The first thing you might ask about the Hiku is why you need a $79 piece of hardware to help you make a grocery list.
The Hiku is a simple-seeming device with a few clever tricks built in. In its most basic mode, you press its only button, and either speak the name of a product or zap it with Hiku's bar code scanner, and that item will show up on Hiku's mobile app-based shopping list. To log unfamiliar UPCs, those from Trader Joe's, for example, Hiku will use crowdsourcing. Scan an unknown code, correct it by speaking the name of the product, and Hiku will associate the code with your description in its cloud-based database, where it then becomes recognizable to other Hiku owners.
Ties to an unspecified online shopping service will come soon, says Hiku Labs CEO Rob Katcher, which is part of the reason why Hiku Labs calls this a beta release ("like Google," Katcher said, referring to the lengthy beta status of Gmail and other Google software products). An Android version is in the works, but right now the device is iOS-only. The hardware is essentially final, but customers today can expect regular software and firmware updates.
Unless those updates bring about a major functional revamp -- and the online-shopping angle might do it -- the Hiku seems a bit like a solution in search of a problem. Katcher argues that Hiku's ease of use will help it find a place in a family's shopping routine. Buy it if you're intrigued by the promise of future online-shopping capabilities. Most of us will be otherwise fine with a pen and piece of paper.
Hiku Labs has taken a mostly sound approach to the Hiku's hardware design. A small, metal, plastic, and silicone-wrapped puck, Hiku has about the same heft as chunky sport watch (minus the band). A magnet on the back secures it to your refrigerator or some other metal surface. You can charge it via an included Micro-USB cable, and it talks to the iOS app via your 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network. The Hiku iOS app helps guide you through that initial connection.
Any failing of the hardware design comes down largely to the fact that it's a bit too streamlined. Its only visual external feedback comes by way of three LEDs behind the bar code reader window. Red, orange, and green lights will blink at you when the Hiku is ready to make a Wi-Fi connection, when it's on but not connected, when it's ready to scan something, when something went wrong with a scan. You can more or less guess what they mean, but it's not the most intuitive design, nor the most efficient. For real-time battery life status, for example, you'll need to refer to the Hiku app.
Another quirk is the reset button. To press it, you need to stab blindly with a thin piece of metal into a tiny divot under the USB input. With luck, you'll hit the button. Katcher recommended a paper clip, but the hole is so tiny that even that seemed like it would mar the casing. I had the best luck with a stripped bobby pin. A sewing needle could also work. Thankfully, you shouldn't need to hit the reset button that often.
The app is of course also where you'll manage your Hiku-generated shopping lists. You can enter items on the list in a variety of ways, both with the Hiku unit and without. In addition to speaking and scanning, you can use an app-bound bar code scanner that reads codes with your smartphone camera. It works about as well as the hardware version. You can also manually type in items, or choose items you've previously entered from a list of favorites, aka "regulars."
The Hiku app isn't much more complicated than that. An aisle feature can organize like items by category, clustering them around typical locations in a grocery store. Swipe an individual item and the app moves it to the crossed-off section at the bottom of the list. Tap an item and you get a menu that lets you add it to your list of regulars and populate or move that item to another list.
I found Hiku's voice and bar code recognition mostly reliable. It didn't always pick up my voice entry correctly (its error when I said "peanuts" was notable). And some bar codes showed up incorrectly, too. It's hard to feel too disappointed by these mistakes, since they're all easy enough to correct by typing directly in the app. The cloud-based bar code logging may also help matters.
You can enter multiple instances of an item by entering it multiple times (say "milk" twice, or scan a carton of eggs more than once). What you can't do is scan or say multiple items at a time. So if you want to enter cheese and eggs and milk, you can't say "cheese and eggs and milk" unless you want that phrase to appear as a single line item. Instead you need to enter them in one at a time.
Software and device responsiveness can also be annoyingly slow. I occasionally saw delays of a minute or more between entering an item and the item appearing on my list. On other occasions, pressing the button to enter an item made the device beep and flash at me as if I'd just entered in an unfamiliar command. Neither of those issues is enough to turn me off Hiku by itself (our office Wi-Fi network could also have had a hand in the delay), and it's possible that future software updates will smooth things out.
When I ask why I would need a Hiku, it's not only asking from a utility standpoint, but also given that contemporary smartphones offer both bar code scanning and voice recognition. Why isn't the Hiku just an app?
Katcher's response to this question centers on simplicity. If Hiku was just a software product, you'd need to find your phone and track down the app to use it, eliminating any convenience benefit over traditional pen-and-paper list making. With a single-function device at hand on your refrigerator, the Hiku hardware speeds up item logging, and makes it fun, Katcher argues. "A 5-year-old can use it," he said.
Deciphering a 5-year-old's voice entry doesn't sound like the biggest argument for the Hiku's convenience, but even if I'm skeptical about its present ease of use, I'm intrigued enough by the possibility of future online ordering capability that I'm not yet ready to write the Hiku off. Logging a shopping list and hitting "buy" sounds pretty convenient. Katcher says Hiku Labs is still working out its approach to this feature, and the company has not yet decided whether it will debut with a regional service or some nationwide retailer.
I will keep tabs on the Hiku as it develops and update this review accordingly. For now, it's not a slam dunk, but there's enough novelty and potential for convenience that the general gadget enthusiast might enjoy using it. It's not a must-buy right now, but the Hiku is worth keeping an eye on. You can pre-order here.