All posts by Nick Pino

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is going to be the weirdest game at E3 2017

Crossover events happen all the time in video games. Sometimes they're amazing, just look at Marvel vs. Capcom or the Super Smash Bros. games. Others have been, well, not as good. (Sonic and Mario at the Olympics we’re looking in your direction...) 

But Mario x Rabbids Kingdom Battle, the latest crossover from Ubisoft and Nintendo, looks just downright weird. 

The first piece of key art emerged today on the internet ahead of the game’s E3 2017 reveal and, well … it’s certainly something all right. (Yep, that’s a Rabbid dressed as Princess Peach taking a selfie.) 

While you would never guess it from the artwork, the game is going to be a strategy role-playing game – think Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem and you'll be on the right track.

The game blends the two universes and, according to some leaked marketing materials, offers "the best of two worlds". We'll believe it when we see it.

Images were discovered by Nintendo World Report

#Sassy #NoFilter

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was supposed to be unveiled at Ubisoft's upcoming press conference but, well, sometimes the best laid plans of mushroom men and mutated rabbits don't pan out how you'd expect. 

According to the images found by Nintendo World Report, the game will be about 20 hours in length, offer eight playable characters and contain four worlds to discover. The game also might have a co-op mode as well.

Unfortunately, however, without a direct confirmation from Ubisoft about the game we're not totally sure the marketing materials are legit – but, given the leaks that have preceded today's marketing foible, this is likely the real deal.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is reported to come out in the fall of this year (August or September) on the Nintendo Switch.

Via Nintendo World Report


Madden 18 news, release date, trailer and cover athlete

A new year, a new football season. Madden 18 has RSVP’d for E3 2017 and will be out just in time for the start of the 2018 NFL season. 

Can’t wait to get back on the gridiron? We hear you. But before you head out to play in the big leagues, spend some time here in training camp learning about all of the game’s new features.

To that end, we’ve gathered everything we know about the game – including its release date, trailers and cover athlete – all in one spot. Conserve your energy for the big game, son, you’re going to need it. 

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? The next annual release of the Madden NFL franchise
  • What can I play it on? PS4 and Xbox One
  • When does it come out? August 25, 2017

Madden 18 release date

So when can you get your gloves on the latest Madden? For most folks, August 25, 2017 is the time and place for kick-off for the new season. But, if you pre-order the G.O.A.T. Edition of the game, you’ll actually be able to play it a few days earlier on Tuesday, August 22, 2017.

Should you decide to drop a little extra on the G.O.A.T. Edition of the game – G.O.A.T. stands for Greatest of All-Time, by the way – you’ll receive  one of five Elite G.O.A.T. players, an elite player from your favorite NFL team, 12 Squad Packs, 2500 contracts and one uniform pack in Madden NFL 18 Ultimate Team.

Of course, if you don’t need all the extras of the G.O.A.T. Edition but still want to check out the game early, you can always subscribe to EA Access. 

EA Access subscribers can play up to 10 hours of the game starting on Thursday, August 17 with EA Access First Trial. (You’ll also get a pretty sweet 10% discount on the game for being a subscriber, too.) 

Madden 18 cover athlete

So who’s going to grace the cover of the game this year? Who else but the GOAT – New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady? 

What makes Brady’s nomination particularly exciting is that he follows his teammate, Rob Gronkowski, who was the face on the Madden 17 box.

Check out the box art for yourself: 

Madden 18 new features and mechanics

If you’re just coming out of virtual retirement, a lot has changed since the days of the PS2 and original Xbox era, so try to pay attention while we review some of the basics, and then progress to the new features coming later this year. 

Last year, Madden 17 introduced a simpler way to stop runs and passes called play counters. Instead of choosing specific plays, play counters allowed you to predict what kind of play your opponent would call (a passing play or an inside run, for example) and automatically line your defense up to counter it. 

In franchise mode last year, Madden 17 introduced new “big moments” that shaped your player and your team’s future. Deciding to keep a quarterback in after he’s had a minor injury could cost you season if he gets hit a second time. Substituting a rookie in might mean the difference between a loss against your rivals and another tally in the win column. 

But all that was last year. What’s new in 2018? 

New this year is the Frostbite physics and visual engine that will power the next-gen Madden experience. We’ve seen this in other EA titles before, but this will be the first time seeing it in the Madden franchise. Also new is the Play Now Live! mode that lets you recreate the best real-world NFL matches of the week. 

According to EA, there’s also going to be a new game mode. We haven’t heard too much about it yet, but it’s supposed to be a variation on the traditional franchise / player creation mode that takes an unknown player you’ve created to the top of the league.

Gameplay-wise, a new feature called Target Passing will give you better passing control, allowing you to throw the ball to who you want in the exact spot on the field. If traditional play calling is too tough, Madden 18 is introducing three new play styles: Arcade, Simulation and Competitive. Here’s a description of each:

Arcade: Action packed excitement filled with spectacular plays and scoring with limited penalties. Simulation: True to player and team ratings using authentic NFL rules and gameplay. Competitive: Your stick skills are key, earn big rewards for your skill or receive bigger penalties.

Also new is the Coverage Assignment feature that helps you track which receiver you’re supposed to be guarding when you’re on defense. 

You can also expect the return of Madden Ultimate Team and Franchise modes in 2018.

Madden 18 trailer

When will we find out more about Madden 18? EA has targeted June 10, 2017 for its annual EA Play event held during E3 week in Los Angeles. Check back then to see what else EA has in store for the Madden franchise this year. 


Google Home’s first big update brings Bluetooth and a built-in phone

Google might not have shown up with new Home hardware to Google IO 2017, but its latest software update will make the six-month-old Google Home feel like a new machine. 

On stage today at Google IO, Rishi Chandra, Vice President of Product Management and General Manager of Home Products, iterated four major changes coming to Google Home: proactive assistance, hands-free calling, Bluetooth and visual responses.

While some of these changes will have more of an impact than others (you can now make phone calls from Google Home without a landline or a cell phone at no cost!), all of them will reshape you use the Home going forward. 

OK, Google, show me what you can do 

Let’s start off by covering the two biggest announcements first: hands-free calling and Bluetooth. 

According to Chandra, the way calling is going to work is that you’ll import contacts from your phone and then, when you want to make a phone call, all you’ll need to do is ask. 

The Home will make the call from either a private phone number or, if you have your Google account tied to your cell phone, using your own number. 

From the sounds of it, all Home needs is an active internet connection to make the calls – that means you won’t need a landline or even a cell phone to make calls at home. 

The other bombshell announcement Chandra made is that Home will now be able to use Bluetooth to sync up to other devices – a feature the Home’s competitor, Amazon Echo, has had since it launched and had so far been strangely absent on Google’s smart speaker. 

In addition to the Bluetooth announcement, Chandra announced that the Home will now support the free version of Spotify, SoundCloud and Deezer in addition to the music streaming services it already supported. 

Insert heading here

The other two announcements – proactive assistance and visual responses – while neat, aren’t going to radically change how you use Home.

Visual responses, a new feature on Google Home that allows the speaker to send visual information to either your phone, tablet or TV, definitely feels like a swing at the recently announced Amazon Echo Show.  

However, while Amazon’s device comes with a built-in speaker to show you events on your calendar or what the weather outside looks like, Google Home transmits data to whichever device you’d like. 

To demonstrate, Chandra used the Home to ask what he had in his YouTube TV library which was then displayed on the TV. Including YouTube TV, Home now has voice support for dozens of new streaming services including HBO Now, Hulu, Google Play Movies and TV and more. 

Finally, proactive assistance for Home will check what’s happening in your day in real time to try and bring you information before you need it. 

Home can warn you that there’s a traffic delay on your way to work, for example, notifying you ahead of time so you can leave earlier, or give you weather warnings – handy if you commute in an area prone to blizzards.

How soon can you expect these changes to go live? Google didn’t have an exact release date for the new functionality, but we’ve reached out to Google for more specifics.


Android TV: All the products that work with Google’s TV OS

Update: Android TV is rapidly growing. Google said it has 1 million new device activations every two months and doubled the number of users since last year.

Android TV is the name of the TV operating system that’s developed in-house at Google. It’s different than Google TV (a defunct moniker for Google’s play into the living room space) and it definitely isn’t related to Chrome in any way. 

The best description for Android TV is that it’s a smart entertainment platform. It comes built into a number of TVs (primarily from Sony, Sharp and LeEco) but also in a number of streaming video players like the Nvidia Shield. 

To that end, think of Android TV like iOS or Android – it’s an operating system for all of your favorite apps, games, movies, music and TV shows that you navigate with a remote instead of your finger ... and you know, on your TV.

Of course, there are a half-dozen other smart TV platforms out there these days: LG has webOS 3.5, Samsung has Tizen and Roku has, well, Roku. All of these platforms have something special that makes them unique and potentially a better fit for you and your entertainment needs.

So what sets Android TV apart from the competition? Why do you want a TV with Android at all? Let’s dive into Android TV’s key features.

Android TV key features

Look, it’s not hard to find a player or TV that streams Netflix. It’s not. But Android TV doesn’t just serve as a static homebase for apps. It’s a dynamic way to find new content and can work like a Chromecast to stream content from your mobile device to the big screen. That being said, here are Android TV’s best features, with descriptions located further down below:

  • Curated content on the top row
  • Universal search using top apps
  • Native IMDB actor and actress bios
  • Voice search via remote
  • Native Google Cast support
  • Tons of games via Google Play Store
  • Google Assistant integration

Curated content: One of Android TV’s most admirable skills is its ability to analyze the kind of content you usually watch, play and listen to, and recommend similar content. You can find recommendations in the top row of the Android TV interface, where you’ll usually find a mix of content from YouTube, Google Play Movies and TV and the Google Play Store. 

Universal search: Of course, if you don’t see what you’re looking for in the curated content row, you can also search for content either using the search bar at the top of the Android TV interface or the voice search button on your remote. Android TV crawls a number of services including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Google Play Movies and TV to find what you’re looking for, and usually lists the lowest price first.

Native IMDB support: Say you just saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and you want to see what other films Chris Pratt was in. Search Chris Pratt on Android TV and you’ll find every title the actor has ever been in. Click a TV show and you’ll find a synopsis, where you can watch the show and the rest of the show’s cast. It’s a pretty handy feature.

Voice search via the remote: Instead of scrolling all the way up to the top of the interface and painfully typing out the name of the show, movie or actor you’re looking for, you can simply speak the name into the Android TV remote. It’s a huge time-saver.

Native Google Cast support: All Android TV players and TVs have Google Cast built-in. That means you can stream content from your device to your TV whenever you see the Google Cast icon. This is sometimes referred to as Chromecast built-in.

Games via the Google Play Store: Fancy yourself a game of Pong between seasons of Breaking Bad? Android TV has more games on its store than any other TV operating system. Like Android on phones, some games are free and others cost money.

Google Assistant integration: New for 2017 is the integration of Google Assistant into Android TV. Google Assistant on Android TV is the same one that’s built into the Google Home and some higher-end Android phones. For the most part, it’s a lot like Siri or Cortana – Google Assistant can make calendar appointments, check your to-do list and answer inquiries about popular topics, but what makes it unique is that it also can control your smart home products like thermometers, light bulbs and smart locks, too. 

Which products use Android TV? 

Android TV is available on two types of devices: TVs and streaming video boxes. While the interface and functionality is nearly identical across devices, there can be some small differences between them. 

Why? Well each hardware manufacturer has the ability to modify the base Android TV code to tailor it for their system. For a short period of time, Nvidia Shield was the only device that had access to Amazon, for example. One device might have PlayStation Now, while others might use a spot on the Android TV interface for a first-party app. (LeEco, for example, has a space for its LeTV on the Android TV homepage, for example.) 

These are generally minor differences and not ones to lose sleep over.

So which devices actually use Android TV? Let’s explore.

The Nvidia Shield is the best box for wannabe Android TV owners. Not only does it stream content in 4K HDR, but it plays a whole host of games you won't find on any other streaming device thanks to Nvidia's GeForce Now streaming service. On top of the games and 4K content, you'll find Amazon Instant Video here (the Shield is the only Android TV device with Amazon) and Google Assistant integration. It's a bit pricey, but it's well worth it.

Read our full review: Nvidia Shield

If you're looking to buy a new screen with Android TV built-in, there's none better than Sony's 2017 X900E Series. Headline apps for this excellent TV consist of Amazon Video, Netflix and YouTube. Both Netflix and Amazon support 4K and HDR streams. If you need more there’s Google Play, Wuaki, PlayStation Video, Spotify and other stuff you’ll never explore in a month of Sundays. Of course you'll also find games and music mixed amongst the video channels when you're done binge-watching the latest season of your favorite show.

Read our full review: Sony Bravia XBR-55X900E

We reviewed the Nexus Player when it came out back in 2014 and thought it was a decent player. It didn't have many features that Roku had at the time, but thanks to some stellar improvements on Android TV has grown into a competitive streaming video box. We wouldn't recommend it over the Nvidia Shield but, that said, you can find the Nexus Player for much, much cheaper.

Read our full review: Nexus Player

If the price hasn't scared you off yet, the Sony A1E OLED is an absolutely phenomenal television. It has some of the best contrast anywhere, and handles sound in a completely innovative way that immerses you in the content. All things considered the A1E is one of the best portals to Android TV – although, it's probably one of the most expensive too. Still, if you're looking for 4K HDR streaming TV with the deepest blacks and crazy-high contrast ratios, this is it. 

Read our full review: Sony Bravia A1E OLED TV

That's it for now. We'll continue to update this list as more Android TV devices come out and as the system continues to gain new functionality. 

  • Looking for a cheaper entry to smart TV functionality? Check out Chromecast


Amazon Echo devices are getting better at recognizing wake words

If you own an Amazon Echo or Amazon Echo Dot, at some point your device has overheard something you’ve said, mistaken it for the word “Alexa” and given you a wacky response to a question you never asked. It’s a weird, but somewhat ubiquitous experience for most Echo owners. 

If this only happen to you once in a blue moon, however, consider yourself lucky. For anyone who owns a third-party Echo device – like say  this is much more frequent occurrence ... or at least it was. 

Starting today, Amazon is making the same Cloud-Based Wake Word Verification algorithm the Echo and Echo Dot use available to third-party hardware makers that will make it so these devices will only respond to the word “Alexa”. 

Here’s how it works: Alexa will start listening any time it thinks it hears its name, but it won’t formally process and respond to the request until the device checks in with cloud voice recognition software that it actually heard “Alexa” and not something that sounds like it. 

According to Amazon, the process is almost instantaneous and it shouldn’t slow down or delay Alexa’s response time in any way. 

Say what now?

In more or less words, devices like the Triby Bluetooth speaker (a device that comes with Amazon’s Alexa built-in) will no longer mistake words for “Alexa”. 

That will mean less frustration for everyone and fewer times you get a weird, unsettling response from Alexa for a question you didn’t ask. 

If this story sounds like it has the perfect makings for a comedy segment, you’re right. Too bad Saturday Night Live beat us all to the punch:

Via The Verge


Say it ain’t so: Amazon Echo will soon play ads

Well, the Amazon Echo had a good run as an ad-free platform – and all good things, as they say, must come to an end. The harbinger of the advertising apocalypse is a company called VoiceLabs and its plan is to tack on 6 to 15-second advertisements at the beginning and end of some Alexa skills. 

The platform helps advertisers setup “Sponsored Messages” and, according to VoiceLabs, users have generally not minded the interruption. It’s VoiceLabs’ goal to make the advertisements brief and unobtrusive for most users, but also "lead a consumer into an experience or converse with the consumer as they exit."

Yep, conversational advertisements are now a thing apparently.

So far, however, only two noteworthy companies have signed on to participate in VoiceLabs’ tests: Wendy’s (an American fast-food chain) and ESPN. 

So which apps can you expect to hear these ads on? So far Federated Media, XAPPmedia,, Appbly and a few other developers have signed on board.

How’s this going to work? 

Well, say you’re using one of the 327 sports skills on Amazon Echo or the Amazon Echo Dot. At the beginning of the skill, you might hear an ad that says “Welcome, thanks for listening and thanks to ESPN for sponsoring us.” 

So far, not so bad, right? 

Use the app a few more times and ESPN might inform you of a big sports event coming up before asking if you’d like to be reminded to watch it. (Though, from the sounds of it you’re welcome to politely turn down the invitation to tune in.)

Here’s the good news: there are some very strict limitations on which apps can use Sponsored Messages – they can only appear in streaming music, radio or flash briefing skills and they can't use Alexa's voice to say them. 

What that means is the vast majority of the Echo's 13,000 available skills won’t be a target for new ads … well, for now, at least. While you wait for that to happen, there's always the Echo's rival, Google Home, to consider.

Source: VoiceLabs


TCL eyes the throne as one of the world’s top TV makers

“It can be overwhelming to walk into a retailer and see all the TVs on the wall. All their settings are cranked up to compete with one another,” Chris Larson, Senior Vice President, TCL tells us at a recent briefing held at Dolby Labs in San Francisco, Calif. 

The discussion was about how TCL TVs … well, all TVs really, are calibrated differently for stores than they are for your home. It’s a trick TV manufacturers have been using for years – turning saturation levels up to sickening levels while cranking the brightness up to its maximum level. It’s intense, definitely, and more than a little deceitful. 

But let’s not focus on that god-awful practice for a minute. Let’s focus on the wall of TVs. 

For anyone who knows the difference between a composite and component cable, this wall is a visual chocolate factory – each television offering a different flavor of eye candy. We love walking into a Best Buy or Tesco to see what’s new in the world of pixels and panels. We comment on how this LG OLED might look better than Samsung’s new QLED screen, at least in terms of contrast, and quibble over whether Android TV is the best or the worst thing to ever happen to televisions in the last century. 

But for others, like my parents, this section of the store – and in particular this wall of TVs – is nothing but a bunch of seemingly identical screens. Who makes a better OLED really isn’t on their list of concerns. I’ve tried to explain Quantum Dot, Dolby Vision, HDR and dozens of other technologies over the years to my parents and, honestly, they’re not interested. As long as the TV looks good and doesn’t cost much, they’re happy. 

If you want to know how TCL (an acronym that at one point stood for True China Lion) became the third largest TV manufacturer in the world, it’s through people like my parents.

Quality, performance and value

Sorry, that last bit makes it sound like TCL doesn’t make very good TVs. They do. I mean, they’re not exceptional in the same way the LG Signature Series W7 OLED or the Samsung Q9F QLED TV are, but they’re quite good – especially now that they support Dolby Vision.

The reason for my visit to Dolby Labs was to check out TCL’s 2017 line-up. Two series from last year are getting a refresh (the P- and S-Series) while TCL is introducing a completely new line called the C-Series that taps into contemporary aesthetics and adds support for most HDR sources. 

These TVs look good and, according to Larson, will also be priced fairly. If you’re looking for a way to help differentiate TCL from the masses of TVs on the aforementioned wall, it’s their brand promise: Delivering uncompromised experiences at a recognized value with an attractive cosmetic. 

It’s a promise that seems to be harder and harder to keep every year now that new Chinese TV makers like Hisense and LeEco have moved into the market. To me, this seems like something worth fretting over, but it didn’t seem to scare anyone in that office.

Oprah might give away cars, but Ellen's got TVs covered.

Larsen told me there were already branding programs in place to help make TCL a household name. “We have a partnership with the Ellen Show and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Plus, we acquired the TCL Chinese Theater down in L.A.” Other ties include UCLA athletic teams, the San Jose Earthquakes (a MLS team based in Northern California) and the Rose Bowl, one of the biggest football games in the NCAA.

And while the list is impressive, I’m not sure a few sponsorship deals will be enough to beat out the most ubiquitous names in television like Sony, Samsung and LG – each of whom have a long and storied career in American families’ living rooms. But maybe it will be.

The grand plan

So what’s the end goal here? If TCL got this far in the TV world without an insane amount of brand recognition, why does it want to change anything?

According to Larsen, it's easy to sell smaller value TVs. It’s a crowded market, sure, but in the end value always beats out performance. But being the main screen in the house? That’s much, much harder. To get to the coveted center of the home you’ve not only got to look good in terms of picture quality and cost less than everyone else, but you need a decent design aesthetic, too. 

And according to Aaron Dew, Director of Product Development at TCL, that’s where this year’s all new C-Series come in. 

The new series will go on sale in late June and combines “contemporary design” (Dew’s words) and the latest in 4K HDR technology. As far as operating systems go, the TVs use Roku OS 7.5 – a close relative of the operating system used on Roku streaming boxes like the Roku Ultra, Roku Premiere+ and Roku Express

The C-Series will come in 55-, 65- and 75-inch versions and will include both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. (HLG is something TCL is looking into, but not actively including on any TV this year.) They'll feature wide color gamut with advanced LED phosphor for more realistic colors, brighter highlights and increased light-to-dark contrast and support almost 100% of the DCI-P3 color space. 

I left the demo impressed with what I saw. The Dolby Vision integration helped add some pizzazz to TCL’s panels, while Roku OS provided a familiar face that I knew could help me find the content I’ve been looking for. 

And yet, I couldn’t help but think back to that wall. 

When TCL’s latest series make it to showrooms in late June, will my parents be blown away by Dolby Vision? Will they care that the 2017 P-Series now has 72 Contrast Control Zones that increase contrast and clarity? Maybe. Maybe not.

But considering that TCL’s 55-inch C-Series TV, the 55C807, goes for $699 (around £540, AU$950), I guess it doesn’t matter.


Google is buying the studio behind the Rick & Morty VR game

It’s been a bittersweet two weeks for fans of enticing virtual reality content. Last week, Facebook shuttered its award-winning content creation team, Oculus Studios. This week, Google acquired the team behind Job Simulator and Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality. 

If you’re a VR headset owner you win some, you lose some it seems. 

Google made the announcement that it would acquire Owlchemy Labs today in a blog post ... right after it praised itself for its own excellent contributions to virtual reality like Photos on Daydream, Google Earth VR and Tilt Brush. (Really Google, Photos on Daydream is up there with Job Simulator?)

While the announcement began a bit self-congratulatory, it proceeded to lavish well-deserved praise on Owlchemy: 

“They've created award-winning games like Job Simulator and Rick and Morty which have really thoughtful interactive experiences that are responsive, intuitive, and feel natural. They’ve helped set a high bar for what engagement can be like in virtual worlds, and do it all with a great sense of humor!” 

Wubba Lubba Dub Dub

While neither Owlchemy or Google announced what’s coming next from the development studio, acquisitions such as these give developers the resources they need pursue bigger and better projects – sometimes in exchange for platform exclusivity. That said, Owlchemy might be different. 

The post on Owlchemy Labs’ site that talks about the announcement specifically mentions that the developer will continue to create “high quality VR content for platforms like the HTC Vive, Oculus Touch, and PlayStation VR.” That means platform exclusivity isn’t something the team is beholden to. Or at least not beholden to yet, anyway.

What does the future hold for the studio? Well, One possibility could be a second experience set in the Rick and Morty universe – though Google will likely focus Owlchemy’s efforts on something more … family appropriate. 

Job Simulator 2 or the next VR Adult Swim game might not replace a sequel to the heartfelt, Emmy award-winning Henry ... but it’s a nice consolation prize.


Roku Ultra

Despite some ferocious competition, Roku is still king of the streaming world. Well, at least it was in 2016 when, as a platform, it beat out Apple, Amazon and Google with its line-up of streaming video boxes. So what, then, can the company do this year to win over a new generation of Roku-ites? The answer lies in both 4K and HDR performance. 

At its core, the Roku Ultra is a born and bred performance monster, a trait it inherited from its predecessor, the 2015 Roku 4. It’s capable of delivering 4K videos in a blink of an eye, and it doesn’t struggle outputting the bright highlights and dark shadows that HDR has to offer. Roku Ultra’s biggest competitor therefore isn’t anything made by Apple or Amazon – it comes from within the company: the Roku Premiere+ and, to a lesser extent, the Roku 4. 

You see, both of these boxes also handle 4K video and the Premiere+ does HDR in the exact same way as the Ultra. So what does the Ultra do differently to warrant its superlative monicker? It has an optical audio out port, a remote finder button, a remote with ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons and includes  MicroSD support for a USB port that allows for additional storage. 

Are those extra features worth the $30 price difference between the $129 Roku Ultra and $99 Roku Premiere+? That’s a decision we’ll leave up to you. 

Regardless of your budgeting preferences, the Roku Ultra is a top-performing streaming video player that has the chips to process 4K HDR in addition to an egalitarian search engine that can help you track down movies and shows wherever they may hide.


You have to hand it to Roku, as a company it’s completely fabricated a design language all its own. This year’s Roku Ultra looks like Roku Premiere, which looks like the Roku 4, which was inspired by the Roku 3, so and so forth as far back as the original Roku 1 design.

Given that description, you might know what to expect here: The Roku Ultra is a flat, disc-shaped streaming video box that inconspicuously blends in with all your other AV equipment. Compared to the Roku 4 and Premiere+, the Ultra is substantially smaller; it’s only 4.9 x 4.9 x 0.85 inches (L x W x H). Just don’t let its diminutive stature fool you – this is still a super powered machine.

Spin the Roku Ultra around and you’ll find a few scarce – but still extremely important – ports. There’s your HDCP 2.2 HDMI 2.0a port for video out, an optical audio out port, a 12V – 1A power adapter and a MicroSD card slot.

 Combine the MicroSD card slot on the back and the USB 2.0 port located on the side of the box and you can add a ton of extra storage to your device – the USB port allows you to enjoy local videos or photos while the SD card slot adds extra memory for more apps. 

If this port arrangement sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s the exact same one you’ll find on the Roku 4, port for port. Herein lies the Ultra’s biggest problem: Besides the addition of HDR support, it feels a heck of a lot like the Roku 4. Sure, there are a few minor changes to the remote (the Ultra’s comes with access to Netflix, Hulu, Sling and Showtime while the 4’s does Netflix, Amazon, Rdio and Sling) but it’s more or less the same.

It doesn’t help, of course, that both the Roku 4, Roku Premiere+ and Roku Ultra all share the same content library…


If there’s a more fully featured app store on a set-top box, we’d like to see it. Roku may not have literally everything, but this is as close it’s going to get.
To that end Roku boasts more than 4,500 channels ranging from the streaming mainstays, like Netflix, HBO and Vudu, to the obscure – there's actually a station called "Firewood Hoarders" – so finding something to watch is rarely a problem.

For US viewers, all the big names are here: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and Youtube and Crunchyroll, Plex and Pandora and Spotify. You can rent and buy individual movies and TV through Vudu and Fandango, the latter of which is the de facto rental service on the streamer. If you're in the UK and decide to obtain a Roku Streaming Stick from overseas, check out Sky's Now TV platform (Sky being a shareholder in Roku), Netflix and Demand 5.

Audio apps of note include Rdio, Pandora, Vevo and Spotify. However, unlike PlayStation Music on the PS4, the latter requires a premium subscription in order to get anywhere. This barrier to entry makes Roku one of our least favorite platforms for music streaming, losing major ground to the new front-runner, Google's Chromecast Audio.

New this year is the Twitter app that streams content from Twitter’s live channel and includes sports broadcasts, live concerts and video game tournaments. It’s well-worth checking out. 

Before we move on to performance, however, we should spend one second talking about the Roku interface. It’s almost unchanged since the beginning and now, several years on into its lifespan, is starting to feel a bit passé. 

Don’t get us wrong: the interface has stood the test of time. It's stalwart, formidable even. It’s easy to use and content certainly doesn’t get lost anywhere. But at some point it wouldn’t hurt to have some visual flair.


It’s tough to say which streaming box is the fastest these days. Whether you’re using Chromecast Ultra, the new Amazon Fire TV or any number of the aforementioned Roku boxes, they’re all going to load videos in roughly the same time. There’s variations in the time it takes to navigate around the interface, certainly, but by and large when it comes to performance we’ve probably hit the peak as far as fast-loading times are concerned. 

Now, there are two very important caveats for performance. The first is that, because the Ultra is a 4K HDR streaming device, you actually need to own and use a 4K HDR TV. This sounds silly and yet there will be a number of people who buy an Ultra expecting 4K HDR performance on a 1080p TV. Trust us, it happens. 

The second caveat is that you’re going to need a decent router and connection speed. Roku (and practically every other streaming device) recommends speeds of 15 mbps. That’s not a lofty download speed in 2017, but it’s a crucial factor in maintaining lag-free playback.

What happens when you clear the bar on both those requirements? Solid, consistent lag-free 4K HDR streaming – probably some of the clearest we’ve seen on a streaming box. Quantifying how much better the Ultra is than the Premiere+ or the 4, though, isn’t easy. Even comparing them side-by-side it’s tough to tell which one’s actually doing a better job buffering. Of course the difference in picture quality is more substantial – especially between the non-HDR Roku 4 and the HDR Roku Ultra. 

Stack the Ultra against the Roku 3, Roku 2, Roku Streaming Stick or the Roku Express, however, and the Ultra will come out as the clear winner. 

At a more technical level, the Roku Ultra supports H.264/AVC, H.265/HEVC, VP9 video codecs and AAC, MP3, WMA, FLAC, PCM, AC3/EAC3, DTS, ALAC audio codecs. That’s not an exhaustive list of everything out there, obviously, but the most popular codecs are all present and accounted for. The Ultra also supports Google Cast streaming – not a codec per se, but definitely a useful feature when you have a roomful of friends who all want to share their favorite YouTube clip.

The last point worth covering here is the way the Roku Ultra dissipates heat or, rather, doesn’t dissipate it. This was a problem we found on the Roku 4 when we reviewed that a few years ago, and it appears the situation hasn’t improved with the Ultra. Watch a show or two on the Ultra and you’ll feel a noticeable warmth coming off the Ultra. Stream for a few hours and the Ultra will actually be hot to the touch. This isn’t something to worry about in the short term – it’s certainly not hot enough to burn you or set your house ablaze – but it’s definitely disconcerting for the long-term health of the product.

We liked

Roku is still an exceptionally egalitarian streaming set-top box. It doesn't care if you pick Netflix over Amazon, or Vudu over Hulu. It doesn't want to sell you an Rdio subscription, and it couldn't care less if you join YouTube Red. All Roku's new device cares about is getting you to the content you want through the most affordable means possible. It's entertainment on your terms, the epitome of the cord-cutting movement. But the Roku Ultra is probably the best device Roku has ever made – even if it’s not that much better than the Roku Premiere+. 

We disliked

While there aren’t many downsides about the Roku Ultra there are some that are worth pointing out. There’s no Dolby Vision support as of right now – a problem if you’re heavily invested in Vudu or you own a TV that supports the highest version of HDR – and the Ultra struggles with differentiating itself from its younger brother, the Premiere+. It also has issues with heat dissipation, but these aren’t something that impacts performance.

Final verdict

The Roku Ultra is a premium streaming device – quite possibly the best in existence. It has a few minor issues (see: heat dissipation and lack of Dolby Vision supports) but the biggest problem plaguing Roku's top box is that it's very similar performance-wise to both the Roku Premiere+ and to the Roku 4. 

If you don't mind paying a premium for the top-tier hardware, the Ultra is for you. That said, if you're looking to save a bit without losing out on performance, your money is better spent on the $30-cheaper Premiere+.


Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is about to get its biggest upgrade yet – a touch screen and a camera. The new device is called the Amazon Echo Show, and it's the next evolution for Amazon's smart speaker. 

So what does that mean for the original Echo, the one we reviewed almost two years ago? A lot, actually. As it turns out some of the new functionality coming to the Echo Show will be coming to the original Echo. That includes voice calling and messaging – two features the Echo has desperately needed since its outset.

It seems like only yesterday we had our first conversation with Alexa, a personal assistant built in to the $179 Amazon Echo (£150, around AU$230). The conversation wasn't very deep, but they got a good laugh asking Alexa stupid questions, having her shuffle music and asking about mundane topics like the weather or the time. The earliest conversations were simple, almost child-like.

As the months went on the conversations got deeper as the team at Amazon added more functionality. Soon we could talk about sports, or what we had coming up on our calendar. Alexa could give sporting scores, or tell us how we were already late for a meeting.

It wasn't much longer before Alexa could read audiobooks, play our favorite podcasts and control some of the other smart devices I have around the house. Most recently Amazon took Alexa out of the house (figuratively) to teach her about local businesses through Yelp. I can now ask Alexa about where I should go for Chinese food, or when the grocery store closes. Alexa can even now play music from services other than Amazon Prime like Spotify or Pandora in the US.

All this is a way to say that we've seen the Amazon Echo grow up from a novelty to an actually semi-intelligent AI. We've used products for years – iPods or Xboxs for example – but this is the first time that we've witnessed something evolve so much without ever needing a guiding hand.

Our US team has now spent a year with it in the home, and it's clear that Amazon Echo is something you don't know you want until you have it, and something you don't miss until it's gone. Which is surprising, really, when you consider that its primary function – a Bluetooth speaker for music – is actually pretty subpar.

Check out how we got on when we used the Echo's younger brother, the Echo Dot, for a week. 


It's easy to mistake the Echo for a portable dehumidifier. It's all matte black exterior and 9.25 x 3.27 inch cylindrical shape gives it the kind of camouflage you'd expect from an appliance.

Amazon Echo

Another difference between the Echo and other portable speakers is that the Echo isn't exactly portable. It needs to be plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi at all times. (Which, considering the six-foot power cable, can be a bit of a struggle.)

And this decision makes sense when you give it some thought. How could an always-on microphone hear you if it runs out of power? It couldn't. Moreover, how would it send your voice to Amazon servers without a connection to the internet? Again, not going to happen.

Sure, it's a hassle to always be connected, but Wi-Fi networks are a dime-a-dozen in 2016.

On top of the canister are two buttons, mute and listen, while the top ring rotates to raise or lower volume. If you're worried about regular controls (play, pause, forward and backward), don't. The Echo comes with a traditional remote identical to the one that comes with the Amazon Fire TV, or can be controlled from your phone via the Amazon Echo App.

Amazon Echo

Speaking of which, the app isn't the most fleshed-out companion app we've ever used, and can feel pretty barren in comparison to the Amazon Fire TV storefront. I found a few of the selections relatively useful – controlling radio stations via the app is painless compared with asking Alexa to do it – but the design looks and feels like it certainly wasn't ready for release.

Along the bottom of the Echo is a 360-degree speaker grille that gives it some surprisingly room-filling sound along with a small, white Amazon logo.

Sound quality

While the Echo can crank the volume, the quality of the sound near its upper and lower limits leaves a lot to be desired.

Testing took place in two environments: a small, 12 x 14 ft bedroom and much larger 20 x 15 ft living room. The confined space, as you might expect, benefitted the quieter volume levels and completely muddled anything above 7. Given enough space, sound only faltered at the highest levels, 9 and 10, but Alexa had a tougher time picking up commands. At least the balance around volumes 4-6 were spot on.

Amazon Echo

With any other Bluetooth speaker, these kinds of problems would've been grounds for a failing grade. But the fact that Alexa not only needs to produce a lot of noise, but be able to hear over it as well, is good reason to cut it some slack.

Streaming music selection

Now that I've sold you on its music-playing capabilities (not), you're probably thinking, "but gee, what can I play on it?"

The Echo supports Spotify, TuneIn and, if you're a Prime subscriber, Amazon Prime Music. If you're in the US, the Echo also supports Pandora as well.

But, if all else fails or you don't feel like re-buying songs you've paid for on other services, there's one last-ditch effort to get your music: Amazon will actually allow you to import 250 songs to the cloud from your personal collection for free. This may not sound like a lot, but for those of us with one or two go-to playlists, it compensates for any slight inconvenience it caused to add them.

When it works, Alexa feels like the talking computer that sci-fi has been imagining for the last 50 years. Conversations can happen in informal language, and queries are picked up by natural cues instead of awkward syntax. Both "Alexa tell me about razors" and "Alexa, what is a razor?" lead me to the same answer, and feel completely natural when said out loud.

Two years later...

The scariest part of Amazon's grand experiment is that it's still going, and has shown no signs of slowing down. Alexa receives more updates than our Amazon Fire TV or the Kindle, and the team of developers have proven time after time that they really care about feedback.

All this means that Alexa is arriving in a much more feature complete state in the UK than what was previously available in the States.

Alexa is still behind Siri in terms of what it can do, but one year from now, on Alexa's third birthday, that might not be the case.

Alexa, as an AI, used to feel more like a fun parlor trick that we could show off at a dinner party, rather than a full-fledged personal assistant like the other two. Now it's practical to use it over going and turning on our computer or pulling out our phone.

The addition of information about local businesses is a big step forward, and shows that other companies are taking notice of Alexa and want to integrate their services with it. It's validation that this project has become bigger and more important to Amazon than anyone ever thought.

Thanks to Amazon's investment in its Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service APIs, more and more skills (essentially voice-controlled apps) are being added all the time.

There's still growing to do, though. Alexa doesn't handle deep knowledge questions very well (it won't answer questions like "who was the President in 1954?") but it's an exponentially smarter system than the one I pulled out of the box a year ago.

Final verdict

That first year, we spent so much time focusing on how the Echo performed as a Bluetooth speaker that we failed to see how much potential the platform had as a smart-home hub and generally intelligent, time-saving device. We put it up against Siri and there was no contest – Apple's AI was simply smarter and more well-rounded. That's no longer the case.

For many, the $179 / £150 Echo is still a novelty, and until Alexa starts truly understanding natural human speech I don't expect to change their minds. The Echo is for those that can recognize the potential in a product, the DIY-ers and makers of the world that can look at something and find new uses.

It's for those that need a Bluetooth speaker, sure (as we stated earlier, we really can't see ourselves going back to a run-of-the-mill speaker after spending so much time with the Echo), but it's not the audio fidelity that will keep the Echo on your shelf for a year. It's Alexa.

If you can't see yourself enjoying the 'smart' aspect of Amazon's smart speaker, we wouldn't recommend the Echo. With other connected speakers out there like Sonos, LG Multi-Room Audio and a dozen Google Cast-enabled devices like the Chromecast Audio, there's just no reason to go all-in on a subpar speaker.

That said, if you want to see the future of AI in the making and be a part of that process, you absolutely need to buy the Amazon Echo.

Originally reviewed January 2015