TAG Heuer made a modular $1,650 smartwatch

When TAG Heuer released its first smartwatch two years ago, it had an $ 1,800 asking price and was dubbed the most expensive Android Wear device on the market. Still, more than 56,000 people bought it, which is certainly enough reason for the Swiss watchmaker to give smartwatches another shot. And so it has. Say hello to the TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45, the company’s second Android Wear collaboration with Intel and Google. The starting price is still pretty high at $ 1,650 (£1,400), but the cost might be worth it this time. The reason: The Modular 45 comes with interchangeable parts, making the watch a lot more versatile than its predecessor.

What’s more, it’s the watch’s modular nature that makes this the “First Swiss-Made Connected Watch.” That’s because the 45mm smartwatch module can be swapped out with a purely Swiss-Made mechanical option that transforms it into an “ordinary” luxury timepiece. (Your options include either the Calibre 5 or the much more premium Heuer 02T Tourbillon, which TAG Heuer claims has “the most accurate mechanical movements around.”) So even if the connected module part of it gets outdated eventually (as it likely will), you’ll still be able to have a high-end TAG Heuer on your wrist just by swapping that module out. And, who knows, maybe TAG Heuer will make future connected watch modules for the same system, making the whole thing wonderfully future-proof.

As mentioned, it’s not just the watch modules that are interchangeable. It’s pretty much every part of the watch, including the straps, buckles and lugs. The core Connected Modular 45 range consists of 11 different designs; the watch module comes in either silver or black, while the straps are available in rubber, leather, titanium or ceramic, and in a slew of different colors. If that’s not enough, TAG Heuer offers 45 additional options, some of which include premium materials like patent leather, rose gold and even diamonds. That amounts to a grand total of 56 different designs and, according to the company, over 500 different design combinations.

Swapping out the different parts of the watch isn’t too difficult, but it does require a bit of finesse. During a hands-on event in San Francisco, I tried assembling and reassembling the watch a few times and it definitely took me several attempts before I finally got it right. The lugs and the central module connect to each other via a couple of pins that snap together, and a push button underneath releases them. The trick was aligning the parts correctly, which is harder to do than it looks. Still, after some trial and error, I eventually learned how to do it. The cool part is that the parts are all interchangeable without the need for a screwdriver; just use your own two hands.

The Connected Modular 45 watch module is quite a stunner. It has a 1.39-inch AMOLED touchscreen display, which is a lot sharper than the transflective LCD on its predecessor. It’s covered in 2.5mm sapphire crystal glass and the entire thing is encased in titanium. And, of course, it also comes with a few different TAG Heuer designed watchfaces. Yet, those with smaller wrists might not like it so much. The 45mm watch is really quite bulky on slender arms, and goes against the rumors that it would be more female-friendly. Of course, something like that could come out some time in the future, but for now, the Connected 45 is undeniably on the chunky side.

As for the internals, the watch is comparable to most modern smartwatches. It has an Intel Atom Z34XX processor, 4GB of memory, WiFi, GPS, more than 24 hours of battery life and water resistance to 50 meters. It also ships with the newly released Android Wear 2.0, which means simpler navigation, NFC support so you can use it with Android Pay, third-party complications and a standalone app store, so you can use it with an iPhone as well.

As mentioned earlier, the Connected Modular 45 will start at $ 1,650, but of course, additional options will cost extra. If you opt for the top-of-the-line accessories and add-ons, it’s very likely you’ll be spending thousands more. Still, the cost is very much on par with other non-connected luxury timepieces, and even those aren’t as modular as the Modular 45. So if you think of it as a modern Android Wear wearable disguised as a versatile Swiss-made watch, that might make the price easier to swallow.

We’ll have more thoughts on the watch once we get our review unit, but for now, you can get your own in the following regions: the US, the UK, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Update: CEO Jean-Claude Biver has confirmed that Android Wear 2.0 will be coming to the original Connected watch at the end of the month as well.

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Roli Blocks is an affordable, modular way to make electronic music

British music-gear company Roli is mostly known for its attempts at reimagining the piano. The full-size Seaboard and smaller Seaboard Rise may bear similarities to traditional keyboards, but their rubberized, touch-sensitive buttons let you modulate, pitch-bend and slide between notes in a way that’s far different from what you can do on a standard keyboard or synthesizer. However, price is a big barrier to entry — the Seaboard Rise starts at $ 800, while its full-size counterpart will set you back $ 2,000 or more.

But Roli has been working on a way to bring its unique music-creation tools down to a much lower price point, and it’s taking the wraps off those efforts today. Roli Blocks are a set of modular synth controllers that snap together and hook up to your iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth. They’re tiny and inexpensive: The main controller, called the Lightpad, is a small square (less than 4 inches to a side) that sells for $ 179. That’s significantly cheaper than Roli’s other products. And while you can’t play the Lightpad like a keyboard, the short time I spent playing with it and the other Roli Blocks convinced me that it’s still a powerful, flexible and fun music-making tool.

At a high level, the Lightpad is essentially a MIDI controller; it’s useless without hooking it up to an iOS device. But once you do that and install the free Roli Noise app (only for iOS at the moment, but coming to Android soon), you can tweak the Lightpad in myriad ways. In the app, you can pick from 128 different software instruments like synths, bass instruments, pianos, guitars, pan flutes, drum sets and so on. Roli says it’ll continue to release more free instrument updates, and it will also sell instruments created by professional musicians like Grimes, RZA and Steve Aoki. But most of the content you’ll use to make the Blocks system work is already there in the free app.

Once you pick a sound you’re interested in, the Lightpad…err… lights up in a 5×5 grid pattern, with each box representing a note in the chromatic scale. The fun starts when you press your finger down on the Lightpad’s silicon-covered surface. The whole surface is pressure sensitive, so the harder you bear down, the louder the initial tone will be. Holding your finger lets the note ring out, while different slides across the pad will let you tweak the sound in some major ways. If you slide horizontally, you’ll bend the note to whatever pitch your finger lands on. But if you move up and down, you’ll apply each instrument’s modulation effect. You can move your fingers slowly in short strokes to apply a subtle effect, for instance, or quickly move your finger across the Lightpad to really tweak out your chosen sound.

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That’s the basic gist of the Lightpad, but there is of course a lot more you can do inside the app. You can pick your scale (say, D major vs. E minor) and it will light up the pad with only the notes that fit into your chosen scale. That makes it a lot easier for someone who doesn’t know much music theory to hit the “right” notes when making a composition.

And the app offers way more than just major and minor scales too. If you’re a fan of the mixolydian mode, that’s an option as well. You can still play “dark” spots on the pad outside of your chosen scale, but the lit-up points help you stay in line. You can also have arpeggiated patterns play when you tap a note.

But while you can technically perform live on the fly with the Blocks system, it also has a fully developed recording and looping system. You can record multiple patterns, assign them to different “blocks” on the Lightpad and trigger them at will. You can also start by recording a drumbeat, layering a lead line and bass over it, and record that entire segment as one piece in a longer composition. I didn’t get to play around with it too much, but in my brief demo it seemed like a fairly robust system.

And we haven’t even gotten into the modular nature of Blocks yet. Each component has magnetic conductors on its side, so you can take two Lightpads and slap them side by side and the system will automatically recognize that you’ve extended your canvas and set it up appropriately. Roli is also offering two other blocks alongside the Lightpad: the Live Block and Loop Block. (They cost $ 79 each.) The Loop Block gives you instant access to the system’s recording and playback features so you don’t have to jump back and forth between your iOS device and the Lightpad while recording a new creation.

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The Live Block is meant for, well, performing live; many of the features buried in the iOS app are exposed here. You can page up and down between software instruments, switch keys and scales, change tempos and effects and so on. While I was able to grasp how these additional blocks gave physical controls to features in the app, it’s a bit harder to say how useful they’d be to most users. There’s a definite learning curve here, though people who more proficient than I am at using sequencers and live electronic music gadgets might master it faster.

Even so, Roli Blocks piqued my interest. I’ve always wanted to get a small, electronic music-making setup but have never quite found what I was looking for. Playing the Lightpad felt intuitive to me, and the vast array of sounds and other variables built into the Roli Noise app make it a very flexible system, particularly at this price. I don’t know if the extra Live and Loop blocks are necessary just yet, but fortunately you don’t have to decide right away. In fact, the free iOS app includes a Lightpad-like view, so you can just start messing around there — and if you get hooked, you can buy the physical hardware controller. If you’d rather try this all out in person, Roli’s new gadgets will be available at Apple Stores this fall as well.

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The Moto Z and Z Force are Motorola’s new modular flagships

So long Moto X, hello Moto Z. For its next round of Android flagships, Motorola is going for a new brand, an ultra-thin design and support for “Mods” that expand their capabilities. And yes, the Moto Z is seriously thin at just 5.19 millimeters millimeters thick. How Motorola achieved will probably be controversial, though: the Moto Z and its slightly beefier sibling, the Moto Z Force, don’t have headphone jacks. Instead, you’ll have to plug in the included USB-C to 3.5mm jack adapter to use headphones. But is any of this enough for Lenovo to finally have a hit phone? (Take a look at our hands-on impressions of both phones here.)

At the very least, you can’t say Motorola is being lazy. It’s embracing the idea of modular add-ons, Moto Mods, wholeheartedly. Both new phones have magnetic connectors on their rears, which a variety of accessories can connect to. So far, that includes a homegrown pico projector, a speaker upgrade from JBL and a variety of battery packs from Incipio, Tumi and Kate Spade. Moto says the Mods will work on next year’s phones, which should give potential buyers a bit of piece of mind. Yes, the whole concept is similar to what LG attempted with the G5, and it’s still unclear if mainstream consumers care about modular upgrades.

Lenovo is the first major manufacturer to dump headphone jacks in exchange for a thinner design, and it’ll likely end up taking the majority of consumer flack for doing so. But it’s not alone: Intel is also pushing USB-C over headphone jacks, and Chinese phone maker LeEco has already dumped them with its latest devices. We’ve even heard from the rumor mill that Apple might be considering the same thing for upcoming iPhones. But as someone who usually has expensive earbuds plugged into my smartphone, I’m not looking forward to relying on a dongle. (And I’m definitely not going to be upgrading to USB-C headphones anytime soon.)

While it took a few revisions for the Moto X to become truly great, the Moto Z seems like a leap ahead in many ways. It’s got the usual speed improvements, with a new quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor running at up to 2.2GHz and 4GB of RAM. Its screen is a tad smaller than last year’s, at just 5.5-inches instead of 5.7-inches, and it sports the same quad HD resolution of 2560 by 1440 pixels (535 pixels per inch). Naturally, its thinness means it’s significantly lighter than before, weighing in at just 4.6 ounces (136 grams), compared to last year’s Moto X Pure (Style outside of the US) at 6.3 ounces (179 grams).

On the camera front, the Moto Z packs in a 12 megapixel rear shooter with an f/1.8 aperture lens, optical image stabilization and laser autofocus. Its front camera is a typical 5 megapixel entry. Motorola seems to have crammed in as much whiz-bang technology it could to deliver a better photo-taking than its past phones: the rear camera also features color-corrected flash with dual LEDs and a 1.12um pixel size.

Just like last year, there’s also a more powerful model with a few additional features, the US-only Moto Z Force. It’s a bit thicker (6.9mm) and heavier, but it also packs in a significantly larger battery (3,500mAh compared to the Z’s 2,600mAh) and a more capable 21 megapixel camera with phase detection autofocus and Deep Trench Isolation (a technique Apple used for the iPhone 6S camera). The Moto Z Force’s screen also uses Motorola’s Shattershield technology, which it claims is more resistant to cracks and scratches than Corning’s Gorilla Glass. While it’s not as mind-blowingly thin as the Z proper, the Z Force sounds like the ideal Android phone for power users.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to be on Verizon to nab the Moto Z phones this summer, where they’ll be available as “Droid Editions.” Motorola says it’ll also sell the Moto Z unlocked on its website this fall. The Moto Z will be available internationally in September, but Motorola says the Z Force is a US-only affair for now.

Get all the news from today’s Lenovo and Motorola event right here!

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