Category Archives: gadgets

Review: Kingston Predator 1TB USB stick, huge capacity but at a price

You can never have too much storage. Cloud storage has solved some problems – for example, it is probably what you now use to show images to a friend or customer – but there are still plenty of cases when you want your stuff with you. Videos, large engineering drawings, backups, virtual hard drives, high resolution audio files; the list goes on.

The advent of tablets and ultrabooks with SSDs in place of hard drives also means that on-board storage has actually reduced, compared to that laptop you used to carry with you.

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Enter Kingston, with the HyperX Predator 1TB USB 3.0 flash drive (there is also a 512GB version). Open the tin box and there it is, complete with key ring and USB cable.

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It’s small compared to a hard drive, but large for a USB stick, measuring 72mm x 26.94mm x 21mm. However, the chunky size and zinc alloy case do give you the sense that Kingston means business.

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The pen does not come with the drive; I have included it in the picture above to give you an idea of the size; it is not really that large. Note too that the zinc alloy sleeve pulls out to protect the the USB connection; it slides open and shut a little too easily for my liking. Still, it is a smart design.

What about the performance? Kingston specifies 240 MB/s read and 160 MB/s write. On my Core i5 PC with USB 3.0 I get that or slightly better copying a file:

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There are some caveats though. Initially I tried using the supplied USB cable, but the drive did not work properly. If I tried to copy a 1.5GB file the drive dismounted itself and the copy failed. I plugged the drive directly into the USB 3.0 port and it then worked perfectly.

I then tried the drive on a laptop that which has a USB 3.0 port. It worked fine with or without the cable. I am not sure what to conclude from this other than USB can be finicky.

The design of the device means that you may not be able to push the USB connection fully home, or that the device may protrude below the base of your laptop or tablet. In these cases you do need the cable.

At this price I would like to see integrated encryption, though users can use Windows Bitlocker or similar to protect their data if it is sensitive.

Despite these niggles, the device is gorgeous and amazing, in terms of the capacity you can now put in your pocket.

Is it good value? It depends what you pay of course. Right now, this thing costs £679.98 on Amazon.co.uk, supposedly a 42% saving on an RRP of £1,169.99. But you could save some money by getting one of those portable USB 3.0 cases and sticking a 1TB SSD inside; currently a Samsung 1TB SSD costs £285.75 on Amazon as well as boasting better performance: 540 MB/s read and 520 MB/s write, though even USB 3.0 will slow it down a bit.

What you would end up with though is a portable drive that is bulkier and for which a cable is unavoidable. You cannot hang it on a keyring. It is less convenient.

So there it is: if you want a handy USB stick with 1TB capacity now you can have it, but at a price.

Specification

  • USB 3.0 backward compatible with USB 2.0
  • File format: exFAT
  • Speed1 USB 3.0: 240MB/s read and 160MB/s write. USB 2.0: 30MB/s read and 30MB/s write
  • Dimensions without key ring: 72mm x 26.94mm x 21mm

 

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.

Review: Turtle Beach z300 headset. Super flexible, shame about the sound

The Turtle Beach Z300 is a super flexible gaming headset, with wired and wireless connections, Dolby 7.1 virtual surround sound, and extra features like switchable dynamic range compression. It is primarily for PC gaming, but also works with Mac (no Dolby surround) and with any Bluetooth-compatible device – which means almost any smartphone or tablet. You can also use the wire to plug it into any device with a 3.5mm audio jack.

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In the box you get the headset, detachable microphone, USB cable, jack cable, USB transceiver, and some documents including a note about having to download the Dolby 7.1 drivers. I still recommend downloading the online manual, which is more detailed than anything in the box.

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A few more details on the three ways to connect:

Wireless via a USB transceiver. This is the preferred method for a PC. The USB transceiver is pre-paired and indicates via an LED whether or not the headset is connected.

Traditional wire. A jack cable is supplied which connects to the left earcup and has a standard four-way 3.5mm jack on the other end, suitable for a phone or tablet. In wired mode you still need to charge the headset and have it powered on.

Bluetooth. You can pair with up to two devices. The right earcup has Bluetooth volume controls, and a Bluetooth button for answering, rejecting and ending calls.

The actual headset seems sturdily made and features a fabric-covered headband and earpads. The material feels slightly coarse at first, and the earcups are slightly on the small side, but in practice I found the comfort reasonable.

The microphone is on a flexible boom and is detachable. You can also swing it up above the left earcup to get it out of the way.

You charge the Z300 via a mini USB port on the right earcup, which annoyingly is the old type, not the slightly smaller one now found on most phones and tablets. A cable is supplied, though it is too short to reach from the floor to your headset if you are wearing it, and in my case too short even to reach from the front panel of my PC. You might want to get a longer cable if you expect to charge while wearing. Play time is specified at 15 hours.

An annoyance: there is no indication of remaining charge.

How about the other controls? There are several:

Power on/off on the left earcup and easy to find by feel. The headset automatically powers off after 5 minutes of inactivity.

Master volume on left earcup.

Mic monitor volume on left earcup. This controls how much sound from the mic is fed back to your. It does not affect the volume heard on the other side.

Tone on left earcup: cycles through 4 “game modes”. These are Flat, Bass boost, Treble boost, and Bass and Treble boost. I generally used the Flat mode for this review.

Dynamic Range Compression on left earcup: raises the volume of quiet sounds. The effect seems minimal to me.

Bluetooth controls on right earcup: as mentioned above.

If you use the USB transceiver and a Windows PC you can insteall a Dolby 7.1 driver. Note: these are stereo headphones, but when used with this driver they support Dolby’s virtual surround system. You enable this by going into the Windows sound properties dialog (eg right-click the speaker icon and choose Playback Devices), then showing the properties dialog for the Turtle Beach speakers. A surround sound tab then lets you enable “Dolby Headphone”. You can also choose between two modes: Music or Movie.

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Enabling Dolby Headphone makes a substantial difference to the sound. It is distinctly louder, and the sound seems to fill out more. On games with true surround sound, the virtual sound should mean that you get spatial clues about the source of an explosion or footstep, for example, though you need to make sure the game is set to output in surround sound.

I tried this and reckon it works a bit. It is not as good as a headset I tried that really did have multiple speakers. My big gripe though is that if you enable Dolby Headphone, it messes up true stereo, for example on music. You no longer hear the mix as intended.

This would not matter too much if it were easy to switch Dolby Headphone on and off, but it is a hassle to go into Windows sound controls every time. I would like to see more effort go into usability.

How about the sound quality? Here is my second big gripe about this headset. The sound is not great, with anaemic bass and a nothing special in the mid-range or treble. For gaming it is not too bad, and I did find the audio atmospheric if you can live without much bass thunder, but for music they are not good enough.

The microphone quality is fine. I tried the headset with Dragon Dictate, just to check the quality, and got high accuracy of transcription which is a good sign.

In summary, the flexibility is exceptional, the build quality is fine, but the sound is lacking. Personally I would not use these as my main headset because I do both gaming and music listening; but if your main use is gaming they would be OK.

Price is around $170 or £170 (better value in the USA it seems).

Review: Innergie PocketCell pocket battery charger: elegant design though limited capacity

Smartphone battery life has marched backwards, or so it seems: my ancient HTC Desire still lasts longer on a full charge than my newer Nokia Lumia 620 or Sony Xperia T. Another problem is tablets: battery life is decent compared to a laptop, but it is easy to get caught towards the end of the day or on a plane with an exhausted battery.

The solution, if you cannot get to a charger, is one of those pocket chargers for topping up your device. These are popular promotional giveaways, which means I have a drawer full of them (or would if I had kept them); but many are rubbish: bulky, fiddly with lots of assorted adapters to cope with different phones, and some with pointless adornments like solar panels.

I make a partial exception for a PowerTrip charger I received recently, which has an impressive 5700mAh battery, but it is still ugly, comes with three cables, and has silly extras like a solar panel and ability to work as a memory stick.

By contrast, the Innergie PocketCell is the first charger I have seen which has immediately impressed me with its design.

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There are only two pieces you need to carry with you, the small battery pack itself and a clever three-in-one cable in which the adapters snap together, so you can charge a device with Mini-B or Micro-B USB (the two popular types), or an Apple 30-pin dock connector (if you have an iPhone 5 or another device with the new Lightning Connector you are out of luck unless you have an adaptor).

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The same connector also serves to charge the PocketCell, using one of the many USB mains chargers you almost certainly already possess, or by plugging into a PC or Mac. The PocketCell has a USB Type A socket for output, and a Micro-B for input, so you cannot easily get it wrong.

On the side of the PocketCell is a button which you press to discover the current charge. It lights up to four LEDs, to indicate the level of charge remaining.

Battery capacity is 3000 mAh; not as good as a PowerTrip, but decent considering that it is less than one-third the size and much lighter (72g/ 2.5oz).

I tried the PowerCell on an iPhone 4 with a fully expired battery (at least, expired to the point where it would not switch on).

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The phone charged successfully, during which time the PocketCell got somewhat warm, but with impressive speed of charge. After the charge the PocketCell was pretty much exhausted.

The PocketCell supports 2.1 amp fast charge, which means it is fine for charging an iPad or other tablets with USB power.

The small size, nice design, and effective charging of the Innergie PocketCell means this device might actually find its way into your bag. The downside is that it is more expensive (especially in the UK) than some other portable chargers with equal or greater capacity, but its elegance and usability is worth a bit extra.

While I recommend the device, check that 3000 mAh is sufficient for you before purchase. I have also heard that the three in one cable is a little delicate, though you can get replacements if necessary or use a standard USB cable.

 

Expanding the Raspberry Pi with PiFace and Pi Rack

The marvellous Raspberry Pi, essentially a cheap, small PC, is a great device for education or home projects like media streaming. Out of the box though, it is not ideal for controlling other devices other than by USB or ethernet. What if you wanted to to use it to operate a switch under program control? You can use the GPIO (General Purpose IO) header, but it is a considerable step up in terms of the electronics knowledge needed for success (and to avoid damaging your Pi).

Element14 has an answer to this in the form of the PiFace, which connects to the GPIO header and provides a range of inputs and outputs. To be precise:

  • 2 changeover relays. These switch a link between a central common pin and two other pins.
  • 8 open-collector outputs. You can use these as switches for an externally powered device.
  • 8 digital inputs. These detect whether a contact is open or closed.
  • 4 switches. These close the first four inputs when depressed.

Element14 kindly supplied a PiFace to me for review, along with another accessory, the Pi Rack, of which more in a moment.

The PiFace comes in a small cardboard box with a regulatory compliance leaflet and no other documentation.

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Here is a closer view:

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You can see the inputs at bottom left, the outputs at top right, and the relays on the right. The following diagram from the Element14 site shows the details:

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The PiFace fits on top of the Raspberry Pi. A rubber foot on the underside rests on the HDMI port relieving the strain on the GPIO connector. If you have a standard size Raspberry Pi case, it will no longer fit once the PiFace is attached, though you can still use the base of the case as I did for my tests. Note that by default the PiFace takes power from the Pi, though this has implications for the power supply you use, which must be 850-1400 mA for the model B Pi.

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On the software side, installation is either by downloading a pre-built Raspbian image with the software already in place, or by modifying your existing installation. I am using the soft-float Debian Wheezy build and chose the latter route. It is not difficult; just enable the SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) driver by removing it from the modprobe blacklist, run an install script, and reboot. The scripts come from a github repository here.

The PiFace software includes a nice emulator which lets you operate the switches. I am not sure that emulator is quite the right description because it really does operate the switches.

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Being more of a software person than an electronics engineer, I set myself a simple task: to operate a light switch under program control. I used a child’s electronics kit to provide the light. First I tried using the relay, which was very simple: it is just a switch. Next I used one of the open-collector outputs which also worked once I had found out that the negative connection from my external 3V power supply connects to GND on the PiFace. Here is my light in action:

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Note the LED is lit on the output terminal indicating that the switch is ON. Rather than the external supply, I could have taken 5v from the PiFace. A very simple test, but if you can switch a bulb on and off you can switch any number of other things as well, provided the voltage is not too great. Above 5v requires changing some jumper settings and even the relays should not be used for voltages over 20v or currents greater than 5A.

What about programmatic control? Libraries are supplied for Python, C and Scratch (a visual programming language primarily for education). I adapted the example Python script as follows:

from time import sleep
import piface.pfio as pfio
pfio.init()

while (not pfio.digital_read(1)):
if (pfio.digital_read(0)):
  pfio.digital_write(2,1)
else:
  pfio.digital_write(2,0)
sleep(1)

print "Bye"

This script loops until you depress (or otherwise close) the second physical switch or input on the PiFace. It reads the value of the first input, and if it is ON it turns on the output which lights the bulb. Rather pointless, but shows how easy it is to turn a physical device on and off under program control, and to respond to the value on an input.

I like the PiFace though it is in competition with the slightly more expensive Gertboard which has a motor controller, Digital to analogue and analogue to digital converters, and an on-board programmable MCU (Microcontroller). You might not need those features though, making PiFace a better choice.

A snag with the PiFace is that it uses the GPIO port and therefore prevents you using that port for anything else. In order to fix this and to increase the expandability of the Raspberry Pi, Element14 also supply the Pi Rack. This is a simple affair that give you four connections to the GPIO port. You can use this to operate more than one PiFace (each must have a different jumper-set address) or to use other GPIO devices such as the Pi Camera Module. The Pi Rack has its own 5v power input though no power supply comes in the box. Jumpers let you select which power supply to use on a connector-by-connector basis, and to swap the SPI CE (chip enable) lines if needed.

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Here is the Pi Rack in use with a PiFace. In practice you would want additional support for the PiFace rather than just relying on the connector.

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Currently the PiFace Digital is £20.30 and the Pi Rack £6.99.

DTS Headphone X surround sound from stereo is astonishing though Z+ music app disappoints

I first heard the DTS surround sound from stereo demo at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The technology is called Headphone X. It was astonishing. You went into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 theatre – it was in association with Qualcomm become some DTS technology is baked into the latest Snapdragon chipset – sat in a plush armchair, and donned stereo headphones.

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The next thing you knew, sound was coming from front left. Then front right. Then rear left. The illusion was amazing, and I was not the only one who removed their headphones temporarily to check that they really were the sole source of the sound.

I interviewed the DTS folk about the technology, and also spoke to the guys at Dolby. Nothing new, said the Dolby folk, we’ve had virtual surround sound for years. Yet, the demo at the Dolby stand fell far short of what DTS was showing.

Now you can try it, if you have an Android or iOS device. Download the Z+ app and listen to the demo.

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I tried this on someone today, and his “Wow!” reaction showed that the demo is still astonishing. You know it is an illusion, but it sounds as if you are seated in the middle of a room with five or more speakers.

If DTS has proved that surround sound from stereo is possible, what are the implications? Surround sound has not failed exactly, but its inconvenience has limited take-up. Many surround mixes of music albums are now hard to find, because they were made for long out of print SACD or DVD-Audio releases. What if you could easily download all these mixes and enjoy them with stereo headphones or earbuds?

An enticing thought, but there are caveats. The Z+ app, for example, is disappointing once you get beyond the demo. The only album it plays is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to the Superman film, Man of Steel. One track is included for free, and the others are in-app purchases. It sounds good, but the surround effect is less convincing than it is in the demo. I heard better music demos in Barcelona. I also get superior sound on the iPhone than on the iPad (it is an iPhone app), though I might be imagining it, and in both cases I get occasional stuttering, though that may be because I am not testing on the latest generation Apple hardware.

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An app that only plays one album is not a revolution in sound, and if this is to go mainstream, DTS needs to sell its technology to one of the major music download or streaming services and have it built-in to the client app. It has made a start, with its Qualcomm deal which is meant to be in shipping chipsets from “the second half of 2013” according to the information in Barcelona. My guess is that any problems with stuttering will be removed when there is hardware support.

How does it work? The DTS guys told that it “it’s psychoacoustics. You’re triggering the brain with responses that induce it to say, this is from here. It’s a combination of timing and frequency. That’s traditional virtualisation.” After that, they explained, they apply room acoustics that take the illusion to another level. This could be the room acoustic of the studio, achieving a holy grail for audio engineers, or that of the listener’s own room or a concert hall, for example. The room acoustic can be user-selectable, though this is not a feature of the current Z+ app.

There is a caveat that might upset hi-fi enthusiasts. Think about it. Virtual surround sound is delivered in stereo, which seems impossible, but then again we only have two ears. Our ears are designed to hear sounds more clearly if they are in front of us. Therefore, to simulate a sound coming from behind you, do you need to make it less clear?

I put this point to a guy from DTS, that parts of the music are in a sense deliberately distorted or muffled. “That occurs naturally by our head,” I was told. So is the fidelity of the sound reduced in order to achieve the surround illusion? “No differently than speakers in a surround system would do anyway,” he said.

Another caveat is that, by design, the system only works with headphones. Of course, if you have a full surround system in your room, you can play surround mixes in the normal way, turning to the DTS technology only for headphone listening. Headphones are also unable to recreate the effect of a sub-woofer which you can feel in your chest. “It’s a physical element. We’re not going to be able to replicate it,” said DTS.

Headphones are unbeatable though if you want to recreate the acoustic of a different room, such as the studio where the music was mixed. Further, for a mass market, delivering surround sound through a mobile device and standard earphones is the right approach.

The Z+ app is disappointing, but I would nevertheless encourage anyone with an interest in audio technology to download it and try the demo. Headphone X has huge potential and I shall follow its progress with interest.

Virtual Reality with Oculus Rift

I tried these on during Microsoft’s Build conference, at the Xamarin party. No, it is not me in the picture.

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No, it’s not Microsoft’s answer to Google Glass. Rather, it is the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality headset funded by a Kickstarter project that achieved nearly 10 times its original goal.

Unfortunately it is hard to photograph, but what you get is a view of a 3D virtual world which responds to the turn of your head. The added realism is extraordinary, even though the current model shows a slightly pixelated screen; this will apparently be fixed for the first commercial release.

There is one snag with the Rift, which is the urge to move around by walking. Not too good in as you will soon hit the wall. The developers have thought of this, and I saw a picture of a walking platform, where you walk on the spot and sensors pick up your direction of virtual travel. Unfortunately my guess is that such a platform will fail the “conveniently fits in the living room” test.

It will not necessarily be the Oculus Rift; but virtual reality is so compelling that its time must surely come. It would be utterly great with more movement sensors so that you could climb walls, engage in sword fights and so on.

Wearing a great big headset is unsocial though as the point is to immerse yourself in a virtual world. Looking like an idiot also comes with the territory. Hit or miss? Not sure.

A big ball of Bluetooth at Microsoft Build

At Microsoft’s Build developer conference in San Francisco the company is showing off new features of Windows 8.1, now in preview, a major update to Windows 8.0.

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In a session on the Windows Runtime, the platform behind the tablet platform in Windows 8, there was a dramatic moment when a huge black ball rumbled onto the stage and threatened to destroy the “Lemonade stand” which the presenters were using to showcase how a very small business might use Windows 8.

The significance of the ball (a custom Sphero) is that Windows 8.1 has Bluetooth APIs built in, so that app developers can easily control a Bluetooth device from code.

Robotics is an obvious application, but with increasing numbers of Bluetooth devices out there, this is a smart move by Microsoft.

Acer announces 8.1” Windows tablet – but will desktop Windows work in this format?

Acer has announced an 8.1″ Windows tablet, the Iconia W3:

  • Intel Atom 1.8Ghz dual-core Z2760 CPU
  • 8 hr battery life
  • 1280 x 800 screen
  • 2GB RAM
  • Front and rear 2 MP cameras
  • Micro HDMI
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • GPS
  • 32 or 64GB storage
  • Micro SD
  • Bundles Office 2013 Home and Student
  • Optional keyboard $79.99
  • $379.99, available this month

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Anything wrong with this picture? Certainly it could be handy for using Windows on the go, being more compact than a Surface (though how much more, if you include the keyboard?) and much cheaper than Surface Pro.

There are some snags though. This device runs full Windows 8 rather than Windows RT, the ARM version, so you can run all your desktop apps; but many will be no fun to use on an 8.0″ screen, or without keyboard and mouse. The Modern – that is, Metro-style – apps should be fine, but the Windows 8 app ecosystem is still weak so you may struggle to get by on those. There is Office – and it is smart of Acer to bundle Home and Student – but will you be squinting to use it on such a small screen?

My hunch is that Windows will not sing on small tablets until there is a version of Office for the Modern UI.