Snap Spectacles review: Fun that's totally worth the trouble

Spectacles are the camera-equipped sunglasses that were introduced earlier this year by the company formerly known as Snapchat. The glasses were announced at the same time that Snapchat, now known as Snap, Inc., started calling itself a "camera company."

At a really high level, Spectacles are all about giving Snapchat users a more immediate way to record videos (but not photos) that get sent right back into the app. They are supposed to remove the last few layers of friction from the already pretty frictionless process of recording video with your smartphone. Spectacles also let you capture the world around you without removing you from that world. And Snap thinks Spectacles will let you capture things from a unique perspective.

Spectacles are going to up many people's Snapchat game, but I can't get past the power of capturing moments I never had a chance to capture pic.twitter.com/htjmMAEn8Z

— Sean O'Kane (@sokane1) November 18, 2016

After using Spectacles for about a week, I found most of these things to be true. The glasses offer the quickest means of recording a short 10- to 30-second video clip, shorter than even the amount of time a GoPro would take were you to have one strapped on at all times. Spectacles make it possible to capture those moments without needing to stare at or through your phone’s screen — though the time you spend away from your phone when using Spectacles winds up going right back into the process of reviewing and posting those videos to Snapchat.

There are a few other frustrations, too. But they feel minor when compared to the power of the point of view that Spectacles afford. The eye-level perspective is fantastic, especially when you’re using Spectacles around friends and family, or interacting with something that’s an arm’s length away. That POV is different enough to change the intensity of the emotional connection to the footage you capture — even if you never wind up sharing it with your friends or posting it to your Snapchat story.

This is true even for the most boring Spectacles footage. Videos I shot while picking up my laundry, making coffee, or taking out the trash look and feel more like memories than any other kind of video I've recorded in the past. With that in mind, though, it's the videos like the ones I shot of Moose that I'll want to keep on my phone or my computer for years.

The most initially remarkable thing about Spectacles is how much Snap got right in making them. At the most basic level, Spectacles are very good sunglasses. They’re a bit tight on my relatively big head, but that’s to be expected for a one-size-fits-all kind of product. And even though they were tight, it didn’t stop me from wearing them for entire days spent walking around the city.

The plastic frames don’t feel cheap or brittle, and yet they’re also not heavy — even though they’re full of electronics. I expected them to be front-heavy if anything, but they’re well balanced and comfortable. Other than the fact that you can see the circles in each corner of the glasses, they feel as normal as any other relatively inexpensive pair of sunglasses.

Snap also deserves some praise for the Spectacles carrying case, too. Shaped like an oversized Toblerone box, it has a slightly cushy Snapchat-yellow foam exterior that should help if you ever drop the thing. You’ll want to keep the case with you, too, because it carries four extra charges, and heavy use (snapping 20 or 30 10-second videos in a half hour) will put a serious hurt on Spectacles’ battery. Really light use — think an average of a video per hour — can stretch the battery to about a day. (Spectacles will also drain your phone’s battery, since it’s using Bluetooth to transfer the videos. In my experience, this meant I was left with at least 10 percent less battery every day on my iPhone 7 compared to my normal usage.)

Spectacles come with a magnetic USB 2.0 charging cord that you can connect to the glasses themselves, and the magnetic end also snaps onto the case to charge it, too. The best way to charge the glasses is in the case, though, where — when folded up — they magnetically attach and stay in place.

At $129, Spectacles are not exactly cheap. That price is on par with a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, and the quality is probably a notch or two below them. The words "fun" and "toy" were used a lot by Snap CEO Evan Spiegel when he first described Spectacles to The Wall Street Journal in September. But he was right to use those words.

If you have the money, and are lucky enough to live near one of the pop-up vending machines, know that Spectacles are a total blast to use. They require so little extra thought and planning — just keep them on and tap the button on the left any time you want to record a video. There’s a little light inside the glasses that glows while you’re recording, and it blinks when you’re almost out of time. When it comes to shooting video, Spectacles couldn't make it any easier.

Spectacles are a way for Snap to study the reaction to wearable cameras

But Spectacles are as much about your personal experience as they are a sign of Snap, Inc. testing the waters when it comes to wearable cameras. One of the many reasons that the company chose to slowly roll these out — besides just to generate hype — is to carefully gauge how people to react to the omnipresence of cameras in social settings.

Spiegel even admitted this to the WSJ. He said that Spectacles are "about [Snap] figuring out if it fits into people’s lives and seeing how they like it." And if they do, it’ll be because a few particular design choices that Snap made. One is the yellow circles in each corner of the glasses — instead of hiding the tech in these glasses, Snap chose to draw your eye to the fact that there’s a camera.

And then there’s the recording light, which makes your choice to record something a public one. The glasses announce that you’re shooting a video, and people will notice this even if they don’t quite understand what it means. It’s a responsible design choice, and over time it could make people more comfortable with the idea of being recorded in this way. That’s why the glasses use spinning white lights instead of the more ominous steady red light that has signaled "recording" for decades.

If anything drags down the experience of Spectacles, it’s the software. Snapchat has always been a (somewhat purposely) byzantine app, but I never had much trouble navigating when I used it regularly. But that was before Snapchat rolled out "Memories," which allow users to save all the photos and videos they shoot while also opening up access to the ones already stored on their phone’s camera roll.

That update dramatically changed the app’s user interface, as it added a whole bottom drawer’s worth of tabs, panels, and media libraries. It’s here that you interact with the videos that you shoot with Spectacles, and it’s not the easiest process to parse — especially compared to how quickly you can send or post a photo or video the standard way in the app.

First, you have to wait for those videos to transfer, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to a half-hour, depending on how many videos you shot in succession, or whether or not your phone stays connected to the glasses over Bluetooth.

Videos that run the full 10 seconds normally take about 10 seconds to transfer, but things can get wonky if your phone stops talking to the glasses. At one point I wound up with 53 videos that needed transferring, and the transfer took more than 30 minutes because of a few Bluetooth interruptions that forced me to reset my phone and eventually re-pair Spectacles. That process also drained most of the battery from the Spectacles, from about 80 percent down to around 10 — though you can keep the glasses in the charging case while you transfer if you need.

Once the videos have transferred, you have to tap a tiny circle at the very bottom of the camera screen in the app to bring up the Memories drawer. And from there, all the videos appear in a tab next to your camera roll and anything else you’ve shot in the Snapchat app.

Then, in the Spectacles tab, the videos that have transferred over are grouped by day. To access individual videos, you have to tap the right day, then either successively tap through them one by one, press and hold to be able to swipe through them all, or press and hold and then tap a menu to view thumbnails of all the videos. Then it’s another set of taps if you want to draw on or add emoji to that video, and again to finally send it to your friends or publish the video to your daily story.

This is all very un-Snapchat-like. Snapchat was always about taking photos and videos, mashing them up with text or doodles, and sending them out quickly. The interface is confusing to newcomers, but fast for people who are adept at it. Spectacles adds a ton of weight to that process.

I found the best way to use Spectacles is to shoot a bunch as you go and then find time to review those videos later in the day, picking the best to post long after when they were shot. It’s a decidedly less impulsive and spontaneous way of using the app, and it makes me wonder whether or not Spectacles are made with the core Snapchat user in mind — the one who spends most of their time adding dog ears and rainbow puke filters to their selfies and sending them to their friends.

Spectacles also feel oddly disconnected from Snapchat’s augmented reality features. There’s no way to apply lenses to faces — or the app’s new "World Lenses" — after you shoot a video with Spectacles. So is Snap trying to modify those users’ behavior with Spectacles? Or is it trying to draw new people (or perhaps users who have jumped ship to Instagram Stories)? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’m not sure Snap does, either — in fact, it seems like a big part of what the company is trying to suss out with this limited run.

Software stupor aside, the experience of using Spectacles is so unique and fun that I was willing to look past the hassle. If smartphones have decimated traditional digital camera usage because of how close they hew to the adage of "the best camera is the one you have on you," then Spectacles has a chance to let you literally embody that sentiment.

Do I wish it shot photos? Yes. Do I wish the video quality was better? Yes, though Snapchat isn’t known for being a place to share high-quality videos in the first place. (That said, the original ad for Spectacles tries to sell the glasses as a way to capture important moments in your life without juggling a camera, so this is at odds with the quality that Spectacles currently affords — even the "HD" versions, which involve an even more finicky Wi-Fi process to transfer to your phone.)

With all this in mind, the current version of Spectacles feels totally worth the asking price if you’re a heavy Snapchat user, or if you feel the desire to be one. You can save the videos to your camera roll and post them to other apps. But you lose the ability to rotate your phone around the centerpoint of the video, which is a fun interaction that makes the videos feel more alive. And the Snapchat app exports the circular Spectacles videos inside a square white border, so you either have to crop in on every video or just live with it if you’re posting it to, say, Instagram.

(Considering Snap’s early marketing for Spectacles — which consisted of billboards scattered around the country that featured eyeball-shaped logos — the way these videos look off-platform feels extremely deliberate. It’s as if you’re trading a free ad for Spectacles for the ability to post the video to another platform.)

The combination of hands-free use, eye-level POV, 60fps motion, wide angle lens is a total game changer pic.twitter.com/iGfT1kfWMD

— Sean O'Kane (@sokane1) November 18, 2016

Spectacles are so good that it’s a shame the access to them is so limited. But I’m also glad Snap is taking this one step at a time. It’s like a bizarro version of the Google Glass beta: a limited rollout, but done in a way that fosters fascination — and hopefully some critical thought — instead of just revulsion.

Those who can get their hands on Spectacles will be the beta testers of a whole new approach to photography, one that is capable of capturing previously elusive moments in a uniquely engaging format. They’ll also be the first to take a crack at establishing the social norms that surround this kind of photography, and they’ll also be the first to have a say in whether it succeeds or fails.

The rest of us will have to wait — though maybe not long. Spectacles might be limited run, but if we’ve learned anything from the battles Snap has been waging with the likes of Instagram and Facebook, it’s that Silicon Valley isn’t above copying a great idea.

Photography by Amelia Krales & James Bareham.
Video by Phil Esposito.
Edited by Dieter Bohn & Casey Newton.


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