Review – Mobvoi Ticwatch E – Seriously Good at an Amazing Price

The Mobvoi Ticwatch E

Let’s be honest:  It is difficult to justify a smartwatch.  Yes they are helpful and handy and with things like Android Wear 2.0, these devices on your wrist have certainly become even more user friendly.  Perhaps the biggest justification on an Android Wear watch is the cost.  There are a lot of watches that are at or near the $300 mark and that, for something people just aren’t sure they will use, is hard to stomach.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum.  There are smartwatches out there that are less than $200 but, as is often the case with technology, you get what you pay for.  Many of these watches haven’t and won’t be upgraded to Wear 2.0 and their overall design and build quality is less than ideal.

That, to me, is what makes the Mobvoi Ticwatch E so fascinating.  It is a watch that runs Android Wear 2.0, has an upgrade in the works for Android Oreo, is fast, has GPS built-in, a heart rate monitor, and has a great 44mm display.  Add to that it is comfortable to wear thanks to the soft silicone wrist band – which you can interchange – and extremely impressive battery life.  It’s the complete package and the best part?  It is under $130.

A few weeks ago I was sent the Mobvoi Tichwatch E to review and I have to say, it has rekindled my interest in Android Wear in general.  This is a great smartwatch and it is hard to beat for the price.  Here’s my review.

A couple of assumptions before reading the review after the break.  I’m assuming in this review that you are familiar with Android Wear as a product (it is Android running on smartwatches) and the Android Wear app for your phone.  I won’t be cover those elements in the review but if you have questions about them, feel free to drop a comment at the end of the review or contact me via the Contact page.

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Poweradd Soundfly – A Powerful Bluetooth Speaker That’s All About That Bass

Poweradd Soundfly 40W

The market for Bluetooth speakers is, in a word, crowded.  There are a huge number of options out there in a wide range of price ranges to match the selection.  The challenge is finding the right balance between price and performance.

I may have found one such well balanced speaker in the Poweradd Soundfly.  This Bluetooth speaker has an elegant design with touch controls and produces fantastic audio quality, especially when it comes to bass.  That’s thanks to the four speaker and bass radiator design and the built-in DSP processor.  It also has a built-in battery so you can take it with you outside or to that family gathering in the park.  All of this for $79.99 makes the Soundfly an option to consider.

Recently the team at Poweradd sent me a 40W Soundfly to review and without giving away the story, I have no problem in recommending it.

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PDF Converter by Cometdocs – A Powerful Mobile PDF Tool

List of Conversions Available in PDF Converter

It is inevitable that at some point you are going to need to convert a document from one format to another.  Generally, doing so on a Windows PC or a MacBook is pretty straightforward.  But what if you are on the go?  Then the challenge gets a bit tougher as there are dozens of apps out there that convert to one type of file or another but not necessarily universally.  That’s especially true if you are using cloud-based storage for documents like Dropbox or Google Drive.

Enter PDF Converter by Cometdocs.  This single app is able to convert virtually any type of document to a PDF or a PDF to any type of document.  It is impressive and while the conversions can take some time based on the horsepower of your phone and the size of the document in question, it is one of the best in its class for what it does.

Recently the Cometdocs team sent me an unlocked version of the app to install and review.  I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks now and it is an impressive app.  The question many readers will ask is if the $19.99 price tag for the fully unlocked version of PDF Converter is worth it?  It is a fair question, especially in the less-than-a-dollar app economy.  The short answer is yes if you meet the use case scenario:  Lots of documents to manage and on the go.

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Harman Kardon Invoke – A Beautiful Cortana Powered Smart Speaker

Harman Kardon Invoke Detail

On the surface, the smart speaker market is already pretty packed with competitors.  The two most well known of these, Google Home and Amazon Echo, dominate the market.  So why would someone like Harman Kardon and Microsoft team up to create what is arguably a late entry into this competitive landscape?

Simply put, because they know they have something that can truly compete.  The new Harman Kardon Invoke is a $199 smart speaker that is powered by Microsoft’s Cortana.  It is a stunningly beautiful design that has the audio quality that you would expect from Harman Kardon.  But is so much more.  Skype calls – free in the US, Canada and Mexico – are included, smart home device support is there and, then there is Cortana.  Microsoft’s personal assistant is no slouch and in accuracy, it is only behind Google Assistant on answering questions.  This combination of hardware and software works and it works well.

Recently I was sent the Harman Kardon Invoke (via Gear Diary) from the company and having used it in my office for these past few weeks, I have to say I’m sold.  If you are deep in the Microsoft ecosystem and leverage Cortana on your phone or on your Windows 10 PC, this is the smart speaker for you.

Specifications & Form Factor

When you open up the elegantly designed box for the Invoke, you are immediately struck by the beauty of the device.  It measures 4.2 x 9.5″ or 107 x 242mm in new money and it weighs a hefty 2.3 lbs (1kg).  Size wise, you are not looking at much more than the Amazon Echo but the Invoke is constructed of beautiful graphite aluminum mesh surrounding the speaker and microphone arrays.  This looks and feels like a well designed device.

Internally, there are six speakers and two passive radiators that give amazing sound quality.  The speakers consist of three 1.75″ woofers and three .5″ Tweeters with the two radiators allow for 360° sound.

From a connectivity perspective, you have Bluetooth 4.1 LE available to connect your phone or other device to the Invoke.  WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac are also supported at 2.4GHz and 5GHz.

Turning back to the exterior, the base of the Harman Kardon Invoke is black with the company’s name on it and a small white LED to let you know that it is powered up.  on the back side of the base is where you will find the Bluetooth activation button as well as the microphone mute button.  At the top of the Invoke is where you will find the LED indicator that Cortana has heard you or is working on your query.  This is very similar to the indicators provided on the Google Home or Amazon Echo.  Volume control can be adjusted thanks to ring dial at the top of the Invoke with the LED indictor showing a white circular pattern for how high or low the volume is set.

From a pure aesthetics perspective, you will not find a more beautiful smart speaker than the Invoke.  Period.  I’ve been a long time Google Home user but the looks of it are not exactly cutting edge.  The Invoke looks fantastic and this is not something you will want to try to hide away.

Setup & Configuration

As you would expect, the setting up and configuration of the Invoke is driven from the Cortana app on your PC, Android phone or iPhone.  When you power up the smart speaker, you will hear Cortana greet you and will be instructed to continue the setup from the app.

For this review I am using the Cortana app on my Pixel XL Android phone but the process is pretty much the same on your PC or iPhone.  In the app, you will need to go to the Devices tab in Cortana.  You will need to accept the terms & conditions and once done, the app will start looking for your Invoke.  Once found, you will confirm that it is the correct device by the matching light patterns at the top of the Invoke and within the Cortana app.  Invoke will then be connected to your WiFi network through the Cortana app and as a final step, you can link up your music service of choice.  Currently there are three options:  iHeartRadio and TuneIn which are both free while a premium Spotify account (remember, Spotify is replacing Microsoft’s Groove music service at the end of this year) can also be connected.

In all, the setup of the Invoke took about 10 minutes and that was including a software update which was required.  The setup is also very easy to follow.  Microsoft has done a great job with the Cortana app in making it clear what to do next and how to assure that everything is setup correctly.

Cortana Skills

Like Google Assistant with Google Home and Amazon Alexa with Amazon Echo, Microsoft Cortana with the Harman Kardon Invoke comes down to skills, or functions which can be performed.  The keyword to get Cortana to listen from your Invoke is “Hey Cortana”, the same command that you can use on your Windows 10 PC if you have it enabled or the Cortana app when it is open on your Android phone.  The list of skills that Cortana has is growing rapidly and you’ll find that there are many skills already available to give you news, information or to allow you to interact with services.  The complete list of skills can be found on the Cortana Skills site and I recommend readers bookmark it as it is constantly being expanded.

Like Google Assistant and  Amazon Alexa, in order for services to work where you are getting personalized data or making purchases, you will have to authorize those skills in the Cortana app on your phone or PC.  For example, one of my favorite skills is with Fitbit.  I can say, “Hey Cortana, ask Fitbit about my activity summary” and Cortana will read back to me my activity for the day from Fitbit.  For this to work, I have to sign in with my Fitbit account in the Cortana app and authorize it.

As you would expect, there are several service skills available like Fitbit, OpenTable, Expedia, Progressive Insurance and others as well as other productivity skills like HP Print, reminders of when you are at a location to complete a task (buy milk at the grocery store for example) and add things to your Outlook calendar.  Equally as important, you can order a pizza from Dominos!

When it comes to home automation, Cortana has a few skills but not the the extent that Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.  Phillips Hue lights are there as well as Nest and Samsung SmartThings.  I have several Wemo devices which work with Google and Amazon but are not available to me on Cortana – not yet at least.  If you have a lot of home automation, be sure to check the skills list prior to purchase to assure it will indeed work with the Invoke & Cortana.

General Performance

Having used the Invoke these past few weeks as my primary smart speaker over my Google Home, I have been very pleased with the general performance of it.  The microphones are excellent and even when speaking at a lower-than-normal voice, the Invoke easily picks me up and completes my Cortana command.  This is something that I am hit-or-miss with on the Google Home.  I generally don’t like to have to raise my voice to get one of these devices to respond to me.  I should be able to talk to it “normally” in my mind and with the Invoke, I can do just that.

When it comes to audio playback, the sound is crisp and clear.  Cortana information is easy to understand even when the volume is low.  Music playback is absolutely stunning.  I have played a wide range of music on the Invoke during the past two weeks – from Enigma, to Deadmau5 to Rammstein – and the high and low tones are exceptional.  It absolutely crushes the Google Home when it comes to music playback and Home isn’t a slouch.  But then again, this is what you would expect from a Harman Kardon product.

The single complaint I have about the Harman Kardon Invoke is Cortana’s Fault

My single biggest complaint with the Invoke is actually not its fault.  It’s Cortana or, more specifically, how Microsoft has enabled it across multiple devices.

With Google Assistant and Google Home, my main point of comparison, if I say “Hey Google, what is the weather outside?”, my phone (a Pixel XL) and my Google Home will light up to listen to me.  But, because the Home heard me, it is the default playback device and I hear nothing come from my phone.  This is how it should work because I don’t need both devices giving me the same information or the phone overriding the Home.

That, unfortunately, is not how Cortana works with the Invoke and your PC.  I have a Huawei Matebook with Windows 10 Pro.  If I say, “Hey Cortana, what is the weather outside?” Cortana will light up both on the Invoke and my PC.  That’s how it should work.  Unfortunately, both devices will read me back the information.  To make matters worse, the timings are off so it is like I have a Cortana echo going on in my office.

To get around this, I’ve disabled the voice enabled Cortana feature on my Matebook so that I have to actually open Cortana on my PC for it to respond.  Its a good work around but I shouldn’t have to do this frankly.  Microsoft needs to sort out how Cortana responds with multiple enabled devices present.  I suspect that this will only become a bigger issue as more Invoke units are sold so hopefully Harman Kardon and Microsoft can work on it together to get it figured out.

Conclusion

As you’ve probably figured out, I’m more than impressed with the Invoke.  It is a beautiful smart speaker with stunning audio performance and excellent far-field microphones.  It is a smart speaker that every Windows 10 users should seriously consider, especially if you leverage Cortana on your phones too.

To be sure, there is still a lot of room for Cortana skills to grow so it the Invoke can become even more useful.  Frankly, it reminds me of where Google Home and Google Assistant were a year ago.  Hopefully Microsoft will continue to work with the developer community to improve the functionality.

The Harman Kardon Invoke is $199 and available from Microsoft directly or on Amazon.

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Review of The LG V30 – Close but not Perfect

LG V30

[Editors Note:  This review originally appeared on Gear Diary]

The LG V30 has been one of the most anticipated flagship devices for 2017.  From a specifications perspective, you won’t find many with better and the camera (and accompanying app) are outstanding.  But after using the V30 for the past couple of weeks, I have my reservations about this phone.

Don’t get me wrong.  The V30 is a good overall phone but it isn’t great.  My biggest complaint about the phone is the “hollow” feeling of the back.  I appreciate that I’m probably being picky, but at a $800 price point, I expect a phone to feel solid.  The V30 doesn’t.

Can I recommend it?  Yes but for the price, there may be better options out there.

Specifications

The V30 from a specifications perspective, has what you would expect from a late-2017 flagship device.  It is powered by the octa-core Snapdragon 835 SoC with 4×2.45 GHz Kryo & 4×1.9 GHz Kryo cores.  It is coupled with the Adreno 540 GPU.  The V30 comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage.  That storage can be expanded up to an additional 256GB thanks to the MicroSD card slot.

Like other flagship devices, the LG V30 sports an 18:9 ratio display.  That resolution is 1440 x 2880 which gives a very eye comforting ~537PPI.  The display is 6″, P-OLED unit and because of the nearly bezel-less design of the phone, takes up an impressive 81.9% of the front of the phone.  It is curved on the sides and is protected by Gorilla Glass 5.

Physically, the phone measures 5.97 x 2.97 x .29″ or 151.7 x 75.4 x 7.4 mm in new money.  It weighs in at a feather light 5.57 ounces (158 grams).  It is IP68 water and dust resistant rated, meaning it can survive up to 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes.

From a connectivity perspective, the LG V30 sports a wide range of LTE bands.  I should note that the phone that I was sent is locked to AT&T but below I have listed all of the frequencies for the unlocked variant.

  • GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
  • HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700(AWS) / 1900 / 2100
  • LTE band 1(2100), 2(1900), 3(1800), 4(1700/2100), 5(850), 7(2600), 8(900), 12(700), 13(700), 17(700), 20(800), 28(700), 38(2600)

WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac is supported with a dual-band configuration and Bluetooth 5.0 is built-in to the V30 too.

The main camera of the LG V30 is a dual camera configuration.  The first camera is a 16MP f/1.6 shooter with OIS and laser plus phase detection autofocus.  The second camera is a 13MP f/1.9 configuration.  This camera is a 120° wide angle shooter with no auto focus.  The combination of the two camera provides some excellent photo quality which I will cover later on in this review.  As for the front facing selfie camera, it is a 5MP f/2.2 shooter that is also wide angle.  It has a 90° angle of view.

The battery is a 3300mAh lithium-polymer unit with the phone supporting Quick Charge 3.0 technology as well as wireless charging.  The battery can be charged to 50% capacity in 36 minutes according to LG.  Battery life is very good out of the phone but there are tweaks that can be made to improve it, most notably going with a different launcher other than the LG UX 6 that comes stock.

Port wise, the LG V30 has a 3.5mm headphone jack, a dying element on phones in 2017.  That port is B&O certified with excellent audio quality.  The phone is charged via the single USB-C port.  The phone has a fingerprint scanner that is rear mounted and has NFC capability for Android Pay support.

Finally, the LG V30 runs on Android Nougat 7.1.2 which is a bit of a disappointment.  While LG has already committed to having an Oreo update out for the phone, it is a shame that it doesn’t come with it out of the box.  It also means that it is likely only to get Android Oreo and Android P before major updates stop.  In comparison, the Google Pixel 2 comes with Oreo and will get P, Q and R.

On paper, the specs of this phone are rock solid.  You aren’t going to find much to complain about frankly outside of the fact that the phone ships with Nougat and not Oreo.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s small potatoes but it is still there.

Form Factor

Turning to the form factor of the V30, it is a well designed phone – for the most part.  The front of the phone is dominated by the 6″ display with the selfie camera positioned just above that display, to the right as you look at the phone.  The speaker for the phone is in the center above the display.  On the left edge is where you will find the volume rocker while on the right edge is where the SIM tray is located.  On the bottom edge you will find the microphone hole, the USB-C port and the speaker.

Turning the V30 over, the smooth aluminum back is nicely designed but does have a “hollow” sound to it when you tap on it.  It doesn’t feel or sound solid.  This is probably my biggest disappointment with phone.  Size wise, it feels great in your hand but that back just feels flimsy.  In the top center of the back is where you will find the dual main cameras of the device with the flash/auto focus array to the right of them.  Just below the cameras is the fingerprint scanner/power switch of the phone.  Pressing and holding this button powers on the phone and tapping it turns off it off.  Long pressing while the phone is on allows you to restart or power down the device.

While I understand LG’s desire to keep the design of the V30 clean, this combination scanner/power button feels cheap.  It feels like a thin membrane under your finger that personally, I don’t like.  I personally find the fixed fingerprint scanners of the Pixel lineup as well as the Huawei devices a more preferable solution.

From a fingerprint scanner perspective, it does perform flawlessly in my testing.

Despite the not-so-solid feeling (or sound) of the back, the V30 does feel good in your hand.  The 6″ screen doesn’t feel huge in your hand and it s easy to hold it and thumb operate most of the screen with one hand.

General Performance

For raw day-to-day power usage, the LG V30 isn’t going to disappoint.  The Snapdragon 835 is a fantastic SoC that can easily get you through any demanding gaming task or the more likely email and web surfing throughout the day.  The phone scored 1915 points on the single core test using GeekBench 4.  On the multi-core test, the score was 6480.  This puts it on par with the Samsung Galaxy S8, Galaxy Note8.  Testing on Basemark OS II, the V30 scored 2698, which again puts it in the same area as the Samsung devices.

While benchmarking is good, the every day use of the phone is what really matters to most readers.  The V30 is great for the normal stuff you do on your phone like email, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube or Netflix watching.  It can easily keep up with all of these activities without any feeling of lag or hesitation.

Display Performance

From a display perspective, you will be hard pressed to find one better than the P-OLED display of the V30.  In a word, stunning.  The color accuracy is fantastic and the high PPI makes it easy to view the 18:9 ratio screen for long periods of time.  In my testing for this review, I had no problem with basic apps like Gmail rendering crisp, easy-to-read text while apps like Netflix were easy to watch thanks both to the size of the display as well as its HDR support.

A nice feature of the display is the always-on feature.  If you aren’t familiar with it, this will have a low power ambient display on when the phone is powered off.  You will get the date and time as well as notification icons for apps.  I’m personally a big fan of these always-on displays and LG has done a good job with theirs.

Camera Performance

Another big bright spot for the LG V30 are the cameras.  The rear dual-camera configuration is excellent, providing clear, crisp images both outdoors as well as indoors.  Color accuracy is excellent too on both indoor and outdoor shots.

As mentioned before, the rear camera setup has one normal lens and one wide angle lens and you can alternate between the two with a touch of the icons in the camera app (one tree for normal, three trees for wide angle).  Those same buttons are available when you are shooting video too.

LG has done an excellent job on the camera app in the V30.  There are several different modes for shooting including HDR, panoramic, manual, slow motion, 360° panoramic and even a mode to make your food shots look awesome.  The Cine-Video mode allows you to create smooth zooming of your videos (think Ken Burns style) that is really a lot of fun to use.

The camera app also has several different filters that you can use to augment your photos.  These include things like a sepia look, black & white and vivid colors.

As for the selfie camera, it too is rock solid.  It has different filters available too as well as skin tone and lighting enhancements to get the most out of it.

User Experience

From a user experience perspective, LG leverages its own UX 6 as the V30’s launcher.  It uses square icons and supports app shortcuts found in the underlying Nougat 7.1.2 build that the phone runs.  There are three different modes you can use the UX 6 launcher in:  A Home screen with all of your installeds or a Home screen with an app drawer that is more traditional to Android devices.  There is also a third, EasyHome mode with large fonts.

Overall the launcher is solid with no real issues other than it is does take a toll on the battery.  I noticed significantly better battery performance when I moved to Google Now or Nova Launcher over the stock launcher.

I should note that the model we were sent to review was locked to AT&T.  That means it did have some AT&T apps pre-installed as well as some other bloatware apps.  I’m not a big fan of carrier locked phones so if you can afford to go unlocked, do it.  It will be a bit more pure in the experience and you will get updates faster.

Battery Performance

The battery performance of the LG V30 is solid and will get you through the day.  As I mentioned above, if you are willing to change the launcher of the phone, you will get a bump in performance by doing so.  But even without doing this, you should be able to make it throughout the day on a charge doing the normal things like Email, web surfing, a little bit of YouTube and Netflix.

Conclusion & Recommendation

Overall, I don’t have a problem recommending the LG V30.  It is a good, solid phone from a performance and display perspective.  The display is outstanding and photo quality is equally outstanding.  My biggest reservation is the back of the phone.  It feels flimsy.  That may sound nit picky but when you are spending $800 on a phone, I don’t think I’m over reacting.

It is a deal breaker?  Probably not.  The reality is that you will likely have your V30 in a case, in which this becomes moot.

 

 

Google Home Mini – A Welcome Addition to Any Home

Google Home Mini

In the year since its release, there is little room for debate on the growth that Google Home and Google Assistant have seen.  The smart speaker has sold well and with brains behind it, Assistant, has continued to grow in abilities on what it can help you with in your day-to-day.  I’ve had a Google Home in my home office for nearly a year now and it is so integrated into my day that I can hardly see not having it around.

If there has been one challenge with Google Home, it has been the size.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not huge at just under 6″ tall, but it is noticeable if you have it in a bedroom or family room.   That is where the $50 Google Home Mini comes into the picture.  Standing only 1.65″ tall and covered in an elegant fabric, the Home Mini is designed to go into various rooms of your home and just be there unobtrusively.  It is designed to blend in but remain always available and provide excellent sound quality.  The Google Home Mini truly is for the masses because of all of this and a price point that is hard to resist.

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The Huawei Matebook – An Impressive Windows 2-in-1 PC

Huawei Matebook with Huawei P10 Android Phone

In the ever increasingly crowded world of 2-in-1 Windows 10 PCs, there seems to be a large gap between the have’s and the have not’s.  The have’s are the Microsoft Surface Pro devices of the world with top-end specs but equally, have an impressive price tags.

The have not’s are the $200-300 devices with subpar displays that are usually around 10″, powered by Atom processor and have 64GB or maybe 128GB if you are lucky.

The problem is the gap between $300 and $1200+ dollars.  There are not a lot of choices and the choices that are there generally are lacking in some area.  Huawei, for their part, is trying to fill the gap.

The Huawei Matebook was released last year and it remains one of the best 2-in-1 Windows 10 hybrid devices on the market.  Powered by the Intel m series processors with ample RAM and storage, the Matebook has a lot going for it and is one to consider, as I did, when you are looking for one of these style of devices.  The Matebook isn’t perfect as I’ll cover in this review but it is certainly the solid foundation that Huawei needs in order to penetrate the Windows 10 PC market here in the US and globally.

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