TIME Reviews

Apple’s HomeKit Is Promising, But It Needs More Work

The tech company’s new smart home system isn’t reliable yet

One year after Apple announced plans to launch its home automation platform HomeKit, the company’s first certified products are now being shipped to customers around the world.

HomeKit puts Apple in the middle of an ever-growing, and increasingly competitive home automation market. Tech rival Google is in the midst of building its own platform called Brillo, while Belkin’s WeMo system has created smart household appliances ranging from air conditioners to crock pots.

HomeKit works by using Siri (Apple’s digital assistant) to control and monitor homes using third-party gadgets, and in the past has been plagued by delays, rumors, and criticism from vendors.

However, that’s all changed now with manufacturers Insteon and Lutron ready to ship their HomeKit-certified products, and smart gadgets from Ecobee and Phillips Hue set to hit retail shelves in the near future.

Unlike other home automation services, Apple requires companies create products that are compatible with its mobile operating system in order to ensure compatibility and provide end-to-end encryption, which prevents the system from being hacked.

Over the past week, I’ve tested out Lutron’s $230 Caseta Wireless HomeKit system. The bundle includes a Smart Bridge, which acts as a wireless hub to connect the system to the Internet, along with two plug-in lamp dimmers and two stand-alone remotes for the dimmers. Although Lutron already makes smart devices for the home, users who want to use Siri to manage those products will have to purchase a new Smart Bridge.

The initial setup process for the system was simple and consisted of installing the Lutron app on my iPhone, plugging the Smart Bridge into my wireless router, and following a series of prompts within the app.

HomeKit is activated using the “Siri Integration” option in the app’s menu. Within the app’s setting page, you simply label your home, rooms and identify which items you’d like to control. A few minutes after you’ve saved the new settings, you can then start controlling your home through a series of commands.

Users simply have to push a small button on their iPhone, give an order, and watch as the request is immediately fulfilled. Automation solutions have long made it possible to turn lights off or on with other apps, but this will be the first time consumers will be able to wirelessly communicate with appliances using Apple’s iOS

In order to control appliances from outside the home, consumers will need to own a Apple TV (3rd generation or later) that shares the same iCloud account as their other iOS devices. For those without an Apple TV, users can still rely on the Lutron app (at least, that’s what I found, with my setup).

In its current state, HomeKit is far from the polished product one would expect to see from Apple. For instance, you need to follow a very specific HomeKit voice command protocol, laid out by Apple, in order for Siri to understand verbal requests.

A simple command of “turn off my lights” is recognized without issue. However, “control my lights” or any similar variations will result in an Internet search, because Siri can’t understand the instruction, which is disappointing.

If you’re already deeply invested in Apple’s other products, buying HomeKit accessories won’t hurt your bank account. The service’s functionality is a bit limited with iOS 8, but the release of iOS 9 this fall will bring more advanced commands and support for more accessories, such as motion sensors. For example, later in the year consumers will be able to use their Apple Watch to communicate with HomeKit devices, instead of relying solely on an iPhone (or iPad). Additionally, you’ll be able to trigger your thermostat based on multiple variables such as time and location, instead of just one variable as it is now.

HomeKit was meant to improve the user experience and offer a secure method for managing accessories and smartphone apps, but needs more work if it’s to successfully compete with other companies in the market.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Video Games

5 Things I Absolutely Love in Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman must once more save Gotham from a who's who medley of his worst enemies—including a mysterious new villain dubbed the Arkham Knight

Confession: I don’t like superheroes. Watchmen author Alan Moore once suggested their existence in American culture “might have something to do with a kind of an ingrained American reluctance to engage in confrontation without massive tactical superiority.” Nonetheless, superheroes are now pretty much ubiquitous in our entertainment, and I submit that at some point we’re going to have to grapple with some of the less pleasant particulars of why that’s the case.

But it’s also testament to how well the Arkham games work that the idea of playing a protagonist as sadistic, pretentious, and at times borderline sociopathic as Batman doesn’t really factor when the game plays this well (and if you are a Batman fan, all the better for you). Arkham Knight, which sees Batman square off against old enemies and one new (the eponymous and identity-unknown Arkham Knight) in a vast open-world playground, is developer Rocksteady at the top of its game, expressing a masterful, anted-up understanding of how and why its series finally broke gaming’s “awful superhero tie-in” curse half a decade ago.

Here’s the stuff I liked.

Is the Joker really dead?

I was prepared, upon Arkham Knight‘s announcement years ago, to toss it in the trash if it turned out the Joker’s demise in the last game was just an emotional exploit intended all along to preface another soap opera-worthy resuscitation. (Hey, just because the corporate comics do it doesn’t mean games can’t take the higher ground.)

But no, Rocksteady went and… Okay, I can’t confirm that the Joker is or isn’t in Arkham Knight. That would be telling. But I can tell you this: Rocksteady manages to get you thinking about the question in the cleverest possible way. In fact I’d argue it’s the narrative component in the game that’s pulled off best.

Arkham Knight‘s version of Gotham is a wonderland

No, not in the John Mayer sense, but consider all of the stops pulled and every pipe-blasting key depressed simultaneously. The reimagined version of Batman’s sprawling urban playground, which transpires on three brand new bridge-linked islands—you can see Arkham City and Asylum‘s haunts in the distance, but they’re off limits—is a gloom-fogged goth-tropolis with creepy art nouveau inflections.

Greasy light-source-lit curtains of rain descend from moonlit thunderheads onto commercial rooftops gone to wrack and ruin. Those rooftops crown buildings taller and more granular than ever, with more places to find refuge, more fleshed out internal areas and clever quick-entry grates that thrust you through ductwork mazes, letting you cruise like a missile into (and back out of) buildings.

The Batmobile rules

“Let’s even the odds,” growls Batman at the game’s outset. And so he does, conjuring the game’s taciturn sidekick, a sleek, weaponized behemoth thoughtfully integrated into every aspect of the game. It yanks open grates, lifts heavy cargo, grapples up the sides of buildings, speeds to your location with the touch of a button, and can transform with the pull of a trigger between speedy, straightforward roadster and a strafing, missile-lobbing tank.

You might as well call the game Arkham Ride, because you’ll cover way more ground tearing around in this thing, fully transitioned from Arkham Asylum‘s absurdly tail-finned post-Burton nod, to more of a Nolan-ish tumbler with 360-degree swiveling wheels. It’s an essential companion, whether solving environment puzzles or battling squadrons of the Arkham Knight’s tanks. Worries that the Batmobile would feel like a forced design element were definitely unfounded.

Every aspect of combat has been improved

And that’s saying something, because no one was complaining. At their core, Arkham battles are about stalking tactical playgrounds with asymmetric conceal or assail points, evaluating before engaging. In Arkham Knight, it’s more nuanced than ever, but without feeling overcomplicated. Rocksteady and Warner Bros. Montreal have been playing a long game of rock-paper-scissors with the series’ tactical battle system, iterating enemy types and behaviors with each installment to revitalize the series’ core virtue without radically rethinking it.

You can now throw thugs as part of a counter, for instance, and you have to stay behind alert enemies when stalking from floor grates, lest they spy you stalking (and if they do, they can detonate thermal charges that cascade through the ventilation system—if you don’t vamoose before they go off, it’s sayonara). And if you’re the silent type, quietly dispatching enemies at leisure, there’s a counter for that as well: enemies can now rouse fallen comrades, so you have to be quick and mindful of patrol trajectories.

Other improvements abound

Batbelt item selection, a hinky multi-tier affair in the prior games that sometimes led to erroneous weapon selection in the helter-skelter of combat, is now a single tier circle, placing everything in immediate, pinpoint reach. Some of the environment puzzles are exceptional, like a sequence that plays out high above Gotham, where you’re basically playing Super Monkey Ball with airship cargo.

Grate scurrying’s been simplified, too, minimizing the old first-person crawl by generalizing movement to broad swathes of a level’s subfloor, which speeds maneuverability. The sheer array of side activities this time, be they Rocksteady’s insidious new Riddler puzzles or the barrage of rogue’s gallery subplots, are almost overwhelming (suffice to say there’s an astonishing amount to do, and that’s before the imminent DLC).

It’s not the final installment in a trilogy

This one’s more a point of clarification than a like/dislike. It’s become an unofficial thing to call the Arkham series a trilogy, I guess because last year’s Batman: Arkham Origins was handled by a different studio. Warner Bros. as yet makes no such distinction, and since Origins was a strong and arguably essential entry in the quartet, it was nice to see Rocksteady scatter subtle references back to Origins‘ events throughout Arkham Knight. What’s more, you can draw a line directly from Arkham Knight‘s satisfying “survey the crime scene for evidence” reconstructive puzzles back to Origins‘ DVR-like “find the next clue” sequences.

And here’s the stuff that didn’t work for me…

Some of the quips fall flat

Like when Batman tells a recurring series ally “I’ve got a feeling,” and the character replies “Yeah, I got a feeling too. Doc gave me some cream and it cleared up in no time.” Yuk-yuk!

The police let all the bad guys go

You know all the work you did the last two games to clean up the psychotic super-villanous riffraff? Yeah, so Gotham City Police had to let all those folks go, because…well, you don’t need me to tell you. Batman’s real superpower, it turns out, is not going totally bat**** crazy having to fight the same opponents over, and over, and over…

Hacking security consoles is still boring

Remember the tedious, thumb-twisty way you had to swivel the gamepad’s thumbsticks to make one of Batman’s gizmos cough up phrases that unlocked doors in the last two games? It’s back! Yes, I suppose it’s better than stopping up the game’s pace by forcing us to work some sort of tortuous Captain Crunch decoder wheel, but it doesn’t feel very Batman-ish when hacking security consoles is just a rote test of finger dexterity.

“Fear” takedowns look cool, but feel like cheats

There’s definitely a strategic, predatory element to lining up two or three enemies and taking them out all almost automatically, and it can certainly help thin out dangerous clusters of thugs. But Arkham Knight‘s new “pinball KO” maneuver feels antithetical to the series’ modus operandi—a stylish cheat code to ease combat masquerading as a new Bat-skill.

A related cheat: team takedowns, where you’re battling a group of enemies aided by one of your sidekicks. It’s a stylish, penatly-free way to switch characters in the midst of battle, but that’s all it is: a tactically shallow freebie KO.

TIME Gadgets

5 Great Cameras For Capturing Your Summer Fun

Canon PowerShot G7 X
Canon Canon PowerShot G7 X

Get better results than your smartphone

Smartphone cameras are getting better with every generation of new phone, but they still aren’t necessarily the best solution for every shot. For instance, while you can get a waterproof case to bring your handset on a dive, most people aren’t comfortable with taking their entire digital life into the deep. Likewise on shots that require ample zoom — of course you can pinch at the touchscreen to get in closer, but that sacrifices image quality.

Luckily there’s an old fashioned solution for these modern problems: cameras. Dedicated to making the best of light and color, these single-tasking devices may have been around forever, but they’re still getting better every year. These five standalone shooters will capture this summer’s memories in much richer detail than anything that you can also play Trivia Crack on.

Canon PowerShot G7 X

Point-and-shoot cameras like this little big shot won’t weigh you down while on a hike or a sightseeing trek. With better lenses and image sensors than your smartphone, you’ll collect sharper looking memories. With a one-inch, 20.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, the $699 Powershot G7 X already has enough tech to blow your smartphone away in a shootout. But with Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, the 9.8 ounce camera has the same connectivity as your iPhone, though it weighs 5 ounces more.

With that extra heft you also get a 4.2-time zoom lens that, when multiplied by the 4-time digital zoom, actually provides nearly 17 times the magnification. But you’re probably wondering about the most important facet of photography today: selfies. Thankfully the G7 X’s 3-inch touchscreen display flips around perfectly so you can document yourself, your friends, and all your hot summer fun.

HTC Re Camera

Too often, rather than capturing the moment, cameras just get in the way. Resembling a periscope, HTC’s $149 Re Camera eschews full-color display screens for a simple record button, making it a true point-and-shoot. Packing a 16 megapixel sensor and a wide-angle, 146-degree lens, Re shoots 30-frame-per-second 1080p video and photos that it stores on microSD cards with up to 128 gigabytes of storage.

Able to operate one meter under water for 30 minutes, it can take 1,000 photos on a single charge. Hopefully your thumb can keep up, because to take pictures, all you need to do is tap the button (or press it down to shoot a video). Re also has a line of mounting accessories so photographers can attach it to everything from a handlebar to a backpack. And when it’s time to relive your memories, the Bluetooth-equipped camera can connect to your Android or iOS phone, sending images to an accompanying app.

Leica Q

If you’re as much about the tool as you are the artwork, Leica’s latest compact is going to make you feel like a painter playing with Vincent van Gogh’s brushes — and for $4,250, it ought to. A full-frame, fixed lens digital camera, the Leica Q was designed with speed in mind, with a fastest-in-class Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH lens and 24 megapixel CMOS sensor. An integrated 3.68 megapixel viewfinder pops up as soon as you bring the camera to your eye, snapping in the autofocus and shooting up to 10 full-resolution frames per second, with JPEGs instantly ready for reviewing.

With full manual controls, seasoned shutterbugs can make the most of their shots and even get some assistance from “focus peaking” and “live view zoom” features. And with modern networking chops through Wi-Fi, the images can be streamed over to the Leica app for viewing, saving and sharing.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Into each summer, some rain must fall. And on those days, you’ll want to have the weatherproof Olympus OM-D E-M1 in your camera bag. A lightning-fast mirrorless camera with a 1/8000 shutter speed, the $1,099 micro four third fits into an interchangeable system that currently has more than 70 different lenses. And with a magnesium alloy body, the E-M1 is able to brave the dirt, water, and freezing temperatures to snap up hard-to-capture images.

While this all makes it sound like a physical specimen, the pro-level shooter is only 1.1 pounds. And it’s packing a range of creative options on its internal software, including a dozen filters and a multi-exposure mode. That means you can spend more time on your photos and less on your computer — which is a much better way to enjoy a summer day.

Samsung NX500

The next big thing in imagery is 4K resolution, and the best way to add it to your arsenal minus a couple of Gs might be the Samsung NX500. A lower-cost, interchangeable lens, mirrorless camera with an easy-to-handle form-factor, the $599 (current price) rig features a comfortable, ergonomic grip and an easy-to-access control dial, giving it a throwback manual feel that will keep you from having to dive into the touchscreen all the time. Another similar perk is its “mobile” button that instantly activates the NX500’s Bluetooth, NCF, and Wi-Fi connectivity features.

And while these physical benefits are great, the imaging smarts inside are excellent too, like the camera’s 28 megapixel image sensor, the highest resolution APS/C size sensor on the market. The NX500’s DRIMe Vs photo processor drives software like Auto Shot, a predictive algorithm that locks on to moving targets to anticipate the perfect picture. These chops also lend themselves to the camera’s 4K video mode, which shoots in 24 frames per second. That’s not as fast as the 60 frame per second 1080p mode, but it’s plenty good for capturing an endless summer.

TIME Google

Google’s Self-Driving Cars ‘Drive Like Your Grandma’

Google Self-Driving Car
Mark Wilson—Getty Images Google's Lexus RX 450H Self Driving Car is seen parked on Pennsylvania Ave. on April 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

But that's probably a good thing

Slow and steady may win the race when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

A self-declared Mountain View, Calif.-based motorcyclist recently shared what it’s like to drive alongside Google’s self-driving cars with Emerging Technologies Blog. The anonymous reviewer, who claims to see about a half dozen Lexus-variety Google cars every day (and also claims not to work for Google , or any other company working on a self-driving car), relates mostly positive experiences.

But that praise is tempered with a few critical observations. Foremost, the reviewer compares the cars’ behavior to that of an elderly person.

“Google cars drive like your grandma,” the purported motorcyclist writes, “they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).”

At certain intersections with limited visibility, the cars move slowly and take many pauses, the reviewer writes. “It appeared very safe,” the person continues, describing one such experience, “but if I had been behind it I probably would have been annoyed at how long it took to actually commit to pull out and turn.”

The “overly cautious” and “very polite” cars—also described as an occasional “annoyance”—nevertheless seem to have won over the motorcyclist, despite that person being a self-proclaimed “car-nut” who “love[s] to drive.”

“I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers,” writes the reviewer, who admits not knowing for certain how to tell whether a computer or human operator is in control.

But for this driver, that doesn’t seem to matter. “I give SD cars 5 stars,” the reviewer writes, abbreviating self-driving. “Would buy.”

TIME Video Games

Splatoon Is the Best Game Nintendo’s Made in Years

Nintendo

The iconic Japanese developer rolls out another brilliant first-party game that's unlike any other

How goofy was the elevator pitch for Nintendo’s Wii U team shooter Splatoon? Play as a head-tentacled, paintgun schlepping biped that can morph into a turbo squid? Zip around multiplex obstacle courses, squaring off against fellow ink-spuming cephalopods while spraying viscous goo to brand your turf? Grind on gloop-splashed rails like a madcap Tony Hawk/Jackson Pollock mashup?

Too weird to succeed? I hope not, because with all due respect to rethinks like last year’s Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I haven’t played a Nintendo game this gonzo and flat out fun in years.

Here’s how it works: Two squads of four players (not platoons, though that’s what inspired the catchy portmanteau) battle in skatepark-inspired arenas, outfitted with ink-spewing gadgetry and one imperative, to cover as much of the area’s ground space with your team’s color as possible before time runs out. The controls are simple: pick up the Wii U’s tablet controller, thumbstick in the direction you want to move, and swivel the tablet in the one you want to shoot.

You can ink over already saturated areas and take out enemies by assaulting them with your weapon, but don’t look for kill counts or headshot tallies, because Splatoon is about maximum coverage, not carnage—an anti-sanguine splatter-fest, and a graffiti vandal’s dream come true. And it only sounds shambolic. There’s a deep tactical shooter lurking beneath all that polychromatic spatter.

Before you’ve so much as glimpsed the leveling and gear grind, you’ll have to grapple with Splatoon‘s funky shapeshifting tactic, either firing paint slugs as a slow-moving bipedal Inkling, or holding a button to insta-morph into a squid. In squid mode, you can dart across ink-glazed surfaces, moving twice as fast while recharging your dwindling ink supply. Swim into enemy ink, of course, and you’ll slither to a stop, opening yourself up to enemy fire.

Splatoon builds on its ink-traversal idea by letting you craft “roads” through enemy lines, or swim up otherwise unclimbable platforms. What if Tony Hawk had to lay pipe to get anywhere? It’s a smart, often pivotal incentive to fashion shortcuts, take out snipers, cut through enemy-covered terrain, or get somewhere high fast to maximize your ink-spatter-to-surface-area ratio (the further ink falls, the more area its soaks). Think an extreme sports game meets a jet ski racer meets a coloring book.

The possibilities snowball when you factor all the gear abilities (dozens of speed, damage and stealth perks associated with headwear, shirts and shoes) and special weapons (bombs, mines, ink-tornado-flinging bazookas, mongo paint-rollers) that you can buy from shops with cash earned by leveling up in online matches. But it’s also beginner-friendly: The game keeps special weapons in check by requiring you ink so much ground before they unlock, then limits how long they’re usable. And a helpful “super jump” does away with lonely re-spawns (at your base, after someone takes you out) by letting you touch a teammate’s icon on the Wii U GamePad’s screen and rocket across the map to wherever they’re currently battle-painting.

Don’t let how insane any of that sounds put you off playing. It’s not how Splatoon feels in action, whether inking some quiet corner, or in a duel with a higher level opponent. Low level players can routinely steamroll high level ones, because Splatoon‘s basic maneuvers work as a kind of competitive equalizer. I’m not talking about luck, or something like Mario Kart‘s blue shell, where there’s an ultimate rock that can crush someone else’s scissor, just that Nintendo’s designed the game so that how you play—your “play style,” as the company puts it in the manual—often trumps what you’re playing with.

I do wish Splatoon had an offline bot mode so you could practice when the matchmaking service peters out (you can “recon” levels solo, but that’s it). And the game definitely needs an option to cancel while waiting for an online match to start. As it is, once you’ve agreed to join, Nintendo locks you to a timeout while searching for matches (the clever little Doodle Jump-inspired game you can play on the Wii U GamePad is amusing but poor compensation). It’s there to help seed the game’s online pool, but having to flip the Wii U’s power switch to kill the process when real life intervenes is plain unfriendly.

I wasn’t able to try the Battle Dojo, a 1-on-1 mode where you and another player in the same room compete by shooting ink at balloons. And I’ve only dabbled with the offline story mode, though it’s so far classic Nintendo: platform through linear levels with ink-related conundrums, then battle cunningly designed bosses (think Shadow of the Colossus‘s enemy-climbing angle, only with ink). It’s as cutesy and goofball and clearly designed to fit within Nintendo’s family of future-looking franchises as you’d expect of a new IP as heavily marketed as this one’s been.

But those activities feel like distractions from Splatoon‘s triumphant team-play mode, the game’s heart and soul, and the reason a guy like me, no fan of competitive online shooters, can’t stop playing the darned thing. There’s nothing else quite like it, nor the cathartic dopamine jolt to be had when you squid-skim up a paint-smeared quarter pipe, an Inkzooka at the ready, leap over the edge, take aim with your weapon, and reduce a startled opponent to goo.

5 out of 5

Reviewed on Wii U

TIME hospitals

This Website Is Basically Yelp for Hospitals

Empty Hospital Bed in a Ward
Getty Images

You can check the grade of your hospital to see how it stacks up against others

Using websites like Yelp, people can look up ratings and reviews for virtually any restaurant or bar. But what about hospitals, where the quality of treatment is far more important than checking whether the Caesar salad is any good.

On Wednesday, a new website premiered that lets you check how good a hospital is. But instead 0f relying on reviews by the public, it rates hospitals based on data from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS, which collects information about all medical facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds.

People can pull up the profile of most any hospital in the country to see its strengths, weaknesses, and overall grade. Most of the information is focused on three areas: the hospital’s emergency room, patient satisfaction, and in-patient cost efficiency.

For example, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles got a C+ overall grade, and ranks in the 34th percentile in the country. Massachusetts General Hospital, located in Boston, fared a bit better, earning a B- and ranking in 44th percentile.

Brent Newhouse, co-founder of analyticsMD, the startup that created the index, explained that he chose to narrow the focus to a few areas like emergency rooms, for example, because “emergencies are often the first place we interact with hospitals.” Doing so also made it easier for his company to create the index and for regular people to navigate it.

Similar ratings are also available through iVantage’s Hospital Strength Index, which also uses data from CMS, among other sources.

AnalyticsMD, a two-year-old startup from Palo Alto, Calif., has built software that helps hospitals make their operations more efficient. It uses data to provide hospital administrators and staffers with suggestions like how to avoid patient bottlenecks and schedule staff. Among the company’s handful of paying hospital customers are El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., and Mercy Health Hospitals, which haw several locations in the US.

For analyticsMD co-founders, Newhouse and Mudit Garg, building the hospital index has two purposes. One goal is to provide a yardstick for hospital administrators to not only take a step back and see how they’re doing, but also compare their performance to their peers. The other goal is to make hospital quality and efficiency a priority for both patients and health care providers.

“If we can get this out to folks, we can get a conversation started,” Newhouse said.

 

TIME Gadgets

Are Smart Thermostats Worth Buying?

Google To Buy Smart Thermostat Maker Nest For 3.2 Billion
George Frey—Getty Images In this photo illustration, a Nest thermostat is being adjusted in a home on January 16, 2014 in Provo, Utah.

And 4 of the best on the market

For the most part, I’m an early adopter. In my opinion, Launch Day should be a holiday, right up there with May the Fourth and St. Patrick’s Day. But when it comes to smart home technology — at least, home electronics that are expensive or require complex installation — I tend to move at the reluctant pace of a dedicated laggard. That’s because today’s tech is as much about the ecosystem as it is the product. Gadget makers aren’t necessarily trying to peddle you a gadget; they’re selling an upgrade cycle.

Homeowners don’t want this — not even tech-laden kings of the castle like myself. So, when smart thermostats started hitting the shelves years ago, rather than being the first on my block to install one, I sat back and watched. Last year, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers told me the company isn’t worried about getting people to upgrade yet.

“When we get to 50 million U.S. households, then we’ll start worrying about turnover,” Rogers said. In the meantime, the company has continually improved its product, currently in its second generation, with dozens of free software updates. “We’ve been able to update even to the first generation unit,” he says.

From the sidelines, I confess that I’m late to the game. The fundamental technologies in these devices (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, light sensors, thermometers) are not only refined, but they’re also timeless, or at least backwards compatible. I’m convinced the smart thermostat of yesterday will still be an ample energy-saving gadget tomorrow. So, on the eve of getting a heat pump installed at my home — I’m switching from a gas furnace to a year-round, climate-controlled utopia — I’m faced with the question of how to best manage my HVAC system.

These four options are the best contenders.

Allure Eversense

You might not have heard of the Allure Eversense, but it’s quite possible you’ve listened to it. Part smart heating controller, part media center, this clever $249 device takes advantage of the thermostat’s central location in your home to do double-duty as a small speaker system. With just a 1.0 gigahertz processor and eight gigabytes of storage, this unit is ripe for obsolescence, but it really doesn’t take much computing power to kick out some tunes. And with Wi-Fi connectivity, it can stream directly from your Android or iOS device, anyhow.

Its 4.3-inch touchscreen is able to display the weather (including an animated radar) or your photos with its Picture Frame app. But the big deal is the the smarts in this unit, with its ability to track your location, both inside and out of the house, turning off the heat or air conditioning when you’re away, and starting it when you’re on your way home. Since I work from home, this isn’t very helpful for me, not to mention the privacy concerns I have over being monitored like that. But it’s probably no worse than the location tracking that Find My iPhone already does.

Ecobee3

Every home is different. With that in mind, Ecobee3 offers a versatile solution to temperature control by connecting to remote sensors all over the house, detecting the conditions where you actually want your heat or cool air to reach. Detecting movement and temperature, these sensors feed data to the main thermostat, a Wi-Fi-connected fixture that packs motion, proximity and humidity sensors itself. Basing its smarts on what kind of HVAC equipment you have (conventional, heat pump, gas, or dual fuel) and the weather, the $249 smart device ($313, for a package that comes with a pair of extra sensors) can sense if you are home and control the climate accordingly.

On the plus side, Ecobee3’s ability to heat and cool far-flung rooms makes this a good option for my home (and my attic workspace). But by catering to the far corners of my house, it will probably over-heat or over-cool the main living area — as well as wipe out any savings I might get from being more energy conscious.

Honeywell Lyric

A longtime giant of the HVAC industry, Honeywell isn’t giving up control of the world’s heat to anyone, especially not these digital upstarts. And in pairing up with Apple (and its upcoming HomeKit smart home initiative), Honeywell has a great opportunity to continue on as a force in this space. But the Lyric — at least this version of it — might not be the device to do that. Using geofencing to know when to turn your system on, the $249 thermostat monitors your location like the Eversense. But it also takes into account the relative humidity in your home to make sure 72 degrees actually feels like 72 degrees (and not like 80 degrees, which is how it feels when the air is humid). Lyric’s Android and iOS app let you create shortcuts to change your temperature settings to particular preferences as well as to schedule them to come on and off, automatically.

This is a fresh change from learning thermostats because it offers the homeowner more granular control. But the reason to hold off is this product’s unclear HomeKit compatibility. As far as I’ve been told, HomeKit-compatible products will require a special chip that has not yet become available. So, if Lyric is to be HomeKit compatible, it probably won’t be the model currently on store shelves.

Nest Learning Thermostat

The smart thermostat that started it all ends this list. Gorgeous to look at, and making your home energy bill pretty too, this $249 game-changer has stood up well since it was first released in 2011, due to continual updates (as mentioned above) and timeless good looks.

But Nest is also popular because it doesn’t take any programming whatsoever. Just put it on the wall while you go about your business. Nest’s auto-scheduling feature takes over from there, turning up when you typically like it warmer, down when you tend to want it cooler, and off when you head off to work. But if you can’t keep your hands off the brushed metal device, turning it below a certain point will prompt a leaf to pop up on the screen, a sign that you’re saving energy. The most cost-saving feature of Nest it its ability to detect when you’re home or away, but since I’m here more often than I’m not, that’s not likely to help me much. And, since my thermostat sits right next to the stairs to my office, it may just be a constant reminder of a bad decision. Perhaps I should continue to hold out on this purchase, after all.

TIME Video Games

5 Things I Love About The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

How does Polish developer CD Projekt Red's long-awaited fantasy three-quel stack up? Here's what we think so far

Let’s talk about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, an obscure sounding fantasy roleplaying game you’re either here reading about because you’re a bona fide Witcher wonk, or that you stumbled into after President Obama unexpectedly namechecked the series while visiting Poland last June (no really, he did).

For those in the latter column, a quick review. The Witcher games stem, some might say improbably, from several fantasy novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski in the early 1990s. The series concerns a potion-drinking mutant named Geralt, the eponymous “Witcher,” who hunts monsters for a living. Though Geralt is portrayed as apolitical, elaborate political plots eventually emerge in both the novels and games, forcing Geralt (and in the games, therefore, players) to grapple with ethical dilemmas that mirror contemporary real world ones.

Think Western fantasy, but through an Eastern European lens—more folkloric Brothers Grimm than epically biblical Tolkien. Think political intrigue, character depth and world building on par with HBO’s Game of Thrones. And in The Witcher 3‘s case, with CD Projekt Red finally jumping the series to a fully open world, think grand on a scale that surpasses the term. Think post-Skyrim.

I’ve had the game for less than a week, and don’t ask me how far along I am, because at two dozen hours, I’ve yet to see its middle. But I’m having a blast. It’s not perfect, and at points (see below) it can seem obtuse, but hour for hour, I’m happier with it than I was Skyrim—and at the 24-hour mark I was still pretty chuffed about Skyrim.

My impressions of the game so far, running the PlayStation 4 version:

The engine under this hood is pretty sporty

You think I’m talking about the graphics? In a moment. I’m referring to load times—the time it takes for a game to cycle up—because they’re crucial when you’re restarting from save points, say you keep whiffing fighting a mini-boss. The Witcher 3‘s load times are partly obscured by narrative recaps, but still unusually quick. When you figure the game’s juggling a play-space bigger than either Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V‘s, one that’s seamless once it’s up and running (there’s no scenery pop-in) whether you’re wandering in and out of buildings or plumbing underground dungeons, it’s no small triumph.

And it’s visually stunning

I don’t mean technically, since we’re accustomed to games that deftly model bosky sandboxes with resplendent cities and chaotic ruins and endless subterranean haunts. I’m talking about who made the game (CD Projekt Red, headquartered in Poland) and what informed their visual worldview. Put it this way: The Witcher 3 looks nothing like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Speaking as someone who’s spent months in Poland, the Baltics and Russia, it feels more like that. Light cuts chiaroscuro columns between swathes of stormy blackness draped over fir and oak forests punctuated by meticulous medieval structures and grass-choked wagon wheel roads. The wind knocks stands of trees and patchy scrub around like shaken springs, and cloud-fog hangs off foothills and mountains in wispy skirts. It feels older and creepier, but also elegiac and incredibly beautiful, if that makes sense (speaking as an American who’s probably doing the whole romanticizing-the-other thing).

CD Projekt Red

How do you convey to someone what a blood-red, storm cloud framed, lighting-flanked sunset looks like if you happen to come across one tromping through Poland’s Lower Silesian Wilderness? Show them a sunset in The Witcher 3.

Deceptively conventional quests morph into delightful rabbit holes

Tired of running delivery boy errands and “go kill X monsters” treks designed to fill out space in games like this? You’ll still find them here, but the design team threw in heaps of meaningful wrinkles, upending tropes by extending the backstories to quests and folding in deductive sequences that drawn upon your extrasensory abilities (some can be over a dozen steps long). And when they can’t do that, they’ll just send you on quirky goose chases with surprise denouements to keep you off balance.

And that’s what it’s really about when you’re crafting challenges for players, isn’t it? Preserving an air of mystery and situational novelty? Developer CD Projekt Red has worked to thwart conventionality since it launched the series, and you can see it shining through any one of The Witcher 3‘s idiosyncratic missions.

The scripted encounters soar

Someone needs to write about the real war, says Geralt at a point early in the game, “not colorful banners or generals making moving speeches, but rape, violence, and thoughtless cruelty.” He’s chatting in a tavern with an academic who’s just explained what’s driven him out to the front, to chronicle the war.

“Rape and cruelty are details of no import to the war’s course, trinkets on the garment of conflict you might say,” replies the academic, betraying a kind of dangerous, elite romanticism, as well as callous disregard for Geralt’s vaguely antiwar position.

It’s an uncomfortable moment that could stand for any other in the game, an exchange that’d feel at home in a George R.R. Martin novel, and one that’s still sadly unusual in a video game, where incisive much less subversive writing takes a backseat to anodyne platitudes about war, or whatever else (one of gaming’s great mistakes has been its cooption of the false dichotomy between authorial intention and player control).

But not The Witcher 3, where beautifully voiced and philosophically provocative interactions are the norm for virtually every encounter in the game, be it part of the main quest or any of the secondaries. True, The Witcher 2 already showed us that CD Projekt Red could write, but The Witcher 3 pulls that level of depth off in a game world that’s exponentially bigger. It’s like stumbling into a strange, baroquely ornamented wine cellar stuffed with vintage bottles, every one.

And each location feels unique

Every rutted path, split-rail fence, thatch roof, copse of trees, bricked ruin, walled village and corpse-haunted battlefield feels handcrafted and one-of-a-kind, and you can wander for hours without repeats. Imagine the time it must have taken, given how vast The Witcher 3‘s play space is, but what a visual payoff and triumph. You could write plausibly poetic travelogues about the game’s distinctive vistas, whether sloshing through Crookback Bog, taking in the heart stopping view from Kaer Gelen castle, hiking around the craggy monster-thronged foothills of Bald Mountain, or getting lost in the wonderfully nuanced architecture of metropolitan Novigrad.

CD Projekt Red

But the world’s also stuffed with vacuous nobodies

Cities and towns are choked with citizenry going about their scripted business, and you can chat with any of them. Trouble is, almost no one has much more than a catchphrase to work with. Wander through a village and you’ll be assaulted by “talk” prompts, but tap to do so and you’ll be treated to a barrage of boilerplate-isms: “Yes?” “Erhm?” “Step away.” “Nordling?” “Hm?” “What do you want?” “Tidings from Vizima?” Et cetera.

Conversational window dressing just wastes precious time in ginormous games like this. Better to disable that level of interactivity outright and let the ambulatory props shuffle through their subroutines. Save talking for situations that involve actual talking, in other words.

And the interface needs work

Getting Geralt to properly interact with something, say another person or chest of goods, feels a little fiddly, requiring too much sidling up or scooting backwards to conjure the prompt.

The way things are labeled also feels a little lazy: When you’re out gathering flora for The Witcher 3‘s alchemy game, for instance, the prompt you’ll see is generically “Gather Ingredients,” instead of a more helpful “Gather [name of ingredient].” Why ask players to stop and pull up a dialogue box, when you could more readily specify what they’re looking at as they wander by?

Combat can be quirky

I love The Witcher 3‘s third-person battle ideas for the most part–a mix of swordplay and tactical spellcasting that mostly works–but two things stand out as sore spots.

The game binds your ability to “parry” in battle to the same button that triggers “Witcher Sense” out of battle (it’s an extrasensory ability Witchers use to “see” thing others can’t). The problem is that you’re sometimes shuffled out of, then back into, combat mode so fast that you grab the button to parry, but invoke the other ability instead, laying you open to blows.

The other issue, a little more serious, is the way targeting works. The system as it stands lets you focus your attention on different opponents by flicking the right thumbstick while you maneuver with the left one. But the game’s enemies often reposition themselves so quickly, and often assault you in close-in rows, that it’s all too easy to accidentally target the guy right behind the one you want to hit, which causes you to attack past the front line and open yourself up to unblockable flank damage.

CD Projekt Red

The world itself, though gorgeous, has shortcomings

Spatial physics? Who needs ’em! Instead of building off basic line of sight principles, where you might use ledges or walls or giant trees to sneak up on an opponent, enemies simply “sense” you through plainly obfuscating geometry. They’ll even brokenly fire arrows through trees, either a glitch or collision detection oversight that outs the environment as a facade in combat. Less ambitious open-world games manage to pull this stuff off competently, so why not The Witcher 3?

(For that matter, why can’t Geralt sneak? I’m not asking for Thief or Dishonored or Assassin’s Creed here, but Witchers aren’t tanks, and Geralt’s surely capable of creeping up on squads of foes, so why can’t he at least attempt to here?)

And despite its delays, the game still has bugs

My first two matches of Gwent (a semi-interesting collectible card game you can play with other characters in the game for money) crashed the game hard. And while hanging out in a tavern, a horse (not mine) outside wandered over and stuck its head through the tavern wall—creepy for all the wrong reasons.

TIME Smartphones

HTC’s Lead Designer Explains How Smartphones Get Made

htc-one-m9-global-phone-listing
HTC HTC One M9

"You can make the wildest predictions, but it will always surpass your imagination"

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TrustedReviews sat down with Daniel Hundt, HTC’s passionate Creative Director and now Lead Designer, to ask him about the design of HTC’s latest flagship – the HTC One M9. He explains honest design, how materials affect the process and why the world isn’t yet ready for modular phones.

Trusted Reviews: What’s changed on the One M9 and why?

Hundt: A common question we get is: “Why does it look similar to the One M8 and M7?” It’s really important for us that we keep the lineage. We’ve built a strong brand with the One and we want to continue that strong DNA. I tell my team all the time that we need discipline – we can’t get bored of what we’re doing, we have to stay true to who we are what we feel is HTC. We have to keep what’s good and improve on what’s not working.

We’re always striving to make the perfect product. Sometimes we’re pretty close, other times we’re further away, but we always seek greatness combined with consistency.

What we did with the M8 was shrink down the size to make it more pocketable and feel better in your hand. We made the M8 rounder than the M7 to attract more female customers, but also to make it more ergonomic. One interesting thing that we learned from making it round was that, as you use it, the texture changes, so it becomes more slippery. People said, “Hey, it’s really hard to hold, can you guys go back to something that has a little more of an edge feel?”. We ended up with something in between the M7 and M8 because that’s what people want.

How do you decide what materials to make a phone out of?

Craftsmanship is really important to us. When we talk about our products, we talk about our inspiration. We think of ourselves as makers – like shoemakers, watchmakers, instrument makers – and get inspired by attention to detail. That’s the level of perfection that we try to apply.

The HTC One M9 is a premium phone, a premium device, with premium materials. We invested heavily in making a phone with a metal unibody and bringing that to life, and over the last three years we’ve been looking to improve that.

On the M7 we had a metal unibody with some plastic on the sides. We improved the design on the M8 where we had 95% metal content. As competitors started to catch up it was important that we push ourselves again and bring the metal finish, and the way we work with metal, to another level. That’s why we introduced not just the dual tone, but also the dual finish – two processes in one phone.

First we machine the back from one block of aluminum – 95% of the aluminum gets machined away, but of course we recycle that into new blocks. Then we anodize it and then machine it again, treat the edge and put another really fine hairline and anodize it again. It’s a pretty crazy process and one of the reasons I love working for HTC is that we’re doing those things.

We sit down with our CEO and present ideas we feel have a consumer benefit and people really love. If we present an opportunity that can make a real emotional connection with the user, then we go for it, and I really think as a company we have our heart in the right place. We think about the consumer before the bottom line.

You use metal for the One M9, but do other materials provide more design benefits?

Whenever you deal with a conductive material like metal, you have to deal with the antennas so the phone almost designs itself. There’s a beauty in that. As a designer you sort of guide the process rather than trying to shape it into what you want. You’re almost not designing it as a designer, you’re there to guide the process rather than to try to steer it. You have to let go of control and let the material and technology do its thing, and you just make sure it stays on track. It’s a fascinating process.

Can a flagship phone made of plastic ever compete with the likes of the metal One M9?

No. You’ve seen other brands play in that space before [with phones] that were completely made out of plastic and tricked people into thinking they had a metal frame. Obviously the market has shown that you can be successful if you put enough marketing knowledge behind it, but I fundamentally believe that’s the wrong thing to do. When we use a material, we want to be honest about it. We try not to fake things; we’re totally against that.

So the problem isn’t plastic, the problem is making plastic look like another material?

Yes. That’s bottom-line thinking. You take the cheapest available material and then you try to make it look like something else. Fundamentally I don’t agree with that. When you show a person a product in a picture you’re giving them a promise, and I think you have to be true to yourself. If you tell them that you’re going to give them metal, you give them metal. If you want to give them a different material then you have to be honest about that as well. Plastic can be beautiful, it’s a matter of how you use a moulding technology to bring it to a new level, like we’ve done with the Desire Eye and Desire 820.

Do you think some manufacturers compromise battery life too much in the pursuit of thinness?

Yes, but we don’t look at what other people do and how they make trade-offs. For us it’s about finding the right balance. We study that a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many mock-ups of the HTC One M9 we have with different batteries in. We put everything on the table and think about battery life and see what effect it will have on the form factor and make those smart tradeoffs. We don’t just say “this is the battery it has to have.” We do tons of mockups and put ourselves in the role of the consumer and decide what will really benefit them.

It’s very tempting to play the spec game, but we try not to get ourselves caught up in that. What’s the user benefit to have a phone 0.1 or 0.2mm thinner? It’s a strong statement to say you have the thinnest phone available, but we try not to get caught up in that.

What will the phone of 2020 look like?

I stopped making predictions so far out. Just looking back in the history of mobile phones, technology exceeds your imagination. You can make the wildest predictions, but it will always surpass your imagination.

What about modular phones then? Will they ever be as successful or be as good as a well-designed all-in-one phone?

It might be as technology advances. It’s about tradeoffs. If you have something modular you have wall thicknesses to consider. Once technology reaches a certain size why wouldn’t it be successful?

I don’t think it’s marketable yet, though. I think the tradeoffs on an everyday level for a product like that, because of its size, mean it’s not justifiable yet. It’s more for novelty’s sake. It’s very interesting and it will happen, but technology has to adapt.

[Making a modular phone] is similar to choosing a material for a phone. You will have to guide the process. Technology will set the rules, the outline, and our job as designers is to create a function by which those rules are applied. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in that space. I’m not clawing onto the fact that this [One M9] has to be in this package or sit in this form. If there’s a consumer benefit then we’ll look at it.

How are bezel-free designs and curved and flexible screens going to change the design of phones going forward?

Well, the bezel-free design we’re all driving for has a clear consumer benefit, which is size. You have maximum screen-to-form ratio and that’s something I’m really excited about.

Curved displays always take me back to the question of consumer benefit. Is it just for novelty’s sake, is it to be interesting, have something to talk about, or does it have a long-lasting benefit to the user?

At the moment where do you think curved displays sit?

I haven’t seen an application yet where it’s for true user benefit. So far, curved screens are for novelty’s sake.

What makes a design stand the test of time and can another truly iconic phone ever be made with annual refresh cycles?

I don’t see this as a limit. It’s important for us to have discipline. We felt like we had something special when we were working on the HTC One M7 three years ago, the first completely unibody phone with the strong iconic look. As a design team we felt we’d found something. This is HTC moving on. We want to maintain that.

It’s important for us to have the discipline and not react to the marketing team saying, “Hey, we need something new, we need to be the thinnest.” We want to keep what’s good and what’s recognizable for us and work on the elements that don’t work so well for us.

If you have an icon and create something good, you should hone it and refine it rather than doing something revolutionary.

This post is in partnership with Trusted Reviews. The article above was originally published at TrustedReviews.com.

TIME Retail

Amazon Is Suing Sites That Sell Fake Reviews

Amazon Unveils Its First Smartphone
David Ryder—Getty Images Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos presents the company's first smartphone, the Fire Phone, on June 18, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.

Sites offer to fill seller's product pages with 4 and 5-star reviews

Amazon is cracking down on sites that it says sell fake reviews to bolster products sold on the retailer’s website.

The online retail giant filed suit Wednesday against buyamazonreviews.con and buyazonreviews.com, according to The Seattle Times. The suit accuses the websites of false advertising, trademark infringement and violating consumer protection laws.

Buyamazonreviews.com did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the website’s owner, Mark Collins, told the Times that Amazon’s claims were without merit, saying his site offers “unbiased and honest” reviews, not fake ones.

On its home page, buyamazonreviews.com offers “unlimited” four and five star reviews to its customers. “Our skilled writers look at your product, look at your competitor’s products and then write state of the art reviews that will be sure to generate sales for you,” the website states.

The case marks the first time Amazon has brought a lawsuit against a company said to be shilling fake reviews. Amazon is seeking triple damages and attorney’s fees, as well as a court order to stop the other sites from using the retailer’s name.

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