Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The iMpulse Bluetooth Controller review - A great first generation product

Kickstarter has been something of a curiosity for me. I hadn't backed anything on the site since for the longest time there really wasn't any projects I cared for or were interested in. The first products I heard about which finally piqued my interest were the Pebble Smartwatch and Ouya game console. Obviously, they been completed and both were planning to make it big time with actual retail support so I decided to start browsing around the site.

 Finally, I came across something interesting: the Impulse controller. The Impulse was a tiny Bluetooth controller you could attach to your key-chain. I was interested, but when I found out they had added new functionally in the form of a presentation remote and key finder, I was stoked. I chose the silver metal version for $45 and placed my pledge in November of 2012. Nine months later and a host of emails involving its progress, I received my controller. I thoroughly recommend you look through the Kickstarter page and its Updates section as it shows the process of how the controller came to be and what it takes to manufacture something like this. A great read for those interested in how our electronics are made. There is also a home page for the controller which is like the Kickstarter page, but significantly simpler and less cluttered.

Unfortunately, there was manufacturing defect with the first controller. I contacted tech support for Black Powder Media and they sent out another controller with apologies. The second controller, another of the full metal variant, failed. I was discouraged, but I offered the company to pay for another replacement. This time I chose just a plastic version. The company obliged at no cost to me, impressing me with their concern. Thankfully, the defect seemed to be in the batch of full metal variants and not the plastic one and I was in business. Ultimately, my device failure helped the team as they have told me they traced the issue and future controllers should not have the problem mine had (the technical term is oscillating frequency failure or in basic terms, my phone couldn't find the Impulse).

The packaging for the controller is economic containing only the controller, sleeve, lanyard, charging cable, and the small cardboard slip for the label. My version contains a certificate of authenticity for purchasing the metal variant.

The package for the Impulse controller as you would receive it (lanyard will not be attached like mine is).

Contents of package: Impulse controller with sleeve, charging cable, and lanyard. (Certificate of Authenticity is only for Kickstarter pledges).
Overall, the controller itself is not much bigger than the key fob for my car. The triangular button and four face buttons light up. On the back, you have the two triggers with the front four-way button having plus and minus signs for presentation mode. Pairing the controller is simple. Merely holding the triangle button for four seconds puts the controller into pairing mode where I quickly found it in my Bluetooth settings.

The sleeve protecting the controller also functions as a stand for your phone or tablet. However, I would not advise using it for tablets due to the weight. It did work great for my Nexus 4 though. It also has a spot resembling the triangle button on the sleeve, which makes it easier to determine which way the controller goes in.

Front view of the controller. 

Rear view of the controller. The tiny hole acting as the "dot" in the web address is actually a reset button you can do with a paper clip.

My certificate I received for pledging the metal variant of the controller.

Charging cable.

The Impulse sleeve. Note the triangle button pattern at the top. This indicates which way the controller should go in.
After you connect the controller, you can download the optional Impulsify program, which serves as an instructional manual and testing for the buttons on the controller. A second and important program for Android is the Find My Impulse program. This program only works when the controller is not connected which happens when it sits too long idle or the triangle button is pushed to lock the buttons. Once activated, the controller beeps loudly allowing you to use it as a key finder. There was an occasion where I had to trigger the alarm twice in order to make it work. My only guess would be the controller was sleeping and had not fully “waked up.”

A screenshot of the Find My Impulse program. This is all it is. Simply tap the screen and it sets off the alarm on the controller.

The Impulsify program which serves as a manual, game recommendations, and testing program for the controller.
The controller’s ergonomics are not bad actually. Although not as comfortable as my Red Samurai controller, the Impulse still works in a pinch. The first thing I tested it on, obviously, was emulator support. My favorite emulator, SuperGNES, works nearly flawless. The only minor quibble I had was the lack of a button for Start/Select. I opted to use the on-screen buttons for this, but hopefully a future revision of the hardware will add another button since there is enough room for below the triangle button. Some games though are tougher to play due to the small size of the controller. Playing Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past where free form moving is easy, but another puzzle game like Tetris or Zoop required more fine point control and this is where I had some difficulty with it.

Unfortunately, outside of the basic functions and emulator support, the controller lacks gamepad support that was built into Android 4.0+. Even some of the games listed by the Impulsify app do not work properly. Granny Smith only worked partially. The directional pad could control her cane, but her jump did not work on any of the buttons. However, Black Powder Media did release an API that developers could implement to use the controller with games not working right now. They have also told me through my contact with them they are going to provide a firmware update to customers at no charge, which will enable gamepad support in the future.

As far as battery life goes, the Impulse goes the distance. Black Powder Media opted to eliminate any circuitry to check the battery and this allowed them to double the battery life of the controller. The controller will warn you when you are down to about 3 days or so standby by blinking four times. You can fast charge it for 10 minutes and get a few more days or go the distance and do two hours for a full charge.
I have so far been using the Impulse on and off for about a week and have yet to see the low battery indicator light up. The company says the battery life under standby conditions will be about three to four weeks. I imagine sporadic use of functions with standby will last probably about two weeks, which is very solid.

Outside of a lack of gamepad support and an additional button, the only thing bothering me about the controller was the lanyard. The lanyard seems weak and could easily break depending on circumstance. Upon contacting Black Powder Media, they told me the itself should be very strong, enough to actually break the plastic of the controller. What would break would be the metal clasp, but the company kept this considering it is better for it to break away as opposed to the plastic loop on the controller.

Overall, the controller is spot on and it does just about everything it said it was supposed to with the minor exception of gamepad support. While the controller isn't going to be as comfortable as a full size one, it still works when you just want to play for a bit like in a waiting room or on the bus. The basic black plastic version is going to retail for $25, which is a solid deal considering it costs about as much as a basic Bluetooth headset and does a whole lot more. This first version may have a few minor negatives, but it should not be of any consequence when purchasing and future versions will likely iron out any issues. You can pre-order a controller on the store which should ship sometime in October 2013. 

Final Grade: A-

Pros: Lightweight and small size, great battery life, multiple functions, great for key finding and emulators, sleeve is great for protection and a stand for your phone, gamepad support with firmware update.

Cons: Lanyard clasp is a bit weak, could use one more button to help emulators.

Update: Black Powder Media released a firmware update for the controller through their website. This instructions are simple to follow and the result gives gamepad support to the controller. I can attest that it works after testing games like Grand Theft Auto III with it.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Accessories and Android - A terrible relationship

Unfortunately, I don't have any products to review at the moment. Times are tough and money is down. Even worse though, there's really nothing to review. Android has always been treated like a red-headed stepchild when it comes to accessory support. Some of the things I have managed to purchase like my Philips charging dock are really one offs. Seriously, go look in store for some docks with audio capability for Android. Find any? Yeah, didn't think so.

I've found a few things here and there, mostly online. There's a Rock Dock from T-Mobile that I didn't know about, but it's pretty bare bones. Of course, the now discontinued Philips Fidelio line of docks are available on eBay for cheapish now. There are quite a few docks that actually exist, but unless you're familiar with eBay and some Google research, you may be getting something good or something horrible. More to the point, in store shopping is what I'm really getting at. There are occasions where I can only find something online, like a discontinued item or import item, but I typically like to do my shopping in store to ensure I'm getting something good.

Now, do the same thing with Apple. You'll find at least a dozen docks in store from an equal amount of manufacturers. It's depressing to say the least. Apple does do something right and that's create a consistent product across generations. Aside from the 30-pin to lightning port change, one dock will work for just about any Apple product from the iPhone to the iPad to the iPod.

But why shouldn't it for Android? Although Android doesn't have audio out through the charging ports like Apple, you figure there would be some market for these type of things. 99.9% of Android phones use micro USB and everyone charges their phones right? They all have Bluetooth. So why aren't we seeing more of these things? Surely, the dreaded fragmentation word isn't in play considering Apple is just as fragmented these days.

Another example: I really like Citizen watches. They have something called Eco Drive which allows them to be powered by light. They never need a battery. It's a wonderfully amazing product line. Recently, they came out with a watch called Proximity. It uses Bluetooth 4.0 LE and is basically a low-end smartwatch with notifications and out-of-range function for your smartphone. However, read their site and Citizen states they have no Android version of their control program in the works. Really? In fact, you can't even find the watch on the official site anymore.

Another cool smartwatch that I really want is the Cookoo smartwatch. Similar to the Citizen one, albeit much cheaper and requiring basic watch batteries, Cookoo doesn't appear to have anything in the pipeline for Android. There was a beta version that works for exactly one phone: the Samsung Galaxy S4. So, if you don't have that phone, you've got a basic watch that would only cost a fraction of the $130 asking price. This is even after Android 4.3 brought Bluetooth 4.0 support a month ago and their app was just updated two days ago so certainly someone is working on something.

With about a billion devices out there, every one in seven people have an Android device. Yet, companies seemingly refuse to give the platform any accessory support. It's a sad notion indeed that even with raw market dominance across the world, manufacturers aren't willing to get behind Android for anything that isn't a case (and even that can be iffy, just try to find quality cases for the Nexus 4 among other phones). I can only hope as Android grows more unified and less fragmented (as it has been doing so lately very rapidly) manufacturers will start to embrace the platform and really give it some good accessories. I certainly hope so anyway because I'm damn sure not switching to Apple.