Author Archives: Tim

The Watch

I am in San Francisco so naturally I looked into the Apple Store to see the Watch.

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The poor old Apple Store is stuck behind a crane and a lot of fencing but there was still a good crowd there.

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There are watches behind glass, watches you can play with that are firmly attached to the counter, and watches in drawers which you can try on under the guidance of a rep, but which are disabled (the buttons do nothing).

A few observations.

It is a lot of fun. I found it easy to navigate using the main menu (a heap of icons, as you would expect), and zooming/tapping to explore.

There are two physical buttons, the crown and a pushbutton. The pushbutton only does two things (I was told by the rep), one press for the contacts app, press and hold for Apple Pay. Can you configure this? Apparently not.

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The crown is a  select button if you push it, zoom (or something app-specific) if you spin it, and Siri if you press and hold.

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Most of the features are things you can already do with a smartphone, excepting the fitness sensors of course, but this is on your wrist and therefore handier.

Maps is useful; it might be worth it just for that.

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Note that the watch is largely a remote for an iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone (or it is out of charge) it is not much use. The rep thought it would still tell the time but wasn’t sure.

I tried on a couple of models, one the Sports with a cheapish strap ($400; the base model is $349), and another with a stainless steel band ($700). Both were comfortable and I was especially taken with the stainless steel edition.

There are plenty of things about the gadget that are annoying. The need for daily recharging is one, the dependence on an iPhone is another. However it is elegant and delightful so I imagine all will be forgiven, among the Apple community at least.

How do I buy one? Online only, I was told, and delivery maybe in July.

Quick thoughts on Surface 3 from a long-term Surface user

I’ve been using a Surface as my usual travel PC for a while now – mostly Surface Pro (the first iteration) but also Surface RT and Surface 2. Microsoft has announced Surface 3 – is that a good buy?

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Note: this is not a review of Surface 3. I intend to review it but have yet to get my hands on one.

First, a quick note on how I have got on with Surface to date. I love the compact size of the devices and the fact that I can do all my work on them. I find full-size laptops unbearably bulky now – though slim ultrabooks or small netbooks still have some appeal.

The main annoyances with my Surface Pro are the small SSD size (I have the 128GB model) and a few technical difficulties, mainly that the keyboard cover (currently the Power Cover) plays up from time to time. Sometimes it stops responding, or I get oddities like the mouse pointer going wild or keys that auto-repeat for no reason. Detaching and re-attaching the keyboard usually fixes it. Given that this is Microsoft hardware, drives and OS, I regard these bugs as disappointing.

Surface power handling is not very good. The Surface is meant to be running all the time but sleeps so that touching power turns it on or off almost instantly. That’s the idea, but sometimes it fails to sleep and I discover that it has been heating up my bag and that the battery is nearly flat. To overcome this, and to save battery, I often shut it right down or use hibernate. Hibernate is a good option – fairly quick resume, no battery usage – except that about every third resume it crashes. So I tend to do a full shutdown.

I find the power button just a little unpredictable. In other words, sometimes I press it and nothing happens. I have to try several times, or press and hold. It could be the contact or it could be something else – I don’t think it is the contact since often it works fine.

The power cover has stopped charging, after 10 months of use. It is under warranty so I plan to get it replaced, but again, disappointing considering the high cost ($199).

A few grumbles then, but I still like the device for is portability and capability. Surface Pro 2 seemed to be better that the first in every way. Surface Pro 3 I had for a week on loan; I liked it, and could see that the pen works really well although in general pens are not for me; but for me the size is a bit too big and it felt more like an ultrabook than a tablet.

What about Surface 3 then? The trade-off here is that you get better value thanks to a smaller size (good) and lower performance (bad), with an Atom processor – Intel’s low power range aimed at mobile computing – instead of the more powerful Core range. Here are some key stats, Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3:

  Surface 3 Surface Pro 3
Display 10.8″ 12″
Weight (without cover) 622g 800g
Storage 64GB or 128GB 64GB-512GB
Processor Intel Atom x7 Intel Core i3, i5 or i7
RAM 2GB or 4GB 4GB or 8GB
Pen Available separately Included
Cameras 8MP rear, 3.5MP front 5.0MP rear, 5.0MP front

What about battery life? Microsoft quotes Surface Pro 3 as “up to 9 hours of web browsing” and Surface 3 as “up to 10 hours of video playback”. That is a double win for Surface 3, since video playback is more demanding. Anandtech measured Surface Pro 3 as 7.6 hrs light use and 3.45 hrs heavy use; the Surface 3 will fare better.

How much do you save? A snag with the Surface is that you have to buy a keyboard cover to get the best out of it, and annoyingly the cover for the Surface 3 is different from those for Surface, Surface 2 and Surface Pro, so you can’t reuse your old one.

A quick look then at what I would be paying for the Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3 in a configuration that makes sense for me. With Surface 3, I would max out the RAM and storage, because both are rather minimal, so the cost looks like this:

Surface 3 with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage: $599
Keyboard cover: $129
Total: $728.99

Surface Pro 3 with 8GB RAM, 265GB storage, Intel Core i5, pen: $1299
Keyboard cover: $129.00
Total: $1428.99

In other words, Surface 3 is around half the price.

Will I buy a Surface 3? It does look tempting. It is a bit less powerful than my current Surface Pro and perhaps not too good with Visual Studio, but fine for Office and most general-purpose applications. Battery life looks good, but the 128GB storage limitation is annoying; you can mitigate this with an SD card, say another 128GB for around $100, but I would rather have a 256GB SSD to start with.

However, there is strong competition. An iPad Air, I have discovered, makes an excellent travel companion, especially now that Office is available, provided you have a good keyboard case such as one from Logitech; you could get an iPad Air 2 with 64GB storage and a keyboard for slightly less than a Surface 3.

The iPad comparison deserves some reflection. The iPad does have annoyances, things like lack of direct access to the file system and non-expandable storage (no USB). However I have never encountered foibles like power management not working, and as a tablet it is a better design (not just because there are abundant apps).

It is also worth noting that there is more choice in Windows tablets and convertibles than there was when Surface was first released. Some are poorly designed, but ranges like those from Asus and Lenovo are worth checking out. In a sense this is “job done” since one of the reasons for Microsoft doing Surface was to kick-start some innovation in Windows hardware.

I hope to get some hands-on with Surface 3 in the next few weeks and will of course report back.

Devialet’s Phantom audio system on show in Barcelona

I was glad to see and hear the French Devialet Phantom system at the Mobile Focus event in Barcelona, just before Mobile World Congress, having missed the company’s recent presentation in London.

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The Phantom is a device that looks like a giant eyeball, and is essentially an active mono wireless DAC and speaker. There are two models, the Phantom which delivers up to 99dB at 1 metre and costs €1690, and the Silver Phantom which delivers up to 105 dB at 1 metre and costs €1990. There is an optional Dialog unit at €299 which is a wi-fi router that creates a private network for the Phantom as well as supporting a guest network designed for music sharing. A Dialog can also control up to 24 Phantoms and is necessary for multi-channel; obviously for stereo you need at least two. An app called Spark runs on iOS, Android or Windows (not Windows Phone) and handles playlists as well as visualising music.

Each Phantom has a midrange unit, a treble unit, and two woofers. It measures 253 x 255 x 343mm and weighs 11 kg.

My encounter with Phantom did not get off to a good start. I am allergic to misleading jargon, and the pitch the Davialet representative made to me was confusing to say the least. “Digital chops up the sound,” he told me; but with hybrid technology Devialet was able to reproduce the purity of analogue sound. I observed that every DAC in the world is able to decode digital formats to analogue sound, and we had some difficulty progressing to what exactly is different about Devialet’s approach.

The case for the Phantom is not helped by the over-the-top language in the brochure, which modestly claims “the best sound in the world” and under a heading “IN TECHNICAL TERMS” promises Zero distortion, Zero background noise and Zero  impedance.

The system was playing Hotel California by the Eagles when I was there. I know the sound of this album well and it sounded boomy and unpleasant, though it is difficult to get good sound on a stand in a busy exhibition so I make generous allowance for that.

I did get a copy of a white paper which offers a bit more information. There are several technologies involved.

The first is what Devialet called ADH (Analog/Digital Hybrid). This combines class A amplification with the efficiency of class D. The way Devialet puts it is that several class D amplifiers act as slaves to the class A amplifier, so that the class D amplifiers provide the power while the class A amplifer the control.

A Texas Instruments PCM179x DAC is positioned next to the amplifier to minimise any loss between the two.

Next comes SAM (Speaker Active Matching) which processes the audio to compensate for the characteristics of the drive units. This “takes place ahead of the DAC and power amplifier section” according to the paper, so you could think of it as a kind of digital pre-amplifier. SAM has “a mathematical model of the complete drive unit, accounting for the electrical, mechanical and acoustical behaviour.”

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A third feature has the name HBI (Heart Bass Implosion). This tackles the tricky problem of reproducing deep bass with a small enclosure. The idea is to use a sealed box design for high efficiency at the lowest frequencies, a driver with long 26mm excursion (the difference between the foremost and backmost position of the driver) in order to move more air, and to use two symmetric drivers to cancel mechanical vibrations.

This does result in high maximum air pressure inside the enclosure, up to 174dB SPL according to Devialet’s paper. Most drivers collapsed in this environment, so Devialiet designed its own woofer.

Finally Devialet’s engineers figured that a sphere is the ideal shape for producing sound without “diffraction loss”.

The result, according to the specs, is 16Hz to 25kHz +- 2dB, and 20Hz to 20kHz +- 0.5dB which is impressive for a speaker system.

The problem with such measurements is that they typically taken in an anechoic chamber whereas actual listening rooms have all sorts of resonances that result in a much less accurate sound.

Does Devialet’s Phantom system sound as good as a more traditional system at its price level? That is the question which interests me; if I get an opportunity to try it out I will be sure to report back.

Playing native DSD with Raspberry Pi 2 and Volumio

There are many intriguing debates within the world of audio, and one which has long interested me concerns DSD (Direct Stream Digital). This is an alternative technology for converting and recovering sound from digital storage. The more common PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) works by sampling sound at very short intervals and recording its volume. By contrast DSD records the difference between one sample and the next, sampling at an even greater frequency to compensate for the fact that it only captures a single bit of data in each sample (ie on or off). For example the standard used by CD is:

16-bit precision, 44.1 kHz sampling rate

and by SACD (a DSD format):

1-bit precision, 2.8224 MHz sampling rate

The SACD was introduced by Philips and Sony in 1999 as an upgrade to CD, since it is a higher resolution format cable of a dynamic range of 120 dB and frequency response up to 100 kHz. It was an effort, like the PCM-based DVD Audio, to convince the public that the CD is not good enough for the best quality sound.

SACD was largely unsuccessful, mainly because there was not really any dissatisfaction with CD quality among the general public, and even some experts argue that CD quality already exceeds what is required to be good enough for human hearing.

That said, SACD was popular in the niche audiophile community , more so than DVD Audio. Some listeners feel that SACD and DSD results in a more natural sound, and believe that PCM has some inherent harshness, even at higher-than-CD resolution. Enthusiasts say that DSD stands for “Doesn’t sound digital”. For this reason, there is a regular stream of new SACD releases even today, and DSD downloads are also available from sites like Native DSD Music and Blue Coast Records. Some DSD downloads are at higher resolution than SACD – Double-rate or Quad-Rate.

The resurgence of DSD has been accompanied by increasing availability of DSD DACs (Digital to Analogue Converters). While these tend to be more expensive than PCM-only DACs, prices have come down and a quick eBay search will find one from under £100.

There are several complications in the DSD vs PCM debate. While DSD is a reasonable format for storing digital audio, it is poor for processing audio, so many SACDs or DSD downloads have been converted to and from PCM at some point in their production history. If PCM really introduces harshness, it is presumably too late by the time it gets to DSD. That said, it is possible to find some examples that are captured straight to DSD; this can work well for live recording.

Another complication is that some consumer audio equipment converts DSD to PCM internally, to enable features like bass management.

Is there any value in pure DSD? I wanted to try it, preferably with DSD files rather than simply with SACD, since this is much easier for experimenting with different formats and conversions as well as enabling Double DSD and higher. Unfortunately SACD is rather hard to rip, though there is a way if you have the right early model of Sony PlayStation 3.

The first step was to get a DSD-capable DAC. I picked the Teac 301 which is a high quality design at a reasonable price. But how to get DSD to the DAC? Most DSD DACs support a feature called DSD over PCM (DoP), which conveys the DSD signal in a PCM-format wrapper. DoP is not a conversion to and from PCM, it merely looks like PCM for better compatibility with existing playback software.

Next, I used a Raspberry Pi 2 supplied by Element14 (cost around £25.00) and installed Volumio, a pre-built version of Linux which includes an audio streamer and web-based user interface. You download Volumio as a single file which you burn onto a micro SD card using a utility such as Win32DiskImager. Then you plug the card into the Pi, connect to a home network via Ethernet and to a DAC via USB, and power on.

After a minute or two I could connect to Volumio using a web browser.

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My music is stored mostly in FLAC format but with a few DSD files in Sony’s DSF (Digital Storage Facility) format, and located on a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage). In Volumio’s menu I went to Library and mounted the network share containing the media. Next, I tried to play some music. PCM worked, but not DSD. I changed the playback settings to enable DoP:

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Success: My DSD files play perfectly:

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If you squint at this image you will see that the 5.6 MHz light is illuminated, indicating that the DAC is processing Double DSD.

It sounds lovely, but is it any better than the more convenient PCM format? I am sceptical, but intend to try some experiments, using a forthcoming audio show to find some willing listeners.

That aside, I am impressed with the capability of the Raspberry Pi for enabling a simple and cost-effective means of playing DSD over the network, although with the assistance of an external DAC. It plays PCM formats too of course, and with Volumio is easily controlled using a mobile device, thanks to the touch-friendly web UI.

Restoring a system image backup on Windows 7 when system recovery fails

I was asked to look at a laptop over the weekend. It was an HP running Windows 7 Home Premium, and the user was having problems installing applications. I noticed several things about it:

  • Lots of utilities like registry cleaners, system care, driver accelerator and more were installed
  • When I tried to remove the third-party firewall and use the Windows firewall instead, the Windows firewall could not be fully enabled
  • Most applications could not be removed using Control Panel – Programs and Features
  • Right-clicking a network connection and choosing Properties gave an error

When Windows is in this kind of state it makes sense to reinstall from scratch. There was an intact recovery partition, so I backed up the data and ran system recovery. This seemed to go fine until right at the end, when it gave an error and invited me to contact HP support. Oddly, if I chose HP’s “Minimized Image Recovery” I still got an error, but it got me a working “Windows Basic” installation, but Windows Basic is not much use because of some arbitrary limitations Microsoft imposed.

Now I had a problem, in that the system recovery had successfully removed the old Windows install, but had failed to install a new one.

One solution would be to re-purchase Windows or try to get recovery media from HP, but before going down that route, I decided to use a system image backup that had been made earlier. There was a backup from a year or so ago on a USB hard drive. I booted using a Windows 7 DVD, chose Repair your computer, then System Image Recovery.

Unfortunately Windows refused to list the backed up system image, even though it was in the standard location under WindowsImageBackup. Since the backup was not listed, it could not be restored.

Fortunately there is another approach that works. A system image backup actually created a virtual hard drive (.vhd) for each of the drives you select. You can zap the contents back onto the real hard drive to restore it.

This HP has three partitions. One is a small system partition used for booting, one is the main partition (C drive) and one is the recovery partition. The main partition is the one that matters. Here is what I did.

First, I installed Drive Snapshot, a utility I’ve found reliable for this kind of work.

Next, I plugged in the USB drive and found the .vhd file. These are located in WindowsImageBackup\[NAME OF PC] and have long names with letters and numbers (actually a GUID) followed by .vhd. The old C drive will be the largest file (there are usually at least two .vhd files, the smaller one being the system partition).

Step 3 is to mount the vhd so it looks like a real drive in Windows. You do of course need a working Windows PC for this; even Windows Basic will do, or you can use a spare PC. I opened a command prompt using Run as administrator and ran DISKPART. The commands are:

select vdisk file=”path\to\vhd\filename.vhd”

attach vdisk

I generally leave DISKPART open so you can detach the vdisk when you are done.

When you enter “attach vdisk” an additional drive will appear in Windows Explorer. This is your old drive. You can copy urgent documents or data from here if you like.

The goal though is to restore your PC. Run Drive Snapshot or an equivalent utility.

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Choose Backup Disk to File. Select your old drive and back it up to an external USB drive. I hesitate to mention it, but you also need to keep the drive with the .VHD on it attached for obvious reasons! You can back up to that same drive if there is room.

Once complete, go back to DISKPART and enter:

detach vdisk

Now you need to use Drive Snapshot to restore your old hard disk. I was lucky in this case; I could run the utility in Windows Basic on the laptop itself and restore it from there. Drive Snapshot is smart enough that you can even restore the drive where it is running, after a reboot. You could also use pretty much any old version of Windows, no need to activate it, just to run the utility.

After the restore I was able to boot Windows and all was well, apart from the hundreds of Windows Updates needed for an OS that was a year out of date. In some cases though you might need to go back into system recovery to repair the boot configuration; it usually does that pretty well.

Why Microsoft is hard to love

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated last week that “We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. That is our bold goal with Windows.”

It is an understandable goal. Many users have discovered a better experience using a Mac than with Windows, for example, and they are reluctant to go back. I will not go into all the reasons; personally I find little difference in usability between Mac and Windows, but I do not question the evidence. There are numerous factors, including the damage done by OEMs bundling unwanted software with Windows, countless attacks from malware and adware, badly written applications, low quality hardware sold on price, and yes, problems with Windows itself that cause frustration.

There is more though. What about the interaction customers have with the company, which makes a difference to the emotional response to which Nadella refers? Again, Apple has an advantage here, since high margins enable exceptional customer service, but any company is capable of treating its customers with respect and consideration; it is just that not all of them do.

Now I will point Nadella to this huge thread on Microsoft’s own community forums.  The discussion dates from September 10 2014 and the contributors are customers who own Windows Phone devices such as the Lumia 1020. They discovered that after updating their devices to Windows 8.1 they experienced intermittent freezes, where the phone stops responding and has to be cold booted by pressing an emergency button combination (volume down plus power). These, note, are critical customers for Microsoft since they are in the minority that have chosen Windows Phone and potentially form a group that can evangelise this so far moribund platform to others.

The thread starts with a huge effort by one user (“ArkEngel”) to document the problem and possible fixes. Users understand that these problems can be complex and that a fix may take some time. It seems clear that while not all devices are affected, there are a substantial number which worked fine with Windows Phone 8, but are now unreliable with Windows Phone 8.1. A system freeze is particularly problematic in a phone, since you may not realise it has happened, and until you do, no calls are received, no alerts or reminders fire, and so on, so these customers are anxious to find a solution.

Following the initial complaint, more users report similar issues. Nobody from Microsoft comments. When customers go through normal support channels, they often find that the phone is reset to factory defaults, but this does not fix the problem, leading to multiple returns.

Still no official comment. Then there is an intervention … by Microsoft’s Brian Harry on the developer side. He is nothing to do with the phone team, but on 27 October receives this comment on his official blog:

Brian, sorry to hijack you blog again, but you are the only person in MS who seems to care about customers. Can you please advise whoever in MS is responsible for WP8.1 and make them aware of the “freeze” bug that MANY users are reporting (31 pages on the forum below). There has been NO feedback from MS whatsoever in the months that this has been ongoing and it is obviously affecting many users (myself included). If “cloud first, mobile first” is to be a success, you better make the bl00dy OS work properly. Thanks

Harry promises to raise the issue internally. On 12 Nov still nothing, but a reminder is posted on Harry’s blog and he says:

Nag mail sent.  Sorry for no update.

This (I assume) prompts a post from Microsoft’s Kevin Lee – his only forum post ever according to his profile:

I’m sorry we’ve been dark – I work closely with the Lumia engineering team that’s working directly on this. Trying to shed a little light on this…

Beginning in early September we started to receive an increased number of customer feedback regarding Microsoft Lumia 1020 and 925 device freezes. During the last two months we have been reaching out for more and more data and devices to systematically reproduce and narrow down the root cause. It turned out to be a power regulator logic failure where in combination with multiple reasons the device fails to power up the CPU and peripherals after idling into a deep sleep state.

I am pleased to pass on that we have a fix candidate under validation which we expect to push out the soon with the next SW update!

Appreciate your patience.

OK, so Microsoft knows about the problem, has sat back saying nothing while users try this thing and that, but now after two months says it has a “fix candidate”. This is greeted warmly as good news, but guess what? Phones keep freezing, no fix appears, and in addition, there is lack of clarity about how exactly the fix is being “pushed out”.

Two months later, user Shubhan NeO says:

And I broke my Lumia 1020. Not going back to Windows Phone ever ! Switching back to Android ! Here is sneak peek of my phone !

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It is not quite clear whether he broke the phone deliberately in a fit of frustration, but perhaps he did as he comments further:

Works ? Seriously ? It hangs 2-3 a day, has stupid support for official apps. So many issue.

I’m done.

Here is another:

I paid the extra £ for a better phone; with a better ’41-megapixel camera’… now to find out that people with cheaper models have not had any freeze problems. Despite peoples comments about this being an aged device, and probably the reason for lack of support, I must add that I only purchased my 1020 ‘NEW’ in July 2014 (which is only 6 months ago). For 3 of those months it has been very unreliable … I am extremely disappointed in how I and everyone else here has been treated by Microsoft.

Read the thread for more stories of frustration and decisions never to buy another Windows Phone.

What are the real problems here? The hardest thing to accept is not the fact of the fault occurring, or even the time taken to fix it, but the apparent lack of concern by the company for the plight of its customers. If Mr Lee, or others from the team, had posted regularly about what the problem is, how they are addressing it, possible workarounds and likely time scales, it would easier for users to understand.

As it is, it seems that this part of the company does not care; a particular shame, as Nokia had a good reputation for customer service.

I post this then as feedback to Nadella and suggest that a cultural shift in some areas of Microsoft is necessary in order to make possible the kind of emotional transition he seeks.

Microsoft’s Lumia 400, the cheapest Windows Phones yet, but what is the brand becoming?

Microsoft has announced the Lumia 435, the first 400-series Lumia and the cheapest Windows Phone yet. The Lumia 532, also just announced, is an upgrade to the Lumia 530 and also pitched at a low-end market.

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Lumia 432

The 435 has a dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, front-facing camera, back-facing 2MP camera, micro SD slot. 4″ 800 x 480 pixel screen. GPS, wi-fi and Bluetooth. Replaceable battery. Dual-SIM is available.

The 532 has a quad-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, 5.0MP main camera, front-facing camera, micro SD slot. 4″ 800 x 480 pixel screen. GPS, wi-fi and Bluetooth. Replaceable battery. Dual-SIM is available.

The phones are expected to go on the market in February at a price of around €69 (£53.50) for the Lumia 435 and €79 (61.50) for the Lumia 532.

I like the Windows Phone OS, and these devices look like great value. That said, the last aspirational Windows Phone was the Lumia 1020 in Summer 2013, with its fantastic camera. You would be forgiven for concluding that Microsoft has given up on high-end Windows Phone devices, which is unfortunate for developers since those are the devices likely to deliver more app sales.

If the Lumia brand has become strongly associated with cheap phones it will be hard for the company to convince customers that a high-end device is worth their attention in future.

We may get some phone news soon, linked to the launch of Windows 10; we may hear more at the event on January 21 in New York.

More details here.

Review: Synology DS415+ Network Attached Storage

Synology’s DS415+ is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device aimed at small businesses or demanding home users. I have been running this on my own network for the last 6 weeks or so.

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First, a note about Synology’s product range. Let us say you want a NAS with 4 drive bays. Here are the choices, with current bare NAS prices from Amazon.co.uk:

  • DS414j £252.63: Budget offering, 512MB RAM, 1.2 GHz  dual core ARM CPU, 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, 1 1GB Ethernet port. 90W power supply, 32.64W power consumption.
  • DS414 Slim £237.87: Smaller case designed for 2.5″ drives. All the other units here support 3.5″ drives. Given that you can normally tuck your NAS away in a corner, there is limited value in restricting yourself to these smaller drives, but there is also an energy as well as space saving. 512MB RAM, 1.2GHz single core ARM CPU, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports. 30W power supply, 15.48W power consumption.
  • DS414 £332.83: Core product. 1GB RAM, 1.33 GHz dual core ARM CPU, 1 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports, 90W power supply, 28.42W power consumption.
  • DS415 Play £379.99: Home oriented. Benefits from hardware video transcoding. 1GB RAM, 1.6GHz dual core Intel Atom CPU, 3 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 1Gb Ethernet port, 90W power supply, 27.33W power consumption.
  • DS415+ £460.74: Business oriented. 2GB RAM, 2.4GHz quad core Intel Atom CPU, 1 USB 2.0 port, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 eSATA port, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports, 100W power supply, 32.64W power consumption.

You can get a more detailed comparison of these four models in this table. Incidentally, I am guessing that in the Synology numbering scheme, the first digit represents the number of drive bays, and the second two digits the year of release.

The 415 models are the latest releases then, and the only ones to use Intel CPUs. The extra cost of the 415+ buys you double the amount of RAM, a quad core CPU, and an eSATA port.

The software is mostly the same on all the devices, Synology’s Diskstation Manager (DSM), currently at version 5.1. It looks as if some limits are lifted with the 415+, for example there is support for 256 iSCSI LUNs on the 415+, versus 10 on the 415 Play. The 415+ also has specifica support for VMWare VAAI (vStorage API for Array Integration) and Windows Server ODX (Offloaded Data Transfer); this enables some storage tasks to be offloaded to the storage system for better performance on the virtualization host.

Why buy a unit like this when you could simply get a server with plenty of drive bays, or with hardware RAID, and install Linux or Windows Storage Server? The two reasons are first, simplicity of operation, and second, low power consumption.

The distinction is not as sharp as it first appears, since a Synology device like this is in fact a server. If you require maximum flexibility and do not care about energy use, a generic server is probably better. If you require only simple network attached storage, such as a large shared folder on the network, a unit like the 415+ is overkill; just get a DS414j or some other brand. On the other hand, if you expect to install and use several apps, the extra for a DS415+ buys you a substantially more capable server.

Another way of looking at this is that the processing power in the DS415+, while still modest compared to a modern desktop PC, is sufficient for some real work, such as running web applications or even a media server with software transcoding.

Setup

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Unpack the box, and you find the NAS unit, power supply and a couple of ethernet cables. Unclip the front cover and you can see the four drive bays, with caddies which can easily be removed for drive installation.

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The drive caddies are screwless for 3.5″ drives; just remove the side panels, insert the drive, and replace the side panels to secure.

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You can also install 2.5″ drives with four screws through holes in the caddy base.

At the rear of the unit, there are dual fans, two Ethernet ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, eSata port, and the power connector.

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I fitted four 3TB Western Digital Red drives – currently £89.36 on Amazon – attached the device to the network and powered up. You can than access the NAS management UI with any web browser. Normally, entering diskstation:5000 will find it. The initial setup downloads and installs the latest version of DSM, and offers an instant configuration which is a single large network folder backed by Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR).

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I accepted this just to try it, and then blew it away in favour of a more flexible configuration.

Diskstation Manager

Synology DSM is a version of Linux. You can access the OS via SSH, or use the browser-based GUI. The GUI is rather well done, and presents a desktop-like environment with a windowing system.

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The button at top right open a kind of Start menu:

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Applications are installed and removed through the Package Center:

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Generally, you should use only the Package Center to manage applications, though terminal access can be useful for troubleshooting, cleanup, or tweaking settings if you know what you are doing.

Since packages are only available from Synology, you are limited to those applications which are supported, unless you do a manual install:

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Even a manual install has to be in the Synology package format (an archive with appropriate metadata). Some packages, such as the Plex media server, are available for download as manual installs, though may need tweaking to install correctly.

Third party developers can create packages, free or paid, and submit them to Synology for approval.

If an application is updated, it can take a while before the Synology package is updated. This could be a problem if, for example, a critical security bug is found in an application running on a Synology device exposed to the internet. There are not a huge number of packages available. I counted 63 in the DS415+ Package Center. However, this does include everything you need for a basic business server, including a mail server, DNS Server, LDAP Directory Server, Drupal CMS, SugarCRM, web server with PHP and MySQL, Tomcat application server, and more.

On the multimedia side, there are applications for serving audio and video, a DLNA media server, and Logitech Media Server (also known as Squeezebox Server).

There are several backup applications, including one for Amazon’s Glacier service (low-cost cloud storage).

Storage management

The primary role of a Synology device is for storage of course, and this is configured through the Storage Manager. Configuration begins with Disk Groups, which represent one or more physical drives in a RAID configuration.

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There are several supported RAID configurations:

SHR: Synology Hybrid RAID with 1- or 2- disk fault tolerance. You need at least 4 drives for 2-disk tolerance.

RAID 0: disk striping, no fault tolerance

RAID 1: drive mirroring

RAID 5: 1-disk fault tolerance

RAID 6: 2-disk fault tolerance

RAID 10: RAID 0 across mirrored drives, 1-disk fault tolerance with high performance.

What is SHR? There is an explanation here. The high-level story is that SHR is more efficient with drives of varying capacity, and more flexible when adding new drives. It is not proprietary and apparently data can be recovered if necessary by mounting SHR drives in a Linux PC (provided no more than one drive has failed).

You set the RAID level when you create a disk group. Once you have a disk group, you can create volumes or iSCSI targets on that group.

I was interested in trying iSCSI. I have a desktop PC that is running out of space. I created a 1500GB iSCSI target and mounted it on the PC using the iSCSI initiator in Control Panel. It worked perfectly, and a new drive appeared in Disk Management.

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Is this sensible, or should you just use a network folder which is more flexible, since it is shared storage? An iSCSI target behaves like a local drive, which can be an advantage, but iSCSI is mostly used for servers where centralising storage is convenient. You should also use a dedicated network for iSCSI, so it is probably not a great idea for a desktop PC.

I compared performance. On simple tests, such as time taken to copy a file, there was little advantage; in fact, my iSCSI drive was slightly slower: 61.2 MB/s vs 76.4 MB/s for a shared folder.

I tried ODX, copying a file from one iSCSI drive to another. Capturing the copy thermometer was a challenge, as it was near-instant:

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In general, I have been very happy with the performance of the NAS.

Folder permissions

My local network uses Active Directory (AD), so I was keen to set up permissions on the NAS using AD. Connecting a Linux server to AD can be a problem, and at first the Synology would not play. I connected it, seemingly successfully, but it would not see any users. There are threads on the Synology forums showing users with similar problems. The fix for me was to enter my Domain Controllers as IP numbers rather then FQDNs (fully qualified domain names). Since then it has worked perfectly, though DSM shows the Domain Server Type as “NT4 Domain”, puzzling when my DCs are on Server 2012 R2.

Once connected, you can set folder permissions using the Synology File Station package. First, create the shared folder, then right-click the folder and choose Permissions.

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Apps and Applications

Aside from the storage services, the main application I run on the Synology is Logitech Media Server (LMS). This used to run on a Windows server, and actually runs much better on the Synology. Search is quicker, the server is more responsive, and it is more reliable.

I tried the Synology audio and video applications, and the media server. There are various companion mobile apps, such as DS Audio and DS Video, for media playback.

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The apps I tried worked well for me, though I am sticking with LMS for home music streaming.

Final words

I have no complaints about the DS415+, which has performed well so far. Browsing through the user forums though, I have noticed some areas of difficulty. One is that the Cloud Station service, which synchs files between your NAS, computers and mobile devices, is notorious for consuming disk space. Users find their drives filling up even though the total size of their files is much less than the available space. Currently, the best advice seems to be not to use Cloud Station.

The general issue with a system like this is that the friendly GUI is great while everything is working, but if something goes wrong and you have to dive into Linux, the ease of use disappears. That is worth noting if you plan to use this as the main server in a small business (beyond storage), unless someone there has the necessary troubleshooting skills.

The device does tick a lot of boxes though: resilient storage, excellent performance, low power consumption, flexible configuration, AD integration, and enough power to run something like Logitech Media Server without blinking.

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A nearly perfect boombox: take your audio on the road with TDK’s Trek Max

I first heard the Trek Max at a busy press exhibition; audio rarely sounds good in big noisy rooms but I was struck by the fact that this TDK device was not dreadful but made a valiant attempt to deliver the music: there was at least a little bass, there was volume, there was clarity, and this from a small box, 24 x 5 x 10cm to be precise.

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I asked for one on loan to review and it has not disappointed. There is not much in the box, just the Bluetooth speaker, a power supply/charger, and some mostly useless bits of paper.

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The hardest task was getting that sticker off the front without leaving a gooey mark. Having done that to the best of my ability, I charged the unit, and paired with a phone. My attempt to use NFC (one-touch Bluetooth connect) failed with a Windows Phone, but worked with an Android tablet. It is no big deal; pairing is straightforward with or without NFC.

Then I played some music. I put on Santana Abraxas; this thing boogies, and does a great job with the complex percussion and propulsive guitar. I played Adele’s 21; it sounds like Adele singing, not the squawky sound you might expect from a device this size, and the drums on Don’t You Remember have a satisfying thud. I played Beethoven’s Third Symphony; the drama and power of the opening movement came over convincingly, albeit in miniature form.

I am not going to pretend that this is the best Bluetooth speaker I have heard; it has tough competition at much higher prices. I do not judge a thing like this versus a home audio setup or a larger Bluetooth speaker that is only semi-portable. This is something to take with you, and even sports a “weatherized” case; the manual makes clear that it is “splash-resistant” rather than anything more serious, and then only if you make sure to close the rubber flap over the panel on the right-hand side, but still a handy feature.

Any clever tricks? Just a couple. One is that you can use the Trek Max as a battery charger for your mobile phone (or any device compatible with USB power). Here is that side panel in detail:

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From right to left, there is the USB power output (it has no other function), an AUX in for a wired audio connection, power in, and a master power switch which turns the entire unit off (including the USB power output).

The other party trick is the ability to work as a speakerphone. You are grooving along to music from your mobile, and an incoming call comes in. The music stops and a call button on the top illuminates. Press to answer, take the call hands-free, and press twice to end it. Neat.

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Note that the Trek Max is surprisingly heavy for its size, around 1.25Kg. It does not surprise me; there is a lot packed in, including a decent battery.

The speaker configuration is right, left, central woofer for the (mono-ed) lower frequencies, and passive bass radiators at the back, boosting the bass.

It is worth noting that the Trek Max goes surprisingly loud – louder than I have heard before from a device of this size. That is important if you are outside or in a noisy room – but please do not annoy others too much!

The Trek Max  A34 replaces the Trek A33. What is the difference? Primarily, NFC Bluetooth pairing, pause, resume, forward and back buttons (they work fine), and better sync with iOS devices: on these, the volume control on the Apple device directly controls the volume on the Trek, whereas on other devices the volume controls are independent.

Conclusion: a great little device, and make sure you hear it before dismissing it as too pricey for something of this size.

Specifications

Weight: 1.25 Kg
Size: 24.1 x 9.8 x 5cm
Power output: 15w total
Bluetooth: 2.1 + EDR, A2DP, HFP, HSP, AVRCP
Battery life: 8 hours

Arcam’s high-end Solo soundbar: fixing TV sound

Arcam launched its Solo soundbar and subwoofer at a press event in London last week. When this footage was playing I was not thinking about the soundbar at the foot of the video screen, nor of the subwoofer sitting in the corner. Rather, I was thinking how wonderfully the great B.B. King is playing on this concert Blu-ray; and that is how it should be when auditioning hi-fi.

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The Cambridge-based Arcam occupies a distinctive spot among UK audio manufacturers, neither low-budget nor at the silly-expensive end of the market. MD Charlie Brennan told me that the company’s focus is audio engineering: not lifestyle, nor ultra high-end, but products that are affordable and which sound great.

The aluminium-bodied Solo bar seems at first listen to be a good example. It is a solid product in every sense, weighing a hefty 6.4kg and featuring 100w of class D (highly efficient) amplification into 6 speaker drivers, midrange (4″), woofer (4″) and tweeter (1″) for each channel.

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This is more than just a better audio system for your TV. The Solo bar has four HDMI inputs (with 4K support) and one output, so you can connect your games consoles and video streamer sources. There are also optical and coaxial digital (S/PDIF) inputs, and an analogue input for general purpose use, and an output for a subwoofer.

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It does not end there. The Solo bar supports aptX (which means high quality for systems that support it) Bluetooth streaming both as player (for your mobile device) and as source (for your wireless headphones).

A setup microphone is included in the box, which accounts for the mic input on the panel. Use of this is optional, but it is often worth running this type of setup routine, by placing the mic at the normal sitting position and having the unit optimise the sound for the room, taking into account the position of the subwoofer if present.

Room effects are huge and often ignored, so it is good to see this. However you cannot fine-tune the results yourself; you either disable it, or enjoy the results the bar comes up with.

There is a controller app for iOS and Android but sadly not for Windows Phone, though all the functions are also accessible through the supplied remote. You can switch between unvarnished stereo, or audio processing for Movie or Concert.

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The Solo subwoofer has a 300w amplifier and 10″ driver. We heard the system with and without the sub. My brief observation is that while it sounded good without the sub, adding it lifted the sound substantially; it is not so much the added bass that you notice, but greater realism. The sub is also important for those all-important explosions and sound effects in movies and games.

The Solo bar is £800 and the Solo subwoofer £500. That does not seem to me expensive given the quality I heard, but neither is it a casual purchase. There are drawbacks to the soundbar approach, notably two-channel sound rather than surround, but the simplicity of the system more than compensates for many (Brennan said that the soundbar market is one of the few areas of home audio that is growing).

Personally I would recommend getting system with the sub if possible, as they are designed to work together.

You should be able to buy a Solo later this month, November 2014.

This is not a review; that will have to wait for an opportunity to try the system for myself and test it in detail.

More information on Arcam’s site here.