At Just $40, the BittBoy PocketGo Is a Fun Retro Gaming Impulse Buy

The PocketGo portable game console with a Metroid amiibo.
Michael Crider

This year, I’ve been on a portable game console kick with ROMs in mind. I’ve tried DIY and roll-your-own solutions, so when BittBoy asked me to try its premade ROM machine, I said yes.

The PocketGo is designed to accomplish three things: portability, flexibility, and an absolute dirt-cheap price. It hits all three. As long as you don’t expect miracles from a $40 purchase, it delivers on its promise of being a fun, portable ROM machine.

Right at Home in Your Pocket

The PocketGo’s dimensions (4-1/2 inches long, 2 inches tall, and 1/2 inch thick) make it feel similar to Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance Micro (if you’re old enough to remember that). This makes it super-easy to slip into almost any pocket—and it’ll get positively lost in a purse or backpack. It’s the kind of portable that’s a joy to take with you because, even if you move around a lot, you forget you have it with you.

The PocketGo with its MicroSD card ejected.
The PocketGo plays tons of old emulated games—just load them up on the included MicroSD card. Michael Crider

The big difference between the PocketGo and the GBA Micro is, of course, it doesn’t rely on cartridges. Instead, it’s got a MicroSD card slot, filled with an 8 GB card in the standard $40 package. Fill up that sucker with game ROMs or open-source homebrew, and you can play hundreds (maybe thousands) of games at a stroke.

The layout is essentially the same as the classic Super NES controller: D-pad, four buttons for your right hand, and two shoulder buttons for your index fingers. This layout should work for any console game made before the PlayStation era—although, fighting-game fans might prefer a few more face buttons.

The mono speaker hangs out beneath the A/B/X/Y buttons, with a volume wheel on the right edge, and a power switch on the left. Both of them feel a little flakey but are surprisingly unobtrusive when you play. There’s one extra button on top, which doesn’t factor into gameplay—it’s to manage the various emulators.

The PocketGo, disassembled with its accessories.
The simple design invites disassembly; it even comes with replacement buttons. Michael Crider

That screen is a 2.4-inch IPS panel. It’s much smaller than, say, an emulation window on any modern smartphone. Despite being only 320 by 240 (a resolution that’s as good, or better, than any of the consoles it emulates), it’s also surprisingly bright and sharp. And, unlike most of the classic devices it’s aping, the screen cover is tempered glass, which is nice.

If there’s a weakness in the physical design, it’s the buttons. They’re a bit loose and mushy, and not as satisfying or clicky as those on something like the Nintendo 3DS. But considering the price, I wouldn’t expect them to be. They are worlds better than the touch screen I typically use for portable gaming. There are some alternative buttons in the package (to match the color scheme of the Japanese and European SNES), but it hardly seems worth the hassle of disassembling the device to install them.

The PocketGo sitting next to the Game Boy Advance, and a PS4 controller.
The PocketGo is tiny—about the size of the old GBA Micro. Michael Crider

Other hardware options are slim. There’s no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and while the gadget technically supports video-out, it hardly seems worth it since RCA is the only option. At least there’s a headphone jack—how weird is it that this is an advantage a $40 impulse buy has over a $1,000 phone?

Plays Everything You Throw at It

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Should You Get a Robot Vacuum or a Regular Vacuum?

It's time for a robot (vacuum) battle.
Dyson/iRobot

Get a regular vacuum. That was easy, huh?

More seriously: While the little hockey puck-shaped robot vacuums are really neat, especially as they’re beginning to integrate with smarthome tech, they’re not anything close to a replacement for a conventional vacuum cleaner. Even a budget vacuum will blow a robot out of the water in terms of power, speed, and (most of the time) even ease of use. If you can only afford one, or even if you only want one, go for a standard upright vacuum or a stick vacuum every time.

Let’s take this point by point.

Robot Vacuums Lack Power

This should be obvious, but if you haven’t bought a modern vacuum cleaner in a while, it might not be. Due to small sizes and smaller power allowances in batteries, robo-vacs just don’t have the sucking power. And I’m not even talking about top-of-the-line Dyson-style vacuums, here: An $80 Hoover grabbed off a supermarket shelf will be able to out-suck an $800 robot vacuum. Due to more weight and torque, it’ll be better at deep cleaning messes in your carpet and picking up larger messes.

Conventional Vacuums Are Cheaper

This excellent Shark vacuum is only $250.
Shark

Even for a budget model, a robo-vac will run you almost $200. And that’s the smallest, most low-power option from a less reliable supplier. At the same budget level, you can afford a high-power upright vacuum like the Shark Navigator or a budget stick vacuum, both of which will be faster and more effective for either spot cleaning or a whole-house cleaning day. And if your budget will stretch to the $250-300 range, you can afford a cordless stick vacuum, including some Dyson models. In terms of utility, it’s just a better way to spend your money.

Robo-Vacuums Still Need Some Work from You

The fantasy of a robot that does all of a cleaning task for you is appealing, but unfortunately, it’s still a fantasy. You might think of a robot vacuum as a tiny Rosie from The Jetsons, but the reality is that its tiny dirt reservoir can hold only about four rooms’ worth of dirt maximum before you’ll need to empty it out. Even the much more expensive models, which can empty into a larger bin, will still need to be cleaned out at least as often as a stick vacuum. With modern bagless designs that make emptying the vacuum quick and painless, the only real difference in work is the elbow grease you need to move them around.

Even this relatively large robo-vac has a tiny reservoir for dirt, which needs constant emptying.
Even this relatively large robo-vac has a tiny reservoir for dirt, which needs constant emptying. Michael Crider

And it’s worth pointing out that robot vacuums aren’t exactly flawless in terms of paths and obstacles. Some models are better at this than others, but even the best will occasionally get stuck on furniture or get clogged and alert you to clear an obstruction. Once again, these little annoyances will need your help to clear, requiring time and attention.

Robot Vacuums Are Slow

Imagine you’re cleaning house for a dinner party or a game night. You save the vacuum run for last because you want your carpets to be pristine when your guests arrive. Unfortunately, all that cleaning has exhausted you, and you clumsily knock over a houseplant, spreading soil all over. Party time is in an hour. If you assign a robot vacuum to go on its regular round, it might take an hour or two for it to make its full rounds. Even in spot cleaning mode, it could need multiple passes—and multiple reservoir empties from you—to get the job done, and still leave dirt on the carpet due to its low power.

A handheld Dyson vacuum cleaning hair and fur on a chair.
Conventional vacuums are unbeatable for big messes. Dyson

Or you could grab an upright or stick vacuum and be done in ten minutes. Even for a full house cleaning, you’ll get it done much faster and much more effectively by doing it yourself.

So Why Get a Robot at All?

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The Ohsnap Phone Grip is a Study in Ergonomic Compromises

The Ohsnap phone grip in hand.
Michael Crider

Pop Sockets are weird: a little warty thing goes on the back of your phone because phones got so big that they’re now hard to hold for a lot of people. It’s effective, but inelegant—the technological equivalent of a pocket protector.

A Kickstarter campaign is trying to reinvent the Pop Socket, along with all the vaguely similar accessory gadgets that have been sprouting on the backs of modern phones. They call it the Ohsnap. It’s a surprisingly complex little thing that tries to make the phone grip/kickstand/thingamajig more useful in some situations and less awkward in others.

The attempt is admirable, but the result is frustrating. The Ohsnap trades in some annoyances of the Pop Socket for annoyances of its own. It’s a study in compromises, and while some Pop Socket users will love it, others will abandon it and go back to the annoyances that they know and love tolerate.

The Ohsnap phone grip, deploying into its ring.
The “ring” clips into place when it’s folded out. Michael Crider

It’s kind of beautiful, in a consumer sort of way. A gadget fixes the failings of another gadget but has its own failings, so another gadget fixes that gadget, and fails differently. It’s an ouroboros of accessories, weird plastic trinkets all the way down.

Surprisingly, Lots of Moving Parts

The Ohsnap has three distinct parts: a plastic frame that sticks directly to your phone (or more likely its case) via double-sticky tape, a snazzy aluminum oval that slides into the plastic, and an inner ring with a flexible strip made out of the same stuff as the snap bracelets that were popular when I was in elementary school.

A lot is going on here, so let’s break it down by function. The Ohsnap can:

  • Work as a “finger ring” by popping out the inner plastic tab and hooking one side into the other. The ring can spin around for the best possible grip.
  • Work as a kickstand, with the two tabs unhooked and making little “legs” to prop up your phone.
  • Fold up flat, with tapered sides that make it much easier to slip into a pocket than the sharp bump of a Pop Socket.
  • Stick to any ferrous metal surface, thanks to surprisingly strong magnets beneath the aluminum ring.
  • And the Ohsnap still works with wireless charging, because you can slip the aluminum ring off of the plastic frame.

So, all of those options are supposed to make the Ohsnap better than the Pop Socket.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

Unfortunately, the response after using the Ohsnap for a week is a pretty resounding “eh.” A lot of the points above hold: the whole thing is considerably slimmer than a Pop Socket, and with its sloping edges on all sides, it’s more comfy to hold in your hand when folded up. It’s also much, much easier to slip in and out of your pocket.

The Ohsnap on a phone, in a blue jeans pocket.
The 3mm-high Ohsnap is easier to fit in a pocket than a Pop Socket. Michael Crider

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Swap the Fitness Tracker for a Heart Rate Strap to Get More Accurate Numbers

For pure fitness goals, a chest strap heart monitor might be a better choice than a watch.
Polar

Do you want to get the most out of your workout? Do you not want to wear a fitness tracker or smartwatch 24/7? Then a piece of slightly older wearable tech might be a better option for you.

Long before Fitbits and Apple Watches latched themselves onto us like tiny remora filled with circuit boards, runners, cyclists, and other fitness nuts were already using “wearable” tech, in the form of heart rate sensors attached to chest bands and wrist straps. They’re still around, too, though you probably won’t find them on the shelves of Best Buy or Academy Sports. And surprisingly, they haven’t stopped innovating just because their sole function has been replicated by millions of more accessible, marketable gadgets. In fact, they’re considerably more accurate at tracking your heart rate than even the most expensive fitness trackers and watches.

Modern heart rate bands work with Bluetooth for an easy connection to your phone, or the lesser-known ANT+ wireless standard, often used to connect to equipment like high-end bike computers or treadmills for connected heart rate tracking. Phones can use ANT+ too now, and many fitness apps like MapMyFitness (iOS, Android) and Strava (iOS, Androiduse this to work with a generic connection that almost all of these heart rate trackers can utilize.

Heart rate chest straps work with ANT+, making them compatible with a wide array of fitness machines and gadgets.
Heart rate chest straps work with ANT+, making them compatible with a wide array of fitness machines and gadgets. Garmin

So what makes these bands a better option than a smartwatch? A few things. One, thanks to specialized electronics, better contact with your body, and proximity to your actual heart, they’re more accurate than a heart rate tracker built into a smartwatch. That’s important if you’re looking for specific data to improve not just your fitness in general, but your performance in particular. Athletes will want that extra accuracy to track their improvements over time.

Two, they’re designed to be used while working out, not every moment of the day. So if you miss your old watch like I do (or just don’t like wearing something on your wrist), and resent an extra gadget giving you notifications all the time, a heart rate band giving you data only when you really need it to improve your fitness might be a better choice.

And three, these things generally use the same kind of “coin” batteries found in quartz watches. (That’s the kind that came after the clockwork watches but before the smartwatches—you know, a Timex.) They last for months, maybe even years if you don’t use them every day, so that’s one fewer gadget that needs a regular charge.

The Wahoo Tickr gives you all the basic functions for just $50, and it's compatible with most fitness apps.
The Wahoo Tickr gives you all the basic functions for just $50, and it’s compatible with most fitness apps. Wahoo

And four, thanks to their being simpler electronics, they’re cheaper than a fitness tracker or smartwatch. The Wahoo Tickr, a simple, no-frills chest band, goes for just fifty bucks on Amazon, and it works with hundreds of fitness apps and workout machines. You can’t find a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor from a mainstream manufacturer for less than $90. Since most of the other workout functions of a fitness tracker can be replicated by your phone itself—things like GPS for location and speed, wireless Bluetooth and your favorite music playlist, calorie tracking (which is just a function of number-crunching)—there’s no need to spend more if you’re looking at pure workout data.

Now, there are some drawbacks. A band takes some getting used to in terms of comfort. A heart rate band that’s only meant to be used during a workout can’t track your sleep patterns, and it doesn’t give you notifications without reaching for your phone. But not everyone needs or wants those features. If your primary use for a fitness tracker is, well, fitness, you might want to check out a chest strap as an alternative.

The Plixi Foldable Bike Helmet Is Better in Your Bag Than on Your Head

The Overade Plixi folds up for easy, convenient storage.
Michael Crider

If you’re riding a bike, you should wear a helmet. Period. But with more people using bicycles for short commutes, not to mention the prevalence of e-bike rentals in urban areas, a helmet isn’t always around.

The solution, at least according to a few enterprising vendors, is a collapsible helmet that folds down to slip into your backpack or purse. I tried out such an example, the Plixi from Overade, as I resolved to bike more in my small town this year. The Plixi uses an ingenious system of hinges and folds to make a safe, standards-compliant bike helmet that scrunches down like an anime robot, shedding its volume by 60%, to easily to throw into your bag for your on-foot adventures.

The design really is remarkable. In three steps (slide up a quarter-panel, fold in both sides, and then fold the top over the bottom), the Plixi halves its size, going from the space of two footballs to about one. But that’s not the most impressive feat. What’s particularly notable is that, when fully expanded in “riding mode,” the helmet doesn’t feel any less sturdy or safe than a conventional one-piece design. The rigid plastic, foam, and felt sizing makes it more or less the same as you’ll find in any helmet you get from Walmart or your local bike store.

And the Plixi does accomplish what it sets out to do. With a helmet that takes up only a big chunk of my bag instead of nearly all of it, I felt more comfortable roaming around town for a little light shopping and hitting the cafe or my local bar. (Just one beer, thanks—riding a bike tipsy isn’t any safer than driving.) If you’re looking for something you can bring along with you for a quick ride on a city center bike or electric scooter, the Plixi is a fantastic choice.

But there are drawbacks. Due to its folding design, the helmet needs more material than a conventional one. That means more space (not much) and more weight (quite a lot). The Plixi is a bit over 18 ounces on my kitchen scale, 30% more than my standard helmet, which isn’t anything particularly special or expensive. It doesn’t help that the Plixi has almost no ventilation on the very front and rear, making all that weight particularly hot and sweaty in any kind of muggy environment.

The internal padding, lack of airflow, and rear fit strap make the Plixi uncomfortable.
The internal padding, lack of airflow, and rear fit strap make the Plixi uncomfortable. Michael Crider

The fit leaves a lot to be desired, too. With a body that folds three times, a standard internal headband is out of the question, and the Plixi has to make do with a small bar that rests on the back of your head with pressure from a couple of spandex strips. The package also includes some extra foam for the internal padding, in case the helmet moves around too much on your head. With a few adjustments it fits all right, but calling it comfortable would be generous.

Is it asking too much for a helmet that can fold itself in half and be cool and comfortable at the same time? Perhaps. That being said, the Plixi isn’t a good choice if you’re looking to get into cycling and you want one helmet you can use for both regular, medium- or long-distance rides, and short urban hops.

The Plixi in its fully open and locked form, on someone much more handsome than me.
The Plixi in its fully open and locked form, on someone much more handsome than me. Overade

It’s fantastic for the latter—especially if you’d go without a helmet on your rental bike otherwise—and would make a great gift for a college-bound kid who might be tempted to skip a helmet between classes. If your budget can only stretch to one helmet, get a standard model. If you can afford the Plixi ($80-100 at various retailers), and you’re desperate for a helmet that can hide in your bag when you’re not riding just for the sake of a ride, it’s worth the asking price.