Monthly Archives: May 2011

Review: Q2 Internet Radio, colourful minimalism

This one is nearly brilliant. The Q2 Internet Radio is a cute 10cm cube which does just one thing: play internet radio.

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This gadget is from the UK-based Armour Group, and the company has endeavoured to learn the lesson of Apple and to create a device that is attractive, usable, and avoids the distraction of myriad features that are rarely used.

The Q2 supports just four channels, selected by you. You change channel by turning the device, with the number on top indicating the current choice. Increase volume by tilting the cube back, decrease by tilting it forward, mute by turning it on end.

Round the back there is an on-off button, a USB port and a headphone socket; and that is about it for controls. The rechargeable battery gives around 14 hours playback time according to the manufacturer. An LED that is just about visible through the speaker grille shows the status: green for online, red for offline, flashing amber for low battery.

The Q2 comes in a smart box and is just asking to be given to someone, a gift that even technophobes will enjoy.

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Setup is a matter of downloading and installing an application on your Windows or Mac (Linux not supported yet) and then connecting the Q2. The application has a bold and colourful drag-and-drop approach, and it is a matter of moments to select a wifi network, enter the security key, and then select stations or podcasts for the four available channels. Just in case you did not know, there are thousands of internet radio stations, though quality varies and I found that some channels did not actually play. Still, you will have no trouble finding four good ones.

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Now, I have a few reservations about this device, but let me start with the good news. Operating the unit is genuinely easy, it looks good presuming you find a colour you like, and sound quality – though mono unless you use headphones – is remarkable considering the small size. Here’s why:

The Q2 Radio uses a custom designed full range 2.4” 4 ohm drive unit chosen for good sensitivity and matched to the 140 Hz tuned port enclosure.

Biquad DSP filters are used to voice the sound, giving a smooth listening response and added bass extension from the speaker system.

The amplifier is a high efficiency Class AB BTL type, optimised for battery operation, giving typically less than 0.1% THD under normal operating conditions. The use of a Class AB rather than Class D type amplifier results in both lower noise and distortion.

So far so good; but this device does have frustrations.

I am all in favour of minimalism, but wonder if this has been taken too far here. What if you or those who share your home want more than four channels? Changing the presets is a hassle. I also found that controlling the volume control by tilt is not really a great idea, since it is easy to over-shoot and have to tilt it the other way.

The Q2 feels well made, but I noticed that the rubberised surface picks up dust easily.

Now, there are a couple of things that Amour could do to improve the Q2. The first is to add Bluetooth with A2DP support, so that it could act as a remote powered speaker for a smartphone.

Second, the Q2 is crying out for an app that would let you control it from a smartphone. As it is, you have to connect it to a computer via USB to make any change to its settings. An app would be more elegant, and allow the Q2 to take real advantage of the thousands of internet radio stations available.

As it is, this is an expensive device for what it does. It is worth noting a some of the limitations that are inherent to its design. It needs to be in range of a wifi connection, so it is not suitable for travel, and most hotspots will not work because they require a login. It is not suitable for a bedside radio, since it has no clock or alarm. It does not support USB charging, so you need to use the supplied mains adaptor.

A few flaws then; but the Q2 is FUN and would make a delightful present. Yes, you can get more elsewhere for the same price; but value for money is not what this product is about.

Review: Eminent EM7195 HD media player

The EM7195 is an HD media player from the Dutch company Eminent.

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But what is an HD Media Player? In this case, it is a box that connects to your TV and home network. It is a self-contained media center whose functions include:

  • Play and record free-to-view digital broadcasts and pause live TV
  • Play a wide range of video and audio media from an internal or external hard drive or over the network
  • View images from attached devices or from the card reader
  • Play YouTube videos or other internet media from sites including Flickr, Picassa and blip.tv
  • Download files from internet newsgroups and BitTorrent sites

The EM7195 supports 1080p video output, hence the “HD” designation. It has a twin DVB-T tuner, so you can play one channel and record another simultaneously. This works with Freeview in the UK, but note that Freeview HD, which is gradually being rolled out, requires DVB-T2 so is not compatible with the EM7195.

Eminent says the EM7195 is based on the “next-generation RT1183DD+ processor.” I presume this is the RTD1183 which is not currently listed on the Realtek site though as this post observes it is referenced on the DivX site as being certified in May 2009, making “next-generation” a stretch, especially as players with the latest RTD1185 chipset are already appearing from other manufacturers.

Note that the review unit was supplied with a 3.5″ 1TB SATA internal hard drive; however this is optional though recommended. Currently a 1TB drive costs from around £45.00.

Unpacking and setting up

Opening the packaging reveals a black box along with a remote and a substantial collection of cables.

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The unit feels well made and is backed by a five year warranty. It has a small fan but this is quiet and I did not find it audible in normal use. The hard drive is fitted by opening a flap in the side, and slots in without screws. Cables supplied include HDMI, optical SPDIF, USB 3.0 and SATA. There is also an internal antenna though unless you happen to have a particularly strong TV signal I doubt you would want to use it. Batteries for the backlit remote are included.

For the test I connected an external antenna. I connected the EM7195 to an HD TV with the HDMI cable. I connected a surround sound home theatre receiver with the optical cable. I also connected it to my network using a wired connection. If you want to use wifi, you need an optional USB wifi adapter. Eminent’s EM4576 is recommended; I do not know if other brands might also work. This is the back of the unit:

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Note that it has one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports on the back. There is also a card reader slot and a further USB 2.0 port on the side. The ethernet port is only 100Mb, presumably because of the older Realtek chipset.

In order to complete the setup, I went into setup to scan for TV channels. This was successful and enabled an EPG (Electronic Program Guide) from which I could browse channels and schedule recordings.

I also set up an UPNP server on my network, and ripped some DVDs, in order to test some of the other features. More on this below.

The software

Ah, the software. I am not sure exactly what the Eminent runs, but I would bet that it runs on Linux and that it was not developed entirely by Eminent. A clue is it includes a primitive web browser with a “web portal” menu option that directs you to a Chinese site. Overall the software is functional but rough and ready compared to what you may be used to from Apple, Sony or Microsoft.

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The main screen is a menu with options for Movies, Music, Photo, TV, Internet, Document and Setup. There is an option to have the EM7195 start up with this menu, or go straight into TV mode. You can decorate the menu background by applying a theme, but the ones supplied soon gave me a headache so I reverted to plain black.

Navigating the menus is mostly straightforward, though it can be tedious. The EM7195 does not seem to do any indexing of the content, so you have to navigate to it. For example, if you go to Movies, you can choose HDD, then the folder or subfolder you want, then select the video file you want to play.

A strong point of the EM7195 is its support for a wide range of formats. Supported video formats include AVCHD, H.264, VC-1, MPEG 1-4, TS, ISO and MOV. Supported audio formats include AAC, PCM, DTS and Ogg Vorbis.

If you are on a Windows network, you can use SAMBA, a Linux utility that lets you use Windows networking protocols with Linux. This works both to and from the EM7195, so you can play files that are on shared network folders, and also use the EM7195 as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive for your PCs. This is also useful if you want to copy a DVD you have ripped on a PC. That said, the fastest way to copy files is over USB 3.0, if you have a PC equipped with a USB 3.0 port.

Some of the menu options are perplexing. If you select DVD on the Movie menu, for example, the unit just declares “No loader,” presumably because there is no physical DVD drive present. The software is not fully documented by the supplied manual, though most of it is self-explanatory, especially if you are used to playing with Linux and media center software.

Eminent has announced a new user interface for its software which looks more attractive, though whether it is really easier and quicker to navigate is an open question. This will be made available as a free update.

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Performance

The picture quality of digital TV is good but slightly over-saturated; I suspect this can be fixed by tweaking settings on the TV, or on the EM7195, or both. I scheduled a TV recording to the hard drive and this worked well.

I have a substantial collection of FLAC files, ripped from CD, which I normally play using a Squeezebox. I could play these by navigated to them over the network, but for easier access I downloaded Asset UPnP from the excellent illustrate site, and ran this on a PC to publish the FLAC collection. You can also use Windows Media Player as a UPnP server, but this does not work with FLAC.

I tried the EM7195’s Internet Media support, with mixed results. It has an application for playing YouTube videos. You can search YouTube, then select a result with the remote and click OK to play. However, not all videos would play, and those that did not play showed no error, just did nothing. Performance was fine on the the ones that did play OK.

I ripped some DVDs in various formats. The easiest approach is to create an ISO image from a DVD; these play fine on the EM7195. They tend to be large files, but with a 1TB drive there is plenty of room. One annoyance is that to get surround sound you have to set the audio output to RAW (pass-through), which means that the EM7195 volume control does not work. I then found that YouTube was silent and had to set the audio output back to LPCM.

I have some audio files in high-res formats, in other words more than the 16 bit / 44 Khz of standard CD. These played fine, but were downsampled to 16-bit, even when played directly from the EM7195 hard drive. I could get the EM7195 to output 16/48 but that was the maximum. I regard this as a minor point, but if you are an audio enthusiast who wants to play high res files at the maximum resolution, this is probably not the unit for you.

Ripping DVD and Blu-Ray discs

One of the attractions of the EM7195 is that you can potentially put all your DVDs in a box out of the way, and play them from the internal hard drive.

The complication is that to do this you have to rip them. DVD ripping software is a jungle, mainly because most commercial discs are encrypted, and although it is well know how to decrypt them, it may not be legal. Essentially you can choose from a plethora of open source tools which need to be combined in the right sequence and with the right arguments for you to get what you want; or more user-friendly software which is usually paid-for and from companies which do not admit to any geographical address or phone number on their websites; or software proclaimed as FREE on a myriad of sites which may or may not do what you want and might be accompanied by unwelcome malware guests.

That is a shame since ripping a DVD to a file is convenient not only for media centers like this one, but also for mobile devices like Apple’s iPad which do not include DVD drives.

Presuming you do find a way to rip your DVDs, they play fine on the EM7195 as long as the encryption has been removed. You can also play unprotected Blue-Ray ISO images, though the EM7195 does not support their Java menus.

Other features

The EM7195 also has built in BitTorrent software. I did not try this though I did have a look. You can manage torrent downloads through the remote and TV, or from a web user interface called Neighbor Web

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There is a web browser as mentioned above, but I found it unusable. There is a slide show feature for photos.

Verdict

I enjoyed using the Eminent 7195. Playing and recording digital TV is easy and convenient, and I liked being able to play DVD ISOs from the hard drive. SAMBA support is a great feature, ensuring that the 7195 plays nicely with a Windows network. Support for FLAC audio is also welcome. The unit seems well-made, has a generous set of ports, runs quietly, and is unobtrusive.

That said, if you want to do more than time-shifting digital TV this product is best suited to enthusiasts who can get to grips with ripping DVDs, cope with inconveniences like switching the SPDIF output between RAW and LPCM to get the best from different sources, and put up with the quirky software. I will be interested to see the updated firmware when it arrives; it might be worth waiting for this before buying.

Lack of Gigabit ethernet is a disappointment, as is the need for an add-on USB device for wifi support.

For UK users, it is a shame that there is no support for BBC iPlayer or the catch-up services from Channel 4 (4oD) and ITV (ITV Player). The EM7195 fails to take advantage from its internet connectivity. Yes there is BitTorrent support and access to YouTube and Flickr, but this could be much better. Social networking support is completely absent.

It seems to me that the future of media center boxes is in software that is not only highly usable, but also extensible with downloadable apps. I would also like to see a companion app for iPhone or Android, as this approach has more potential than a traditional infra-red remote.

The challenge for Eminent is to improve its software to make better use of the hardware.

Review: Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset and why you need A2DP

The Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset is a handy device that clips over one ear to give hands-free calling. The device comes with a small power adaptor, though it also charges through USB using the supplied cable. There are also a couple of microphone windshields and a spare ear gel.

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The Wave has an on-off button, a volume control, a status display showing battery and Bluetooth connection information, and an answer-end button at the tip of the microphone boom.

I charged it up and established a connection with an Apple iPhone 4 with no issues. Call quality was good. I was also able to use voice control, by squeezing the answer-end button and holding until it gives a short beep. The results were dire – I never know who the iPhone will try to call when I say “Call <name>” – but I blame this on the iPhone rather than the Wave. Maybe I have the wrong kind of voice.

You can mute or unmute a call by pressing both volume up and down simultaneously. You can also do call on hold by pressing the answer-end button during a call, and then pressing it again to switch between calls, provided your phone supports this feature.

The Wave can be paired and connected to two devices simultaneously, handy if you have two phones in use.

There are a couple of things I like about the Wave. It has an unusual design, with the ear gel protruding sideways from the speaker, but it is actually easy to fit and comfortable, perhaps more so than the Plantronics  Voyager Pro which I reviewed recently.

Another plus is the position of the buttons. If you are wearing your headset, you have to find the buttons by feel. In the case of the Wave, the one button you will need constantly is answer-end, and sticking this on the end of the microphone boom makes it easy to find and use.

On the negative side, I do not feel the sound quality is quite the equal of the Voyager Pro. It is also annoying that if you play music on the iPhone, it comes out of the iPhone speaker, not the headset. The reason is that the Wave lacks support for the A2DP (Advances Audio Distribution Profile), the Bluetooth spec which supports high quality music audio.

Jabra says the Wave is particularly good at wind noise reduction. I was not able to test this, and have not personally found this a problem with Bluetooth headsets, but if you encounter this frequently the Wave could be worth a look.

The Wave is cheaper than the Voyager Pro+ (you need the + version for A2dP). Typical prices on Amazon.co.uk are currently around £40.00 for the Wave and around £50 for the Voyager Pro+.

Still, if you do not care about listening to music you may prefer the Wave. It does the job nicely, and I do like its handy answer-end button.

Manufactuer’s specs:

  • Talk time 6 hours
  • Standby 8 days
  • Range 10 meters

 

Fixing a Nintendo DS Lite

Our Nintendo DS Lite developed a fault in the top screen. It would work occasionally, but then started going green and blotchy.

I checked the price on eBay – £12.00 for a new screen and a set of screwdrivers sounded worth a go.

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Nintendo decided to use special tri-wing screws for the DS Lite. I am not sure why gadget manufacturers use special screws because it does not take long for the DIY community to get hold of suitable tools, but I guess it deters the most casual tinkerers. This is why three screwdrivers were included in my package. There were also several plastic tools for prising open the case though I did not use these.

I found numerous guides on YouTube and elsewhere, though they rarely tell you everything you need to know

The operation was harder than I thought it would be. I can take apart a DS Lite in seconds now, having done it a few times, but the first time took a while as I learned where to prise it apart and which bits are likely to ping out and get lost – the left and right bumper buttons, for example, have tiny springs that are likely to come loose.

Why was it difficult? Well, to get at the top screen you have to disassemble most of the DS Lite, including the bottom part. There is a cable running from the screen to the motherboard that has to be pushed through the hinge, which is tricky. There are also two cables (antenna and microphone connectors) that have to be threaded under a metal assembly on the motherboard, and which tend to get stuck when out of sight. You can see these in the photo above – they are the black and white cables towards the bottom.

Another fiddly task is that the speaker wires are soldered to the aforementioned cable that connects the top screen. This means you have to detach them from the old screen and solder them to tiny pads on the new cable.

I also had difficulty reassembling the top part of the case. It seems to go out of alignment easily, and in fact it is still not quite perfect.

The outcome? Good news and bad news. The top screen works fine. However, when I reassembled the bottom case the plastic power switch must have been slightly out of alignment, because it broke the small protrusion on the internal switch. This means the DS Lite can now only be operated with a pin. This is a common problem, but unfortunately I did not find one of the guides which mentions the issue until it was too late.

Well, I have ordered a new power switch for a further £1.00 including postage. However, apparently replacing the power switch is another tricky job because it is surface mounted. We’ll see.

Postscript: I am happy to report a successful power switch replacement. I am not sure if it is attached quite as strongly as before; but for now it is working fine.

BT selling Openzone wifi access by default through its customers broadband, some do not realise it

Yesterday I spent some time helping a small business sort out its new broadband and voice over IP system. They have signed up for BT business broadband and were supplied with a pre-configured BT Business Hub, a combined ADSL router, switch and wifi access point.

I was surprised to discover that the hub was preconfigured to share the wifi connection to the whole wide world, via BT’s Openzone service.

Openzone is not a free service, although many BT customers have unlimited access as part of their broadband package. Non-BT customers who want to use it have to pay BT for access minutes.

Why would anyone want to do that? Here is the reasoning BT offers in its FAQ:

Why would I want to enable the BT Openzone service on my hub?

With the growing need for people to work how, where and when they choose, Wi-Fi users provides a great opportunity for Wi-Fi access on the move.

Wi-Fi users requiring access on the move are constantly looking for new hotspot locations, as the UK’s Wi-Fi footprint continues to expand.

The BT Openzone service on the BT Business Hub can provide the same Wi-Fi access that ‘premium’ hotspots offer, but without the infrastructure costs. Businesses enabling this service on their hubs can raise the profile of their business in hotspot directories and generate a new revenue stream through voucher resale.

Well, anyone can resell Openzone access vouchers; it is not linked to the access you are offering so it is incorrect to call it a benefit. This is unlike BT FON, which is a similar facility for home broadband customers, but with the difference that if you offer hotspot access through your broadband, then you also get it free from others. The real benefit is that if BT has lots of customers who do this, you are more likely to get hotspot access yourself when out and about.

The benefit for BT is more obvious. More wifi hot spots, more revenue from Openzone customers.

Now, what about the downside? BT has a whole series of FAQ responses addressing understandable concerns like: does it impact security, what about someone visiting an illegal site, what about performance?

Despite BT’s reassurance, the security question is easy to answer. Opening your wifi access point to the general public cannot improve your security, but it could weaken it. The cautious should turn it off.

The key question though: are BT customers fully aware of what they have agreed to? I asked the business owner who had dealt with BT, and he had no idea that the general public was being allowed to ride the broadband access he had paid for, with any revenue going to BT.

Further, it is on by default, and BT admits it could impair performance:

If your broadband connection has reduced bandwidth (less than 1Mbps), your private broadband traffic may be overwhelmed. BT recommend that you disable the service via your BT Business Hub’s web interface to improve performance. For further information on how to do this, please see How can I turn my BT Openzone service on and off?

Note:

As the hub’s default setting is for the service to be enabled, you need to disable the service again if you perform a factory reset in the future.

While I have little doubt that the small print of the BT agreement permits this Openzone element, I still question the ethics of BT selling its broadband service, and then selling the same service again to the general public, without directly sharing any revenue with the first purchaser, and without a clear opt-in.

Battle of the portables: Netbook vs Apple iPad 2

A semi-serious comparison

The popularity of tablets has seriously undermined the market for netbooks, according to many reports. But to what extent are the two comparable, and if they are, is a tablet unequivocally superior? I’m asking the question as much as answering, because I am trying out an iPad 2 and intrigued to see to what extent it can replace the netbook with which I normally travel. I have found I prefer the netbook to a laptop when out and about: the lightness and long battery life is worth the performance limitations for me.

The comparison is not straightforward. An iPad is a thing of beauty, whereas a typical netbook is an obvious compromise, nearly a laptop but limited in memory and performance. For some people that is enough; they will say, it is not about features, it is about the experience, and it is night and day.

Even so there are things that the netbook does better. What follows are some notes on the subject, based on the iPad vs a Toshiba NB 300 netbook with which I am familiar. I may add or amend the entries, so check back for updates.

1. Price

iPad2: £399 (wi-fi with 16GB)

Toshiba netbook: £230.00 (based on typical current price of NB305)

Winner: netbook

the netbook comes with Windows 7 starter, a crippled version of Windows, and only 1MB RAM. You probably want to add 1GB RAM (£17.00). If you want to join your netbook to a business domain you’ll need to upgrade Windows 7 to the Professional version; if you want to get rid of the annoying ads in Office Starter you’ll need to upgrade Office too.

2. Ease of setup:

iPad2: Switch on, and it asks you to connect to a computer running iTunes. This actually has its annoyances. iTunes is rather slow and bloated especially on Windows. When you connect, the default is auto-sync, which means iTunes will attempt to copy its music library to your iPad, likely not have enough room, and copy a random selection. If you have an iPhone, you will also get all your iPhone apps copied across, like it or not, which means you have to delete the ones you do not want.

Toshiba netbook: I recounted the “fairly dismal” experience of setting up a Toshiba netbook here. The main problem is all the trialware that is pre-installed, plus a bunch of Toshiba utilities of varying quality. Rather than repeat it all here, I will show show the screenshot a few minutes after first power-on:

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

3. Boot time

iPad 2: instant

Toshiba: ages. Better from hibernation, though still much slower than iPad 2. Better from sleep, but I am not a big fan of sleep because it drains the battery and occasionally crashes on resume.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

4. Multi-tasking, or the ability to do several things at once

iPad 2: does multi-task but the experience is not great. Only one app is visible at a time, and to switch you have to double-click the big button, swipe through a list of apps, and tap the one you want.

Toshiba: It’s Windows. Fortunately Microsoft changed its mind about having a limit of three apps you can run at once. You can run lots of apps, switch between them with alt-tab or by clicking a taskbar icon, and size them small so you can see more than one on-screen at one time.

The simplicity of one app to view is meant to be an advantage of iOS; but while the Windows model can be troublesome – see the above screenshot for proof- I’d like to see some improvement in this part of iOS. It is not a matter of screen size: the screen size on the netbook is similar to that of the iPad.

Winner: netbook

5. Keyboard

iPad 2: soft keyboard that obscures half the screen, or add-on physical keyboard.

Toshiba netbook: traditional clamshell design with integrated keyboard.

I do a lot of typing, and my speed is substantially better on a physical keyboard. However I do not like carrying lots of accessories, and while the iPad add-on  keyboard is fine at a desk, if you are in a confined space such as an aeroplane the clamshell design works better than a loose keyboard.

That said, I recall hearing how a school that issued all its pupils and staff with iPads was surprised by how few wanted keyboards. Some kids apparently prefer the soft keyboard to “all those buttons”, so it may depend what you are used to. However, even if you replaced the “Keyboard” heading with “Text input”, my vote would still go to the netbook.

Winner: netbook

6. Touch control

iPad 2: yes

Toshiba netbook: no

I’m putting this in just to make the point. Even a Windows tablet, with a stylus, is less convenient to use with touch than an iPad.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

7. Applications

iPad 2: A bazillion apps available in the app store, cheap or free to purchase, a snap to install. Not so many for iPad as for iPhone, but still a good number.

Toshiba netbook: It’s Windows. They are a bit slow to load, but I run Microsoft Office, Outlook, several web browsers, music apps, games, network utilities and all sorts of other stuff.

Winner: I am going to call this a tie. There are some beautiful apps for the iPad 2, but I miss the features of Windows apps like Office. With the netbook my experience is that I can do almost anything that I can do with a desktop PC, although more slowly, but that is not the case with the iPad 2. On the other hand, the way apps can be installed and removed in a blink on the iPad 2 is a delight compared to Windows setup.

8. File system and storage

iPad 2: There is a file system, but it is hidden from the user.

Toshiba netbook: Yes. I can save a document from one app, and open it in another. I can connect to it over a network and copy files from one folder to another. Not possible on the iPad 2 without workarounds like iTunes and DropBox; and even then some things are difficult. For example, you cannot save a document from Pages on the iPad directly to your DropBox. Let me add that the netbook has a 250GB hard drive, whereas the iPad gets by with a maximum of 32GB solid state storage – though also note that solid state storage is faster to access, and that because the iPad is designed to work like that it does not feel particularly space-constrained.

Winner by a mile: netbook

9. Connectivity

iPad 2: Wireless network, or devices that accept Apple’s proprietary connector. You can attach the iPad to a PC with USB, but only iTunes really understands it, unless you just want to copy photos and videos. Apple offers an add-on camera connectivity kit for downloading photos from a camera, and AirPrint for printing over a network. It is annoying that you have to buy add-ons to do what a netbook does out of the box.

Toshiba netbook: Three standard USB ports, you can attach external hard drives or most USB devices such as printers.

Winner: netbook

10. Battery life

iPad 2: Apple says up to 10 hours, but I have never managed as much as that. Maybe 7 or 8 hours.

Toshiba netbook: I get about 6 hours on wifi, more than that without.

In practice, I have no quibble with either machine – though I am envious of Amazon Kindle owners with their one month charge.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2.

11. Portability

iPad 2: no bigger than a pad of paper. It is not exactly pocketable, but slips easily into any kind of bag or briefcase. It perhaps needs the protection of a case, but even in a case it is not bulky.

Toshiba netbook: fatter and uglier than an iPad, but still very portable. The worst thing is the power supply, if you need it: the Apple mains adaptor is much smaller than Toshiba’s effort.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2

12. Watching videos

iPad 2: Great. It is like a portable TV or DVD player, but better – as long as you have a strong wifi connection and BBC iPlayer or the like. Just prop it up on its stand (most cases have one) and enjoy.

Toshiba netbook: it works but the graphics capabilities are inferior and it feels like you are looking at a netbook.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

13. Built in cameras and microphone

iPad 2: two cameras, front and back, and a microphone that works.

Toshiba netbook: webcam and microphone, but they are junk; I have not seen a netbook with anything decent.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

14. Reading eBooks

iPad 2: iBooks app and Amazon Kindle app. I prefer the Kindle app, though whether it will survive Apple’s assault on alternative readers I am not sure.

Toshiba netbook: Kindle app, as well as Adobe Reader etc.

A tablet is great for reading, much better than a netbook. However despite its humble appearance Amazon’s Kindle device really is better for reading, thanks to a screen you can read in sunlight, much longer battery life, and free internet access to download books everywhere.

Winner: iPad 2, though a Kindle is better

15. Attract admiring glances

iPad 2: Yes

Toshiba netbook: No

Winner: I did say “semi-serious”.

Google seeks to automate the home

Google made a bunch of announcements at its Google I/O keynote today. It showed off the next version of Android, called “Ice Cream Sandwich”; it announced its Music Beta, a service which looks a lot like Amazon’s Cloud Player, in which you upload your music collection to the cloud; it announced movie rentals.

The most intriguing announcements though were about how Android devices will be able to connect to other devices in future. The Open Accessory API lets manufacturers create devices which talk to Android over USB, and in future over Bluetooth, in a standard manner. The idea is that if you have an Android-compatible device – Google demoed an exercise bike – you can attach your smartphone and do some clever stuff, such as controlling it, analysing its data, or whatever is appropriate.

A related idea is called Android@Home. Google has developed a new lightweight wireless protocol which will let manufacturers create household devices that can communicate with Android:

We previewed an initiative called Android@Home, which allows Android apps to discover, connect and communicate with appliances and devices in your home.

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The automated home is a grand concept where almost any device, from a light to a coffee maker to a fridge or a door becomes available to control and program. However, the examples Google gave were not exciting: playing a CD by waving it at a player, coding an alarm clock to turn the light on gradually. Big deal.

It is not really a new concept. Sun had ideas to develop Java as a universal runtime and language to automate the home. Microsoft has similar thoughts, maybe using the .NET Micro Framework. So far none of these efforts have come to much – will Google’s initiative be different?

Probably not; but there is something else going on here. I travel a bit, and it is now common to find an iPod dock in your hotel room. If you have an Ipod or iPhone you just plug in and go; if you have a non-Apple device, you are out of luck. That is a kind of pressure exerted on every guest, a hint that they might be better off with an Apple device.

Google wants to do the same for a variety of other devices, but with respect to Android. Here is a refrigerator, and by the way, if you have an Android device you can do this other clever stuff like, I don’t know, alerting you if the temperature goes too high, or letting you peek at the contents from your smartphone so you can see if you need to buy milk.

Same with the Open Accessory API. If Google can sign up enough manufacturers, it will be increasingly difficult for non-Android devices to compete.

That said, we did not hear much about Google TV at today’s keynote. Why? Because it has flopped; a reminder that not all Google’s efforts succeed.

Apple’s iPad 2 Smart Cover: great stand, poor cover

I’ve been trying Apple’s iPad 2 recently, complete with the official Smart Cover.

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This was shown off at the launch event. It is meant to combine various features:

  • Keep your screen safe from scratches
  • Turn the iPad on and off when opened and closed
  • Clean the iPad screen with its microfiber lining
  • Form a support for the iPad for typing
  • Form a stand for the iPad so you can use it as an expensive digital photo frame

Although a cover seems a simple thing, it seems the results of considerable design effort. It has a magnetic strip which attaches to the left long edge of the unit. The magnet is strong, the fit is perfectly snug, the iPad does turn on and off as advertised.

So what’s wrong? One issue is that unless you detach it completely, the cover is a nuisance when open. You can fold it round the back, but it slips and slides a bit as well as covering the rear camera. So you can detach it, but then you have to put it somewhere, and the magnetic strip is more fiddly to detach and re-attach than a simple slip-on cover.

More seriously, users have complained about several issues:

  • Cover is too flimsy to offer good protection
  • The close fit of the hinge lessens over a few weeks, presumably as the metal bends and stretches slightly
  • The microfiber lining forms the base when used as a stand, so picks up dirt that then gets deposited on your screen

Some users say it it flops over when used as a stand, but I believe this is because they are folding it the wrong way. You must fold it against the grain, so the microfiber is on the outside. Otherwise, yes it flops.

My view: the Smart Cover makes a poor cover, but a great stand. Of course it is a huge price to pay for just a stand, but if you are using the iPad to watch BBC iPlayer, for example, the stand is perfect, much better than trying to prop it up somehow.

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It is a terrible cover though. Bear that in mind before you buy.

Funbridge: bridge for iPhone and iPad

There are several bridge app for Apple’s iPhone and iPad, but the one I’ve had most fun with is called, appropriately, Funbridge. This is already well-established as a Windows application, where you play against a computer but can compare your performance to other players, making the results much more interesting.

The iOS version is currently a free app, and has just been updated to include Tournaments as well as one-off games, now called Training.

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In the latest version, you have to log in to play more than a couple of games, though the account is free.

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Bidding and play is straightforward, with a few caveats. There is no fine-grained control over bidding conventions; you can choose between Beginner, Advanced, Expert, American Standard, Acol, or Polish system. Unless you choose Acol, these are all strong no trump, 5 card major systems. It is worth reading up on the systems used in detail, as otherwise you will get unpleasant surprises.

Note that during both bidding and play, Funbridge will call back to the server before every decision. This means you cannot play offline, and if you are playing where the internet connection is weak, such as on a train, you can expect frustrating delays; games can take so long that you forget what has been played!

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During play just tap a suit to display all the cards you hold in that suit, then tap a card to play. Take care – there is no undo, and it is all too easy to tap the wrong card and then watch with horror as you see your safe contract sailing down to a penalty.

You can choose to withdraw on a hand, in which case it is not scored, but if you then play it again, you are given a kind of informational score that does not count towards your ranking. It can still be interesting to see how a different line works out.

Once play has completed, you get to compare your score with others and see how many IMPS (International Match Points) you achieved.

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A really nice feature is that you can click the magnifying glass and get details of each contract, including card-by-card analysis. So if you are amazed at how well or badly someone managed to do, you can see how it happens. Sometimes, I have to say, it happens only because of a baffling misplay. I imagine this happens when the computer is playing on the other side, unless there are serious bugs in the engine.

A Tournament is a sequence of 10 games, at the end of which you can see how you rank among the other players, currently ranging from 150 to 750 or so in number. Scoring in tournaments seems to alternate between IMPs and Pairs scoring – the difference being that Pairs scoring rewards small differences in the score and makes big differences less costly, whereas with IMPs the reverse is true.

Overall it is enjoyable, though as in real bridge there are moments of frustration. The hands seem tilted towards more interesting or better than average holdings, though it is hard to be sure.

One complaint: the server seems to get too busy at times and the software does not cope particularly well; you click Connect and there is no error message, nothing happens.

Enjoy it for nothing while you can – it is “currently free” but I suspect will eventually attract a subscription cost – maybe a similar subscription rate to the desktop version, €74.00 for a year, or maybe something different.

Why Spotify should stick to streaming, not copy iTunes

Today Spotify announced iPod support. Essentially it has reverse-engineered enough of the Apple iPod’s protocols to let you connect an iPod and sync a Spotify playlist to it.

The catch: in order to sync a playlist you have to buy MP3s for all the tracks it includes.

Spotify has great software and I love the service, though sadly it is now crippled for free users. It already supports smartphone users through an offline feature, combined with a mobile app, though this requires a premium account.

The new model is different. Instead of being an offline cache for streamed music, it is old-style MP3 purchase. In fact, the promotional video presents the new feature in simple terms: you can now purchase and download your Spotify playlist.

So what is Spotify now? A streaming service, or a download service? Was the crippling of the free service done with this in mind, to push users towards MP3 purchase? Is this another symptom of music industry pressure? Will Spotify further cripple its streaming service, to promote download purchases?

Personally I have little interest in yet another MP3 download option. For iPod or iPhone users, Apple iTunes wins on usability and integration, Amazon MP3 on price.

I have great interest in subscription though. Spotify has been liberating in this respect. Want to play something? Just search and play, instantly. That is what Spotify does so well. It should stick with it, rather than moving back into the download era.