Want to keep in contact with friends and family without having to sell your personal data?
Then Loop – or, at least, a future version of it – may be for you
Review It's become a phrase repeated so frequently, it almost feels like a cliché: if you're not paying for the product, you are the product.
The truth is that hundreds of millions of us put up with the unpleasant fact that chunks of our personal lives – our photos and emails and whereabouts and contacts – are combined and packaged to sell ads by Facebook, Google, Twitter et al, because they provide people with what they want.
And that is: quick, easy seamless connections to the wider world and in particular friends and family.
And then there are the many people we all have in our lives who will not sign up to social media accounts, sometimes because they are taking a principled stance but mostly because they find the whole experience baffling (now where did I click? And where how do I find you?)
Well, there is now a solution. Or, more accurately, a potential solution that we've decided to try out: Loop. A gizmo for streaming pics and videos to your kitchen, or wherever you place the thing, and video conferencing with faraway relatives and pals.
Loop looks like an old-school-looking box that is portable in the same way that radios in the 1960s were portable. It is, we must say, a pleasant combination of modern styling and materials with retro dials and knobs, and it hopes to be the low-key, comfortable solution to modern connectivity.
Loop opts out of modern and potentially intimidating user interfaces, which rely on endless numbers of new apps and clicks and swipes, and goes instead for a simple metal-turning-knob and a TV-style concept of internet channels.
You can add your own channels – whether pulling in pictures from your Instagram feed, or uploading photos directly to a custom Loop channel, or adding a YouTube channel, or selecting one of Loop's own channels – and then switch between them.
Those pictures, videos and also direct one-to-one video conferencing connections are all displayed on a 10-inch flat screen that makes up the whole front of the device. It actually looks and feels like the kind of space-age 21st-century that was enthusiastically shown to families in the 1970s, along with the self-cleaning laundry basket, automatic lawn mover, robot butler and flying car.
It has a camera, speakers, a microphone, a leather handle at the back, and a very, very simple interface that your grandparents or child can use.
And that is the core market for the device: people who are too young or too old to figure out, or want to figure out, how the iPad works when all they want is to use Facetime or look at pictures.
Retro styling and quality build makes this Loop a fun thing to handle
What Loop will do is connect you, directly, to a small number of family and friends and let you share pictures and video, as well as chat over video – without leaking private stuff out to the larger internet and without exposing all the details of your life to a mega corporation seeking to sell ads. It's designed to keep your stuff automatically and by default between just you and your inner circle.
This is a lovely quaint idea. And it takes a little time to get used to the concept of such a pleasantly innocent device on your surface. Unfortunately, it also has a long way to go, with so many small niggles and irritations that we couldn't imagine parting with $299 for the device (or $199 each if you buy three of them). At least not until most of them were fixed.
Let's talk to the head honcho
Being a tech news site, we get to have conversations with the people that build these products. So this reviewer spoke at length with San Francisco-based Loop's CEO Brian Gannon about the issues and approach, and what the upstart is hoping to achieve.
"The idea of it is to help families stay connected," he told us. "The service and the device are all designed to reduce friction." Like any middle-aged man in 2017, Gannon is sat in the middle of the technology spectrum: responsible for helping kids navigate the risks of being constantly connected, and for helping parents and grandparents make sense of the baffling array of buttons and apps.
He gives the examples of pictures, which every family loves sharing. You first set up an online space and add photos. You often make sure it is private. And then you have to direct everyone else to it, often walking them through the app or service you decided to you. "It's complicated," he complained.
Loop hopes to avoid all that by having things just pop up and work. The device's steady state is very similar to those digital photo albums, displaying slow transitions between pictures. But if your parents have your Loop channel on their device, any pictures you add will simply appear. And new ones pop up automatically.
The metal rotary interface is "fun and easy", he said, and lets you quickly move between channels. For video conferencing, you simply turn the dial until the name of the person you want to talk to appears and it will put a call through to them – either to their own Loop device or the Loop app running on their phone or tablet.
This all sounds fantastic but our experience of the device was somewhat underwhelming:
- Videos don't play
- The video conferencing is pixilated
- The channels take a while to load
- The screen is always on
- The photos can be cropped weirdly
- Only the beginning of photo captions can be seen
- The camera is too low, so you either have to pick it up or duck down
- A thousand other very small niggles
To his credit, Gannon acknowledged all these small annoyances, and pointed out that it is early days for the startup, which emerged with its gadget in hand last year. He argued, convincingly, that almost everything is fixable through a software update.
At the moment, updates on the device are going out every week, bringing new features and addressing bugs, we're told.
For example, the ability to actually play videos should be coming very soon, Gannon promised. Likewise, voice activation and control is included in the box but has not yet been turned on in the software. The device will go into a rest state with a clock face showing the time. The device will also be able to do Alexa-style simple tasks, such as set a timer. The Loop app on your iOS or Android smartphone will soon act as a remote control to the device. And so on and so on – a million-and-one fixes coming down the line.
A big issue as far as we were concerned was the quality of the video calling. It was almost always pixelated despite ample network bandwidth.
This, Gannon assured us, is the result of the trade-offs and algorithms Loop has incorporated into the service, which it outsources to an unnamed corporate video-conferencing service. He said audio quality was prioritized over video quality, and maintaining a constant connection was also prioritized.
So while the video may not look great, it won't do the maddening thing that, for example, Apple's Facetime increasingly does and drop the conversation altogether. Some software tweaks will give a better experience, he promised. Which we will give him some benefit of doubt over, since his background is in video conferencing and he was once in charge of putting Skype into Samsung TVs – it didn't take off because people don't want to sit in front of their TV talking to others.
The perfect scenario – for both the consumer and for Loop – is for someone to buy three of the devices, do the setup themselves, and then ship them to their parents, kids and siblings.
Then they pull the device out the box and it already has everything they need set up. Sit it on your kitchen surface, or desk, or carry it around from room to room. It's a high-tech device that doesn't look like one. A modern piece of technology that can connect to things like Dropbox and YouTube but doesn't require you to navigate a much wider world and log in and enlarge screens. It just sits there and makes things easy. It's for people who find the iPad and iOS too much a faff or ugly.
And we can see the appeal. It is a simple and safe controlled environment. It is a pleasant, robust device. It's a way to stay in touch with your family without worrying about screwing up an email or being bamboozled by notifications. Loop is working desperately hard to get it fully functioning and all the niggles ironed out before the Christmas shopping season. And you can see thousands of nerds handing them out as presents to their families.
The concept is almost an idyllic throwback to more innocent times – and by innocent, we mean less unpleasant (there is no Twitter channel option, for example).
As much as we like the idea, though, there is still a lot of work to be done. We are not convinced the box has enough processing power, and the interfaces between existing services, such as Instagram, are too clunky.
But, unlike many products we test, it won't be going back in the box or the back of the cupboard just yet. If in the next few months, Loop's software is updated to include all the features Gannon promises, and if they are done with a little more finesse, then this is a product your humble vulture could easily grow to love. ®
PS: Loop is shipping to the US and Canada – drop them a line if you're interested in the UK, Australia, Europe, and beyond.