Smartphones Are Boring Now, and That’s Okay

This woman is annoyed at her boring phone. Or something else, I dunno. It's a stock image.
Borysevych/Shutterstock

Remember when folding phones were going to be the next big thing…and then the party for a new era of phones seemed a bit premature? It’s caused something of a lament for the lack of ambition and innovation in smartphones.

But there’s another way to look at the current era of phone releases, seemingly endless iterations on glass rectangles: it’s actually okay. It’s better than okay, in fact—it’s a good thing. While we’ve more or less settled on a form factor for the vast majority of phones, we’ve also reached a point where even the cheapest phones out there are at least good. Some of them are even great!

And now that constant access to the web and applications has become a nearly indispensable part of modern life, having great, affordable electronics available to everyone isn’t just good, it’s necessary. We’re at a Model T moment in the smartphone world: most people can afford one, benefit from one, and genuinely enjoy one, even if they’re not ready to drop four figures on the latest model.

RELATED: OnePlus 7 Pro Review: The Benchmark

Alright, so maybe multiplying cameras and a pop-up selfie cam are the biggest innovations we’re getting this year, and 5G is a mess that won’t be useful for some time. Maybe we’re not getting phones that look like sci-fi props before the end of the decade. All things considered, we don’t have much to complain about.

Glass Rectangles All the Way Down

This time of year is ripe for smartphone leaks—the bread and butter of technology news. And since Samsung is still hesitant to commit to a release date for its Galaxy Fold, and Huawei is pushing back its Mate X (for a variety of reasons), reactions to new glimpses of phones like the Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 are decidedly muted.

Google's so bored with the smartphone industry that they're leaking their own phones.
Google’s so bored with the smartphone industry that it’s leaking its own phones. Google

Oh, another barely-notable update to a tired formula,” say the pundits. Okay, so that’s a bit of a strawman, but we can’t deny that it’s hard to get excited about another notch variation or a square-shaped camera module. Samsung briefly considered getting rid of a few buttons on the Galaxy Note 10, and it could have been the most notable change in the company’s phone design since they accidentally sold small glass-covered grenades. The most significant leap forward at the moment, assuming the whole “folding phone” fad doesn’t take off, is a pop-up selfie cam module that finally lets us get back to…unbroken rectangular screens that we had before the iPhone X came around.

You can see how this chorus goes. “Phones are boring now.” And compared to ten years ago, when smartphones were exploding into new markets and segments, they are. You can’t go into a carrier store and see iPhones, Blackberries, Palms, and a dozen different flavors of Androids with slide-out keyboards and built-in gamepads and e-readers glued to the back. It’s glass rectangles all the way down, in roughly two sizes: big and very big.

The Xperia Play from 2011, complete with PlayStation-style game controls. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
The Xperia Play from 2011, complete with PlayStation-style game controls. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Sony Ericsson

It’s telling that the biggest point of differentiation, and thus innovation, is cameras. Both optical and image processing technology is leaping forward quickly—perhaps because manufacturers have found that they can’t do much more in terms of screens, batteries, or straight-up silicon power at the moment. It’s not as if screen and power tech is frozen in time, but progress is going to be slow for a few years, with new fabrication and material technology currently in various experimental stages.

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HyperX Cloud Stinger Review: A Comfy Gaming Headset, No Bells nor Whistles

The HyperX Cloud Stinger is a lightweight, comfy, but somewhat limited headeset.
Michael Crider

HyperX’s Cloud Stinger is a simple wireless headset built with gamers in mind. But “simple” isn’t the same as “bad,” and this one gets a tentative recommendation through ease of use and comfort.

There isn’t much to the Cloud Stinger Wireless—no hardware-based surround sound, detachable microphone, not even a configuration tool for Windows. But that simplicity might be precisely what you’re looking for: just plug the receiver into your PC (or as it might be, your Nintendo Switch or PS4) and you’re ready to go.

Light On Weight (and Extras)

The Cloud Stinger’s looks are plain but in a refreshing sort of way. This all-black, plastic headset won’t look out of place in an office, though its large USB-A dongle means it doesn’t travel particularly well. Aside from an embossed “X” logo on either around-the-ear cup, it’s completely unadorned. Even the rotating microphone has a flexible, practical boom that emphasizes function over form.

The Cloud Stinger has only two controls: the volume wheel and a power button.
The Cloud Stinger has only two controls: the volume wheel and a power button. Michael Crider

Which isn’t to say that the design is entirely utilitarian. Big, comfy faux leather pads will cup your ears while the padded band is easy to keep on for a few hours without discomfort. The headset is also surprisingly light at just 9.4 ounces—easily the lightest I’ve used, and considerably lighter than my Anker Souncore Bluetooth headset, despite lasting longer on a charge.

Controls are limited: just a power button on the left ear and a volume knob on the right. I appreciate HyperX keeping things simple here. Too many designs try to get fancy with touch-sensitive controls or buttons integrated into the styling. While there aren’t any programmable buttons, it’s easy enough just to put the thing on and use it. The only thing missing is a dedicated mute/unmute button for the microphone.

The cups can be rotated by 90 degrees, and the foam cups removed.
The cups can be rotated by 90 degrees, and the foam cups removed. Michael Crider

One last physical design tough is appreciated: the ear cups rotate ninety degrees for easily laying the Cloud Stinger on a table or hanging flat on a wall. It doesn’t make the headset any easier to pack up, like some folding designs, but it’s more than might be expected. Combined with smooth telescoping action on the band, the hinges keep the thing very comfortable on my oversized Charlie Brown head.

Software: There Isn’t Any. Next!

Okay, so we do need to talk about the software for the Cloud Stinger, or indeed, the lack thereof. Plugging the headset into my PC, I was surprised to see that Windows 10 didn’t ask me to download a designated driver application, as is usually the case with almost any “gaming” accessory from an established brand. Instead, it merely switched the audio input over and started playing sound immediately.

USB-RF, compatible with PC, Mac, Switch, and PS4, is the only connection.
USB-RF, compatible with PC, Mac, Switch, and PS4, is the only connection. Michael Crider

This could be good or bad, depending upon your expectations. It means that finer audio equalizer control is up to Windows or the game or application you’re using at the moment, and you can’t get specific audio profiles based on the hardware. But it also means that, if you’re not inclined to deal with any of that stuff, you don’t have to. And I’ve come to appreciate any PC accessory that doesn’t demand its own spot in my Windows taskbar.

HyperX advertises the Cloud Stinger as compatible with the PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro. Though I didn’t have an opportunity to test this functionality, I have no reason to doubt it, since the headset also worked fine when I plugged it into my Nintendo Switch dock. That wasn’t the case with the Xbox One—no points off there since Kingston didn’t advertise that as a feature.

The battery lasts for 15 hours, and recharges via MicroUSB.
The battery lasts for 15 hours and recharges via MicroUSB. Michael Crider

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Kensington SD2000P Review: Disappointing Performance Sinks This USB-C Dock

Michael Crider

Using a single cable to plug in nearly unlimited accessories has been the dream of laptop users for a long time. Kensington’s SD2000P USB-C dock tries to accomplish that, but compromises in form factor and usability spoil the fantasy.

Between a huge and cumbersome power adapter, mounting and locking options that require separate purchases, and serious issues with the USB-C video output in our testing, we simply can’t recommend this dock to anyone.

Is That a Power Adapter, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

When you open the package for the SD2000P, you might be confused as to which piece is the dock and which is the power adapter. Marketing and promotional images show a tiny, unobtrusive square, less than four inches on its longest side, and indeed, the dock itself is small and feather-light. But it’s accompanied by a massive power adapter, six inches by two, that weighs more than a pound.

The dock's power adapter is bigger than the dock itself, and much bigger than it needs to be---compare it with this high-watt Anker adapter.
The dock’s power adapter is bigger than the dock itself and much bigger than it needs to be—compare it with this high-watt Anker adapter. Michael Crider

This is such an anachronistic inclusion in a small dock meant for USB-C laptops, especially since the maximum power output is just sixty watts, so I took a closer look. There are no Kensington markings on the power adapter, they’re all from generic suppliers, and it’s an identical unit to one supplied with the much larger and more capable LD4650P docking station I also have in for review. In short, it’s an inclusion of convenience on Kensington’s part, not one that actually complements the product or its intended use. Considering that 60-watt adapters can be found that are about the size of a deck of cards, this is a big miss.

All the adapters and cables that come in the package: notice a lack of a Kensington lock or VESA adapter.
All the adapters and cables that come in the package: notice a lack of a Kensington lock or VESA adapter. Michael Crider

Elsewhere in the package, you’ll find a capable and heavy-duty USB-C cable, and…that’s it. Despite the high price and the advertisement of compatibility with a Kensington laptop lock, there’s no lock in the package. And though the dock can be mounted to the back of a VESA-compatible monitor, you’ll need to spend an extra $10 on a steel plate for mounting.

Monitor Options Disappoint

But all those complaints are relatively superficial. After all, the giant, heavy power brick is only really a problem if you intend to travel with a dock. (Which, you know, a laptop user might occasionally want to do. But I’m digressing again.) How does the dock perform on its own?

Not very well, I’m afraid. I used the dock with my Chromebook, the only full “desktop” OS device I have that can output video to USB-C. I was excited to see how Chrome handled two external monitors and its internal screen at once. But I couldn’t, because the Kensington dock couldn’t output to more than one screen at a time, despite its claims of up to 4K resolution support and featuring both a DisplayPort and HDMI port on its side. (To be clear: you can still your laptop’s internal display as a secondary alongside any external monitor.)

The dock includes DisplayPort and HDMI outputs at 4K, but only one at a time.
The dock includes DisplayPort and HDMI outputs at 4K, but only one at a time. Michael Crider

Now, to be fair, Kensington never claims that the SD2000P is capable of a dual-monitor function. And it worked well enough in either HDMI or DisplayPort mode, showing no dramatic image quality errors and reaching the maximum refresh rates of my monitors. But still, for a product at this price with multiple video outputs, I expected it to be able to do this relatively simple task.

What about the other functions? The two USB 3.1 Type A ports performed within expected parameters, ditto for the gigabit Ethernet port. But the second USB-C port on the dock, despite handling data fine, can only output a maximum of five watts—that’s compared to 60 watts for the primary USB-C connection. With an adapter that has over 100 watts of juice available, I would have expected the secondary USB-C cable to be able to fast charge phones and tablets at the very least. No dice.

The secondary USB-C port can power your phone, but only five watts at a time.
The secondary USB-C port can power your phone, but only five watts at a time. Michael Crider

Value is Lacking

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Phiaton Bolt BT 700 Wireless Earbuds Review: a Vestigial Speaker Drags Down a Solid Design

Phiaton's Bolt BT700 offers a solid package with a tiny extraneous speaker.
Phiaton

The market for “truly” wireless earbuds (with two separate buds and a charging case) is widening. Phiaton, a supplier of mid-range audio gear, is hoping to stand out with a competitive $140 price and unique features with its “Bolt” BT 700 design.

That unique selling point is a Bluetooth speaker integrated into the case, so you can blast music at full volume when you’re ready to share it. And that feature is, well, pretty much a total bust. Elsewhere the design of the BT 700 is solid, and having to lug around a tiny ancillary speaker with your case is a sacrifice for good earbud audio quality, decent battery life, and excellent wireless performance. Phiaton whiffs hard on the Bolt’s most marketable feature, but considering how comfortable and reliable these buds are, they might still be worth it for some users.

No Strings on Me

At first glance the BT 700 looks more or less identical to the rest of the truly wireless crowd: two buds, a charging case, automatic pairing when you pull the buds out the case, shave and a haircut, two pence. And as amazing as that concept was just a short time ago, now it’s somewhat old hat.

The BT700 buds are comfy and snug in your ear.
The BT 700 buds are comfy and snug in your ear. Michael Crider

But Phiaton has nailed the essentials of a wireless earbud design here, an impressive feat on its first model. The buds stay connected through thick and thin, or to be more precise, through three walls and about fifty feet of my house. They’re also ready to go in just about any condition you’d actually wear them: through hours of walking in windy weather and riding my bike at a maximum of about 20 miles per hour, the earbuds stayed connected with my phone (and with each other) the entire time. They get full marks for wireless stability, which is something that isn’t always a given with this category.

The buds themselves were surprisingly comfortable, at least to my fairly average-sized male ears. I used the pre-installed silicone tips (there are three other options for bigger and smaller in the box) and the stability “wing” that’s permanently affixed to the plastic body of each bud, I couldn’t get them to shake out of my ears even with some had bobbing that would win me nods of approval from an 80s hair band. Very occasionally the stability wings would come out of my ear, but it was easy enough to get them back in and comfy again.

The silicone "awings" can grip the top of your lobe or squeeze into the bottom for more pressure.
The silicone “wings” can grip the top of your lobe or squeeze into the bottom for more pressure. Michael Crider

The buds probably won’t stick around for twelve rounds of a boxing match or a dip in the pool, but they’re good to go for pretty much any other exercise you can throw at them. Speaking of exercise: Phiaton rates them at IPX4 “sweat resistant,” so they’ll be able to withstand a heavy workout or a spring shower, but that’s about it. I didn’t notice any obvious problems from my (pretty sweaty) workout sessions.

In terms of longevity, I found the buds lasting for a little more than four hours with my mix of music and podcasts at moderate volume. That’s not great compared to the offerings from Apple and Samsung, though it’s much better than the cheapo designs quickly filling up this category. The case will give you three charges for a maximum of 16 hours and change of music away from your charger (a micro USB charger, more’s the pity). I found that 20 minutes of charging in the case was enough to last me for the last hour of my workouts, which is par for the course.

Hooray for Real Buttons!

Controlling the buds while they’re in your ears uses a mix of conventional silicone-covered buttons and touch-sensitive plastic. Each bud has volume up and down on the top and a multi-use button on the side. These control a variety of functions, with the ones connected to the conventional buttons (track forward/back, manual power on or off for either bud) being much easier than the touch-sensitive buttons. You’ll need to tap and/or hold those touch buttons for play/pause, accepting or ending calls, or checking the battery via a voice message.

The touch-sensitive buttons take a bit of getting used to: it’s tricky finding the correct spot and the right cadence for the double-tap command. I know this stuff is all the rage and makes the design look smooth, but there’s nothing you can do with this that couldn’t have been accomplished with a third conventional button on the outside of the plastic case. Additionally, it means that you can only control play/pause on the right bud and “audio transparency” on the left.

The BT700 buds charge through POGO pins and automatically connect when removed from the case.
The BT 700 buds charge through POGO pins and automatically connect when removed from the case. Michael Crider

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AMD’s Most Powerful New CPU Works With Your Current Budget Build

The latest AMD processors work on the three-year-old AM4 socket design.
AMD

Gaming hardware tends to take a backseat at the yearly E3 trade show, with new titles getting the bulk of news coverage. But AMD is making a splash by showing off its latest Ryzen desktop CPU designs, aimed squarely at PC gamers.

The third generation of Ryzen dedicated CPUs come with more efficient 7-nanometer designs, and the usual boosts in speed, cache, et cetera. Prices range from just $200 for the Ryzen 5 3600X all the way up to $750 for the Ryzen 9 3950X, which boasts no less than 16 cores, 32 threads, and 72MB of cache.

But that’s all pretty par for the course. What’s most impressive about these newly-announced chips is that, despite the boost in performance and a shift to a new manufacturing process, all of the work on the existing AM4 socket design. AMD’s AM4 standard has been popular with budget builders, and in service since the first-gen Ryzen chips hit the market in 2016. The newest Ryzen chips stay compatible with the old standard due to some ingenious and very intentional fabrication design.

Now those same builders have access to the latest chips, and quite a lot of flexibility in terms of price and performance. AMD’s desktop chip line isn’t entirely limited to the AM4 socket—the ultra-powerful “Threadripper” chips still need a different standard. But the practical upside is that, if you want, you can use the $80 AMD motherboard you bought for a tiny budget machine three years ago for a polygon-pushing powerhouse gaming PC later this year with very few compromises.

The latest batch of Ryzen chips will be available between July and September of this year. At E3, AMD said it intends to keep the AM4 socket standard going into 2020 at the very least. Take that, Intel.

Source: The Verge