April 23, 2019
Category archive


Nintendo Labo VR review

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Nintendo Labo VR Kit

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Amazon’s entry-level 2019 Kindle is let down by a sub-par display

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Amazon’s Kindle is of course the brand most think of when they consider buying an e-reader, but competition does exist and the truth is it makes the company’s newest entry-level device look like a poor bargain. The price may be low, but this budget reader just doesn’t meet the bar.

The most basic current device in the e-paper Kindle lineup, the plain old “Kindle” (as opposed to Kindle Voyage, Kindle Paperwhite, etc) has in this 2019 iteration gained a couple features. An adjustable frontlight illuminates the E-Ink screen, there’s an improved touchscreen and a refreshed hardware design, though you’re forgiven if you don’t notice.

At $110, or $90 if you allow ads on your device, it’s among the cheaper devices out there, falling well below the $150 Paperwhite and $270 Oasis (again, subtract $20 if you don’t opt out of “special offers,” which I always make sure to mention).

It runs the familiar Kindle OS and of course seamlessly connects to your Amazon account, just like the others in the lineup. In general it’s more or less the same as the others in terms of formats, store and access features, and so on. So you’re not sacrificing anything on that front.

Unfortunately, what you do sacrifice is something much more important: a decent screen.

We’ve been privileged in the last couple years to see the quality of e-reader displays improve considerably, both in terms of resolution and lighting. A couple months ago I reviewed the $130 Kobo Clara HD, which offers few frills and, frankly, inferior build quality, but a beautiful screen and color temperature-adjustable frontlight, which is really worth paying for.

The specs speak for themselves: the “all-new” Kindle has a 6-inch with a pixel density of 167 PPI. The Clara HD has nearly twice that: 300 PPI, like the nicer Kindles, and believe me, you notice. It makes a huge difference to how text looks — there are diminishing returns past that point, but the change from 167 to 300 is a big one. Letters look much crisper and more regular, and fonts look much more different from each other, allowing you to customize your reading experience a more. (I recently found out I can easily add fonts to the Kobo and it’s great.)

It’s hard to capture the difference between the two except in macro shots, but in person it’s a serious one. There’s a reason phones, tablets, and e-readers (including Amazon’s own) all went to high pixel density and never looked back.

The Clara also has a frontlight that lets you adjust the color cast from cool to warm, which you can see above (I realize the temperatures of the images themselves are different as well but you get the idea). I didn’t think I’d find this useful, but as with resolution, it’s one of those things where once you have it, it’s difficult to go back. The cold, pixelated screen of the basic Kindle was unbearable after the warm, smooth look of the Kobo.

If you must have a Kindle reader and can’t spend more than $100, I’d seriously advise you to try to find an old generation of Paperwhite or the like with the higher resolution screen and frontlight. It makes a huge difference to readability and that’s really the most important part of a reader.

I would however advise you to spend a little more now to avoid buyer’s remorse. The Paperwhite is a great device and not too much more if you’re willing to accept Amazon’s “special offers.” Kindles in general have great build quality as well. If you aren’t attached to the Kindle brand, however, the Kobo Clara HD is only a bit more money and offers a better reading experience than either, in my opinion, as well as the flexibility that comes with the company’s devices.

When the entry-level Kindle gets a screen that matches the entry-level competition, I’ll happily endorse it, but for now I have to recommend its slightly more expensive peers for a major bump in quality.

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Yoshi’s Crafted World is classic gaming joy, Nintendo-style

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In 1995, Yoshi had his moment. The character’s Super Mario World debut was so strong, Nintendo handed the dinosaur sidekick his own sequel. A surprise divergence from the Mario franchise found the character escorting a baby version of the plumber in search of his kidnapped twin.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was regarded as an instant classic for the Super Nintendo. The positive reaction was due, in part, to some bold aesthetic choices. The game featured a shaky line style, both in keeping with the playful infant motif and to further highlight that the title wasn’t just another Mario game.

Yoshi’s island has received a number of its own sequels and spinoffs over the years. This is, after all, Nintendo we’re talking about here. The company has turned riding out IP into a kind of art form. But while many of those followups were generally well-received, but none managed to capture the pure joy of the original.

2015’s Yoshi’s Wooly World came close, but ultimately failed to meet the high standards of many Mario fans. And the fact that the Wii U was ultimately a doomed console didn’t help matters much.

From a design perspective, Yoshi’s Crafted World clearly shares a lot of common DNA with that predecessor and, for that matter, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, with developer Good-Feel being a common denominator in all three.  But the Switch title is a far more fully realized and cohesive package than the Wii U title. And like Yoshi’s Island before it, it’s a joy to play.

The first time I saw gameplay footage, I’d assume the game was a bit more of an open-world adventure — the Yoshi’s Island to Super Mario Galaxy’s Super Mario World. But while the new title gives you some choices, it never lets you stray too far from the standard platformer path.

To this day, side scrollers continue to be Nintendo’s bread and butter, even as it pushes the boundaries of gaming with other titles. At its worst, that means redundancy. At its best, however, Nintendo manages to put a fresh spin on the age old genre, as is the case here.

Clever mechanics like 3D world flipping and paths that point Yoshi down roads in a third dimension keep gameplay interesting. The addition of seemingly infinite Mario 3-style cardboard costumes, coupled with the DIY crafted design language, meanwhile, make it downright joy to play.

Yoshi’s Crafted World is an all-ages title, through and through. In fact, on first playing, the game asks whether you want to play “Mellow Mode” or “Classic Mode,” reassuring you that you can switch things up at any time. Even in Classic Mode, the game does a fair bit of handholding.

But the game’s simple and slow pace is more comfort than annoyance for even older players. The title plays like a casual game, writ large with a fun through line that finds Yoshi hunting down scattered “Dream Gems,” like so many Dragon Balls. It’s never as immersive or addicting as a title like Mario Galaxy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the kind of game you can happily play in spurts and come back to, after you’re done living your life.

It’s a reminder that games can be an escape from, rather than cause of, frustration and stress. And it’s definitely the best Yoshi star vehicle in nearly 25 years.

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Fitbit Versa Lite review

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It’s a tricky proposition for a product launch: last year’s model, but with fewer features. But sometimes the rules of consumer electronic update cycles were made to be broken — or at the very least, a little bent.

Last year’s Versa was itself a paring down from the company’s first true smartwatch, the Ionic. In that case, things worked out great. We were…less than enthusiastic about the device when it first hit, and by all accounts, it wasn’t the sort of runaway success Fitbit was counting on to right the then tenuous ship.

But Versa arrived with fixes to some of the product’s biggest issues — name pricing and size. Fitbit’s second take on the category was a much more immediate hit. The device has propelled the company to the number two smartwatch spot here in the U.S., behind you know who. It’s precisely the success story the company needed.

The Versa Lite finds the company dropping the entry-level price point even further, down from $200 to $160. That’s less than half the price of an Apple Watch Series 4 — an extremely tempting proposition for anyone who has been eyeing a Cupertino timepiece but has ultimately been too put off by the price tag to pull the trigger.

The new device looks nearly identical to the full version, save for its loss of a couple of buttons. And really, it’s the features that the product doesn’t have that are the most important to this story. So let’s break those down.

  1. Altimeter: Meaning the Lite doesn’t know how many steps you’ve climbed.
  2. Lap Tracking: You can still swim with the Lite, but it won’t tell you how far.
  3. Fitbit Coach: Those coaching videos won’t work on the watch.
  4. Fitbit Pay: No NFC chip.
  5. Music storage.

If none of those are jumping out at you, congrats. You just saved $40, because you, my friend, are the target demographic. It feels nice to be wanted, even if it’s just by a company trying to sell you gadgets.

I’ll be honest, none of those are jumping out at me as things I would truly miss (though your mileage will almost certainly vary). The last two jump out most among the lot. They’re probably the two most important features for those interested in leaving the smartphone at home. I’ve long been convinced this is a fairly small portion of the overall market — especially when you factor out a smartwatch with built-in LTE.

In a recent interview, CEO James Park told me that the Lite is the result of conversations with the company’s user base — weighing which features are the most important and worth sacrificing in the name of keeping the price down. Even more than that, however, I think the device is a testament to Fitbit zeroing in on the Versa’s real appeal: being a low-cost alternative to Apple and Samsung wearables.

In other words, the Lite makes the most sense as a stepping stone positioned somewhere between Fitbit’s highest-end tracker and the full-fledged version. It’s a product designed for people looking to get more out of their products than the company’s monochrome wearables are capable of delivering, and, more importantly, it’s a mere $10 more than the Charge 3.

It’s frankly a tough deal to resist.

Of course, all of the complaints about the original Versa still stand (but for those that were tied to features that aren’t present). There’s no GPS, the UI is almost too simple and the app selection is still lacking.

On the last front, things will continue to improve, at least. The company has demonstrated that it’s a force to be reckoned with among the smartwatch set, so eventually there should be more marquee additions. For now, however, it still means slim pickings.

The one place that’s less true is on the fitness/wellness front, simply because Fitbit has spent years refining its own offerings. The product offers an insightful peek into movement, sleep and the like, with detailed breakdowns accessible via the app. Like a weirdo, I’ve been wearing both the Versa Lite and Apple Watch Series 4 on my wrist for a few days and found the step counts close enough to be within the margin of error.

The Versa does a good job determining the differences between running, walking and the treadmill — though I did miss the auto-tracking notification that pops up on the Apple Watch when it detects a workout. And unlike the Series 4, there’s no EKG/ECG option here — though again, pricing is a part of that. As is, frankly, the speed with which the company had to launch a smartwatch team.

The size and shape are great. A smaller version for smaller wrists would have been nice, but it’s compact enough to fit on a lot more body sizes than many of the clunky smartwatches currently crowding the market. It also looks nice, with a minimalist design that brings to mind nothing more than a squat, squircle Apple Watch with a more plasticky finish. As for the battery, that’s stated at four days. I haven’t been wearing the device that long, but I’m going on multiple days already without having to charge it up. So far, so good.

The biggest disappointment with the Lite is that it’s not the Versa 2. It’s nice to see a company like Fitbit reverse its fortunes, and the acquisitions that led to these new smartwatches are arguably the single-biggest driver.

The Ionic represented a bit of a swing and a miss, while the Versa was a solid line drive. That makes the Lite a bit of a bunt. It’s not bad. The players advance, but more than anything, it leaves you wondering what’s up next in the lineup.

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Samsung finally gets Bluetooth earbuds right

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Granted, this news is maybe a bit too late. Samsung’s already sold out of the free Galaxy Buds it was throwing in with S10 pre-orders. That said, the new Bluetooth earbuds are worth the $129 asking price, especially for Galaxy device owners.

As with many fellow S10 reviewers, I’ve been using the Buds for about a week now. They happily hitched a ride in my ears from San Francisco to Barcelona and then back home to New York. And I’ve been digging them the whole time.

This certainly isn’t Samsung’s first wireless earbud rodeo, but frankly, it took the company taking more than a few pages out of Apple’s playbook to get things right here.

The Galaxy Buds are heavily inspired by the AirPods’ simple “just works” approach to the category, bucking Samsung’s tendency to overstuff products. That approach mostly works like a charm on handsets, but the best thing a set of earbuds can do is fade into the background. On that front, the Galaxy Buds work like a charm.

The AirPod comparisons are clear the moment you open the Galaxy Buds case the first time, triggering a dialog box on the screen of your Galaxy device. Like Apple’s version, the headphones will work with any Bluetooth device, but they work best with the company’s own products. Ecosystems, people. For other Android devices, you’ll need to download Samsung’s SmartThings or Galaxy Wearable apps for the proper effect.

The charging case itself is a bit more bulky and bulbous than the AirPods, but it’s certainly small enough to carry around in your jeans pockets. I also actually kind of prefer the pill shape to Apple’s Glide dental floss design.

The case offers two other distinct advantages:

  1. There’s a charging light on the outside
  2. It can be wirelessly charged

Apple’s no doubt working on that latter bit with the AirPods 2 (remember AirPower?), but Samsung’s beat the company to the punch here — and for that matter, with Wireless PowerShare, which lets you charge the case by simply placing it on the back of the S10. That was one less cable I needed to pack.

The battery should last you a while regardless. The Buds are 58 mAh each and the case is 252 mAh. That should translate to six hours a go on the Buds and seven hours with the case. I know I didn’t run out of juice during the day.

The Buds fit well and the silicon tips should ensure they fit more ear sizes. They also form a nice seal, keeping sound in and passively canceling out ambient noise. They’ll stay put pretty well — I didn’t have any issues keeping them on at the gym. The sound, tuned by Samsung-owned AKG, is solid. It’s not the best I’ve heard in a pair of wireless buds, but it’s perfectly fine for walking around and hitting the coffee shop.

All in all, a nice little surprise from Samsung, and a great addition to the Galaxy ecosystem. Perhaps they’re even good enough to convince Samsung to drop the headphone jack — but hopefully not.

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