Sony’s Xperia Ear is not the hands-free assistant I wanted

In theory, Sony’s newest wearable sounds promising. The Xperia Ear is a single Bluetooth earbud that lets you dictate messages, get weather updates and smartphone notifications, and carry out other little tasks just by talking to it. It’s like having an Amazon Echo in your ear, except with far fewer skills and third-party integrations. Sony also promises a long-lasting battery that can endure a full workday of talk time with the included charging case, so you can have the assistant ready for your commands all day. Unfortunately, the Xperia Ear simply doesn’t do enough to justify its $ 200 asking price.

Hardware

The Xperia Ear is a single black wireless earbud. The thumb-size, round-rectangular device has a slightly protruding speaker to help it latch onto your ear. There’s also a semicircular hook-like extrusion above the speaker that doesn’t appear to serve a purpose (other than perhaps helping it maintain a firmer grip on your ear). On its gray outer surface is a physical button that you can press to trigger the assistant, as well as a blue indicator light.

Inside, the earpiece houses a host of sensors, including a gyroscope, accelerometer, Bluetooth radio, NFC transmitter and proximity sensor. It also meets the IPX2 standard for water-resistance, meaning it can survive light splashes or rain. I did not encounter wet weather during my testing period, but the Ear did survive the drops of water I splashed on it.

Importantly, the device comes in a sturdy, pager-size holder that charges the core unit when you stow the latter in there. This case was small enough to carry in even my tiniest of purses, which I appreciated.

In use

Getting started with the Ear is simple. But first, know that it’s compatible only with Android, so if you’re an iPhone user, you should probably stop reading this review. Sony says it is “currently focused on creating the Xperia Ear host app for Android as it’s powered by Sony Agent Technology, which is specifically designed and currently only available for Android.” The company declined to comment on whether iOS compatibility is on the way, so don’t hold your breath.

On your Android device, your first step is to download the Xperia Ear app and then pair the Ear with your phone over Bluetooth. You can also smush your phone together with the earbud if you have an NFC-enabled handset, which makes connecting them a cinch. I paired the Ear with the Huawei Mate 9, and the NFC handshake between both devices was indeed quick.

Once I was all set up, I put the earpiece on and went about my business. The Ear felt surprisingly secure and didn’t fall out even when I shook my head vigorously to test just how well it would stay put. Wearing the Ear was comfortable until an hour later, when I started feeling a dull ache on the side of my head. It wasn’t superpainful, but I didn’t always feel like putting up with it, either. Taking off the earbud made the discomfort go away, and I ended up having to periodically remove the device during my review.

Most of your interactions with the Ear are going to involve you pressing the device’s button, waiting for it to say it’s listening and waiting for its three-tone chime (like the beep after a voicemail greeting). Only then can you ask your question. If that sounds tedious, it’s because it is. Sony could remove two steps from this process by getting rid of the redundant chime and the button push; the resulting speed gained would make the Ear feel much more responsive.

I really want the Xperia Ear to always be listening for a trigger phrase, because pushing a button against my ear repeatedly makes the side of my head feel slightly sore over time. Plus, it’s not really a hands-free experience if you have to use your hands to get some help. But that function would come at the expense of battery life, so this is a tradeoff I’m willing to accept.

You can set up the Ear so that a long press of the button activates OK Google, allowing you to use an assistant you’re probably already familiar with. But by default, you’ll be working with Sony’s unnamed helper, which is very new compared with existing offerings. And with that youth come some quirks that, together with its one-sided, Bluetooth-headset-inspired design, make the Xperia Ear feel dated.

Talking to Sony’s assistant feels like I’m interacting with a “futuristic” machine from Demolition Man. Its voice sounds artificial, robotic and disjointed, especially compared to Siri, the Google Assistant and Alexa, which have human voices with more natural inflections. Ear pronounced my name the same way Engadget’s Southern-bred Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman does — as in, “Churl-lynn,” with a hard “ch.” Thanks a lot, Sony.

That’s an understandable mistake, considering my name is quite uncommon, but the Ear made the same error when reading a news piece about actress Charlize Theron. It took me a few seconds to realize who the assistant was describing. It also mispronounced the word “cleanses,” saying “clean-suhs” instead of “clen-suhs.” For the most part, though, the Ear is easy enough to understand if you’re paying attention.

The reason I was talking about Charlize Theron, by the way, is because whenever you stick the device in your ear, it greets you and starts rattling off the time, your agenda for the day and news headlines since you last put it on. The actress was the subject in one of several headlines that Sony pulled together. You don’t get to pick the news sources you prefer; instead, you can decide in the app settings only whether or not you want to hear headlines at all.

You can also choose to get voice alerts from apps such as Calendar, Email, Gmail, Hangouts, SMS, Twitter and Facebook. This causes the Ear to recite your incoming notifications as they arrive on your phone, which can be distracting. I happen to be excellent at tuning out noise, though, so this didn’t bother me. You can also dismiss each alert at any time by pressing the button on the earbud. I actually appreciated having someone read out my new emails to me because it means I can multitask even more effectively.

Instead of having to go to my inbox whenever I saw a new message, I could simply listen to the Ear narrate the entire email and decide if it was worth an immediate response. It was also adorable when the Ear read Managing Editor Dana Wollman’s email that opened, “Good news, bad news (mostly good news, I think),” but slightly less funny when it read out every last detail of each sender’s email signature, down to their ZIP codes. Still, with some software tuning, this feature could become truly useful for hardcore multitaskers like myself.

There are a few other things Ear can do, including setting timers, reporting the weather, answering calls, streaming music from your phone and sending text messages. The earpiece’s dual microphone, noise suppression and echo cancellation worked well, and people I spoke with using the Ear heard me clearly despite my loud Netflix video in the background. Because it’s a one-sided earbud, the Ear isn’t a good option for listening to music, but it works in a pinch. Just don’t expect great audio quality here; songs generally lack bass, with vocals sounding the clearest against tinny background instruments.

One of the niftiest things you can do with the Ear is to use voice dictation to compose messages. In general, the device accurately relayed what I said, but it spelled my name wrong. Again, given that I have a unique name, this isn’t a big deal, especially since most other words were spelled correctly.

Now, talking out loud is a rather conspicuous way to interact with any device, especially if you’re in an open office or walking outside. For those who want to be more stealthy, Sony built in an effective way to communicate nonverbally with the Ear: You can nod or shake your head in response to yes or no questions. This is a limited application, yes, but useful nonetheless for quick, discreet reactions. The device correctly interpreted my gestures (acknowledging them with a satisfying chime) when I answered its questions about whether the message it transcribed was correct and if I wanted to send my text.

That’s impressive for a first-generation device, but the Ear has its glitches. For instance, the earpiece would start reading out its greeting and list of headlines any time it got moved or bumped, even when I wasn’t wearing it. It was also inconsistent in delivering my alerts — I randomly received alerts about two really old unread Hangouts messages on my first day wearing the Ear.

Another gripe I have with the Ear is its inability to reconnect seamlessly with the synced phone after I leave and re-enter Bluetooth range. That means, when I go to the bathroom or leave the phone in a different room, the Ear stops working, only saying, “Device not connected.” When I get back to the phone, I have to press the button on the earbud to re-sync the devices. This should happen without any action on my part.

Like any other wireless earbud, the Xperia Ear’s battery life varies wildly depending on how much you use it. On my first day testing the device, which included a lot of email alerts and nearly an hour of song streaming, the Ear conked out (from a 60 percent charge) after a full day’s work. Another time, on a full charge, the Ear dropped just 60 percent of its energy after two days of testing, which included five to 10 minutes of music playback and multiple phone calls, text-message dictation and other small tasks. You can extend that runtime by activating Sony’s Battery Care mode via the companion app.

Speaking of the sort, recharging the Ear is easy — just put it back in its carrying case. The holder has two indicator lights: The top shows you by flashing red, yellow or green how full the earbud’s battery is. Another LED on the bottom indicates the amount of power left in the case, which you can plug in via micro-USB. It took about a week for the container’s charge to go from green to red, after it recharged the earbud a handful of times.

The competition

The Xperia Ear is a unique device — nothing else on the market claims to do exactly what it does. The thing is, though, you can get a similar experience with some of today’s wireless earbuds that let you tap your phone’s digital assistant. Case in point: The $ 250 Bragi Dash lets you tap your cheek to talk to Siri. You can also activate Siri with your existing Apple earphones with a long press on your remote control. Android owners don’t have a similar wireless option, though.

Compared to other wireless earbuds, such as the $ 200 Samsung Gear IconX and the $ 250 Jabra Elite Sport, the Xperia Ear is expensive, especially since it only covers one side. Plus, the Samsung and Jabra devices are geared toward fitness users and offer more features (and two earbuds instead of one) for less than twice the price of the Xperia Ear. They also deliver better audio quality than the Xperia, although Sony’s device offers longer battery life. Still, neither of these let you control an assistant yet, and the Ear retains that advantage over the competition, at least until its rivals add that feature (which, let’s be real, is inevitable).

Wrap-up

I was excited about the Xperia Ear and what it promised until I realized that, as it stands, the device does nothing different from Siri or Google over wired earbuds. In particular, the fact that it requires you to use your hand and press a button to use it makes me question the device’s existence in the first place. What’s the point of getting a whole new gadget for an assistant in your ear if not for the convenience when your arms are full? It’s not like this is a cheap purchase, either.

Still, this is a first-generation device that has the potential to become truly useful if Sony tweaks its software. That’s an easy enough fix. The trouble is, makers of other wireless earbuds could almost as easily offer the same features, by tapping into Siri or the Google Assistant. If, or when, they do, the Xperia Ear risks becoming a completely forgettable device.

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Apple will replace a lost AirPod for $69

Following a slightly delay, Apple’s wireless AirPods are ready to order. They’re small and sleek, but the lack of cords has put a nagging thought in the back of my mind: I am guaranteed to lose one, if not both within a few weeks. If you’re equally forgetful, or happen to commute in jam-packed subway carriages, you’ll be happy to hear that Apple will replace a single AirPod for $ 69 (£65). Given a fresh pair costs $ 159 (£159), that seems like a reasonable fee. Similarly, a new AirPod charging case will set you back $ 69 (£65), for the inevitable “I threw it out thinking it was floss” stories.

To Apple’s credit, your music will stop as soon as one AirPod leaves your earhole. It serves two purposes: so you don’t have to press pause when someone starts talking to you, and to give you a heads-up whenever one AirPod drops out of your ear. If you’re somewhere busy, like a crowded train platform, that immediate notification could be vital to retrieving it. Otherwise, the allure of Apple’s AirPods is a tangle-free lifestyle, convenient pairing and charging. It’s doubly useful if you have the iPhone 7 with its non-existent 3.55mm jack. (Yeah, I’m still annoyed about it.)

Via: TechCrunch

Source: Apple (US), (UK)

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‘Super Mario Run’ is now available

Finally, there’s a Mario game on smartphones. As promised, Nintendo has released Super Mario Run today, giving iPhone and iPad users a new way to run, leap and spin through the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s an auto-runner, meaning the portly plumber will jog, hop and vault over obstacles automatically. You tap the screen to jump, leaping across gaps and goombas to collect colorful coins. It sounds simple, but there’s a surprising amount of complexity to the platforming. Like Rayman Jungle Run, timing is essential to unlock contextual moves, such as rolls and wall jumps.

The game has a one-time fee of $ 9.99. Nintendo is keen to avoid the free-to-play mechanics that plague so many smartphone games, focusing instead on quality and traditional replayability. The levels are challenging enough, tasking players to collect coins of increasing difficulty. With plenty of stages and worlds to explore, they should keep you preoccupied for hours. There’s also Kingdom Builder, a basic village design mini-game, and Toad Rally, an aysnchronous multiplayer mode that emphasises style over brute-force level completion. The three modes feed into one another too, unlocking one-time “rally tickets,” enemy score multipliers and more.

It’s not all rosy, however. Nintendo has been criticised for demanding an always active internet connection. (The company says it’s to stop piracy.) If you’re the type of person that likes to game on their morning commute, or has to ration a modest data cap each month, this could be a deal-breaker. Regardless, it’s a landmark moment for the company and it’s beloved mustachioed mascot. Miitomo was an interesting experiment, sure, but it pales in comparison to the potential of Super Mario Run. This is a true platformer, albeit one with limited controls, that could make a ton of money and improve Nintendo’s standing in the public conscience.

Source: Super Mario Run (iOS)

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Florida court rules police can demand your phone’s passcode

A Florida man arrested for third-degree voyeurism using his iPhone 5 initially gave police verbal consent to search the smartphone, but later rescinded permission before divulging his 4-digit passcode. Even with a warrant, they couldn’t access the phone without the combination. A trial judge denied the state’s motion to force the man to give up the code, considering it equal to compelling him to testify against himself, which would violate the Fifth Amendment. But the Florida Court of Appeals’ Second District reversed that decision today, deciding that the passcode is not related to criminal photos or videos that may or may not exist on his iPhone.

Obviously, this has implications for Constitutional protections of a civilian’s data contained behind a smartphone’s multi-digit passcode. Previously, a 2014 decision by the Virginia Beach Circuit Court found that individuals can’t be compelled to give up their phone’s code, but they could be forced to unlock it with a fingerprint, should that option be available.

The distinction? A passcode requires a person to divulge actual knowledge, while a fingerprint is considered physical evidence, like a handwriting sample or DNA. This interpretation sources back to the Supreme Court’s 1988 Doe v. U.S. decision, in which it ruled that a person may be compelled to give up a key to a strongbox, say, but not a combination to a wall safe.

The three-judge Appeals Court panel in Florida disagreed with this distinction. They also found the comparison out of step with the current state of technology, such that providing the passcode would not be as similarly self-incriminating as directly giving the authorities evidential documents. Further, the police were beyond probable cause of searching suspect Aaron Stahl’s code-locked phone, as Judge Anthony Black wrote for his fellows in the court’s decision:

“Moreover, although the passcode would allow the State access to the phone, and therefore to a source of potential evidence, the State has a warrant to search the phone—the source of evidence had already been uncovered … Providing the passcode does not “betray any knowledge [Stahl] may have about the circumstances of the offenses” for which he is charged.”

Black clarified what kind of foreknowledge authorities would need to possess to compel someone to divulge their phone’s passcode:

“In order for the foregone conclusion doctrine to apply, the State must show with reasonable particularity that, at the time it sought the act of production, it already knew the evidence sought existed, the evidence was in the possession of the accused, and the evidence was authentic … Although the State need not have “perfect knowledge” of the requested evidence, it “must know, and not merely infer,” that the evidence exists, is under the control of defendant, and is authentic.”

Via: The Daily Dot

Source: Courthouse News

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Engadget giveaway: Win an iPhone 7 courtesy of Mint!

The holidays are usually pretty tough on your wallet and there’s enough distraction that bills may go unpaid past their due date. Smart money and account management apps like Intuit’s Mint are essential tools in keeping you on budget and paid up on time. Mint has recently added bill management to its long list features, aggregating them so you can make payments quickly, while keeping an eye on available cash. The free app also provides bill reminders, money management tips, free credit score reports and helps you craft a budget that will work for you. This week, Mint has provided us with an Apple iPhone 7 for one lucky reader, so they can keep track of their cash flow in style during the holiday season and beyond. All you need to do is head to the Rafflecopter widget below for up to three chances at winning!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

  • Entries are handled through the Rafflecopter widget above. Comments are no longer accepted as valid methods of entry. You may enter without any obligation to social media accounts, though we may offer them as opportunities for extra entries. Your email address is required so we can get in touch with you if you win, but it will not be given to third parties.
  • Contest is open to all residents of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Canada (excluding Quebec), 18 or older! Sorry, we don’t make this rule (we hate excluding anyone), so direct your anger at our lawyers and contest laws if you have to be mad.
  • Winners will be chosen randomly. One (1) winner will receive one (1) Apple iPhone 7 (MN8Q2LL/A, jet black, 128GB).
  • If you are chosen, you will be notified by email. Winners must respond within three days of being contacted. If you do not respond within that period, another winner will be chosen. Make sure that the account you use to enter the contest includes your real name and a contact email. We do not track any of this information for marketing or third-party purposes.
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  • Entries can be submitted until Dec. 14th at 11:59PM ET. Good luck!

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Apple’s AirPods won’t be ready for the holidays

Apple announced the AirPods during September’s “See You” event with a scheduled launch at the end of October. But late that month, the company delayed shipments without setting a release date in the future. Well, the tech titan’s wireless headphones still haven’t come out and it’s unclear when they’ll finally be ready for the public. For a company that places enormous emphasis on the pageantry of dramatically unveiling and releasing its products to a ravenous public, this is an unusual and humbling letdown.

It’s the first product postponement since the white iPhone 4 back in 2010, which Apple claims was delayed due to manufacturing challenges. But the company has kept mum about why they’re withholding the AirPods from store shelves. It’s likely caused by their added complexity, a source familiar with their development told The Wall Street Journal. Unlike normal wireless headphones, which receive signal over Bluetooth in only one earpiece, both AirPod pieces do. That means Apple’s product must reconcile any delays and sync audio between them, while also addressing what happens if one of the pair’s battery dies or is lost.

Apple’s silence is tough luck for folks hoping to snag a pair for a Christmas gift. But as we noted when the AirPods were first delayed, their iPhone 7-interfacing W1 chip is present in two models of Beats headphones, the Solo3 and Powerbeats 3. Otherwise, Apple’s loss is their competitors’ gain: Wireless headphones finally outsold wired in the first half of 2016. Technically, people are still buying more pairs of wired ones, but Bluetooth headphones’ high prices mean the money has finally tipped into that camp. Just how much Apple lost out by failing to make its $ 160-per-unit AirPods available this holiday season is anyone’s guess.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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Mixed reality comes to your iPhone thanks to the Bridge headset

There’s something more than a little magical about seeing the world in front of you being devastated by dragons or augmented with arrows pointing you to your next meeting. Alas, while mixing realities like that with our smartphones is already possible, the tech still is a long way off from reaching its potential — just look at early, disappointing efforts like Lenovo’s enormous Tango phone. Luckily, startups are chasing the mixed reality dream too, including one — Occipital — that has a solid track record of solving the tricky problems that pop up when blurring boundaries between worlds. That’s why the team’s new mixed reality, the Bridge, seems so impressive right out of the gate.

Oh, and another thing: it’s specifically for iPhones. For years now, most mobile virtual reality fun has been confined to Android, with cheap Gear VRs and Daydream Views making it easy to see what all the hype was about. While some VR games and apps exist for iPhones, Apple hardware historically hasn’t gotten the same kind of developer love as Android has. To Occipital, that smelled like an opportunity. The Bridge will go one sale to the masses for $ 399 starting in March, but developers and the adventurous can snag their Explorer Editions as soon as next week. To understand what you’ll actually get for your money, we’ll have to rewind a bit.

Three years ago, the company released the Structure sensor, a fascinating bit of depth-sensing tech that was originally meant to bring augmented reality experiences to the iPad. Mixed reality still seemed like a hard sell back then, but there no denying the sensor’s ability to measure the world around it was the real deal. To hear Occipital marketing chief Adam Rodnitzky tell it, the sensor eventually started being used by real estate agents, interior decorators and doctors, and after three years, the Structure was still excellent at its job.

So, with headsets being hawked alongside smartphones all over the place, Occipital decided to make their own — they took a Structure sensor, slapped a five-element wide-angle lens in front of it, and built a sturdy, balanced frame around it. Turning an existing product like the Structure into headset might seem like opportunism at its finest, but the end result has so much potential it almost doesn’t matter.

I played with one of the Explorer Editions recently, and it was more impressive — and elaborate — than I expected. You can pop an iPhone 6 (or newer, but no SEs) into the frame and a magnetically latched door keeps it in place. From there, you place the Bridge on your head as you would a crown, and use a dial in the back to tighten it. Yes, it sounds like a sort of torture device, but the system actually works like a charm. The only real problem I came across was that the lenses sit closer to your eyes than in most other mobile VR headsets — that meant they pushed right up against my glasses most of the time. It could’ve been worse, but Rodnitzky assured me future models wouldn’t smash my frames so noticeably.

Actually using Bridge was a much smoother experience. Occipital doesn’t have any launch titles planned for the Bridge’s debut, but it does come with a demo app that stars at adorable robot pet of sorts named Bridget. With the help of a Wiimote-like Bluetooth controller, I spent a good ten minutes tossing a virtual ball around the office and watching Bridget loop around coffee tables to retrieve it. Her understanding of the world around her was fueled by a depth-scanning session that only lasted a few seconds — once that was done, I had a mapped out a corner of our office with a level of precision that Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro wasn’t able to match.

That might not be the fairest comparison to make, though: for now, the Structure sensor’s software is only tuned to capture spaces of about 10 ft. by 10 ft., while Tango software usually tries to record whole swaths of a room at once. Structure’s scope might be more limited, but it does a much better job within those constraints.

After dropping that ball one time too many, Bridget was tired and needed to charge. The answer? To grab her power cord and connect it to something that lit up, like a lamp. This is what I so sorely missed when I played with Tango — I wanted to badly for someone standing next to a virtual dinosaur to be able to interact with it or to pluck a virtual domino off the ground. This was a pretty basic example, but the sort of object recognition the Structure can pull off was unexpectedly good for a headset.

Don’t think the Bridge is only capable of the usual augmented reality tricks, either: at one point, I was directed to drop a portal on the ground in front of me. Once I stepped into it, I found myself walking around inside a space station with a planet hanging lazily in the dark outside a hatch. A red mesh enveloped real-world obstacles, allowing me to dodge coffee tables and loungers as I (all too briefly) explored the station. After a few more moments of stumbling, that was that — demo over. I was just a little crushed.

With any luck, Occipital gets the sort of support from developers it’s been gunning for. The Bridge system isn’t perfect for a whole host of reasons, like the iPhone’s non-AMOLED display and the potentially big hit on the phone’s battery, but even the unfinished demo software was almost enough to make me toss the Phab 2 Pro in a desk drawer. The right kind of love could turn the Bridge into a must-have down the road — for now, I’ll just have to wait and hope.

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TSMC plans a new factory to pump out tomorrow’s 3 nm chips

News leaked in late August that chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) and Apple were working shrinking the A11 processor set to go in next year’s iPhone down to 10nm. But to ensure it stays in business with the tech titan and other device manufacturers, TSMC is planning to build a new plant to build future chips at 5nm and 3nm sizes.

According to Nikkei Asian Review, TSMC announced the new $ 15.7 billion facility a day after Taiwan’s minister of science and technology, Yang Hung-duen, told local media about it. His ministry might select a site in Kaohsiung for the factory, which could start production as early as 2022.

That gives TSMC’s competitors a few years’ breathing room, but the race to smaller and smaller chips continues. While Intel claims it will produce a 10nm processor before its competitors, it conceded that production facilities equipped to pump out increasingly-smaller chips will only get more expensive. That’s why the company is slowing its two-year cycle “tick-tock” innovation cycle to reduce chip size every three years instead, focusing instead of improving internal architecture and performance in the interim.

But even that lead might not be enough: On a conference call back in January, TSMC said it has a plan to push out 7nm chips by 2017 and 5nm by 2020.

Via: 9to5Mac

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

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‘Super Mario Run’ is just as much fun as we’d hoped

It’s no stretch to say that Super Mario Run (launching December 15th for iOS; an Android version will arrive next year) is one of the most notable mobile games in years. It’s Nintendo’s first real smartphone game and one of the only instances in which the company has developed a Mario game for non-Nintendo hardware. It’s the first of several mobile titles planned and could mark the start of a major business shift for Nintendo. But let’s put aside all these heady concerns about what Super Mario Run means for the company and answer the most important question: Is the game fun?

Based on the all-too-brief demo I had earlier this week, the answer is a resounding yes. With Super Mario Run, Nintendo has successfully built a Mario title that makes perfect sense for a mobile phone while still featuring surprisingly deep gameplay and a level of polish seen in a small percentage of games, regardless of platform.

The gameplay appears to be identical to what Nintendo first showed off onstage at Apple’s event this past September. Mario runs automatically from left to right, and the player can tap the screen to make him jump. The goal is to get to the end of a course, which seems to take a minute or two, while avoiding death and collecting as many coins as you can.

Naturally, there are a lot of variations on what you can make Mario do here beyond that: Holding longer when you tap makes him jump higher; you can tap again to get a brief momentary hover; you can wall-jump; landing on enemies gives you a chance to string together multiple jumps; and so on. There are a handful of environmental items that change things up as well — jumping off of certain bricks will send Mario soaring to the left instead of to the right, and standing on some bricks will stop Mario so you can assess the coming challenges and plan your route.

In the few levels I tried, getting to the end wasn’t a big challenge. But the replayability should be excellent here because I didn’t come close to grabbing all of the coins in the course — those among us with OCD tendencies are going to be playing these levels multiple times to perfect our route and jump timing. Furthermore, each course has five pink special coins to grab. Getting those unlocks five more purple coins in harder-to-reach locations. Getting those unlocks five black coins, again in even tougher places in the level. It’ll take at least three playthroughs to grab everything in a given level, and to get all the standard coins will be another challenge.

That’s one example of the game’s depth. The next comes when you factor in competition. The main game’s standard 24 levels are only one part of Super Mario Run. There’s also the “Toad Rally,” in which you compete against friends or people all over the world. Entering a Toad Rally competition costs tickets, which you gain in other parts of the game.

Once you’ve entered the rally, you start a timed course that doesn’t have an end and shoot to get as many coins as you can before time runs out. But you also need to impress the Toad judges by doing combo jumps and other more complicated tricks as you make your way through the level. The more you impress the judges, the more they cheer, and the more points you get.

In both the standard “World Tour” and Toad Rally, the gameplay is excellent. There’s enough of a learning curve that I didn’t feel like I could immediately master each level, but it certainly wasn’t hard to just pick up and start playing. Perhaps the trickiest thing for those of us who’ve played a lot of Mario will be remembering you don’t have to jump on Koopas and Goombas — by default, Mario will automatically vault over them. Jumping gives you more points and the opportunity for more combos, but you don’t have to do it.

The Toad Rally has another twist: You put a few members of your personal Toad posse on the line when you play, and if you lose, those Toads defect to the victor’s team. The number of Toads on your team serves as a good representation of how successful you’ve been in the rally — so you can use them to see how good a potential opponent is before challenging them to a match. Toads also serve as some in-game currency for buying little houses and other objects you can use to customize your very own Mario overworld map. There’s no actual game to be played here, but plenty of fans will likely enjoy tweaking the Mario home screen that they see every time the game starts.

Regardless of what part of the game you’re playing, the graphics look wonderful. I played the game on the iPhone 7 Plus and I’ve never seen Mario look quite so sharp and vivid (the last Mario games I played for more than a few minutes were on the original, standard-definition Wii). And there’s no hint of slowdown or performance hiccups here either. I would have liked to see how it performs on less powerful hardware, but we’ll have to wait until the game launches to see what devices you’ll need to have a good experience with Super Mario Run.

Nintendo decided to price Super Mario Run at $ 9.99 — more than most iOS games, but less than most games for the company’s own consoles. I think that’s a fair price, given the number of levels included and the replayability factor here. But if you’re wary, the free version of the game lets you play the first three levels and try your hand at a few Toad Rallies so you can see what it’s all about. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said it didn’t feel right to make people pay to keep unlocking levels when there’s so much momentum in the game to keep running through levels, so the company decided to skip all in-app transactions and go with the single one-time purchase.

Ultimately, the entry fee may seem a little high, but I suspect it’ll be one well worth paying — and I think lots of players will agree with me. Having a native Mario experience built from the ground up with the iPhone in mind is a huge win, and the game appears to be equally well suited to quick play on the subway and longer, in-depth sessions when you’re on the plane. I haven’t bought a new Mario game in years, but I’m ready to pull the trigger on Super Mario Run.

Update: If you want to try Super Mario Run out for yourself, Reggie announced on The Tonight Show that starting Thursday, a demo will be available at Apple Stores worldwide.

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VSCO adds full RAW photo support to its iPhone app

VSCO, smartphone photographers’ image tweaking app of choice, is letting iOS users tap into all the original image data captured on iPhone 6’s and up. Alongside a host of new community features, it’s offering full RAW image support on capture, importing and editing. This means photo editors will be able to access a wider range of colors and tones that are sometimes lost due to compression on typical JPEG photos. RAW support will even work on your must-share DSLR images too.

The update is also the culmination of the VSCO team’s efforts to better showcase its community and editorial team content. This includes a machine-learning engine that surfaces related images of what it spots in images. There’s also a new search and a discovery section specifically for notable community posts.

VSCO has introduced a new (invite-only, subscription-based) membership at an early-access price of $ 20 per year. This will give users monthly updates and early access to filter presets, particularly VSCO’s new Film X interactive presets. These tap into SENS, its new imaging engine, and attempt to offer, according to VSCO CEO and founder Joel Flory: “a physical model of film and not just a static preset.” New presets currently include the Fuji Pro 400H, and Kodak Portra 160 and 400. According to the team, they’ve tried to create a physical mode of film — and that also includes real-time shaders that you can tweak during live capture.

If you’re willing to subscribe, you’ll net the entire preset library (over 100 of those), which total around $ 200 if purchased through the app. RAW support, at least, comes for free in the new update available now. Oh and for that invite-only membership? Add your name to the waitlist here, and get ready to feel exclusive.

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