Category Archives: reviews

Mio MiVue 688: record your driving

The Mio MiVue 688 is a high quality dashcam which will record your journeys as well as alerting you to lane drift and speed cameras.

image

In the box is the device itself – around 90 x 45 x 37mm – together with a vehicle power adapter and a suction mount. You will need a couple more things to get going: a Micro SD memory card (8GB to 128GB) and a USB Mini-B to type A cable, presuming you want to connect it to a PC. It is always annoying to find that that you have to buy extras, though you may have some spares anyway, and also annoying that MiVue still use the older Mini-B connector which is relatively uncommon now.

The MiVue 688 has a rechargeable battery, though for full use you will want to keep it powered continuously with the adapter.

After charging, the first thing you will want to do is to set the date and time as well as your preferred distance measure. Being in the UK I set it to miles.

In doing so, you will get an idea of how the MiVue’s controls work. There is a nice bright LED colour display, but it is not touch control. Instead, there are 6 buttons:

  • Power button on the left edge
  • Event button (for emergency recording) on the front right
  • Four function buttons on the right edge

The control system is not all that intuitive. By default the unit records when it is on. The function keys come into play when you go into the menu. The top key is the menu key; it displays or exits the current menu. The next key is Enter. The two lower keys are cursor keys. At first you might think that the buttons align with the menu item you want to operate, but they do not. Of course you are not intended to operate this fiddly menu system while driving.

The normal use is that recording starts as soon as the unit receives power, in other words when you start the engine. It then records continuously, creating 3-minute video files. If it runs out of space it overwrites old files.

When you start recording you get a view of what it is recording on the screen. After a short time, this blanks out and you just get the time. However it is still recording.

The device has a Sony Exmor video processor, does 1080p video recording and displays on a 2.7″ screen. It has an F1.8 aperture and a 140⁰ wide angle lens.

The MiVue 688 in use

I tried the MiVue on a 3-hour journey on a rather damp day. The first challenge is mounting the MiVue, the main problem being getting the power cable connected without it hanging dangerously or getting in the way. I found some short lengths of gaffer tape essential, to secure the cable to the edge of the windscreen. The MiVue cable is fortunately fairly long.

I then sited the camera towards the top of the windscreen. Again, care is needed as you do not want it to obscure your view.

I found the way the device works confusing at first. In particular, I thought that when the screen changed from the live recording to the clock, that recording had stopped. It was only when I got back and connected the device to a PC that I realised the entire journey was on video. I do think this is preferable; despite the emergency button, you want the recording to happen without having to think about it.

image

My journey passed without incident, but having a recording, given how simple this is to achieve, does make sense. If you are the innocent party in a collision, it will provide crucial evidence. Note that it records your speed and exact location as it goes, thanks to built-in GPS. A side-effect of having a dashcam may be that you are less inclined to take chances, knowing that there will be evidence.

When we parked, I removed the MiVue, because I did not want the embarrassment of risking theft of my loan gadget. This is a dilemma, as the MiVue has a parking function that will automatically record if it detects a collision when parked. If you think someone might steal the device though, that will not help you.

Annoyances

Wiring up the MiVue all felt a bit DIY and it would be good to see provision for dashcams built into modern vehicles. I also found several nits with the MiVue:

  • Menu system not intuitive
  • Old type of USB connector
  • Getting started leaflet barely adequate (you can download a slightly better manual)
  • Packaging does not make it clear that you need to supply your own memory card and USB cable – as well as Gaffer tape or equivalent

Extras

On the plus side, there are a few extras. The safety camera warnings worked, though if you have SatNav of some kind you probably already have this. There is the parking function mentioned above. The speed always shows, and since this is more accurate than my in-car speedometer this is a benefit.

A camera feature lets you take still images. Could be handy after an incident.

A motion sensor kicks in a recording automatically in the event of sudden movement. This also tends to happen when handling the unit, for example connecting it to a PC!

There are also some Advanced Driver Assistance features. Specifically, this covers Lane Departure Warning (could be a life-saver if you fell asleep), which beeps if you drift out of your lane; and Front Collision Warning System which beeps if it thinks you are driving too close to the vehicle in front.

These are handy features, but require regular calibration to work. You have to tell the MiVue where is the horizon and where is the end of your bonnet (hood). You cannot do this while driving so require a passenger.

I would have thought the AI for this kind of feature could do this calibration automatically as systems like this evolve.

MiVue Manager

You can download a MiVue Manager app to help you view your videos. I did not get on well with this. The first annoyance was that the MiVue Manager app insists on running with admin rights on Windows. Next, I found it still did not work because of missing codecs.

image

However I can view the videos fine using the Windows 10 built-in app, or VLC. So I gave up on the MiVue Manager.

Conclusion

The MiVue 688 will cost you around £150 and works well. As noted above though, there are some annoyances and you might prefer a touch control unit like the 658, which is a similar price.

I am still impressed. The quality of the video is very good, and this MiVue provides significant benefit at modest cost.

More information here.

Meizu M3 Max: Android 6.0 phablet, good value if you don’t mind Flyme OS

Meizu, one of the top ten smartphone manufacturers in China, has just brought out the M3 Max, an Android 6.0 phablet currently on offer for $224.99 (around £185), which seems great value for a 6.0″ smartphone complete with dual SIMs slots and fingerprint reader. I have been using it for a while to see how it stacks up against the competition.

image

My M3 Max is a sample, and while I believe it matches the production model in terms of hardware, you may find a few more concessions to non-Chinese users in the version for European and US markets. That said, my sample does include the Google Play Store and a thing called GMS Installer which assists installation of the Google Mobile Services required for Google-flavoured Android, which is what most users in countries like the UK and USA require.

This was my first experience of Meizu’s Flyme OS, a custom version of Android, and the distinctive one-button control. The front button on the M3 Max has multiple functions. Tap lightly and it is a back button. Press and click and it is a home button. Rest your finger and it is a fingerprint reader. And if you are wondering how to switch applications, that is a swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

I like having a hardware button, but I am not convinced that one button improves on the traditional Android three buttons: back, home, and app switcher. I also prefer the fingerprint reader on the back, as on recent Huawei phones. That said, I soon got used to it. You can register more than one fingerprint, and I found it useful to register my right thumb I can pick up the phone and tap my thumb on the front to unlock it.

Setting the phone up was a little more challenging than with Android devices designed primarily for our market. Meizu/Flyme has alternative apps for common requirements such as web browser, maps, music and even app store. I found myself downloading a bunch of apps to get a more familiar experience, including the Google Chrome browser, OneDrive, Outlook, Twitter, Facebook and Spotify. I did have a few issues with the Play store initially – it would open and immediately crash – but things seemed to settle down after I applied a few updates.

There are a few compromises in a phone at this price point. The fingerprint reader is not the equal of the one on the Huawei P9 or Honor 8, for example, taking longer to register my fingerprint and requiring slightly more careful positioning to read it, but it still works satisfactorily. In day to day use I have no complaints about the responsiveness of the OS or the battery life.

Physically the M3 Max has a metal body and a smooth finish. The design is straightforward but pleasant enough. The case is 7.9mm thick, which makes it a relatively thin device if that is important to you. It is somewhat heavy though, about 190g, though in return you get a reassuringly solid feel.

There are a few compromises in a phone at this price point. The fingerprint reader is not the equal of the one on the Huawei P9 or Honor 8, for example, taking longer to register my fingerprint and requiring slightly more careful positioning to read it, but it still works satisfactorily. In day to day use I have no complaints about the responsiveness of the OS or the battery life.

Physically the M3 Max has a metal body and a smooth finish. The design is straightforward but pleasant enough. The case is 7.9mm thick, which makes it a relatively thin device if that is important to you. It is somewhat heavy though, about 190g, though in return you get a reassuringly solid feel.

The Flyme skin supports floating windows after a fashion.

image

Even on a 6″ device though, it is not all that useful since you can only really make use of one app at a time.

Swipe down from the top to reveal notifications and the usual array of Android shortcuts.

image

The camera is nothing spectacular but does cover most of the features you are likely to want. Tap the Auto button to reveal popular features like Panorama and Macro. This is also the route to video recording.

image

If you choose Manual on this screen, you can make your own settings for
Exposure time

  • ISO
  • Focus
  • Exposure compensation
  • Saturation
  • Contrast
  • White balance

A decent range of controls.

The Settings button lets you specify photo size as well as other features like grid lines.

image

Benchmarks and specifications

I ran some benchmarks. PC Mark came up with a score of 3156 for its Work 2.0 performance.

image

Geekbench 4.0.1 delivered:

  • 1475 RenderScript Score
  • 683 Single-Core Score
  • 2670 Multi-Core Score

While these results are unexciting, at this price point they are more than reasonable.

Specifications

  • Android 6
  • ARM MT6755M 1 GHz 8 core CPU
  • 6” display, 1080×1920, 480 ppi
  • Capacitive touch screen
  • GPS
  • 3GB RAM
  • 64GB storage
  • Second SIM slot can also be used for up to 128GB SD card
  • Mali-T860 GPU
  • 13MP rear camera
  • 5MP front camera
  • 4100 mAH battery
  • Weight 190g
  • Size 163.4 x 81.6 x 7.9mm

Conclusion

Meizu is not a well-known brand in the UK or USA, but they are a major Chinese vendor, though pitching towards the lower end of the market. This is a good value device and a solid choice if you are looking for a phablet-style phone in this price range and can put up with a slightly less familiar Android experience.

You can purchase from here.

Review: Libratone Zipp Mini

I am quite taken with this Libratone wireless speaker, though I had a few setup hassles. The device comes in a distinctive cylindrical box with a nightingale image on the top. Unpack it and you get a medium-size desktop (or table or shelf) speaker, around 22cm high, with a colourful cover that looks zipped on and a carry strap. There is also a power supply with UK and European adaptors, and a very brief instruction leaflet.

image

Plug in, and the device starts charging. The leaflet says to download the app (for iOS or Android) and “set up and play”. It was not quite so easy for me, using Android. The app is over-designed, by which I mean it looks great but does not always work intuitively. It did not find the speaker automatically, insisted that a wi-fi connection was better than Bluetooth, but gave me no help connecting.

After tinkering for a bit I went to the website and followed the steps for manual wi-fi setup. Essentially you temporarily disconnect from your normal Wi-fi connection, connect your wi-fi directly to the Zipp, go to 192.168.1.1 in the browser, select your home wi-fi network, enter the password, and you are done.

Everything worked perfectly after that. I fired up Spotify, played some music, selected the Zipp under Spotify Connect, and it sounded great. For some Android apps you may need a Bluetooth connection though, or you can use DLNA. The beauty of Spotify Connect is that the connection is direct from the speaker to the internet, it does not depend on the app running, so you can switch off your phone and it still plays. It is actually a better solution than Apple Airplay for internet streaming.

image
The Nightingale button

Control is either via the app, or through the Nightingale button on the top of the speaker. The button works really well. Tap to pause or resume. Slide finger clockwise or anti-clockwise for volume. Skip forward or back by tapping the right or left edge. Then there is a neat “hush” feature: place your hand over the button and it mutes temporarily.

A bit more about the sound. Although this is the smaller Zipp Mini, you can tell that Libratone has taken trouble to make it sound good, and it is impressively rich and full considering the size of the unit. You are getting your money’s worth, despite what seems a high price.

I spent some time comparing the Zipp with Squeezebox Radio, another (but sadly discontinued) wireless audio device I rate highly. Both are mono, both sound good. I did notice that the Zipp has deeper bass and a slightly softer more recessed treble. I cannot decide for sure which sounds better, but I am slightly inclined towards the Libratone, which is actually high praise.

One lovely feature of the Zipp is internet radio, which comes via Vtuner. This is hidden in the feature called Favourites. You select favourite radio stations in the app, with the default being BBC stations and Classic FM. You can change your favourites by tapping the Nightingale icon in the app (another hidden, over-designed feature) and tapping My Radio.

image

Once set up, tap the heart button on the Nightingale button on the device to switch to radio. Tap twice to skip to the next station. Internet radio does not depend on having the app running, it works directly from the Zipp.

The Zipp has a power button, press and hold to power on or off, tap to show remaining battery. It also has an aux jack socket, for wired playback from any source, and a USB socket which you can use either for charging a phone, or for playback from music files on USB storage (I did not try this, but a wide range of formats are supported, including MP3, WAV, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, AAC, AIFF and ALAC). You can also use USB for wired playback from iOS, but not from other devices.

Apple Airplay is supported and worked great when I tried it with an iPad. One thing to note: there is currently no iPad app, so you have to search for the iPhone app, which does also work on the iPad.

This very flexible device also supports Bluetooth 4.1 and you can use it as a speaker phone, just tap the Nightingale button to answer a call, so yes it has a microphone too. It also supports DLNA which means you can “play to” the device on some applications, such as Windows Media Player.

If you have more than one Zipp you can connect them for multi-speaker playback. You can select Stereo if you have two speakers or more, but Libratone recommend something they call FullRoom, which means leave it to their digital signal processing (DSP).

Sadly I only have one Zipp, but there are a few options in the app to set DSP optimization for things like Outdoor, Shelf and Floor. I did not notice a huge difference.

You can get different colour covers, and I tried removing mine. It is a bit fiddly, and the current Zipp Mini does not quite match the explanation on the Libratone site. The handle on this Zipp does not come off; you unzip the cover, twist to disconnect the zip, then feed the handle through the hole. Not something you are likely to do often.

image
The device naked

Finally, if you are curious like me, here are some specifications:

  • Class D amplifier
  • 1 x 3” woofer, 1 x 1” tweeter 2 x 3.5” low frequency radiators
  • Frequency response 60-20,000 Hz (no dB range specified)
  • Maximum volume 96 dB SPL/1m
  • 2400 mAhs battery
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • 10 hours of playback approx.

Conclusion? I really like the Zipp Mini. It sounds great, supports a wide range of standards, and works well for Internet radio. I like the appearance, the Nightingale button is elegant, and you can expand it with more speakers if needed. This or the larger Zipp model might be all the hi-fi you need.

Caveats: many of the features are a bit hidden, initial setup I found fiddly, the supplied instructions are hopelessly inadequate, and with all those choices it can get confusing.

No matter, it is a lovely device.

More information on the vendor’s site here.

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.

image
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

image

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”:

image

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.”

image

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:

image

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.

image

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.

image 

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.

image

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:

image
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:

image
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.

image

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.

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

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.

image

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:

image

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

image

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.

DatAshur encrypted drives: protect your data but be sure to back it up too

The iStorage DataAshur USB flash drive is a neat way to encrypt your data. Lost USB storage devices are a common cause of data theft anxiety: in most cases the finder won’t care about your data but you can never be certain.

image

The DatAshur is simple to operate but highly secure, presuming it meets the advertised specification. All data written to the drive is automatically encrypted with 256-bit AES CBC (Advanced Encryption Standard with Cipher Block Chaining) and meets the US FIPS 140-2 standard. The encryption is transparent to the operating system, since decryption is built into the device and enabled by entering a PIN of 7 to 15 digits.

Note that a snag with this arrangement is that if your PC is compromised a hacker might be able to read the data while the drive is connected. If you are really anxious you could get round this by working offline, or perhaps using Microsoft’s clever Windows to Go (WTG) technology where you boot from a USB device and work in isolation from the host operating system. Unfortunately DatAshur does not support WTG (as far as I know) but there are alternatives which do, or you could boot into WTG and then insert your DatAshur device.

Normally you enter the PIN to unlock the drive before connecting it to a PC or Mac. This does mean that the DatAshur requires a battery, and a rechargeable battery is built in. However if the battery is exhausted you can still get your data back by recharging the device (it charges whenever it is plugged into a USB port).

OK, so what happens if a bad guy gets your device and enters PINs repeatedly until the right one is found? This will not work (unless you chose 1234567 or something like that) since after 10 failed tries the device resets, deleting all your data.

You should avoid, then, the following scenario. You give your DatAshur drive to your friend to show it off. “I’ve just updated all my expenses on this and there is no way you’ll be able to get at the data”. Friend fiddles for a bit. “Indeed,and neither can you”.

Here then is the security dilemma: the better the security, the more you risk losing access to your own data.

The DatAshur does have an additional feature which mitigates the risk of forgetting the PIN. You can actually set two PINs, a user PIN and an admin PIN. The admin PIN could be retained by a security department at work, or kept in some other safe place. This still will not rescue you though if more than 10 attempts are made.

What this means is that data you cannot afford to lose must be backed up as well as encrypted, with all the complexity that backup involves (must be off-site and secure).

Still, if you understand the implications this is a neat solution, provided you do not need to use those pesky mobile devices that lack USB ports.

The product tested has a capacity from 4GB to 32GB and has a smart, strong metal case. The plastic personal edition runs from 8GB to 32GB and is less robust. An SSD model offers from 30GB to 240GB, and larger desktop units support SSD or hard drive storage from 64GB to 6TB, with USB 3.0 for fast data transfer.

Prices range from around £30 inc VAT for an 8GB Personal USB stick, to £39.50 for the 4GB professional device reviewed here, up to £470 for the monster 6TB drive or £691 for a USB 3.0 external SSD (prices taken from a popular online retailer). The cost strikes me as reasonable for well-made secure storage.

More information on DatAshur is here.

Review: Synology DS415+ Network Attached Storage

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setup

image

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

image

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

image

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

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

image

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

image

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

Diskstation Manager

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

image

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

image

Applications are installed and removed through the Package Center:

image

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

Storage management

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

image

There are several supported RAID configurations:

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

RAID 0: disk striping, no fault tolerance

RAID 1: drive mirroring

RAID 5: 1-disk fault tolerance

RAID 6: 2-disk fault tolerance

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

image

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

Folder permissions

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

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

image

Apps and Applications

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

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

image

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

Final words

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

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

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

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

image

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

image

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

Specifications

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

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:

image

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:

image

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

image

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

image

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:

image

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:

image

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.