Category Archives: reviews

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

Review: Acer C720 Chromebook and reflections on Chrome OS

When I saw the first announcement of Chrome OS I was amazed and wrote a breathless post:

I’m watching Google’s press briefing on the forthcoming Chrome OS. It is amazing. What Google is developing is a computer that answers several of the problems that have troubled users since the advent of the personal computer.

That was in November 2009. Unfortunately it has taken me a while to try a Chromebook (the generic name for a computer running Chrome OS) for myself; but I have been trying out an Acer C720 and what follows is in part a review of this machine, and in part some wider reflections on the Chrome OS and Chromebook concept.

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In terms of hardware, a Chromebook is another take on the netbook idea: a small, light laptop but running Linux rather than Windows. The earliest netbooks also ran Linux but the mass market could not cope with it; Google has done what is necessary to make it work for non-technical people, not least by hiding almost all of the operating system other than the browser.

I have given detailed specifications at the end of this post, but in summary this is an 11.6″ traditional clamshell laptop/netbook with 1.4Ghz Intel Haswell processor, 2GB RAM and 16GB SSD. It weighs just 1.2Kg

It’s cheap. You can pick one up for just under £200 at Amazon; it’s smart looking and does not feel as cheap as it is.

At left we have power input, HDMI out, USB 3.0 port and a standard headset socket.

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On the right there is an SD card slot, USB 2.0, and a lock attachment point.

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You can get a touchscreen version for an additional £80 or so but it does not seem worth it to me.

When you turn on for the first time, you have to accept the Google agreement. You won’t read it all, but here is something you should note:

You acknowledge and agree that Google may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally at Google’s sole discretion, without prior notice to you…

You acknowledge and agree that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Services, your account details, or any files or other content which is contained in your account.

More on this later.

You can sign in as guest, and use the device to browse the web, or you can sign in with a Google account. If you sign in as guest, none of your activity (including any files you download) will be preserved when you sign out. This is a nice feature for, literally, guests for whom you want to give internet access while protecting both your privacy and to some extent theirs.

Normally you will sign in with a Google account. If you have used Google’s Chrome browser, much will be familiar. What you get is the browser, which you can run full screen or in a resizable window, and a taskbar along the bottom which shows running apps, date and time, network connection, battery status, and notifications.

Local storage is accessible via a file browser. This gives access to a Downloads folder, Google Drive which is cloud storage but includes offline files that are available locally, and USB storage devices that you attach.

I attached a drive full of media files and was able to play MP4 video and FLAC audio without any problems. Some file types, such as PDF and Microsoft Office, open in the browser. This aspect can be disorienting; there is no Quit option, but you just close the browser tab when you are done.

At the left of the taskbar is an Apps button which you might think of as a Start button since it has the same purpose. Click it, and app shortcuts appear in a window. You can also press the Search key, which sits where you would expect to see Caps Lock.

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A Chrome OS app is a web app, though it can take advantage of Chrome features like access to local storage or NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled native code in the browser. NaCl is enabled by default.

I actually have a web app in the Chrome Store – apologies it is not very good, but it was a demonstration to support this how-to; it is really not difficult to adapt a web site though as ever, excellence is more challenging.

As an app platform, it would be wrong to think of a Chromebook as “crippled”, though it does require a change of mind-set if you are used to apps on Windows, OSX, iOS or Android. Apps are sandboxed, of course, and run in the browser, but native performance is possible and there are ways to access devices like the camera and local storage. Adobe Flash is also available. This is a physics demo using Native Client:

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and this is an audio editor:

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Can you get your work done? Probably, but if you are like me you will miss a few things like Microsoft Office or equivalent, or the Live Writer blog authoring tool (for which I have not found a good replacement on any platform). Of course you have full access to Google Docs, for browser-based document editing.

It also turns out that a Chromebook is a rather good Microsoft SkyDrive or Office 365 client. Perhaps it is just familiarity, but I prefer Office Web Apps to the Google Docs equivalents.

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I did experience an oddity in Office 365. I clicked a link to a recently opened document, which was an URL to a .docx file. This should have opened the document in Word web app, but instead it opened in a beta of Quickoffice running as a Chrome extension. This is bad, since editing the document and hitting save opened a Save As dialog for the local drive, or Google Drive, not the SharePoint site, and when I tried a document including an image, it was reported as corrupt.

It is possible to do some coding on a Chromebook, for example using the rather good online scripting IDE at script.google.com. This is a debugging session using the example script, which creates a document in Google Apps and emails a link:

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If you get stuck, there is always remote desktop to a Windows box as a fallback. There are several clients to choose from, of which I used 2X:

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Although the Linux shell is hidden unless you enable developer mode, you can press Ctrl-Alt-T and open crosh (Chrome OS Shell), enabling simple network testing with ping as well as an ssh client. More features magically appear if you do enable developer mode.

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Chromebook pros and cons

A Google Chromebook has several big advantages.

One, it’s safe; not entirely safe perhaps, but relatively immune from malware given that most users never get deeper into the operating system than the web browser, and therefore neither does anything else – though the machine is in fact hackable (in a good way) if you switch to Developer mode, and you can do things like getting shell access or installing Ubuntu if you want.

Second, it is good value. You are not paying for Windows or Office, and whatever deal Google makes with OEMs like Acer must be generous enough to allow for low prices.

It would actually make sense for Google to subsidise Chromebooks if it needed to, since they drive users to its services.

Third, a Chromebook is cloud-centric. If you lose it, or upgrade to a new machine, all your data will be there on Google’s cloud and you will hardly notice, with seamless sync of settings when you log in.

Fourth, Google and its hardware partners (in this case Acer) have done a good job. Sleep and resume works reliably – more so than any Windows machine I have known – and boot from cold takes seconds. Performance is fine, provided you have a strong internet connection.

There is no unwanted third-party software here unless you count Google’s own services; but if you did not want them you probably should not have bought a Chromebook. The out of box experience is good.

What are the annoyances? Here are a few.

The user interface is effective and not difficult to learn, though I do find that the screen fills with multiple tabs which is ugly and not that easy to navigate. You can float a browser window by dragging it down, in which case you get something that behaves as a new instance, and you can switch between instances with alt-tab.

Printing is awkward in that you have to set up Google Cloud Print and send your documents to Google and back even if the printer is right next to you.

Working offline is a problem but maybe not as bad as you have heard. The app store has a section devoted to apps that work offline, and you can create and edit documents offline other than spreadsheets, which are read-only. There is no problem with playing some videos or music from the built-in storage or from a USB drive when on the move and offline. If you are going to be offline a lot though, this is probably not the best choice.

Is this machine locked to Google? Maybe not as much as you would expect. There is no alternative web browser, but you can set your search engine to Bing, DuckDuckGo or anotehr if you prefer. Or you can enable developer mode and you install Linux, either in place of, or alongside Chrome OS. The two obvious choices are ChrUbuntu and Crouton, and setup is nicely explained here

http://www.kitware.com/blog/home/post/498

Does this machine breach your privacy? That is tough to answer; but it is worth noting that Chromebook offers, as far as I can tell, the same privacy settings that are in the Chrome browser. If you are happy using the Chrome browser in Windows or elsewhere, there is no reason not to be happy with a Chromebook from this perspective.

That said, this machine is committed to, on the one hand, cloud and web apps, and alongside that, the Google life. The two main objections to the Google life, it seems to me, are that Google’s business model depends on advertising and mining personal data for that purpose; and that it has been known for individuals to get locked out of their Google accounts for what might be arbitrary reasons whereupon comeback is difficult. It may be though that I worry too much, since this is uncommon, and trusting everything to Google is probably not high on the list of the most stupid things to do in IT.

Summing up

This is not a machine for every task. It is not a powerhouse, and in case you had not noticed, will not run apps other than browser apps. Either of those could be deal-breakers and might mean that you need a different device.

It is early days for laptops that run only browser apps, and there are areas of immaturity. Some file types are not supported or badly supported. The app store has limitations, and although there is a browser-based solution to most common tasks, it may not equal what can be done with a conventional app. The user interface is reasonable but utilitarian. Tastes vary, but personally I do not find Google Apps the equal of Microsoft Office yet, and I even miss Outlook, despite its many annoyances.

There are compromises then; but this is still a great little laptop, light and convenient, quick and responsive, and almost immune to PC-style problems and slowdowns.

In business or education, it is easy to see the attraction of a machine that is low maintenance and simple to replace if it breaks, provided that its capabilities match the tasks that are required.

The comparison with Windows RT is interesting and will be the subject of a separate post.

Watch this space. Chromebooks are already making inroads into the market for budget laptops, and in education, and I would expect this momentum to gather force as the platform matures.

Detailed specification:

  • Intel Celeron 2955U 1.4 GHz processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • SD card slot
  • 16GB SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366 x 768 TFT screen
  • Intel GMA HD Graphics
  • Webcam and Microphone
  • 3.5mm headset socket
  • HDMI out, 1USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0
  • Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 +HS (High Speed)
  • 3950 mAh battery, quoted 8.5 hr battery life
  • Weight: 1.25 Kg

Review: Audio-Technica SonicFuel ATH-CKX5iS ear buds

At CES Audio-Technica showed off its new range of ear buds, sorry “in-ear headphones”, including this budget SonicFuel ATH-CKX5iS model, at a recommended price of $49.95 and including an in-line mic, answer button and volume control for use with smartphones. While towards the low-end, it is by no means the cheapest in the Audio-Technica range, which starts at just $14.95 for the ATH-CLR100.

The distinctive feature of the SonicFuel range is the C-tip earpieces which have a short curved arm that fits snugly in the ear. The ear tips also rotate so that they angle themselves to the shape of your ear. The result is an exceptionally snug fit, and ear buds that are less likely to fall out when you are on the go. Three sizes of C-tips and four sizes of ear tips are supplied. It does pay to take some time selecting the right size, and journalists attending CES were fortunate to have assistance from an expert fitter.

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The truth is that the sound you hear from ear buds does vary substantially according to how snugly they fit, and while not everyone can get a personal fitting at CES, it is essential to fit them correctly to get the best results. Fitting the tips to the ear buds is slightly fiddly, but you only have to do this once.

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The in-line controller has a sliding volume control (a mixed blessing as you can accidentally slide it down and wonder where the volume has gone), a microphone and an answer button.

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The headset is supplied with a handy bag for your headset and the spare gels.

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So how do they sound? The biggest problem is that bass is lacking and the sound overall is thin. Slight sibilance can be annoying on some material. Tonally they are bright rather than warm, though not unpleasantly so. The best thing I can say is that they are inoffensive.

The specifications show an amazing frequency response of 15-22,000 Hz which is hard to reconcile with the puny bass, but since no +/- dB range is shown I guess this does not mean much.

Summary: I love the C-tips and the snug, strong fit; but the sound is a let-down. Possibly going a little further up the SonifFuel range would be worthwhile, though these are the only ones I have heard.

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

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

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

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A few more details on the three ways to connect:

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

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

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

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

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

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

An annoyance: there is no indication of remaining charge.

How about the other controls? There are several:

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

Master volume on left earcup.

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

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

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

Bluetooth controls on right earcup: as mentioned above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A great big phone: Samsung Galaxy Mega review

How big can a phone go? Samsung seems to be testing the limits with the 6.3″ Samsung Galaxy Mega. How big is that? Here it is laid over a paperback book:

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In fact, open the book, and the Galaxy Mega proves to be almost exactly the size of the printed area on the page, suggesting that this would make an excellent e-reader. I installed Amazon Kindle and so it does, though the screen is a little too glossy and the battery life too short for perfection.

Hold it to your ear though, and the Mega is big enough to feel faintly ridiculous, outside of places like San Francisco where daft-looking gadgets are the norm. That said, it is slim and smooth in the hands – maybe a bit too silky, it would be easy for it to slip out of your hands – so carries its bulk with good grace.

If you are constantly on the phone, and do not use a headset, the Mega is unlikely to be for you. Still, for many of us voice calls are a long way down the list of reasons for carrying a smartphone. Internet, games, email, text messaging and photography may well be higher.

What about writing and spreadsheeting? I got out my favourite Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, installed OfficeSuite Pro from Mobile Systems Inc, and started to type.

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I can get real work done on this; but I am unlikely to choose to do so. In fact, the screen size is not the problem. There are other issues. One is that the Galaxy Mega should be supplied with a prop-up cover or stand, since for functions like word processing with a keyboard, or watching YouTube or BBC iPlayer, it is best stood up on its side. Another is that the Android OS and its applications seem primarily designed for touch. The on-screen keyboard seems to pop-up even when not required, though ESC usually dismisses it, and getting at the formatting controls is just a bit awkward.

I also found that I could easily out-type OfficeSuite Pro on the Mega. I thought this might be an OS issue, but Infraware’s Polaris Office (which comes free for download with the Mega) is better in this respect, though less good overall than OfficeSuite Pro.

As a productivity device then, the Mega is not quite there and I will still want to take a Surface RT or some other suitable device on the road. It does work though, which has some appeal, and note that these Office suites also work well as viewers for Microsoft Office formats.

The hardware

Open the box, and you will see that, other than size, there is little else notable. Mine came with a 4GB SD card included.

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The device feels solid and well-made. The audio and headset jack is on the top edge, volume rocker on the left, and power on the right. On the front, at the base, is the home button. There are also soft buttons to its right and left for Menu and Back. These are backlit, but the backlight is usually off, which means you have to remind yourself at first that they really are there. I am not sure why Samsung does not put a little etching to indicate their presence.

The screen is great, though I would prefer less gloss, but it is bright and responsive so no real complaint.

The camera is decent but unspectacular. Good enough that most users will be happy, but not good enough to attract photo enthusiasts.

Battery life is decent, though not outstanding. 24 hours of normal usage will be fine, but over two days you will likely need a charge.

One thing worth emphasising: the Galaxy Mega may be bigger than the S4, but it is less powerful. The S4 has a quad-core 1.9GHz chipset, 13MP rear camera, 16GB memory, 1920×1080 resolution, and so it goes on. You are going to buy the Mega over the S4 for only two reasons: price, or because you really want that big screen.

Software

The Galaxy Mega runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. I doubt anyone will have trouble with basic navigation, but it fails to delight.

One of its notable features is called Multi-Window. This runs as a pull-out application launcher, by default docked to the left of the screen. Here is the tab, which annoyingly obscures some text:

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and here it is pulled out:

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If you perform the right gestures with the right apps (not all of them work) you can get two apps running side by side by pulling them out from the bar:

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The vertical bar lets you resize the apps freely.

I think this whole thing is a mistake. While having two apps to view seems useful, even the Mega’s screen is not large enough to make it work with desktop-style convenience, and Android apps are designed for full-screen use. Nor do I like the bar as an alternative app launcher; it is unnecessary and gets in the way. This is another example of an OEM trying to improve an OS and making it worse. It is not too bad though, as you can easily disable it (drag down from the top and tap Multi-Window so it fades).

Incidentally, I had trouble getting a screenshot of the multi-window bar. The normal approach failed as touching any button makes it retreat. I used the deprecated DDMS in the ADK (Android Developer Kit). This required finding the Developer Options on the device. Bizarrely, you enable Developer Options by repeatedly tapping Build number in About Device. Odd.

Samsung store and apps

In its effort to make its devices distinct from other Android devices, Samsung is building its own ecosystem, including the Samsung app store which is prominent in the default configuration.

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What is the value for the user in this, given that the official Google Play store is also available? None, other than that it is good that Google has some competition. That said, this is where you can get Polaris Office for free, which is worth having.

Similar examples of duplication versus Google’s ecosystem are evident elsewhere, for example Samsung’s ChatOn versus Google Talk (now Google+ Hangout), though ChatOn does not do voice or video; and Samsung cloud backup versus Google’s cloud backup. For example, photo backup to Samsung’s cloud (once you register) is on by default; but this feature is also available in Google+, for Google’s cloud.

Overall this is confusing for the user and I am not sure how this game ends. It contributes to a sense that Android remains messy and disorganised versus Apple iOS or even Windows Phone, though in compensation it has wonderful functionality.

Samsung Air View is an attempt to bring the benefits of mouse hover to a touch interface by detecting the finger over the screen. For example, you can preview an email message.

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Plenty of potential here; though I found it unreliable. I still have not got magnification in web pages to work, despite turning this on in settings.

WatchOn lets you control your TV via an app that shows what is on. This worked for me though it feels like solving a problem I do not have.

The Music app isupports DLNA; but while it detected my Logitech Media Server I had trouble playing anything without stuttering.

Summary

There is a lot packed into the Mega and I have not done it justice above, but picked out some highlights. It is highly capable; but I hesitate to recommend it unless the combination of a large screen and a smartphone is perfect for you; if you do lots of web browsing, email and YouTube, but not many phone calls, or if your eyesight is such that having everything a bit larger is an advantage, it could be just the thing.

The disappointment is that Samsung has not made more sense of the large screen. The Multi-Window feature is not good, and in the end it just feels like a big phone. The fact that its spec is well behind that of the Galaxy S4 is another disadvantage.

The Galaxy Mega also exhibits the Samsung/Android problem of duplicated functionality, contributing to a user experience that is less tidy and more confusing than it needs to be.

Personally I am hopeful for the day when a single device will simplify my life and I will no longer have to carry phone, camera and tablet or laptop. This one does not get me there; but maybe with a bit more refinement a future iteration will.

Technical summary

  • Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)
  • 6.3″ 1280 x 720 LCD screen
  • USB 2.0
  • MicroSD slot
  • MHL support (enables HDMI out from USB port)
  • GPS and GLONASS
  • 720p video supports MPEG4, H.263, H.264, VC1, WMV7 etc.
  • Cameras: 8 megapixel rear, 1.9 megapixel front, LED Flash
  • Video recording up to 30fps
  • Audio support including MP3,AAC,WMA,FLAC,OGG etc.
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with Krait 1.7GHz dual core CPU and Adreno 305 GPU
  • Comms: FDD LTE, HSPA-PLUS,HSDPA,HSUPA,EDGE,GPRS,FDD LTE,802.11 a/b/g/n/ac,Bluetooth 4.0 LE,NFC
  • RAM: 1.5GB
  • Storage: 8GB on board
  • 3200mAh battery
  • Size: 167.6 x 88 x 8mm
  • Weight: 199g

Acknowledgement: thanks to Phones4u for loan of the review sample.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Expanding the Raspberry Pi with PiFace and Pi Rack

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

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

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

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

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

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Here is a closer view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

print "Bye"

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Bayan Audio Soundbook Bluetooth dock

The Bayan Audio Soundbook is a portable wireless speaker system for your smartphone, MP3 player, tablet or laptop. Oh yes, and an FM radio too.

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It measures 160 x 88 x 38 mm –  chunky for a portable unit, and at 530g not that light, though heavy is often good when it comes to audio. Not something for a pocket or small handbag, but fine to tuck in your case.

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The unit feels solid and has an unusual design. The front flaps down and folds back to make a stand, and the action of opening it also switches the device on. Hence the Soundbook name: open and play.

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This is a Bluetooth 4.0 device, and supports A2DP and aptX for high quality audio. Pairing your smartphone is a snap, with no codes involved. It also supports NFC (Near Field Communications), which worked well using a couple of Android devices I tried, a Nexus 7 tablet and a Sony Xperia phone. Just tap against the NFC logo on the underside of the flap, and a dialog appears to confirm the connection.

The Soundbook, in combination with your mobile, is also a speakerphone. There is a built-in microphone, and it behaves like a Bluetooth headset, pausing the music to let you take a call and resuming afterwards.

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You can also connect without Bluetooth, using an input on the rear. Finally, there is an output jack socket so you can use the Soundbook as a wireless input to your hi-fi.

Battery life is up to 10 hours for radio or wired connections, shorter if you are using Bluetooth.

The USB power connector is the Mini-B type. A shame that Bayan did not choose the Micro-B standard which is now more common.

So how is it? It seems a lot of thought has gone into the design and the flexibility is impressive. The actual sound quality though is only so-so, thanks to the small 1″ internal speakers, and lacking in bass despite a 2″ passive bass radiator. It is stereo, though you will not notice unless you are very close and I wonder if Bayan should have borrowed an idea from Logitech’s excellent Squeezebox or UE Radio, and gone for mono. At maximum volume it is pretty loud though rather strident.

Still, this is all a matter of expectations. It is miles better than the tinny speaker built into your smartphone or tablet, and the speakerphone feature is useful.

The FM radio is not too good unless, perhaps, you are particularly close to the transmitter. Bayan says there is “an advanced integrated FM antenna” but in practice I found it difficult to get decent reception other than for a couple of local stations, and even then only after careful placement. There are no presets; you have to press and hold tune up and tune down buttons to scan for channels, which is inconvenient.

You cannot switch between Bluetooth sources other than by disconnecting the current source in order to connect another. However, it will remember up to 4 pairings at a time.

Pros and cons

The Bayan Soundbook is nicely designed and supremely flexible. I particularly like the speakerphone capability, which means you can stick this on your desk, enjoy the music, but still take hands-free calls.

That said, if this is a device for a desk, Bayan should have made it a bit larger and bumped up the sound quality.

This is best for portable use then, for which it is not bad, though a little bulky and heavy. I could more easily forgive that if the sound quality were just a bit better.

Dragon Notes Review: quick voice to text for Windows 8, but is it good enough?

When I saw that Nuance had released a Dragon Notes app for Windows 8 I was intrigued for two reasons.

First, I am interested in tracking the health of the app market for Windows 8, and an app from a company as well respected as Nuance is worth looking at.

Second, I have great respect for the Dragon Dictate application for speech to text. Dragon Dictate is superb; indispensable if you cannot use a keyboard for some reason, and valuable even if you can, whether to fend off RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or to help transcribe an interview. If Notes is based on the same engine, it could be very useful.

I installed it for review and was intrigued to find that it is not a real Windows 8 app, installed from the Windows Store. Rather, it is a desktop app designed to look superficially like Metro, the touch-friendly user interface in Windows Store apps. That said, the effect is rather odd since it does not run full screen or support the normal gestures and conventions, like settings in the Charms menu.

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Still, it is mostly touch-friendly. I say “mostly” because occasionally it departs from the Metro-style user interface and reverts to something more like desktop-style – like these small and ugly buttons in the delete confirmation dialog:

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This is sloppy design; look at the lack of margin around the button captions, the childish “No Way!”, and the fact that these buttons are smaller than they should be for comfortable touch control.

In the main part of the user interface the design remains poor. The font size is too small and there appears to be no way to change it. “Settings” lets you access Help, select language, connect to Twitter and Facebook, and register the product. That is all.

The big question though: how well does it work? Dragon Notes is different from Dragon Dictate, in that there is no voice training; it just does its best with whatever voice it hears.

Notes are easy to make; just tap Record, and tap again (or stop talking) to finish. You can transcribe for a maximum of 30 seconds, though you can also append to an existing note.

My initial results on a Surface Pro tablet, using the built-in microphone, were dire. Hardly any words were recognised. Before giving up though, I had a look at the microphone settings and made a recording using Sound Recorder. The result was a distorted mess, and I do not blame Dragon Notes for making no sense of it. I changed the levels in Windows, reducing the “Microphone Boost” until the level was reasonable but not distorted.

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The improvement in Dragon Notes was dramatic. Speaking a simple note slowly and carefully I could get almost perfect accuracy.

I attached a high quality Plantronics headset and tried Wordsworth’s Daffodils:

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Not bad, but not perfect either. (I did dictate “over” rather than “o’er” as the latter is just too difficult for Dragon).

Here is one of my efforts with the built-in microphone:

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Again, not that bad, but not something you could use without editing.

And that could be a problem. In the full Dragon Dictate you can use commands like “Select Fattening” and then select a correction, or repeat the word, or spell it. The only commands in Dragon Notes are for basic punctuation, posting to Facebook and Twitter, sending in an email, or searching the web.

This last is fun when it works. Tap to record, speak a word or phrase, then when it is recognised say “Search the web”.

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Summary: simple voice to text that works somewhat, terrible user interface design but basic enough that you will not struggle to use it.

Imitating a Metro user interface is a mistake; it is neither one thing nor the other. It is a shame Nuance did not do a proper Windows Store app.

That aside, how useful is this? It all hinges on the quality of the voice recognition, which will vary according to your voice, your microphone, and the quietness of your surroundings.

In the worst case it will be useless. In the best case, I can see some value in dictating a quick note rather than struggling to type with the on-screen keyboard, presuming you are in fact using a tablet.

It would help though if Dragon would record your voice as well as transcribing it, so that if the text is not intelligible you can later refer back to the recording.

A lot of the time you will end up having to edit the note with the keyboard to fix problems, which lessens its value.

Plenty of potential here, but with sloppy fake Metro design and features that are too limited it cannot yet be recommended.

More information on Dragon Notes is here.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus capture and streaming device

Hauppauge’s HD PVR 2 is a video capture device. The idea is that you connect it between a video source, such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and the TV or home theatre system you normally use. Instant pass-through means you can continue to play games as normal, provided that the HD PVR 2 is powered up.

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At the same time, the HD PVR 2 outputs the sound and video to a PC or Mac via USB. Capture software running on the computer lets you save your gaming session to disk, or broadcast it to a live streaming service like twitch.tv so that your followers can watch you gaming triumphs and tragedies in real time, complete with voiceover commentary if you feel inclined to provide it.

I reviewed the original HD PVR 2 here. The Gaming Edition Plus has several new features:

  • Mac software is provided in the box, whereas before it was extra cost
  • An optical audio input is provided, so you can get surround-sound from a PS3
  • Updated software now includes StreamEez for live streaming of the captured video

In addition, whether because of firmware or driver updates, I found the HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus generally less troublesome than the earlier model.

In the box

Kudos to Hauppauge for supplying a generous collection of cables.

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Along with the software CD and a getting started leaflet, you get a USB cable, two HDMI cables, a 5-way special cable for connecting component video and stereo audio to the A/V input on the unit, and an adapter cable in case you prefer to use standard RCA cables for component video and audio.

The reason for both HDMI and component support is that the HD PVR 2 only works with unencrypted HDMI signals. This means it works with HDMI from the Xbox 360 but not from the PS3. In cases where unencrypted HDMI is not available, you will use the component option.

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In order to get 5.1 surround sound without HDMI, you will need the optical in for audio.

The HD PVR2 itself is relatively compact. The snap below shows it with a CD so you can get a sense of the size.

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Setup and usage

Setup is a matter of first making all the connections, including the USB connection to your computer, and then installing the software and drivers from the supplied CD.

There are two primary applications. One is Hauppauge Capture. You can use this to capture video in .TS (H.264) format, do basic editing, export videos to MP4, upload videos to YouTube, and stream to twitch.tv or Ustream. You can add a personal logo to your videos via Settings.

Capture is at a maximum of 1080p at 30fps, or you can downscale as needed.

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The other supplied application is ArcsSoft TotalMedia ShowBiz 3.5. This can also also capture directly from the HD PVR 2, and in fact the documentation seems to steer you towards using ShowBiz rather than Hauppauge Capture. The ShowBiz editor has more features, including basic transition effects, storyboard and timeline, lettering, and upload to YouTube or export to file.

Setup was straightforward, though note that passthrough does not work until you have selected the video and audio input in settings on the PC. Once set, you can turn off or disconnect the computer and it continues to work.

Both applications worked well in my tests. While passthrough seems instant, there is a significant delay before video is captured, which is disorientating at first. I did experience occasional glitches. On one occasion the capture failed several minutes into a longer recording for no reason that I can see, but it seemed to be a one-off.

What about streaming to twitch.tv? I was excited to try this, and impressed by the ease of setup. Login is built into the capture application.

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However I discovered that my ADSL broadband connection was too slow for live streaming and although I could see that the connection was working, the image simply stuttered and broke up.

Live streaming is also demanding on your hardware. See this thread for a discussion of the requirements.

In other words, for successful video capture any modern PC or Mac should work fine, but do not assume live streaming will work unless you have the right hardware and broadband connection.

Conclusion

I was impressed by how reliable the HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus compared to the earlier version. If you want to get creative with video sourced from a gaming console, or any video source, you need a capture device, and this Hauppauge is an affordable and reliable choice. The supplied software is basic, but of course you can use other video editors like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere Pro with the files that you capture.

Recommended.

The HD PVR 2 costs around £130 – £150 in the UK. More details from the manufacturer’s website here.