Category Archives: Reviews

Google Pixel 2 First Takes

It might be too early for a first take because things are still developing with some potential hardware issues with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and Google is in the process of addressing them. Today they announced that my warranty for this 128GB Black Pixel 2 will go from 1 year to 2.

I like this. Coming from almost 1 exact year from owning and using a Pixel (also 128GB and Black), I had to RMA my old Pixel once because the unit died, effectively bricking the phone. It also died while I was in Japan, so that kind of blows. After I got back to the States I started the RMA process, which involved calling them and explaining the situ. Then they sent me a replacement phone (likely a refurb) and I sent them my broken phone back. And in this process they had to authorize the payment of a phone and credit me back, which is kind of normal I guess? I don’t know. Anyways it’s good to have assurance.

What is there to say about the new Pixel 2? Leading up to it, I was definitely reading on all the leaks. What was pivotal was the first impressions people had at the Google announcement event. Reading those, I got the impression to turn on sRGB mode on my Pixel (as O already rolled out by then on Pixels) and started to get used to it. Turned out that really was the one biggest change between PIxel and Pixel 2.

That leads to my biggest one thing about the Pixel 2–it’s sRGB only (on launch), and this is BAD. I mean, it’s great, but bad in that people want Android because of choice, not because it’s Yet Another Apple. I think Google doesn’t own enough of the supply chain to guarantee that they don’t screw up on the screen, as the currently developing situation is playing out. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, there are widespread reports about the Pixel 2 XL display, that it either is just low quality (blue tinting, graininess, and varies between units), reports of burn in (unlikely tbh, just that the OLED in question leading to more image retention for more units), and it looks blue off-angle (all units exhibits this). It’s the same pentile nonsense Nexus owners had to deal with in the early days.

That said, it’s not a big deal. The display itself is great on the Pixel 2 and sRGB is hardly terrible, it’s just this sRGB is a tad too blue (not enough red).

To give this review more personal context, I think the second largest change is the sound. Two front facing speakers is great to play Theater Days/Deresute/Bang Dream with. Playing it on the Pixel was pretty lame because sound would go right into your palm (I’m a thumb player) and now it sounds fine. I actually picked up the fact that the top and bottom speakers actually sound different almost immediately, but from far away enough you wouldn’t really be able to tell. It doesn’t really matter. On those rhythm games, the only thing that bothered me was just if you press hard enough, you can feel the vibration of the music just a bit, which is lols. Overall it’s improved from the Pixel I’d say, mainly because of the speakers, and there’s less lag. My calibration is maybe 2-5 max on the Pixel 2 in Theater Days, 10 with BT. On the Pixel it’s like 18 on BT.

The other part of music/sound that’s great about the Pixel 2 is that it comes with out of box aptx (full stack) support and LDAC support. The low BT latency and superior connection makes this a much better music box than the Pixel. Even via the USB-C dongle hires sounded notably better than the 3.5mm jack. Sure, I am now rocking a Fiio BTR1 and I pulled the trigger on a pair of Sony MDX-1000X, just because this is the solution God has intended. Well, maybe when someone else releases a good AptX HD compatible BT portable amp.

I guess that might be it in terms of the overall impact? The Pixel 2 is really similar to the Pixel. Physically it is a bit heavier, and a touch longer, and of course it has a better camera stack and all. The camera on the Pixel 2 is really the bees knees and there is nothing on the market this good. I actually think it’s a better point-and-shooter than my aging NEX-5N, especially under low light, unless you include what a nice kit of wide-aperture, prime lens can do for anybody.

Some key data points for curious Pixel 2 owners or owner-wannabes. I used the Google Clear case with my Pixel, and I can’t find the same thing from Google for the Pixel 2. Bummer. The next best thing is the Air Jacket case Google Store sells, and it does fit the description for the most part. Instead of textured plastic on the back though, now it’s this kind-of-slippery self-healing thing. I guess it looks better, but it’s more slippery. It also now covers all of the top of the phone, because there isn’t a need to accommodate a headphone jack. I count this as an improvement because my Pixel got scratched the hardest at the top of the phone, which is now protected with this type of case.

I tried to use a generic Pixel 2 case at the Verizon store while the air jacket case was in the mail, it sucked and promptly was returned a few days later.

Anyways, since I’m really happy about my Pixel, I am about as happy with my Pixel 2. The price of the Pixel 2 128GB went down compared to the Pixel originally, and I was able to sell my Pixel on Swappa for about $400ish, making this a fairly painless purchase. I guess the money I spent on the Pixel is lost to depreciation…and being able to get a 1-year phone to a 0-year phone with some incremental upgrades.

So that’s the rub, if you dig incremental upgrades and don’t mind paying for that gap, I think the Pixel 2 is worth it. If you are coming from a Nexus 5X or something, it’s a huge upgrade. Actually I’d say it’s a huge upgrade from anyone not coming from a GS8, as that’s the only phone not that big and still arguably comparable (closer to Pixel than Pixel 2 TBH). Maybe the LG V30 but that thing is huge. Or a discounted Pixel, LOL.

HomePod & Apple Audio

I’m not fully in Apple’s echosystem, owning just a MBPr for personal use, a work MBPr, a work Mac Mini, an iPad mini 2, and the latest addition which is an Apple TV. I guess I’m pretty deep in it! But my daily drivers are my Pixel and my home-build desktop running Win10, so it goes that I only tangentially use Apple’s hardware because I think they are pretty good. I kind of use MacOS begrudgingly but realize that a *nix environment with my work is very nice, a gap that Win10 is slowly bridging.

Digression aside, with WWDC wrapped up the only real interesting item to me is the HomePod. I am very lightly dabbing in the home IoT stuff with just a WeMo switch and my Google Home Assistant (and it comes with the Pixel too). HomePod just seemed timely because I recently upgraded my receiver to a Yamaha RX-V581 (attached to a Polk-powered 5.1 system) in my living room, and it allows for 96khz FLAC streaming. It sounded really good if you have properly high-dynamic-range music playing off it. Like, REALLY FREAKING GOOD.

I’m thinking about the HomePod in this context, in that it adds a voice assistant in the form of Siri in which can help you easily set the music you want, assuming you want to use its services. Well, that’s nice, because the immediate bottleneck in order to get the FLAC streaming going on my new receiver is getting the music set up for streaming. On the phone, I was able to use Yamaha’s MusicCast and that was fairly painless, but on the PC I had to use some homebrewed media server (MinimServer) to get high res FLAC to work. It’s not hard, just something you need to research. Wouldn’t it be easy to just Aux out from something like a HomePod?

Well it turns out if I hook up a Chromecast (which I did) to the receiver the same could happen. And the internet comments are right, Google already allows for this use case. It’s not first-party in that you have to get the devices or apps that allows for Chromecast streaming, or a Home Assistant which does it for you. But this is the thing Apple is good at–simplifying these kind of “a little nerdy” ways to get things to work.

I guess since my Apple TV is hooked up to it, I should be able to do it with that too, right? I guess Apple hasn’t opened up that use case yet. I imagine it’ll happen soon. And if I want to use AirPlay I can directly do it into the receiver, so it’s even easier there, it’s just Apple hasn’t enabled Siri enough in the way Google has for its Assistant.

All this is saying, is that I won’t be getting a HomePod because once again I am not really the kind of users they’re targetting. Not that I’m not in the high end market, but I’m not “sheeple” enough to appreciate their enhancements, and I want more flexibility and openness than what Apple is willing to give. And I prioritize differently in terms of my voice or smarthome assistant. So I guess it’s a variety of things.

Say what you want about Apple being an audio company; the EarPods are the #1 thing I want from Apple today, and what is stopping me from buying one is precisely because they have pretty bad sound compared to a similar pair of full wireless buds.  Why can’t they double down on some truly good IEM? Ear buds suck! Sigh.

Google Pixel Hot Take (72 Hours)

TL;DR after the jump.

The Pixel is a good phone with flaws, but that shouldn’t stop anyone because there are no perfect phones. Every phone has some flaws, and any claim of “best” is to be taken not just with a grain of salt but a confirmation of bias in the opinion. After all, there are only ‘better’ phones, and no perfect phone yet. I got the Pixel on a Monday (but didn’t open it till Tuesday) and I like it a lot, as I have no regret changing from a Nexus 6P. But you need to be cognizant of your own requirements and preferences before going into any high end smartphone purchase decision.

If that sounded a defensive way to open up a phone review, it’s because ultimately I feel the Pixel is a flawed phone. The ideal Google Phone probably won’t emerge until next year. Reason why here. But compared to other phones on the market, the Pixel is still the best or almost the best Android phone you can get.

The only real concern about the Pixel is the cost versus the value you get. I think at some level it’s hard to justify any phone over, say, $500, just because alternatively you can get a Nexus 5X or 6P or OnePlus 3 or something, and get on with your life. The extra $200-400 go pretty far and it’s up to each person to figure out if that distance covers the difference between the newest Pure Google experience and their best alternatives.

To help with that fundamental calculus, let me offer another delta-value, which is the difference of having a Nexus 6P when it was the newest Pure Google experience a  year ago, and the Pixel today. I can’t really speak from a place of who may be coming from a more “mundane” device, like someone who wants to upgrade from an iPhone 6 or your garden variety Android phone of 2 years+ vintage. I can speak to that this shiny New Google Device experience is better than the last one. How much better?

  • The 6P has good hardware, but it’s not Huawei’s best bet, just one of their better ones. The Pixel might be HTC’s best phone.
  • Software-wise, the biggest advantage to Android 6/7 was the power management. The Pixel takes it up a notch (FWIW Pixel XL owners were reporting 1+ day batt life across the board).
  • Arguably the best camera although what really shines is the HDR+, much like Nexus 6P but better compared to rival phone cameras.
  • The new on-board features, such as live help and unlimited Google Photo storage @ full size, are of some value. I don’t even count the assistant integration, although that’s nice.

The real driving reason to buy a Pixel is because this is Google’s first start-to-finish product. That allows them to innovate in the software in a way that has only been possible to see in iPhone and the Microsoft Surface (and the Surface Studio is a prime example of it), because they can control both the hardware and software in the minute. I can say that Google delivered a little of that in this first iteration. A lot of the above bullets are more “business” reasons in that some of Google’s strengths are their ecosystem/services, and it would be more kosher to embrace a phone that didn’t belong to an Android OEM. For that, you have to look at the camera–i is the crown jewel of Android integration and Google engineering.

Which is to say, it’s kind of like a Nexus phone in that the Pixel has some breakthroughs, but it also has some rough edges. It’s just that, by far, the Pixel is the most polished Nexus phone if it was one. Which is good, because you expect that given the price gap.

Continue reading

Hot Take: PicoBrew Pico Review

[The “Hot Take” qualifier added as I’ve only used it twice, among other things.]

I got my Kickstarter edition PicoBrew Pico device in late August, and have brewed up my 2 packs that were part of the Kickstarter rewards. Here’s my take.

Being Early Bird backer #205 I got my machine pretty quickly. A hardware kickstarter like this was bound to be delayed and the guys at PicoBrew didn’t disappoint. Overall I think they did a good job on the Kickstarter*. They conveyed enough information to keep us sated, although it was not as frequently as some people may have wanted. More importantly the delay was not too too long, but it was long enough that my folks who retired to Taiwan missed out on the first batch, as they had to leave the same week when my package arrived.

I realized part of the delay has a lot to do with getting the Pico Packs set up so they can crank them out fast. With fast brewing you can turn around a batch in a week, and it ain’t all that much beer per batch–about 1.3 gallons give or take. Recently they just emailed all backers that the Pico Pack marketplace is in business, and it was definitely not too soon for people who have already started brewing.

Aside: What is kind of tricky is that these batches of beer packs do have a shelf life, so I don’t think stocking up on them during the free shipping promo is the wisest. The order I placed a week ago has already shipped.

As for the main dealie of working and brewing the beer via Pico, well, overall I am satisfied but I think they fall short to be the Kureig of beer. As at least some were claiming that (none from the company). Regardless, there are a bunch of things they could improve, and it depends on the philosophy behind the point of the Pico device.

I feel what they have created is not so much Kureig, but just a Bread Machine. You gotta put the stuff in the thing and let it cook, and the biggest gain out of a bread machine, is that you can customize it to a degree and you can have very freshly baked bread whenever you want, provided the prep is done ahead of time. I don’t know if you know this but beer is similar to bread that freshness counts for a lot in the taste, living up to the moniker liquid bread.

Prior to the Pico I’ve only made beer via canned wort mixes, so I don’t know all the pain of making beer from scratch, but that experience was sufficiently educational that I understand the overall process. Once you remove the whole creation aspect of beer making–everything related to the ingredients–it becomes a process where you simply “brew” it up and let it ferment.

That part is pretty simple and I think the Pico did a good job. What is lacking is kind of the rest. The racking process worked pretty well, and I had no issues except the serving keg’s serving plug had an issue. Using a CO2 cartridge is definitely better than bottle/keg conditioning.

The main problem I have with Pico is cleaning. It is a major time consuming aspect of brewing beer. It should surprise nobody but I think more importantly, this is a very manual task that the system doesn’t really explain to you in detail. The flushing of PIco system can take upward of 30 minutes cumulatively, not even using the first-time flush feature. That’s just running water through all the pipes, kind of. Then after brewing, you have to clean the brewing keg, which takes at least 30 minutes as you have to dissemble the keg (mainly the o-ring-sealed keg inlet and outlet). Then there’s cleaning of the serving keg. I got one of the racking pipe dirty and I’m not sure if I can clean it properly as some beer got stuck in it and now it has discolored. The best I could do is soak the inside with H2O2 and hope for the best. Maybe get a wad of wires and try to clean it out in the future?

So another thing they need is the ability to sell spare parts. It’s going to be necessary.

Given there is no good way to streamline the cleaning, each time I brew I spend over an hour just to clean the thing, and cleaning well is imperative to a good brew. I didn’t clean well after the first batch and my second batch didn’t come out as good as I’d expect, so there’s that.

Without going into the details, I think some of the steps can be streamlined, if some equipment were designed a certain way. The initial brewing process can be time consuming as well if you take care to clean each step. But these are not as big of problem to me as that Pico doesn’t do a lot to help you clean better in terms of what you needed to do to clean.

That said, none of these are permanent problems and they can improve on it even now. Selling parts. Selling cleaning kits (like the powder thing they recommend). Do a better job showing people how to clean. Improve some of their stuff so it’s easier to clean.

In that sense that’s what Kickstarter is about. You are beta-testing their kit in a way, and when I back stuff I count on the potential of things shaking out well, not just the pledged rewards. In a V2 Pico they should be able to address all these things, as well as their current online store.

On the value prospect of Pico, I think if you live near a well-stocked liquor store with a wide selection of brews, you probably won’t be missing much. I think the PIco Packs generally will break even with the same quantity of beer / beer type as ones you get in store. That doesn’t include the $500+ you invested in the kit however, and instead you have to spend hours cleaning to get about a 12-pack of beer. Actually usually Pico packs are a little more expensive than bottled.

The real promise Pico brings is the reverse-engineered recipes of other famous or limited edition brews. Think of it as an alternative to a liquor store instead of a replacement. There are countless microbreweries in the USA alone, and you can get entries from all over the world with this system. So in that sense Pico addresses the greatest driver for drinking microbrews–if everything pans out with PicoBrew’s large-scale plans–the ability to try a new beer forever. Or, that old beer you can’t find anymore. (Or, the beer that is sold only in certain breweries and draws lines hours long, ahem.)

To bridge the gap, Pico promises a sous vide kit. I hope that comes through soon.

As for the two Kickstarter reward beer packs: Tweatie and Buffalo Sweat…the milk sugar in the latter is a nice touch but it’s the batch I messed up. The Tweatie was a nice American beer however, and I rec that one.

*I have done enough Kickstarters I think, to be somewhat of a judge of these things.

Pebble Time Steel First Month Look

It’s actually only 3 weeks, oops.

I got the Pebble Time Steel gold version. My friends got the steel grey and black ones. They were definitely not as cool looking as the gold one. From a looks perspective the red leather band is a home run, paired with the gold. Black bezel also even looked OK like this.

And here we get to the heart of the problem with the Pebble Time Steel, and Pebble Time in general–that display just does not look good. Colors are dimmed and contrast is like 3/4 of what it was on the original Pebble. Why? Because the new display is a TFT LCD where the crystal layer has to be semi transparent in order to work passively and work with a backlight. When light is filtered partly by the LCD layer, this is how you generate different colors. The original Pebble is B&W, so it either completely blocked light or none at all, giving you better contrast than the Pebble Time screen. Both old and the Pebble Time has so-so viewing angle but the Time really loses out in the dark versus the original Pebble.

The Pebble Time Steel has the added problem of, I think, really demure styling. This watch would work well for women, if it’s a tad on the big side. But that also means it’s quite small as far as smartwatches go and great for people who doesn’t have manly wrists. It looked definitely more stylish than the original pebble, which is something people who dig the Pebble Steel might not prefer–that one is bigger and manly.

I think it does not lose to the Apple Watch on looks, side by side. It definitely does not look as manly, though, without that large crown and less angular styling. I think if you are the stereotypical urban hipster tho, it will look good.

Pebble recently unveiled the Pebble Time Round which looks wicked, but if it follows the same design language, it will be for people looking for a wristwatch for women or people who want something that’s design-wise smart but not aggressive. We don’t know what display it will have, but looks like it’ll be the same as the other Pebble Times.

Pebble Time’s display is slightly worse than Pebble Time Steel’s display because the steel forces the way the glass bond to the display to be closer. It improves the viewing angle and slight ups the contrast. I think this makes Pebble Time Steel a no-brainer choice over the Pebble Time pretty much all around. The styling isn’t even that different between the grey or black ones. They are really two watch lines that aren’t different enough design-wise to be saying you prefer one over the other, especially given the extra $150 you can get more battery life and more durability, and slightly improved display.

To be honest, functionality is already pretty OK for the Pebble. What has to be improved is the looks. I don’t think the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel has achieved enough to call it that. Maybe the PT Round? It is definitely differently looking.

As for the software, it’s faster and less buggy. It uses a different companion app than the Pebble/Pebble Steel. I run it on android, and it’s solid. What I don’t like is the timeline interface, because it’s kind of useless and I don’t want to be pressing a lot of buttons on the watch. Maybe once devs can hook better Pebble apps into it?

The new reply and voice dictate is definitely nice and I appreciate it, even if I don’t see myself using it just because it takes a little getting used to and I’ll have to force myself into doing it. Not a killer app but definitely cool once someone figures out how to integrate it into Google Now.

Battery-life-wise it’s great. Seven days minimum with a wonky PlexFit on it even.

I can get a Pebble Time Round for $200. I might bite. I don’t know. I dig that white one. Maybe for Christmas to give to somebody?