LG V20 review: Great for audiophiles, but who else?

After the unabashed wackiness of its G5, LG had a real conundrum on its hands: Does it keep up the modular streak for its 2016 V-series flagship phone and risk lousy sales, or try something a little more traditional? As it turns out, LG chose the latter and built a more conventional kind of powerhouse: the V20. None of that means the phone is boring, though. Between its stellar audio, a neat dual-camera setup and a second screen, there’s theoretically enough charming weirdness here to help the V20 stick out from the competition. The bigger question is whether all those disparate bits come together to form a compelling whole. As is often the case, the answer depends where your priorities lie.

Hardware

LG V20 Review

It’s funny how little the V20 ($ 672+) looks like its predecessor. Last year’s V10 all but shoved its rugged design in your face, with its rubbery DuraSkin rear and a pair of stainless steel bars flanking its display. The design looked better in person than I thought it would, but it definitely wasn’t for everyone. The V20, meanwhile, is more subdued in its style, even though it’s rated to handle 4-foot drops, just like the V10.

Now, don’t go confusing “subdued” with “attractive” — the V20’s aesthetic is best described as utilitarian, and I’d be surprised if anyone felt the blow-to-the-gut pang of attraction that sometimes comes with seeing finely crafted gear. In fact, when I first laid eyes on the V20, I couldn’t help but point out visual similarities between it and the BlackBerry Z10 — not exactly a comparison LG should be proud of. Regardless, the V20 is plenty sturdy: It’s made of 6013-series aluminum capped on the top and bottom with a tough polycarbonate to help it deal with drops.

It’s also huge. The 5.7-inch Quantum LCD display is a handful as it is, but the V20 also has a tiny secondary display above the main screen. For the sake of comparison, the V20 is just a hair longer and thicker than the iPhone 7 Plus, which is itself a whopper of a smartphone. Both of these phones also coincidentally share a dual-camera setup (which I’ll dive into later), but the V20 is noticeably lighter. It’s too bad that the V20 isn’t water-resistant like some of its rivals, but the trade-off might be worth it to some people. You see, LG is one of the few flagship smartphone makers who still let users remove their batteries. To that end, there’s a button low on the phone’s left side that pops off the V20’s metal battery cover, revealing a 3,200mAh battery and a combination SIM/microSD slot. The phone takes memory cards as large as 2TB, by the way, though the 64GB of included storage will probably be enough for most.

Sitting directly above is the standard rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, which is among the fastest I’ve used on a smartphone. Many people seem to appreciate its placement on the back of the phone, and I’m slowly becoming one of them. Sure, it would be nice to be able to unlock the V20 with a touch while it’s sitting face-up on a table, but I like that the sensor is in the perfect spot for my finger to rest on it when I pull the V20 out of my pocket.

Displays and sound

As mentioned earlier, the main screen is a big ol’ 5.7-inch IPS LCD running at Quad HD, and it’s noticeably brighter than the panel on the G5. As a result, legibility and color reproduction are also better under direct sunlight than on the G5 or the V10, though I’d be shocked if they weren’t. Speaking of colors, they’re rendered well across the board and look surprisingly natural, thanks to LG’s Quantum display tech. When LG first embraced quantum displays in the G4, it claimed it offered a more accurate take on colors. That may be true, but the V20’s screen might not be for everyone right out of the box; it’s quite cool, so there’s a tendency for whites to look a little blue. You don’t get the visceral vividness and deep darks that come with AMOLED screens, but hey — it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference.

More important, the secondary display is back. To be clear: It’s not actually a separate screen — just an extra bit that juts out from the top of the main panel. In theory, the 1040×160 overflow area is a neat idea: It acts as a dedicated zone for the time and notifications when the main display is off, and offers shortcuts to apps and actions when the main display is on. I have a few issues with LG’s multiscreen implementation, but let’s just get the big one out of the way first: As with the V10 and even Samsung’s Edge line, very little about this second display is essential.

Most of the shortcuts — like toggling WiFi and Bluetooth and grabbing a screenshot to mark up — exist in the Quick Settings tray above the notifications shade anyway, so you’re rarely saving time. Ditto for app shortcuts: I’ve found it much easier to leave my most used apps on the bottom row of a home screen rather than scoot up my hand (or use my other one) to tap on an app icon in the overflow area. Still, it’s not like the second display is without merit entirely. The best part is having a set of music controls available while the phone is locked. Your mileage may vary, but I’d have given up on the second screen completely were it not for that.

So yeah, the second screen is of dubious value. The V20’s audio performance more than makes up for it, though: The phone is kitted out with a Quad DAC and support for 24-bit high-resolution audio. I’ve been a little dismissive of this stuff in the past, but the V20 has helped me turn a corner. With the DAC enabled and headphones plugged in, your audio will automatically sound at least a little richer and fuller. The differences can be harder to suss out with certain songs — particularly ones you stream — but the changes stemming from the DAC are almost universally welcome. LG’s choice of DAC also means the V20 supports 32-bit audio and lossless formats like FLAC, if that’s something you’re down with, though it goes without saying that the V20’s single speaker won’t come close to doing them justice.

Chances are you won’t see them, but the V20 also plays host to a trio of microphones for high-quality audio recording. They’re technically what are called acoustic overload point microphones, and I’ll spare you the drawn-out explanation — just know they’re designed to keep distortion to a minimum in very loud situations. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how crisp and clean the resulting records have been, and while these microphones would really shine at concerts and right next to musicians, they’ve also been great for recording interviews and conversations for work.

Software

LG pulled off a neat coup with the V20: It’s the first smartphone that shipped with Android 7.0 Nougat preloaded. Google made that victory a hollow one when it launched the Pixel and Pixel XL with Android 7.1, but whatever: Nougat is still surprisingly hard to come by, and I’ll take it where I can get it. (You can check out our full Android 7.0 review here, by the way.) All of the new little — and not so little — Nougat tricks are here and ready to play with. Even LG left some facets of Nougat almost completely untouched, like the notifications shade and the quick-settings panel above it. Nicely done.

That said, not every Nougat feature works as Google intended. Android 7.0 lets you play with the display size, for instance, allowing you to adjust the size of text and app icons. When left untouched, Nougat gives you five display options to help you find the perfect size, but LG’s implementation gives you only three. Fine, that’s probably not the biggest deal, but it’s a sign that Google’s word still isn’t gospel for OEMs. At least the horsepower on display here makes the V20 an efficient multitasker; not every app works with Google’s new multiwindow mode, but the ones that do run smoothly.

Of course, Nougat is only part of the equation — LG painted over it with an updated version of its custom interface, called LG UX 5.0+. For the most part, it’s a rehash of the interface on the G5, but there’s at least one big change to keep your eyes peeled for. By default, the V20 doesn’t have a traditional app drawer; all of your stuff gets splashed across your home screens by default. Seeing a flagship Android smartphone ship in the US without an app drawer is a little unusual because these setups are more popular in Asia, but it’s easy enough to revive the launcher if you miss it.

The rest of LG’s custom skin is as bright and inoffensive as always. I do wish LG would pare back its paint job to let stock Android shine through, especially since there’s a tendency for some of the company’s first-party apps to feel clunky. It doesn’t help that my review unit is a Verizon model, which means it’s loaded with bloatware I couldn’t wait to uninstall or disable. At least Verizon was kind enough to shove most of its apps in a folder for easy decimation.

The cameras

Remember the G5’s fascinating dual-camera setup? The one that was eventually overshadowed by the iPhone 7 Plus even though they aspired to the exact same thing? Well, LG tweaked the formula for the V20, swapping in different sensors. All told, the 16-megapixel main sensor and 8-megapixel wide-angle camera next to it are fun to use in tandem, even if the resulting photos aren’t as good as what competing devices are capable of.

Most of the time, you’ll be using that 16-megapixel camera with its f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization and more often than not you’ll get photos that look pretty good. Other phones do better with color representation and detail — here’s looking at you, Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel — but the V20 puts up a decent fight. The larger problem here is one of consistency. When shooting in Auto mode — which many people will be doing — the V20 often gets the exposure a little wrong or gets a little too ambitious when it tries to automatically reduce noise. Low-light performance is decent too, but not even a wide aperture, image-stabilization and multiple autofocus methods can prevent grain and ghosting.

The smaller, 8-megapixel sensor has to grapple with these issues too, plus the barrel distortion that becomes prominent when you’re shooting from a distance. It also would’ve been nice if LG tightened up the transition between the cameras when you’re zooming in and out on a subject. There’s still about a one-second pause while the phone makes the switch, which could make the difference between nabbing the shot you wanted and missing it completely.

As far as off-the-cuff shooting goes, the V20 could be much, much better. Ironically, the manual-shooting mode LG included might be my favorite on any smartphone. Familiar settings like ISO, shutter speed, white balance and more can be found at the bottom of the screen, but they’re joined by a tremendously helpful manual focus mode that highlights parts of the image when they’re nice and crisp.

The tragically vain will be glad to know that the 5-megapixel front-facing camera is perfectly adequate, and offers a wide enough field of view that squeezing a few friends into the shot should be no trouble. While we’re talking about the perfectly adequate, shooting video with the V20, even in 4K, yielded footage that was pleasant enough. If only LG were better at playing the expectations game. The company spent a decent chunk of its V20 launch event talking about how awesome Qualcomm’s built-in video-image stabilization is. And while it’s certainly helpful, it’s hardly the miracle-worker I was hoping for.

Performance and battery life

For all the V20’s quirks, the stuff under the hood is very familiar. Like the G5 before it, the V20 packs a quad-core Snapdragon 820 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU. It would’ve been nice to see LG give the V20 another edge in the form of the newer Snapdragon 821 chip, but alas, we probably got a little screwed by the intricacies of supply-chain management. Either way, we’re still working with a phone that keeps pace with the best of ’em; the slowdowns I experienced were thankfully rare, even when running graphically intense games.

Google Pixel Google Pixel XL Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge LG V20
AndEBench Pro 14,941 16,164 13,030 13,172
Vellamo 3.0 5,343 5,800 4,152 5,266
3DMark IS Unlimited 28,645 29,360 26,666 27,968
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 46 48 47 39
CF-Bench 30,997 39,918 46,290 32719

That’s great, but horsepower doesn’t count for much without a good battery to back it up. Alas, the 3,200mAh cell here fails to impress. Sure, it’s more capacious than the one that shipped with the G5 earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean the V20 lasts any longer on a charge. In my nearly two weeks of testing, the V20 typically powered through 12-hour workdays full of Slack messages, emails, podcasts and the occasional Hearthstone match, and came out on the other side with about 10 percent charge remaining. For those keeping count, that’s almost exactly the same usage I squeezed out of the G5 and its smaller battery.

Now, 12 hours of continued, mixed usage on a single charge isn’t bad, and Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 tech means topping up the V20’s battery takes very little time. And if that’s not fast enough, you could always carry around a spare battery and just swap it in as needed. Even so, there’s no denying that devices like the Pixel siblings and Samsung’s Galaxy series tend to last longer with their sealed batteries.

That was also true in our video rundown test, where we loop an HD video with screen brightness set to 50 percent while connected to WiFi. The V20 stuck around for 11 hours and 10 minutes — that’s a bit better than the 10.5 hours I got on the G5, but hours behind devices like the Galaxy S7 and Google’s Pixel phones.

The competition

I’ve been making not-so-veiled references to Samsung’s current line of Galaxy phones and Google’s Pixel family, and for good reason. If you’re looking for a new flagship and the V20 is on your shortlist, these devices need to be too — after all, they offer similar horsepower for around the same price. For those who like the idea of the V20’s second screen, there’s always the Galaxy S7 Edge. It packs just as much horsepower as the V20 and an always-on display you can rub to peek at your notifications and the news without having to unlock the phone. In general, its battery life is much better too, though you’ll have to deal with a custom interface and a lack of Android Nougat.

Then again, if it’s great photos you’re after, you won’t do much better than the Pixel or Pixel XL. Both pair impressive 12-megapixel cameras with really impressive (not to mention instantaneous) HDR image processing, which add up to the best point-and-shoot camera experience on an Android device. It doesn’t hurt that the Pixel phones run a clean version of Android 7.1 Nougat, offer access to Google’s clever new assistant, and offer speedy performance.

By now, though, it’s clear the V20 isn’t your average Android flagship. There’s an underlying emphasis on creativity here that extends way beyond what other device makers have attempted. In that regard, no clear competitors come to mind.

Wrap-up

LG has done a fine job choosing top-tier components and focusing on things like audio quality and manual photography. On paper, that sounds great! In practice, there’s an underlying lack of cohesiveness between these parts. Audio nerds will find a lot to like here, the swappable battery is nice, and there are some great shots to be captured if you’re comfortable tinkering with the shooting settings. If what you need out of smartphone matches LG’s vision, the V20 is a great choice. But for people who value power and polish over a highly specific set of tools, there are more well-rounded options out there.

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The Pokémon Go Plus bracelet is great for grinding

My Pokémon Go survival kit keeps growing. It started simply enough, with just my iPhone 6 Plus happily running Pokémon Go, but it quickly became apparent that I would need backup battery power in order to comfortably catch digital monsters for extended periods of time. After all, this is a game that takes players away from their outlets and into the great wilds of the real world, so I shoved a portable power pack and cable into my purse. I happen to live in Arizona, so I soon added an icy water bottle to the mix. Now, with the launch of Pokémon Go Plus, my kit also includes a lanyard bracelet, a plastic vibrating teardrop painted like a Poké Ball and a tiny screwdriver.

I’m starting to suspect Ash Ketchum was hiding more than hair under his iconic hat.

Pokémon Go Plus is a $ 35 accessory that connects to iOS or Android versions of Pokémon Go via Bluetooth. The main gadget is a teardrop-shaped hunk of plastic with an opaque button in the center that glows different colors depending on the feedback it receives from the actual game. The whole device vibrates and lights up when Pokémon or PokéStops are nearby.

The teardrop comes with a clip on the back so you can wear it on a belt, collar or backpack strap, or you can pop it into the included lanyard bracelet. It’s more complicated than just shoving it into the plastic holder, though (as anyone who watched my live unboxing video can attest). You have to unscrew the back of the teardrop with a teensy screwdriver, removing the clip and exposing the battery, and then re-screw it into the bracelet case. The bracelet screw is found under a length of lanyard running under the back of the plastic holder, so you have to move the bracelet itself out of the way before tightening the teardrop into position. It’s not necessarily difficult, but it is delicate work.

With the tools and screws involved in moving the Plus from bracelet to clip, I imagine folks will pick one way of wearing the device and stick with it. Both options are viable, though I personally prefer the bracelet option. However, I’m not wearing a watch today; if I decide to put one on, it’s possible the clip option will be more attractive. Apple did just unveil Pokémon Go support for the Apple Watch, after all. In daily life, it may simply depend on whether I can find my tiny screwdriver.

The bracelet option is my favorite because it’s the most convenient. The teardrop vibrates powerfully enough to feel even if the lanyard isn’t digging into your skin and it’s natural to flick up your wrist to check the notification colors. The button pulses green when you’re near a Pokémon you’ve previously caught, it flashes yellow for new Pokémon and it glows blue for PokéStops.

This is where Pokémon Go Plus is most useful: PokéStops. Once the teardrop flashes blue and vibrates, press the button and viola, a bounty of Poké Balls, potions and miscellany are added to your inventory. That is, unless your inventory is full or you leave the PokéStop’s range before collecting the goodies. The bracelet lets you know if you’re successful by flashing in a rainbow of colors; if it doesn’t work, the device flashes red.

The same goes for catching Pokémon, though there are a few caveats here. The teardrop vibrates and lights up when a Pokémon is near, but there’s no way to tell what kind or what level that Pokémon is. Nor is there a way to change which type of Poké Ball you throw — if you want to use an Ultra Ball or raspberries, you’ll have to pull out your phone. With Pokémon Go Plus, you could unwittingly walk by a 2000 CP Charizard and attempt to catch it with a single standard Poké Ball, which is highly unlikely to work.

It’s crucial to note that with Pokémon Go Plus, you get just one chance to catch each creature; they always run away if you’re not successful on the first throw.

I walked around my neighborhood, which is thankfully littered with PokéStops, and tried the Pokémon Go Plus on my wrist and clipped onto the top of my jeans. Both options worked well, though I happened to be wearing high-waisted jeans and whenever the device activated there, it felt like a fat worm attempting to wriggle across my stomach. Its vibrations are definitely powerful enough get your attention — and maybe the attention of anyone nearby. I entered my building’s elevator with four other people and felt just a little ridiculous as the Plus vibrated and lit up at the top of my jeans. At least on my wrist I can fool strangers into thinking it’s a new kind of fitness tracker, rather than an accessory for a mobile game about trapping exotic fictional monsters in palm-sized prison balls.

Pokémon Go Plus is not a replacement for the game on your phone, but it’s good for the simple stuff, like hitting PokéStops and catching stray Rattatas, Pidgeys and Spearows. It’s a grinding machine. And, in a game where grinding is crucial for anyone who wants to dominate a gym or two, that’s not a terrible thing. Just be prepared to pack a few more items in your Pokémon Go survival bag.

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Windows 10’s Anniversary Update makes a great OS better

“It’s nice, for once, to be able to recommend a new version of Windows without any hesitation.” That’s how I summarized my review of Windows 10 last year, and for the most part, it’s lived up to my expectations. Other than Microsoft’s bafflingly forceful automatic upgrade policy (which has led to lawsuits and plenty of ticked off users), the operating system’s first year on the market has been relatively smooth.

Microsoft says the software is now running on over 350 million devices worldwide, and it’s seeing the highest customer satisfaction ratings ever for a Windows release. So expectations are running pretty high for the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, which arrives August 2nd. But while it definitely delivers some useful upgrades to key features like Cortana and Windows Ink, don’t expect any massive changes to Windows 10 as a whole.

Cortana

Expect to see Microsoft’s virtual assistant just about everywhere in the Anniversary Update. Cortana is accessible through the lock screen, allowing you to ask simple questions or do things like play music, without even having to log in. She’ll also control some apps like iHeartRadio and Pandora, with voice commands. (Unfortunately, there’s no Spotify support yet.)

Perhaps most intriguingly, Cortana will also work across different platforms, with the ability to talk to Windows Phone and Android devices. You’ll be able to see notifications from your phone right on the Windows desktop, as well as alerts like when your phone is running low on battery. While there’s a Cortana app on iOS, this extensive integration won’t be available to iPhone users just yet. Microsoft reps say one reason for that is that it’s simply harder to implement it on Apple’s platform.

Cortana is also getting the smarts to act like a real assistant. Just like before, you can send her reminders and have her recall them at any point. Now, you’ll also be able to add photos to those reminders, as well as create them from Windows apps directly. And yes, those reminders carry over to Cortana’s mobile apps too. They’re particularly useful for things like frequent flyer numbers or complex parking spot locations, where asking your phone to look it up is easier than searching through your notes manually. She can also search within your documents for specific bits of text.

While I still find Google Now to be more accurate at listening to voice commands, Cortana stands out as the only voice-powered digital assistant on a desktop OS. Apple’s Siri will be the highlight of MacOS Sierra this fall when it’s officially released (though you can try it in beta form now), but Cortana still has that beat feature-wise.

Windows Ink

With the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, Ink finally steps out from behind the scenes for stylus users with an interface all its own. Clicking the eraser button on the Surface Pen, for example, brings up a new menu on the right side of the screen. From there, you can create a Sticky Note (basically a digital Post-It), access a blank sketch pad or jot notes down on a screenshot of whatever you’re looking at. Other active stylus models will have access to the feature too, and you’ll even be able to use it with a keyboard and mouse (right-click on the taskbar and choose “Show Windows Ink Workspace” button).

While it’s still fairly rudimentary, the current Ink interface is a lot more useful than what Microsoft offered in the past. Previously, hitting the Surface Pen’s eraser button would simply open up a blank OneNote document. It was great for people who liked to sketch or jot down handwritten notes, but that was about it. I’ve found myself using the stylus even more now with the Surface Pro 4 to create Sticky reminders, or simply caption an image to share with friends.

Just like Cortana, you can also access all of the new Ink features from the lock screen. So if you have to take some emergency notes for class, or simply want to jot down a burst of inspiration, you won’t have to wait to log into Windows to do so.

Windows Hello

Microsoft’s biometric authentication feature is branching out from the lock screen to let you sign into apps like DropBox and iHeartradio. It’ll even log you into some websites when you’re using the Edge browser. Hello was one of the best additions to Windows 10, so it was only a matter of time until its zippy login capabilities spread throughout the OS.

Still, the problem with Windows Hello is actually being able to use it. Fingerprint sensors and depth-sensing cameras (like Intel’s RealSense) still aren’t all that common. You’ll find them on the Surface machines and some high-end notebooks and tablets, but you can forget about them if you’re on a budget. And if you’re using a desktop, you’re even worse off. You can buy a third-party fingerprint sensor, but it won’t be as fast or accurate as the hardware used inside phones. And, for some reason, external depth-sensing cameras are still practically non-existent (unless you pay through the nose for a RealSense developer device).

At this point, Microsoft doesn’t have an answer to the lack of Windows Hello-compatible hardware out there. But company reps say they hope that once Microsoft adds more features to Windows Hello, manufacturers will feel more compelled to add the necessary hardware.

Microsoft Edge

Remember all the promises of browser extension support on Edge? Well, they’re finally here with the Anniversary Update. You’ll be able to choose from a handful of popular options like LastPass, AdBlock, Pocket and Evernote’s Clipper. The selection was pretty limited during my testing, but hopefully developers will adopt Edge’s extensions quickly. Microsoft claims that Edge is more power efficient now (something it already touted over its competitors), and it has even more support for newer web standards.

Start Menu and other changes

Rather than just highlighting a few apps in the Start Menu, the Anniversary Update brings all of your installed apps into a single (and very long) drop-down list. It might seem a bit overwhelming to new users, but it saves power users an extra click when they need to peruse their apps. Live Tiles are smarter now as well: If you click on a news app displaying a specific story, you’ll be directed to that story once the app launches. Sure, neither change is as drastic as the return of the Start Menu, but they’re still helpful tweaks.

The Anniversary Update also marks the first time Microsoft has made Bash command line support for Ubuntu Linux available in Windows. That’s not something most users will notice, but it’s a boon for developers.

Wrap-up

If you were expecting a huge change with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, then you’ll probably be disappointed here. But, in a way, its lack of any major additions says a lot about how much Microsoft got right when it first launched Windows 10. It’s a stable, secure and fast OS. The Anniversary Update simply makes it better, and that’s something I think every PC user will appreciate.

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Amazon’s Echo Dot is a great way to bring Alexa to more rooms

I haven’t been shy about my love for the Amazon Echo. I wake up with it, and aside from my phone, computers and TV, it’s one of the gadgets I rely most on most throughout the day. So when Amazon announced the $ 90 Echo Dot, which brings all of its larger sibling’s features to any speaker, I was onboard before you could say “Alexa, what’s the weather?” I couldn’t wait to bring Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant, which is the heart of soul of the Echo, into my bedroom (ahem) and office. It took a long while for the Echo Dot to finally reach me (Amazon, once again, refused to make it available early for reviewers), but after a week of living with it on my nightstand, I’m finding it just as useful as the original.

Let’s make this clear up front: You still can’t buy an Echo Dot on its own. The only way to order one is to ask Alexa on an Echo or Fire TV to order it for you and wait several weeks. Amazon is clearly positioning it as a secondary device, which makes sense for most people, but also seems like a bafflingly restrictive choice in this day and age. Perhaps the company just wanted to limit its first available units to Echo users, especially since it’s had trouble producing enough devices in the past.

The actual process of buying the Echo Dot was smooth and easy — almost worryingly so. It’s strange to just say a few words and then have a $ 90 gadget headed towards your home. You’ve been able to buy things via the Echo with voice commands for a while now, but that’s something I’ve never done before the Dot. At most, I would ask Alexa to add a few items to my shopping cart or wish list. It reminds me of when, in 2009, I bought my 50-inch plasma TV via Amazon’s iPhone app — a moment of ludicrously convenient big-ticket consumerism that I remember to this day. Now, you don’t even need to look at a screen before you fork over money to Amazon.

Setting up the Echo Dot is only slightly more involved than with its larger sibling, mainly because you have to plug in an auxiliary cable, in addition to a power cord. You’ll have to use Amazon’s Alexa iOS or Android app to get the Echo Dot connected to WiFi, which typically only takes a few minutes. The Alexa app is also where you can manage the Echo Dot’s settings, as well as its “skills,” or connections to third-party services. You can also go through voice training with the app to help your Echo Dot understand you better.

The Dot feels like a large hockey puck: It’s basically the top part of the original Echo sitting on its own. There are two buttons on top for disabling the microphone and enabling Bluetooth pairing. To control the volume, you just need to turn the top portion of the device, which also lights up with LEDs to show you the sound levels. While it has a small built-in speaker, the entire appeal of the Echo Dot is its ability to connect to a beefier system. Once it’s plugged in, it’ll turn anything, even a decades-old amplifier setup, into a smart speaker. It’s also a useful accessory if you’ve already invested in modern speaker systems like Sonos. The Echo Dot has the same beam-forming seven microphone array that sits atop the original Echo, so it’s just as accurate when it comes to hearing your commands, even in moderately noisy rooms.

Currently, I have a large Echo set up in my living room and the Echo Dot about 30 feet away in my bedroom. When standing between them, they’re equally as fast at determining my voice commands and bringing back responses. (It’s truly weird occasionally hearing a symphony of Alexa responses in my apartment.) Since they’re plugged into power continuously, the Echo devices are better about listening for potential voice commands than phone virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now. Alexa doesn’t have to worry about conserving battery life, after all.

With the Echo Dot connected to an older Logitech speaker on my nightstand, it worked like a charm. Audio quality was solid, and being able to shout Alexa commands from under the comfort of my duvet felt downright luxurious. The only potential issue? Your speakers, naturally, need to be turned on for the Echo Dot to work. In the interest of energy conservation, that’s not something I’m willing to do 24/7. So I’ve taken to disconnecting the Echo Dot from my bedroom speaker most of the day, and instead relying on its embedded speaker for simple commands. When I want to listen to music or online radio, I just plug the speaker in. It would be nice if future versions of the Echo Dot gave you an easy way to automatically switch between its speaker options (or better yet, do it automatically).

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

The Echo Dot sounded great when connected to my elaborate home theater setup, which consists of a Denon S910W receiver and Pioneer Elite tower front and center speakers (I don’t use my rear speakers for music). Just like with the original, you can ask the Echo Dot to play your playlists from Amazon Music, as well as other services including Pandora and Spotify (after connecting to them with the Alexa app). While actual music performance will depend on the service you’re listening to, I didn’t hear many hints of compression with Pandora streams, which is among the lower-quality options. True audiophiles will still prefer using something like the new Chromecast Audio on big speaker setups, though, since that gives you the option of using an optical cable to let your amplifier handle audio processing. Your only option with the Echo Dot is a standard 3.5mm cable.

If you live in a smaller apartment, there’s a good chance you don’t actually need two separate Alexa devices. If I shout loudly enough from my bedroom, the Echo in my kitchen usually hears me. Still, it’s nice being able to have a closer device for voice commands, especially if you’re trying to set an alarm late at night. If you’re looking for a secondary Echo device and don’t have any extra speakers, Amazon’s $ 130 Tap speaker might be a better option for you. And if you just want to jump into Amazon’s ecosystem, the original Echo is still a great product at $ 180.

The Echo Dot is the very definition of a niche device. It’s meant to be connected to expensive gear that many people don’t have, and the future of voice-powered digital assistants is still uncertain. But for Alexa addicts who have decent sound systems, it’s the perfect virtual companion.

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USB-C and Lightning headphones aren’t great news for everyone

The 3.5mm port is dying — at least when it comes to smartphones. If the persistent Lightning headphone rumor wasn’t enough to persuade you, the fact that Motorola beat Apple to the punch should be. Motorola’s new Moto Z and Moto Z Force don’t have that familiar circular hole for your cans to plug into, and it now seems inevitable that almost every phone within a few years will forgo the port in favor of a single socket for both charging and using headphones.

This is a change that few people actually want. It’s driven entirely by the makers of our phones and their desire to ditch what they view as an unnecessary port.

There are literally billions of headphones out in the world with a 3.5mm jack, all of which will need an adapter to work with Motorola’s new phone. And the quality of that adapter is going to be all-important. Phones are digital devices, and headphones require analog input. To solve that, every phone has a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and an amplifier inside, which do exactly what the names suggest. The DAC converts the signal from ones and zeros to waves, and the amplifier makes those waves audible through a speaker or headphones.

The combination of these two parts (DSPs are also involved, but let’s not overcomplicate things) is what makes phones — or anything with a headphone port — sound different from one another. If you listen to the same track, with the same headphones, on an iPhone 6S and a Galaxy S7, they won’t sound identical, mainly because the two phones use different DACs and amps, which output slightly different analog signals through the devices’ 3.5mm ports.

The DAC and amp, then, are the hidden link between your music app of choice and your headphones, and their importance can’t be understated. The industry has gotten a lot better with DACs and amps in recent years, and the general standard of audio output from phones has risen, but there are still devices that are stronger and those that are weaker.

With the switch to USB-C (or Lightning) for headphones, your phone’s DAC and amp (it’ll still need one for the speaker) are being bypassed. That means this all-important component will now reside inside either the adapter (for your existing cans) or the headphones themselves (for USB-C or Lightning headsets).

In reality, those people you’d imagine to be up in arms about the change — i.e., audiophiles — probably have the least to be worried about. Premium manufacturers will be able to pick and configure the DACs in their headphones to match the analog circuitry inside. We’re already starting to see companies like Audeze provide headphones with apps that allow the listener to fine-tune the output of their built-in DACs, DSPs and amps. This can result in clearer sound at louder volumes than, say, an iPhone can provide. You’ll also have the peace of mind that whatever you plug your expensive headphones into, they will sound exactly as the manufacturer intended.

The high-end Audeze EL-8 can plug into an iPhone’s Lightning port.

For existing premium headphones, there’s already a strong market for DACS to complement high-end phones, and with the abrupt switch to USB-C and Lightning, that market is only going to grow. Audiophiles are also unlikely to be fazed by the thought of carrying around a dongle or breakout box in the name of higher-quality sound. Indeed, many already do.

Who should be worried about the change? Well, anyone who doesn’t own expensive headphones and has no intention of getting them. If you’re the type of person who spends $ 30 to $ 100 on cans, then you probably have cause for concern. You’re either going to need to grapple with what is likely to be a budget adapter for your existing headphones or choose a cheap USB-C or Lightning model.

And here’s the problem: The DAC and amp inside that $ 50 pair of digital headphones are not going to be of the same quality as those in a $ 500 pair. Nor will the sound they output be afforded the same time and effort. Instead of trusting in your phone’s DAC and amp to output decent-quality audio at decent volumes, you’ll now be contending with the choices of a company that has had to cut corners to put out headphones on a tight budget.

The argument that those spending “so little” on headphones don’t care enough about sound quality to notice is plain stupid. This isn’t 2007, and millions of people now leave those white earbuds in the box, where they belong. You can also buy some great headphones for less than $ 100, and although there are huge gains made above that price point, it’s a case of diminishing returns as you approach the high end of the headphone market.

In order to get the same quality offered by analog pairs, the price has to go up.

Of course, I don’t want to be a scaremonger. Bluetooth headphones already have the necessary components inside to convert digital to analog, so this won’t be entirely new territory for many companies. But to get good Bluetooth headphones, you need to spend more than you would to get good analog headphones. The same will be true for USB-C and Lightning: In order to get the same quality offered by analog pairs, the price has to go up. Sure, there will probably be, for example, JBL USB-C headphones at $ 50, $ 75, $ 100, etc., but they will each sound worse than their analog counterparts at the same price.

To my mind, anyone investing that kind of money deserves, at the least, to get the same kind of sound quality per dollar as they do now from their analog cans. And it’s difficult to imagine a world where JBL, or any company, will accept lower profit margins on digital headphones than analog. The price has to go up, or the quality has to go down.

Putting these components inside the headphones (or, in some cases, the cable) also has an unwelcome side effect: reduced battery life. Apple, Samsung, Motorola et al. spend a long time fine-tuning the components in their products to maximize endurance. That means limiting the output of the amplifier in order to ensure it doesn’t use too much power.

If you put the control of these variables in the hands of headphone manufacturers, they will undoubtedly choose components that make their hardware sound best rather than those that play nice with your phone’s battery. While powering in-ear headphones is unlikely to have too much impact on your battery, using a pair of cans with large drivers will. We’ve already seen this in action from some early Lightning headphones, with models like the Audeze EL-8 trimming a fair chunk from the iPhone’s already questionable battery life.

The final issue with phones ditching the 3.5mm port — and this might be the worst — is that the industry is far from finished with developing its replacement. Intel, for example, is currently working on USB-C audio in a big way. In addition to trying to standardize USB-C digital audio output, it’s also working on a system that will allow analog audio to be output through sideband use (SBU) pins. These pins are currently not being used in the USB-C spec but would allow for headphones that use the phone’s DAC and amp. That work is not yet finished, and for Apple to benefit from it would involve ditching the Lightning port, which is based on USB 2.0.

The industry is far from finished with developing the 3.5mm port’s replacement.

Given that Apple has switched to USB-C for other products and that it has no problem with killing ports in the name of progress, that’s not as impossible as it sounds. Adopting USB Type-C for headphones could even lead to a MacBook with two ports! But let’s not dream of such crazy things. Let’s get back to the Moto Z: We don’t actually know how Motorola’s system works. There’s an adapter in the box to facilitate plugging in 3.5mm headphones, but it’s not clear if it uses Intel’s in-development analog tricks or has an amp and DAC built in. Chances are it’s the latter, which is what Chinese company LeEco’s new USB-C smartphones do and what all Lightning headphones on the market today do.

This uncertainty is indicative of a real problem: By making the jump so early — before the industry has truly settled on a standard — Motorola, Apple and any other company that follows suit might have a difficult decision to make in a couple of years: Do they upset their customers with another change to audio output? Or ignore progress in the area and persist with a solution that leaves analog output in the past, even when it’s possible through a single port?

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