Samsung’s Notebook 9 Pen is a reasonably capable convertible


You’d be forgiven if you’ve had some trouble combing through Samsung’s laptop product page. Honestly, I’ve been looking most of the afternoon, and I couldn’t really tell you the distinctions between the various lines. Add to that the various subcategories and SKUs, and the whole thing is a bit a maddening. 

But while the company’s not doing a great job mitigating brand confusion, it is delivering some solid devices — and the Notebook 9 Pen is no exception. Announced at CES in January, the new device doesn’t represent much of a drastic departure from its predecessor. No surprise there, really, given the fact that the company didn’t even wait a full year for a refresh.

The biggest change here is right there in the name, bringing Samsung’s beloved stylus to the line, to take advantage of Windows 10’s pen capabilities and bringing the Note line’s familiar Air Command overlay to the desktop. It’s not an essential addition by any means, but it gives the company a chance to play in the “creators” category that Microsoft’s been pushing in a major way with its desktop operating system.

Build-wise, the Notebook 9 looks a lot like its predecessors — and, for that matter, other Samsung devices, like the Chromebook Pro. The machine’s coated in an alloy the company’s taken to calling “Metal12,” which sounds like a late-’90s rap-rock band, but is actually a sort of magnesium-aluminum combo that’s lighter than aluminum alone.

Of course, you run into the same issue that you get with a lot of these materials: a kind of plasticy feel, in spite of its metal makeup. That’s probably a small price to pay for most users, given the weight that its shaves off the body. The thing is deceptively light, weighing it at around 2.2 pounds. 

It’s not nearly as rugged as the company claims, though. The laptop traveled exclusively between my backpack and work/home desks and somehow managed to get scratched and slightly dinged in the process.

Two large hinges on the back give the laptop your standard 360 convertible configuration. That’s handiest when you’ve got the system set up in tent mode, stashing the keyboard away when it’s time to watch a movie or draw with the S-Pen. The downside of convertible over detachable should be familiar to anyone who’s ever used one of these things: when flipped around all the way, the keyboard becomes the back of the tablet. One of these days some clever designer is going to crack that code.

The port selection’s a bit of an odd one — but it still beats the two lonely USB-Cs you get on the MacBook and PixelBook. You get HDMI, one USB-C and a headphone jack on one side and a full-size USB and microSD slot on the other. Interestingly the system also has a proprietary charging port, in spite of being able to be charged via USB-C. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d have gone with two of the latter.

The S-Pen slot is located up front, just below the palm rest. Good on Samsung for finding a place to incorporate that directly into the system. It’s the only way to ensure that you don’t wind up losing the thing every other day. This was accomplished, in part, by incorporating what’s essentially the same S-Pen you’ll find in the Note.

It’s small and passive (no batteries) and fires up the same software overlay you get on the Note when you pull it out. The system is nice and responsive, as well — I didn’t detect much noticeable lag when using it to draw.

It lacks the heft of larger pens from companies like Microsoft and Apple, and as such isn’t as suited to long drawing sessions. Also, don’t accidentally insert it upside down, which is a thing I definitely didn’t do, because, hypothetically speaking, it would be really, really hard to get it back out again. The keyboard also loses some points for being squishy. It beats a typing on a keyboard case, but not that much. 

‘The pen is included with the notebook, which at $1,400 as configured, is not exactly cheap. That’s $100 more than the cheapest MacBook, with similar specs, including 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. The resolution’s also a step down at 1920 x 1080 on the 13-inch, versus 2304 x 1440 on the MacBook’s 12-inch.

The stated battery life is around nine hours — middling, but it should get you through a full day’s use, unplugged. You can also keep an external battery pack handy for charging via USB for those times you need to spend more time away from an outlet.

It’s not a bad little notebook. There’s nothing really exceptional here, but it should prove a nice little travel companion. There’s not a ton in the way of firepower under the hood, so in spite of the pen functionality, this isn’t the “creative professional” machine Microsoft keeps promising with its Surface devices, but those who appreciate the S-Pen on the mobile device will likely appreciate it here, as well.

The device hits retail on February 18, along with the standard Notebook 9 and low-cost Notebook 7 Spin.

Samsung’s Notebook 9 Pen is a reasonably capable convertible


You’d be forgiven if you’ve had some trouble combing through Samsung’s laptop product page. Honestly, I’ve been looking most of the afternoon, and I couldn’t really tell you the distinctions between the various lines. Add to that the various subcategories and SKUs, and the whole thing is a bit a maddening. 

But while the company’s not doing a great job mitigating brand confusion, it is delivering some solid devices — and the Notebook 9 Pen is no exception. Announced at CES in January, the new device doesn’t represent much of a drastic departure from its predecessor. No surprise there, really, given the fact that the company didn’t even wait a full year for a refresh.

The biggest change here is right there in the name, bringing Samsung’s beloved stylus to the line, to take advantage of Windows 10’s pen capabilities and bringing the Note line’s familiar Air Command overlay to the desktop. It’s not an essential addition by any means, but it gives the company a chance to play in the “creators” category that Microsoft’s been pushing in a major way with its desktop operating system.

Build-wise, the Notebook 9 looks a lot like its predecessors — and, for that matter, other Samsung devices, like the Chromebook Pro. The machine’s coated in an alloy the company’s taken to calling “Metal12,” which sounds like a late-’90s rap-rock band, but is actually a sort of magnesium-aluminum combo that’s lighter than aluminum alone.

Of course, you run into the same issue that you get with a lot of these materials: a kind of plasticy feel, in spite of its metal makeup. That’s probably a small price to pay for most users, given the weight that its shaves off the body. The thing is deceptively light, weighing it at around 2.2 pounds. 

It’s not nearly as rugged as the company claims, though. The laptop traveled exclusively between my backpack and work/home desks and somehow managed to get scratched and slightly dinged in the process.

Two large hinges on the back give the laptop your standard 360 convertible configuration. That’s handiest when you’ve got the system set up in tent mode, stashing the keyboard away when it’s time to watch a movie or draw with the S-Pen. The downside of convertible over detachable should be familiar to anyone who’s ever used one of these things: when flipped around all the way, the keyboard becomes the back of the tablet. One of these days some clever designer is going to crack that code.

The port selection’s a bit of an odd one — but it still beats the two lonely USB-Cs you get on the MacBook and PixelBook. You get HDMI, one USB-C and a headphone jack on one side and a full-size USB and microSD slot on the other. Interestingly the system also has a proprietary charging port, in spite of being able to be charged via USB-C. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d have gone with two of the latter.

The S-Pen slot is located up front, just below the palm rest. Good on Samsung for finding a place to incorporate that directly into the system. It’s the only way to ensure that you don’t wind up losing the thing every other day. This was accomplished, in part, by incorporating what’s essentially the same S-Pen you’ll find in the Note.

It’s small and passive (no batteries) and fires up the same software overlay you get on the Note when you pull it out. The system is nice and responsive, as well — I didn’t detect much noticeable lag when using it to draw.

It lacks the heft of larger pens from companies like Microsoft and Apple, and as such isn’t as suited to long drawing sessions. Also, don’t accidentally insert it upside down, which is a thing I definitely didn’t do, because, hypothetically speaking, it would be really, really hard to get it back out again. The keyboard also loses some points for being squishy. It beats a typing on a keyboard case, but not that much. 

‘The pen is included with the notebook, which at $1,400 as configured, is not exactly cheap. That’s $100 more than the cheapest MacBook, with similar specs, including 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. The resolution’s also a step down at 1920 x 1080 on the 13-inch, versus 2304 x 1440 on the MacBook’s 12-inch.

The stated battery life is around nine hours — middling, but it should get you through a full day’s use, unplugged. You can also keep an external battery pack handy for charging via USB for those times you need to spend more time away from an outlet.

It’s not a bad little notebook. There’s nothing really exceptional here, but it should prove a nice little travel companion. There’s not a ton in the way of firepower under the hood, so in spite of the pen functionality, this isn’t the “creative professional” machine Microsoft keeps promising with its Surface devices, but those who appreciate the S-Pen on the mobile device will likely appreciate it here, as well.

The device hits retail on February 18, along with the standard Notebook 9 and low-cost Notebook 7 Spin.

August’s Smart Locks proved to be the key to my smarthome puzzle


When smart home tech first started coming out, I was hopeful, but also skeptical. It seemed overly complicated, with too many hoops to jump through and a relative inability to meld old and new for situations like rental apartments and older homes. Now, though, the range and breadth of smart home tech means you can find something to suit just about every need, and I find my entire house is mostly connected, though it happened gradually bit by bit, rather than by any kind of grand design.

The most recent smart home tech I added to my setup is the August Lock, and specifically the third-generation, August Smart Lock Pro, along with the Connect Wi-Fi bridge. It’s the latest connected lock from August, which was acquired by lock industry giant Assa Abloy last year.

August’s product has a few advantages over more traditional lockmaker connected offerings thanks to a design that means you can keep your old lock. It’s particularly useful for renters, where swapping out the whole lock means, at the very least, asking for permission from a landlord, and in some cases, may be plain impossible. The Smart Lock Pro replaces just the inside, thumb lever portion of the deadbolt itself, so you don’t have to change keys.

The lock also has an advantage in terms of connectivity – with just the Smar Lock Pro itself, you get Z-Wave and Bluetooth connectivity, which means you can control it when you’re within BT range, or use a Z-Wave smart home hub (like SmartThings) for broader connectivity. If you add the Connect, however, you get a Wi-Fi bridge that means you can have remote lock access from wherever you are, as well as HomeKit compatibility.

Again, August’s offering is relatively unique when it comes to connected locks in this regard: Many offer some of the connectivity options listed above, but very few offer all, making August among the most versatile options on the market. It’s clear that August’s startup origins have it focused on the ‘smart’ part of the smart lock equation first, rather than something that’s an afterthought to an electronic deadbolt design of yesteryear. August’s DoorSense feature, which uses magnetic, easy-to-install add-on hardware to let you know if your door is open or closed, is also a very smart thing you won’t find with most other locks.

Besides auto-locking the door behind you, easily my favourite August feature, another nice bonus you get with August is Alexa voice control. You can easily check the status of your locks by voice command, and, using a specific skill designed to do it safely, you can also unlock with Alexa. You’ll have to speak out a PIN to confirm you want it to happen, which is great, because otherwise anyone yelling loud enough outside could conceivably trigger your Alexa and let themselves in.

Ultimately, August’s offering is a game-changer, and it’s been a terrific hit with both myself and my upstairs neighbor with whom I share an entrance, since I can provision them keys. It proved so useful that I quickly picked up a second August for my inside entry, since doing things the old way just felt terribly inconvenient after a little while.

At $249 for the Smart Lock Pro and Connect combo, it’s a somewhat pricey proposition. But for the convenience it affords, including being able to unlock your door with your phone when you return home (or auto-unlock if you’ve ventured fairly far afield), along with the ability to lock automatically behind you when you have your hands full, it’s worth it.

‘Alto’s Adventure’ sequel ‘Alto’s Odyssey’ launches on iOS on February 22


The “endless runner” genre of games seems inherently stress-generating to me, since it implies running, without end. But Alto’s Adventure, the 2015 game from Toronto developer Snowman, provided an endless runner that was actively and profoundly relaxing, thanks to a mellow, immersive soundtrack and graphics that seem drawn from some kind of new-age zen meditation video. Getting Alto, the titular character, to the bottom of the mountain while scooping up his lost llamas along the way actually isn’t about getting to the bottom, but just about what it’s like to love the trip down.

Three years later (almost to the day) Alto is back with his next journey, Alto’s Odyssey, out February 22 on iOS and Apple TV (you can pre-order now to have it ready to play as soon as it goes live). It’s an iOS-first launch, since Snowman’s team tells me Apple’s hardware is the best showcase for their work, but it’ll come to Android, too, eventually. The new game, which Snowman has been teasing for a while now (the first teaser trailer dropped last February), but building something that’s a successor to the Alto franchise while not being a straight sequel is a challenge that took time, and great care, according to Snowman’s founders Ryan Cash and Jordan Rosenberg.

The game’s producer Ely Cymet also took to heart the responsibility of building on the success of the original, while still avoiding the pitfall of delivering a rote sequel, and making sure that Alto’s world still felt like Alto’s world. In an interview, he explained that this responsibility and the decision to make sure Alto’s Odyssey struck the right balance is what stretched out the game’s development timeline – and why the new game feels distinctly different from the first one, while at the same time also feeling reassuringly familiar.

So what does it mean that Alto’s Odyssey feels ‘different but the same?’ After playing through and unlocking most of what’s on offer in terms of bonus characters and features, I think I have a good grasp. Basically, it still feels like Alto’s in terms of control, physics, mood and the brain space you occupy while playing it, but Snowman has added a lot in terms of new mechanics, set dressing and challenges to make sure that even Alto’s Adventure diehards won’t feel like they’re already Odyssey pros, too.

The new game features three complete ‘biomes’ – each equivalent in content to the original mountain from Adventure. There’s the Dunes, the Temple City and the Canyons, and each come with their own environment features, slightly different play style and atmospherics. You don’t move through each sequentially, as you would in a traditional level-based platformer – instead, you transition smoothly between them procedurally, with features from one environment fading into the next as you shift subtly between.

For players, the different biomes offer different kinds of experiences in terms of mood, with varying ambient lighting effects, but also significantly different gameplay elements, including waterfalls, pools, rock wall faces and more. These change how you play the game, with wall riding (once you unlock the board, early on in gameplay progression) being the most significant. Each environment can provide elements better suited to beating some challenges, too, so there’s the added gameplay complexity of surviving a run until you make it to the next one in order to get something done.

New ambient lighting effects, including sandstorms, solar accents, rain and more add up to a lot of variety of experience in terms of what you’re looking at, too, which helps Odyssey feel different to its predecessor. UK artist, designer and developer Harry Nesbitt, who worked with Snowman on Adventure, is back again and really stretching his wings to build on the visual style of the original.

For the most part, the new effects and visuals are amazing, and deepen the experience while remaining true to the look and feel of the original. Snowman and its graphics team did a lot of work to ensure that even when things can get confusing on screen, effects like a contrast color highlight for your character ensure you know what’s going on. Even so, I still felt the game was a mid muddled in places in terms of the look, and I indeed found myself longing for the rare breaks in the game when it’s perfectly clear out, with full mid-day sun, because the weather and other visual occlusions really could be a bit much at times. It resulted in a feeling of being overwhelmed I never experienced in similar situations with Adventure.

Despite sometimes feeling a bit over-busy on the graphics-side, the game is otherwise well-balanced and a true joy to play. The soundtrack is a fantastic, soothing companion to gameplay, and the reward loop is perfectly balanced to make sure you never get too frustrated when in pursuit of your goals. I put in plenty of hours during my pre-release time, and plan to put in plenty more when the game is out.

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When Snowman first began teasing Alto’s Odyssey, it felt to me like it was going to be a major departure in terms of gameplay and mechanics. In the end, the game feels like an expansive addition to the continuity of the first, which is both good and bad. In some ways, it doesn’t feel different enough, but at the same time, the team’s decision to make sure that fans of the first won’t feel like they’re not playing an Alto game is an admirable one.

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Azio’s Retro Classic typewriter-inspired Bluetooth keyboard is a luxurious treat


Maybe you’re sitting at a MacBook or other modern PC right now, typing away in near silence on a keyboard that provides no real satisfying response to your human fingers. Maybe, once in the distant past, you remember when keyboards offered something in return: A “click clack” that stood as an auditory proof of productivity.

If you miss that and want it back, the new Azio Luxury Retro Classic keyboard with Bluetooth is a fantastic option, and one that’s relatively affordable compared to some of the more extravagant typewriter-inspired keyboards out there – but with all of the same charm, and a mechanical typing action that you’ll love if you’re a fan of really pounding those keys.

The $219.99 ($189.99 if you don’t need wireless connectivity) accessory comes with a lot in the box you won’t get from comparably priced premium keyboards, including replaceable keycaps for both Mac and PC, as well as backlighting, and genuine metal, wood and leather finished surfaces. The wireless version works in both wired and Bluetooth configurations, and the 6,000 mAh battery on board can last for up to two months between charges.

The keyboard uses USB-C for charging, with a cable included (braided, no less) and it just works out of the box with both macOS and Windows thanks to the convenient mode switch at the back and the aforementioned interchangeable key caps (no tools required, either – just pull them off and push on the replacements.

In addition to the lovely material accents, and the Azio mechanical switches, which are indeed clicky and offer just the right amount of resistance for me, the Retro Classic also has typing angle adjustability thanks to screw down feet that can add a fair amount of lift if you find that more comfortable as a typist.

The keyboards also feel like they’re built to withstand a lot of typing – or a nuclear apocalypse, whichever comes first. They’re heavy, and that plus the rubberized anti-slip pads will keep them firmly rooted on your desk. This isn’t the keyboard you’ll want to take with you when you travel, however.

If you want something that’s as much desk decoration as it is functional tool, and you’re a big fan of mechanical keyboards (as I am, savoring each clack of this review on the Azio), then this is a prime option. Retro keyboards are getting easier to find, but Azio’s model has the best balance of price, versatility and quality of the ones I’ve come across thus far.

Play SNES classics in the HD resolution of memory with the Super Nt


When it comes to the art and science of retro gaming, Analogue has no equal. The small company that first brought us the Analogue Nt, then the Nt mini, is back again with the Super Nt – a lovingly engineered and built modern SNES/Super Famicom console.

Wait but what? A ‘modern SNES’? What does that entail? If you know Analogue’s past work, you know it essentially means building a custom FPGA processor that can play actual original SNES and SFC cartridges as they were intended to be played – not using emulation, the typical means these days of recreating classic gaming experiences on modern hardware.

Analogue’s approach means no weird emulation bugs, no lag and games that play just like you remember them, but with enhanced 1080p full HD graphics, and terrific color rendering for modern televisions. I tried it on both a 4K HDR 43″ LG LED TV, and on Sony’s latest 65″ Bravia 4K HDR OLED TV, and the resulting picture quality was amazing.

As for the game library, it’s as broad as your childhood collection, or as big as the one you can get at your local gaming store or via online sales of old cartridges. Luckily, I have a tall stack of SNES games that has somehow survived multiple moves and general possession culls, so I was ready to roll with NBA Live 95, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Super Mario World, Mario Kart, Killer Instinct, and many more. I also got a chance to play iam8bit’s limited Street Fighter II 30th anniversary edition cartridge re-release, which was amazing.

Even if you have no games to hand, you can still enjoy the Super Nt out of the box: Analogue has included a soft copy of both the never-released Super Turrican: Director’s Cut, as well as Super Turrican 2 coded into the console itself. If you love bullet hell shooters, you’ll have a great time with both of these classics, including the Director’s Cut that restores the developer’s original vision of the game without some of the technical limitations placed on the retail original due to shipping requirements and cartridge sizes.

The Super Nt comes in a range of colorways, but the retro Super Nintendo inspired version was most appealing to my eye. Analogue also includes an 8bitdo SN30 controller in the box, along with a wireless Retro Receiver adapter for lag-free play. Of course, the console also supports original wired SNES/SFC controllers, if you’d prefer.

It connects to your TV via HDMI, and has a number of simulated scanline and other image adjustments you can tweak to make sure the visual output to your TV most closely resembles whatever setup you had growing up playing SNES. There’s an HDMI cable in the box, too.

Like Analogue’s other products, this one has a very particular appeal. I hesitate to call it ‘niche,’ however, in part because the team have reduced their pricing from past products and are selling this one for $189.99. It’s also just incredibly fun, and the games have lost none of their charm, so it’s definitely a compelling gaming experience for old and new SNES players alike.

Yes, you could pick up an SNES Classic mini from Nintendo (if you can find one) for a lot less, but Analogue’s version is actually a more accurate and faithful reproduction of the original, and it’s built to last, too. If you’re at all inclined to pick one up, I’d do it – it’s those decades of fun you remember, ready to be re-experienced all over again.

Lexip’s joystick-mouse combo is a strange but promising hybrid


While at CES I try to avoid getting bogged down by dozens of random gadgets, and this time I mostly succeeded — but the mouse reviewer in me was intrigued by Lexip’s new gaming mouse that’s also a sort of floating joystick. It’s a strange but cool idea, and although the learning curve is high, I can see some hardcore gamers and productivity fiends getting a lot of use out of it.

Lexip is running a Kickstarter right now to fund the mouse, and has already tripled its modest goal, but the company was kind enough to send a pre-production version of the device to me for an early look.

The basic idea is very simple: what if you took a perfectly good gaming mouse and sort of mounted it on top of a very flat joystick? Theoretically, you would get the best of both worlds: the absolute x-y movement of the mouse, plus the relative, analog movement of a joystick.

And that’s more or less what the Lexip does. But as you might expect, it takes a big of getting used to.

The mouse portion is quite good; I’m very picky when it comes to mouse shapes (I use a Logitech G500s… since you asked) and found the Lexip perfectly comfortable, if slightly small. There’s an analog stick on the side, a nice touch for space sims, and three configurable buttons in addition to the usual left, right, and scroll button. The sensor seemed solid, no jitters or problems with my mousing surface.

There’s no thumb shelf, and I would have preferred the button paddles reached further towards the front of the mouse, but neither is really possible because of the joystick portion of things.

To that end, the whole top of the mouse is essentially a giant analog stick; you can tilt it in any direction and it acts just like a second analog input. So in a flight sim or space game you could be looking around the cockpit or directing the guns with the mouse itself, yawing and rolling with the full-mouse joystick, and controlling thrust and strafing with the little joystick. Pretty cool, right?

That kind of control could also be useful to artists, 3D and otherwise. Working in 3D means a lot of rotating on various axes, zooming in and out, and so on. Having two analog sticks on the mouse itself might allow an artist to replace a handful of commonly used keyboard shortcuts or mouse gestures.

Speaking of which, the analog movements can be mapped like mouse buttons; I set mine up to have the tilts mean forward and back in a browser, plus scrolling up and down. It didn’t take long for these movements to become pretty natural, though I should say I also triggered them accidentally a bunch of times. (You can disable or gestures for any application, but I was too lazy.)

The configuration tool could use a lot of work, though. Razer and Logitech have been honing their tools for years, allowing complex macros and interesting integrations. Lexip’s is workmanlike, lacking options pro gamers and power users might want. That’s relatively easy to fix with updates, of course, but the DPI selection method and inability to create a “double click” button made it hard to keep the Lexip as a daily driver.

It also required something of a lighter touch than I’m used to; I tend to rest most of the weight of my hand on my mouse, apparently favoring the left side, since the Lexip tended to activate the “left” gesture now and then (certainly my fault and not a bug, just saying). It also seemed to me that the left side was easier to depress, but that may just be how I perceive it. (Speaking of left sides, a left-handed version is forthcoming.)

And you’ll need to pay close attention to your grip, since of course if you tilt forward by pressing down with your index and middle fingers, you’ll click while you tilt and cause all kinds of chaos. The extra non-button space on the front is meant to alleviate that, and it does, but I had to shift the position of my fingers to get a solid surface on which to push down. Not a deal breaker, just something you’d have to get used to.

I asked if the version I have will differ in any way from the version backers will receive, and was told only minor aesthetic changes will be made.

Overall I think this is a fun, smart device and one that many people might find useful. Of course, with even early bird prices starting above $100, it isn’t cheap. But you probably already know if this is something you’re willing to give a shot. It’s a cool idea and it works, with some small caveats, so order with confidence.