The first-gen Amazon Echo was the first smart speaker available in the UK, but a year on the choice is much broader. Google now has a range of Home speakers which covers just about all budgets (and matches the Echo Dot at £49) while Apple is about to launch the high-end HomePod.
The Echo 2 is essentially a shrunk-down version of the original with softer, less industrial styling at a lower price. It has interchangeable shells which allow you to change your mind about its colour or finish: there are fabric, metal-effect and wooden options. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s exactly what you can do with the Google Home.
What is the price of the Echo 2?
The original (now discontinued) cost £149.99, so £89.99 for the second-generation model seems like a very good deal indeed. You can buy an Echo 2 from Amazon, of course.
There are differences, and not all of them good, which we’ll get into in a moment.
Don’t forget there are other Echos to choose between, including the new Echo Plus (£139.99) and Echo Show (£199.99).
How is the Echo 2 different from the original?
Although similar in features, the second-gen Echo has been completely redesigned. It’s still a cylinder – a little bigger than a pint glass – but it’s a much nicer-looking gadget to put on a bedside table or shelf.
Gone is the volume ring at the top, replaced by volume buttons, a la Echo Dot. There are seven little holes at the top for the array of microphones, plus a mic-mute button and an action button, which can be used for silencing alarms among other things.
The mics have been improved for better voice recognition, and they work better when music is playing at higher volumes. Amazon says they’re better at beamforming (working out where your voice is coming from) and noise cancelling, to better hear what you’re saying when there’s other noise in the room.
Speakers are also new: there’s a 2.5in woofer as before, but a new, smaller tweeter. You can see these when you pop the shell off, a simple process of grasping the body and pushing in the centre underneath.
The power connector is on the side rather than underneath, but a bigger change is the addition of a 3.5mm minijack aux input. This means you can plug in an audio device which doesn’t have Bluetooth, for example.
The Echo 2 still works as a Bluetooth speaker like the original, too.
Alexa’s capabilities have improved somewhat since last year, and the Echo 2 benefits from these as well as all the features added throughout the year, such as multi-room audio and voice calling and messaging.
What this means is that the Echo 2 is no more or less capable than the original – or the £49.99 Echo Dot. They can all do the same things.
Other Echo models have extra features and you can read about them in our comparison of every Amazon Echo.
The good news first: the microphones do seem to work better than on the original Echo and Echo Dot, specifically when there are other people talking or the Echo 2 is already playing music loudly.
I couldn’t really notice any difference in how well it recognised the ‘Alexa’ wake word, although it could be that there are less ‘false positives’. First-gen devices often respond when they hear something that sounds like Alexa, but isn’t.
The bad news is that rather than improved sound quality as Amazon promises, it’s actually a step down. I use the first-gen Echo every day, so it was immediately obvious that the new model sounded worse.
The overall effect is that it’s not nearly as crisp (perhaps due to that smaller tweeter) and lacks the bass of the original.
It’s great if you’re listening to a podcast or your Flash Briefing, but when you start streaming music from your phone, Spotify or Amazon Music, the differences are all too obvious.
Relatively simple tracks, such as Diana Krall’s Peel me a grape, sound ok, although lacking in bass, but in much busier songs – Poets of the Fall’s Dreaming Wide Awake, say – instruments sound as though they’re tripping over each other, and vocals aren’t as defined.
Anything with a rhythmic bass kick – like trance and house music – lacks punch, which is kind of disappointing given that a £40 Bluetooth speaker such as the Aukey Eclipse can produce a much more rounded sound with more bass.
Microsoft officially unveiled the Xbox One X at E3 2017, calling it “the most powerful console ever”. That may be – you’d expect it be better than everything before it – but is it actually be any good? We’ve some time playing 4K games on the Xbox One X before release next week, and here’s what we think about the console.
Separately, we’ve compared the Xbox One X to the PS4 Pro, and also the Xbox One S, so we won’t spend too much time mentioning those comparisons here.
Xbox One X
7 November 2017 – pre-order now
£449.99 / US$499.99
2.3GHz custom octacore processor
AMD chip with 12GB GDDR5 RAM and 6 Teraflops of performance
Bluetooth + Wi-Fi
3x USB 3.0, optical audio out,
4K Blu-ray drive
300 x 239 x 61mm
Xbox One X: Pricing and availability
Microsoft announced the launch of pre-orders during its Gamescom live stream, but only for the limited edition ‘Project Scorpio Edition’ of the console, which includes an exclusive vertical stand and has ‘Project Scorpio’ inscribed on both the console and the included controller. Unsurprisingly, it sold out almost immediately.
Fortunately, you can now pre-order the Xbox One X regular edition. If you’re in the UK, head to GAME, Amazon and the official store; in the US check out GameStop, Best Buy, Amazon, and the Microsoft store. Act fast though – we don’t know how much stock Microsoft will have ready for launch.
Xbox One X: Features and design
Looking at the hardware to begin with, this is the smallest console Microsoft has ever made. And even though it’s only a little smaller than the One S, it’s remarkable considering it’s by far the most powerful console on the market. Compared to Sony’s bulky PS4 Pro, the Xbox One X looks sleek.
That grunt comes from an AMD APU, which is basically a CPU and GPU on one chip. The custom-built eight-core CPU is like that used in the PS4 Pro, but at a higher clock rate (2.3GHz vs 2.1GHz). It may not be ground-breaking, but it’s required to power the biggest change in hardware – the GPU.
The custom AMD GPU boasts 40 compute units, each running at 1172MHz. This is a considerable bump in speed, especially when compared to the PS4 Pro’s 911MHz across 36 units, and confirms Microsoft’s claim of six teraflops of GPU power. The custom GPU is backed up by a whopping 12GB of GDDR5 RAM (vs 8GB in PS4 Pro), 9GB of which is dedicated purely to gaming – the other 3GB is dedicated to the system.
But what does that mean to us at home? Essentially, the graphical power should be a bit better than the new Radeon RX 580, which costs between £250 and £300.
And like any decent PC GPU, the Xbox One X needs a decent cooling system to keep everything performing optimally – especially when powering 4K gameplay. To that end, the Xbox One X features a vapour chamber heat sink with a custom fan, helping to keep the console cool, even with it’s incredibly small dimensions.
The aim of including all that tech is to deliver superb 4K graphics at 60fps (but not in all games), and that’s really the main selling point of the One X. 4K gaming on the console is nothing short of phenomenal, and it’s something we come to in a little more detail below.
4K gaming also goes a long way to justifying that £449 price. And don’t forget there’s a 4K Blu-ray drive as well – the PS4 Pro doesn’t have one of those. And for those without super-fast internet connections that support top-quality 4K streaming (which, let’s face it, is most people) this could actually be useful.
Plus, the relatively slim dimensions mean you should be able to pop the console in your TV bench without it being particularly noticeable. And, as you’re probably spotted, it’s black rather than the more conspicuous white finish of the Xbox One S.
There’s no real change to the design of the controller, which too, is now black.
Unlike the PS4, the Xbox One X doesn’t appear to support VR. Microsoft hasn’t mentioned anything VR-related at the moment, but it’s the perfect console to provide high-end VR experiences. Could we see an Xbox VR headset, or support for existing VR headsets like the Oculus Rift in future? We can only hope.
We do know, though, that the One X supports AMD FreeSync 2 and 1440p resolutions, which could be appealing if you were planning to buy a new monitor and game on that rather than a big TV.
Xbox One X: Performance
Let’s get down to the reason why the Xbox One X is so popular: the performance is phenomenal. We’ve used the 4K-enabled PS4 Pro since it was released at the back-end of 2016 and it simply cannot compare to what the Xbox One X offers, especially with graphically demanding games like Assassin’s Creed Origins.
We’ve played a handful of games on the Xbox One X, including the likes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Forza Motorsport 7, Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Gears of War 4, and we were hypnotised by the gorgeously detailed environments and smooth [email protected] playback. It’s true 4K too, and doesn’t rely on many of the upscaling tricks that Sony uses to provide 4K gaming on the PS4 Pro.
Whether it’s exploring dusty ruins as Lara Croft or tearing up Brands Hatch in Forza 7, the difference between what’s offered by the Xbox One X and existing consoles is night-and-day. It really is an impressive feat when you consider the size (and price!) of the PC or laptop required to provide that kind of performance!
It enhances the overall gaming experience, bringing it in line with what high-end PC gamers experience when playing the latest titles. And much like your PC brethren, Xbox One X-supported games can offer multiple graphical options to give you the experience you desire.
Xbox One X: Do I need a 4K TV?
Microsoft has marketed the One X as a console for 4K gamers so, unsurprisingly, if you don’t have a 4K TV, you won’t get the full experience.
That’s not to say you won’t notice improvements in your gameplay, though: those with standard 1080p HDTVs are granted other enhancements like faster frame rates, quicker loading times and even the possibility of supersampling the 4K output down to 1080p for higher quality textures.
But as is the case with 4K owners, the focus may vary between games and developers – some may prioritise visual quality while others will enhance framerate.
The One S also has Dolby Atmos sound and a 4K Blu-ray drive, so they’re not new or unique to the One X. But if you do have a 4K TV and you’re still on an Xbox 360 or Xbox One, the One X should be very tempting indeed – so long as you’re excited by the launch titles, and don’t mind paying a little extra for the premium gaming experience.
Microsoft has realised that gamers want backwards compatibility, and you’ll be able to play older titles on the One X (as you can on the One and One S). Indeed, for 360 games it’s as simple as inserting the disc.
But it’s the new games, and those existing titles getting the Enhanced treatment, which will be the real reason to splash out on the One X.
Xbox One X: Launch titles
Forza Motorsport 7 is one of the 4K launch titles, and it does look fantastic running on the console. In fact, we mention the Xbox One X performance in our Forza 7 review. Assassin’s Creed Origins and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War will also launch with the console and support 4K.
In fact, there will be free 4K updates for Halo Wars 2, Forza Horizon 3, Minecraft and Gears of War 4, with more than 130 games in total receiving the ‘Xbox One X Enhanced’ treatment – you can see the full list on Microsoft’s site.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus was announced by Bethesda at E3 2017, and is the sequel to 2014’s hugely popular Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s set in an alternate timeline where the Nazis occupy the US, and carries on from the events in the first game. Will William J. Blazkowicz be finally able to spark the second American Revolution and drive the Nazis from the US?
We spent some time playing Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, and here’s what we thought about the OTT first-person shooter.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus release date and deals
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus launched on Xbox One, PS4 and Steam (PC) on 27 October 2017.
You can buy the Xbox version from Microsoft’s website or for PS4 from the PlayStation Store for £49.99/$59.99, while on PC you can grab it from Steam or Green Man Gaming for £34.99/$59.99.
If you’d rather a physical edition, both Amazon and Game are taking orders now, as is GameStop in the US.
If you’re willing to spend a little more, there’s also a deluxe edition is available for Xbox, PS4, or PC, and includes both the base game and the DLC season pass – you can find out more about upcoming DLC in our Wolfenstein 2 hub.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus review
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is the sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein The New Order, and picks up where the last game ends, (SPOILER) following protagonist William J. Blazkowicz’s fight with Deathshead where he was severely injured. He wakes up on Eva’s Hammer, the U-Boat he stole, and wants to continue the fight against the Nazis to spark the second American Revolution. Sound good so far? Great.
That set-up pays off in an early party of the game, where Blazkowicz is in a wheelchair, providing a challenge – especially when it’s being attacked by Nazi soldiers.
While you’d usually be able to run up a flight of stairs or jump over obstacles to escape, that’s not an option. You have to instead explore and find alternative routes (that may involve moving gears and conveyor belts) using a combination of stealth and action to reach the desired location. It’s a good way to get players thinking about alternative routes and tactics early on in the game, as it’s much more challenging than its predecessor.
That’s much more apparent later in the game, like when trying to infiltrate Area 52, near Roswell. Blazkowics is tasked with blowing up the facility, and in true Wolfenstein fashion, has to fight his way through waves of Nazis with varying skills and abilities.
While I don’t want to admit it, I found it to be quite a challenge on the second-easiest difficulty. Part of the charm of the first Wolfenstein game was that as well as playing it smart, you could also throw caution to the wind and run in all guns blazing, creating utter carnage.
It doesn’t feel the same in the second game – it seems as if stealth and tactical thinking are rewarded more, and I’m not sure if that’s a change I like. You’ve still got the option to dual-wield your weapons, and while that is fun, ammo seems to be more limited and I found myself completely out of ammo on more than one occasion.
That might just be because I’m not very good at the game, but hey! It’s what happened.
It might also be because I struggled to find the commanders, NPCs that continuously call for backup until killed. While you’ll get a rough compass icon and a distance icon when commanders are nearby and you haven’t been spotted, it becomes near impossible to find them once the alarm has been sounded.
There’s no icon to help find them and all you have to go on is a distance meter – not very helpful if the commander is on another floor, as I’ve found out first-hand. Couple that with wave upon wave of Nazis coming at me, and it becomes a difficult (and even frustrating) process.
But even at its most frustrating, the combat is incredibly enjoyable. The mechanics take a little bit of getting used to, as does the style of play, but once it falls into place it just works. The ability to run into a room of Nazis and gun them down while dual-wield submachine guns never gets boring or annoying, even if I’m killed over and over again.
It’s almost Doom-esque in design – and that should tell you all you need to know. It could be the over-the-top blood effects, it could be the gory Hatchet takedowns or it could be the surprisingly fluid movement – whatever it is that gives Wolfenstein 2’s combat the edge that it has, we approve.
Beyond the difficulty, it’s a Wolfenstein game through-and-through, with it’s over-the-top storylines, unique characters and constant plot twists. I found myself chuckling at remarks made by NPCs throughout the world, be it from passers-by in a Nazi parade in Roswell to the crazy conspiracy theorist that is convinced that aliens helped the Nazis develop technology in some form.
But while the overall story is engaging and exciting, it does get a little raw at times – so raw that we started to feel a little uncomfortable. And yes, I know this is a game about Nazis set in an alternate timeline, but is there any value to featuring adult themes including child- and domestic abuse in such a prominent way? We’re going to say no. Next time, stick to describing the thoughts and feelings of oppressed Americans – it’s what Wolfenstein does well.
Moving on from the slightly over-emotional storyline, Wolfenstein 2 is a beautifully detailed game – environments are detailed, facial animations are incredibly realistic and the voice acting is nothing short of superb. You’ll want to explore each and every environment that you come across, not only for the varying visuals but also to find little trinkets and other collectibles too.
As well as announcing a bigger and better version of it’s flagship phone, HTC has also effectively launched the smaller and cheaper U11 Mini. Here’s our initial hands-on HTC U11 Life review.
Mini versions of phones have all but gone away with only really Sony offering this type of device with, most recently, the Xperia XZ1 Compact.
The HTC U11 Life isn’t quite the same deal in terms of specs but offers some of the flagship’s design and features in a mid-range handset. It’s a bit like the HTC U Play but with some U11 bits and pieces thrown in. Read about both new HTC phones here.
HTC U11 Life Price
With the HTC U11+ priced at £649, it’s unsurprising if it’s the kind of phone which is appealing but simply out of your budget. The cost of smartphones has gone up a lot in the last year or so.
With that in mind, the HTC U11 Life price of just £349 is very affordable, making it very much a mid-range effort – you can pre-order now. It’s impressive that in the UK, that price gets you the higher spec model. See below for details.
Whether or not it can compete with great value phones like the £379 Honor 9 is another question, though.
HTC U11 Life design and build
The best way to think about the U11 Life is a mini version of the U11. It looks very similar in style but in a more manageable size so if even a phone like the original U11 is too big, then the Life version might suit.
We like the look and feel of the U11 Life, it’s an attractive mid-range phone. HTC has used the same design language from the flagship so it’s got a striking curved shape.
This time, though, the rear cover is made from acrylic instead of glass. The colour still looks good, particularly the Sapphire Blue option, but it doesn’t feel as luxurious or expensive.
That’s understandable but the phone still feels nice in the hand and the acrylic is offers much more grip compared to glass and is more likely to fare well in an accidental drop.
We’d also understand no waterproofing at this price point but the U11 Life is IP67 like its bigger brother.
At the front things are fairly standard with regular sized bezels which below the screen make room for navigation buttons and a fingerprint scanner that’s also the home button.
A key feature from the flagship U11 is Edge Sense – pressure sensors on the side of the phone as another way of interaction. This didn’t blow us away in our U11 review but can now be programmed to do whatever you want – zoom on Google Maps, turn a page on the Kindle app etc.
Overall, this is an impressive start for a £349 phone.
HTC U11 Life specs and hardware
Although we’re impressed with the design of the U11 Life, it’s the specs on offer that really show why it’s a lot cheaper.
The display is a bit smaller than the U11 at 5.2in and the resolution drops to Full HD. That’s understandable for the price tag and the screen looks perfectly acceptable for a mid-ranger.
During our hands-on time the screen looked bright and crisp.
Processor, memory and storage
There are various differences when it comes to the internals that help HTC achieve a lower price point. Starting with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 630, a mid-tier processor.
Again, it’s an understandable choice and the U11 Life appears to run pretty smoothly on the Android One system – see software below for details. We’ll test out performance including benchmarks soon.
There’s either 3GB of RAM with 32GB of storage but for the asking price, we get 4/64GB as standard in the UK which is impressive. There’s also a microSD card slot should you need to add more.
There might not be HTC’s BoomSound speakers here but there are still some features for audio fans.
A lack of headphone jack is a bit of a shame but HTC includes its USonic headphones in the box which use USB-C. There’s also an adapter should you want to use a set of cans with a regular 3.5mm jack.
For such a cheap phone, it’s great to see the U11 Life supports 24-bit Hi-Res audio playback.
Like the HTC U Play, the U11 Life has a 16Mp camera instead of the UltraPixel 3 found on the U11. It’s got an f/2.0 aperture, HDR Boost and can even record video in 4K – not bad for a pretty cheap phone.
At the front is also a 16Mp camera with f/2.0 and HDR Boost. It’s limited to 1080p video, though.
We need time to test the cameras properly but they seem to be decent after some hands-on time.
Inside the U11 Life is a 2600mAh battery, not too much smaller than the 3000mAh one found in the U11. You’ll need to charge over USB-C and the phone supports Quick Charge 3.0.
We’ll test out battery life soon but for now HTC claims you’ll get an extra two hours of video playback or web browsing compared to the HTC 10.
HTC U11 Life Software
When it comes to software the U11 Life comes with Android 8.0 Oreo. Getting the latest version is great but it’s also an Android One phone, as the logo on the back shows.
This means that instead of coming with the HTC Sense interface, it’s pure stock Android. You’re getting a device like a Pixel 2, without any additional apps and all the handy Google things like Assistant.
You also get monthly security patches for up to three years and guaranteed OS updates for two years.
Having stock Android means you don’t get things like the handy app wheel found on the U11+, but the phone does have Edge Sense so you can squeeze it to do various things.
Nitro Concepts is back again with the latest in its gaming chair range, the Nitro Concepts S300. Sporting a design reminiscent of a racing car seat and an interesting use of fabric material, is it enough to tempt you out of your hard-earned cash and find its place as one of the best gaming chairs of 2017? We’ve spent some time with the Nitro Concepts S300 gaming chair, and here’s what we think.
Nitro Concepts S300: UK pricing and availability
The Nitro Concepts S300 is a mid-range gaming chair with a price tag to match, setting potential consumers back £229.99 in the UK. It offers a more premium experience than Nitro Concepts’ £145 C80 with a wider seat height range, better recline angles and an all-round improved design.
If you’re looking to pick up the Nitro Concepts S300 in the UK, you’ll have to head to the exclusive UK stockist, Overclockers UK.
Nitro Concepts S300 review
After you’ve put the gaming chair together (a simple process that took around 20 minutes in total), the first thing you’ll notice about the S300 is the material it’s made from. While many gaming chairs are made from leather (or PU leather), the S300 features fabric upholstery.
The use of fabric gives the chair a different feel from other gaming chairs, and once you get over the fact that it attracts cat hair like a magnet, it provides a soft, comfortable seating experience that’s much cosier than what’s offered by PU leather-clad chairs. Fabric feels much nicer on the skin too, and is a better option for those hot summer afternoons playing PUBG.
It’s available in seven colour combinations: Stealth Black, Inferno Red, Radiant White, Horizon Orange, Galactic Blue, Atomic Green and Astral Yellow. While the coloured fabric is bright, vibrant and in your face, Nitro Concepts has also paid attention to the smaller details like the embroidery matching the strips on the chair legs. It’s all these little considerations that make the S300 shine.
Beneath the fabric upholstery you’ll find moulded cold foam, which is softer, more breathable and should be much more durable than the foam scraps used in budget gaming chairs from the likes of Amazon. The chair itself is modelled after bucket racing car seats, and provides more than enough support thanks to the ergonomic design.
Diving a little deeper into what’s on offer, the S300 offers 130mm of height adjustment along with 13cm of seat height adjustment, from 48-61cm. There’s also 14 degrees of rocking, allowing you to rock gently in the chair using your body weight.
The only issue? It lacks a lockout, so you can’t keep the chair in a leaned-back position. It can also recline to 135 degrees, which isn’t as far back as other chairs go, but still provides a relatively easy way to have a quick nap during lengthy gaming sessions.
It also comes with two ergonomic support cushions for the neck and lumbar regions, but we found the chair to be much more comfortable without the latter present. As is the case with most gaming chairs, the lumbar pillow is much too thick in our opinion, causing discomfort in the lower back region (and we also noticed it’d slant to one side after brief periods). It’s easy to remove, though, and the neck pillow provides decent support during long gaming sessions.
It features 3D armrests that, as the name suggests, allows them to be moved in three directions – up and down, forwards and backwards and inwards and outwards. While it allows you to find the perfect position for your setup, the arms don’t lock into place.
This means that you’ll find the arm rests often sliding forwards/backwards with a bit of pressure from leaning. We’d have preferred a simple locking mechanism like that offered for vertical adjustments, but sadly it’s not the case.
But while the overall build quality of the £229 Nitro Concepts S300 is decent, the plastic parts like the arm rests and joint covers rattle a bit when knocked. It’s not a huge annoyance, but it’s somewhat surprising just how loose some of the components feel on a £200+ chair.
Oh, and beware of the Radiant White colour option as, being fabric, it’ll get dirty fairly quickly and it isn’t the easiest material to clean.
Despite being threatened by tablets for a while, laptops aren’t going away any time soon and Microsoft is back with a new version of the impressive Surface Book. We’ve been hands-on at Microsoft Future Decoded so here’s our Surface Book 2 review.
Surface Book 2 Price
The Surface Book 2 is undoubtedly an attractive laptop, but the big question here is whether you can afford it.
With prices starting at £1,499 not many laptop buys are going to have enough cash to get even the cheapest model. At this level the Surface Book 2 is competing with some serious rivals including the MacBook Pro.
That starting price will get you the smaller 13.5in model which goes all the way up to a whopping £2,999 if you want the top-spec model with a Core i7. We’ll explain the different configurations later on.
There is a larger 15in Surface Book 2 but this won’t be available in the UK until early next year – it’s coming out in the US first.
You can pre-order the Surface Book 2 from 9 November.
Surface Book 2 design and build
There’s little about the design of the Surface Book 2 that’s different compared to the original and we can hardly blame Microsoft for this.
Microsoft has once again opted for a silver casing made from magnesium and overall the device once again looks and feels very luxurious. Build quality is up there with the best laptops around and you’d hope so at these prices.
Clean lines and symmetry are on show here as is Microsoft’s clever Dynamic Fulcrum Hinge. Once again the Surface Book 2 is a 2-in-1 device so it’s a laptop and a tablet.
A clever electronic ‘muscle wire lock’ system is still in use to connect the two sections together rather than magnets. It’s solid and there are improvements like fewer parts to make it lighter and a more seamless disconnect. The release button must be held down so don’t do it accidentally.
You’ll need to release the tablet section if you want to use it without the keyboard or two spin it 180 degrees for other usage modes. The hinge doesn’t fold the screen all the way over like some 2-in-1 devices.
As with the original, the keyboard and trackpad feel great and the laptop is marginally lighter than its predecessor at 1.53kg.
Surface Book 2 specs and performance
The second-generation Surface Book might look pretty similar on the outside but there are a number of different upgrades on the inside. Let’s take a look at what’s on offer this time around.
Microsoft has stuck with essentially the same display as the original Surface Book. It’s still 13.5in with a 3:2 aspect ratio and as mentioned earlier, the 15in model won’t arrive in the UK until early next year so for now it’s this or nothing.
The PixelSense display still uses a 3000×2000 resolution for a 271ppi pixel density. As with its predecessor, the screen on the Surface Book 2 is stunning and everything looks nice and crisp. Colours reproduction looks to be top-notch again, too, so it’s a great choice for those doing tasks such as photo editing.
You can use up to 10-point touch at the same time and as you’d expect, the Surface Book 2 is compatible with the Surface Pen and Surface Dial – both are sold separately. Microsoft told us that not enough customers used it with the first generation so decided to make it an optional extra this time.
With the Surface Book 2, the Dial accessory can now be used on-screen.
Processor, memory, storage and graphics
It’s no surprise that the Surface Book 2 gets some internal upgrades starting with the processor. It’s jumped from a 6th-gen Intel chip to at least a 7th-gen Core i5-7300U.
So at the cheapest price you’ll get the above chip, but all of the higher spec configurations have Intel’s newer 8th-gen chips, also based on Kaby Lake. It’s a Core i7-8650U so you jump from dual- to quad-core and 3.5GHz Max Turbo clock speed to 4.2Hz.
There’s another key difference if you get a Core i7 model because while the Core i5 relies on integrated Intel HD Graphics 620, the Core i7 means you get discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 with 2GB of GDDR5 memory. That’s potentially a big difference depending on what you want to do on the Surface Book 2.
It’s worth pointing out that the discrete GPU is housed in the keyboard section so you don’t get access to that power with the display detached. For those wanting as much graphical power as possible, it’s going to be worth waiting for the 15in model which will come with an Nvidia GTX 1060 with 6GB of memory.
Performance is very slick based on hands-on time with the laptop but we’ll of course run various benchmarks when we get a final review sample.
Like the original Surface Book, there’s a choice of 8- or 16GB of RAM (1866MHz LPDDR3) and you get a choice of 256-, 512- and 1TB storage capacities for the SSD from the off. Microsoft held back the 1TB model of the original in the UK for a number of months.
Here are the four options when choosing Surface Book 2 configurations:
Core i5, 8GB, 256GB, Intel HD 620
Core i7, 8GB, 256GB, Nvidia GTX 150
Core i7, 16GB, 512GB, Nvidia GTX 150
Core i7, 16GB, 1TB, Nvidia GTX 150
Ports and other specs
Once again the Surface Book 2 has two full-size USB ports (3.1), a full-size SD card reader and a headphone port. There are some changes though, as the laptop no longer has Mini-DisplayPort but USB-C instead along with two Surface Connect ports – one on each section of the device.
There’s 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, stereo speakers, dual microphones and the same 5- and 8Mp front and rear cameras. The front one can be used for Window Hello facial authentication. It’s perhaps a shame not to see a fingerprint scanner as well at these prices.
We were a little bit blown away by the original Surface Book’s battery life, lasting a whopping 16 hours and 25 minutes in our usual video loop test. Microsoft claims 17 hours of video playback on the Surface Book 2 so we’re expecting a similar result.
As before, there’s a battery in both sections of the device so you’ll get five hours when using just the tablet and a further 12 from the larger one in the keyboard.
Why is it only 14-inch and smaller laptops get the slim and light treatment? Look for something with a 15-inch screen and you’ll mostly find performance machines or standard laptops you wouldn’t want to carry around or take out in public too often.
The Asus VivoBook S15 is a 15-inch laptop that is light, slim and attractive. And it’s not too expensive either.
This laptop’s build isn’t close to Asus’s best ZenBooks, though, so make sure you keep your expectations in check.
Price and availability
The Asus VivoBook S15 covers the range of Intel Core i-series processors. If you’re happy with a Core i3, which may well be more powerful than you think, you only need to spend £599.
We’re reviewing the mid-range model, called the S510UQ. It has a Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, and costs £799. You get dedicated GTX 940 MX graphics, making it better at playing games than some. Check it out here on Amazon.
You can spend an extra £100 if you want a Core i7 CPU instead, although the rest of the specs are the same. Alternatively, the S510UA model gets you a Core i7 CPU without a dedicated GPU for £799. But that’s not as much fun, is it?
The S15 comes with a one-year collect and return warranty
Design and build quality
The VivoBook series is Asus’s mid-range family of laptops. While the Asus VivoBook S15 looks nice, it is not an all-metal laptop.
Its lid is aluminium, but the rest is plastic. You’d have to touch the keyboard surround to know this, mind, as it’s a dead ringer for anodised aluminium.
As it’s not part of the elite ZenBook society, the Asus VivoBook S15’s lid uses a normal brushed finish rather than Asus’s signature circular spun one too. But it’s still metal and still looks smart.
Plastic is no limiter on laptop strength, and Acer makes some budget Chromebooks that would probably survive being thrown against a wall, but the Asus VivoBook S15’s build is not perfect.
Certain parts of the keyboard are pretty spongy, because it appears to rely on a strut running down the middle, rather than having a solid sub-frame.
By the “H” key it’s solid, but press down by “D” or “;” and the keyboard flexes under your finger like a Tupperware lid. This is what we look to avoid in laptop build.
Other parts of the S15 design are far better, though. The screen has a narrow border, for example, giving the laptop a fairly petite footprint for a 15-inch model.
At 1.5kg and 17.9mm thick, it is also highly portable for the screen size. Your average thin and light 13-inch laptop is only 200-300g lighter.
The connections show the VivoBook is made for an ultra-mainstream audience. There are three normal-size USBs, a full-size SD card slot and a full-size HDMI. You won’t need an adapter to plug in your current peripherals, unlike laptops that only use USB-C.
We are slightly disappointed by the speed of the USBs, though. Only one is a USB 3.0. The other two are USB 2.0 ports, which will limit transfer speeds if you plug in an external hard drive or a very fast USB stick.
There’s also one of the newer USB C sockets, for future-proofing. It’s USB 3.1 Gen 1 spec port, so while it doesn’t have the bandwidth of the Thunderbolt 3 you’ll find on some expensive laptops, with 5Gbps it’s still fast enough for most uses. That includes attaching a 4K monitor.
In some other countries, Asus puts a fingerprint scanner on the VivoBook S15 S, but we don’t get one in the UK. No great loss.
Keyboard and touchpad
The Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ keyboard feel is affected by the flex of its surround, but not as bad as it could be. Its far right side is the spongiest part, populated by symbol and function keys.
Let’s not let it off entirely, though. A bit of flex/give to the left side also makes the action less well-defined and rigid than it should be. Even a slight bit of sponginess degrades the feel.
It will affect light typists the least, and the keys are otherwise of good quality. There’s also a backlight, which is sometimes left out of mid-price laptops.
The Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ trackpad is a standard plastic surface rather than a textured glass one. However, it gets about as close to the feel of glass as plastic can.
It’s a similar size to previous generations of MacBook Pros. There’s plenty of room, and the pad’s click is perfectly good. It’s a standard “hinge” mechanism but doesn’t depress too far at the bottom or have any dead zone at the top.
If we were to simmer the appeal of the Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ down to a single bullet point it’s a large screen in a slim and light frame. You get a 15.6-inch display, and even the MacBook Pro 15 is significantly heavier at 1.83kg (before you get too excited, it’s also a lot more powerful).
Several elements of the display are just OK, but it does reach the basics of what we’d be happy to use day-to-day, with an IPS LCD panel and 1080p resolution. It’s not super-sharp but is reasonably so, and doesn’t look odd from certain angles like a TN LCD does.
The Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ display has a matte finish, which is great for minimising the effect of reflections, but fairly low max brightness isn’t great for outdoor use. Maxing-out at 256cd/m, you’ll be able to see documents thanks to the high contrast involved, but subtler images are going to appear too dim in bright daylight.
Colour is no more than acceptable too. Covering just 60.7% of sRGB, there’s clear undersaturation of bolder tones compared to some other (generally smaller) laptops around the same price. With just 42.6 percent of Adobe RGB and 43.7 percent of DCI P3 covered, the S15 is definitely not a laptop for video editors or photographers.
However, for those like us who consider color accuracy a “nice to have” rather than essential, the Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ screen is still surprisingly satisfying. It’s all down to contrast, the one aspect of the screen the laptop nails. With a measured contrast ratio of 1117:1, it’s about as good as you’ll find in an LCD-screen laptop.
It keeps the VivoBook looking punchy even if the actual color isn’t super-vivid.
The Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ uses Intel’s low-voltage CPUs. These have two cores rather than the four you’ll find in performance-focused 15-inch laptops.
Quad-core power is great for those who edit video or use pro-level apps that real tax a CPU. However, for day-to-day use you wouldn’t notice the difference.
Our Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ has an Intel Core i5-7200U processor, with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD. This is a kind of gold standard spec for slim and light laptops. You could have a laptop with the most powerful processor available, but if it had an HDD instead it wouldn’t feel as slick as this VivoBook.
Just as it doesn’t have a no holds barred build or screen, the SSD delivers fairly ordinary performance, with 524MB/s reads and 497MB/s writes. It’s easily enough to provide the functional day-to-day benefits of an SSD, though.
In PC Mark 10 the Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ scores 2825 points, just a little more than we saw from the Lenovo IdeaPad 720S with the same CPU. It scores 7010 points in Geekbench 4, again just fractionally better than the Lenovo.
Comparing these results to those of a chunkier quad-core laptop like the Acer VX15 is more interesting. Its PC Mark scores are not radically higher, because this is contextual test based on the sort of tasks most of us do on a weekly basis. Geekbench 4 scores are a different story, the Acer scoring 10166 points (with an i5 CPU). That’s almost a 50% increase.
Chunkier quad-core laptops do have a lot more CPU power, but if you mostly perform light tasks, you probably won’t make great use of it.
The Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ is also one of an increasing number of thin laptops to have dedicated graphic hardware. It uses the Nvidia 940MX chipset, which we saw recently in the Lenovo IdeaPad 720S.
This is much better than Intel HD 620 integrated graphics, able to handle some games you might play on a PS4 or Xbox One. Alien Isolation runs at a fab 64fps with graphics at low settings and resolution at 720p. It’s also playable with the visuals turned up and the resolution set to native 1080p, averaging 27fps.
That’s not perfect but shows you can get fairly smooth results with just a couple of effects turned off.
The more challenging Deux Ex: Mankind Divided is only worth attempting with Low settings, at 720p. Like this it averages 28.6fps: not too bad. At 1080p Ultra settings, it runs at 7.2fps, reminding you this isn’t really a gaming laptop. It’s a dabbler.
We have a lot of time for low-end cards like this, not least because they can fit into slim laptops and don’t add too much to the price. However, and not for the first time, we wish it had the newer GeForce MX150 instead. It’s a successor to the 940MX and offers a roughly 20-30% improvement in our gaming tests.
Given the Asus VivoBook S15 S510UQ case must have more spare room in it than comparable 13-inch models (and certainly feels like it, tapping the casing) we’re slightly disappointed by how noticeable the fan is. It’s never like an aircraft taking off, but is louder than most ultra-slim models when you’re just browsing the web or writing a document.
It seems either Asus has put less effort into optimising fan speeds or the casing/internals aren’t as good at passive cooling as some. Asus’s website talks about ice cold cooling, but other laptops with low-voltage processors manage to stay fairly cool while running almost silent when, say, writing a document.
Asus hasn’t used the extra case space of the VivoBook S15 S to max-out the battery either. It has a 42Wh unit, smaller than the 48Wh of our old favourite ZenBook UX310UA or Dell’s 60Wh XPS 13.
This is a little disappointing when this is a laptop we’d consider taking on trips abroad. Or to the local cafe.
Playing a 720p video at 120cd/m² brightness, the laptop lasts 7 hours 15 minutes. You can expect a little less with mixed use, well under most people’s idea of a full day’s work.
Asus says the VivoBook is made for “today’s fast-paced urban lifestyle”, but that clearly doesn’t take into account how many of us work overtime.
Its speakers are fair. You don’t get the unusual bass punch we heard recently in the Asus ZenBook Flip S, or the greater volume and refinement of a MacBook. However, they are not thin of harsh, and we’d be happy to listen to a film’s soundtrack through them after slumping into a hotel room after a long flight.
Samsung knows exactly how to make a top Android phone, and with the Galaxy S7 it’s just pulled another marvel out of the bag. Read our Galaxy S7 review to find out why Samsung’s S-series still offers the best phone money can buy. Also see: Samsung Galaxy S7 edge review and Samsung Galaxy S7 vs Samsung Galaxy S7 edge.
Also see: Best Phone Deals and we’ve got hands-on reviews of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus.
Update January 2017: According to Samsung its Android 7.0 Nougat beta programme for the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge is now complete, and the OTA update should begin rolling out to devices later this month. Keep in mind that the below Galaxy S7 review was written with it running Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
It’s early days to decide which is the best phone of 2016, of course, but right now the Galaxy S7 is unbeatable, and we struggle to see which phone might be able to take it on. Even the LG G5 (which goes on sale later this week) and the HTC 10 (to be announced next week) can’t hold a candle to Samsung’s flagship. We really think Samsung’s cracked it with the Galaxy S7.
It’s worth pointing out the Galaxy S7 is a twin, and its sibling – the Galaxy S7 edge – is also a very capable Android phone with a unique dual-curved-edge screen. But it’s not for everyone. Meanwhile the Galaxy S7 is a great all-rounder that has managed to improve on the already brilliant S6. Samsung has improved on its winning formula in the most important way: by listening to what consumers want. And, since it’s Samsung, it’s also piled on even more performance.
We’ve heard several critics slam the Galaxy S7 for not featuring a whole lot of new stuff. And while everyone is allowed their own opinion, we think they’re wrong – as you’ll read below. But the analogy of the Galaxy S7 being like an iPhone ’S’ upgrade is most certainly fair comment. Indeed, if you’re looking to upgrade from the Galaxy S6, you’re probably better off staying put until the Galaxy S8 is released in early 2017 – unless the new features we’ll talk about below are especially important to you.
New in the Galaxy S7 is the headline always-on display. It shows you a bunch of useful information on screen in standby mode, such as the time, date, battery percentage and whether you have any missed calls or texts. But actually we don’t think this innovative feature is the most important change. Also see: Samsung Galaxy S6 review and Samsung Galaxy S5 review.
When Samsung announced the Galaxy S6 fans were divided. Finally the S series had the premium design it so rightly deserved, ditching that awful pimpled plastic and replacing it with a metal frame and gorgeous glass front and rear. But in doing so Samsung removed several features that helped make it such a great phone: waterproofing, expandable storage and a removable battery. Also see: Best MiFi 2016.
The first two return in the Samsung Galaxy S7, while battery life has improved no end with a higher-capacity cell inside. It’s easy to brush these off as old features removed from the Galaxy S5, but they are the three things fans cried out for in the Galaxy S6, and saw them threatening to go elsewhere. So their return is quite a big deal, to say the least.
As you would expect from Samsung it’s also upgraded the processor, and in our performance benchmarks the Galaxy S7 retakes its spot at the top of our charts – for raw processing power this is absolutely the fastest phone you can buy today.
The camera has improved, too, although it might not sound like it on paper, and is now better-suited to taking photos in challenging conditions such as low light. Samsung offers a ton of interesting shooting modes for photo and video – and that’s not the only software highlight. If you’re a mobile gamer you’ll appreciate the new Game Launcher, and all users will be able to find a use for its excellent multitasking- and privacy features, among others.
The Galaxy S7 is a great phone, but Samsung still has room to improve in its Galaxy S8 for 2017. Sound is strong, but not as good as it was in the Galaxy S6, for example. The latest connectivity standards USB-C and Quick Charge 3.0 are missing in action, as is the IR blaster. And there are some little niggles throughout, such as the ease with which it picks up fingerprints and the fact it still doesn’t feature a removable battery. Overall, though, the Galaxy S7 is a fantastic phone, which we’ll look at in much greater detail below.
Jump to: Samsung Galaxy S7 deals | Galaxy S7 design | Galaxy S7 always-on display | Galaxy S7 battery life | Galaxy S7 benchmarks – How fast is Galaxy S7? | Galaxy S7 audio performance | Galaxy S7 storage and connectivity | Galaxy S7 camera review | Galaxy S7 software | Our verdict on the Galaxy S7
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Galaxy S7 UK price – what’s the best Galaxy S7 deal?
The Samsung Galaxy S7 went on sale in the UK on 11 March, and those who preordered before March 5 received a free Gear VR headset with their order. Also see: Best VR headsets 2016.
There are two versions of the Galaxy S7: the standard Galaxy S7 reviewed here; and the Galaxy S7 edge, which features a dual-curved-edge screen for displaying notifications and providing access to your frequently used apps. The Galaxy S7 is the cheaper of the two, with its £569 RRP £70 lower than the S7 edge’s £639 RRP.
You can buy either of these Galaxy S7 phones SIM-free direct from Samsung, but they won’t be delivered until 22 March. If you need your Galaxy S7 before then, try Amazon or Carphone Warehouse.
Do note before you buy that as with all Samsung phones before it, the Galaxy S7’s price will drop significantly over the next few months – some have estimated by as much as 21 percent in three months. If you really want the best deal and you’re prepared to wait a little while, don’t buy the Galaxy S7 until the summer.
If you are considering paying for the Galaxy S7 in full, rather than subscribing to a mobile operator’s tariff, also consider Samsung’s Upgrade Programme, which allows you to pay a monthly subscription from £24.58 and receive the latest Galaxy S-series flagship every 12 months.
Whether you buy the Galaxy S7 upfront or join Samsung’s Upgrade Programme, you’ll still need to pay for your texts, minutes and data. See our best SIM-only deals for advice on where to get the most for your money.
A third option is to get the Galaxy S7 from a UK mobile operator and pay a monthly fee that covers the phone itself, all your minutes, texts and data. We’ve rounded up all the best Galaxy S7 deals in this separate article, but be prepared to pay in the region of £50 a month if you don’t wish to pay an upfront charge for the phone. At the time of writing the lowest contract price we found for the S7 was £40 per month with unlimited texts and minutes, 2GB of 4G data and no upfront charge for the phone. That deal is from Vodafone, but via Carphone Warehouse.
Our sample came from Mobile Fun, which sells SIM-free versions of the S7 and S7 edge, as well as a great range of Samsung Galaxy S7 accessories, including cases – read our round-up of the best Galaxy S7 cases.
Update 20 April: A new pink gold colour option was made available in South Korea today, and is coming to selected markets soon. Also see:Best Samsung phones 2016: What is the difference between Galaxy Note, Galaxy S, Galaxy A and Galaxy J?
Bowers & Wilkins has established itself as a top player in the headphone market over the last few years, but the firm hasn’t branched into noise cancelling… until now. Here’s our Bowers & Wilkins PX review.
We’ve been thoroughly impressed by the range of headphones from Bowers & Wilkins across different designs, styles and price points. There’s been almost something for everyone aside from some in-ears and a pair with noise cancelling so it’s great to see B&W filling one of those gaps with the new PX.
Bowers & Wilkins PX: Price
You can pay a lot of money for Bowers & Wilkins headphones with the P9 Signature over-ear headphones coming in at a cool £699.
They’re not all that pricey though, and the new PX model is priced at £329. Perhaps a bit lower than we expected after taking a look at them in a briefing, but also not shocking because this means they match they’re biggest rival – the Bose QC35 ii.
You can get cheaper wireless headphones from B&W in the P5 Wireless which are £229 but they’re more basic with no noise cancelling.
Check out our list of the best headphones and best wireless headphones.
Bowers & Wilkins PX: Design and build
The PX headphones have the quintessential Bowers & Wilkins design that we’ve grown to adore over the years.
We’ve become accustomed to very high quality build with bags of style on offer and the PX do not disappoint. The firm told us it wanted to take the P9 design and make it more universally accessible to customers.
The streamlined design does exactly that. Despite being similar over-ear headphones, the PX are lighter than the P9 and far more compact and portable. The ear cups swivel but the headphones don’t fold so they stay reasonably big.
We love the way they look with curved metal holding braded cables.
Bowers & Wilkins has again done a great job of blending materials including metal, leather and ‘ballistic’ nylon. The PX are available in Space Grey (grey/silver) or the particularly stunning Soft Gold (blue/gold).
That said, the new Bose QC35 ii are a lot more comfortable with a lighter construction and extremely soft ear pads. They just don’t offer the same level of luxury build and style as the PX and feel quite cheap in comparison.
Comfort is the biggest downside of the PX but it still takes a long time before things get a little painful and they should soften up over time.
Like most wireless headphones, there are various ports and buttons on the PX with B&W deciding to put everything on the right-hand side. As well as a 3.5mm port for a cable (should you need it), there’s a USB-C port for charging or a digital connection.
You also get a sliding power button, controls for volume and playback, plus a dedicated button to control noise cancelling. There’s a slight issue with this we’ll talk about below.
Bowers & Wilkins PX: Sound quality and features
There’s no NFC chip for easy pairing but that’s hardly the end of the world, especially when you look at how many features are packed into the PX headphones.
Inside are the same 40mm drivers introduced with the P9 Signature, but there’s a whole lot more in terms of features. For starters there’s Bluetooth 4.1 with aptX HD but the main feature here is noise cancelling which is a first for Bowers & Wilkins.
If you’ve not used headphones with the feature then you really need to – two microphones on each ear cup listen to ambient sound and play an inverse audio signal of it to cancel it out. You feel like you’re in a bubble and it also means you can hear your music or audiobook a lot better.
Noise cancelling is great in a number of different environments and Bowers & Wilkins has thought about this. Instead of simply switching it on or off, you can choose from three different modes: City, Office and Flight.
Each one increases the noise cancelling and you can also choose how much voice pass-through you want if the defaults don’t suit. This feature allows more or less of the sound around you to get through to your ear – particularly handy in an office when people might need your attention.
Overall the noise cancelling is superb thanks to the control you have over it. However, it’s not quite up to the same pure shutout ability of Bose. It’s a close call though and audio performance is better here.
It’s just a shame that the button on the headphones only switches it on or off rather than cycling through the modes. Instead, you have to change the mode and the voice pass-through using the dedicated app. While this works fine it can be a bit of a pain.
The app is also where you control another handy feature. The ‘wear sensor’ knows if you’re wearing the PX headphones or not so it can put them into low-power when they’re not being used.
That means you don’t really need to switch them off when you’re done but it can do more. It can also automatically pause/play your music when you take them off or put them on. It’s the kind of feature you wish you had on every pair of headphones.
By default we found the wear sensor a bit too sensitive, pausing when we were just adjusting the headphones a little bit rather than taking them off. However, in the app you can choose from three different levels of sensitivity.
In terms of battery life, the PX offer slightly longer listening times to the Bose QC35 ii with 22 hours over wireless with noise cancelling compared to 20. You can get up to 50 hours with a wired connection and no noise cancelling and the battery will last up to 30 days on standby, according to the firm.
The only downside here is that the PX can’t be used without any battery power.
Last but not least is the sound quality of the PX which as mentioned earlier are modelled on the P9 Signature which offer stunning performance. So they’re once again 40mm drivers slightly angled to point towards you like you’re listening to a pair of speakers in front.
It results in a really nice stereo field so the PX sounds immersive, albeit not as spacious compared to the P9.
There’s a matching 22ohmn impedance so you can drive the PX headphones with ease but the frequency range is smaller than their big brother – 10-20,000Hz compared to 3-30,000Hz.
Even though they might not sound quite as good as the P9, they’re still superb in sound quality. After all, they’re a lot cheaper and the real competition here is from Bose and Sony.
To our ears, the PX wins it on sound quality with an excellently rich sound that somehow lends itself just as well to jazz as it does drum and bass.
Bowers & Wilkins has proven it knows how to craft and tune headphones and the PX are the best sounding wireless headphones we’ve ever tested. Bass is solid and pumping yet controlled so as not to dominate the response.
As we found with the P9, there’s impressive detail and clarity in the overall sounds. Mid-range is just outstanding with vocals and instruments sounds live. Bags of character here is backed up by bright and crisp top-end.
Slightly more comfort and improved noise cancelling would leave us with no complaints whatsoever.
Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol ecosystem has come a long way since we first reviewed the Kontrol S-series keyboard back in 2014. The software has seen updates that introduced support for third-party plug-ins. It was further enhanced with the release of NKS, a parameter mapping and preset organisation system that has been adopted by software developers like Soniccouture, Arturia, u-He and more. Now the hardware has been updated with last month’s release of a MK2 version of the Kontrol S49 and Kontrol S61 keyboards. With the addition of high-res colour displays, more buttons and physical pitch and mod wheels, this new keyboard seems to be more of an overhaul than an upgrade.
Astute observers will note the conspicuous absence of the Kontrol S25 and Kontrol S88 keyboards in the last product announcement. There’s no indication of when these sizes will be updated—Native Instruments are focused on the midrange keyboards for now. The S49 MK2 and S61 MK2 retail for the same prices ($599 and $699) as the older MK1 versions, which is a good deal when you take into account all of the new features.
The first major difference you’ll notice during unboxing is that the Kontrol S MK2 models don’t ship with a power adapter. They are now efficient enough to run off of USB bus power. There’s still a power jack, but it’s only needed If you want to use the hardware MIDI outs without the aid of a computer (you’ll need to purchase an adapter separately to do that). Another obvious change is the addition of larger colour displays, similar to those that first made an appearance on the Maschine Studio controller. These high-res displays and the eight new buttons that sit above them allow you to control nearly every aspect of Komplete Kontrol right from the keyboard—from browsing presets to controlling instrument parameters—without having to glance at the computer screen.
The usefulness of these new screens isn’t limited to Komplete Kontrol. The previous generation of controllers supported basic DAW integration but the MK2 builds on this significantly. Perhaps the best example is the new Mixer button, which opens an interactive mixer view in the two displays, allowing you to change the level and pan of tracks within Ableton Live, Maschine and Logic Pro X. You can also mute and solo tracks in this mode by holding down the new mute and solo buttons and pressing one of the channel buttons above the displays. The transport controls are also enhanced for most hosts. In Ableton Live, for example, you can now set tempo via tap, trigger clips, toggle recording and overdub, quantise existing clips and navigate your set using a new four-directional push encoder. These additions go a long way towards making the Kontrol S MK2 a full-featured workstation where you can make music without having to touch the keyboard and mouse. Having said that, I hope Native Instruments continues to develop this area. Some things that would be on my wishlist include the ability to duplicate and delete clips and to control Ableton macros.
Without a doubt, the host that received the most attention with the redesign is Native Instruments’ own Maschine. You can now do much more within Maschine directly from the MK2 keyboards, thanks to the addition of a new column of five buttons that sit directly to the left of the displays. The first of these is the Scene button, which gives you direct access to the new Ideas view within Maschine. Next down is the Pattern button, which lets you add and remove patterns and change the length of existing patterns (you can’t alter events, however). The Track button lets you navigate between groups, scenes and sounds and the Key Mode button toggles between playing all of the Maschine sounds within a group and one sound in chromatic mode. At the time of this review, these buttons are only useful if you also own Maschine, which is a bit odd. Hopefully, Native Instruments’ continued host integration mode will take advantage of these for Ableton Live, Logic and the others.
The last big hardware change is the addition of rubberised pitch and mod wheels, replacing the MK1’s dual touch strips. The old design was one of the more forward-thinking aspects of the original keyboards, as they allowed you to apply some creative transformations to the controller’s output. You could, for example, enable Ball Mode to generate a modulation signal tracking a simulated bouncing ball with different amounts of gravity. The MK2 retained one horizontal touch strip, which sits below the pitch and mod wheels, but at the time of this review it’s hardcoded to send CC 11 without any of the MK1’s creative configuration possibilities. Hopefully that’s coming soon, but the switch to the traditional wheel controls will no doubt please many keyboard players with their improved playability.
All of these changes make Komplete Kontrol and Maschine feel like brand new instruments. The new displays and hardware controls increase the usefulness by a great deal, especially if your keyboard isn’t already located directly below your monitor. If Native Instruments continues to enhance the host integration capabilities, you could feasibly write whole tracks without ever leaving the keyboard—the holy grail of all advanced MIDI controllers. For now though, the MK2 keyboard generation is a worthwhile investment for any Komplete Kontrol user.