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Adobe Dreamweaver CC Review & Rating

You can build websites using any of dozens of tools—some that run online, some that run on your local computer, some that run partly online, partly on your machine—but Adobe Dreamweaver 2020 stands alone as the only site-building app that’s just as suitable for individual designers as it for enterprise-scale projects. It’s just as helpful when you build a site by writing actual code as it is when work in WYSIWYG graphic layout that hides all the code until you need it. The app gets the job done for individual users or teams where different team members have different levels of freedom to add or change content, and of course it works smoothly with Adobe’s arsenal of graphics apps and web services.

Like all other Adobe apps, it comes in virtually identical Mac and Windows versions, and it’s available either through a Dreamweaver-only paid subscription ($20.99 per month with 1-year commitment, $31.49 month-by-month, or $239.88 for one year prepaid) or as part of the full Creative Cloud suite ($52.99 per month), which gets you Photoshop, Illustrator, and all the other creative software and apps. Both the individual app and the full suite subscription come with 100GB of cloud storage.

Responsive Site Design

Dreamweaver excels at creating multiplatform (responsive) websites that work equally well on a phone, tablet, or computer. Any private or corporate web designer looking to replace an ancient desktop- or laptop-style website with a modern multiplatform site will find Dreamweaver the obvious first choice. I’ll describe some alternatives later in this story, but none of them comes close to Dreamweaver in terms of power and ease.

After more than 20 years of evolution, Dreamweaver still has some awkward spots where it can’t decide whether it’s a tool for advanced coders or for visually oriented designers, but these are easy for serious users to work around—and Adobe’s subscription pricing means that only serious users are likely to have it. Dreamweaver isn’t cheap, but for professional-level web design, it repays the price in power and convenience. Adobe’s subscription model means you get periodic feature updates at no extra cost.

Adobe wants you to work with Adobe tools, so it’s easy to use Photoshop and Illustrator to edit images or Premiere Pro and Audition for video and sound files. You can also use Photoshop to create a mock-up of what you want your site to look like and then use Dreamweaver’s Extract menu to drag elements from the Photoshop file into your web pages. But Dreamweaver also works with just about any third-party site-building tool that you might want to use. For example, you can use Dreamweaver to design and edit sites managed by WordPress, Joomla!, or Drupal, or you can create a Git repository and use it keep track of changes in your site.

Dreamweaver uses the Bootstrap framework for responsive sites, and by default uses the latest Bootstrap version, 4.3.1, though the earlier 3.4.1 version is still built-in if you want to continue using that. Dreamweaver guides you through upgrading sites based on the earlier version and tries to resolve incompatiblity hiccups by creating new CSS and JavaScript files that use the latest standard. Bootstrap’s responsive sites are mobile-first, meaning that the Bootstrap framework is mostly optimized for phones or tablets, but Adobe’s built-in Bootstrap templates are well-engineered enough to look equally good on desktops and phones.

Adobe Dreamweaver 2020 CSS properties

The Dreamweaver Experience

First-time users face a steep learning curve, but if you’re familiar with Photoshop or Illustrator, you should be able to climb it fairly quickly. If like me, you get bewildered searching for some obscure feature, the Help menu can guide you to exactly the menu item you need, even when it’s deep in the menu structure. Dreamweaver uses the standard Adobe interface, a main editing window surrounded by a toolbar on the left and multi-tabbed information panels on the right. Unless you’re an expert coder who won’t need all the onscreen tools and panels, don’t even think of using Dreamweaver on a small laptop. This app needs all the screen real-estate you can give it.

When editing a typical, relatively simple website, you have at least four document tabs open, one for the current page, the others for JavaScript and CSS files, and an information panel with at least seven tabs, showing files, Creative Cloud libraries, HTML tags that you can drag into a file, a complex set of CSS controls, a Document Object Model (DOM) tree, a list of assets (sorted into URLs, images, media, and more), and a long list of prebuilt and custom-built snippets. Add to this a customizable toolbar at the left and a densely populated menu at the top, and you’ve got one of the most complex interfaces ever built into app, rivaled only by other development software such as Microsoft Visual Studio.

Fortunately, if you’re expert at coding, or if you want the most spacious possible WYSIWYG view, you can hide everything but Dreamweaver’s main editing window. And that window is a chameleon-like marvel of flexibility. The window’s viewing options include an all-code view with the typical coding-window indentation and color-coding to make the structure of your project visible.

You can choose between two kinds of WYSIWYG views. One is a Live view that approximates what you would see in a browser, except with page elements outlined for clarity and with buttons that let you modify the tags for individual elements simply by clicking on the element. The other is a Design view that shows all design elements on a page, including the ones that might be invisible in a browser until a user clicks on them. Finally, you can split the window to show code in one pane and either Live or Design view in the other—or with code in both panes so that you can view and edit two different parts of the code at the same time. Advanced options let you sync the changes you make on your desktop with the code on your remote web server.

Adobe Dreamweaver 2020 edit live code

New Features

The just-released Dreamweaver 2020 looks and acts almost exactly like last year’s Dreamweaver 2019. Adobe mentions only three new features: simplified click-to-edit in Live view, so you can edit text, not just tags, in Live view simply by clicking on a text element; new default settings for Japanese fonts; and improved code-hinting popups. There’s no new learning curve, and the interface and other features haven’t changed. One minor potential gotcha in the enhanced Live view editing feature is that some keystrokes don’t act as you might expect. For example, you can split a paragraph by pressing Enter in some text in Live view, but Backspace won’t recombine the split paragraphs—you’ll have to switch into code view and remove the tag for the new paragraph.

Web editors have always had a feature that previews their web page in a desktop browser. Dreamweaver goes one better by adding live previews on mobile devices—an essential feature when you’re designing a responsive page that must work on multiple platforms. You click a preview icon at the lower right of the editing window, use your phone or tablet to scan a QR code that appears on the preview icon’s popup menu, enter your Adobe password on your device. After this, you can preview your code in the default browser on your device, with the changes you make on the desktop appearing immediately. You don’t need to install any new apps on your phone or tablet.

Should you buy a subscription to Dreamweaver? If you already use Photoshop or Illustrator or if you’re building a corporate or design-heavy site, Dreamweaver is an obvious choice. If you’re averse to coding, then you can do what half the online world seems to do, and use WordPress to build your site by choosing a visual theme and using or modifying it from simple menus. You’ll need some technical knowledge, but you can get by with almost none.

If you don’t want to think about coding at all, then use a hosting service that offers Wix or Weebly or any other fully visual site-building environment that doesn’t require any coding. Be warned that you’ll sacrifice some customizability and control, however. Weebly lets you change themes at any time, but gives you limited options for text formatting. Both offer paid e-commerce options. You can also try a free version of the enterprise-oriented CKEditor system, which offers advanced features like collaborative editing, WYSIWYG editing and full control over your site’s code.

Adobe Dreamweaver 2020 preview on device

For smaller websites designed mostly for laptop and desktop browsers, you can use any of dozens of traditional web page editors like RapidWeaver or Coda on the Mac—but you won’t get true WYSIWYG editing as you do in Dreamweaver or browser-based systems like WordPress or Wix. Many traditional web page editors offer preview modes, and some (like Adobe’s terrific and free Brackets editor) offer real-time preview in your browser, but that’s not the same as editing entirely in WYSIWYG mode as in Dreamweaver’s Live-editing mode.

My favorite quick-and-clean WYSIWYG web editor for simple sites is Microsoft’s free, Windows-only Expression Web, formerly a high-priced app, but now a free download, because Microsoft stopped updating it after Visual Studio provided more advanced site-building tools. Expression Web hasn’t been updated since 2011, but its feature set still gets the job done for basic websites, and you can’t argue with the price.

Dreamweaver can seem slightly cranky at times. For example, if you click in the wrong place, the screen layout can suddenly change in ways that can be hard to recover from without resetting the screen layout to the default. The Undo feature works perfectly when you’re working in the code window, but doesn’t work in all contexts—for example, when you’re dragging assets into a window using the feature that extracts page elements from a Photoshop file.

Still Excellent

Despite some minor quibbles, Adobe Dreamweaver 2020 is mostly built like a battleship, and it has the best combination of flexibility, power, and ease of any instrument ever invented for building websites. Dreamweaver has no real competition, and no serious web designer should be without it. Dreamweaver is the PCMag Editors’ Choice for website-development programs.



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Sony SRS-XB12 Review & Rating

There’s no shortage of tiny, portable Bluetooth speakers that purport to deliver powerful audio in a waterproof design. The Sony SRS-XB12, however, is the rare example that lives up to its claims. At $59.99, it’s affordable, and its IP67 rating means it’s fully waterproof. As for audio, the SRS-XB12 really does pack a wallop for a speaker its size. Those seeking truly powerful sound need to spend more on a larger system, but if a small speaker is your main priority, the audio output here is truly impressive, and worthy of our Editors’ Choice.

Design

Measuring roughly 3.7 by 3.0 inches (HW) and weighing in at 8.6 ounces, the cylindrical SRS-XB12 is available in black, blue, gray, green, or red models, and is small enough to throw in a tote or even a large coat with deep pockets. Its single 46mm driver fires upward and is protected by a metallic grille—the rest of the speaker’s exterior is a matte rubbery texture. Internally, the driver also gets help from a passive radiator. Beneath a covered panel, there’s a micro USB port for the included charging cable, a reset pinhole button, and a 3.5mm aux input (there’s no included cable for the input).

Across the base of the speaker, there is a control panel with buttons for power, volume up/down, play/pause (which doubles as call answer/end, or skips tracks with multiple clicks), and an Add button that allows you to pair with another Sony speaker and assign one as the left or right channel in a stereo pair.

The bottom panel of the SRS-XB12 is rubberized just like the rest of the exterior. That said, the speaker produces so much bass vibration for its size, it will definitely dance across tabletops and possibly jump right off on certain tracks. Thus, the attached lanyard is a design element we approve of and recommended using when cranking things up.

Sony SRS-XB12 inlineThe SRS-XB12’s IP67 rating means it can be subjected to quite a bit of water, provided the cover protecting the ports is closed. It’s able to be submerged in up to one meter for up to 30 minutes, so it can definitely withstand rain or a poolside splash, and can be rinsed off under a faucet. It’s dust resistant, as well, and therefore a solid choice for the great outdoors.

Sony estimates the SRS-XB12’s battery life to be roughly 16 hours, but your results will vary with your volume levels.

Performance

On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the SRS-XB12 delivers laudable bass depth, though obviously a speaker this size isn’t be able to push out anything approximating subwoofer-like bass. At moderate to high volumes, the track packs some bass punch, with the DSP (digital signal processing) thinning out the lows a bit to avoid distortion. At maximum volume levels, the driver gets slightly overwhelmed—it’s not necessarily full-on distortion we hear, but the DSP is chugging and the driver sounds on the verge of distortion without ever really going there.

Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the SRS-XB12’s general sound signature. The drums on this track get a round, full presence through the drivers—nothing thunderous, but they also don’t sound thin. Callahan’s baritone vocals receive a bit of added richness in the low-mids, and the acoustic guitar strums are crisp and bright.

Tracks like the recently rereleased “The Search for Cherry Red” by Jonathan Fire Eater showcase what the speaker is capable of. The drums here do, actually, sound a bit thunderous, which is no small feat for a speaker this size. More than that, the track just sounds full, with a clear, rich bass line and, above all else, what feels like real power at top volumes.

Sony SRS-XB12

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives an ideal high-mid presence, allowing its attack to maintain its punchy edge in the mix. The sub-bass synth hits are more implied than delivered, but the drum loop itself gets some added thump. From this and the previous track we can surmise that there is some boosting in the lows and low-mids—higher frequencies than sub-bass obviously, but low enough to give drums some oomph when the mix calls for it.

Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound a little subdued through the SRS-XB12. The lower overall mix levels that preserve dynamics also means that, even at maximum volume, the output for tracks like these feels a bit low. The lower-register instrumentation gets a solid, rich presence, and the higher-register brass, strings, and vocals are bright and crisp, but a speaker with more power would be able to convey the mix’s dynamics more convincingly.

The speakerphone mic offers so-so intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 8, we could understand every word we recorded, but the audio was full of Bluetooth distortion—it should be clear enough to make phone calls, but if you have a bad signal, it may be hard for callers to understand you.

Conclusions

If you really want some bass power, you can’t get it from a speaker this size, but I’ll admit at times, I forgot I was listening to a tiny speaker—bass drums in particular can pack a surprising punch through the Sony SRS-XB12’s modest frame. For $60, you get a powerful, portable, waterproof speaker—there’s really nothing to complain about here. If you have more room in your budget, consider the $150 Sony SRS-XB32 or the $180 JBL Charge 4, which are bigger speakers that can deliver more power. In this price range, we also like the $60 JBL Clip 3, which has a similar waterproof build and size. But the SRS-XB12 manage to push a little more bass, and earns our Editors’ Choice in the process.



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Amazon Fire HD 10 (2019) Review & Rating

When it comes to budget-friendly tablets, Amazon’s Fire line is hard to beat, with higher-quality builds, more intuitive software, and much better warranties than most of the competition. The new Fire HD 10 ($149.99) is no exception, with a more powerful processor, more RAM, and Fire OS 7, for smoother performance than you’ll find on older Fire models. If you don’t mind living inside Amazon’s walled garden, the Fire HD 10 is the best 10-inch tablet you can buy for $150 and our Editors’ Choice.

Design and Durability

Available in black, blue, purple, or white, the Fire HD 10 looks like a near carbon copy of its predecessor. The front is dominated by a 10.1-inch display with chunky bezels, while the back is constructed of thin polycarbonate and bears the Amazon logo. The top edge is home to the volume and power buttons, a headphone jack, and a USB-C charging port. The speakers sit on the left and a microSD slot is on the right.

The Fire HD 10 measures 10.3 by 6.3 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and comes in at a hefty 17.8 ounces. The weight is well distributed, however, so the tablet is comfortable to hold with two hands for long periods.

Fire HD 10

Durability is a mixed bag, without any official drop or water protection. We recommend a case for clumsy users, or the Fire HD 10 Kids Edition for children. For an extra $50, the Kids Edition comes with a padded case, a year of FreeTime Unlimited, and a two-year warranty that covers any type of damage.

Display and Audio

The 10.1-inch LCD on the front of the tablet has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,200, for a pixel density of 224ppi. Color accuracy is solid, though it lacks anti-reflective coating and can be hard to see outside or in a brightly lit room. That said, it’s better than the 8-inch, 189ppi Fire HD 8 for extended Prime Video binging sessions and reading the latest editions of your favorite magazines.

If you plan to use the tablet primary for reading books, however, you’re better off with a dedicated ebook reader like the Kindle Paperwhite. The Paperwhite’s 300ppi screen is much crisper, and since it doesn’t have backlighting, it’s gentler on the eyes.

Fire HD 10

Although the Fire HD 10 boasts dual speakers with Dolby Atmos branding, audio quality isn’t the tablet’s strong suit. With peak volume coming in at 84dB, it’s loud enough to fill a room, but the sound is tinny and hollow. Luckily there’s Bluetooth 4.2 as well as a headphone jack for alternate listening options.

Hardware and Performance

The Fire HD 10 is powered by a 2GHz Mediatek MT8183 octa-core processor and 2GB of RAM. There are 32GB and 64GB options available, both of which support up to 512GB of external storage with a microSD card. It’s a huge performance bump over the Fire HD 8, which is powered by a 1.3GHz quad-core processor and 1.5GB of RAM.

Fire HD 10

Related Story See How We Test Tablets

Compared with the Apple iPad, the Fire HD 10 is no speed demon, but it’s pretty snappy compared with its Fire siblings. Apps open quickly, and there’s only a slight hesitation when swiping between screens. We were also able to multitask with six apps open at the same time easily.

We played Asphalt 8, a processor-intensive game, and noticed longer load times than higher-end tablets and a few skipped frames, which isn’t surprising. We had no problems playing Candy Crush, however, which requires fewer system resources.

Fire HD 10

Benchmarks are what you’d expect for the the price. On PCMark, a suite of tests that emulate everyday tasks, the Fire HD 10 scored 5,105, far surpassing Walmart’s 8-inch Onn. tablet, which clocked in at 3,310.

The Fire HD 10 has a hearty 6,300mAh battery. In our battery drain test, which streams high-definition video over Wi-Fi at full brightness, it lasted for 8 hours and 12 minutes. That’s nearly double the paltry 4 hours and 50 minutes we got on the Fire HD 8 and, with more conservative use, you can probably get closer to 12 hours of screen time.

If you do find your battery running low, the Fire HD 10 is Amazon’s first tablet with USB-C connectivity. In addition to the 9W adapter that comes in the box, there’s also a 15W option that will completely charge the battery within three hours.

There are 2MP cameras on the front and back of the tablet. Neither are good. We tried using the front camera in good lighting to take selfies and talk on Skype, and both were blurry and noisy. The rear camera is the same. We scanned a document with it, and it was too blurry to see.

Software

The Fire HD 10 runs Amazon’s latest operating system, Fire OS 7.1.1, which is based on Android 9.0 Pie. It looks similar to previous versions of Fire OS, but offers welcome additions like picture-in-picture mode and improved notifications. And as you can see by our battery testing, it’s also much more power-efficient.

Fire HD 10

Although Fire OS is based on Android, nothing about it looks or feels like stock Android—it’s essentially been modified beyond recognition into an Amazon content delivery system. All of your apps are on the home screen. Swipe left for windows that showcase your Books, Video, Games & Apps, Amazon Shop, Music, Audible, and Newsstand.

As usual, Fire OS highlights all of Amazon’s products and makes purchasing them simple. If you buy everything from Amazon, that’s fine, but if you want to download apps from one of Amazon’s competitors, you’re out of luck. The Amazon Appstore doesn’t feature Walmart, Instacart, Macy’s, or even Saks Fifth Avenue, all of which you can download on a standard Android tablet. Of course, you can use the Fire HD 10’s web browser to make a purchase from anywhere.

Fire HD 10

It’s also worth noting the Amazon’s Appstore still doesn’t carry all the apps you’ll find in Google Play store. You can’t download YouTube, or any other Google app, for instance. The New York Times app is missing, as are games like Asphalt 9 and Fortnite. You can sideload unavailable apps by searching for the APK file in the web browser, but be warned that some apps aren’t compatible and you run the risk of installing malware or viruses.

So while Fire OS isn’t as open or as versatile as Android, that’s also part of the beauty. It’s much easier to figure out than Android, and if this is your first tablet, it makes it incredibly easy to discover apps, books, movies, and more.

Conclusions

The Amazon Fire HD 10 is the best 10-inch tablet you can buy for $150. Although it costs nearly twice as much as the $80 Fire HD 8, it’s money well spent for snappier performance, a higher-resolution display, and nearly double battery life. There simply aren’t any appealing Android tablets out there right now at this size and price, so your next best best is the iPad, which offers better performance and more apps, but it costs more than twice as much. So if you’re in the market for a simple, media-focused tablet, the Fire HD 10 is easily your best bet and our Editors’ Choice.



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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (for PC) Review & Rating

The Call of Duty franchise has experienced an identity crisis in recent years. From adventures in space, returning to a WWII setting, and shifting its focus to battle royale, the series has strayed far from what made it an excellent first-person shooter franchise. Though Call of Duty games still dominate sales, publisher Activision and developer Infinity Ward felt the need to relive the series’ Modern Warfare glory days with a reboot of the seminal 2007 title. The new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has the action-packed single-player and robust multiplayer modes one expects from the series. It successfully strips all superfluous elements and delivers an experience even non-shooter fans can enjoy.

Modern Warfare’s campaign focuses on the American CIA, British SAS, and freedom fighters uniting to oppose Russian forces that have invaded the fictional country of Urzikstan. As the narrative unfolds, you jump between three playable characters: CIA officer Alex (no last name), SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick, and rebel leader Farah Karim. Though ultimately united by a singular goal, each character provides different viewpoints of the war. This multi-character structure also keeps the story and gameplay from becoming repetitive.

Call of Duty stories are notorious for their Michael Bay-like emphasis on over-the-top action. While Modern Warfare has its fair share of bombastic setpieces, the story is decidedly subdued when compared to those of previous game installments. It’s clear Infinity Ward wanted a more realistic representation of modern war; you not only contend with terrorists and soldiers, but must do so without killing civilians. Often, the story presents players with tough moral dilemmas that don’t have clear-cut solutions. The emphasis on realism makes the narrative a truly harrowing and engaging experience.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (for PC)

In the Trenches

Though a first-person shooter, Modern Warfare contains a surprising amount of gameplay variety. One mission sees your character controlling security cameras for the purpose of directing a hostage to safety. In another mission, you play as a child who must sneak past enemy soldiers. There are points when you must plant explosives, navigate through burning structures, or use satellite-controlled missiles to take out air vehicles. The game never lets you get too comfortable and always keeps you on your toes.

One of the new gameplay features is the ability to mount weapons to objects like door frames, walls, and crates. Mounting helps steady your shots and makes it easier to pick off enemies. It’s also an excellent way of creating cover during particularly nasty shootouts. Very few FPS titles have a cover system, so it’s good to see Call of Duty have its own take on it, even if mounting doesn’t always guarantee your safety.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (for PC)

Squad Goals

The single-player campaign is one of the strongest in Call of Duty’s history, but the game contains many multiplayer modes, too. While the multiplayer modes all boil down to shooting enemies before they shoot you, their variety ensures you’ll return for more action.

Modes like Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, Headquarters, Search and Destroy (now known as Cyber Attack) and Domination are largely unchanged from their previous iterations. If you’re a longtime player who wants the video game equivalent of comfort food, these modes provide familiar thrills.

Things get interesting when you dip into the new multiplayer modes. Gunfight eschews the large arenas and frantic gunplay for something decidedly more strategic. This 2 vs. 2 mode places two teams into a relatively small arena. There is no health regeneration or respawning. Furthermore, your loadout changes every 40 seconds, forcing you to adjust to the new circumstances. A similar mode called Gunfight OSP sees you scouring the map for weapons. This is akin to the way most matches start in battle royale games like Fortnite or PUBG. In fact, it isn’t unfair to call Gunfight a stripped down battle royale mode.

Speaking of elements from other shooters, the new Ground War is reminiscent of the Battlefield series’ sprawling multiplayer matches. Here, two teams consisting of 32 players fight to secure different sectors of a large city. Like in the Battlefield games, Modern Warfare’s Ground War lets you control vehicles, such as tanks and jets. Ground War is in many ways Domination on a massive scale. Though it’s thrilling to fight on such a gargantuan map, Ground War doesn’t satisfy the way Battlefield does. This is mainly due to the map’s labyrinthine nature. With so many buildings and alleys, it makes driving vehicles and getting shots on enemies difficult. Running across the map can also get tedious because of its size. Still, the inclusion of Ground War is not unwelcome.

Those who want a true multiplayer challenge need look no further than NVG. Here, every map is engulfed in darkness, forcing you to use night-vision goggles (hence the name of the mode). To make things more challenging, “realism” rules apply. This means there’s no UI letting you know if your shots connected or killed foes. Weapons deal more damage, too. NVG mode is truly for the hardcore player.

Spec Ops is a four-player PvE, co-op mode that supplements the main story by providing a different perspective on events spoken of in passing. You must complete objectives while under constant assault from AI-controlled enemies. The relentless enemy barrage forces players to truly work as a team if they wish to survive. It’s a fun mode that is best played with friends.

Note that Modern Warfare on PC lacks the PlayStation 4-exclusive Survival mode. Since we reviewed the PC version of the game, we can’t comment on this horde-like mode in any detail. Suffice it to say that it is disappointing PC and Xbox One gamers can’t partake in Survival.

As in previous Call of Duty games, Modern Warfare lets you unlock new weapons, perks, and killstreaks as you level up. Even if you aren’t good at multiplayer, you’ll always gain experience. One of the better additions is how your weapons level up the more you use them in multiplayer. Each weapon gets attachments like muzzles, scopes, and clips with each new level attained. This incentivizes you to continue using your favorite weapons to get the most out of them.

Crossplay is becoming a common feature in multiplayer games, so it’s no surprise to see that Modern Warfare has it. Granted, this doesn’t change much in terms of how you actually engage with the multiplayer since everyone is essentially equal. The novelty of seeing PlayStation and Xbox icons next to player names in the lobby doesn’t last long. Still, it’s good to see the game embrace a feature that expands the play base.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (for PC)

Graphics and Hardware

Modern Warfare is an absolute stunner in the visual department. Each localefrom sun-scorched deserts to dense forests, congested urban centers, and hidden underground bunkerscomes to life in stunning detail. Character models receive as much attention as the environments. Even incidental characters look great.

You’ll need a hefty rig to get the most out of Modern Warfare. The devs recommend an Intel Core i5-2500K central processing unit, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 graphics card, 12GB of RAM, 175GB of storage, and the Windows 10 operating system. If you want to enable ray tracing, your PC needs 16GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 GPU (along with an Intel Core i5-2500k or AMD R5 1600x CPU).

My gaming desktop—featuring an Intel i7 4790 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 GPU—runs Modern Warfare at 1080p resolution with a frame rate that hovers between 130-160 frames per second at max settings (the frame rate is uncapped). The only notable flaw was some choppiness during video cinematics. In-game cutscenes run perfectly fine.

There are a number of different graphics settings in options. This includes the ability to enable or disable post-processing effects like anti-aliasing, depth of field, and motion blur. You can enable DirectX raytracing, tessellation, and ambient occlusion or add graphical tweaks like bullet holes on surfaces.

You cannot purchase the $59.99 Modern Warfare via Steam, but you can buy it from Battle.net.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (for PC)

It’s Back

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the course correction the series needed. Infinity Ward wisely chose to return to the series to its “boots on the ground” roots. This immediately distinguishes the game from current popular shooters like Fortnite and Overwatch. Though it faces stiffer competition compared to its 2007 counterpart, the rebooted Modern Warfare’s engaging campaign and rich multiplayer modes should help it survive in the modern shooter landscape. Whether you’re a veteran or newcomer, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare offers many fun and exciting moments.



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Adobe Illustrator Review & Rating

Adobe Illustrator has reigned over vector drawing applications since its release in 1987, quickly becoming one of Adobe’s trifecta of industry-standard graphic design tools alongside Photoshop and InDesign. Adding to the software’s already-excellent collection of capabilities, Adobe’s continues to introduce new features and enhancements sure to delight creatives. Recent highlights include path simplification, spell check, the improved Properties panel, the Puppet Warp tool, custom sizing for anchor points, and performance improvements.

In previous updates, Adobe has improved interoperability between the program’s desktop and mobile siblings with shared Libraries. The company also recently integrated and updated Adobe Stock, which now includes design templates as well as vector illustration and photographs. Despite some competition in the vector-based graphics space—Concept Draw Pro, Affinity Designer, CorelDraw, Sketch, and InkPad, to name a few—Illustrator remains the market-leading vector drawing software thanks to its unrivaled toolset, sweeping capabilities, and integration with the Creative Cloud Suite. Note that the apps in the suite no longer include CC as part of their names, however.

What’s New in Illustrator for 2020?

The November 2019 Illustrator updates are not quite as plentiful as what we saw last year but will be welcome to designers, nevertheless. Here’s a quick rundown.

  • Path simplification makes working with paths easier by reducing unnecessarily large numbers of anchor points.
  • Auto spell-check highlights errors as you type—a boon to designers who aren’t also editors.
  • Background save lets you move on to other tasks and export more quickly than before.
  • Faster rendering of drop shadow, blur, and glow effects.
  • More accessible troubleshooting when opening or saving files.
  • New guidance in the form of tutorials and help resources in the Home and Learn tab.

As a refresher, here are the most compelling highlights from the 2018 release, some of which merit further discussion later in this review:

  • The Properties Panel gives context-sensitive info and options about the currently selected object.
  • You can increase the size of on-screen controls, including anchor points, handles, and bounding boxes, which makes them a lot easier to adjust.
  • For users who have ever wanted to tweak or rotate a portion of an illustration without distorting the whole thing, the Puppet Warp tool gives you the power to do so in an intuitive and natural-looking way.
  • Move over PostScript (PS): Multiple Master (MM), TrueType (TT), OpenType (OT), and Variable (var) fonts are here!
  • The app now supports Microsoft’s Surface Dial.
  • It also adds support for CSV and XML in the Variables Panel.
  • You can now import multipage PDFs in one operation.
  • You can use the software to browse Dropbox files without downloading them.

Price and System Requirements

Adobe Illustrator Premiere Pro, and the rest, costs $49.99 per month. A free seven-day trial lets you test the software out with no commitment (and requires no credit card information).

Adobe Illustrator CC - Welcome

Illustrator is compatible with both Windows (7 SP1, 8.1, and Windows 10) and macOS (10.11 and later). For either platform, you need a reliable internet connection to download and register the programs. You can work offline, but you need an internet connection for membership validation and access to some online services. You can find a complete list of the system requirements for Adobe Illustrator on Adobe’s site.

If you’re thinking of leaving Adobe behind because it has gotten rid of the single perpetual license option, CorelDraw Graphics Suite ($499; or $198 per year for a subscription) is the alternative to explore. It’s for Windows only, though. For that price, you get six pieces: CorelDraw, Photo-Paint, PowerTrace, Connect, Website Creator, and Capture. CorelDRAW and Photo-Paint are the two primary applications. The first is a vector and illustration program. The second is an image-editing program. The other pieces are essentially utilities. Corel still offers a shrink-wrapped product, which is preferable for anyone with a spotty internet connection. You can also buy a perpetual single license and download a local copy of CorelDraw.

Is Creative Cloud a Good Deal?

All things considered Creative Cloud is an excellent deal. While I understand the reluctance to getting locked into software subscriptions, there is no denying that membership has its advantages. In return for your annual payment for full Creative Cloud, you get access to all Adobe’s ever-expanding collection of pro applications (and even some betas). This inspires me to keep up my knowledge of emerging trends, technology, and capabilities.

Even if some apps included with my subscription are built for work (and play) outside my expertise, I get to fool around and discover fascinating new tools. With nearly 30 apps for video, audio and motion graphics, web design, 2- and 3-D compositing, game design, and the new UI/UX prototype and design tool called Adobe XD, there is plenty to sate the most curious explorer. Plus, as soon as Adobe releases them, instant updates are yours with just a click. There’s no more agonizing between saving money but falling behind on the latest features and being wiped out by an annual thousand-dollar purchase that allows you to stay current.

Vector vs. Raster

For the uninitiated, let’s identify the key differences between vector and raster graphics. Vector graphics, defined by points, lines, and Boolean curves, are advantageous in that you can enlarge them infinitely without loss of resolution. This is key when you are designing a huge billboard or other large graphics where scalability is a requisite for success. A second advantage of designing with vectors is that files tend to be much smaller than their raster counterparts.

Vector vs. Raster
Vector graphics (left) are defined by lines and curves, while raster graphics (right) are defined by pixels.
Conversely, raster-based artwork like that created in Photoshop is defined by pixels. When you enlarge or zoom in on raster art, the pixels enlarge too, resulting in visible pixelation, or chunkiness with ragged edges. Also, large raster artwork produces enormous files.

When your work includes logo design, typography, or illustration, Adobe Illustrator is a must in your arsenal. It’s the tool for creating simple drawings, maps, complex technical illustrations, iconography, interesting charts and diagrams, information graphics, fine typography—and even business card or invitation layouts and mechanical art. What’s more, you can export your files in a variety of formats intended for use in print, web, mobile, interactive, app design, and video projects.

Workspace and Tools

If you have worked with InDesign or Photoshop, Illustrator’s environment (robust toolbars and panels, and contextual menus) should be reasonably familiar. You can customize the recently modernized, flattened interface with options from dark to light gray. Palettes and menus snap to any configuration that pleases you. When you have your screen perfectly composed with your favorite preferences, defaults, menu organization, and positions, it’s good to know that you can save your workspace and later clean up palette clutter by returning to that exact configuration whenever you like.

Adobe Illustrator CC - Workspace

I appreciate that the software lets you assign custom key commands, which allows you to further optimize your workflow for any kind of project. In fact, Illustrator ships with customized workspace options specifically suited to disciplines such as layout, printing and proofing, typography and web, and an Essentials space that highlights new enhancements and additions. Fear not, you can still access the previous Essentials setup.

Illustrator supports multiple, repositionable pages, called artboards. You can size these using Illustrator’s myriad presets, cut them down to size with the Crop tool, or define the width and height values yourself. Artboard control has improved, with enhancements to positioning and arranging, as well as an increase in the maximum number of boards allowed.

Appearance and Properties Panels

Although it’s mixed in with other less powerful tools, the unassuming Appearance panel constitutes the Illustrator CC - Properties Panelbackbone and muscle of your workspace. Appearance is arguably the most underappreciated of Illustrator’s default panels—but I consider this tool my information control tower. With the Appearance Panel, you have full command over every aspect of an object’s or group’s attributes including basic fills, stroke color and size, opacity, and blending mode. But where the panel really impresses is when you work with complex operations like creating multiple strokes, adjusting Illustrator Effects (such as glows, feathers, and drop shadows), and reordering or toggling effects layers.

The Properties Panel appears in the Essentials workspace and when you choose Properties from the Window menu. It shows frequently needed tools based on the current context, meaning it changes what it displays depending on what you select. It’s a nice touch, and I could see it being useful for designers, but if you would rather stick with your tried and true approach, you can switch back to the Essentials Classic workspace.

Toolsets Panel

In addition to the Appearance panel, Adobe has stocked the tools panel with everything you expect in a professional drawing application, as well as some unique goodies. If that just isn’t enough for you, there are some extraordinary, high-quality plugin packages built specifically for Illustrator—and updated regularly. Check out Astute Graphics’ jaw-dropping lineup or C.Valley’s versatile sets, FILTERiT 5 and XTream Path 2. If you really want to get your design geek on, know that Illustrator can run custom scripts—you can use the ones installed with the program, code some yourself (in Microsoft Visual Basic, AppleScript, JavaScript, and ExtendScript), or you can scout around online and find plenty of intriguing automation and function-adding scripts.

Adobe Illustrator CC - Puppet Warp

Illustrator’s eight tool categories allow you to get the job done, and they inspire exploration, too. I recommend beginners do just that—explore the tools and their submenus before embarking on a project that’s due tomorrow. This many specialty tools and subtools can be daunting at first glance.

By default, Illustrator shows five selection tools, each designed to choose specific types of objects, groups, paths, and points—and you can get even more precise control via the Preferences menu. A dream-come-true for hard-working eyeballs is the preferences addition of custom sizing for anchor points and handles. Until now, no matter how high you magnified your view, the anchor points remained painfully small.

Reduce Anchor Points

A related feature that arrived in the November 2019 update is the Object > Path > Simplify tool. This can remove unecessary anchor points, especially important for paths created by tracing or with mobile apps. The tool keeps the path essentially the same as it does this, but you can adjust the number of anchor points with the Reduce Anchor Point Slider. Getting even further into the weeds, you can open the Simplify dialog to specify the Corner Point Angle Threshold.

The program’s 18 drawing tools are sure to satisfy. Among them is the invaluable Pixel Perfect tool which aids in creating crisp web-destined graphics with pixels that align along a grid. The Puppet Warp tool gives you a way to make minor adjustments without having to select lots of points and move each separately. The tool allows for more holistic complex-shape editing by creating a triangulated mesh envelope around your selection that allows you to lock certain zones while manipulating adjacent areas, rather than having to do so point by point.

Working with complex typography is a pleasure with six type tools, including the revolutionary Touch Type tool, which allows repositioning, rotation, and scaling of individual letters within live text blocks. Now typographers can assign OpenType alternate styles to a text block.

Artists will enjoy playing with eight paint tools, including the Live Paint tool, which fills the need for the current coloring book craze by allowing users to color fill shapes simply by clicking in them. The Brush tool allows you to create custom brushes (Pattern, Art, Scatter, Calligraphic or Bristle), a feature that becomes even more awesome when you realize that you can create unexpected shapes by replacing polygon and ellipse strokes with a custom brush.

Related to the paint tools is the delightful Symbol Sprayer tool with its seven variants. You can assign a symbol you created—let’s use a star for this example—to become the paint, and the tool sprays stars. With the Sprayer’s sub-tools you can control the density of spray, randomness, color variation, size variation, and individual rotation of the stars with the aptly named Styler, Shifter, Scruncher, Screener, Sizer, Spinner, and Stain tools.

Illustrator promises power and the reshaping and transformation tools feel quite satisfying as you manipulate your work in every way imaginable, like shape blending, morphing, warping, twisting, shearing, tweaking, puckering, and bloating. With five slicing and cutting tools, you get ultra-fine control over lines and shapes with the Pathfinder tab, which performs operations like unite, exclude, intersect, merge, and divide. Try experimenting with these different functions for often-unexpected results.

Graphing in Adobe Illustrator

Considering the popularity of data visualization and information graphics, Illustrator satisfies with nine graphing tools that allow you to get down to business. It lets you transform your data with an adequate variety of graph types, including the more common bar and pie charts, and also scatter and radar charts. I’m eager to see if anyone comes up with scripts to help create unconventional graphs like tree maps, network diagrams or bubble maps, which are more adept at displaying complex data.

Hottest Features for Work, Fun, and Experimentation

Precision Drawing. Illustrator was born for this more than for its other abilities. Amenities like perspective grids scaffold the foundation of perspective drawing and create dimensional lettering effects, while axonometric angle constraints save time and minimize frustration. Layers help organize and isolate components of your illustration for easy access when making edits or for variable overlays. Finally, although it takes a bit of practice to master, the Pen tool is your go-to for creating beautiful vector paths, Bezier curves, defining anchor points, and coaxing handles.

Copy & Paste and File Export. With so many potential asset destinations within each project, you only get the best final product if you supply the optimum file type to your colleagues and vendors. Of course, with other Creative Cloud apps on your desktop, you can copy and paste into and out of Illustrator—or even drag. But I enjoy being able to trust Illustrator’s wide range of file type conversions which include export for print, web, and mobile in formats such as AutoCAD, BMP, CSS, JPEG, PDF, PNG, SVG, TIFF, and more.

Type Wrangling. As a typographer, I find a lot to love when working with type in Illustrator—especially now that Adobe has not only integrated InDesign’s easy OpenType glyph chooser pop-down. You can now assign alternates to entire text blocks rather than having to assign glyphs one character at a time. All you do is highlight a character and select from the alternates options pop-down. For example, if you highlight the numeral 5 (depending on the typeface), you can choose from superscript, subscript, tabular, old style, denominator, numerator, case sensitive, small caps, and other alternates.

Illustrator also borrows from InDesign’s professional character and paragraph formatting options. The addition of Touch Type tool, described above, a Glyphs window and support for Asian (horizontal and vertical), Indic, Arabic, and Hebrew languages makes working with type in Illustrator a stellar experience. Thankfully, the formerly anemic spellchecker has been revamped so that it’s now actually helpful.

Variable type resembles a smart build-out of Adobe’s Multiple Master technology of yore. Six typefaces in the new OpenType var format come preinstalled: Acumin, Minion, Myriad, Source code, Source Sans, and Source Serif. What’s great about variable fonts is that in Illustrator, you can precisely control width (condensed or extended), weight (thin to black) and slant with the software’s sliders—it’s like getting 30 fonts in one typeface. Something to note here is that the slant is like an oblique, and is not a true italic.

Automation. Graphic Styles in Illustrator are akin to Photoshop’s Styles—they are one-click mechanisms that automate the application of attributes to an object or type in a single step. In Illustrator, these attributes can be something as simple as a slight drop shadow or as complex as a seven-layer stroke with offsets, feathering and an inner glow, for example. Note that in Illustrator, shadows and glows are made from stepped gradations of solid colors that simulate a blur.

A great way to understand building and using Graphic Styles is to select an object with a Graphic Style applied to it and examine the Appearance Panel. There you will see each of the attribute layers that combine to generate the Graphic Style’s effect. To further automate your process, you can deploy a bounty of Photoshop-style Action presets or make your own.

In terms of convenience, automatically having assets wherever you need them is great. In Creative Cloud Libraries, users now have access to their palettes, styles, and even blocks of copy from whichever application they are using.

Libraries and Mobile Apps

Creative Cloud Libraries keep your project assets from desktop apps and mobile apps at your fingertips for easy integration between the apps. You also have the ability to keep handy often-used text blocks like taglines or disclaimers in your Libraries.

Adobe Illustrator CC - Libraries

Integration with Adobe mobile App cousins—including Capture, Fresco, Illustrator Draw, Sketch—is a treat. These iOS apps are surprisingly simple to use, and worth a serious look. For instance, you can be on the train to work and create a custom brush on your iPhone by taking a snap of anything interesting and let Capture do its magic. Once you get to work and open Illustrator on your desktop, that brush you made on the train awaits in your CC Library—ready to use in any project.

Everyone benefits from a streamlined professional process; with Creative Cloud, collaboration with team members and clients is easy with shared and private assets and libraries.

Also with your subscription comes Typekit, Adobe’s well-populated library of typeface families for print and web. Just choose your fonts and sync to your desktop (or grab code for your site). The only drawback here is that when you collect for output, Illustrator does not copy Typekit fonts in the packaged folder—your printer or service bureau must have a CC subscription too. Of course, if you don’t have a type-heavy, multipage document, you can go ahead and convert type to outline to get around the problem.

In addition to the goodies above, with Creative Cloud for Teams, your enterprise gets a team website, premium fonts, 100 GB of cloud storage for collaboration, dedicated 24/7 technical support, shared Adobe Stock plans, streamlined management, the ability to reassign licenses (this is fantastic for dynamic staffing situations), a web-based admin console, consolidated billing, and purchase orders. There are also targeted plans for students, teachers, schools, and universities.

Design Wish List

No software is perfect—and even the beloved Adobe Illustrator has some fans hoping for a variety of new or enhanced features. Here are some of my wishes for built-in features (a few of which are met by the plugins mentioned above):

• Numeric handle adjustments would be a nice touch, along with the ability to symmetrically synchronize movement of more than two point handles.

• Having a hybrid rotate-and-reflect tool with a variable axis number would be awesome for making interesting patterns and shapes including mandalas, snowflakes, and interlocking shape rotation like those you see in many Japanese family crests. Taking the rotate-and-reflect idea a little further, for complex geometric pattern making (think of the stunning Islamic tessellations), a way to draw precise complex geometric multi-symmetries and polygons with user-determined angle measurements. These features could be part of a new, more robust pattern-making tool that incorporates the 17 types of symmetry!

• As I mentioned, with the popularity of graphing big data, we are seeing many interesting new ways to visualize information. But big data requires the big computing power of algorithms. At the least, I’d like a more flexible tool for making inventive graphs and data images.

• A lot of folks would be pleased to have uniform key commands for Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. And speaking of Photoshop, it would be great if Illustrator had a similar history panel that allowed you to hop back to a certain state.

Queen of the Vector

Adobe Illustrator is essential for any serious designer or artist’s software collection—with it you can create vector solutions for any challenge. What’s more, by being curious and taking advantage of Illustrator’s generous expansion capability, you can turn the application into a personalized digital dreamworld. With steady use and inquisitive inspection, the multitude of tools, menus, palettes, pull-downs, and features become second nature and Illustrator feels like an unconscious extension of your mind. Adobe Illustrator is the clear PCMag Editors’ Choice for vector graphics design.



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Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD Review & Rating

Tamron is on quite a roll with its initial batch of full-frame lenses for Sony mirrorless cameras. The 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD ($899) is its second affordable f/2.8 zoom, pairing well as a wide-angle companion to last year’s 28-75mm f/2.8 Di RXD standard zoom. It’s an excellent value, and while its range is shorter and it’s not quite as optically sublime as Sony’s high-end FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM, it wins big on price and earns our Editors’ Choice award in the process.

Compact Wide Zoom

The 17-28mm is a small zoom with a big, ultra-wide view. It measures 3.9 by 2.9 inches (HD), weighs just 14.8 ounces, and supports 67mm front filters. It’s notably easier to carry than the FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM, which is 4.8 by 3.5 inches and 1.5 pounds with an 82mm filter thread.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

Tamron’s designers took a basic, minimalist approach to the 17-28mm’s aesthetics. It’s finished in black polycarbonate, with rubberized focus and zoom control rings, and a classy silver accent ring around the mount. Branding is kept to a minimum, with the Tamron logo in white below the focus ring.

The lens sports protection from dust and splashes, as well as fluorine protection for the front lens element. The dust and splash protection matches the similar sealing Sony includes in its cameras, and fluorine helps to keep the front element free of debris and smudges.

There’s no optical stabilization, so the lens relies on your camera’s in-body image stabilization (IBIS) system. In practice, I was able to net handheld exposures as long as 1/3-second at 17mm with extreme care when pairing the lens with an a7R IV. At those lengthy shutter speeds, subject motion will introduce more blur than any shakiness in your hands.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

Close focus is available to 7.5 inches, which nets 1:5.2 life-size magnification at the 28mm focal length. You’ll rarely get true macro results from such a wide lens, but you have plenty of flexibility to focus close with this one.

Very Good Wide Open, Outstanding Stopped Down

I tested the 17-28mm along with a couple of cameras, the 42MP a7R III and 60MP a7R IV in the field, and used the a7R IV and Imatest software to evaluate its optical performance in the lab.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

At 17mm f/2.8, it resolves 4,262 lines on a center-weighted evaluation, a very good result of the a7R IV’s demanding sensor. The score is helped by outstanding performance in the central third of the frame (5,100 lines), but does give way to a more down-to-earth 3,500-line score, solidly in the good range, through the mid parts and periphery.

There’s a general uptick in resolution, to an excellent 4,800 lines averaged across the frame, with outstanding center resolution that gives way to very good results as you move toward the periphery.

Resolution basically evens out at f/5.6, with the average score hitting an outstanding 5,059 lines, with edge performance that lags only slightly behind. It maintains a high level of performance at f/8 (4,764 lines) and f/11 (4,339 lines), but drops down a bit at f/16 (3,522 lines) and f/22 (2,315 lines), showing the diffraction limits of the a7R IV’s sensor.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

At the midpoint of the zoom, 22mm, we see a slight drop in wide-open resolution, to 3,879 lines at f/2.8. Here, central resolution is outstanding (5,358 lines), but the mid parts of the frame are just acceptable (3,044 lines) and edges show noticeable softness (2,108 lines).

We see some improvement at f/4, where the average resolution is close to excellent, 4,400 lines, with outstanding center resolution and very good performance up to the edge. The story is the same at f/5.6 (4,512 lines), f/8 (4,435 lines), and f/11 (4,296 lines), before dropping off as expected at f/16 (3,593 lines) and f/22 (2,346 lines).

Related Story See How We Test Digital Cameras

Resolution ticks down at 28mm, especially at the edges. The average score at f/2.8 is 3,607 lines, in the good range for this sensor. Again, we see the best resolution at the center (4,552 lines), good results through the mid parts (3,633 lines), and blurred edges (1,709 lines).

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

The average improves slightly at f/4 (3,597 lines), but the overall picture is the same as at f/2.8. It’s at f/5.6 where we see a significant jump in clarity, to an excellent 4,500 lines. There’s still some softness at the very edges of the frame, but they’re not terrible at 2,850 lines.

You’ll want to use f/8 for landscape shots where you need the most detail across the entirety of the image. The lens manages 4,681 lines on average and, while the edges aren’t quite that good, they are still in the very good range, just shy of 4,000 lines. You’ll also get good results at f/11, though there’s a general softening due to diffraction at f/16 (3,705 lines) and f/22 (2,449 lines).

Overall, we are very happy with the resolution the 17-28mm is able to deliver, especially when you consider its price, size, and wide angle of coverage. You do need to stop down a bit to get the absolute best results out of a 60MP sensor, but it’s good practice to do so for any shot where you really need crisp corners.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

Vignette and distortion are well controlled. There’s a very modest dimming at the corners when shooting at 17mm f/2.8, but it’s not apparent at narrower apertures or when zoomed in. There’s no visible barrel distortion at 17mm either, though we do see the pincushion effect at 22mm (2.6 percent) and 28mm (2.8 percent). Lightroom does include a lens profile to remove distortion, if it detracts from an image.

Beyond Budget Performance

Like the 28-75mm that came before it, the Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD is a boon for Sony system owners shopping on a budget. It punches above its weight, delivering an f/2.8 aperture, strong optical performance, and a wide angle of view with modest zoom power for a price that’s less than half that of the Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM OSS.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

And while the 17-28mm costs less, it’s built quite well, with dust and splash protection and a fluorine front coat, all features we expect from high-end optics. There are some sacrifices, of course—it doesn’t reach 35mm when zoomed in after all, so you’ll need to take a step or two forward to net a tighter shot.

Tamron is doing a fine job filling gaps in Sony’s first-party lineup. The 17-28mm and 28-75mm are both on sale now, and form the foundation of a very solid, but budget-friendly, kit. It has a 70-180mm f/2.8 Di III VXD coming next spring, rounding out the group. It also has a trio of f/2.8 prime lenses, in 20, 24, and 35mm focal lengths coming, for just $349 apiece.

Tamron 17-28mm f/2.8 Di III RXD : Sample Image

If you’re in the market for a wide zoom for your Sony camera, the Tamron 17-28mm should be right at the top of your list, especially if you’re shopping on a budget, and earns our Editors’ Choice recommendation. The FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM OSS remains an excellent high-end option, but the 17-28mm is nearly as good a performer at less than half the price. It’s good enough to keep up with a7R IV, and will have no problem keeping up with a 24MP model like the a7 III.



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Vivint Car Guard Review & Rating

One of our top picks for monitoring your home, Vivint Smart Home, now offers a way to use your mobile device to monitor your car whether it’s parked at home or in a lot, or being driven out on the open road. The Vivint Car Guard ($199) plugs directly into your vehicle’s OBD-II port and lets you track its location and receive alerts when it’s been bumped or moved. It’ll also let you know of erratic driving moves such as speeding and harsh braking, will diagnose mechanical issues, and trigger Vivint Smart Home devices such as cameras, outdoor lighting, and sirens. All of this earns it our Editors’ Choice for car accessories.

Design and Features

The Vivint Car Guard is actually a Moxee SD6200 ODB-II dongle that plugs into the OBD-II port of your vehicle. All cars manufactured in 1996 and later have an OBD-II port that allows service technicians to access the vehicle’s computerized diagnostic system. The port is typically located under the dash on the driver’s side, but you can always refer to your owner’s manual if you can’t find it.

The dongle measures 1.0 by 2.0 by 3.0 inches (HWD) and has a 16-pin connector that plugs into the OBD-II port on one end and a pair of small signal strength LED indicators on the opposite end, facing the driver. On the left side are Reset and Restart buttons and a SIM card slot.

Vivint Car Guard installation

The Car Guard contains a GPS radio for location tracking and a cellular radio that connects to T-Mobile’s 4G network for data communication. It also has a three-axis accelerometer that detects movement from bumps, break-ins, or towing attempts, and is equipped with a Wi-Fi radio that is not yet enabled.

As with the Fixd Active Car Health Monitor and other OBD-II scanners, the Car Guard scans your vehicle’s computer for Diagnostic Trouble Codes to help diagnose mechanical issues. But this scanner works on all types of engines (gas, diesel, electric, hybrid), whereas the Fixed scanner is limited to gas and hybrid engine diagnostics. With access to a database of over 10,000 diagnostic codes, the Car Guard will not only tell you what is causing your check engine light to illuminate, but will also tell you how much gas is left in the tank, your battery voltage, and whether the vehicle is currently parked or driving.

Parents of teen drivers will love the Car Guard’s Trip Insights feature, which provides a map of each trip with start and end times, total driving time, harsh breaking and rapid acceleration incidents, maximum speeds, idling time, and total trip distance. The map can be viewed in street mode or in satellite mode and uses color-coded markers to show where harsh braking and rapid acceleration events took place. You can configure Notifications to receive push alerts when a trip is started and ended, when the vehicle has been disturbed or is being towed, when it is low on fuel, and when the Car Guard device has been unplugged. You can also set a Home location geofence and receive notifications when the vehicle enters and leaves the perimeter.

Pricing and App

The Car Guard costs $199 and can be used in more than one vehicle, but you can only use it to monitor one vehicle at a time. To monitor multiple vehicles, you’ll have to purchase additional dongles. The first device requires a $9.99 monthly (no-contract) subscription, and additional dongles require a $4.99 per month subscription for each device.

If you have an existing Vivint Smart Home system, you can add the Car Guard to the device list and have it interact with Vivint devices such as cameras, door locks, and smart outlets. For example, you can have the Vivint Outdoor Camera Pro begin recording when your car is disturbed, or have Vivint-controlled lights turn on when the car returns home from a trip. That said, you don’t have to have a Vivint Smart Home system to use the Car Guard, but it won’t interact with other devices on its own.

Vivint Car Guard trip insights

The Car Guard uses the same mobile app as the Vivint Smart Home security system. Tapping the Car Guard button on the bottom of the Home screen launches a map with a tab that shows the vehicle’s current location and status (parked, driving) and fuel level. Swipe up to scroll to the Trip History and Issues tabs. When you tap the Trip History tab, you’ll open a screen that displays a map of your latest trip with the start time and location and the end time and location. Below the map are the above-mentioned Trip Insights. To view past trip maps and insights, swipe to the left.

Tapping an Issues tab opens a screen that describes the maintenance issue, its severity, an error code, and possible solutions to resolve the problem.

Tapping the gear icon in the upper right corner opens a list of all installed Car Guard devices by name. Tap any device to view the vehicle’s make and model, VIN, and trip history. Here you can also configure notifications and create rules to have the Car Guard interact with other Vivint devices. These settings can also be accessed using the three-bar icon in the upper left corner of the screen.

Installation and Performance

Vivint Car Guard custom actions

Installing the Car Guard is easy and took just a few minutes in testing. I already had a Vivint account and the mobile app installed on my phone, but if you don’t have an account, you’ll have to download the app and create one.

I opened the app, tapped the Car Guard icon at the bottom of the Home screen, then Get Started. Following the on-screen instructions, I inserted the included SIM card and used my phone’s camera to scan the IMEI code on the bottom of the device. I plugged the device into my truck’s OBD-II port, tapped Connect, gave my truck a name, and selected a color. Finally, I set my home location with a geofence and configured notifications, and the truck was successfully added. I was ready to hit the road.

With one small exception, the Car Guard worked wonderfully in my testing. At first I wasn’t receiving disturbance alerts when my truck was bumped or when the door was opened without the starting the engine. A call with a couple of Vivint engineers resulted in a few tweaks to the accelerometer’s sensitivity settings that were pushed to the device in a firmware upgrade (apparently my truck’s suspension was a bit too stiff to register a bump). Once updated, I received disturbance alerts any time the truck was opened or moved without starting the engine.

Vivint Car Guard trip history

The Car Guard’s diagnostic sensors worked perfectly. I disconnected the airflow circuit on my truck and received two Maintenance alerts informing me that there was a possible issue with the circuit and that the air filter may be dirty. GPS tracking was timely and accurate, and the Trip Insights feature worked without a hitch, accurately recording rapid acceleration and harsh braking events and marking them on the map. Trip Start and Trip End push notifications arrived quickly, as did geofence alerts.

I created a rule to have an outdoor camera begin recording when the truck was disturbed and it never failed to record a clip. I also created a rule to have an indoor light turn on when a trip was ended, and it too worked like a charm.

Conclusions

With its $200 price and monthly subscription fee, the Vivint Car Guard isn’t cheap, but if you want a single device that will diagnose your vehicle’s engine issues, keep track of where it has been, and tell you in real time if your car is being broken into or towed, it’s worth every penny. And with Trip Insights, you can view maps of all of your trips with specific details, such as fast acceleration and harsh braking incidents, total trip time and distance, fuel efficiency, and idle time. The Car Guard also makes your vehicle a part your Vivint Smart Home system and can trigger video cameras and turn lights on when it arrives home. All of these features earn it our Editors’ Choice award.



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Docebo Review & Rating | PCMag.com

When shopping for an online learning platform, you’ll quickly find they come in two primary flavors. First, there’s software for companies that sell training content to other businesses. Second, there are tools for companies that develop and deliver their content in-house. Tools such as Firmwater are best for training companies that create online courses and then attempt to sell those courses to companies and individual learners. Docebo (which begins at $3.33 per user per month) and its competitors LearnUpon, Mindflash, and WizIQ, is better for companies that directly conduct training sessions. However, Docebo is more than capable of filling the needs of both subgroups, which is a big part of why it earns our Editors’ Choice award in our corporate online learning platform review roundup.

For in-house learning, we found that Docebo delivers more value and usability than any other training software on the market. Thanks to its nearly limitless reporting, emphasis on social networking and gamification, and a wide variety of third-party integrations, Docebo has it all.

How Pricing Works

Docebo’s pricing structure relies on how many active users will be taking courses with the system each month. The software starts with the Growth plan that gives you access to up to 300 active users at a charge of $3.33 per user per month. Then there’s the Enterprise plan, which provides access to 500 users for $5 per user per month. Docebo states there are economies of scale that can decrease the price from this point but you’ll need to contact a Docebo sales representative for specific information.

This pricing structure is similar to the way most of the competition bills their customers. However, training software vendors focused on servicing training companies tend to charge more for the portals or learner-facing dashboards than they do for the number of users within the system. That’s because the companies that use these kinds of tools have fewer back-end users than front-end users (for example, someone who create courses and then sells online to businesses and students).

For example, you can start using Firmwater for $495 per month, which gives you access to an unlimited number of users, up to 100 active courses per month, and two client portals. Firmwater also offers a $895-per-month plan that includes up to 200 active courses and five portals, and a $1,295-per-month option with access to up to 400 active courses and 10 portals. If you’re interested in using Docebo in this manner, then contact the company for details.

Docebo - Course

Training Software Your Employees Will Love

When a learner logs into Docebo, the first thing he or she will see is a customized landing page that can be designed and updated by the administrator. This page can feature videos, GIF files, and images. Admins can also set the system to bypass this page directly to send learners right to their courses. There is no navigation necessary for the learner because admins can pick and choose which widgets to display. So, if a vital fire safety course needs to be completed by your entire team by the end of the day, then you can place it front and center. If a class is not on the home screen, then users can search through course content to find mandatory or optional courses. Admins can limit who has access to which classes on the back end, too.

Learners will love Docebo’s gamification feature, which awards badges for completing courses. Learners with the most badges appear on company leaderboards, which everyone can see on the console’s home page (should you enable this widget). Creative admins can design them from scratch. Admins can also create a badge system for the entire company or limit it to individual teams. Admins can choose how badges are awarded (either manually or automatically). Admins can turn off gamification at any time.

Docebo wants learners to spend a good deal of time within the system, whether they’re taking courses, browsing for future ones, or checking badge leaderboards. Enterprise-level clients also have an Informal Learning section in which they can view job-related Youtube videos and communicate with internal subject matter experts.

Docebo - Training Materials

Administrators Will Love It, Too

Unlike other systems that charge extra for page customization and white labeling, Docebo makes this free at all price levels. This perk is especially useful at the Enterprise level where you’ll be creating separate portals for external clients. Regardless of how many courses, portals, and content items you have in your system, finding content within Docebo is a snap for admins. The Universal Search feature pulls terms anywhere they’re mentioned within the system. Learners also have access to Universal Search, but admins can limit their ability to source terms to only their assigned courses.

Admins can be sure learners have received instructions thanks to Docebo’s internal and external notifications options. Unlike most systems that rely only on email triggers to get people to attend courses, Docebo also alerts learners via Facebook and Twitter-like notifications within the system.

With 40-plus translation options available, Docebo blows the competition out of the water. WizIQ supports 11 languages, Mindflash delivers its console in 10, and LearnUpon is available in six. Firmwater only has three languages, one of which is still in beta.

Docebo offers full HD video playback for videos that you load into the system for learners to download. The videos will appear degraded if customers attempt to play the videos within the system (rather than downloading them) without the bandwidth necessary to watch full HD video. Docebo’s full HD functionality is on par with or better than the other systems we tested.

Docebo - Users

The Admin dashboard is metric-driven. You’ll see charts and graphs detailing your most recent activities, including course completions and the status of students you choose to follow. Docebo’s left-hand navigation offers access to apps and features, including dozens of integrations with tools such as PayPal and Salesforce.com, and more than seven web conferencing tools. Docebo is easily the most compatible system we reviewed—with access to help desk software, content management tools, and A/B testing systems.

Docebo’s reporting is exhaustive and easily customizable. You can filter reports by date, course, status updates, user completions, and more. The graphs and charts feature big, bright numbers and colors, which is especially helpful for quickly pulling relevant data. Unlike most of the systems we tested, you can create custom reports by taking data from the eight standard ones built into the system and whittling it down or including additional measures.

Course and test creation are a cinch with Docebo. Within two screens, you’re asked to add your training materials and a description. Training materials include everything from Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) files, files on your desktop, webpages, tests, and surveys. Creating tests and questions is super easy. You write in your question and then the possible answers; you’ll tick off the correct answer. Docebo offers dozens of ways to frame questions, including multiple choice, survey, fill-in-the-blank, inline choice, etc. You can configure the time allowed for each question or the test as a whole. Unlike systems like Firmwater, which make you create questions outside the context of your new course, you don’t have to leave a new course to add questions or quizzes to the overall Docebo question bank. You can tick a box to save questions for later use on other exams.

Toggling between the Learner view and Admin view is as simple as clicking a button that lives on your console. This feature is a huge timesaver that makes it easy to preview courses before they’re live.

Docebo offers social sharing on its Enterprise plan, which gives content creators the ability to upload content, organize it by playlists, and share it on social media. The Content Creation portal also allows creators to conduct screen captures to record video and narrate motions, clicks, and gestures as well as video calls and webcam activity.

The company also has a Page Creation module that lets users drag and drop pre-created widgets onto course pages. Then content creators can build courses without any coding or design training.

The Bottom Line

Docebo is the best online learning platform for business we’ve reviewed. It provides you with a rich feature set that both admins and learners will take to immediately. What’s especially great about Docebo is that these features don’t sacrifice the system’s usability. Anyone at any level of technological proficiency will be able to pick up this tool and begin creating or taking courses.



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Absorb LMS Review & Rating

In the crowded corporate learning management system (LMS) market, Absorb LMS breaks away from the pack by providing an extensive feature list (from gamification to integrated e-commerce), smart tag-based filtering, and a best-in-class contextual user interface (UI) with responsive web design. Sure, there are more affordable alternatives, such as SAP Litmos LMS, for smaller businesses. However, Absorb LMS is the most attractive and functional turnkey LMS we’ve tested, and it’s a bargain—for larger offices and small businesses alike. Because of this, Absorb LMS earns our Editors’ Choice distinction in our corporate online learning review roundup, along with Docebo.

Absorb LMS caters to small to midsize businesses (SMBs). Pricing falls somewhere between midmarket and enterprise. Small businesses can purchase an Absorb LMS licensing fee for $800 per month plus a 12-month user fee of $16 per active user. A setup fee that includes training and support is another $3,200. This plan gives users a custom website that’s hosted by Absorb. There are other plans for companies that want to integrate Absorb LMS into their applications.

Hosted pricing starts at $1,350 per month or $14,500 per year for up to 500 users. It’s $4,850 per month ($52,380 per year) for up to 5,000 users, and $8,850 per month ($95,580 per year) for up to 17,500. If you need more than that, then you can contact them for a custom plan.

Support plans are offered too: Premium (included), Elite ($5000), and Enterprise ($25,000). The company also offers an array of optional services such as Single Sign-On or SSO ($3,500), RESTful API ($4,000), data imports, and design work.

Absorb LMS’s add-on costs more than entry-level LMS subscriptions from Axis LMS, SmarterU LMS, and DigitalChalk Corporate LMS. That doesn’t make Absorb a bad deal; it competes for a different slice of the market. Similar to Halogen TalentSpace, Absorb LMS license pools start at 500 users. (If you calculate the annual cost for an office of 500, then Absorb LMS costs about half as much Halogen TalentSpace LMS). Absorb LMS also takes a novel approach to e-commerce. Customers can monetize internal employee training for free, and if they want to sell courses for external employee training, then they pay $5 per learner.

Administration

Absorb is in a class of its own when it comes to UI design. Consider the approach to Dashboards. Absorb offers tabs for Overview, an aerial view of your recent activity, reports, and messages; Learners, which uses charts and graphs to visualize engagement, logins, learning time, and completions; and Courses, for which the system curates information about the top courses, completion rates, and links to the most recently created courses. Each Dashboard functions as a gateway to Absorb’s most popular features. Plus rather than asking administrators to return home to access those dashboards, shortcuts are also nested from the left-aligned menu.

The Absorb menu is the primary mode of navigation, enriched via its interoperation with the contextual right-aligned sidebar. The sidebar will retain selections until you refresh it by clicking on a new menu item. For example, if I click on Courses in the menu bar, the sidebar reveals options related to adding a new course. (More on this shortly.) Click on Users, and the sidebar furnishes options to add or import users from a CSV file. Selecting Add User reveals tabs for general information (like name, email address, username, password, department), details (avatar, location, language localizations), and account status (learner, instructor, admin), while the sidebar enables selections to be saved or canceled.

Absorb LMS - Admin Dashboard

Absorb’s approach to users is also conceptually innovative. In addition to manually or bulk uploading users, administrators can share enrollment keys by department or course, and let learners create accounts. Once users are in the system, you can sort them via departments or custom groups. For example, you can assign John Doe to an Email Marketing course based on his role in that department. And you can also invite him to a Creative Design course because he likes to tinker in Adobe Photoshop on the weekends.

In addition to Dashboards, Courses, and Users, the Absorb LMS menu also includes options for e-commerce and the Mercury module add-on. The system offers a built-in shopping cart, or you can use the RESTful API to link the LMS to your company’s existing human resources (HR) or customer relationship management (CRM) software. The Mercury module unlocks additional design options as well as communication and gamification features, including billboards, articles, surveys, polls, and points-based contests and rewards. Admins can distribute these globally or to particular groups or departments.

Absorb LMS - Course Builder

Filters and Reports

Perhaps most relevant to an administrator’s day-to-day, reports come with smart filters. Absorb bundles a trove of standard ones, each of which administrators can tailor with filters. Consider the Learner Competencies report: In addition to re-ordering columns (drag and drop), re-sorting data (clicking on column headers), and selecting multiple items (Shift-click), you can filter the competencies column by clicking a magnifying glass. Perhaps I want to filter for names that contain “Adams.” Then, maybe I want to filter for an expiration date equal to August 1. For each filter, an editable tag will pin to the top of the page.

If you anticipate rerunning a Competencies report, you can save the layout to preserve its filters. Then you can export it as a CSV, Microsoft Excel, or PDF file, schedule it for email delivery or share it with groups or departments using Absorb’s integrated messenger. Sharing reports within the LMS is particularly smart. Because Absorb LMS shares the parameters rather than the content, you needn’t worry about someone seeing something they shouldn’t see. Absorb LMS pulls data based upon each recipient’s role, and administrators can be excruciatingly precise in those roles without a cap on how many they can create.

Absorb LMS - Departments

Courses

Absorb divides the course assembly process into a series of generally well-defined tabs. Unlike other LMS alternatives, you needn’t create the shell of a class before you post content. Instead, high-level course details, such as branding, are housed in one (General) of a handful of tabs. Alongside that general information, administrators can supply supplementary materials (Resources), manage logistics related to a course completion, failure, competencies, and certificates (Completion), and define how, when, to whom, and at what cost the course will be offered (Availability). All the tabs are intuitive enough, except More, where Absorb stashes random options, and we don’t see why the contents couldn’t be elsewhere. For example, they could roll the option to allow comments on a course into Messages, and rename that tab something like Communication.

In testing, I found that the most important tab was the Syllabus, through which you create and structure course materials. Absorb LMS divides courses into units (Chapters) that are made up of lessons (Learning Objects). In like manner, entire classes can be arranged in a collection (Bundle) or sequence (Curriculum) to build competencies. As with reports, the syllabus is malleable: You can reorder lessons and units via drag and drop or edit their contents at any time. You can swap between administrator and learner interfaces or use the Preview button to review changes. I found that swapping between profiles helped me to remember to click Save after I made changes.

Absorb LMS - Course Activity

Absorb is a savvy course assembler. The LMS is extremely generous in its support for videos (I uploaded a two-hour MP4 file) and file types, both of which you can save as Global or Private Course Files. When it comes to existing courses, Absorb LMS accepts all major standards, including Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), Tin Can, and AICC files. Assessments are flexible, as well. Administrators can build multiple-choice question banks for Surveys and Assessments or create written assignments (Tasks).

Action-based survey answers are particularly useful. Educators can create a survey question that triggers a different action, depending upon the learner’s response. Activities include pasting a specific value into a custom field on the learner profile, awarding the learner one or more competency badges, or enrolling them in one or more courses. Finally, alongside traditional online courses, Absorb accommodates Instructor-Led Course (ILC) training in the form of in-personal tutorials or webinars. Absorb even offers a mobile Instructor Toolbox app for marking attendance of ILC events.

Absorb LMS encourages users to keep training by focusing on course enrollment (My Courses), listings (Catalog) and materials (Resources). Thanks to the site’s generous language support (23 and counting) and responsive HTML5 design, a variety of learners can work in a variety of ways. There’s even a new feature (available as of Q3 2015) that allows learners to download courses, work offline, and sync their progress.

Takeaway

Absorb earns our Editors’ Choice designation by doing everything you might expect of an LMS, and with panache. Given that it is a turnkey LMS for midsize to large businesses, it won’t serve everyone’s needs. Education customers might prefer our other top pick, the free, open-source Moodle LMS, our other Editor’s Choice pick in our consumer-oriented learning management systems (LMS) review roundup. SAP Litmos LMS is another option given its affordability. However, if you have a midsize or large office, Absorb is an excellent LMS that promises to get even better. (The company maintains a weekly feature release schedule.)



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Amazon Echo Studio Review & Rating

Now that the latest $99.99 Amazon Echo is just as powerful as the $149.99 hub-equipped Echo Plus, the door is open for a bigger, louder Echo. The Echo Studio is Amazon’s biggest, loudest, and most advanced Alexa speaker. It features five drivers to offer not just stereo sound, but Dolby Atmos-compatible surround sound in a single, voice-controlled package. It’s as big and as loud as the Apple HomePod and Google Home Max, with more advanced sound processing and better imaging, but at $199.99, it’s far less expensive than either. It’s truly impressive for its size and price, enough to earn our Editors’ Choice for smart speakers.

Design

The Echo Studio is bigger than any other $200 speaker we’ve tested, including the Sonos One. It’s a rounded black cylinder measuring 8.1 inches tall and 6.9 inches across, and weighs in at 7.7 pounds. It isn’t quite subwoofer-sized, but the open ports on the bottom for the downward-firing woofer gives the impression of a subwoofer. The most direct comparison is the $399 Sonos Move, which is slightly taller and narrower than the Echo Studio, and is “portable” in the sense that it has a battery while the Studio must be plugged in at all times.

Amazon Echo Studio-01

Fabric wraps around the sides of the Studio, with cutouts in the front and back for the two bass ports. A black plastic ring on the top holds the far-field microphone array and small buttons for volume up/down, mic mute, and Alexa. The signature Echo light ring glows along the inner edge of the plastic ring, and inside it is a fabric grille panel that protects the upward-firing driver.

A small recess below the rear bass port holds a connector for the included power adapter, a micro USB port for service, and a 3.5mm combination aux and optical port. No cables are included, and if you want to use optical, you’ll need to get a 3.5mm-to-TOSLink adapter.

Amazon Alexa

As an Echo speaker, the Studio offers all of the same Alexa voice assistant features as its smaller siblings. Just say “Alexa,” (or “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo,” if you change the wake word in the Alexa app) and give the speaker a command. Alexa can answer questions about general information like weather, sports scores, and unit conversions; play music from Amazon Music, Apple Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM, Spotify, and Tidal; read audiobooks from Audible; control smart home devices; make phone calls to most North American phone numbers or Drop In voice calls to any Alexa user; and access hundreds of third-party skills that range from telling stories to ordering pizza.

Alexa is a very capable voice assistant, and its selections of both compatible smart home devices and third-party skills are unparalleled, but it can be a bit stiff to work with. Alexa expects fairly precise syntax, especially when you’re controlling your smart home. Google Assistant is a bit more flexible with natural language, which more than makes up its slightly smaller home automation compatibility list and fewer third-party functions.

The Echo Studio also features a built-in Zigbee home automation hub, like the Echo Plus, which allows you to use the speaker to control compatible devices.

Amazon Echo Studio-04

3D Sound

Five separate drivers hide behind the fabric grille cover of the Echo Studio, arranged in different directions to provide Dolby Atmos-compatible positional audio. A 5.25-inch woofer fires downward from just above the bass ports, a one-inch tweeter fires directly forward, and three two-inch midrange drivers fire left, right, and directly upward. The woofer provides the low-end, while the tweeter and three midrange drivers all work in tandem with each other to create a sound field with more precise (and more vertical) imaging than a set of stereo speakers. All five drivers are driven by a peak total of 330 watts.

The Echo Studio tries to do some impressive things with its five drivers and 3D audio mixing. It doesn’t quite succeed to the extent that an Atmos-compatible soundbar can, or an even more expensive Atmos surround sound system, but at that point you’ll be spending several times the price of the Studio for the improved audio imaging. As it stands, the Echo Studio puts out a large sound field with modest but surprising directionality.

If you want to listen to the Echo Studio’s 3D audio at its best, you need to subscribe to Amazon Music HD for access to Amazon’s Ultra HD music format. This is currently the only streaming service that the Echo Studio fully supports for Dolby Atmos surround sound. Ultra HD tracks are mixed with Dolby Atmos in mind, and the Echo Studio’s processing and drivers can best put it to use over stereo tracks streamed over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

The Echo Studio can also upmix other music to 3D on its own, but the effect isn’t nearly as prominent or capable. And, of course, there are still limits to what a single speaker can do, even if it has drivers pumping out sound in all directions.

Amazon Echo Studio-05

Performance

For 3D-mixed music available in Amazon Music’s Ultra HD format, the Echo Studio brings some strong clarity and imaging. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in Ultra HD is crisp, full, and layered. The guitar plucks and drums sound separate from the vocals, giving the effect that the string plucks float a bit above the singing. The bass drum is prominent and stands mostly in front of the mix without overcoming the other instruments or vocals. You won’t mistake the Echo Studio for a sound system with a subwoofer or rear satellites, but it manages to put out big, nuanced sound from a small package.

Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” in Ultra HD shows off the Echo Studio’s 3D sound even better. The opening of the track’s theremin sounds properly ghostly, while the chaos of the horseback laser fight gets clear directional imaging, giving the impression of galloping hooves directly in front of you, while blasts and explosions can be heard in the distance, to the forward-right.

Again, it can’t produce a true surround sound field that completely wraps around you, but the Echo Studio offers some impressive stereo imaging and forward-facing verticality that gives the impression of a pair of stereo speakers with additional upward-firing drivers. At high volumes, the speaker fills the room easily, bringing the exciting thunder of guitar strums and drumrolls while letting Bellamy’s voice come through clearly. When he sings that no one’s going to take him alive, his voice can be heard directly in center, while the harmonies can be placed in the distance, to the left and right.

Amazon Echo Studio-06

“Lazaretto” by Jack White also shows good directionality, again closer to stereo-with-vertical channels than full surround sound. White’s vocals stand in the center along with a time-keeping shaker, while the opening bass notes seem to bounce a bit left and right. The squeaky, shrill guitar riffs clearly come in from the sides of the room, demonstrating how higher frequencies bounce off of surfaces with much more acoustic precision than lower ones.

All of these effects come from 3D audio mixing of Ultra HD tracks on Amazon Music. The Echo Studio can also mix stereo tracks to 3D itself, which it will do if you stream any non-Ultra HD music to it. Like most upmixing, the effect isn’t nearly as noticeable or good as intentional, professional mixing.

The Crystal Method’s “Born Too Slow” sounds good on the Echo Studio as a stereo track, with generous presence for the bass drum hits and plenty of energy in the driving snares and cymbals. The vocals and guitar riffs sit slightly behind the percussion on this speaker, but they can still be easily discerned. However, none of the verticality heard in the Ultra HD tracks can be detected, and the stereo balance is a bit more modest and center-focused rather than trying to produce a sound field that makes the speaker sound bigger than it is.

As for bass, the Echo Studio reproduces our bass test track, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” with appreciable low-end power. It doesn’t shake the walls, but it did vibrate the table the speaker was sitting on, and at maximum volume levels, it didn’t distort. The Studio doesn’t reach quite into sub-bass levels, but you can pair it with an Echo Sub to add full subwoofer power to the mix (and, since deep bass isn’t directional at all, it doesn’t need to be integrated into the Studio’s specifically-aimed-and-calibrated driver setup).

Amazon Echo Studio-07

Big Sound for a Small Price

The Amazon Echo Studio is an incredible speaker for its size and price. It looks like Amazon’s take on the Apple HomePod, but with its $200 price and ability to produce surprising directionality thanks to its five drivers, it outdoes the HomePod in nearly every way. While testing the speaker, I repeatedly had to check its price tag, because it feels and sounds like it’s aiming much higher.

The Echo Studio isn’t a magic surround sound speaker that will make you think instruments and singers are all around you, but it does give a much better sense of stereo and vertical imaging than other speakers its size, while far eclipsing other speakers its price in performance. You really need Amazon Music HD to get the most out of it, and you’re limited to a fairly small collection of Ultra HD tracks if you really want that 3D sound, but even as a Bluetooth speaker upmixing from stereo, it produces a powerful, clear sound.

If you want portability, the $399 Sonos Move is a similarly sized smart speaker you can drag to the beach, and if you want a bit more stereo power in a much more retro design, the $399.99 Marshall Stanmore II Voice is another excellent, but not portable, option. But again, these speakers cost twice as much as the Echo Studio. If you don’t mind a lack of portability and just want surprising power for a very reasonable price, the Studio is the best smart speaker out there, and our Editors’ Choice.



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