Living with the Moto Hint: It's Google Now inside your ear

The Moto Hint puts Google's on-demand info system into your ear -- quite literally. So is it the future of computing or just a futuristic-looking novelty?

Moto Hint
JR Raphael, IDG

In the movie Her, having an earbud that acts as an always-on personal assistant seems tantalizingly futuristic. Limitless access to on-demand information? A constant companion to help with anything? Scarlett Johansson 24/7? Um, yeah -- sign me up. 

No two ways about it: Through the silver screen, it all looks fantastic. The question is if it could actually be that compelling in reality.

I've been spending the past few days living with the Moto Hint to find out. The Hint is Motorola's attempt to reinvent the Bluetooth headset with a sleek new design and souped-up functionality, all of which is more than a little reminiscent of what we saw in Her (minus Scarlett, of course). It's set to go on sale sometime this fall for $150.

So what exactly is the Hint? In short, it's a wireless earbud no bigger than the tip of your thumb. The idea is that you put the bud in your ear and then leave it there for easy access to everything your phone's voice command system can do.

The Hint is actually pretty comfortable, relatively speaking: The device rests in your ear hole (that's the technical term) and is supported by a small interchangeable nub attached to the inner end. Each Hint comes with a set of four different nubs; Motorola says it performed "thousands of fit tests" on "ears of all shapes and sizes" (imagine that lineup!) and determined those four nubs would allow the device to fit in any head imaginable.

Moto Hint Package

I stuck with the default nub, and it seems to fit my apparently average-sized ear holes just fine; the Hint feels snug and secure but not like it's in any danger of poking out my brains (thank goodness).

The fact that the Hint is a small bud goes a long way in separating it from your typical dorky-looking Bluetooth headset; in fact, Motorola is even selling the Hint in different styles -- light and dark canvas, bamboo, walnut, and brown or black leather -- in an attempt to eliminate the "Bluetooth headset" stigma and give its product some panache.

Let's be honest, though: For most of us, this is never going to be a hip fashion accessory. It looks like a gadget in your ear, albeit one that's more the size of a hearing aid than a headset. If you ask me, the less attention you call to it, the better.

Moto Hint Ear

The Moto Hint, as modeled on someone far more fair than your humble author

Once you get the Hint situated in your head, all you do is follow the friendly prompts in your ear to pair it with your phone. There's really nothing to it; within about 30 seconds, you'll be locked, loaded, and ready to roll.

So then what? Then you talk. Or listen. In addition to the basic call-handling function, the Moto Hint can serve as a vessel for Google Now, allowing you to ask questions and give commands the same way you would from your phone.

Here's the thing, though: Any Bluetooth headset can actually do that -- automatically, if you have a Moto X, or with the aid of a third-party app if you have any other Android phone. Typically, all you have to do is push the headset's button and then start speaking.

What sets the Moto Hint apart is the way it works in conjunction with the Moto Voice system on Motorola's 2014 Moto X phone: When the Hint is paired with a new Moto X, it moves into an "always listening" mode in which you can wake the earpiece simply by saying the phone's launch phrase. You can then start giving commands without ever having to touch the device.

Moto Hint Earbud

The feature actually didn't work for me at first, and I ended up having to factory-reset the phone to get things to function properly. Why? Who knows. It works consistently well now, though: Even when the phone itself is out of earshot, I can just say the launch phrase I configured -- "Okay, Moto X" -- and the Hint sounds a chime in my ear to let me know it's awake and ready for a command. It's an interesting way to expand the "always listening" capability Motorola created for the Moto X, and it's without a doubt the Hint's special sauce.

Whether you use that function or just tap the earpiece to make it start listening, any voice command that'll work on your phone will work through the Hint. For instance, you could ask, "Is it going to rain this afternoon?" and then hear the answer in your ear. Similarly, you could ask for facts or directions or tell the device to call your plumber, just like you could from the phone itself.

Those types of commands work well enough with the Hint, but others are a bit more awkward. The real issue is the fact that the Hint is basically just serving as an audio-only vessel for Google Now; all the commands are actually still happening on your phone -- and in fact, if you look at the screen, you'll see it lighting up and executing them along the way. When you compose a text message by voice, for example, the system shows you its transcription on the phone's screen and then asks: "Do you want to send this?" If you're relying solely on the earpiece for the interaction, it doesn't quite make sense.

Moto Hint Phone

Not so helpful when you're relying solely on the earpiece for the interaction

There are also sometimes brief delays while the system processes what you said and moves onto the next step. If you're looking at the phone, it's pretty obvious what's going on -- but when you're relying only on audio feedback, it's hard to gauge from the silence whether the system is working or whether something has gone wrong (which does happen on occasion).

To put it bluntly, you're getting only the audio half of a system designed for both audio and visual feedback -- and that's painfully apparent at times.

Voice control aside, the Moto Hint actually works quite well in the more traditional sense -- you know, for hands-free talking on your phone. Calls sound loud and clear through the earpiece, and those with whom I've spoken say my voice is easy to hear and understand as well, if ever-so-slightly muffled compared to a normal handset-based call.

One slightly annoying quirk is the fact that the Hint has no buttons for adjusting volume or for muting; you have to use the regular buttons and on-screen commands on your phone to do those things, which kind of defeats the purpose.

The Hint does, however, have a few useful tricks related to calls:

First, when a call comes into your phone, the Hint will announce the caller's name in your ear. You can then say "answer" or "ignore" to accept or reject it -- no physical contact required. That function should work with any Android device, Moto X or not.

And second, the Hint knows when you're using it and when you aren't. If the device is in your ear, it'll automatically route all incoming calls to you there; if you take the device out of your ear, calls will be switched back to the phone's speaker. That works even when you put the earbud in or take it out mid-call, which is incredibly handy. (For the tech-curious among us, Motorola says IR proximity sensors on the earpiece enable this functionality.)

The "intelligent routing" feature works with any sort of audio, too, so if you put the earpiece in while music or a podcast is playing, it'll switch over from the phone to your ear. You probably won't want to use the Hint for any sort of extended music listening, though; its speaker is fine for basic stuff but not that good compared to real headphones.

Then there's the issue of battery life: If you use the Hint with its "always listening" mode, the device is good for only about five hours of standby time per charge -- or just over three hours of use if you're actively talking. Without "always listening" on, it'll give you the same three hours of talk time but up to 10 hours of standby time.

Either way, that's just not great compared to most traditional Bluetooth headsets. Motorola is hoping to make up for it by providing a compact case with the Hint that holds enough power to recharge the earpiece twice; all you do is pop the bud into the case and snap it shut, and a light begins flashing to let you know charging has begun.

Moto Hint Case

With that extra power supply factored in, Motorola says the Hint can provide up to 10 hours of talk time -- with two in-case recharges -- and up to 15 hours of standby time with "always listening" enabled or up to 100 hours of standby time without it.

The bottom line

The Moto Hint is an interesting new take on technology for your ear. It's essentially a melding of the old Bluetooth headset with modern voice control technology -- all brought together in a scaled-down and refreshed design.

The problem is that the device's small size and "always listening" capability, intriguing as they may be, take a serious toll on the Hint's stamina. For a device that's designed to be in your ear and on demand for long periods of time, three to five hours of use per charge isn't much. Even without the "always listening" function, the Hint's talk time is far less than what many traditional Bluetooth headsets provide at a fraction of the cost.

I'm also not entirely convinced that many people will actually want to use the Hint as a true wearable -- as something that stays in place and remains available whenever you need it. I've found that having the bud sit idly in my ear gets irritating after a while and starts to mess with both my hearing and my equilibrium. (The device does have an option to enable "pass-through audio," but I haven't found that it makes much of a noticeable difference.)

If the Hint is going to be valuable as anything more than a basic Bluetooth headset, it needs to be something you wear throughout the day and activate on demand -- and for me, at least, the novelty and mild added convenience it provides just aren't enough to justify keeping it in my head all day (not to mention having to think about recharging it every few hours). Considering the same functionality the Hint provides is so readily available on my phone -- and now potentially also on a far less invasive watch -- it seems to be solving a problem that doesn't exist while creating a whole new set of problems at the same time.

With its small size and intelligent call routing, the Moto Hint is really nice for calls -- no question there. I could see it being useful around an office or during a commute, where you could toss it in your ear to talk hands-free without much effort. And in that sort of scenario, it probably wouldn't be a big deal to drop it back into its case to charge up between uses.

But for that type of functionality, is it worth paying as much as two to three times the price of a good traditional Bluetooth headset -- one that'd come with significantly better battery life? For some folks, maybe. But for most, I suspect it'll be a tough sell.

The Hint is a cool idea that seems like the future -- like something straight out of the movies. But a Hollywood-like vision doesn't always make sense once real-world limitations are attached.

If Motorola somehow manages to get Scarlett into the second generation, of course, we might have to reconsider.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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