Author Archives: Tim

HP’s Elite Slice and the problem with modular PCs

“HP reinvents the desktop” says the press release announcing the Elite Slice, a small modular PC, composed of square sections which you stack together.

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“It is the first modular commercial desktop with cable-less connectivity” adds the release, which caused me to pause. I was sure I had seen something like it before; and certainly it looks not unlike Acer’s Revo Build:

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Acer’s Revo Build

Nevertheless, I have a high regard for HP’s PC products, and often recommend them, so I was interested in the Elite Slice.

The base unit is 6.5″ (16.51cm) square and 1.38″ (3.5cm) deep and can be powered from a display using a USB Type-C cable to minimise cables. Various specifications are available, with 6th gen Intel Core i3, i5 or i7, and up to 32GB RAM. HDMI and DisplayPort video output is included. Storage is SSD from 128GB to 512GB. Availability is from the end of September 2016, and price is “from £500”.

In practice you are likely to spend more than that. On HP’s US site, you can order an Elite Slice G1 with Windows 10 Pro, Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, USB mouse, 65 watt power supply for $1235.00 (around £950).

So what modules can you get? On offer currently is an optical disk drive and a Bang & Olufsen audio module. There is also a mounting plate that lets you fix the unit to the wall.

There are other options that are not actual modules, but can be specified when you purchase. These include a wireless charging plate (so you can charge your phone by placing it on top of the Slice) and a fingerprint reader.

There is also a HP Collaboration Cover which once again has to be specified with your original purchase. This is for conferencing and adds the functionality of a Skype for Business (Lync) phone. You can buy this bundled with the audio module as the “Elite Slice for Meeting Rooms”, priced from £649.

I looked at the Elite Slice at the Showstoppers press event just before the IFA show in Berlin last week. It is a good looking unit and will likely be fine as a small business PC.

That said, I am a sceptic when it comes to the modular concept. For a start, the HP Elite is not all that modular, with several options only available on initial purchase (fingerprint reader, wireless charging, conferencing cover). “Covers … require factory configuration and cannot be combined with other Slice covers” says the small print; so if you want wireless charging as well as conferencing, bad luck.

Second, the HP Elite Slice is actually less modular than a traditional PC. While I was looking at the PC, another visitor asked whether a more powerful GPU is available. “We are looking at doing a GPU module” was the answer. However, buy a standard PC with a PCI Express slot and you can choose from a wide range of GPUs, though you might need to upgrade the power supply to run it; that is also easily done.

The downside of a traditional PC is that it is bulky and clunky compared to a neat thing like the Elite; but it sits under the desk so who cares?

Be warned too that if you buy a HP Elite in the hope of a regular flow of exciting modules over the next year or two, you may well be disappointed. Another bright idea will come along and the Elite will be forgotten – just as we heard nothing from Acer about the Revo Build at this year’s IFA.

More details on the Elite Slice are here.

Asus ZenWatch 3 prompts the question: is it time yet for smartwatches?

Today Asus launched the ZenWatch 3, an Android Wear smartwatch set for release towards the end of this year. Price was announced as €229.

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Powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100, ZenWatch 3 is a chunky affair, 9.95mm thick. “Mainly for the male market?” I enquired of an Asus PR person; “well, yes” was the response. 1.39-inch AMOLED display with 400 by 400 resolution and 287ppi pixel density, three buttons, one programmable for quick app launch, customisable watch face.

Forget all that though; the big issue with these gadgets is the battery life, which is “up to two days”. Whenever I have tried a wearable, the battery life problem is always why I abandon it. I realise you just have to get into the habit of charging it every night, but I am not used to this in a watch. A further problem with the ZenWatch is that you need the special charger with you at all times, since it has an unique charging connector:

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What about smartphones though, these took off despite their short battery life. The reason was that they added a lot of value. Email, maps, then Facebook and Twitter on the go. And if it ran out of power, at least you still had a watch.

The battery life question then is bound up with the question about how much value the smartwatch adds. There is fitness tracking, there is the convenience of glancing at your wrist rather than pulling out a smartphone to check an email or text message, there is turn by turn directions. Enough?

For me, not yet. At the same time, technology always gets smaller and more convenient. No doubt today’s smartphones will look bulky and inconvenient in 10 years time, and it may well be that the future personal communications device looks more like a smartwatch than a smartphone. You can’t beat the convenience of of something on your wrist, rather than something you carry in a bag or pocket.

That presumes, though, that either smartwatches get smart enough to replace rather than complement your phone, or that some other compelling feature turns up that will make them a must-have.

I’m typing this as the Samsung Gear 3 event is about to begin. Vendors are keen to make this work. Come on Samsung, wow me.

The battery life question then is really another question. Are smartwatches sufficiently compelling that

Sweetlabs Android App Services: what is it?

Margins on smartphones are thin, which is why we regularly hear commentary about how only Apple and Samsung are making any money from them. Vendors therefore look for other ways to monetize their business, though it is never easy, and there are plenty of examples of failed music stores and other premium services. Google can always make money, through Play Store revenue, ads served via Search, and monetizing the data it collects. But what of the smartphone vendors?

One obvious strategy is to pre-install applications, for which the app developer may pay. I say may because without inside knowledge its impossible to tell whether the Facebook app, for example, is pre-installed as a benefit to customers or because Facebook has paid something. Most users would probably install the Facebook app anyway; but fewer would install the Opera web browser, to take another example, so common sense says that if you find Opera pre-installed, it is more likely than Facebook to have paid for the privilege.

On Windows PCs, which also suffer from low margins, the pressure on manufacturers to make money from pre-installed applications has had a dire affect, significantly reducing the appeal of the product. At worst, you can pay good money for a PC, turn it on for the first time, and be greeted by a flurry of dialogs inviting you to install this or subscribe to that, along with warnings that your new purchase is “not protected”. Apple has never allowed this of course, which is one of the attractions of Macs. Another consequence was that Microsoft introduced its own brand of PC, Surface, and opened stores selling “signature” editions of PCs on which most of the foistware is absent.

The situation on Android should never be as bad. The operating system has a modern design, which means that applications are isolated and cannot cause as much damage as on Windows. If an application that you do not want is installed, it is easy to remove.

Even so, pre-installed apps on Android do introduce clutter and confusion, especially when combined with the constant requests for various types of permission which characterise the initial setup experience. I imagine that many users simply agree to everything, since the consequences of denying permission are rarely clear, and most want their new device to “just work.”

Sweetlabs is a company which specialises in monetizing app installs on Windows as well as Android. On Windows it is best known for the Pokki app store. Sweetlabs does not always present its brand overtly to users. Users are not its customers after all; its customers are app developers and smartphone vendors.

I reviewed a smartphone recently, and soon after switching on for the first time, I saw a notification inviting me to “Complete device setup” and to “Allow App Services to push messages to the n…” (I am still not sure what is the cut-off word):

If you tap this notification an app installer opens, presenting a small selection of apps categorised as either “Essentials” or “Entertainment”. You are meant to select the apps you want and then tap Finish to have those apps install, agreeing the terms and conditions as you do. Once you tap Finish, the notification disappears, though I noticed that the Sweetlabs service continues to run in the background:

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My understanding is that the service continues to run because at some future date more apps may become available. The Sweetlabs site talks about promoting apps through “multiple customer-facing touchpoints, including white-label apps and widgets that integrate into the out-of-box experience and persist through the lifetime of the device.” This can include a Featured Apps widget on the home screen that recommends apps “over the lifetime of the device.”

Is this a good or bad thing? The answer is nuanced. I dislike the way the notification implies that these optional app install are part of device setup; it is not, it is a marketing app. You can get all these apps through the official Play Store and App Services is consuming unnecessary system resources.

On the other hand, if you accept that pre-installing apps is inevitable given the low margins in this business, the Sweetlabs approach has advantages. Instead of simply dumping a bunch of unwanted apps on your device, you can choose which ones you want, if any. Therefore the company promotes itself as a better approach, even presenting itself as a fix for crapware. My review device had pre-installed apps on it as well, though, so it is more a case of putting up with both.

From the perspective of app developers, any service that helps get your app noticed in a beyond-crowded market is a significant benefit. Sweetlabs also offers an app analytics service focused on who is installing your app.

I wrote this post because I did not find much information about App Services when I searched for it after seeing the notification on my review device. If you are wondering whether you need it on your device, the answer is no; it does nothing essential, it is a vehicle for promoting apps, and you can safely disable or remove it. I recommend installing apps from the Play Store instead, where you can see user reviews and other information. It is not really evil though; it may have reduced the price of your smartphone as well as providing app developers another way to get their products noticed.

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.

Wind up your iPhone–this is not a wind up!

I have long thought that the solution to the difficulties we have keeping mobile devices charged is to make more use of the energy created by our bodies as we move around.

Once long ago I had a mechanical watch whose automatic winding worked perfectly; I never had to think about it.

Today I received news of something which is not quite that, but which still sounds useful. An iPhone case equipped with a dynamo so you can turn a handle to recharge it.

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Claiming to be the “World’s first dynamo-powered iPhone case”, the AMPware Power Generating iPhone case offers up to 2 hours phone use from “10 minutes of winding”.

Let’s note that 10 minutes of winding feels like a long time when you are doing it. However, if you are stranded without power it could be most useful.

Currently the case is for iPhone 6 and 6S only. Cost is £69.99 from The Fowndry

Fake TalkTalk Frequently Asked Questions

I use TalkTalk for broadband and landline – though I never signed up with TalkTalk, I signed up with a smaller provider that was taken over – and recently I have been plagued with calls from people claiming to be from TalkTalk, but who in fact have malicious intent. If I am busy I just put the phone down, but sometimes I chat with them for a while, to discover more about what they are trying to do.

Rather than write a long general piece about this problem, I thought the best approach would be a Q&A with answers to the best of my knowledge.

Why so many fake TalkTalk calls?

I have two landline numbers, and until recently only the non-TalkTalk number ever got called by scammers. This makes me think that the flood of TalkTalk calls is related to data stolen from the company, perhaps in October 215 or perhaps in subsequent attacks. Some victims report that scammers know their name and account number; in my case I don’t have any evidence for that. On a couple of occasions I have asked the caller to state my account number but they have given me a random number. However I do think that my telephone number is on a list of valid TalkTalk numbers that is circulating among these criminal companies.

How do I know if it is really TalkTalk?

My advice is to assume that is it not TalkTalk. If you think TalkTalk really wants to get in touch with you, put the phone down and call TalkTalk customer service, either from another number or after waiting 15 minutes to make sure that the person who called you has really terminated the call.

How does the caller know my Computer License ID?

A common part of these scripts is that the caller will show that he knows your “computer license ID” by guiding you to show it on your screen and then reading it to you. They do this by getting to you open a command window and type assoc:

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The way this works is simple. The number you see next to .ZFSendToTarget is not a license ID. The abbreviation stands for Class ID and it is part of the plumbing of Windows, the same on every Windows PC.

What about all the malware errors and warnings on my PC?

This is a core part of the fake TalkTalk (and fake Microsoft) script. Our server has picked up warning messages from your computer, they say, and they show you a list of them.

The way this works is that the scammer guides you to open a Windows utility called Event Viewer, usually via the Run dialog (type eventvwr). Then they get you to filter it to show “Administrative events” which filters the log to show only errors and warnings.

Now, you have to agree that the number of errors and warnings Windows manages to generate is remarkable. My PC has over 9,000:

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However, these messages are not generated by malware, nor are they broadcast to the world (or to TalkTalk servers). They are simply log entries generated by the operating system. If you have time on your hands, you can look up the reason for each one and even fix many of them; but in most cases they are just noise. Real malware, needless to say, does not make helpful logs of its activity but keeps quiet about it.

What does Fake TalkTalk really want to do?

Once your fake TalkTalk caller has persuaded you that something is wrong with your PC or router or internet connection, the next step is invariably to get remote access to your PC. They do this by guiding you to a website such as Ammyy or Logmein Rescue, and initiate a support session. These are legitimate services used by support engineers, but unfortunately if you allow someone untrustworthy to log onto your PC bad things will happen. Despite what the caller may tell you, these sessions are not just for messaging but enable the scammer to see your computer screen and even take over mouse and keyboard input.

Windows will generally warn you before you allow a remote session to start. You have to pass a dialog that says something like “Do you want to allow this app to make changes to your PC?” or similar. This warning is there for a reason! For sure say No if fake TalkTalk is on the line.

Note though that this remote control software is not in itself malware. Therefore you will see that the software that is trying to run is from a legitimate company. Unfortunately that will not protect you when someone who means you harm is at the other end of the connection.

OK, so Fake TalkTalk has a remote connection. What next?

Despite my interest in the goals of these scammers, I have never gone so far as to allow them to connect. There are ways to do this relatively safely, with an isolated virtual machine, but I have not gone that far. However I have seen reports from victims.

There is no single fake TalkTalk, but many organisations out there who do this impersonating. So the goals of these various organisations (and they are generally organisations rather than individuals) will vary.

A known scam is that the scammer will tell you a refund is due because of your slow internet connection. They show you that the sum has been paid, via a fake site, but oh dear, it is more than is due! For example, you are due £200 but have been paid £1200. Oops. Would you mind repaying the £1000 or I will be fired? So you send off £1000 but it turns out you were not paid any money at all.

Other possibilities are that your PC becomes part of a bot network, to be rented out to criminals for various purposes; or that the “engineer” finds such severe “problems” with your PC that you have to purchase their expensive anti-malware software or service; or your PC may be used to send out spam; or a small piece of software is installed that captures your keystrokes so your passwords will be sent to the scammer; or the scammer will search your documents for information they can use for identity theft.

Many possibilities, so for sure it is better not to let these scammers, or anyone you do not trust, to connect to your PC.

Who are the organisations behind Fake TalkTalk?

When I am called by TalkTalk impersonators, I notice several things. One is that the call quality is often poor, thanks to use of a cheap voice over IP connection from a far-off country. Second, I can hear many other calls taking place in the background, showing that these are not just individuals but organisations of some size. In fact, a common pattern is that three people are involved, one who initiates the call, a supervisor who makes the remote connection, and a third “engineer” who takes over once the connection is made.

One thing you can be sure of is that the are not in the UK. In fact, all the calls I have had seem to originate from outside Europe. This means of course that they are outside the scope of our regulators and difficult for police or fraud investigators to track down.

If you ask one of these callers where they are calling from, they often say they are in London. You can have some fun by asking questions like “what is the weather like in London?” or “what is the nearest tube station?”, they probably have no idea.

What is being done about this problem?

Good question. I have reported all my calls to TalkTalk, as well as using “Report abuse” forms on LogMeIn with the PIN numbers used by the criminals. On one occasion I had a scammer’s Google email address given to me; there is no way I can find to report this to Google which perhaps shows the limits of how much the company cares about our security.

I am not optimistic then that much of substance is being done or can be done. Addressing the problem at source means visiting the country where the scam is based and working with local law enforcement; even if that worked, other organisations in other countries soon pop up.

That means, for the moment, that education and warning is essential, imperfect though it is. TalkTalk, it seems to me, could do much better. Have they contacted all their customers will information and warnings? I don’t believe so. It is worried, perhaps, more about its reputation than the security of its customers.

Mo-Fi headphones from Blue: distinctive design delivers excellent sound

I attend several trade shows during the year, and at one of these Blue was showing off its microphones and headphones. These are the world’s best headphones, said one of the representatives. I expressed some scepticism and she promised to send me a pair to try.

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The Mo-Fi, which sells for around £249 or $349, is an unusual set of wired headphones in that it includes its own amplifier, powered by a rechargeable 1020mAh battery. It takes 3-4 hours to charge, which gives you around 12 hours of play, though if the battery runs out it is not fatal as you can also use the headphones in passive mode.

The amplifier can also be used in “On+” mode which boosts the bass slightly. Despite this feature, these headphones are designed for those who like a natural sound rather than one which exaggerates the sonics for instant appeal but later fatigue.

First impressions

When you unpack the Mo-Fi headphones from their solid cuboid box you immediately get an impression of a well-built and high quality product. This is an over the ear design with a metal frame and what I would describe as a modernist, industrial look; opinions on this will vary but personally I am more interested in the sound and the comfort. If you are looking for a svelte and elegant headset though, these will not be for you.

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In order to achieve a good fit whatever the size of your head, Blue has put hinges on the earcups so you can tilt them inwards, reducing their distance from the headband. You can also adjust the tension on the headband to get a looser or tighter grip according to taste. I find the comfort OK though not the best; the problem is that the solidity of the design means greater weight (455g) so you notice them a bit more than a lighter and softer set. That said, I can wear them for an hour or two without strain.

Blue supply two cables, a short 1.2 meter cable for iPad and iPhone which includes volume, pause and microphone, and a 3 meter cable for other sources. There is also an adaptor for headphone amplifiers with a 1/4” jack socket, and another for aeroplane seats with the old dual jack sockets. Finally, you get a well made soft case with a carry strap.

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There is no mention of Android phones in the short manual, but the iPhone cable works fine for microphone and pause/play. The in-cable volume controls only with Apple devices though, because of annoyingly different hardware standards.

Sound quality

The philosophy behind the Mo-Fi seems to be that most of use compromise our listening experience by using headphones or headsets that do not do justice to the music. In part this is because of inferior headphone amplifiers in many mobile devices, which the Mo-Fi’s built-in amplifier mitigates though cannot fix completely (since it is not bypassed).

I tried the Mo-Fi on a variety of devices, including Android phones, an iPad, and an audiophile headphone amplifier (Graham Slee Solo). I compared them to several other headphones and headsets, using music including classical, jazz, rock and pop. I listened to the Mo-Fi mostly with its amplifier on, but not in the on+ position.

The good news: the sound is excellent. It is clean, precise, extended in frequency response, and generally neutral in tone though with slightly recessed high frequencies.

What is the effect of the built-in amplifier? It depends. Using the external headphone amplifier, the built-in amplifier does little more than increase the volume. You can get the same result by turning up the volume in passive mode. On a phone though, the effect is more marked, and you can hear improvement in quality as well as volume. That is what you would expect.

However, while the Mo-Fi sounds good with a phone, I was surprised how much much the sound improved when using the Graham Slee amplifier. Since a Solo costs more than the Mo-Fi, perhaps that is not surprising, but it does illustrate that unfortunately there are still compromises when using a smartphone for music.

What kind of sound do you get from the Mo-FI? Since it is neutral and clean, the Mo-Fi sounds good with all kinds of music, though they are not bright, to the extent that you should avoid them if you like a bright sound. The bass I found particularly tuneful, for example on My Funny Valentine by Miles Davis, which is a rare quality. Listening to the magical Four Seasons by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields I found the Mo-Fi smooth and engaging but not quite as clear or sweet as on high-end Sennheiser headphones.

Playing By Your Side by Sade, which has deep bass that is difficult to reproduce, the Mo-Fi coped well with all the bass energy, though losing the cymbals on this track sounded slightly muted.

Death of a Bachelor by Panic! at the Disco is always an interesting track to play, thanks to its ridiculous bass extension. The Sennheiser HD 600 (about the same price as the Mo-Fi though an open back design) sounds too polite on this track, failing to reproduce the bass thunder, but in compensation sounds tuneful and clean. The Mo-Fi makes more effort to reproduce the bass but on this very demanding track it does tend to blur (a rare failing with these cans) making the tune harder to follow.

On a modern recording of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas), the Mo-Fi does a fine job reproducing the scale and drama of the opening movement, no trace of blurring here. It is a big sound though again slightly let down by the treble.

No, these are not the best headphones in the world, but they do deliver outstanding quality at what, in audiophile terms, is a moderate cost.

If your preferences veer towards realistic bass and a big, articulate sound you will like the Mo-Fi. If you prefer a sweet, detailed treble with lots of air and space, these might not be for you.

There is one annoyance. One is that the amplifier switch is slightly crackly on my Mo-Fi. I worry that it might get worse over time.

Blue quotes a “15Hz-20kHz” frequency response for both the amplifier and the drivers, but without any indication of how much frequency drops off at the extremes so these figures are meaningless. Impedance is 42 ohms.

Summary

The sound quality is great, but the downside is that the Mo-Fi is relatively heavy and bulky and so some that will be a considerable disadvantage, especially as it does affect the wearing comfort. I can wear the HD 600 all day, whereas after a couple of hours I wanted to remove the Mo-Fi (it might become more comfortable as it wears). The closed back design means you get good sound isolation, which is good or bad depending on how much you want to be able to hear external sounds while listening to music.

If that doesn’t put you off, the Mo-Fi is well worth a listen. It’s well made, thoughtfully packaged, and sounds better than most of its competition.

Huawei P9 smartphone launched in London: first look review

I attended the launch of Huawei’s P9 and P9+ smartphone range in London. This was a global launch from a Chinese company which, like Xiaomi with its impressive presentation at Mobile World Congress, is intent on competing at the high end of the market.

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Huawei also has an important edge over Xiaomi in that its P9 range will be available shortly; from Huawei’s vMall online store in mid-April, or from various UK operators in “early May”.

The review sample came in a smart box with charger, USB type C cable, and white earbuds/headset:

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Insert micro-SIM, switch on, and the start-up experience I would describe as “reasonable for Android”, with a flurry of pop-ups asking for various permissions and agreements to terms and privacy policies; pretty ugly and hard to make sense of, but for this review I tapped OK to agree to most things in order to get what I guess is the normal experience.

I was also prompted to set up the fingerprint reader. This requires several readings of your finger and works well for me. Just touching my right finger on the back will unlock the phone. The phone storage is encrypted by default.

Design-wise, Huawei tried to persuade of the merits of “aerospace-class aluminium”, “diamond-cut edges”, “brushed hairlines” and the like; but while it is decent enough it does not strike me as exceptionally beautiful or nice to hold; of course tastes vary. It is thin and the edges are narrow to maximise the screen space. I am impressed that the designers squeezed a 3000 mAh battery into such a slim, light device.

The camera

Every smartphone needs some differentiation. Huawei has focused (ha!) on the camera. The P9 has a dual lens and the camera is designed in partnership with Leica, a well known and respected brand among professional photographers.

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The back of the P9 showing the dual-lens camera and fingerprint reader.

Both lenses are described as “Leica Summarit”, one 12MP camera is colour and the other monochrome. Dual lenses can help with focus, and in addition Huawei say that the monochrome lens adds detail to an image. You can also take monochrome pictures of course, and this was used to good effect in some of the samples by professional photographers we were shown. Of course you can easily convert any colour image from any camera to monochrome; perhaps the results from a specialist camera are superior.

Huawei also states that dual cameras mean more light and detail in low-light conditions, which absolutely makes sense.

A hybrid focus feature uses “laser, depth calculation, and contrast” and automatically selects the best result, says Huawei.

I have not been trying the P9 for long, but did take roughly the same picture with the P9 and with the Lumia 1020 (the latter famous for its 40MP camera). All settings were default. The P9 is top, the Lumia below, slightly cropped and then reduced in resolution (click for a double-size image):

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The P9 is more vivid and probably most people would prefer it. Here is a zoomed in detail, with the P9 at full resolution and the Lumia reduced to match:

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Of course I am not a professional photographer, nor was I using a tripod; but this is how I use a camera on a phone. My feeling is that the Lumia still comes out well for close detail and I am sorry that Microsoft has not come out with a true successor to the 1020, which will be three years old in July. The sad story of Windows Phone at Microsoft is not the subject of this post however.

There is much more to the P9 camera though. Here is a look at the settings:

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When the camera is open,  there are buttons across the top to control flash, wide aperture (for close-up shots), filter effects, and switching between rear and front (8MP) cameras.

The wide aperture option enables a remarkable feature: the ability to re-focus after taking the shot. Simply take the picture with the wide aperture option. It will be then show up in the Gallery with an aperture icon overlay. Tap the image to open it, then tap the aperture icon below the image.

Now you are in “wide aperture effects” mode. Tap any part of the image to focus on that spot, and enable a slider to vary the aperture after the event.

It really works:

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Now tap the out of focus tulip…

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This is magic and a lot of fun.

You can swipe up for Pro controls:

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In order to get full use of these options (and indeed the rest of the phone) you probably want to download the manual. The Pro controls are (left to right): metering mode (how exposure is set), ISO, Shutter speed, exposure compensation (brightness), focus mode and white balance.

Swipe left for a selection of special camera modes:

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There is also some fancy stuff like voice activated shooting (say “cheese” to take a photo). You can do burst shooting to take a rapid sequence of shots, with the best couple auto-selected. You can take rapid shots (capture the moment) by pressing volume down twice; the screen does not light up immediately but the shot is taken. I got a time from press to photo of about one second using this mode.

Video resolution is a maximum of 1080p, 60 fps, with stereo sound recording.

All things considered, this is an excellent camera, which is why Huawei handed out a book of professional photos taken with the device, which look superb.

Performance

The P9 feels fast and responsive. Huawei mentioned a file system optimization which increases performance but I have not got details of this.

I got a PC Mark score of 6387.

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This is ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which scores 5926. Another mobile which is to hand, a budget Cubot with a quad code 1.3 GHz Mediatek, scores 3223.

On Geekbench 3 I got a score of 1725 single-core and 6087 multi-core. This compares to 2170 and 6360 for the Galaxy S7, so it falls behind slightly.

A bit more detail:

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The biggest difference versus the S7 is in the graphics. The P9’s Mali T880 is not quite the equal of the S7’s Exynos 8890 (on UK models).

Audio

A few notes on the audio side. There are a couple of annoyances, one being that the default music app is not much use to me (I use Spotify or Google Play on Android). The supplied headset is disappointing, with no rubber gel so the fit is rather insecure, and a rather bright sound with little bass. No matter, you can use your own headset; and plugging in a high-quality headset left me with no complaints.

The other good news is that the on-board speakers are remarkable. I can put the phone down, play some music, and really enjoy it. Bass is unusually good considering the lack of a proper speaker enclosure, and clarity is excellent.

Pricing

Let’s get some pricing context. The P9 is a flagship device, though from a company not perceived as a premium brand, and is priced accordingly. At £449 for the cheaper, smaller model it is about 20% less than a Samsung Galaxy S7, and about 27.5% less than an Apple iPhone 6S. It is good value considering the hardware, but not a casual purchase. Here is a table

  RAM Storage Size Screen CPU Battery Special features Price
Huawei P9 3GB 32GB 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3000 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£449
Huawei P9+ 4GB 64GB 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3400 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£549
Samsung
Galaxy S7
4GB 32GB 5.1″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3000 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£569
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 4GB 32GB 5.5″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3600 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£639
Apple iPhone 6S 2GB From 16GB 4.7″ 1334×750 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1715 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£539
Apple iPhone 6s Plus 2GB From 16GB 5.5″ 1920×1080 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
2750 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£619
Apple iPhone SE 2GB From 16GB 4″ 1136×640 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1624 mAh Fingerprint sensor from £359

The table above comes with a number of caveats. It doesn’t cover all the important specifications, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of materials or design, and some details, like the amount of storage, vary depending on the exact offer. The prices are for unlocked phones, whereas most people buy on contract. Apple’s prices tend to be higher than shown, because who wants just 16GB non-expandable storage? With 64GB the 6Se goes up to £439 and the 6S to £619.

First look conclusion

A couple of days with this phone leaves me convinced that Huawei has come up with a true high-end device at a very reasonable price. The camera is outstanding in terms of features though having been spoilt with the Lumia 1020 I would like a bit more than 12MP; I realise though that counting pixels is no way to judge a camera.

On the software side I note that the out of box experience on Android is not great, thanks to incessant permission pop-ups and confusing alternatives for things like music and email. Samsung’s apps are a bit better I think; but if you mostly live in Google apps or other favourite third-party apps, you will not care too much. Everything I have tried so far has worked.

The usefulness of the fingerprint reader is a pleasant surprise, as is the sound quality from the built-in speakers.

For sure the P9 is well worth considering if you are looking for an Android mobile with great performance and an interesting camera. It is excellent value for price/performance.

I think Samsung should worry a bit, not just about Huawei, but about other Chinese vendors with aggressive marketing plans, such as Xiaomi. Apple? On the train back I spoke to a passenger using an iPhone and asked whether she would switch to a mobile that was both better (in hardware terms) and cheaper. No, she said, because everything syncs between my phone, iPad and computer. Of course she could switch to Android and get similar synching with apps from other vendors; but I got the impression she is happy to stay in Apple’s world where stuff (more or less) just works. In this respect, it doesn’t help that each Android vendor wants to make their mark with distinctive apps; for many users that is just additional complication (I have declined to set up a Huawei ID, despite being prompted).

An impressive device though, and a clear statement of intent from Huawei.

Raspberry Pi does Audio at the Wigwam HiFi Show 2016

The Wigwam Hifi Show is an unusual event, in that most of the exhibitors are not vendors with their latest and shiniest, but enthusiasts showing off their own systems. It is a lot of fun, with plenty of exotic and/or old equipment that you will not see or hear elsewhere.

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I have exhibited at the show in the past, and try to do something a little different each time. This year I thought it would be interesting to contrast the many multi-box and expensive systems with something at the other end of the scale. I was impressed when I reviewed the IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ for issue 36 of the MagPi magazine, so I took it along.

This unit is a board that plugs in on top of the main Raspberry Pi board.

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It is very simple, the only external connectors being power in, and left and right speaker terminals. It includes a DAC and a class D amplifier, based on the Texas Instruments (TI) TAS5756m chipset. The DAC is based on a Burr-Brown design.

I assembled my unit using a Raspberry Pi 2, the above board, and the matching case and power supply from IQ Audio. The power supply is the XP Power VEF50US15 which means I get up to 2x20w; if you use a VEF65US19 you can get 2x35w (both available from the IQAudio site).

Here it is in the room at Scalford Hall, home of the Wigwam event.

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The speakers shown are the Cambridge Audio Aero 6, though we also had a pair of Quad 11L and tried them both.

The way things work at this event is that you sleep in your room the night before, and the next morning the bed is removed and it becomes your exhibition room. Having tried the system with the bed in place, I was distressed to find it sounding markedly worse (bloated bass) once the bed was removed. With no time for proper experimentation we dragged the mattress back out of the cupboard and leant it against the wall, which improved matters; we also used foam bungs in the speaker ports to tame the bass. Not ideal, but shows the difficulty of getting good sound at short notice in small hotel rooms.

The Cambridge Audio Aero 6 speakers I would describe as a good budget choice; they sell for around £350. Philosophically (as with the Quads) they are designed to be clean, detailed and uncoloured. The choice of floorstanders rather than small standmounts was deliberate, as I wanted to demonstrate that using a tiny amplifier does not necessarily mean a small sound.

Having said that, we also put the Quads on from time to time, which are small standmounts. The sound was not radically different, though bass extension is less and to my ears the 11Ls are a little less precise than the Aeros, with a warmer sound. I preferred the Aeros but as ever with loudspeakers, tastes vary.

The complete parts list as shown:

  • Raspberry Pi 2 £26.00
  • IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ £57.99
  • IQAudio Pi-CASE+ £15.60
  • 15v Power Brick XP Power VEF50US15 £25.50

If I were buying today, I would recommend the new Raspberry Pi 3 and the more powerful 19v power supply which increases the cost by about £10.00.

So that is between £125 and £135 for the complete device, and then whatever you choose for the speakers.

For the demonstration I brought along a router with wi-fi, to which I attached a hard drive with lots of FLAC files ripped from CD, along with a few high-res files. The router lets you attach a USB drive and share it over the network, so I configured Volumio on the Pi to use that as its source. In a typical home setup, you would probably store your music on a NAS device and use your existing home network.

Where’s the amplifier?

There was a steady stream of visitors from around 10.00am to the close of the show at around 17.00. The goal was not to be the best sound at the show, but rather to be the smallest and still deliver decent sound quality, and for many visitors I think we succeeded. We stuck the equipment list on the wall and lots of people photographed it with the intention of looking into it further.

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A demo under way: spot the mattress leaning against the wall and the smaller Quad speakers alongside the Cambridge Audios.

A number of visitors knew of, or were even using, a Pi for streaming, but the idea of having the amplifier included on a small board was less familiar; it was fun when people asked where the amplifier was, or whether the speakers were active (they are not). Some were really astonished that you can get respectable sound quality from such a small box.

Volume was more than sufficient for a room this size and frankly plenty for most home situations though of course not for huge rooms or loud parties.

Note that despite playing loud throughout the day the amp board did not get warm at all; this is because a Class D design delivers almost all the power supplied as output to the loudspeakers.

A few early comments from the forums:

“The super small Raspberry Pi based system by onlyconnect was a brilliant demo of what can be achieved by something tiny and low cost.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t have heard it… To boot, completely taking price out of the equation, it was one of the better sounding systems at the show to my ears, I enjoyed that more than some far, far more expensive rigs.”

“Highlights. Onlyconnect’s raspi based system, honestly why pay more for music around the house?”

“Onlyconnect’s Raspberry system was impressive and wins the GVFM award.”

“Onlyconnect’s mini/budget system – just amazing how good a £125 raspberry pi setup containing streamer, dac, preamp and 35w per channel amp could sound. I can’t forget how flabbergasted another listener was to discover the total system cost  -” I’ve obviously doing it all wrong all these years”

“I spent a while looking for the amplifier, following the cables etc like everybody else. I was impressed by the sound coming out of the Cambridge Audio speakers, I would certainly put this in the top 40% of rooms based on the sound quality, maybe higher.”

Upgrading a PC to SSD (Crucial MX200)

The trigger for me was Visual Studio 2015 – a large software installation – which I managed to break by installing some beta software. I couldn’t fix it easily, and knew I would have to uninstall it completely and then reinstall, which takes ages.

One thing that speeds up this kind of thing is to use an SSD instead of a hard drive. I already use SSD on my laptop, but my PC had two 1TB WD Black hard drives in a RAID configuration.

I ordered a 1TB Crucial MX200 SSD. While I could have managed with a smaller one, the larger size is worth it for me if only for the convenience of not having to spend time uninstalling stuff and reorganising my existing drive to free up enough space to downsize.

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This 2.5″ SSD drive comes with a spacer and a code for downloading Acronis True Image. I did so, and used it to clone the existing drive. It took several hours but worked perfectly.

This PC is nearly four years old and based on an Intel Core i5. It has recently been upgraded to Windows 10. I am more than happy with the performance of the SSD. Here are the figures from CrystalDiskMark:

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Here are the results from my old 1TB WD Black RAID:

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There are not many upgrades that will get you such a dramatic performance improvement, and for me it made reinstalling Visual Studio 2015 substantially less painful.

I no longer have RAID on the C drive. The SSD according to Crucial [PDF] has an MTTF of 1.5 million hours (170 years or so) and “endurance” of 320TBW, equivalent to 175GB per day for five years. The implication is that after 320TB has been written, the drive will sill work but will be read-only. I don’t take much notice of such claims, but I can accept that today’s SSDs are more reliable than hard drives. If it fails though, I doubt that any data can be coaxed out of it, as you can often do with a hard drive. Even with RAID though you still need a backup strategy, so I will now be relying on that.

Hard drives are still useful for storing lots of stuff in a NAS (Network Attached Storage) but I can’t see myself using them again as the primary drive in a PC or laptop.