Category Archives: reviews

Review: Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking 13

I have great admiration for Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking, mainly because of its superb text recognition engine. New versions appear regularly and the recognition engine seems to improve a little each time. The recently released version 13 is no exception, and I am getting excellent results right now as I dictate into Word.

If you are still under the illusion that dictation is not viable unless you are unable to type, it may be that you have not tried Dragon recently. Another possibility is that you tried Dragon with a poor microphone. I recommend a high quality USB headset such as those from Plantronics or Jabra. USB is preferred since you are not dependent on the microphone preamplifier built into your PC, which is often poor.

At the same time, Dragon can be an intrusive application. The problem is that Dragon tries to accomplish two distinct tasks. One is to enable dictation and to some extent transcription of recordings, which is something anybody might want to take advantage of. For example, one of my uses is transcribing interviews, where I play my recording into a headset and read it back into the microphone. It is a lot quicker than the normal stop-start typing approach and even if it is a little less accurate the time-saving is worthwhile.

Incidentally, Dragon is nowhere near smart enough yet to transcribe an interview directly. Background noise combined with the variety of accents used make this generally a hopeless task. In principle though, there is no reason why software should not be able to accomplish this as both processing power and algorithms improve so watch this space.

The other task for which people use Dragon is as an assistive technology. Those unable to use mouse and keyboard need to be able to navigate the operating system and its applications by other means, and Dragon installs the hooks necessary for this to work. This is where the intrusive aspect comes to the fore, and I wish Dragon had a stripped down install option for those who simply want dictation.

I had some issues with the Outlook add-in, which I do not use anyway. Outlook complained about the add-in and automatically disabled it, following which it was Dragon’s turn to sulk:

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That said, it is possible to configure it as you want. Because of this kind of annoyance, I tend to avoid Dragon’s add-ons for applications like Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer. If you are using Dragon as an assistive tool though, you probably need to get them working.

Dragon can be fiddly then, which is why users who dive in and expect excellent results quickly may well have a bad experience. Speech recognition and interaction with applications that were primarily designed for mouse and keyboard is a hard task; you will have to make some effort to get the best from it.

What’s new?

So what is new in version 13? The first thing you will notice is that the Dragon bar, which forms the main user interface, has been redesigned. The old one is docked right across the top of the screen by default and has traditional drop-down menus. You can also have it floating like this:

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The new bar has modern touch-friendly icons, though these turn out to be drop-down menus in disguise:

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There is also an option to collapse the bar when not in use, in which case it goes tiny:

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Another user interface change is that the handy Dragon Sidebar, a help panel which shows what commands you can use in the current application and which changes dynamically according to context, has been revamped as the Learning Center. Here it is in Word, for example:

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I like the Learning Center, which is a genuine help until you are familiar with all the commands.

The changes to the Dragon  user interface are mostly cosmetic, but not entirely. One innovation is that the Dragon Bar now works in Store apps in Windows 8. Here I am dictating into Code Writer, a Store app:

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It works, but this seems to be work in progress. Dragon is really a desktop application, and I found that some commands would mysteriously bounce me back to the desktop, and others just did not work. For example, the Bar prompted me to open the Dictation Box for an unsupported application, and moments later informed me that it could not be used here.

Another issue is that the Bar sits over the full-screen app, obstructing some of the text. You can workaround this by shunting it to the right. My guess though is that you will have a frustrating time trying to use Dragon with Store apps; but it is good to see Nuance making the effort.

What else is new? Well, Nuance has made it easier to get started, and no longer forces you to complete a training exercise (training Dragon to understand you, not you to understand Dragon) before you can use a profile. It is not really a big change, since you should do this anyway in order to get good results.

There is also better support for web browsers other than Internet Explorer. In particular, there are extensions for Chrome and Firefox which Nuance says gives “full text control”.

Worth upgrading?

If you want or need speech to text, Dragon is the best option out there, much better in my experience than what is built into Windows, and better on Windows than on a Mac. In that respect, I recommend it; though with the caveat that you should work with a high quality microphone and be willing to invest time and effort in training its recognition engine and learning to use it.

If you have an earlier version, even as far back as 11, is 13 worth the upgrade? That is hard to say. The user interface changes are mostly cosmetic; but if you use the latest Microsoft Office then getting the latest Dragon is worth it for best compatibility.

The other factor is the gradually improving speech recognition. Comparing the accuracy of, say, version 11 with version 13 would be a valuable exercise but sadly I have not found time to do it. I can report my impression that it makes fewer errors than ever in this version, but that is subjective.

Frankly, if you use dictation a lot, get the latest version anyway; even small improvements add up to more productivity and less frustration.

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: Vibe FLI Over headphones with “Extreme bass”

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Can you get true bass from headphones? Arguably not quite, since you can feel real bass in your chest, whereas with headphones the air simply is not moving. You can still get the sound right, and that is the promise of Vibe’s Fli-over headphones with “extreme bass”.

This promise caught my interest, since bass quality (or its lack) is one of the biggest differentiators between live and recorded music. I dislike bloated, mushy bass; but I do want to hear the full frequencies, whether it is the tuneful plucking of a double bass in a jazz group, or the pounding drum sounds in rock or rap. Listening at home you often miss out, partly because of lower volume levels, and partly because most systems do not do bass well.

But do the Fli-overs deliver?

I put on the Fli-overs with some trepidation. Was I going to hear pumped-up bass that wrecks the musical balance? Fortunately I did not. The sound is slightly warm and tilted a little towards the low-end, but it is also sweet and tuneful. Where is the extreme bass though?

The answer is that it depends what you play. I happened to put on “No more I love you’s” by Annie Lennox and heard for the first time the deep bass in the slow beat in the opening part of the song. Hmm, I thought, perhaps there is something in the claims.

I sought out some rap and electronica that shows off bass performance, by artists like Psyph Morrison, The Dream, and Bassotronic. If this kind of music is your bag, and you don’t want your headphones to make the bass toned-down and polite, you will find the Fli-overs do a better job than most.

On the Miles Davis track So What, from Kind of Blue, you can follow the bass line easily, without it being overwhelming.

Overall the sound is above average for headphones at this price level. I find them enjoyable for any kind of music, though better for rock and jazz than for classical, where I find the sound a little closed-in and lacking in clarity and detail compared to the best I have heard, but still decent.

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I am not so sure about the comfort though. The earpads are soft but the earcups rather ungenerous in size for an over-ear design, making it hard to find a comfortable position (of course this kind of thing varies from person to person). The headband is lined with a firm rubbery material that feels somewhat hard. The grip of the headphones is tighter than most, though will likely looosen over time. If you wear glasses as I do, this again makes them less comfortable. They are not the worst I have worn, but if comfort is a priority I would suggest looking elsewhere, or at least trying them out before purchase.

The cable is just over 1.5m (though it says 1.0m on the box), enough for most environments, and is a flat style that is somewhat resistant to tangling. There is a microphone and call/answer button in the cord, so you can use these as a headset for a mobile phone, or for voice over IP calls on a tablet. I found this worked well on a Nexus Android tablet.

The headphones have a closed back and noise isolation is good in both directions. They also fold, though no bag is supplied, and would be quite suitable for use in flight.

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if you want to enjoy music where deep bass is central to the experience, these cans will deliver where most do not.

More information on the Vibe site here.

Review: Kingston HyperX Cloud headset, excellent sound and comfort

Beautifully packaged and presented (strong inner box with outer sleeve) this gaming headset has a real premium feel to it, further enhanced by a high-quality drawstring bag which includes an outer pocket to store the heap of supplied cables and adaptors.

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What is a “gaming headset”? Essentially, simply including a microphone is enough for some, though you might expect a gaming headset to be tilted towards a more exciting presentation with deep bass and sharp treble. Personally I favour a neutral presentation since getting an exciting sound is the job of those producing and mastering the audio for the game, not the headset, though an extended frequency response is needed. Fortunately the HyperX Cloud gets this mostly right, which is why it is decent for music as well as games.

“You are now on the way to the ultimate gaming experience,” proclaims the letter on the inner box (though that is all the documentation I could find, save what is printed on the outside of the box itself – you can download a manual from the HyperX site if you want).

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But is the claim justified?

Despite the futuristic brand name, this is a traditional over-ear closed-back headset with analogue-only connections. This means you have a jack plug for the headphones and a second jack plug for the microphone. There is also an adapter that combines them to form the four-way jack used by smartphones, tablets, and PlayStation 4. A further cable lets you add an in-line control box with passive volume control, call/answer button and microphone mute. The closed back design means good noise isolation and less disturbance for others in the same room.

Analogue connections are essential for smartphone use, but on a PC it means you are reliant on the quality of the audio out and mic in on the soundcard. The microphone input is often a weak point. You can avoid this by using a USB headset, so don’t get this unless you are confident of the quality of your soundcard. Further, with an analogue headset there are no whizzy virtual effects, no great loss in my opinion.

Here is what you get in the box:

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  • Adapter for smartphones and tablets
  • 1m extension cable with inline control box
  • 2m extension cable
  • Aeroplane adapter (for old-style aeroplane seats)
  • Detachable microphone
  • Generous drawstring bag
  • A pair of spare earpads, with a fabric finish in place of the smooth finish on the pre-fitted earpads. Both are comfortable.

The main cable is braided, as is the control box extension, but the other cables are not braided, which is odd.

If you use all the cables you end up with a 4m cable. If you want to use the control box, you end up with a 2m cable. Too long is better than too short, but you might find it getting in the way.

It is a tiny detail, but I would have liked colour coding on the floating jack sockets, to match the colour coding on the plugs. The sockets are marked if you look closely but it is easy to connect them wrong.

Another slight nit is that the socket for the detachable microphone has a small cover that I will probably lose. I would prefer this to be a hinged flap.

The control box is OK but not up to the standard of the rest of the kit.

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The microphone mute button is stiff and awkward, and the volume control feels cheap. Both worked fine though.

The good news is that sound quality is exceptional. There is a real three-dimensionality to the sound, which together with extended frequency response (15Hz to 25,000 Hz is claimed) makes for a great experience.

Compared to the very best (and generally more expensive) headphones the HyperX is slightly coarse, and the tone is slightly weighted towards the bass, but I find the headset fine for music (especially pop/rock; they are less suitable for classical) as well as gaming, and for the money this is one of the best I have heard.

The headset is comfortable enough that I can happily wear them for a long session, whether gaming or music.

The microphone is also reasonable quality, with a high enough output for my PC soundcard to get decent volume though with some hiss. It is good enough for uses like Skype, dictation software and so on as well as gaming.

Overall I recommend this headset, if you are looking for an analogue rather than a USB connection. It is well made, well presented, and ticks the two most important boxes: comfort and sound quality.

More details on the HyperX site here.

Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.

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In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.

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The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.

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This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.

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Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.

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Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on 169.254.1.1. However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.

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Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware 2.05.2.01.

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.

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I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).

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Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.

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As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.

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It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material

Specifications

  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA

Review: Nokia Lumia 630 – a lot of smartphone for the money

Microsoft/Nokia has released the Lumia 630 Windows Phone in the UK. It is notable for two reasons:

  • The first phone on sale with Windows Phone 8.1 installed
  • A budget contender with a full range of features at around £100. For example, o2.co.uk offer it for £99.99 with a “Pay & Go” tariff from £10.00 monthly. Amazon.co.uk is currently offering it sim-free for £128.29.

The quick summary:

  • 4.5″ 854×480 LCD screen
  • 5MP rear camera
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • MicroSD slot supporting up to 128GB
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core 1.2 GHz processor
  • Bluetooth 4.0, wi-fi, WCDMA,GSM,A-GPS etc
  • 1830 mAh removable battery

What is missing? Among the compromises here, there is no front-facing camera, the only sensor is an accelerometer, the screen resolution is poor compared to a high-end smartphone, and there is no dedicated camera button.

The older Lumia 625 has some features missing on the 630, including a camera button, LED Flash, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor, Nokia’s “super sensitive touch” screen, and LTE. The 625 is a similar price, so if those features matter to you it might be a better buy, though you have to put up with the older and slower S4 processor.

The Lumia 630 does support Nokia’s SensorCore feature, which lets apps like Health & Fitness (pre-installed) track movement through an API without consuming much power.

The lack of a camera button or Flash is disappointing, considering Nokia’s reputation as a brand good for photography.

Out of the box

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The Lumia 630 is a basic package. No headset is included, presumably on the grounds that you likely have one already, though buying one separately is inexpensive. There is a mains charger; you probably have one of these already too, but it might not be optimal for this particular device, which may be why Nokia chose to prioritise this over the headset.

In order to fit the SIM, you pop the phone out of its shell; it feels if anything a bit too easy, though the phone shows no sign of falling apart accidentally so far.

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The software of course is Windows Phone 8.1, with several nice improvements including a notification screen accessed by swiping down from the top. This works even from the lock screen, and gives immediate access to the camera, which may explain why the button is missing. I still miss the button though.

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Cortana, the virtual personal assistant currently in beta, is not yet present in the UK. You can enable Cortana with a bit of effort by changing your language and region, but it is not recommended other than for temporary experimentation.

I hit one problem in setup. The automatic date and time setting does not work, at least not with my carrier (Three). This in turn broke some other features including SkyDrive and Exchange/Office 365 email, until I set it manually. The manual setting is not brilliant though, since when I turned the set off and on again, it came up with a setting from several days ago. This looks like a software bug so I hope it will be fixed soon.

Here is the home screen pretty much out of the box, though I have connected it to Exchange:

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This is NOT how I prefer to set up my home screen on a Windows phone. Normally I reduce all the tiles to the smallest size other than the phone icon, which I have large so I can hit it as easily as possible. This fits more icons on the screen and gets rid of the annoying People live tile animations. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

The apps prominent above the fold include PhotoBeamer, which lets you show pictures on a friend’s Windows Phone (a cool app), LINE which is a messaging app, and the excellent HERE maps and Nokia Camera.

Scroll down and you get Facebook, Skype, HERE Drive, Nokia Mix Radio, OneDrive, calendar and several more.

A word about apps

I do not intend this to be another reviews of a Windows Phone which say, “great phone but the apps are lacking.” It is true to the extent that Windows Phone lacks the great support with iOS and Android get in terms of apps. Windows Phone owners have to put up with seeing “available for iOS and Android” for apps which they might  otherwise like to install, and with apps that are less well maintained or up to date than those for the two more popular platforms.

Clearly, the way to fix this is for lots more people to buy Windows Phones. Therefore, not to buy a Windows Phone because of the app shortage merely perpetuates the problem.

But how bad is it? The answer will be different depending which apps matter to you; but there are a couple of reasons why it is not, in my opinion, all that bad.

One is that Microsoft has its own platform, putting it in a stronger position than say, Blackberry or even Apple (if iOS were not already popular). The Microsoft platform includes maps and driving (Nokia), search (Bing), messaging (Skype), email and cloud documents (Office 365) and online storage (OneDrive).

Second, the Windows app store is not as moribund as the Windows 8 app store. There are decent apps in most categories and support from third parties like Spotify, WhatsApp, Instagram or the BBC is improving.

If you love Google, this is unlikely to be the phone for you, since it seems almost to go out of its way not to support Windows Phone.

On the other hand, there are Windows Phone apps which I miss on other platforms, including Nokia Camera, HERE Drive, and the built-in email and calendar apps.

It is a factor, but not a showstopper.

Lumia 630 in use

My experience of using the 630 is mainly positive. Performance is great; the phone is fast and responsive. Battery life is good too:

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Note that the Battery Saver is off by default, but I prefer having it come on automatically as needed.

Battery life is nothing special if you use the phone intensively, such as to watch a video or play a game, but when it on standby it is better than previous Windows phones I have tried.

The camera is better than I had expected, given the annoyances mentioned above. For casual snaps it is up to the mark you would expect from a budget smartphone.

This is not PureView though; do not expect the same quality as on Nokia’s high-end phones. See here for some comparative snaps.

Audio on the Lumia 630 sounds fine when played with a high quality headset. I played the same track on the 630, the Lumia 1020, and from a PC via a dedicated headphone amplifer. Possibly the 630 sounds slightly thin compared to the more expensive setups, but the earbuds or headphones you use will likely make the most difference.

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Health and Fitness tracking, using the Bing app, is fun and saves having to manage a separate device like a Fitbit.

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I have yet to catch out the 630 on performance. Youtube videos and BBC iPlayer played smoothly.

The display is on the dull side but no enough to spoil the experience. However I did notice grey marks (presumably shadows of the glue that holds the screen on) at the top of the screen, visible on light backgrounds, which is a slight annoyance.

Conclusion

The Lumia 630 is a budget smartphone with a lot to offer. There are just a few annoyances: features missing that were present on the 625, slightly dull screen, and some signs of cost-cutting. These are small blemishes though when you consider what you do get for a modest outlay.

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Review: Sonocent Audio Notetaker, making sense of recorded interviews and meetings

Why bother taking written notes, when you can simply record the audio of a meeting or interview and listen to it later? I do this a lot, but it is problematic. You end up with an MP3 which has all the info within it, but with no quick way to find a half-remembered statement. Of course you can transcribe everything, or get it transcribed, but that is not quick; it will likely take longer than the original event if you want to transcribe it all, and even selective transcription is a slow process. You can get better at this, and I have formed a habit of noting times when I hear something which I am likely to refer to later, but standard audio players (such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes) are designed for music and not great for this kind of work.

There is also an annoying problem with application focus if you want to transcribe a recording. You have Word open, you have your recording open in Foobar, but to control Foobar you have to switch focus away from Word, which means you cannot type until you focus back. There are utilities around to overcome this – my solution was to write my own Word macro which can pause and rewind a recording with keyboard shortcuts – but it is another issue to fix.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker is an application for Windows or Mac dedicated to making sense of speech recordings. Audio Notetaker lets you create documents which include audio, text and images. If you have an existing audio recording, you can import it into a new Audio Notetaker documnent and start to work with it. The audio is copied into the document, rather than being added as a reference, so these documents tend to be large, a little larger than the original.

The primary feature is the the way recordings are visualised and navigated. When you import a recording, it shows as a series of bars in a large panel, rather than the single horizontal scrolling view that most audio players present. Each bar represents a phrase, determined by Audio Notetaker according to pauses in the speech. This is not altogether reliable since speakers may pause mid-phrase, but you can split or merge bars if needed. The length of each bar varies according to the content, but typically seems to be around 3-15 seconds. You navigate the recording by clicking on the bars, and annotate it by assigning colours to bars according to your own scheme, such as blue for a potential quote, or brown for “boring, skip this”.

If you are transcribing, you can type into either to two text panes, one of which is called Reference and the other just Text. When you are typing in one of these panes, you can use keyboard shortcuts to control the audio, such as Ctrl+Space for play/pause, Ctrl+\ to skip back, and Ctrl+/ to skip forward. The Reference and Text panes are functionally identical, but let you keep two different types of notes with one recording. There is also an image pane, which can include images, PDFs or PowerPoint presentations.

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How do you synchronise your notes or transcription with the audio to which it relates? Audio Notetaker does not do this automatically, but does allow you to insert section breaks which split the document into vertical sections. You can create these breaks with keyboard shortcuts. I would prefer it if Audio Notetaker automatically set hotlinks so that I could tell exactly what audio was playing when I made a note, but sections are nevertheless useful.

For example, if you have an interview, a logical approach would be to make each question and each answer a section. Then you can easily navigate to the answer you want.

You can use background colouring to further distinguish between sections.

A common problem with audio recordings is that they are at too low a level. Audio Notetaker has its own volume control which can boost the volume beyond what is possible with the Windows volume control.

There is also a noise cancellation button, to remove the dreaded hiss.

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Advanced features

Those are the basics; but Audio Notetaker has a few other capabilities.

One idea is that you might want to record the content of an online conference. For this purpose, you can record from any of your input or output devices (it might seem strange to record from an output device, but this is the equivalent of a “what you hear” setting).

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This approach is further supported by the ability to capture a screen and insert it into the document. When you choose the screen capture tool, you get a moveable, resizeable frame that you position over the area you want to capture.

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Another scenario is that you want to create a simple video with a PowerPoint slide show and an audio voiceover. You can do this by importing the PowerPoint and recording your speech, then choosing Export Audio and Images as Video (MP4 or WMV).

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You can also export the text and images in RTF format (suitable for most word processors).

Internally, Audio Notetaker uses Opus Audio Encoding which is an internet standard.

You can also have Audio Notetaker read back text to you using the Windows text to speech engine (I am not sure how this works on a Mac).

Final words

The best feature of Audio Notetaker is the way it lets you navigate an audio file. It is quicker to click on a bar in the panel than using a horizontal scroller or noting the time and going to that point.

The sections work OK but I would personally like some way of embedding notes that are hotlinked to points in the audio with a finer granularity than sections.

I am not sure of the value of features like importing PowerPoint slides, adding audio, and exporting as a video, when PowerPoint itself has support for narrations and export to video. I would prefer it if the developers focused on the core proposition in Audio Notetaker: making it easy to index, annotate and navigate speech recordings.

I would also like to see integration with a transcription service. Automated transcription would be great but does not usually work well with typical field recordings; more realistically, perhaps Sonocent could integrate with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or another service where humans will transcribe your recording for a fee.

Nevertheless, Audio Notetaker is nicely designed software that addresses a poorly-served niche; well worth consideration for journalists, students, secretaries, takers of minutes, or anyone who uses audio recordings as part of their workflow.

You can find Audio Notetaker on the Sonocent site, and obtain it as a free trial, or by subscription for a period, or with a perpetual licence. For example, six months for an individual license is £29.99; a perpetual licence is £95.99 (including VAT).

It is available for PC or Mac.

Review: Velodyne vFree wireless headphones

Last month I took a look at Velodyne’s vLeve headphones. Now it is time to look at the similarly-styled vFree, a wireless model which sits a bit higher in the Velodyne range. The range, incidentally, looks like this, though the prices (taken from the Velodyne site) are the most you can pay and you will likely do quite a bit better.

  • vLeve on-ear headphones $199
  • vFree on-ear Bluetooth headphones $299
  • vQuiet over-ear noise cancelling Headphones $299
  • vBold over-ear Bluetooth headphones $349
  • vTrue Studio over-ear headphones $399

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In the smart glossy box you get the headphones, soft bag, cables for USB charging and for a wired audio connection (no microphone when wired), and a leaflet with a guide to pairing.

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There is no charger; you can use the USB port on a PC or one of the many USB chargers you likely have already.

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The headphones fold for portability and have various ports, LEDs and buttons. Under the left cup, you will find a battery status LED, the USB charging port, and a socket for wired audio.

The right cup sports most of the functions. There is volume up/down on the edge, and an LED function indicator and microphone on the bottom. The back of the cup is split to form three large buttons, one for Next/Previous, one for power and pairing, and one for play/pause/answer/end call.

Controls on on-ear devices always tend to be awkward, because you cannot see what you are doing. I like the generous size of the vFree controls, but finding which button to press is still tricky at first.

Pairing is a matter of holding down power until the device enters pairing mode. Fairly straightforward, though in my experience some devices pair more easily than others, and there is no clarity about whether you can pair to multiple devices. I believe you can, because the Nexus was able to reconnect after I paired to the Surface, but I had trouble the other way around and had to re-pair. The function LED is rather dim and hard to see.

The sound

You could say that the vFree is “like the vLeve but wireless”, but although the looks are similar they do not sound the same. Further, bear in mind that a wireless headset contains its own amplifier whereas with a wired set you are dependent on whatever comes with your device.

Perhaps for this reason, I found that the vFree sounded substantially different in the various configurations I tried. The best sound I got was when wired (there is a wired option using the supplied cable) and using a dedicated headphone amplifier: this gave rich bass, clean, clear and spacious sound.

Yet on the two mobile devices I tried, a Surface tablet and a Google Nexus tablet, the vFree sounded better wireless than wired. In fact, the wired option sounded bad in comparison, thinner and slightly distorted.

There is a logic behind this. Mobile devices often have poor audio amplifiers, and when you listen wired, that is what you get. In addition, I found with both these and with the vLeve that they are more than usually sensitive to amplifier quality. With the wireless option though, you are using the built-in amplifier that is specifically designed for the speakers in the vFree. Against that though, wired is a better electrical connection than Bluetooth, so it is a trade-off. Another factor is whether your mobile device supports the higher quality apt-x codec over Bluetooth; many do not, though the vFree does support it.

All of this makes it hard to state definitively how the vFree sounds; it will depend on your set-up. At their best they sound very good, though I doubt wired use with a dedicated amplifier will form typical usage for most. In the other configurations, I found them decent but not outstanding. The bass is particularly clean and tuneful, as you might expect from a supplier of sub-woofers, and the sound in general is refined, never brash or harsh, but lacking the spaciousness that characterises the very best audio.

Comfort is a personal thing; I found the vFree fine for an hour or two but would not want to wear them for longer; but they are soft and lightweight.

These are high quality headphones, though not good value at the full price listed on the Velodyne site. Fortunately you can get them elsewhere for considerably less, making them worth consideration.

Specifications

  • Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Impedance: 32 Ω
  • Range: Up to 10m
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB/1 kHz/1mW
  • Codecs: SBC, AAC, apt-X
  • Battery life: 100 hours standby, 10 hours talk and music, 1.5 hours recharge time

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: Velodyne vLeve on-ear headphones

Velodyne is best known for its fine range of sub-woofers, but the company also makes a range of headphones, of which the vLeve is towards the bottom of the range.

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The headphones are supplied in a smart glossy box with the reassuring words “High performance headphones” on the front. I am not sure what the name signifies though the word Leve means “Live” in some languages so it perhaps hints at enjoying life – what better way than listening to music through high quality cans?

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Inside the box are the headphones, a handy bag, and a 3.5mm jack cable. There is no adaptor for a 1/4″ jack socket; a shame though these are easily optainable elsewhere. The headphones fold for portability.

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The vLeve is lightweight and feels even a little flimsy though it seems well made. The design is the on-ear type. I found that careful positioning of the pads on your ears is essential for the best sound; it is surprising how much difference is made by a small change in position.

Velodyne is keen to sell you add-on skins to give a more colourful appearance.

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Since you may well be out and about wearing these the appearance is important and a matter of taste; personally I am happy without a skin as I care mainly about the sound, but these distinctive skins will appeal to many.

So how is the sound? It seems too obvious: but as you would expect from a sub-woofer company, the bass is exemplary. At first I thought the sound was a little bass-heavy, but comparison with other headphones does not bear this out. Rather, the bass is particularly tight and tuneful so you pay it more attention.

I played the excellent SACD We Get Requests by the Oscar Peterson Trio and the sound of Ray Brown’s double bass is a delight with a clean and natural sound.

The sound is relaxed, even slightly recessed, and may not appeal if you prefer a more analytical or exciting presentation. Swapping to my reference Sennheiser HD600s showed that the vLeve is not the last word in clarity or openness, but it was not disgraced and its compromises are easy to live with.

I did find the sound substantially better when using a headphone amplifier rather than an iPad or Nexus tablet (two that I tried). While this is not surprising in one sense, others are more tolerant of lesser amplification.

One annoyance: the cord at 130mm or just over 4 feet was too short for my liking, but again you can easily get a replacement if needed.

Note that Velodyne also make a similar wireless model, the vFree, which is reviewed separately.

A good choice especially for acoustic music and for use with high quality sources.

Price is $219 though available from around $130 if you scout around. UK prices to follow.

Published specifications:

  • Driver size: 34mm
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB/1Khz/1mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ω