When we visited Motorola's Chicago headquarters in September, one of the most intriguing new gadgets wasn't quite ready for the press to try out. But now we've been able to spend some quality time with Moto Hint, the company's next generation Bluetooth earbud. Though it's a step in the right direction compared to the wonky things some of us stick in our ears, there's still some room for improvement.
Unlike most Bluetooth headsets that make your ear look like a miniature satellite dish, the majority of the Moto Hint fits snugly but comfortably inside your head. It resembles something like an oddly shaped hearing aid: it's visible, but doesn't have the cyborg aesthetic that most headsets add to your cranium.
Ironically, the Hint does grant its wearer more cyborg-like powers than the average Bluetooth ear dongle, at least when paired with a Moto X or Droid Turbo. On Motorola's flagship phones, the Hint basically acts as an extension of the Moto Voice feature, which allows a user to control the phone from across a room using voice commands.
The Hint essentially acts as a remote ear for those phones and is always listening for their user defined trigger phrase, which then tells the phone that the next thing you say will be a search or executable command. It can also push incoming calls, select notifications and other kinds of audio to your ear, even when your phone is in the next room.
If you're in an environment where you don't want to address your unseen phone by some silly name, you can also tap the outward-facing capacitive touch area of the headset to get your phone's attention to start listening for commands. If you're using the Moto Hint with a late model Android phone or iPhone, a touch will summon Google Now or Siri, respectively.
Concierge in your ear
The things you can do with a Moto Hint in your ear and a connected Moto Voice device within range are limited only by what Google Now and the Moto software can understand, which seems to expand monthly if not weekly. Using only voice, we were able to do currency conversions, send and receive texts, calls and emails, manage calendar events, get weather reports, translate "oatmeal" into a handful of different languages, navigate to the veterinarian, and play a little old school Cypress Hill via Spotify, among many other potential functions – all without having the paired phone in the same room.
As long as you remain conscious that you're wearing a Moto Hint, it can become easy to go a little crazy with it, asking it for help with every mundane thought or query that comes into your head. There's a good chance this will quickly irritate any companions you might be with, as it did my wife and daughter at our breakfast table, who both rolled their eyes when I asked the digital bug in my ear how to say oatmeal in Portuguese.
It is surprisingly easy to forget that you're wearing a Hint, as it is as comfortable and lightweight as any ear-worn consumer device we've tested. We tried a number of headsets, earbuds and helmet insert devices while wearing a ski helmet for winter sports, and the Hint is the best yet for getting through an entire day on the mountain. We found it even more comfortable than elaborate helmet-mounted systems designed specifically for active sports use.
Hinting at serious design chops
The Hint is also a leap forward in design in terms of being able to take it with you and still have normal social interactions that don't leave people joking about your robot ear minutes later. Yes, it's smaller and less ostentatious or geeky than most headsets. You can even choose from different premium materials for the touch area including leather, bamboo and walnut. But the smartest new feature here is an infrared proximity sensor that detects when it's in your ear and automatically connects when you put it in. By the same token, it automatically disconnects and hands off any calls or other audio in progress to your phone relatively seamlessly when you pull it out of your ear.
This is pretty much perfect for how I wear a Bluetooth headset, and I'm the biggest fan of Bluetooth audio devices that I know. But I still tend to pull my headset out of my ear to have a face-to-face conversation with someone or if I need to focus on another external source of sound. I love being able to just pull the Hint out in a quick, subtle motion and know that I'm not missing any part of what I was just hearing, and without fiddling with any switches, buttons or long presses.
The final thing that we love about the Moto Hint is its nifty little carrying case/charger/battery pack that is another of those neat little ways that Motorola shows off how good it has become at design. When you plug in the case, you're charging both the Hint in its cradle and an extra rechargeable battery in the case itself. With a fully charged case, which can be slipped on a key ring via the plastic loop that lights up when charging is happening, you can juice up your Hint at least two more times while on the go.
This brings us to a shorter but still significant list of gripes that we have about the Moto Hint.
Hinting at areas in need of improvement
First off, let's address why that cool carrying case has a battery in it in the first place. It's because the battery in such a tiny headset is correspondingly tiny and only lasts for about three hours worth of listening, be it to music, podcasts, audiobooks or whatever. Motorola deserves a lot of credit here for designing a case that goes a long way towards solving this shortcoming, but it means you basically need to remember to bring a charged case with you everywhere you go, and if you lose it, your US$150 headset is now worthless.
Yes, you read that right, too. The Hint costs $150, which is more than you'll pay for a Moto X to connect to it (with a new carrier contract, at least) and makes it one of the more expensive earbuds on the market, but without the same sound quality you'll get from most other high-end headsets.
That would be our third complaint about the Hint: its volume is often either too low or inconsistent. Walking through city traffic or working in a loud environment, you can easily miss a notification, even with the volume on your phone (the Hint does not have its own volume controls) turned up to 100 percent. Beyond the volume issue, sound quality is adequate, but we get better fidelity on headsets that cost a third of the Hint's retail price.
Sometimes the Hint itself can also have problems hearing, but strangely the issue is not with background noise in the user's environment, it's with the sounds coming from the Hint itself. When listening to music via the headset, it often seems to be unable to hear our attempts to give it new commands. We'll say the trigger phrase over and over with no response, then remember that we can just as easily get the Hint to pay attention by tapping it with a finger ... only to find that it also is less responsive while music is streaming from it. Eventually a forceful enough tap will get it to listen to our desperate attempts to ask directions to the nearest Starbucks.
Oh, and one final little complaint: The Moto software does not seem to be aware that Google tries to force most Android users to use its Hangouts app for texting, so if you've integrated your text messages into hangouts, you won't automatically have new texts read to you via the Hint. To hear the message, you'll have to say your trigger phrase or tap the Hint and then ask it to "read notifications." It's a minor hassle, but one that it seems should be easy to fix with a software update.
I'm a huge Bluetooth fan and an admitted cyborg constantly listening to books, podcasts or music in my ear while working, walking, exercising or sometimes even when trying to fall asleep. It kind of blows my mind that it isn't more socially acceptable to have one of these things in your ear, even as it's increasingly acceptable to thoroughly disconnect from the society around you by focusing your full attention on screens of all sizes at all times.
The Moto Hint seems like it could be a big step towards building the bridge to that future of more seamless, hands- and eyes-free utilitarian connection that looks cool in movies like "Her" but that many people continue to resist.
Perhaps it's a good thing that we aren't all ready for this vision of the future just yet, because if the Moto Hint is going to lead the wave of wearable devices that brings it into the mainstream, it's going to need a few upgrades and improvements before it's ready for primetime itself.
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