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By Asher Madan
Psychonauts 2 on Xbox Series X review: A triumphant return for the franchise
by Asher Madan
This is a spoiler-free review of Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2 is the long-awaited sequel to Psychonauts, a game that originally released in 2005, and is since regarded as a cult classic due to its wacky characters and mind-bending gameplay. Luckily, Psychonauts 2 is a third-person action platformer along the lines of the original, but picks up after the events of the virtual reality-only Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. Once again, you step into the shoes of Razputin Aquato — now a Psychonaut intern — and embark on a new adventure to uncover the identity of the mastermind behind a kidnapping. Unfortunately for Raz, the mystery deepens from there and leads to even more chaotic missions.
Psychonauts 2 allows you to explore the minds of a series of characters as they battle various forms of mental illnesses. The title depicts addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions in a comical manner but, in my opinion, maintains a healing-focused tone that isn't disrespectful to those who live with them. As someone who copes with anxiety on a daily basis, I didn't feel like the game was making light of a serious issue. With that said, it's important to keep this in mind before you pick up Psychonauts 2.
Story and gameplay
You don't have to play the original Psychonauts — or Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin — to figure out what's going on in Psychonauts 2. Luckily, the title provides a lengthy exposition that goes over the events of the first game and the virtual-reality experience. Over the course of the first mission, you'll quickly gain access to various abilities, learn about collectibles, gain combat moves, and catch up on the plot. Psychonauts 2 can drag a little during this time, but it was beneficial to someone like me who hasn't played Psychonauts since college.
As expected, gameplay revolves around running, jumping, melee combat, and using various powers like pyrokinesis and telekinesis to solve puzzles. You even gain the ability to slow down time down the line! Along the way, you meet a variety of quirky characters that tell you more about the story and give you tasks to complete. Without giving too much away, the story is entertaining, but may seem a little convoluted because a lot has happened in Psychonauts and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin.
I enjoyed the plot because it all comes together at the end, but the game could’ve been elevated through clearer storytelling. However, in Psychonauts tradition, the title is mind-bending to say the least, because that’s the realm we’re in given the franchise.
Replayability and customization
Psychonauts 2 features a post-game state where you can continue to explore the well-developed and substantial world. Even after 35 hours of gameplay, I have numerous hidden items to collect. There are a lot of secrets to uncover, and you'll need to find them in order to reach Rank 102, the highest level in the game that makes you incredibly powerful.
Otto Mentallis is one of the characters you encounter in Psychonauts 2. While you meet him in the main campaign, exploring his laboratory will help you make more progress in the post-game stage. He has a number of gadgets sitting around like the Thought Turner. The Thought Turner lets you access new parts of existing levels so it's necessary if you want to go for 100% completion.
The game also features a unique twist on the traditional Photo Mode. You'll need to pick up an in-game camera that allows you to essentially unlock it. Psychonauts 2 is filled with thoughtful additions like this that make the title quite special.
Psychonauts 2 features the ability to customize your powers through Pins. Pins are essentially ability points or runes you'd find in any other game. You can equip them to change damage output and cosmetic effects. While many of them seem to only trigger cosmetic changes, there are some that are inspired by traditional action role-playing games like Dark Souls and Diablo. For example, you can dramatically increase your damage output by lowering your health to a risky level. This Pin is rightfully called Glass Cannon. There are some others that allow you to withstand more damage, but it's up to you to find and equip the ones that suit your playstyle.
Abilities tie into level design seamlessly because in one encounter you may have to defeat fire-susceptible enemies, but in the other you may have to levitate or fly across an electrified path. Levels are self-contained for the most part, and you can access them through the Psychonauts headquarters hub world. The hub world is a fantastic place that is filled with lots of people and secrets. Be sure to scour the plants because a lot of collectibles are hidden in there!
Psychonauts 2 features a number of awesome environments to explore. For example, you'll traverse a land filled with teeth to one made up of eyes that are constantly watching you. Your objective is to use all of your psychic abilities and traversal moves, like clambering and double jumping, to make your way to the end. My favorite has to be a cave-like level that's lit by — what appear to be — bioluminescent mushrooms. The team did an excellent job of making sure that every new area you access feels different than the previous one.
Visuals and performance
Psychonauts 2 looks gorgeous on Xbox One X and Xbox Series X. The visuals are crisp and the environments are as unique as they are odd. The game receives a substantial frame rate boost on Microsoft’s top-of-the-line console because it runs at a smooth 60 frames per second (FPS) at 4K resolution. However, there's also a 120 FPS mode — that limits the resolution 1440p — on Xbox Series X.
Psychonauts 2 also appears to feature high-dynamic-range lighting (HDR) only on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. The Xbox Series S version doesn't render the game at 4K resolution, but instead drops down to 1620p to maintain 60 FPS, and 1080p for 120 FPS. Lastly, on Xbox One X, the resolution appears to be 4K, but the frame rate is locked at 30 FPS without HDR.
If you don’t have a powerful gaming PC, you should check out the Xbox Series X version because, not surprisingly, it’s the best one for consoles. However, the console is still sold out everywhere and on eBay is going for around $900. You may have to wait a while to experience Psychonauts 2 at its best until the device is readily available.
Developer Double Fine Productions has been working on Psychonauts 2 for the past six years, and it shows in terms of the overall quality. However, there are some problems that are quite noticeable. For example, during some of the cutscenes, the characters move in a very stiff manner that isn't present during gameplay. This can be somewhat jarring to witness because of the stark contrast between fluid gameplay and rigid cutscenes.
As alluded to earlier, the plot is a little tricky to follow at times, but it redeems itself quickly once you get past the first mission. I'd recommend watching the exposition video a few times in order to truly understand all the events that happened in Psychonauts and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. It really helped me when I was somewhat struggling to follow along, especially when it comes to knowing who all the characters are and what your relationship to them is.
My only real complaint would be the voice acting. It’s good, but it seems a little disjointed for some odd reason. On the whole, Psychonauts 2 is a polished experience, but the voice acting seems like the weakest link. I’m not sure if the voice actors recorded their lines separately, but having actors together — even on a call — gives it more of an organic feel. This is sadly missing from the latest adventure.
Overall, Psychonauts 2 is a great game, but it could’ve been even better had the voice acting been smoother and the plot slightly easier to follow. Some of the animations seem a little stiff too. Luckily, there are plenty of twists and turns in there so you’re always entertained. I’d definitely recommend picking it up, and if you have Xbox Game Pass, then it’s part of your subscription!
The scale of Psychonauts 2 is much larger than before and not what I was expecting. Then again, we've come a long way since the days of the original Xbox. When I initially saw the $59.99 price tag, I was a little confused, but after playing Psychonauts 2, it makes complete sense. This may be Double Fine Productions' most ambitious game to date and is a blast to experience! I can't wait to see what happens on the next adventure. Psychonauts 2 blew me away on Xbox Series X!
You can purchase Psychonauts 2 from the Microsoft Store for $59.99. The game releases on August 25. Psychonauts 2 is part of Xbox Game Pass which costs $4.99 a month on PC and $9.99 a month on Xbox consoles.
Microsoft provided a review code for Psychonauts 2 and the game was tested on Xbox One X, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X.
See. Hear. Tell. A week with Microsoft's new Modern remote work accessories
by Christopher White
Nobody likes COVID-19, but unfortunately it looks like it's going to stick around for at least a little longer, and for many that means working from home for the foreseeable future. To help remote workers, Microsoft has released four new Modern devices: a USB Headset, a Wireless Headset, a USB-C Speaker, and a Webcam.
Microsoft sent me these four devices to try out, and after a week of constant use, I'm sharing my experiences.
Modern USB Headset
The first device I tested was the Modern USB Headset. I already had a Logitech USB headset that I've been using during the pandemic, so thought this would be similar and I wouldn't have much to say about the device, but I was wrong.
Before I get to performance, I'll point out that the headset has five buttons inline with the wire that connects to the USB-A port. The two largest are the mute and Teams button on either end of the console, while the volume up/down and phone button are in the middle. Since all of these devices are integrated with Teams, pushing the mute button will toggle the mute function within the Teams app, letting everyone know whether you're muted or not. If using other services, such as Zoom, it's possible to be muted on the headphones and other meeting participants won't know you're muted. This is either a bug or a feature, depending on how you look at it. The same is true for the wireless headset and the USB-C speaker.
As for performance, the Microsoft Modern USB headset was leaps and bounds better than my Logitech headset. Although speaker quality was very similar, people listening to me said that the voice quality was far and away better, with one coworker even saying that, "it sounds like you're actually in the room with me." In addition, the headset itself is soft and feels good on your head, even for hours at a time.
During all of my testing, I was never able to get the Teams button to do anything other than bring the Teams application to the forefront. Although the documentation says it's supposed to blink and help you join a scheduled meeting, I was never able to get that to work. We also don't use Teams calls, so the phone button was wasted for me.
Despite not being able to get the Teams button to work, the audio and microphone quality were top notch. If you're on calls a lot, the Microsoft Modern USB Headset, priced at $49.99, is a steal.
Modern Wireless Headset
The wireless headset is an interesting device. The package includes not only the headset itself, but also a USB dongle for connectivity. The headset itself feels very similar to the wired version, but instead of a wire that houses the various controls, small buttons are put on the right and left earphone. On one side is the power button and the Bluetooth button, and on the other side is the Teams, mute, and call button. Instead of dedicated buttons for volume control, the non-microphone side is a dial that actually turns to adjust the volume. It's a clever design that makes it easier to adjust volume during a call. To help you identify the buttons, Microsoft includes an insert that highlights the functions, as you can see in the picture, below.
As for call quality, it was a mixed bag for me. When connecting with the laptop's built-in Bluetooth, the sound quality was a little crackly and distorted, bordering on unusuable. I found this strange, because I've never had trouble with any other Bluetooth device on this laptop. However once I connected the included USB dongle, audio quality was close to perfect, only a half-step below what I was hearing with the wired headset. I'm not sure why the included dongle works better, but it's something to consider if you were planning on buying one to free up a USB port.
Controlling the headset is much more difficult than the wired version as well. The buttons on the side are tiny, and there's obviously no way to quickly look and see if the device is muted or not. When using Teams, it's not an issue because you can look at the application itself, but when you join meetings on other platforms, you'll find this a minor annoyance.
The battery life is very good. When you first turn them on, a voice tells you how much time you have left ("More than 15 hours left"), and they announce what they're connected to ("Connected to USB Link"). After using them for a few hours over the course of a day, they still reported over 15 hours of battery left, so you should be able to go a week or more before having to charge the device.
Considering these cost $99, double the price of the wired version, I can't recommend them unless you're deadset on owning a wireless headset.
Modern USB-C Speaker
I went into the review thinking the speakerphone was my least favorite of the group, but ended up loving it the most. I assumed that, like most speakers, it would pick up too much interference from my window that's a few feet from the device, or from the fan that's blowing in the room, but that turned out to be an incorrect assumption.
For whatever reason, this is the only device that includes a carrying case of any sort, but it's a welcome addition, especially if you plan to toss it into your laptop bag. The Microsoft logo is front and center, and the same buttons that are on the headphones are also here - Teams, a phone, volume up/down, and mute. As with the headphones, the mute button integrates with Teams, but when using other tools such as Zoom or GoToMeeting, there's the potential to "double mute" yourself. Whether this is a bug or a feature is up to you.
The cable management on the speaker is also top notch. The bottom of the speaker is made of rubber and has a small gap where the USB-C cable cleverly hides, allowing you to make the cable as long (up to 26 inches / 66 cm) or short as you want.
The microphone on the speaker definitely doesn't sound as good as a set of headphones, but according to my coworkers, it wasn't far off. They were also able to hear me very well regardless of whether I was a foot away or several feet away from the device, making placement very easy. It was the first time during the pandemic that I was able to be on conference calls without having to put headphones on, and because of that, it was my favorite device of the four.
In a pinch, you can use the Modern USB-C Speaker to play music as well. It's not the best for this use case, but it's better than integrated laptop speakers.
The only downside to the speaker is the price. Coming in at $99.99, it is fair for the market, but twice the price of the Modern USB Headset which had slightly better voice quality. If you have multiple people that need to speak and listen, or if you don't like wearing headphones in meetings, this is a great solution.
My daily use laptop is a Dell Precision 5520 and while I love the form factor and the tiny bezel, the downside is that the webcam is built into the lower-left hand corner of the screen, presenting a rather unflattering view of the user. Even worse, if you try typing on the keyboard while using the webcam, all people on the other side see is a flurry of knuckles bouncing up and down in front of the camera.
The Microsoft Modern Webcam aims to solve that problem for people like me. Boasting a 1080p resolution, a single microphone, and a privacy shield, the device connects to your machine with USB-A and attaches to the monitor by means of a hinge . There's a tiny bit of overlap on the screen itself, but it isn't distracting at all.
In the first meeting I had with the camera on, a coworker asked me if I moved to a different room. When I told her it was simply a new camera, she was impressed and said that everything looked extremely clear, so much so that she could easily see the posters in the back of my office. I also noticed that the built-in HDR greatly improved the picture quality; even when I left the lights in my office off, my face was illuminated well, while the rest of the room was very dim.
The Modern Webcam also has a built-in microphone, but for some reason it's not part of the Microsoft Teams certification. When you attempt to activate it, you're given a warning that you have to accept, and then the camera has to reboot for it to take effect.
Overall, the quality of the microphone is acceptable, but nowhere near as good as the Modern USB-C speaker or either of the two headsets that I reviewed. It'll get you by if you're tight on funds, and is better than the laptop's built-in mic, but your coworkers will be happier if you use another solution, which is probably why Microsoft disables it by default.
The Modern Webcam retails for $69.99, which is slightly under what the Logitech c920, a device that seems to be its main competitor, costs. The image quality is great, it's small and unobtrusive, and it worked by simply plugging it into a USB-A port. If you need a webcam for your meetings, the Microsoft Modern Webcam is a winner.
Microsoft Accessory Center
Along with the new Modern line of devices comes an app to manage them all: The Microsoft Accessory Center. This tool installs itself automatically after plugging in your first device and, since I ignored it at first, I had trouble finding it.
There's really not much to the application. It shows all of the devices that have ever been configured on your machine, as well as highlights which ones are currently connected. From there, you can click on one to make some minor modifications to each device. For the headsets and the speaker, you can control the maximum volume level, and whether you can hold the mute button to temporarily unmute and talk. For the wireless headset, you're also shown how many hours of battery life are remaining. The camera lets you adjust things like brithness and contrast, and also allows you to disable HDR, but I found leaving all of the settings at default worked fine.
This is a tool you'll probably look at once or twice in the beginning and then never use again.
I went into this review thinking the products would be relatively unexciting, but after using them for a week, I was pleasantly surprised at how well they all worked, even without being a heavy Teams user.
Unless you absolutely dislike having a wired headset, I'd recommend saving $50 and buying the wired version. The sound quality is a little better, you don't have to worry about battery life, and the buttons are easier to access. Plus, it's handy to be able to look down at the mute button to see if you're muted, something you obviously can't do with the wireless headset.
As for the other accessories, the Modern Webcam has great picture quality and the built-in microphone, although not Teams certified, is still good (but not great), and is definitely better than any built-in laptop webcam I've seen. The Modern USB-C Speaker also has great audio quality, although slightly less than the USB Wired headset, and works wonderfully for conference calls with multiple people.
The only downsides, if you can even call them that, are that the Teams button takes up a lot of space and is of limited use, even when using Teams, and the wireless headset required the dongle to work well for me.
The new lineup by Microsoft hits the ball out of the park and would be a welcome addition to any business user, whether working from home or in the office.
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Phyn Plus review: A water and leak monitor can save your home from a burst pipe
by Christopher White
Without question, water is the world's most precious natural resource. Indeed, 71% of the planet is covered by water, and up to 60% of the human body itself is made up of water. In many parts of the world, getting clean water is difficult, and even in developed countries, our use of water is tapping the limits of ground wells and aquifers.
If you want to understand how much water your household appliances use and help prevent waste from leaks, you might be interested in the Phyn Plus, a device you install in-line with the water main of your home. This device can not only tell you how much water each toilet flush uses, but can also shut down the water in your house if it detects a catastrophic leak that could result in a flood in your house.
I'm not a scientist, so won't pretend to fully understand how the Phyn Plus works. According to their marketing literature, the device uses an ultrasonic flow sensor that measures pressure waves 240 times a second. It is also the only connected water monitor that works this way: Other similar products use turbine flow sensors that are apparently less precise and more prone to breaking since the turbine is a moving part. This sensor allows the device to measure with high precision exactly how much water is being used at any point in time. There are also temperature and pressure sensors to measure those values within your home.
The device itself is rather large, at 8.5" (215mm) long, 5.6" (142mm) wide, and 1.5" (38mm) deep. Since the Phyn Plus is installed in-line with your incoming water pipes, you have to make sure there's enough space to do the installation. In addition, you'll need a power source nearby. In my installation, I was able to run the power to an outlet in the ceiling that the hot water heater was also using.
Phyn is backed by Belkin International and Uponor, so has a solid foundation, reducing the risk of the company disappearing, leaving the consumer with a worthless in-line device.
Dimensions 2.97" (7.54cm) L x 8.43" (24.41cm) H x 5.6" (14.22cm) D Weight 5.5 lbs / 2.5 kg Network 2.4GHz 801.11b/g/n Power 110/220V 19W power supply Certifications IP55 certified, NSF certified for potable water Price $699 (no monthly charges)
If you're handy with plumbing, you can probably install the Phyn Plus yourself, but make sure you know your limitations. Hiring a plumber to do the installation will run roughly $200, depending on where you live.
To use the Phyn Plus, your incoming water pipe has to be smaller than 1.25" in diameter. Apparently that should accommodate the vast majority of households in the United States. The device can be installed inside or outside, but should be placed right after the water meter. Since I live in Minnesota, and it's common for the temperature to get to -20F/-29C in winter, the water comes into the basement from under the cement slab to prevent the water from freezing.
The plumber who did my installation had never used a Phyn Plus before, but had installed a couple competing products. The process was very straight forward - shut off the water, cut the pipe, insert the Phyn Plus, and turn everything back on. The whole process took roughly 45 minutes, and the only complaint he had was that while the device has a blue dot showing which direction is up, he felt it should've had an arrow showing the flow direction like other devices do. Other than that, he said installation was really easy and straight forward.
The device itself, while just a big black box, does have a blue LED strip on the side that lights up when you first turn it on. While it'd be cool if it simulated water flowing through the pipes, the fact that most of these will be installed in places that nobody will actually see makes that frivolous except for the initial installation.
After the Phyn Plus is installed, you have to complete the configuration of the device. That consists of downloading the Phyn Plus app from your app store of choice and following the guide to connect the device to your WiFi network. After that, it runs a test to make sure it can start and stop the flow of water, and that's it. The whole process took about 20 minutes, most of which was simply waiting for the testing to complete.
One of the steps that seems fairly important during the setup is to select how many water fixtures you have in your house. This was something I had never really thought about before. While it's easy to count the number of toilets you have, I hadn't really thought about things like the ice maker and water dispenser that's built into the refrigerator, or the two water spigots on the outside of the house. Altogether, there are 24 devices in the house that consume water, a number that was far higher than I would've initially guessed.
Even after the Phyn Plus is installed, it won't shut your water off if it detects what it thinks might be a leak. Instead, it enters into a learning mode where it watches your water usage and tries to categorize it all based on what it sees. The app indicates that this takes around 1,000 water events, where an event is any starting and stopping cycle of water. In my house, this whole process took a little over a month to complete.
The device is really accurate right out of the box, but you can assist by either confirming what Phyn Plus detected was correct, or by changing the guess to what the actual device was. The day it was installed, I went around to each toilet in the house and used both flush settings on each, then looked at the app to confirm the water usage. I had never thought about the amount of water the toilets used, but was able to identify that a basic flush uses 0.9 gallons (3.4 liters), while a larger flush uses 1.6 gallons (6 liters). After each flush, I pressed the water drop next to the device to confirm the usage. I did the same for all of the sinks in the house, as well as the showers, just to give the Phyn Plus a baseline (and because it was cool watching the water use statistics in real time!).
During the first week, I noticed that when I washed my hands immediately after flushing the toilet, Phyn Plus lumped both events into the toilet category, so instead of the toilet using 0.9 gallons, it used slightly more, like 0.95 gallons. I was concerned that Phyn wouldn't be able to separate the water usage, but after a few more days, it started to label the sink usage separately from the toilet usage, which I was pretty impressed with. If you want to be Big Brother, it's also a great way to confirm that your children are washing their hands after using the bathroom.
Although the Phyn Plus won't automatically shut your water off during the learning phase, it will still alert you if it detects an unusual flow. For example, a week after the installation, I took a long shower in the morning to help wake me up. When I got out of the shower, the app warned me about the flow because it went on for so long. I was able to tell the app that this was simply a shower and after a couple of instances of this, Phyn Plus has learned I sometimes take long showers and hasn't complained about it since.
After roughly 1,000 events, the app alerts you that it's able to go into automatic shutdown mode if you choose to enable that functionality, but it never actually stops learning. I hadn't used my irrigation system before the Phyn Plus' learning phase was over, so the first two times it turned on, the app alerted me of a very high water flow and asked if it should turn off the water. After that, it hasn't asked about the irrigation system, even when I've run it manually at different hours.
While Phyn does offer a dashboard for businesses that want to monitor multiple properties, there is no such web presence for individual homeowners, making the app a requirement.
When you first bring up the application, you're presented with stats on your system, including water temperature, pressure, and current flow. It's interesting to see the water temperature coming into the house. In Minnesota, after a long winter, the water coming into the house was 58F/14.4C, and since the Phyn Plus can sense not only the temperature, but also can detect ice crystals in the pipes, it can warn you if you need to warm it up. The main page also tells you how much water you've used in the month compared to other Phyn Plus users of the same household size, when the last plumbing check was performed, and whether there are any current alerts to respond to. You're also presented with three buttons: Run a Plumbing Check, See Water Use, and See Water Events.
Since your water pipes are closed system, the Phyn Plus can check the plumbing by turning off the incoming water and monitoring the system for any unusual changes in pressure. It does this on a nightly basis, but you can run the test at any time, and I'm happy to report that it works extremely well. I left a bathroom sink faucet on so that it dripped once every five seconds, and the Phyn Plus successfully detected the leak. Unfortunately, it can't tell you where the leak is so if you can't find it yourself, you might have to engage a plumber, but it's better to find the leak when it's small, especially if it's a pipe in your walls.
Clicking on the See Water Use button brings up a calendar where you can see the overall amount of water used, the number of water events, and the amount of water your house has used compared to other Phyn Plus customers with the same number of family members. On the calendar, the darker the color blue, the more water that was used on that day. You can click on any of the days to get roll-up data about that day, or can scroll up to see previous months.
Clicking See Water Events brings up all of the events from the current day, with the most recent event at the top of the screen. From here, you can filter based on specific fixtures, or change the sorting based on amount of water used.
Under settings is where you configure how many fixtures you have in the house, how many people live there, and, most importantly, is where you configure the automatic shutoff. When turned on, Phyn Plus will automatically turn the water off when it detects an unusual flow that you don't respond to within a certain amount of time. Normally this is good, but I don't recommend turning it on right away, even when it's done with its learning cycle, as I did receive a couple of alerts while taking a long shower. After a couple of months, I have stopped receiving any false alarms though, and feel it's safe to turn the feature on, even when home.
Related to the automatic turnoff is an "away mode." With this mode activated, the Phyn Plus forgoes waiting for the user to acknowledge any alerts. If it detects any water flow for 60 seconds, it will send an alert and automatically shut the water off in the house. This can mean the difference between a few hundred gallons of water flooding your house or thousands of gallons destroying your house.
Overall, the app gets the job done, but it seems to be lacking some polish. Every time I open the app, it has to go through a loading screen that takes five seconds to finish, even if I try to pin the app in memory on my phone. None of my other home automation tools have this issue.
The app also isn't always intuitive. For example, in the calendar view, there's no indication on how to see previous months, and instead of swiping from left to right like most other calendar apps, you have to swipe from bottom to top. It's not a showstopper, but isn't a good user interface.
Another idiosyncrasy is that clicking See Water Use takes you to the calendar, and if you click back from there, you're taken to home page again, but if you click See Water Events instead, and then click back, instead of being taken back to the main menu, you're taken to the calendar for some reason. It works, and you get used to it, but it's a little strange at first.
Finally, the app seems to have a bug that, when you change what an event was classified as, will occasionally take you back to the main menu. There's no indication the change was successful without going back into the menu, and since this doesn't happen all the time, feels like an issue that needs to be addressed.
Aside from these minor quibbles, the app doesn't get in the way of using the device and getting proper insights, it could just use some extra work from the development team.
So did I learn anything interesting from the Phyn Plus during the review or is its only use preventing major flooding in your home? I'm happy to say I learned quite a bit.
The first interesting piece of information, aside from the difference in water usage between a regular and large toilet flush, was that the seal on one of my toilets was not good. While it would usually be ok, there were times when it would drain 0.4 gallons (1.5 liters) from the tank into the bowl every couple of hours. Since this was a slow leak, it would only manifest if the water level in the tank went below a certain amount that caused it to refill. We never heard it, and only noticed it by seeing toilet use on the app. While this didn't really save money, and arguably cost more to fix than the water I was using, it helps use less which is good for the environment.
Another interesting piece of information is that, while I knew lawn irrigation used a lot of water, I had no idea exactly how much it used. Now, from using the Phyn Plus, I can see that it's not uncommon to use over 1,500 gallons (5678 liters) of water just to keep the grass green. Everyone I asked vastly underestimated the amount of water an irrigation system uses, so while it's not driving any specific changes in my life, it's something I keep in mind in the back of my head and I understand why my city partners with Rachio to install smart irrigation systems in everyone's home.
The Phyn Plus is able to integrate with Alexa and Google Home if you want to utilize voice control to find out how much water you've used or to turn your water on and off. Personally, I don't find this feature very useful and it's potentially harmful since someone could turn your water off via voice from outside your home.
The device also integrates with IFTTT, which again has limited usefulness in my eyes. The example that's given by the company is that you could turn up your thermostat if the Phyn Plus detects a freeze warning in the pipes, but I'm not sure how helpful this would be compared to simply getting an alert from your home automation system about a low temperature in the home.
One feature that would be useful, but that I wasn't able to get working with IFTTT, is forcing Phyn Plus to go into away mode if everyone's cell phone in the house leaves a geofenced location. However even that has a potential negative as it means you could never run the washing machine or dishwasher, or have the irrigation system run when you left the house, so use caution.
Upon first glance, the Phyn Plus, at $699 without installation, appears to be a very expensive gadget. The truth is that, while it is very expensive, it can potentially save you thousands of dollars if it can prevent a catastrophic leak, such as a hose that disconnects from your washing machine. That said, it's an insurance policy that you may never actually use.
Speaking of insurance, take note that some companies will offer up a discount on your insurance if you install one of these. Unfortunately, the list of partners is currently very low. A recent study by LexisNexis indicated that having an automatic water shutoff device could save both customers and insurance companies a lot of money, so it's unfortunate that so few insurance companies offer discounts for having a device like the Phyn Plus. According to the research, "in-line water shutoff systems correlate with a decrease in water claims events by 96%" and that "those without water shutoff systems reported a 10% increase in water claims events over the same time period."
What happens if you lose power when the device is checking the water pressure or after you turn the water off? The Phyn Plus has a manual control that allows you to open/close the valve with a screwdriver that's attached to the device. That said, depending on where your device is installed, it may be difficult to access.
Finally, when installing any Internet of Things (IoT) device, it's important to put it on a separate network. If the company or device becomes compromised, you don't want it to be able to access anything else on your home network.
Overall, if the price of the Phyn Plus doesn't scare you away, I can highly recommend installing the device in your house. The insights into your home's water utilization are interesting, it can help you reduce your overall water usage by identifying leaks in your toilet or pipes, and can prevent a catastrophic nightmare if a pipe were to burst in your house. That said, it's only this theoretical catastrophic event that will cause you to save money with the Phyn Plus; the other use cases will only help you preserve Earth's most precious resource, which for many, is enough of a reason to install the device.
There are competitors that I haven't looked at, such as the Flo by Moen, but while the devices are cheaper up front, their advanced features cost extra every month. Even excluding the fact that the ultrasonic flow sensor is superior to a turbine, for someone who wants to avoid a recurring charge, the Phyn Plus is the obvious winner.
Ultimately, the device does exactly what it sets out to do, and while the mobile app could use a little polish, the device is very accurate and does a great job figuring out where the water is being used in the house. If you're considering an automatic water shutoff device, I would not hesitate to purchase the Phyn Plus.
Huawei FreeBuds 4 true wireless earbuds review [Update]
by Robbie Khan
I would not label myself a hardcore audiophile, but I do love good quality sonic performance from audio gear whether I am sat at home, or on the move, and find it easy to find flaws in poor quality speakers, earphones, and other source equipment. Clear highs, mids and lows with natural separation of instruments and vocals make all the difference between just listening to music versus being immersed by it.
It is hard to put into words how music makes me feel when a cracking track comes on the playlist and I am wearing my personal reference points, the Sennheiser HD 650 and Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, but what I can say is that it is clear to my ears where other headphones or earphones I listen to often excel or fail.
Having never owned or heard a pair of Huawei earphones before, I just had to jump on the opportunity to check out their latest FreeBuds in their fourth generation to see what these are all about. Just like with all my reviews, I will be giving my impression as a heavy smartphone user and a music listener going about his day to day, I will also test these out on my computer which has Bluetooth 5 capabilities.
At the time of writing, the FreeBuds 4 have hit European retail channels priced at £129.99 / €149. It is worth noting that there are two versions available. The non-wireless charging version is the one that is featured in this review. The wireless charging version will be available mid-July 2021 for an extra £20 on top.
Size & Weight Per bud: H 41.4 mm / W 16.8 mm / D 18.5 mm / 4.1 g
Case: D 58 mm / H 21.2 mm / 38 g (without buds)
Colours Silver Frost & Ceramic White Fit type Open-fit Driver 14.3 mm LPC dynamic driver capable of up to 40KHz Microphone Triple mics with 48 kHz HD recording Touch control Gesture based, 3 configurable presets Connectivity Two devices simultaneously
USB Type-C (charging case)
Latency 90 ms on Harmony OS 2 phones
150 ms on EMUI phones Noise Cancellation Yes, via ANC 2.0 (Active Noise Cancellation) at up to 25dB noise reduction Battery life ANC off:
Fully charged case: 22 hours
Fully charged buds: 4 hours
15 minute charge: 2.5 hours
Fully charged case: 14 hours
Fully charged buds: 2.5 hours Special features IPX4 water resistance Price £129.99 / €149 (£149.99 / €169 for the wireless charging version)
Design and materials
Out of the box what immediately stuck out to me was the solid quality feel of the charging case. The finish is glossy but was not a fingerprint magnet at any point during my usage. Flip the hinge over and you are treated to a strong magnetic hinge that locks when open and closed which was a welcome surprise.
Flipping the case over reveals just a single LED that shows the charging state. On the side of the case is a hidden button to activate the pairing mode when the lid is open. It is not obvious there is a button there at all and I only discovered this by accident before reading any instructions!
Taking a closer look at the buds themselves I had flashbacks of the original AirPods. These FreeBuds do look uncannily like Apple's buds at first glance, but that is where any similarities end.
The buds themselves feel just as robust as the charging case. There are no silicone or memory foam ear tips to be found in the packaging though, these are open-fit earbuds by design and Huawei say this removed any built-up air pressure that you might typically find with earbuds that create a tight seal by use of silicone ear tips.
It was nice to see some high-quality finishing on the buds too, the metal mesh grilles are flush to the casing, as is the sensor window. The long stem houses the touch gesture sensor.
Initially I had some difficulty getting the buds out of the case before discovering a trick to it. I guess everyone will find their own method, but my fingers could not grip the buds directly without slipping so just pushing one bud's head forwards allowed it to pop up from the magnet and be readily available to pull out fully.
Speaking of magnets, the FreeBuds 4 are well secured in the case. I could not force them out even with some medium to major levels of Flossy Carter shaking.
The wear sensor activates each bud as you put them in your ear. Like most true wireless (TWS) buds these days you can use just one at a time whilst the other charges in the case.
I also wanted to try out the IPX4 rating in the field but during my time of testing the sun was out although I did manage to drop them in some dirt which gave me the opportunity to test how they fair when being rinsed under a tap. Since IPX4 means they are splash proof from water coming from any direction, having the tap set to low pressure was ample enough to simulate rain to clean them off and resume full working order.
My ears are not exactly big, but typically I wear the large size memory foam ear tips on earbuds where available, silicone ones do not seem to give a good seal and slip out. The FreeBuds 4 match the large size of foam tips but due to their head design I found no issues with a snug fit and as a result, they were very comfortable, even for two hour listening sessions.
Even when active they did not work loose, however the fit does need slight adjustment when you go to use the touch gestures on the stem as I found I was accidentally pushing them out slightly as I tapped or slid my finger on the stem to adjust volume or skip tracks.
Normally I am used to having touch zones on the top head part of the buds not on the stem, so this might just be something I need more time to get used to.
I tested how quickly the FreeBuds 4 reconnected to my phone after I opened the lid to the charging case. Connection happened within two seconds, which is excellent.
I was impressed with the FreeBuds 4 for initial sound quality. In one word I would describe them as cinematic. The highs and mids were detailed enough to be enjoyable, with a wide soundstage giving an open feeling to music and movies only helped further by the open-fit design in the ear. The cinematic aspect comes from the volume of bass these kick out. It is very heavy and whilst for movies and other multimedia this works out nice, I would have preferred slightly less bass for the music that I mostly listen to currently consisting of acoustic, jazz, jazz-rap and classical hip-hop.
Thankfully, most phones on the market these days have built in EQ options that can be adjusted regardless of what brand earbuds are connected. I was able to adjust a custom EQ within my Galaxy S20 but of course doing it this way only allows any EQ tweaks to be relevant to that phone.
There is no detail on what codecs and Bluetooth profiles are used. Huawei also state different audio latency times between Harmony OS 2 and EMUI, so it may well be that when connected to either of these OSes, that a different codec or method is being used.
Having said that, I saw no issues with audio latency paired to my Samsung Galaxy S20 5G but as a non-mobile gamer, I cannot comment on the low latency mode in this area which Huawei claim a delay of 90ms. There was no audio delay in videos that I noticed at all which was excellent.
For music, if you are a person who likes bassy music, then there may well be right up your street with no EQ tweaking needed. They are fairly neutral but detailed in sound, just with emphasis on bass.
Taking phone calls (VoLTE) was an excellent experience. Not only was my earpiece loud and clear, but callers on the other end told me I was naturally clear and had I not told them I was on earbuds, they would have assumed I was using the phone's built-in mic. Noise and wind control seemed to be particularly good too during calls with or without ANC.
The AI Life software detailed below has an option called HD Voice. I toggled this on and off multiple times during a call and neither myself or my caller could tell any difference, so I am not sure under what specific conditions this setting works as both of us were on 4G and/or Wi-Fi calling at the time.
Battery life seemed to meet the specifications. I should note that with ANC turned on, a little over 2 hours is what you can expect. More battery is drained on long voice calls I found too as the mics are active. 2 hours may be enough for many but do expect to do multiple 15-minute top-ups to reclaim those hours. I did expect more out of the battery in this regard considering the price. Competing earbuds seem to be ranging in the 3-4 hours per charge at the minimum with active features enabled.
I installed the Huawei AI Life app from the Google Play Store first but was unable to add the FreeBuds 4 from within to customise and tweak any settings. With the advice of Huawei, I needed to install a newer version of AI Life via Huawei's own store called AppGallery. AppGallery is installed via side-loading from the AppGallery website on non-Huawei phones such as my Galaxy S20. It was only then that AI Life was able to add the FreeBuds 4.
At the time of writing, even though the FreeBuds 4 have been out in the UK since the 21st of June, the Google Play Store version of AI Life still has not been updated to the latest version supporting the FreeBuds 4. This could be a concern for some as not everyone has a Huawei phone, and most users do not know how to, or even want to mess around with side-loading apps they are unfamiliar with.
With the correct version of AI Life installed I was able to tweak several settings and enable features like ANC. The main home screen to AI Life shows core information about added Huawei devices.
The app shows the battery status of each bud and the case, tapping through shows the settings and features available.
Here we are given several useful options to check and tweak as needed. Most are self-explanatory and things we have all come to expect from wireless earbuds in this price range, but a couple remain missing, more on these a bit later. The first thing I did was to check for any firmware updates, but it appears that everything was already up to date.
The Shortcuts menu allows customisation of the touch gestures. I found some limitations here, however. Whilst you can assign double tap gestures to a function such as skip songs or play/pause, you cannot have play/pause as well as skip tracks assigned in a combination of double/triple gestures.
The Press & hold and Swipe gestures cannot be customised at all either. I found this frustrating in practice because I wanted to be able to have full control of playback via the touch gestures but the lack of triple gestures or the ability to change the hold gestures and swipe meant I could have one or the other.
There were also no custom EQ settings that could be saved to the earbuds like you can on others on the market in this price category. There is a sound quality menu within AI Life, but this only has one option to enable HD Voice for voice calls. This makes multi-device usage a pain. Using my personal usage as an example, I listen to music on my phone and PC, so whilst I can adjust the EQ to my liking within the phone itself, I cannot change the EQ to the FreeBuds 4 connected to my PC so still have the heavy bass. The Galaxy Buds Pro, Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ and Jaybird X3 that I also have allow me to save the whatever EQ pre-set is set on the app to the buds so whatever source I listen on, the EQ stays put.
I reached out to Huawei on this issue and was told that an update to AI Life is due soon which adds some pre-set EQs within the app. This is promising news as this update will put the EQ on similar standing to the Galaxy Buds Pro which also has a list of predefined pre-sets you can select which then saves to the buds. Whether the AI Life update will do the same though remains to be seen but is well worth pointing out.
For those who wish to skip using the AI Life altogether, you do get battery status of the buds from within Android's Bluetooth screen. Not as detailed as individual battery status, but it is better than nothing.
Huawei hit the mark in several areas with the FreeBuds 4. The cinematic bass is lively, whilst the mids and highs being detailed. The bass out of them may be too much for those like myself, but one way or other there is a way to tweak the EQ to preference It is a shame that there is no baked in EQ however where a custom one can be defined which follows the buds between devices. This is a feature I am used to in this price range so is something I expect as standard.
Huawei have promised an update to AI Life to add predefined pre-sets for EQ tuning, but this update may well only reach a limited audience due to only being on the latest version of AI Life whish resides within Huawei's own AppGallery store only available via side-loading for non-Huawei phones and tablets. Not something novice users will be wanting to do.
The lack of full gesture customisation is also an annoyance and I believe this can also be fixed with a firmware/software update.
I feel what could have been a truly excellent experience right from the get-go has been slightly tarnished by a lack of software development from a user's point of view. At around £130 (on Amazon) there are a lot of options out there for us consumers, and missing features like this could be deal breakers for some.
The FreeBuds 4 are very well built and designed, they are comfortable for long sessions, and whilst the battery life might not compete with others, a quick top up in the case will regain a couple of hours.
Excellent voice call experience and a cinematic media experience alone are not enough to earn top marks at this price. The software must marry the hardware and at this state I think the FreeBuds 4 will satisfy a small audience out of the box but will need a decent software update to grab the attention of everyone else.
Huawei has reached out to me to confirm a new update to the AI Life app and FreeBuds 4. There are a suite of new features available which to my eyes and ears now make these wireless earbuds very good. It is also reassuring to see a brand request feedback from a review and then implement some of those changes so quickly.
The new features are:
AEM EQ (Adaptive Ear Matching) EQ effects Voice hearing enhancement The first feature, AEM, sends a tone signal when each earbud is inserted into the ear. The tone is then reflected back and picked up by the inner mic. This allows each bud to determine the shape of the ear canal and define the best processing EQ for that ear.
Huawei also state that AEM adjusts the EQ through the entire frequency range per ear shape and they make note that this offers better performance than the Airpods Pro. I cannot verify this as do not have access to any Airpods Pro.
The second feature update is EQ effects. Three new presets are available, Default, Bass boost and Treble boost.
Finally, the third feature is Voice hearing enhancement. This is very similar to other phones fine-tune the sound they output to your specific hearing abilities via a hearing test mode. Those who have used Samsung's Adapt Sound will know exactly what this entails, the process is the same in AI Life and offers you the flexibility to add save your tuning for both calls and media or individually.
From my personal experience, hearing enhancement features should be explored by everyone who uses earbuds to listen to their media regardless of whether hearing is good or bad. I have always found an audible benefit in tuning the sound specifically to my ears.
The update brings the app version to V188.8.131.52 and as noted earlier in the review, should be updated through the Huawei AppGallery store. The Google Play Store version remains on a late 2020 version.
With the inclusion of these new features I am happy to adjust the scoring to a very good mark as the sound quality has been improved. The Treble boost preset EQ reduces the overly bassy sound to something more neutral now. There is still no additional customisation for gesture controls however, and the battery life remains unchanged.
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A look at Synology DSM 7 and Active Insight, the latest OS for your Synology NAS devices
by Christopher White
It's been more than five years since Synology released its current operating system, DSM 6. Earlier this week, the company provided a release candidate for install, so I decided to take a look and share the results of my exploration.
Before starting, it's important to remember that this is not a production quality release yet, so if you run production workloads, you should not upgrade quite yet. Even after DSM 7 is fully released, I'd recommend waiting a few months before upgrading your production environment, just to be safe.
Having said that, the upgrade process was really straight forward. I simply downloaded the file from Synology's website, went to the Control Panel on the NAS device, selected Manual DSM Update, followed the prompts, and within 30 minutes, was running the latest version of the OS with no issues. However keep in mind that the upgrade was performed on the DS720+ review unit, so while it had several volumes and an SSD cache, there were no virtual machines, Docker containers, or the like which could have made the upgrade a little more difficult.
The most obvious thing you'll notice is that the overall GUI is more polished and modern looking now. The login screen no longer prompts for a username and password, instead pushing the password request onto a second page. This was done because the login process supports some new authentication methods that I'll touch on later.
DSM 7 (left) vs DSM 6 (right) The main desktop includes a nice default wallpaper, in contrast to the stark blue default from the previous version. The new icons arguably look a little nicer, and overall the interface is just a bit more responsive when navigating and opening applications, which is nice. Overall though, this isn't a major overhaul that will require any sort of learning curve for existing users: Everything is still in the same places that you're already used to, it's just all a slight bit nicer.
From a user experience perspective, the Storage Manager is where most of the visible changes have been made. The previous version of DSM, while straight forward, still made some assumptions that the user understood how storage worked. With DSM 7, Synology has attempted to streamline the process.
The first change is that, after starting the Storage Creation Wizard, you're presented with a nice graphical depiction of what a storage pool and volume is and how that relates to the physical drives in your NAS. After you click the start button, you're asked what type of data protection you want to use, with descriptions of what they all mean, told to select which disks will be part of the pool, and how much disk space to allocate to the volume. The whole process takes less than a minute to setup your pool and volume.
That said, there are still some minor display issues, most notably under the Usage Details section, where you can clearly see that the provided note about how the system calculates usage is cut off at the right, and the window doesn't provide the ability to resize. Minor issues like this are expected in a release candidate.
The updated view in Storage Manager is much clearer in showing that a volume is part of the storage pool.
One of the new features to Storage Manager that will be a welcome addition is "Fast Repair," which is enabled on the volume by default, and may be the best update in DSM 7. Whereas in previous versions, replacing a drive required a complete resync of the disks to ensure it was consistent, Fast Repair skips all of the unused space in a storage pool so that the repair is done faster. I put this to the test by pulling out a 4 TB drive and then putting it back in, and instead of taking hours to repair, was done in only an hour and a half. This means when replacing a failed drive, your data will be at risk for far less time than in the past, a welcome addition.
Even more important than streamlining the initial configuration of a pool and volume is the streamlining of replacing drives in the system. After removing one of the 4 TB drives and then re-inserting it, I was given an option to manage the new drive, giving me selections such as "Repair storage pool," "Assign as hot spare," or even, "Create storage pool." After clicking the repair button, I was asked to select the drive and then click the apply button. This is much more streamlined a process than with DSM 6, and is a welcome addition.
One of the best improvements with DSM 7 is the addition of a new feature called Active Insight. In essence, it's a remote monitoring system that allows you to see the status of all of your Synology devices through a web portal, and get immediate notifications for any errors. If you have multiple devices, you can see the status of all of them from a single pane of glass.
Using the feature requires linking your device up to your Synology account and then enabling the feature. You can decide if you want the basic monitoring, so you're notified of storage pool degredation, failed drives, and the like, or if you want all of your performance data sent to Synology for easy remote monitoring.
After enabling Active Insight, you can navigate to the Synology website (or click the link in the interface) and you're brought to an overview page that shows all of the events that have occurred in the last seven days, as well as the real-time metrics of your device. In the above screenshot, the red underline on June 3rd shows you that there was a critical alert and has been resolved, while the solid yellow shows a warning that has not yet been acknowledged and closed.
Clicking on the Host menu will bring up an information card for every Synology device you have registered with Active Insight, showing basic CPU and memory utilization, as well as network traffic, drive performance, and storage utilization. If you have multiple devices, you can filter based on the model number or, more importantly, any devices that currently have a warning or critical alert associated with them. For enterprises that have a large number of devices, this could be an extremely useful feature. If you only have one or two devices at home, I suspect most users would simply login to the device itself for this information.
If you want more specific information about an individual host, you can click on the card and see performance data, what services are running on the device, a graph that shows the storage usage over time, and any events that have occurred.
The Performance tab shows a lot of data, from high level information such as volume utilization, down to statistics such as read and write latency, the number of IOPS, and the overall throughput of the volume. You can change the timeframe of the graphs from 6 hours up to an entire year. In addition, if you hover your cursor over a specific time, a vertical red line is displayed on every graph, allowing you to highlight a potential problem area and see all of the stats associated with that specific time.
While overall I love Active Insight, the downside is that you're now sharing performance data with a third party. While your private data is still safe in your own location, some people who are security/privacy focused may have purchased a home NAS in order to keep everything within their own walls and to not share anything with a third party. Most of the data available in Active Insight is available directly on the NAS device itself, including the ability to send notifications for errors, it's just more work to setup, so I can see casual users really benefiting from this functionality.
The other shortcoming with Active Insight is that, while it will alert you of issues that impact your NAS, there is no immediate check on whether the device is sending data or not. If the NAS device is offline, Active Insight simply shows no data for the duration of the outage.
After opening a ticket with Synology about this shortcoming, I found the Custom Event tab in the Management section that lets you create notifications for various system events. By default, there are no events associate with any devices, although there is a default event called "Disconnected from Active Insight server." Unfortunately, the default is set to send a warning after a NAS device is unresponsive for an hour and a critical alert after 12 hours, which seem like rather high defaults, and although you can tweak them to meet your needs, the level of granularity is an hour, and you can't use decimal points in the fields. Hopefully Synology updates these thresholds.
It's important to note that Active Insight appears to be a feature that Synology will be charging for in the future. When registering your device, you sign up for the Beta plan, which gives you access to customized events, 1 year data history retention, and metrics updated every minute. There's no word on what the price will be when the service exits beta.
Synology has allowed users to use two-factor authentication for a long time, and it's something I highly recommend everyone enable. With DSM 7, Synology is giving users even more flexibility when it comes to authentication. Instead of using only a username/password combination or a username/password/two-factor combination, the latest version of DSM allows you to configure a hardware security key (such as a Yubikey), Windows Hello, or macOS Touch ID, or simply approve a login via the "Synology Secure Signin" mobile app. That said, enabling these advanced authentication methods will take some time and require a bit of work on the administrator's part.
If you want to configure passwordless authentication with the new mobile app, you'll need either a public IP address for your NAS device or will need to enable QuickConnect or DDNS to setup the remote access. If you want to use a hardware security key, you must have a registered domain address over hTTPS and cannot use QuickConnect.
As with DSM 6, you can use two-factor authentication with an authenticator app, but whereas you could use other authenticator apps in the past, with the new version of DSM, you appear to be locked into the Synology Secure Signin app, which feels like a step backwards.
As with Active Insight, some people may not want to expose their device to the Internet at all, making this feature not very helpful for them. However if you're ok with connecting your NAS device to the Internet or using QuickConnect, these new features could be very helpful.
Synology is deprecating the use of Moments and replacing it with Synology Photos. In my limited use of the product, it looks very similar to Moments (you can see my review of that product from 2018 here). Usage of Photos looks very similar to Moments: upload photos, and it categorizes them based on the year and month. You can then create albums based on the pictures you've uploaded. By default, DSM 7 will use facial recognition to categorize the same people into groups, but while Moments would also use AI to detect other things like cats and dogs, Photos seems to have done away with that feature for some reason. I don't understand why they would remove such a useful feature, especially since all of the processing is done on the local NAS device, so hopefully they'll bring it back once DSM 7 is officially released.
Other New Features
While I talked about a lot of the visual features of DSM 7, many of the updates to the operating system are actually behind-the-scenes or for enterprise implementations.
According to Synology, a lot of work has been done around the SSD cache. When I reviewed the DS720+, I recommended against using an NVMe drive as cache in a home setup because there was simply no performance benefit. However, according to Synology, you can now use the cache to store all of the Btrfs metadata, which should speed up file access and searching. Since building cache takes a long time, I'm hoping to be able to test this in the future. Another update is the ability to add and remove the cache without impacting availability to the volume, a welcome addition, albeit one that probably doesn't get used too frequently.
Another feature that is nice to have, but is relatively minor, is the ability to lock the USB port. This protects the NAS device from someone plugging in a device and automatically copying potentially harmful files onto the server.
There are also some features that have been discontinued, such as using USB devices such as Bluetooth dongles and 3G/4G dongles, so be sure to read the release notes for more specifics before beginning the upgrade.
Overall, while DSM 7 isn't a revolutionary upgrade, there's sure to be at least a few nice additions for everyone. Considering it's a free upgrade, once the OS is available, there's no reason not to install it and take advantage of what it has to offer. Just make sure you have backups in place in case something goes wrong.