons are great, Google, but you didn’t make it uniform all pre-installed apps; Allo and Duo, for example, have their own shape. Install a couple more titles from the Play Store and suddenly you look like you have a half-finished icon theme in place. If there’s one thing that might get me to jump back over to Nova Prime, it’s the inconsistent look in the app drawer. Minor stuff, yes, I know.

Performance

What else do you expect? The Pixel XL is able to handle anything you throw at it. The hardware makes sure you can keep up with multiple things at a time and jumping from task to task is never an issue.

You can check other sites and sources for benchmark reports, but they’ll likely just be technical ways of saying the Pixel XL is among the best in phones today. Whether it be managing emails and messages or playing a brand new game, the phone didn’t slow for me.

On paper, the Pixel XL does match up nicely with other flagships. But, it’s worth noting that it does have come with hardware that closely resembles devices that were launched some three to six months earlier, if not more. Does that matter to you?

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If you’re the type who wants the most cutting edge hardware available, this is just on the very end of things, if not a little on the inside. But, with CES and Mobile World Congress coming up in the next few months, we’re bound to see even more bleeding edge tech soon.

Performance is always going to get better with phones, but sometimes it’s only marginal; other times improvements are so minute that you may not detect them. Suffice it to say, I am somewhere between a casual user and a heavy, demanding user. And, if you’re reading this review, I suspect you use your phones for as much, if not less, than I do. You aren’t going to go wrong with the Pixel XL’s performance.

I’ve been more than impressed with the battery life of the Pixel XL. Moreover, the speed at which it charges is incredible. I really appreciate that if I have to plug into a wall charger, it’s not for long. The claims of getting seven hours of usage from a 15-minute charge? I wish I could say.

Because I am able to get to a charger most of the day, I don’t ever find myself with seven-hour gaps. Whether it’s ten minutes on the way home from work, or on the counter while eating dinner, I find my phone is always well above half full. I don’t even bat an eye if I forget to charge at night. I know that I’ll be just fine when I wake up and then a few minutes on a charger is going to keep me running all day.

Conclusion

With prices that start at $650, the Pixel is a few hundred dollars more than other models with similar hardware. Head-to-head, though, it’s not fair, particularly if you care about specification bullet points. Look deeper, though, and you’ll find that the software and extra features help bring the value up.

The unlimited Google Photos storage, for me, is peace of mind that I have trouble quantifying. The more I use the Pixel XL, I suspect, the more I will rely on it for my needs.

I am not the sort of person who needs tech support or often runs into trouble with setting up or using my phone. But, for those who do, the tech support that comes with the Pixel and Pixel is fantastic.

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I would love to have seen the inclusion of a microSD expansion card slot; a waterproof coating would be a bonus, too. There’s a pretty sizable jump in cost going from 32GB of space to 128GB. And, for good reason, we’re talking literally four times the storage.

Can you get away with 32GB? Easily. It’s not like we’re dealing with 16GB any longer. Music is cloud-based, files are generally small and hosted in the cloud, too. Photos and videos are where the real draw on storage comes. Even then, the phone can prompt you when you’re getting low on space, letting you free up locally stored stuff and pushing back on the cloud for access.

Where things might get iffy for some is in the area of playing large games with tons of graphics and hefty storage requirements. But, again, if you’re looking to me for the review, you haven’t made your mind up. Those who know exactly what they need have already figured out which phone is right for them and it likely includes a microSD slot.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are priced just below the top dollar phones yet still come in higher than what’s available with a little bit of homework. Sure, you can get away with a $400 phone that’s close in terms of hardware, but at what cost? What sort of warranty or tech support do you get? What about software updates? Has that brand you’ve barely heard of done enough in the way of patches and maintenance releases to convince you to take a risk?

Enthusiasts can complain all they want about how Google should be sticking with software updates for more than two years for its flagship phones. If Apple can do it for three and four years for its devices, Google could surely do the same, right? Eh, I wouldn’t be as quick to say that. I think that, generally, Google has done a great job of rolling out regular releases with bug fixes, and minor and major updates.

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Most people that I’ve run into hold onto their phones for about two years or so. That’s over the last eight years of keeping an eye on what my friends, colleagues, and other data tell me. Not only that, but I know very few casual users who know of new major Android releases and what they bring about.

With each major release of a flagship model, I am often asked what the difference is from the previous model and whether it matters to them. As time goes, it gets a little harder to convince people that they need the newest in Android. What they need are the bug fixes and security updates. The rest, by and large, is more of a want or unnecessary adjustment. In the Nexus, and now with the Pixel, line of phones, Google is terrific at supporting with the necessary bits.

Another key reason to consider the Pixel XL is that it works with any of the major carriers. This is flexibility and freedom that doesn’t come with many devices. So, if you’re considering switching to another provider down the road, this is a phone you can take with you. And, if you’ve purchased outright or already paid off the phone, you can hop from prepaid carrier to MVNO to tier-one service operator without concern. That doesn’t come from too many phones, particularly those with this level of hardware.

The Pixel XL isn’t the sexiest phone on the market, nor is it the most power-packed. What it is, however, is a perfect blend of excellent software, services, and hardware. It’s more of an every man phone than previous Nexus models. Given it’s being sold at Verizon and not solely in a direct manner, I feel like Google recognizes this, too. To that end, it’s a great choice for those of you who have become reliant on the Samsung and other OEM’s way of life.

9
Dec

Cave Jumpers: Surprisingly fun but without replay value (review)


There’s an ever-increasing list of really small, but fun games in the Play Store. Some of them are interesting, and some, unfortunately, are not. Fortunately, Cave Jumpers fall into the first category, thanks to a simple but interesting gameplay that combines several elements to make one really fun experience. However, the replay value aspect of the game is almost absent.

Developer: Oneironautics
Price: Free

Overview

cave jumpers reviewAvoid the spikes and get the fuel containers and you’ll be fine.

Since there is no Google Play Games integration, there’s no setup needed. You can start playing as soon as the main screen appears. You’ll control a green blob and your mission is to climb as high as you can. For this, the main character is equipped with a jetpack, and you can control its activation by tapping the screen.

Your job is to travel through the cave as long as possible. Your character only moves sideways, so in order to progress, you have to fly upwards with said jetpack.

However, there are spikes along the cave walls, and touching them will immediately kill you. You can also die by refusing to fly and just letting your character drop way too low.

The jetpack has a limited amount on gas though, so you also have to collect fuel containers to refuel it. Run out of it, an it’s game over. The containers fly upward too, so it’s tricky to get them sometimes because you have to propel your character very high in the viewport, risking finding a spike just a moment after and being unable to do something about it.

Each second you play and don’t die will yield coins. This coins can be used for buying new characters, which are basically similar versions of the character you start with. I didn’t notice any difference in the way the game behaved when using a different character.

You can also change the fuel containers’ shape into very interesting stuff, such as a banana, a heart and a glass of beer.

You can also upload your highest score to a global leaderboard (if you are proud of it). The game will prompt you for a nickname, and after that, your name will be written for eternity on it. Congrats to “sieeet tak zjebac” who, at the time of writing, has the highest score worldwide, with 127 points.

General Impressions

cave jumpers reviewYou can unlock new characters, share your prowesses on Facebook or start a new game.

I thought that this would be another run-of-the-mill endless game, but actually the game’s different elements combined make for a very fun game in short periods of time. Timing your moves to avoid the random spikes while having to pay attention to the fuel indicator is more entertaining than it sounds.

The problem with this game, as with almost all endless games, is that it has little replay value. The game tries to increase replayability by offering different characters and fuel containers, but since they all behave the same, there’s almost no point in collecting them.

Graphics

All of the sprites in ths game try to convey a feeling of cartoony paper elements painted with crayons. Be it the main character, the fuel containers you have to pick, or other supporting art (like the settings button and the font), they all follow the same theme. I must say that it does a good job at that. You will definitely not find anything fancy or ground-breaking, but it’s good to have some cohesion between different elements.

Sound

The game features no background music. The only sounds that the game will produce are when you tap the screen to propel your character, when you get the fuel containers, or when you die. Just as the graphics, they’re nothing special, and the one fired when propelling gets a bit annoying after a while. I feel like they’re there for the sake of having sound, but they don’t do a good job in adding some real value to the game.

Options

cave jumpers reviewThere are very few options to choose from.

There are only three options in the game, and two of them are toggles: one is for the sounds and the other for controlling if the game will give you hints. In a really weird UI decision, these toggles can be acted upon by touching the label, and not the checkmark.

The other option lets you reset all of the game’s data. This probably acts the same as going to the Settings screen and erase the data through Android. I can’t understand why would someone want to delete the little progress you can make in this game, but there it is anyways.

One thing to note: there is no Google Play Games integraton. The option to submit high scores uses the developer’s own integraton, not its Google counterpart.

Conclusion

Cave Jumpers combine a couple of different elements to make a fun little game that can get very entertaining. However, since the game has so little elements to keep you coming back for more, it’s hard to recommend if you’re looking for a game to play in the long term. If you want to play in short bursts, though, then this game is a good time-killer.

Download Cave Jumpers from the Google Play Store.

9
Dec

Best Gifts to Experience Virtual Reality


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Invite someone to step into a new reality for a while.

There’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned escape. Some people use books, some binge watch all of Westworld in an afternoon, and of course we all know someone who gets sucked into a game for a while. The key to any good escape is feeling immersed in the world you’re gazing into, and that’s one of the things you’ll find is much easier to do inside virtual reality.

This past year has been filled with all sorts of VR headsets, and choosing which headset is right for you has become a challenge. It’s even more complicated if you’re interested in giving VR as a gift. This guide will make that a little easier, ultimately making it so you can give the best possible gift this year!

Samsung Gear VR — For the Samsung Fan

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Do you have someone in your life who is always ready to jump on the next Samsung phone? Someone who sees Lil’ Jon pouring champagne on his phone and says “Why not me?” while checking to see how long they have to wait for their next upgrade? There’s a good chance you’d make their whole year with a Gear VR headset.

Check out our Samsung Gear VR Review!

This VR headset was built specifically for top-of-the-line Samsung phones. When the phone is snapped into the headset, it turns into a full VR experience. You’ll find a great assortment of games, apps, and tons of video to watch. It’s like taking your living room with you everywhere, and when it’s paired with the right gamepad that headset turns into a killer gaming experience.

See on Amazon

Google Daydream — For anyone who loves to share

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Not all VR headsets require complicated PC setups. In fact, if you know someone with a Google Pixel or a Moto Z, they already have almost everything they need to have a great VR experience that travels with them! The only thing missing is Google’s Daydream View headset, which also happens to make a fantastic gift.

Check out our Google Daydream Review!

Daydream View comes in three great colors, and includes a controller that makes every VR experience feel totally unique. It allows the user to move their hand around in the real world and see that controller move in VR, so they can solve puzzles and move around with surprising realism. Just don’t let anyone accidentally walk into any walls, and it’s a great time that can easily be shared with friends no matter where you are!

See on the Google Store

PlayStation VR — For the gamers

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Know someone with a PlayStation 4? There’s a good change you’d make their year by adding a PlayStation 4 to their gaming experience. Sony made this VR headset just for feeling like you are actually in the game, and there’s a ton of amazing games ready for the gamer in your life to dive into.

Check out our PlayStation VR Review!

PlayStation VR requires you to have a little bit of space to move around in, so make sure whoever you’re gifting to has a Living Room or game space that will let them dodge flying objects in VR without accidentally taking out the corner lamp. Otherwise, sit back and watch as your gift becomes a whole new way to experience games!

See at Best Buy

9
Dec

Do I really need a mesh network?


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This mesh networking stuff is cool, but it’s also expensive. Let’s try and sort out who needs what.

Wireless mesh networking has become something that’s ready for you and me to buy and put in our houses. The technology and hardware that powers it is no longer too expensive or too complicated, and companies like Google with their Google Wifi setup want in on it.

But do you — yes, you personally — really need a mesh network setup? The answer (as usual) is maybe.

I’ve looked at a couple of consumer wireless mesh routers recently here at AC — the Amplifi HD home system and Google Wifi. I’m talking with some other companies to look at more. There are two reasons for this: I actually enjoy fooling with network gear, and because reliable, comprehensive Wi-Fi coverage has become essential in most homes.

Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about mesh routers. The most frequent is “Would a mesh network be better for me? I have (x) setup now.”

Router vs Mesh Networking: What’s best for your home Wi-Fi network?

So let’s talk about what a mesh network is good at, what it’s not good at, and what kind of user needs one.

Are they fast?

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A mesh network has zero impact on your internet speeds. None whatsoever. Nothing can make your internet faster except the people you pay each month for the service doing something on their end. Your internet is a garden hose, with you at the open end and your ISP at the faucet; they have all the control over your flow speeds.

Any equipment you can buy will only affect the speed of your network, not your ISP’s.

What a mesh network does, both wired and wireless, is provide more consistent network performance in more places around a home. When you install a “regular” router and a network extender, you automatically lose up to 50% of your speed when you are attached to the extender. Mesh networks have several ways around this, with the most common being frequency (or channel) hopping — essentially running on more than one channel at the same time. Most of the companies who are making consumer mesh routers aren’t clear on how they mitigate speed loss while amplifying and passing along a wireless signal, but those results are the end goal. With a properly set up mesh network, you will have the same network speeds anywhere you’re connected to the network.

What this means for end users is that every spot in your house can have a good Wi-Fi signal. You can have a good signal in the room next to the router, a good signal out in the garage and a good signal sitting on the toilet upstairs. The internet speeds aren’t any faster but you’re getting data from your router faster so it makes a difference.

If you have spots in your house that are dead or have a really poor Wi-Fi signal and you know you have a good wireless router, you need either an extender or a mesh setup. If you need to buy more than one extender at different ends of the house, you need a new router and should look at a mesh system and see if it fits your budget.

Gamers

A mesh setup might fix the lag when you’re playing online games. The lag comes from you being out of sync with what the game engine thinks you should be doing (that’s why lag glitches and cheats work) which is usually a connection-based issue. Most of the time that issue is between your modem and the game server. A mesh network won’t be able to fix that. Latency (ping times and round trip times) on even a weak Wi-Fi signal are usually more than fast enough between your PS4 or computer and your router, and a stronger signal, while always a good thing, isn’t the fix you’re looking for.

A mesh setup might fix the lag when you’re playing online games.

If local network (the network in your house) pings are slow enough to make a difference, you definitely need to do something. If everything else you and your family does on the network is fine, try running a cable from your router to the back of your console or computer. If that doesn’t fix it, you’re stuck with “bad” internet for gaming. If it does, look into getting new equipment and think about an extender. Online gaming doesn’t need very high speeds as long as the latency is low. Of course, a mesh network won’t be worse than a cheaper extender setup, so if the budget says yes there’s nothing holding you back.

Streaming video

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While online games don’t need a lot of bandwidth and speed, streaming video does. To stream a 4K video on your Chromecast without any stutters, companies like Netflix and Google recommend a consistent connection of about 30 Mbps. That means the connection between your streaming device and the server you’re streaming it from should never drop below 30 Mbps. A mesh router can have a big impact here.

A 4K stream needs a fast — and consistent — signal.

You don’t have much control over the connection between your router and the server, but you can do a lot of things to make sure as much of that data gets to your streamer as fast as it can once it comes into the house. When you drop below the speed threshold, you draw data from a buffer. When you’re faster than the threshold, you put data in that buffer. If you fall below it too often and draw more data out than you can put in things will pause if your network just isn’t fast enough. If your network is just fast enough, your image will look bad or the audio will be poor, out of sync, or both.

You want the signal from the router to the TV as fast and strong as possible to help stay faster than you need to be at all times. Ideally, you’ll use an ethernet cable. If that’s out of the picture (like it is for many of us) a mesh networking setup can definitely help.

Distance

A mesh network is not built for carrying a wireless signal for long distances. The days of high-gain wireless that blasted to the horizon from a set point are over for most people, and your neighbors will thank you for not doing it. If you look at the list of Wi-Fi networks you can connect to and it’s more than the number of available channels (11 2.4GHz channels and it depends on who you ask about 5GHz channels) your signal will be affected. That’s before we talk about cordless landlines, microwaves and random things like 35mm cameras, which all can interfere with a Wi-Fi signal. If you can see your neighbors’ Wi-Fi networks, your network speeds are probably negatively affected.

Beaming your Wi-Fi down the street doesn’t help you and hurts everyone else.

Ideally, a Wi-Fi signal is contained to the areas where folks will be actively using it. That’s difficult because nobody wants any device that doesn’t have a fairly large coverage area. The best Wi-Fi network would be built of small mesh nodes with a 10-foot coverage area placed 9 feet apart. The cost of this far outweighs any advantage so most nodes in a mesh are designed to have about a 30-foot radius (multi-directional antenna make this a sphere) before the signal drops off. The Amplifi system I tested was unique and actually designed to cover a longer span rather than a sphere, but Google Wifi wasn’t. Buy a three-pack and place the units within 25 feet of each other and no closer to the wall than 10 feet and you’ve built a balanced network that’s fast and powerful where it should be and doesn’t intrude too much where it shouldn’t.

Think of how your house is laid out. I’m lucky — my house is 41 feet wide and 40 feet long on two floors. I don’t even need three mesh nodes. If your house is very narrow and very long (or tall) — especially if you live in a row house of any type, you’re wasting a lot of signal by using multiple small radial output devices. Ideally, you want a wired router and switch network with wireless access points in places you need them. The next best thing is something you can push in the right direction. A wireless mesh network is not for you. In extreme cases, it’s worthwhile to talk to a professional before you spend a lot of money on equipment.

Advanced features

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A lot of folks ask about things like QoS scheduling or per-device network rules or MAC address filtering. None of the current consumer grade mesh systems are for you.

These systems are designed to be as simple as possible to use for people who don’t know what QoS schedules are and don’t care. In fact, Google touts remote monitoring and troubleshooting by a machine as a feature so folks don’t have to worry about things like channels or bandwidth. What seems like a nightmare to you and me (yes, I am that guy, too) is a boon for most.

Outside of the most rudimentary controls, the apps that power the interface for the current crop isn’t going to suit you. Unless you get a Netgear Orbi.

The Orbi has the same features and interfaces through a local web server just like the Netgear Nighthawk high-end routers do.

Why are they so expensive?

Because they are so damn good at what they do! These devices are tuned to be very powerful within their working area and use the same technology that every other $200 router uses. A single Google Wifi unit will cover a 1500 sq. ft. zone with fast and strong Wi-Fi. Other routers will have different range, and you should buy what best suits your needs. Just realize that in the end, it won’t be any cheaper. The man gonna get his one way or the other.

Make sure you buy what you need. An extender might be a better fit for you. It will be cheaper than replacing everything with a mesh kit.

Is Big Brother watching?

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Thankfully, people are questioning what data Google Wifi is collecting and how it is being used. You’re presented with the terms of service during the setup, but since I know most of you didn’t read them, they are also available here. Read them. Decide if the value of the data you are giving away matches well with the value of the service you get in return.

I know plenty of folks have other questions about all this stuff. You should ask them! Asking questions never makes you look like a dummy — it just means you want to know more about something. There are comments below. There are folks with answers who may be reading them. Everybody can get together and talk about mesh networks.

Don’t worry, we can go back to fighting about phones later.

9
Dec

ZTE welcomes Axon 7 community members to Nougat preview


The Axon 7 is getting Nougat soon, and they want you to test it!

ZTE is preparing Nougat for release on the Axon 7 and is looking for some enterprising Axon 7 users from the Z-Community to preview and evaluate the build before it pushes out to everyone. If you’re itching to get split-screen on your 5.5″ beauty, your chance has finally come!

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Users looking to sign up for the preview must be members of ZTE’s Z-Community forums in order to provide feedback. You can sign up for the Axon 7 Nougat Preview here by providing your Z-community username, email and IMEI.

Keep in mind that previews like these are not always stable, so if your Axon 7 is your primary phone, you might want to wait for the stable release, but Nougat’s many features like split-screen and improved Doze functionality are tempting. One can only hope that the software gimmicks we noted in our experience with the Axon 7 have been toned down in 7.0, but we’ll see how ZTE’s take on Nougat fares.

9
Dec

Samsung is permanently crippling the Note 7 in the U.S. [Update: Verizon says nope]


It’s been… real.

Samsung has encouraged the return of 93% of the 1.9 million recalled Galaxy Note 7s since the second recall was issued on October 13. That’s a lot of phones, but that still means there are over 130,000 units still to be recovered, many of which could have defective batteries.

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Samsung America, as a way of persuading those obstinate holdouts, will issue a software update beginning December 19 to cut off all remaining power and radio connectivity to those devices. In other words, after the mandatory firmware patch, the phones won’t charge or connect to any cellular networks — even Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. A press release states:

To further increase participation, a software update will be released starting on December 19th and will be distributed within 30 days. This software update will prevent U.S. Galaxy Note7 devices from charging and will eliminate their ability to work as mobile devices.

Together with our carrier partners, we will be notifying consumers through multiple touchpoints to encourage any remaining Galaxy Note7 owners to participate in the program and to take advantage of the financial incentives available.

This is the true end for the disastrous Note 7, as the phone’s largest market finally resorts to crippling the phone. Users can get information for a full refund or exchange for another Galaxy device at Samsung’s dedicated recall portal.

Similar actions were taken in New Zealand and Canada, and will likely be replicated in all markets the phone was launched.

Verizon has issued a statement saying that it will not release the above update because it may impact the ability of some Note 7 users to connect over the holiday period:

Today, Samsung announced an update to the Galaxy Note7 that would stop the smartphone from charging, rendering it useless unless attached to a power charger. Verizon will not be taking part in this update because of the added risk this could pose to Galaxy Note7 users that do not have another device to switch to. We will not push a software upgrade that will eliminate the ability for the Note7 to work as a mobile device in the heart of the holiday travel season. We do not want to make it impossible to contact family, first responders or medical professionals in an emergency situation.

Verizon and Samsung have communicated the need for customers with a Note7 to immediately stop using their devices and return or exchange it where they purchased it. Verizon customers with the Note7 have several options, including an additional $100 from Samsung when purchasing one of their other devices.

Sprint, on the other hand, says it will push the update beginning January 8:

To drive increased participation in its U.S. Note7 Refund and Exchange Program, Samsung will release a software update beginning on January 8, 2017 that will disable all remaining Sprint Note7 devices from being able to hold a charge. This software update will eliminate the ability of these Galaxy Note7 to work as mobile devices.

At the time of writing, T-Mobile and AT&T have yet to issue statements.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

  • Galaxy Note 7 fires, recall and cancellation: Everything you need to know
  • Survey results: Samsung users stay loyal after Note 7 recall
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review
  • The latest Galaxy Note 7 news
  • Join the Note 7 discussion in the forums!

9
Dec

Save $120 on Lenovo’s touchscreen Chromebook right now!


Amazon is currently offering Lenovo’s 11.6-inch touchscreen Chromebook for just $180, a savings of $120. That’s right, you can save a big chunk of change on this Chromebook that will run Android apps when Google releases the feature. You should be able to get up to 10 hours per charge, and some great performance while using it thanks to the 4GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage.

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Unlike some other Chromebook offerings, the Chromebook N22 is quite durable with is reinforced ports, anti-peel keys, waterproof keyboard, a sealed touchpad and more. Odds are that this won’t last long at the $180 price, so if you are interested be sure to grab one now!

See at Amazon

9
Dec

There’s a tiny piano app for the MacBook Pro Touch Bar


Apple has showed off a number of uses for the newfangled MacBook Pro Touch Bar, including DJ and other music making controls. It also plays Doom, which is quite handy. When you need to do your best Elton John impression, there’s an app that can help with that. Appropriately named Touch Bar Piano, the software brings 128 different instruments to that touch panel above the laptop’s keyboard.

If you don’t happen to own the latest model, the free polyphonic piano app “does nothing useful on other Macs,” according to its developer Graham Parks. In addition to piano sounds, there’s a smattering of strings, drums, voices and more for you to make noise with using the tiny display. If you’re still a bit skeptical about the whole thing, you can see the app in action down below.

Via: FACT, Ask.Audio

Source: Touch Bar Piano

9
Dec

Sky agrees to sell business to Fox for £18.5bn


Twenty-First Century Fox has been in talks to buy Sky before but it seems there is a breakthrough in the acquisition of the satellite broadcaster and entertainment company.

After a new approach by the movie studio and media firm, and subsequent negotiations, the Independent Directors of Sky have agreed on a purchase price and have set a date for a formal offer to be made.

Sky values its shares for the buyout at £10.75 a share, which is a premium of 40 per cent per share on the closing price on 6 December. If taken up, it will value the company at £18.5 billion.

Fox has until 6 January 2017 to make a full offer or make its intentions known if it decides against pressing forward with the acquisition.

  • Sky Q review: 4K, multi-room support, apps and more
  • What is Sky Q, how much does it cost and how can I get it?

21st Century Fox is already a major shareholder in Sky, currently owning 39 per cent. Any purchase will give it complete control over the organisation. Fox is currently headed by CEO James Murdoch, who previously held the same position at BSkyB, before it rebranded as simply Sky.

Fox had been forced to abandon plans to buy the remaining shares in Sky in 2011. Whether the deal would be approved this time around is unsure.

Sky states that discussions are continuing and further announcements will be made in due course.

9
Dec

Apple HomeKit tips and tricks without Apple TV


Apple’s HomeKit app Home is simple and easy to use, but it also comes with a load of hidden features that you might not, on the surface, realise are available.

We’ve put together a number of tips, which don’t require you to have an Apple TV 4, to allow you to get the most from the Apple backed service that supports hundreds of different smart home devices from companies like Elgato and Philips.

How to change the wallpaper in Home app

The Home Tab wallpaper can be modified by tapping the location icon in the top left and choosing a new one in Home settings. You can do the same for rooms: after picking a room, tap the list icon in the top left, open Room Settings, and assign a new wallpaper.

How to create a HomeKit scenes

A scene is where any number of your accessories can work together with a single command and is one of the key features of HomeKit. This is great for times like when you wake up, leave the house, come home or go to bed. The Apple Home app lets you create custom scenes giving you plenty of options. To create a scene, tap on the “+” icon at the top right of the screen in the Home app and follow the instructions from there.

How to add new accessories and scenes

Easily add a new accessory or scene by tapping on the “+” sign in the top right corner of the Home tab or any room page. 

Setting up HomeKit favourites

“Favourite” scenes and accessories for them to appear on the Home tab and in the Control Center. To set a device or scene as a favourite, long press (Using 3D Touch with the iPhone 6S or 7) on the device or scene and then press “Details”. Scroll down the page until you see “Include in Favourites” and make sure it is selected.

Accessing HomeKit devices through the Control Center

When you have at least one HomeKit accessory set up, a third Control Center card will appear, giving you an easy way to quick access your favourite accessories and scenes. Simply swipe up from the bottom of the page and then scroll right to left twice to see your HomeKit enabled devices.

Pocket-lint

Quickly see the status of your Home

You’ll find a summary of average conditions and statuses at the top of the Home page in the Home app like humidity, temperature and door lock status. You can tap Details for an accessory overview.

How to get deeper HomeKit controls

3D Touch lets you press and hold an accessory icon to perform more complex tasks like dimming the lights or adjusting the thermostat. With multicolour lights, you can tap on a Colours button below the intensity slider to modify presets and open a colour wheel to pick a different shade. The wheel even has a segmented control to switch between colour and temperature. 

How to share your HomeKit home

If you want to add members to your home, you can invite other people and give them access to your home. Go to the Home app and tap on the location arrow icon at the top left of the screen. Here you can invite people via their Apple Cloud ID username to be able to control the devices in your system. They will only be able to control it in the house unless you have an Apple TV.

Rename your HomeKit Home

Press on the location arrow icon at the top left of the screen and change the name from Home to Castle if you are feeling the need to be a little more grandeur.

Add a second home to HomeKit

If you have more than one home you can set up multiple homes that can be controlled via the Home app. Tap on the location arrow icon at the top left of the screen in the Home app, and tap on Add Home. You can follow the instructions for setup from there. You can then switch between your homes by tapping on the location arrow icon at the top left of the screen, then choosing the home you’d like to access.

How to add automation to HomeKit

To run automations, like Timers, Location commands, Sensors, or triggers like turning on the light when a door opens, you have to have an Apple TV or an iPad that stays in the home connected to your system.

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