Bluetooth earpieces have always stuck out. I mean they've literally stuck out of your ear. Perhaps they're not as much of a fashion faux pas as Google Glass, but there's definitely a stigma about them. To combat the cyborg look, some wearable manufacturers are building smartwatches, but Motorola also has a backup plan: a tiny, handsome earbud that can act like a personal assistant.
There's no UK price or release date yet, but we thought we'd take a look at it anyway.
What Is It?
It's an itsy bitsy teenie weenie Bluetooth headset—basically the entire thing fits inside your ear. It pairs more or less seamlessly with Motorola's already very good voice-control software on the new Moto X, allowing you to do stuff with your phone while it's still in your pocket/purse/backpack/bathroom floor. Did you see the movie Her? Remember the earpieces they wore to interact with their digital assistants? This is basically the beta version of that. But with a less robust (and less sexy) operating system.
Who's It For?
It's for people who have secretly wanted the utility of a hands-free Bluetooth headset but couldn't bear the stigma of wearing one in public. I mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all, but come on, those things make you look like an arsehole. Realtalk. While it'll work with any Bluetooth-capable phone (which is basically every phone) it's especially designed to work with Motorola's latest and greatest.
From an engineering point of view, it's really damn impressive. It packs in a speaker, a touch-sensitive panel, dual noise-cancelling microphones, a battery, and an IR proximity detector into something that's the size of a thimble and weighs only six grams. You can even trick out the Hint with backplates made of different materials, like canvas, wood, and leather, so you can match it to your Moto X though Moto Maker.
Motorola couldn't cram a very large battery in there, though: Indeed, there's just a 46 mAh cell inside the Hint's diminutive chassis. To put that in perspective, that is exactly 1/50th (yes,fiftieth) of the size of the battery in the Moto X. So, to help you get through the day, Motorola also built a rather clever carrying case that doubles as a portable charging station.
Drop your Hint into the little docking port inside the case, plug in a standard micro-USB cable, and you'll actually be charging two batteries at once: the 46 mAh cell inside the Hint, and a second 150mAh battery in the case that holds an additional 2.5 charges worth of electricity. Simply pop the Hint out of your ear when it's running low, and into the little slide-out cubby on the Charging Case once again. When you close the case, an LED light at the top begins to pulse so that you know it's working.
The case, too, can be customised to match your earpiece and phone (though I'm not sure if there's a wood variant). It's easy on the eyes, definitely pocket-sized, and convenient.
You pair the Hint with your Moto X pretty much like you'd pair anything else. It's a simple process and thankfully it worked on the first try (which isn't always the case with Bluetooth audio devices). Once paired, you can choose to set the Hint as a "trusted device" which means that when the Hint is connected to your phone you can bypass your lockscreen. In other words, if you have the Hint in your ear (not in your pocket), you'll be able to skip straight to your homescreen as soon as you turn on your phone. Definitely handy. To save power, the Hint uses a proximity detector to tell if it's actually in your ear, and switch to standby mode whenever you take it out. But when it's in your ear, it's constantly listening.
At least, it is if you're using a Moto X.
You don't have to have a Moto X in order to use the Moto Hint. The Hint uses a standard Bluetooth protocol for audio which means it will pair and work with any smartphone that supports it (yes, even iPhones). It will work just like a regular Bluetooth earpiece. You'll be able to use it for all your calls and it will still be discreet and good-looking, and maybe that's all you really want anyway—a smaller, more attractive earpiece. That said, you'll be missing some of the banner features like being able to interact with your phone via Moto Voice and the Hint constantly listening for your command.
What's it listening for? Glad you asked. You may remember that the Moto X smartphone also has an always-listening feature where you can program a wake-up phrase of your choice to instantly unlock the phone and allow you to immediately issue a voice command. Originally mine was, "Miiister Anderson…" a la Hugo Weaving, but I've since changed it to, "Hi there Jenny." I'm not totally sure why. Regardless, assuming you're using the Hint with a Moto X, it uses the same wake-up phrase, and then you're free to control your phone no matter whether it's in your pocket, on your car dashboard, or wherever else you might have stuffed the damn thing.
A few examples of things you can do:
- Voice dial a contact or receive/ignore an incoming call with a simple phrase.
- Send an SMS text or a WhatsApp message.
- Ask for turn-by-turn driving/walking/biking directions.
- Update your Facebook status.
- Ask it to translate a word or phrase into another language.
- Tell it to play some specific band/song/album.
- Find out your upcoming calendar appointments.
- Ask it any number of random questions you'd ask Google ("How old is LeBron James?")
When it works, it works really well and is generally very convenient. For example, just yesterday I lost track of time and was scrambling to pack up my suitcase and meet some friends before heading to the airport. We hadn't picked a restaurant yet. I was able to rush all around the apartment like a chicken with its head cut off, while still receiving text messages and calls and coordinating with my friends. Or two days ago, when I was walking around a new city, I was getting turn-by-turn walking directions piped straight to my ear while looking around and enjoying the scenery.
As for how discreet it is, I wore this thing for three solid days (when I wasn't swimming, showering, or charging it)—walking down the street, in stores, at restaurants. I was waiting for someone to ask me about it—daring them, even. But nobody seemed to notice. Not once. Maybe they didn't want to ask me about it because they thought I was deaf in one ear and didn't want to offend, but honestly, I think it's so small that it just barely registers. Then again, I was a bit self-conscious about talking to it when surrounded by people. I'd do it walking down the street, but I'd typically wait until any potential cyborg-hunters were a safe distance away.
It comes with a few different sized gel-attachments to make sure it fits snugly into different-sized ears. I found that the pre-installed medium size was the best fit overall, but even so, after a while it did become a bit uncomfortable in my ear. When this happened I would just pull it out of my one ear and pop it into the other, and that gave my ear the break it wanted and solved the comfort issues. It's not ideal, but it isn't too awkward. Getting it to fit in your ear just right is very important, because if it doesn't really get in there it can be pretty hard to hear.
Actually, that leads me to the first strike against it. In my experience, the Hint has very inconsistent volume levels. Some things it says will be relatively loud and easy to hear, and then for other things it just kind of whispers. Seems like a software issue that could be ironed out. More annoying is when you're trying to issue a voice command and it doesn't seem to be able to hear your voice over its own sounds. It was particularly problematic when I was playing music: I was shouting my key phrase over and over, but it just didn't register. This same thing happens with the Moto X, even playing relatively quiet audiobooks with Audible, so I'm thinking it may be a software issue.
And even at max, the Hint really doesn't pump out as much volume as a traditional Bluetooth headset. I really struggled to hear what it was saying over the sounds of light traffic or even a cranked-up A/C in my car. Pushing it further into your ear helps, but watch out: When you tap the touch-sensitive panel on the back it activates Moto Voice just as if you'd uttered the wake-up command. Or deactivates it just as you were trying to hear whether the Hint had properly interpreted you. Or ends your call, which is a special kind of annoying.
On the positive side, you can start a call on your phone, then simply pop the Hint into your ear and the call will seamlessly transfer to the earbud. Take it out in the middle of a call, and yep, your call is right back on your phone. Pretty slick, but doesn't happen quiiite as fast as you'd want, so you'll miss a few seconds of what the other person is saying while waiting for it to switch over.
There are some other places where improvements need to be made on the software side. For instance, Google is making a push to make Hangouts the default messaging app in Android, but Moto Voice doesn't really integrate with Hangouts yet. That means that if you've already switched over to Hangouts you're left out of a lot of the text messaging goodness, which is one of the banner features. It will beep when you get a new text, but it won't read it to you or say who it's from. You have to say your wake-up phrase and then, "What's new?" and then sometimes it will read it. Annoying.
Also, when sending a text (or an email), you dictate the message, and then it will ask, "Do you want to send this?" but it doesn't read your message back to you. So you have to pull out your phone and make sure it heard you correctly before you confirm, which pretty much defeats the purpose. In general, don't expect too much: Moto Voice (and Google Now/Search for that matter) still has trouble with natural language. You really have to memorize commands in order to get it to do what you want. It's still ahead of Siri in this department but it's way behind Windows' Cortana. We hope Google will up its game very, very soon.
The size is really incredible. The Hint is tiny, discreet, and even when you do notice it, it's a pretty slick little gadget. The charging case is really well-engineered and it looks good, too.
Being able to do a lot with your phone without even having to pull it out is a pretty big deal and there are times when it's genuinely extremely convenient.
Unpredictable volume levels in the earpiece. It struggles to hear you when there's much ambient noise, and it can't hear you at all when you're listening to music or an audiobook. But don't even bother listening to music with it, because the audio quality isn't great anyhow. Callers generally understood me pretty well, but I struggled to hear them if there was any ambient noise.
Having to take it out of your ear to charge it every three hours or so is kind of annoying, though I appreciated the break.
It needs work understanding natural language.
Because it's basically invisible it makes you feel like a crazy person when you're walking down the street shouting, "Hi there Jenny. HI there Jenny! HI THERE JENNY!!!"
Should You Buy It?
Maybe, but there are some big ifs. If you have a new Moto X, then it's pretty cool how it can leverage Moto Voice. If you're the sort of person who uses (or wants to use) a Bluetooth headset anyway, then the tiny form factor of the Hint could definitely be very appealing. If your job/lifestyle/fetishes could really benefit from being able to interact with your phone without touching it (I don't know, maybe you're a pastry chef and you're constantly covered in flour), then, yeah, maybe.
For most of us, the Hint is a cool little luxury item. Could it be the first step toward a product that we'll come to think of as a necessity? Actually, I think there's a pretty decent chance of that. It has a lot of forward-thinking ideas, but the software just isn't quite there yet. It feels like a beta. If you're looking to fall in love with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced artificial intelligence — or even a Jarvis-like robotic butler — you'll need to wait quite a few more years. [Motorola]