When you think “Fender,” your brain conjures up images of guitars, of long-haired tattooed musicians exploding into ear-piercing solos. It’s an appropriate assessment — the Stratocaster (or one of its many clones) is usually the first instrument of aspiring rock gods. What you don’t think about are earbuds. But after a recent acquisition, the guitar maker is hoping to change that with its line of in-ear monitors.
I just happen to be in a band. (Actually, several. Okay, five. I’m in five bands.) And no matter where we play, we need to be able to hear ourselves. To accomplish that, everyone from Beyoncé to a local band at a small club uses “monitors.” Unlike the wall of sound directed at the audience, the in-ear and speaker-based monitor system is mixed for either a particular person or area on stage. And from my own experience if you’re a musician and can’t hear yourself — or worse, your bandmates — you’re going to have a bad time.
After years of filling clubs and arenas with piercing guitar wails, Fender is now jumping into helping people hear what’s actually going on onstage. It’s actually not that surprising: The company, earlier this year, purchased Aurisonics, an outfit catering to audiophiles and musicians. So when I put in the $200 FXA2 Pro in-ear monitors, it was easy to see why Fender made that purchase. The thing is, though, you really don’t need to be in a band to get the most out of these earbuds.
They sound outstanding and more importantly fit snugly in my ears without being uncomfortable — an issue I’ve had with other earbuds. Fender says that the FXA2 monitors are especially well suited for bass players and drummers. That translates to deep, rich kick drum (and Roland 808) hits and bass lines that sound crisp. Both of which are great, considering these sounds are typically lost in audio gear with such a tiny form factor.
Meanwhile guitars, vocals and the rest of the band also sound better than you’d expect on a set of $200 earbuds. Cymbal hits might not resonate as well as they would on more expensive headphones and earbuds, but the FXA2s do a respectable job. But it’s the low end that really impresses.
As for actually using these on stage, I sing in those aforementioned bands and was able to test these out using the PA system in our practice space. We use a Mackie 1604VLZ4 16 channel mixer and Shure SM58 mics. Typically we use speaker monitors, so using an in-ear system took a bit to get used to. That said, the FXA2 did seem lose some crispness in the higher registers while singing. Higher-pitched yells and screams also felt a little flat. But while using a Roland TR8 and listening to a bass guitar or singing in a lower range, the earbuds sounded great.
I’ll admit I never used them at a show. It would have required a wireless setup so I wouldn’t be tethered to the PA system. But if I started playing drums again or became a bass player and wanted a more focused audio monitoring solution, the FXA2s would be in my ears.
They’re comfortable and snug enough to use for hours without worrying that your sweaty rock-and-rock-level head movements won’t knock them free. The FXA2s have the added bonus of cutting out most outside audio, which has made them my go-to listening devices before a show. They’re more compact than the noise-cancelling headphones I usually wear, and I can use them as earplugs in the very loud clubs I frequent when I’m not listening to the music I’m trying to memorize before we go on stage. (I get pre-show jitters, fretting that I’ll forget everything.)
I also tried out the $400 FXA6 in-ear monitors from Fender and for double the price, they sound incredible. But, I know that being in a band is like having a direct line from your bank account to Guitar Center, and I feel that for musicians a $200 solution that works on stage and off is more ideal.
So if you’re a drummer, bass player or sing in a low register, the FXA2’s will serve you well as you bring down the house. For everyone else, they’re a great set of earbuds for enjoying your favorite music, regardless of whether you wrote it or not.
The Good The $199 Kuna Toucan outdoor camera connects to the included Smart Socket light bulb adapter via USB so you don’t have to bother with batteries or a power cord. It has a very discreet design and a built-in 100-decibel siren for an extra dose of deterrence.
The Bad Kuna’s Smart Socket adapter made the light bulb extend past the bottom of my wall light. The Toucan relies on the light fixture for illumination rather than infrared LEDs, it doesn’t work with smart home products from other manufacturers and its motion sensor was too sensitive.
The Bottom Line If you’re looking to add a low-maintenance outdoor camera to your home security setup, Kuna’s Toucan could easily fit the bill.
Visit manufacturer site for details.
Kuna’s $199 Toucan has a bunch of the basic outdoor camera stuff: HD video resolution, a motion sensor, alerts, a related app, two-way talk and cloud storage. But the best bit is that it also retrofits to existing outdoor wall lights via a USB cable, which means no batteries, no wires and no fuss. And since your purchase includes a Smart Socket adapter to make a dumb bulb smart, you can create rules in the Kuna app that link your camera to your light fixture.
I do wish its motion sensor were less sensitive and that the Toucan integrated with products from other smart-home companies. The Toucan doesn’t have infrared LEDs for night vision, either. You have to rely on the illumination from the light fixture above instead. Even so, the Toucan is easy to recommend for its fast installation, unobtrusive USB cable, clear HD feed and the added bonus of a built-in 100-decibel siren to startle trespassers.
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Getting to know Toucan
Housed in a circular, matte-black panel, the Toucan looks more utilitarian and discreet than the design-forward models out today like Nest Cam Outdoor. When you’re talking about outdoor security devices, though, I’d likely opt for a Toucan’s subtlety over a Nest’s shiny white finish.
Beyond its unobtrusive aesthetic, the Toucan was also built to integrate with standard outdoor wall lights. And Kuna came up with a clever way to harness power from your light fixture so you don’t have to install batteries in the camera or deal with wiring: a Smart Socket light bulb adapter and a small USB cable. That makes it much more low-maintenance than the battery-dependent Netgear Arlo outdoor cameras or the power-adapter-dependent Nest Cam Outdoor.
The complete installation took roughly 10 to 15 minutes. Here are the steps:
- Turn off power to your wall light
- Detach the wall light’s housing with a screwdriver
- Unscrew your existing bulb
- Screw in the Smart Socket adapter
- Reattach the same light bulb*
- Plug the USB cable into the USB port on the Smart Socket Adapter
- Reinstall the wall light housing **
- Install the Toucan camera below your wall light ***
- Plug the other end of the USB cable into the Micro-USB port on the camera’s base plate
- Turn on power to your wall light
*The Smart Socket is 3 inches long and might be too big too work with your current light bulb and light fixture. In my case, the light bulb hung below the fixture.
**When you reinstall the wall light housing, make sure you feed the USB cable through the housing so it dangles down behind the wall light. A section of the USB cable is wrapped with a protective plastic cover to act as a cushion at the spot when the cable and the housing meet.
***When installing the Toucan camera, you can either use the included hardware or the strong adhesive backing; I used the sticker since my installation was temporary. Kuna also provides a conduit cover to hide any excess USB cable that might be dangling between the wall light and the camera’s install spot. I stuck the camera directly under the light fixture, so I simply tucked the extra cable between the camera’s base and face plate during installation.
While popular smartphone manufacturers like LG and Apple have just recently adopted dual camera configurations, Huawei has largely led the way, beginning with the Huawei P9. While the P9 never made its way to the United States, the Honor brand is now bringing its own dual camera tech to the US with the Honor 8.
More Huawei Coverage:
- Honor 8 review
- Huawei P9 feature focus – Camera
As we highlighted in our comprehensive review, the Honor 8 offers two factors that are often mutually exclusive: a high-end dual camera experience and an affordable price. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly the Honor 8’s camera is packing with our Honor 8 camera feature focus!
Buy Honor 8 now!
Before we jump into our image analysis, it’s worth reviewing the technical details of the Honor 8’s cameras. The primary configuration is composed of two lenses with f/2.2 apertures. Thanks to Honor’s unique technology, when you go to take a picture, the first lens captures a color image while the second lens captures a monochrome image.
This in itself may seem a bit futile, but when combined with some clever software processing, the Honor 8 is able to produce better, more vivid 12 MP images with crispier details. This can be primarily attributed to a greater availability of light ― up to three times more than a single lens, according to Honor.
This dual lens configuration, in addition to the fast aperture and larger 1.25 μm pixel size, are remarkably functional in lower-light conditions as well, which we’ll analyze below.
The cameras are accompanied by a dual-tone LED flash, which helps balance skin tones when using the flash. There’s also a laser module for laser autofocus, which is utilized in synchrony with contrast detection. Honor says that this improves the Honor 8’s autofocus speed, which is obviously very important when capturing time sensitive subjects.
Of course, we can’t forget about the 8 MP front-facing camera. It has an f/2.4 aperture, and you can view a couple sample images below.
Generally speaking, the front-facing camera produces great results. Yes, Honor’s Beauty mode is alive and well in the Honor 8’s camera software, but there’s now a slider to control the amount of skin softening. It’s fair to say that the results can still look slightly unnatural, but this effect can always be toned down from the default setting or turned off completely.
The camera app also offers a myriad of primary camera modes, including but not limited to manual, panorama, HDR, time-lapse, and slow-mo. Each of these modes works as you would expect. In the panoramic image above, the Honor 8 did an excellent job with stitching each piece of the photo together.
In this panoramic image, there are some areas where the stitching wasn’t perfect, but it’s still a great image overall.
As we have seen with previous Honor smartphones, the Honor 8 includes a wide aperture mode which enables artificial background blur, up to f/0.95. The effect can be very fun to play around with and certainly gives otherwise plain looking images artistic looks.
This effect is still artificial though, and can stumble a bit in lower contrast scenes like the one on the left. Mainly, the processing software seems to have trouble isolating the banner from the cloudy sky in the background. Regardless of the sometimes disappointing results, this mode can really take your smartphone photography to a more creative level.
Although there is an HDR mode which can be manually selected from the modes view, the normal auto mode often provides more than enough dynamic range, making many of the HDR photos virtually indistinguishable from the normal photos.
Taking a closer look at those “normal photos,” you can see just how well the Honor 8 balances the highlights and shadows. In the left image, this can be seen especially when looking at the properly exposed sky and detailed darker areas. On the right, the sky is just a tad overexposed, but the statue in the center is surprisingly well detailed.
Contrast is quite good across the board, actually, as can be seen in the images above. The Honor 8 also seems to do well with color saturation; images don’t come out oversaturated like they often do with the Samsung Galaxy S7, but they’re also still fairly punchy.
Overall, the Honor 8’s camera captures great stills in good lighting. Sadly, video recording isn’t up to par with competing options. In addition to maxing out at 1080P/60p when most others go up to 4K/30p, the actual video quality is a bit under what you might expect. Colors appear muted in comparison to how they do in still images, and the software processing sometimes mixes up the correct white balance mid-shot.
There’s also no optical image stabilization, so it can be tricky to get a steady shot at times. It’s hard to recommend the Honor 8 for video because many competing options simply offer superior quality.
In low-light conditions, the Honor 8’s camera offers surprisingly strong performance when compared to other affordable flagships. Granted, images do still appear noticeably noisy in dim conditions.
Colors also appear less punchy and more muted, although there’s still a good amount of contrast overall. Detail can be a mixed bag and primarily depends on how steady you hold the phone when taking the shot. In order to compensate for the lack of light, the Honor 8 lowers the shutter speed, meaning that the sensor is exposed for a longer period of time.
If you have shaky hands, this can be problematic when trying to capture the details of a low-light scene. Once you minimize camera shake, you’ll get noticeably better results. While the Honor 8’s camera isn’t as impressive in low-light when compared to phones like the Galaxy S7, it’s important to consider Honor’s competitive pricing.
In fact, perhaps the most impressing aspect here is how Honor was able to defy our expectations. One of the most pressing compromises with the vast majority of affordable smartphones is camera performance, yet the Honor 8 still manages to impress in this department.
That concludes our Honor 8 camera feature focus. How do you feel about the Honor 8’s camera? Is it enough to make you go out and purchase the Honor 8? Please do let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!
Buy Honor 8 now!
There are so many Windows-powered tablets that connect to slim keyboard covers that we’ve taken to calling them Surface-alikes, after the flagship Microsoft hybrid. But while most of the competing options cost less than the current Surface Pro 4, those systems, from Samsung, Asus and others, cut corners by relying on low-power processors from Intel’s Atom and Core M lines.
Acer is taking a different approach with its new Switch Alpha 12, a 12-inch hybrid first announced at the company’s New York press preview on April 21. The Alpha 12 uses current-gen Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs (like the Surface Pro), and has a 2,160×1,440-pixel resolution, which isn’t as high as the Surface Pro, but is in the ballpark.
More importantly, the Alpha 12 comes with its magnetic keyboard cover included in the box, whereas the Microsoft version is an extra $129, no matter which base model you buy. That’s especially important, as the Switch Alpha 12 starts at $599 in the US, presumably for a Core i3 configuration.
Up close with all the new gear Acer announced…
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It’s also very quiet, as this is a fanless design, something we usually only see in very low-power Core M systems. That’s accomplished by way of a small liquid-cooling component that pulls heat away from the CPU. Acer calls it the LiquidLoop Cooling System, and while it’s not as robust as the massive liquid cooling systems in some gaming PCs, it’s an interesting way to keep a slim tablet cool without fans.
In my brief hands-on time with the Alpha 12, I liked the U-shaped manual kickstand, which you deploy by simply pulling it out, unlike with some other hybrids which rely on twitchy buttons and latches. On the demo unit I tried, the magnetic connection between the keyboard cover and the tablet was also very strong. So much so that it was hard to pull them apart. That’s good for security, but can also be a hassle if you want to go tablet-only on the fly.
The Switch Alpha 12, which weighs 2.76 pounds (1,260 grams) all together or 1.98 pounds (900 grams) as a standalone tablet, will be available in June in the US, starting at $599. It will be available across Europe in May, at €699, which is about £545. There’s no word on Australian availability yet.
The Good Since its racks have lots of fold-down tines, you can fit anything you want into the $700 LG LDS5040ST dishwasher, and if you’ve rinsed your dishes beforehand, it’s more than capable of doing the rest.
The Bad If you don’t rinse your dishes, expect to find redeposited chunks spread across your plates and bowls. This LG’s limited selection of cycles and options all take longer than normal and don’t justify the extra time spent with better cleaning. This dishwasher also lacks any notable features.
The Bottom Line Even though its competent, for the same price, you can find better options than the LG LDS5040ST.
If the stores near you don’t have many options, and if you need a dishwasher right away and want a competent one at a midrange price, you could settle for the $700 LG LDS5040ST. Make sure to rinse your dishes and it’ll treat you well enough. Nothing about it is exciting or exceptional, but it looks fine, and it’s pretty quiet.
But this is definitely a dishwasher to settle for, rather than one to seek out. At around the same price, we recently reviewed a trio of better options. The $600 GE GDF610PMJES is my pick if you’re looking for useful features. Go with the $700 Kenmore 13699 if you want great cleaning power, or the $650 Frigidaire FGID2466QF, which offers the best balance of cleaning and features of the trio. The LG LDS5040ST fails to make that group a quartet, as it doesn’t do anything well enough to carve out a niche of its own. It’s not a bad dishwasher, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re short on options.
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The LG LDS5040ST differentiates itself from the three midrange models mentioned above in two key ways, both of which made me hopeful it could be the best of the bunch. First, it has a stainless steel tub, as opposed to the plastic tubs on its three competitors.
Better mid-range dishwashers
- GE GDF610PMJES
- Kenmore 13699
- Frigidaire FGID2466QF
The stainless tub should have helped it save energy, but it draws approximately 279 kWh per year according to its manufacturer rating. The GE GDF610PMJES and Kenmore 13699 both draw 270 kWh and the Frigidaire FGID2466QF is rated at 268 kWh.
Balancing out the benefits of the stainless tub in this LG is its hard food disposer — the other main difference between this model and the others we’ve tested in this price range. This LG basically has a disposal at the bottom of its tub. The other three fit the more modern trend with a mesh filter to remove large particles from the water.
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This LG has an old-fashioned food disposer.
The disposer uses a lot of energy, but LG does a good job keeping the dishwasher quiet despite it. The LDS5040ST has a sound rating of 50dB vs. 42dB, 50dB and 52dB from the GE, Kenmore and Frigidaire dishwashers, respectively.
Cycles and options
Along with its stainless tub and food disposer, the LG LDS5040ST has five cycles to choose from and three different options you can add on to each cycle. The mix ranges from Power Scrub to Delicate, though I would have liked if the 90-minute Quick cycle was a bit quicker.
The controls are on the front next to the scoop handle instead of integrated on the upper lip — another way this dishwasher bucks modern design trends. You also pick your cycle with physical buttons instead of touch controls.
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We run our tests on the Normal cycle with no options selected.
The lack of a start button threw me off, but it’s typical of the LG dishwashers we’ve tested so far. Pick your cycle, use the Option button to select if you want Sanitary, Extra Rinse, or Extra Dry. From there, just close the door and the dishwasher will whir into action. The countdown timer on the control panel stays illuminated throughout the run so you always have an estimate of how much time remains.
Searching for features
The dishwasher doesn’t have a third rack or anything particularly helpful on the inside. It doesn’t even have wine stem holders, but a lot of the tines fold down to help you fit bigger items wherever you’d like. You can even customize the angle of two columns of tines on the upper rack, or set every other tine down in certain rows on the bottom rack. All together, this LG has the capacity for 14 place settings.
The Good The affordable Moto Z Play works with swappable modular accessories, retains its headphone jack (unlike the more upmarket Moto Z and Z Force) and has a battery that goes on and on.
The Bad The Z Play is the thickest and heaviest phone in the Moto Z series and its fingerprint sensor, annoyingly, can be mistaken for a home button.
The Bottom Line Even if you don’t give two licks about its cool modular capabilities, get the Motorola Moto Z for an affordable phone with an impressively enduring battery life.
Visit manufacturer site for details.
Motorola’s Moto Z is a premium phone that made waves with its magnetic snap-on accessories. Unlike the LG G5, which also had swappable components, Motorola’s take on modularity made a lot more sense and was easier to use.
With its Moto Z Play, the company trimmed down the hardware but beefed up the battery, retained the quirky Moto Mod feature and slapped on a cheaper price. And what can I say? I’m all for it. Affordable, reliable and boasting super-long battery life, the Z Play is an excellent midrange phone even without the Mods.
The device is available in the US on Verizon for $408, but an unlocked version that’s compatible with GSM networks will be available globally in October for $450 (or £347 and AU$590, converted). Compare that with the original Z and its other counterpart the Z Force, which costs an additional $200 or more, the Z Play offers you all the goodies from Motorola’s Z series, without breaking your wallet.
Moto Z Play: It keeps going, and going and…
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What makes this phone unique again?
The Z Play is a fully functioning handset, but on its back are two rows of magnetic bumps that let you attach and swap out accessories called Moto Mods. These Mods have a variety of uses and can be as simple as a decorative back cover (those covers come in a variety of patterns and textures) or as complex as an extra battery case, a snap-on speaker with kickstand or a projector. Motorola’s newest Mod, a point-and-shoot camera accessory with a 10x optical zoom, is called the Hasselblad True Zoom.
The Mods are incredibly easy to use. With the audio speaker, music automatically starts playing when attached,and the projector requires hardly any setup. Even the True Zoom takes only a few seconds to ramp up and start capturing pictures.
Connecting the point-and-shoot camera accessory with the Moto Z Play.
What’s the difference between this Z Play and the Moto Z and the Moto Z Force?
The Z Play looks like the Z and Z Force (they share that annoying fingerprint sensor on the front that can be mistaken too easily for the home button), but as the more affordable midrange option, its specs vary. For one, instead of ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack like the other two, the Z Play still has its jack. That means its USB Type-C port and headphone jack exist side by side, together and happy, and you don’t need a dongle adapter to listen to your music. You can also charge your phone while listening to beats. With even the Apple iPhone 7 losing its jack, maybe there’s hope for your wired headphones in this cruel post-headphone-jack world, after all.
Though Z Play’s 5.5-inch display is the same size as the other two, but it has a 1,080-pixel resolution compared with the others’ 1,440p, and it isn’t as durable as the Z Force’s ShatterShield display. The Z Play also has a less powerful processor and a bit less RAM and its 16-megapixel rear camera sits between the Z and the Z Force’s in terms of megapixels (compare all specs below). The camera lacks optical image stabilization too, so your photos might look blurrier if you have an unsteady hand.
From left to right: Motorola’s Moto Z Play, Z and Z Force.
Lastly, the Z Play is a tad thicker and heavier than the already weighty Z Force. This is because the former packs a slightly larger battery. Motorola says this is the “longest-lasting phone battery” on a Moto phone, which I’ll get to later. For a quick comparison, check out our chart below:
Motorola Moto Z series
|5.5-inch; 1,920X1,080 pixels||5.5-inch; 2,560×1,440 pixels||5.5-inch; 2,560×1,440 pixels|
|403 ppi||535 ppi||535 ppi|
|6.16x3x0.28 in||6.11×2.96×0.2 in||6.14×2.98×0.28 in|
|156.4×76.4×6.99 mm||155.3×75.3×5.19 mm||155.9×75.8×6.99 mm|
|5.82 oz; 165 g||4.79 oz; 136 g||5.75 oz; 163 g|
|Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow||Android 6.0 Marshmallow||Android 6.0 Marshmallow|
|2.0GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625||2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820||2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820|
|32GB||32, 64GB||32, 64GB|
|Up to 2TB||Up to 2TB||Up to 2TB|
|3,510 mAh (nonremovable)||2,600 mAh (nonremovable)||3,500 mAh (nonremovable)|
|Below screen||Below screen||Below screen|
|Headphone jack, Moto Mod snap-on accessories and dedicated accessory port on back||Moto Mod snap-on accessories and dedicated accessory port on back||Moto Mod snap-on accessories and dedicated accessory port on back|
|$450 unlocked||$699 unlocked||$720 (on Verizon)|
|£347 converted||£499||£555 converted|
|AU$590 converted||AU$905 converted||AU$944 converted|
How’s the camera?
The phone’s 16-megapixel camera took clear, decent photos and its shutter operated quickly. Though I didn’t have as a noticeably rough time with the camera’s white balance as I did with the Z and Z Force, some images I captured still had white hues that were slightly tinted blue. Dimmer environments understandably featured more graininess, but the camera was altogether satisfactory for quick, casual shots. For more about photo quality, check out the images below and click on them to view them at their full resolution.
The Good The Logitech Bluetooth Music Receiver streams audio from nearly any mobile device to any stereo or powered speakers with an open input. It’s easy to connect via either 3.5mm or RCA and you can link multiple devices to it at once. The wireless range extends up to 50 feet (15 meters) away and it holds a strong connection within reasonable distance.
The Bad The Chromecast Audio offers better sound quality and multiroom options via Wi-Fi, making it a better option for Android users.
The Bottom Line Forget the aux cord — this Logitech Bluetooth Music Receiver is the easiest way to stream audio from your smartphone or laptop.
Congratulations: you just bought a brand new iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. But it doesn’t have a standard headphone jack, and you already misplaced the dongle.
Yes, wireless speakers and headphones are cheaper and better than ever before. But if you want to retrofit an existing stereo system or old boom box to be wireless compatible, the Logitech Bluetooth Music Receiver is just the ticket. This little box makes anything with an auxiliary line-in — including any old set of PC speakers — Bluetooth compatible, so you can stream audio from pretty much any smartphone, tablet or Mac — any many PCs, too. Best of all it retails for as little as $30 (£30, AU$55).
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The Receiver has a small pairing button on top. Hold down to put it in pairing mode, then select it in your device’s Bluetooth menu to connect.
This model is the second generation of Logitech’s popular wireless streaming accessory. The new one is smaller than the first version so it’s easy to hide behind a receiver or a speaker, since Bluetooth doesn’t need line of sight with the source to operate. Like the original, the device draws power from a wall adapter that plugs into the back.
- 11 wireless earbud headphones that aren’t the Apple AirPods
- Best Bluetooth Speakers of 2016
- Best wireless Bluetooth headphones of 2016
- No headphone jack, no problem: 7 ways to output audio from the iPhone 7
The rear also has a 3.5mm port and RCA jacks to output audio, and the box includes a 3.5mm-to-RCA cable so you can run it in whichever direction you want depending on the audio source in use. The convenience of this system is its flexibility — you can hook it up to anything with a free input, including a stereo, AV receiver, TV or PC speakers.
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The back of the unit has a power port, an RCA jack and a 3.5mm jack for output.
Once you wire the adapter to an input, all you have to do is link it to your Bluetooth-enabled device via the pairing button on top. Press it once to put it in pairing mode, then simply click on the adapter in your device’s Bluetooth settings menu to connect. Your speakers should emit an audible jingle to let you know the pairing is successful, and that’s it. You can even connect two devices at once so you don’t have to keep switching them on and off, but only one source will play audio at a time.
According to Logitech, the range of the Bluetooth connection is 50 feet (15 meters). I was actually able to walk a little farther than that in my apartment without dropping the connection, but your mileage may vary depending on other devices you have in the same room, the thickness of your walls and so forth. But like nearly any Bluetooth device, you’ll still get occasional wireless hiccups and dropouts.
When Alcatel released the IDOL 3 last year, I called it the best budget phone of 2015. This year, Alcatel has come out with its successor that is meant to improve upon the IDOL 3 in every way. Unlike last year, competition has gotten incredibly steep around budget flagships in 2016, and the IDOL 4S has to give everything its got to carry the title of Best Budget Flagship this year. Let’s see if it can claim the crown once again!
Design and Build
Last year, Alcatel took a more subtle approach to the design of the IDOL 3. It featured a plastic back and sides that felt and looked nice but didn’t create an overall sense of luxury or precision. For its 2016 flagship, Alcatel completely ditched the plastic and opted for a killer metal and glass design. With a glass back and metal sides, the IDOL 4S is a stunner that screams quality straight out of the box. The glass on front and back is slightly curved along the side making the phone comfortable to hold for pretty much anyone.
Let’s take a look around the 4S before we dive in. On the front is the 5.5″ display that we will talk more in depth about later along with the dual front-facing speakers and selfie camera. On the left side, you’ll find the power button and SIM card/MicroSD card slot. On the right are your volume controls along with an extra button Alcatel refers to as the Boom Key. On the bottom are the MicroUSB port for charging and a microphone. Finally up top, you have your 3.5mm headphone jack (thankfully) and another microphone. Flip the phone over and you’ll find the main camera along with a fingerprint scanner.
Overall, the IDOL 4S is lightyears ahead of the IDOL 3 in terms of style and design. The glass and metal build feels incredible to hold. However, I have a love-hate relationship with the glass back because it is a fingerprint magnet. It is one of the worst phones I have ever used in terms of how quickly it picks up fingerprints. In fact, I put a case on it almost immediately just because of how often I had to wipe off the back. Also, the glass back means that any accidental drops could end up shattering it along with your screen. And trust me, this phone is slippery. Accidental drops are bound to happen.
As beautiful as the IDOL 4S is, I must recommend that you at least get a skin or a case to keep from dropping it and cracking the glass. Thankfully, Alcatel is one step ahead and includes a case and screen protector in the box.
While the power button is still located annoyingly on the left side of the device, the IDOL 4S kept the double-tap to wake feature from the previous generation. But I doubt you’ll even be using that as the fingerprint scanner on the back with also turn on the phone when you go to scan your finger. In terms of speed and accuracy, the fingerprint scanner impressed me. It is not as fast as the latest from Apple and Samsung, but it is plenty fast for most people.
The only main complaint I have is that it is not set off from the back of the phone at all. This makes it hard to locate blindly and position your finger correctly, but after a while, I found that I got much more accurate.
Alright, it is time for my favorite upgrade from the IDOL 3. This year, Alcatel ditched IPS for AMOLED and cranked the resolution up to 2K. All I can say is, nicely done! The increased resolution is great for gaming, video, and VR (more to come on that) and pairs nicely with the front-facing speakers.
Going for an AMOLED panel was the right choice as colors look clear and vibrant. Like the IDOL 3 before, the 4S has one of the brightest screens I have ever seen. I usually have to keep my screen at above half brightness, but I could easily turn the display on the IDOL 4S down to 30% with the same results. There is no need to worry about outdoor visibility with this display.
I would love to say that the display is perfect, but I found one major annoyance during my time using it. Even as someone who always makes sure to carry my phone is a separate pocket away from loose change and keys, the display on my IDOL 4S still picked up scratches. None are horribly obvious and cannot even be seen with the display on, but I was disappointed that the screen scratched so easily.
The IDOL 3 was a mid-ranged device that provided competitive performance at an incredible price, but that was in 2015. This year, the IDOL 4S got a price bump while other companies started focusing more on budget-friendly flagships. The 4S definitely has more competition this year so it better come with the performance to keep its high standing.
The IDOL 4S is running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 with 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 510 GPU, and while the processor may not be an 800-series, it still packs quite a punch. For storage, you get 32GB of onboard memory along with a microSD card slot to add extra space when needed. Needless to say, the IDOL 4S is more than powerful enough to handle even your craziest of social media binges. I was impressed with how snappy the Snapdragon 652 was as I was able to fly through most apps without a single frame drop.
Asphalt 8 seems to be the de facto game for testing a phone’s gaming performance so that is the app I used. Ninety percent of the time, the IDOL 4S handled the game like a champ. However, there were a couple of times where I noticed a slight frame drop. I doubt that most would even notice it before it went back to normal, but there were definitely a couple of slow downs. The phone itself never seemed to get hot enough to throttle so I am assuming the hardware just wasn’t fast enough to fully handle the game. Most games will play wonderfully on the IDOL 4S, but graphically intensive games may have a couple of struggles.
Last year, this would not have been a big deal since the IDOL 3 sold for $250 and smoked basically every other phone in that price range. However, the IDOL 4S is priced at $399 which puts it right up there with phones like the OnePlus 3, which is running a Snapdragon 820.
Along with price, Alcatel heavily marketing the IDOL 4S on how well it performed with virtual reality, and while the preinstalled titles do play well, more graphically intense VR games will likely exhibit some stuttering. We will have a post coming out soon fully dedicated to VR on the IDOL 4S so keep your eyes out for that.
So what does this mean for performance on the 4S? Overall, it is incredibly fast and smooth in almost every situation. However at this price point, there are phones that beat it on the performance side.
The IDOL 4S comes running a slightly skinned version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow (no word yet on a Nougat update). As far as most Android skins go, the one on the 4S is fairly minimal. It’s not as close to stock as something like the Moto G4, but it is nowhere near as intense as Samsung’s TouchWiz.
The IDOL 4S comes with a custom launcher, custom icons for basic apps, and Alcatel’s versions of stock apps like Contacts. There are some preloaded apps, but the majority of them can be uninstalled immediately from the phone.
Even with all the uninstallable apps removed, there are still several apps unique to the IDOL 4S that remain on the phone. These include VR apps and games, an equalizer app, an FM radio app, and some video editing and live streaming apps. While some of them are needed for VR applications, I still wish that they could be removed easily or uninstalled completely.
The custom launcher comes with a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve. The first is a parallax wallpaper effect that makes it seem like the icons are floating above the wallpaper. I am not a big fan of this effect, and it is easy to turn off from the wallpaper selector. If you are on the homescreen and push the Boom Key, there will be a visualization of the current weather in your location. While it is not particularly useful since the weather is also displayed on the homescreen widget, I cannot deny that it looks super cool, and I find myself pushing the Boom Key to trigger it all the time.
My single favorite feature from the IDOL 3 made a return on the 4S, and that is the Reversible UI. Basically, this allows the screen to rotate a full 360-degrees so that no matter what way you pick up the phone, it is always right side up. Unfortunately, I found this feature less useful now that there is a fingerprint scanner. When I hold the phone upside down and reach for the fingerprint scanner, I immediately realize that I am holding the phone wrong and flip it around.
The feature is still useful for quickly answering calls without having to spin the phone around, but I am sad to see my favorite feature become less useful.
One of my favorite features on the IDOL lineup are the dual front-facing speakers, and the IDOL 4S does not disappoint in this area. The JBL-certified speakers pump out a loud sound that is crisp and clean regardless of the volume.
Being phone speakers, the low end does leave some to be desired, but I would challenge you to find a better sounding set of speakers on any smartphone especially in this price range. Whether you are playing a game, watching a video, or just listening to some music, the IDOL 4S speakers will do more for you than basically any other phone speaker out there.
When you lay the phone face down while playing something through the speakers, it will actually route the audio towards the back of the device so that volume and quality are not hindered.
When you are using the speakers, pressing the Boom Key activates one of the special experiences of the IDOL 4S. Alcatel claims that pressing it boosts the bass and volume of the music, and while I did notice a volume increase, an increase in audio quality is questionable. Some of my music sounded fuller when the Boom Key was activated, but other times it sounded too echo-y. It does help with some songs, but it was not something that I enabled every time I listened to music.
The best time to use the Boom Key is while gaming. When I played Asphalt 8, I pressed the Boom Key and the audio became much more immersive. It almost seemed like surround sound at times. While the Boom Key might not improve all the audio you listen to, it definitely increases the immersion while playing games.
The camera on past IDOL phones has always been pretty good but consistently left me wanting more. The IDOL 4S comes with a 16-megapixel f/2.0 main camera and an 8-megapixel front camera, and I can fully say that these are the best cameras on any IDOL to date.
Throughout my time with the 4S, I found the camera is quick to focus and takes detailed shots with good color reproduction as long as the lighting is good. Unfortunately, it looks like many of the pictures I took with the IDOL 4S suffered from oversharpening like the IDOL 3 before it. While the camera often exposes correctly, I found that it has a tendency to overexpose and highlights easily get blown out.
Thankfully, the IDOL 4S had a pretty solid HDR mode. Unfortunately, there is no option for AutoHDR, which means you need to switch it on and off as needed, which makes taking quick shots more difficult. There are a few Boom Key features within the camera app. You can press it to take a photo, or while taking a video, you can press it to immediately livestream through the preinstalled app TiZR.
If you are looking to record video with the IDOL 4S, you were probably happy to see that it supports 4K at 30fps; however, there is no OIS (optical image stabilization) on the cameras so videos come out looking shaky even with the electronic image stabilization. I think that leaving out OIS was a big mistake on Alcatel’s part.
Overall, the camera is the same story that it was with the IDOL 3. The camera is okay and capable of taking some good shots, but it still has problems that hold it back from being a truly great camera.
I was pleased with battery performance on last year’s IDOL 3, but I am full on impressed with what I was able to get out of the IDOL 4S. The phone is powered by a 3000mAh battery and comes equipped with QuickCharge technology for a quick fill up when you don’t have much time.
I am a fairly heavy smartphone user, and I manage to kill most phones before the day is done. My typical day includes streaming music and YouTube videos for about an hour each. I text and check social media consistently throughout the day, and I also have 3 email accounts that are constantly pulling down new emails. Other than that, I do browse the internet over WiFi and LTE along with some light gaming.
After putting the IDOL 4S through its paces on a daily basis, I found that I consistently got over five hours of screen-on-time with some days tending closer to five-and-a-half hours. For a phone with a 2K AMOLED display, I am extremely pleased with the battery performance. I still have to charge it every night, but at least I am making it to the end of the day now.
There is no hiding that the IDOL 4S is a wonderful phone and a huge improvement over last year’s IDOL 3. However, the price jump of $150 dollars has put the IDOL 4S against some incredible competition. Phones like the OnePlus 3 and Nexus 6P are available close to that price and each of them comes with a beefier processor, which provides even better performance.
So is it the best budget phone of 2016? Unfortunately, I am going to have to say no, but that is simply because the competition is extremely fierce in the budget arena now. I’d be hard pressed to name any phone as the best budget flagship. That being said, the IDOL 4S is one of the best budget phones of the year. It has great build quality, a stellar screen, loud speakers, and strong battery life. I would definitely recommend the IDOL 4S to any interested, and I doubt it will leave you unimpressed.
One thing that the IDOL 4S has going for it is the inclusion of a case, glass screen protector, and VR goggles when you purchase it. Head on over to Alcatel’s website or Amazon and pick up an IDOL 4S for yourself for only $399!
The Good The white-light floodlight from Lifx is bright, efficient, easy to use and compatible with Nest, IFTTT and Amazon’s Alexa.
The Bad Lifx bulbs don’t support Apple HomeKit, so you can’t control them with Siri commands. We also experienced occasional hiccups with the Wi-Fi connection.
The Bottom Line These are very good smart bulbs with a lot of tricks up their sleeves, and they cost half as much as Philips Hue’s floodlights. They’re the bulbs you want for smart overhead lighting.
Cloud-connected light bulbs are a terrific starting point for the smart home, but most of your options are A-shaped bulbs meant for use in lamps. That’s all well and good, but it isn’t terribly helpful if you’re living in a home filled with recessed lighting fixtures designed for BR30-shaped floodlights.
The good news is that you’ve got a couple of floodlight-shaped options, too. The best of the bunch? The Lifx White 900, a smart, Wi-Fi-enabled floodlight that lets you control things remotely through the Lifx app on your Android, iOS or Windows device. It won’t change colors like other Lifx bulbs, but it will change color temperatures on the white-light spectrum, which allows you to dial between a warm, golden glow and bright, bluish-white daylight tones. On top of that, it enjoys all of Lifx’ third-party integrations, which include IFTTT, the Nest Learning Thermostat and Amazon’s Alexa. The cost? Thirty bucks a pop (a little less than £25, or about AU$40).
That’s not inexpensive, but it is $20 less than Lifx’ own color-changing floodlight, and $30 less than the Philips Hue floodlight. It’s also just $10 more than bottom-tier smart floodlights from names like GE and TCP that don’t offer white-light spectrum controls or the depth of Lifx’ third-party connections. That, coupled with strong performance, puts the Lifx White 900 right in the smart-floodlight sweet spot.
Smarts aside, a connected light bulb has to start by being a good light bulb, especially if it’s asking you to spend $30 on it. The Lifx White 900 passes this first test with ease. Like the name suggests, it puts out plenty of light, with a claimed 950 lumens at peak settings. That’s a noticeable upgrade from the sort of 65W incandescent floodlight it seeks to replace — bulbs like that typically put out less than 700 lumens.
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The Lifx White 900 is noticeably brighter than the 65W incandescent floodlights it seeks to replace.
The White 900 has a power draw of just 12 watts, so you’re also getting a nice efficiency upgrade. How nice? In the US (energy rates will vary from region to region), a 12W bulb will add about $1.50 to your power bill each year, on average, which is far better than the $7 or $8 you’ll spend to use that 65W incandescent over the same period. Replace that incandescent with the Lifx White 900, and your new bulb will pay for itself in energy savings in less than five years, then keep on shining for decades to come thanks to a 22.8-year life expectancy.
The Good The plain, vanilla version of Philips Hue’s smart LEDs don’t change colors, but they do enjoy all of the benefits of Hue’s well-connected platform. They’re also bright, good looking bulbs with easy-to-use smarts, and you can add extras to your setup for just $15 each.
The Bad At $70, the two-bulb starter kit still comes with a fair share of sticker shock.
The Bottom Line Philips Hue is one of the best-developed DIY smart-home platforms money can buy, and this white-light starter kit is your most affordable entry point. It’s practically a must-buy if you’re serious about smart lighting.
There’s an awful lot to like about Philips Hue’s smart lighting ecosystem. It’s polished. It’s easy to use. It works with just about everything. The only problem? The price. A starter kit with the essential Philips Hue Bridge and three color-changing bulbs costs $200 — a steep point of entry for connected lighting.
Fortunately, that color-changing kit isn’t your only option. For $70, Philips also sells a starter kit with that same Hue Bridge and a pair of plain, soft white smart bulbs. They won’t change colors at all, but you can still automate them to turn on and off or dim up and down, and they’ll work with all of the same third-party services as the rest of the Hue lineup, including Amazon’s Alexa, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT, the Nest Learning Thermostat and more. Plus, given that the Hue Bridge typically sells for about $60 on its own, you’re basically getting them for $5 each if you buy the kit, which is a heck of a deal.
All of that makes the Philips Hue White LED Starter Kit a near must-have for anyone who’s serious about connected lighting and a very safe purchase given how good Philips has been about keeping its bulbs up to date with the latest platforms and products.
Let’s talk light bulbs
If you take a look at the shape of the bulb itself, you’ll see that it’s nice and wide, extending out beyond the heat sink that makes up the bottom half. That gives it a nice, omnidirectional light output that can shine downward if you’re using it in something like a bedside reading lamp. To me, that’s a slight edge over the Lifx White 800 LED. Though the Lifx is a brighter bulb overall, its flat-topped design that falls flush with the base of the bulb prevents the bulb from casting as much downward light as it should.
The Philips Hue White LED does a great job of casting light out evenly in all directions.
The Philips bulb also dims exceptionally well, going all the way down to 0.9 percent brightness at its minimum setting (about 7 lumens). And because it’s using in-bulb dimming smarts as opposed to relying on in-wall dimmer switches, you won’t have to worry about flicker or buzz. Just be sure not to use it with one of those in-wall dimmer switches, as the two dimming mechanisms will clash and cause the bulb to strobe.