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Jamstik+ is a backpack-friendly 'smart guitar'

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The first time I encountered Jamstik, a guitar controller for Mac and iOS, was at CES 2013. Zivix -- the team behind the product -- came to our trailer and gave us a demo. That was a prototype, which eventually got crowdfunded and did pretty well as history tells it. Now there's Jamstik+ with a few significant improvements, and once again, the company's looking to you to fund it (spoiler: It's already met its goal). While the original Jamstik won people over, concerns over latency left some users wanting. Has version 2.0 cracked it?

First, a quick recap for those that missed Jamstik last time around. Zivix calls it a "smart guitar." I'd call it a MIDI controller (that looks like a guitar). It has strings, frets and shares lots of other DNA with a regular guitar. On its own, it makes no sound -- you'll need a Mac or iOS device for that. The neck is short (like, only-five-frets short), and the small body makes it lightweight and portable. The "smart" part comes from the fact that you "play" Jamstik via apps and software, opening up a host of sounds and creative possibilities not open to your dad's beloved Fender.

The main difference with the new Jamstik is a hexaphonic magnetic pickup, something Zivix says gives the strings a more natural feel, and delivers a higher-resolution signal compared to the original's piezo-based method. The second important change is the move from WiFi to Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity. Zivix claims this makes Jamstik the first guitar controller to be compatible with apps that support Apple's Bluetooth LE MIDI implementation. It also means it's a little bit easier to set up -- at least in my opinion, compared to setting up local WiFi connections. There's also a USB connection for both charging and connecting to a PC.

Once set up, the free "Jam Tutor" app contains a series of interactive lessons that walk newbies through everything from plucking strings to playing chords. There's even a little Guitar Hero-esque game where you play the tune for real. If you're already competent with a guitar, Jamstik is the ideal way to play MIDI synths and apps in a way you're already comfortable with. This includes controlling virtual instruments in full-fat music-production software like Logic or Ableton.

I've dabbled with bass and 12-string acoustics over the years, but I'd currently fit in the beginner category. Within less than a minute of connecting Jamstik+ to an iPad, I was pretty into it. It's undeniably cool. As for the lessons? They're fun, but don't be fooled, it's just as hard playing on Jamstik as the real thing. If you've every waded through sheets of guitar tab and endless YouTube tutorials (where pros try to show you how easy it is), you'll know how frustrating that can be. Interactive apps like Jam Tutor turn learning into an interactive game, which is much more compelling -- to me at least.

Even with my limited experience, I found the strings don't quite feel like the real deal. They're close, but a little too taught. You can loosen them, but because they're shorter, the subtle differences in physics are always going to make them play differently. The stout neck also takes some getting used to. You still have access to a full range of notes though -- buttons on the side shift the fretboard up and down the scales.

The main problem I found was the timing detection on the apps. In some lessons on Jam Tutor, you pick notes as they cross the line (a la Guitar Hero). I found myself intuitively playing earlier than the software wanted. The note sounded instantly, so it wasn't latency -- perhaps the programming of the app? Similarly, the software sometimes detected I played a string when I hadn't (or vice versa). This is possibly down to my hand/finger placement, and was only noticeable in Jam Tutor (not GarageBand, for example).

If you already have a Jamstik, your motivation to upgrade hangs on whether the convenience of Bluetooth (and by extension, Bluetooth MIDI) or the new pickup directly addresses any pain points or wish list items you have. One perks is you can keep your iPad connected to the internet, so in the future you could learn with friends, or jam online. The latency is definitely reduced on the Jamstik+, which is likely the real key selling point for many, but if any latency at all is a dealbreaker, you'll still probably want to try this in-store first. Then of course there's the question of price.

Jamstik+ will cost $300 when it goes on sale. You can buy a pretty nice starter guitar for the same amount of money. It won't play with apps, or be a MIDI controller, but if learning to play is your sole motivation, you'll need to consider long and hard whether the benefits of the real thing outweigh the perks offered by Jamstik+. If you're just looking for a MIDI controller to slip into your calloused, guitarist hands, then that price tag might not cause you quite as much deliberation. Either way, Jamstik was always a whole lot of fun, and the newest version only adds to that.

The Kickstarter has already met its goal, but there's still almost a month left to go. Estimated shipping for the first wave is June 2015. If you're a lefty and feeling left out, we asked Zivix on your behalf. The team says it's in the works... but no date yet.

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