Monthly Archives: June 2011

Keyboards, consoles and living rooms: Trust Thinity reviewed

Computers are for the study, consoles for the living room, right? Kind-of, but we are seeing some convergence. The box under your TV might actually be a Mac Mini or a PC, or you might be browsing the web on your Sony PS3. From time to time you hit a problem: game controllers are lousy for text input.

I was an early adopter for Microsoft’s Media Center PC, and hit exactly this problem. Microsoft’s media center remote was good in its way, but sometimes I needed a keyboard and mouse. I ended up getting a wireless keyboard. However I also discovered that a keyboard, while great for a desk, is an awkward thing to have lying around in a living room.

This is the problem Trust is trying to address with its Thinity Wireless Entertainment Keyboard. This is a small keyboard – think netbook-sized – with an integrated trackpad. It comes with a USB wifi adaptor and a stand/charger.

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When sat in its charger it is reasonably stylish as these things go, but still looks like a keyboard.

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The Thinity is compatible with Windows PCs – why not Mac? – Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. There is no need to install drivers, just plug in the USB device and it works. That said, there is no caps lock indicator on the keyboard, so you can download a software indicator for Windows if you want.

The trackpad is actually multitouch, and as well as having hardware left and right buttons,  tapping with three fingers makes a right button click, and it behaves as a scroller if you drag with two fingers.

How is it then? Well, it does the job and is easier than using a game controller to type URLs and passwords. I cannot rate it highly though, since it is not a particularly well-designed keyboard. The keys are close together and it is hard to type at speed. I would not enjoy using it as a main PC keyboard; I wrote most of this review with it but found it a struggle.

It is also a shame that there are no configuration options for Windows. I would like to turn off tapping, which I personally find a nuisance because of accidental clicking though I know others who love it.

Although the Trust brand is associated with budget gear, I get the impression that the company set out to make at least a mid-range product, with multi-touch keypad and a long-lasting li-ion battery. Unfortunately it needs a bit more design effort, making it seem over-priced for what it is. There are little annoyances, like the fiddly on-off switch, the support tabs on the back that are hard to prise open, and the fact that the keyboard flexes a little more than it should.

Logitech’s Google TV, the Revue, has a keyboard/trackpad that is only a little larger, but is more usable.

But do you want a keyboard in the living room at all? Personally I am doubtful. They are a transitional necessity. I am a fan of apps rather than remotes. The virtual keyboard on an Apple iPad does all that is necessary for occasional text input in a more elegant and living-room-friendly manner. Nintendo is taking this same direction with the Wii U, which has a touch controller with its own screen.

Of course these devices cost more and do more than a simple wireless keyboard, but they are inherently better suited to the task. One factor is that when you type, you do not want to be 12 feet away from where the letters are appearing on a screen. With a screen-equipped remote, they are right in front of you.

That does not solve the immediate problem with a PS3, Xbox or Media Center PC, so you will still need something like the Thinity, though I would suggest you check out the competition too. Long term though, I do not think we will see many keyboards in the living room.

Apple’s uneasy relationship with its retailers

I’m at an event run by an Apple accessory distributor, showing off the latest add-on gadgets. Met someone whose company has a number of high street stores selling Apple products.

“What do you do when an Apple Store opens in the same town as one of your shops?”

Answer: “It screws us”

That shop becomes instantly unprofitable.

The consequence: one retailer said it is inevitable that Apple-only retailers will diversify and start selling Windows, Android and so on.

It is a bitter pill since Apple itself encouraged independent retailers to invest in prime retail sites – only to compete with them a year or two later with it’s own stores.

Resellers are also facing competition from the Mac app store, selling previously profitable applications like Final Cut and of course the next version of OS X, Lion, either exclusively or at prices with which they cannot compete.

Does Apple care? Well, it seems there is one team tasked with supporting independent resellers, and another tasked with finding good sites for new Apple stores, and the two do not talk to each other. Which I suppose is what you would expect.

Apple may deliver the most user-friendly devices out there, but that does not make it a nice company to do business with.

Warring models of music distribution

How should we pay for the music we listen to? In the digital, internet era, it seems to me that there are three business models.

In the first model, you pay for a lifetime right to each album or track you want to add to your collection. This is the most similar to what we are used to from purchasing physical media like records or CDs. You do not own the music of course; all you have ever purchased is a licence to listen to it.

Until now the digital equivalent has been downloads as offered by Apple iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store. However, Apple has now announced iCloud, which extends this model to de-emphasise the actual download. You download a track to play it on your device, but there is no problem if you have more licenced tracks than you have space for; you can just download the ones you want to play. You can also “upload”, but when you do this, you do not really upload the tracks, but rather just inform iCloud’s database that you are licenced for them.

The second model is where you subscribe, giving you the right to play anything that your music provider has to offer. The most successful example is Spotify, which has a superb client for Mac and PC that offers near-instant playback of any of 13 million tracks.

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An advantage of this approach is that it is naturally social. Since everyone has access to the same library, you can share playlists easily.

The third model is where you do not pay at all. In pre-digital days, you could listen to the radio or swap tapes with friends. Now almost anything is available, legally through Spotify (though now restricted to 2.5 hours per week and 5 times per track), or illegally through countless sites easily found through Google, or through copying your friend’s hard drive stuffed with music.

Personally I am a fan of the second model. I think musicians should be rewarded for their work, and that all-you-can-eat licencing is the best and fairest approach, taking advantage of what technology enables. Buying a lossy-compressed download with a restrictive licence is also poor value compared to buying a record or CD.

I get the impression though that the music industry is set against the subscription approach. Apple seems reluctant to embrace it, hence iCloud is still tied to the first model. Spotify still has it, but the company now seems to be putting increasing emphasis on downloads and locally stored music, which is strange given its original concept, as well as making its ad-supported free streaming account less attractive.

The business reasoning, I guess, is a belief that selling music piecemeal is more profitable, and exploits the collecting instinct that has served the industry so well in the past.

The risk is that the third model will sweep it aside.

Nintendo bringing dual screen to the Wii with smart controller

Nintendo has announced the Wii U, set for release sometime in 2012. If the unique feature of the original Wii was the motion controller, this new one is characterised by a smart controller that is in effect a mini-console in its own right, complete with 6.2″, 16:9 touch screen, accelerometer and gyroscope. In fact, it sounds a lot like a tablet with game controller buttons.

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As for the console, it is not so different from before except that it now includes an IBM Power-based multi-core processor and from what was seen at E3, a substantial advance in graphical power. The original Wii Remote controllers are still supported, as are accessories like the Wii Balance Board.

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The console has internal flash memory, but you can attach an external USB hard drive. The disc drive reads a new proprietary high-density format as well as existing Wii titles, with which it is backward-compatible.

Why two screens? Well, it opens up many new possibilities for game play as well as non-gaming uses. At E3 it was shown being used for video chat.

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Nintendo spoke of the Wii U having a “strong bond between games, the TV and the internet,” and the new controller could be used for social interaction while the main screen is showing TV or internet content.

Having a second screen also means you have use one for navigation and the other for content, which makes a lot of sense.

I admire Nintendo’s ability to innovate. Now that the other consoles have picked up the idea of motion controllers, Nintendo is branching in a different direction, and this looks like a good upgrade for the Wii.

At the same time, the similarity of the new controller to an Apple iPad or RIM PlayBook or Android tablet gives me pause for thought.

First, it is going to be expensive relative to the original Wii.

Second, what are the possibilities for gaming if Apple put together the iPad and the Mac, or if Microsoft broke with its past and actually integrated Windows 8 on a tablet with the Xbox 360?

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Asus announces combined smartphone and tablet – the Padfone

Asus has announced the Padfone, a combined tablet and smartphone running Google Android. The phone docks inside the tablet, which means you get an internet-connected tablet without having to pay for an additional SIM card and contract. It is a similar concept to Motorola’s Atrix, which combines smartphone and netbook. I like the concept and its efficiency, though I am not sure that this is quite the right approach.

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Asus is also having another at at Linux on a netbook. The Eee PC X101 will run MeeGo, the Linux-based operating system which was once a joint Intel-Nokia project, but ditched by Nokia in favour of Windows Phone. MeeGo enables Asus to offer the X101 at a lower price than would be the case with Windows, as well as offering snappier performance; however there will also be a Windows 7 option so I guess the market will decide.