Monthly Archives: August 2011

Review: Verbatim’s USB audio bar – simple, well made, good sound

If you are in the habit of watching video or listening to music on a laptop, you will know that the average laptop has poor sound quality. That is partly because most laptop speakers are an afterthought, and partly because it is not easy to fit speakers of any quality into a laptop case.

External speakers are the answer, but while there are plenty to choose from, they can get in the way.

The Verbatim 49095 Portable USB Audio Bar Speaker is a neat solution. It is designed to fit on top of a laptop screen.

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While that may sound precarious, the unit is cleverly designed with tabs at the front and a twist-down peg at the back which means it fits well on almost any laptop screen.

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I was impressed with the sound, considering the modest price of this product, which retails at £14.99 or less. It is a vast improvement on the built-in speakers in the Dell laptop I tried. No, it is not as good as two separate loudspeakers positioned either side of the laptop; but the audio bar takes up almost no extra space and would easily tuck into most laptop bags when not in use.

Unfortunately you do need a laptop – running Windows 7, Vista, XP, or Mac OS X 10.1 or higher. Apple’s iPad has no USB port, and there is not an option to use an audio cable instead.

The unit is well made, works with USB 2.0 or 3.0, and claims output power of 2 watts RMS.

Recommended.

Review: Audéo Perfect Fit earphones

Audéo Perfect Fit earphones are designed to replace the set you got bundled with your smartphone or music player. The earphone set includes a microphone and a standard multi-function button, so that on an iPhone or many other phones you can answer or decline calls, pause and resume music, or skip to the next track.

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There are a few unusual features. One is the shape of the earbuds, which have a distinctive “leg”. In order to fit them you first attach one of a range of silicone or foam ear tips. Then you place them in your ear with the legs pointing up and forward, and the cable draped over the back of the ears. It sounds fiddly, but it is easy enough in practice, and gets you a secure and comfortable fit.

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The supplied manual does an excellent job of explaining fitting. There is also an optional ear guide which adds a shaped cable clip that hooks over your ears. This was not supplied with my review package, the PFE 02x, but does come with the more expensive PFE 12x or can be purchased separately. I found the fit was fine even without the clip.

The extra accessories, including the audio filters described below, are a point of confusion, as the manual in the PFE 02x lists them under “Package contents” even though they are not supplied. No doubt some customers complain that parts are missing; I would have done the same, except that I checked the product web site and external packaging which correctly shows that the only accessories in the PFE 02x pack are the silicone ear tips.

The next special feature is that each earbud is fitted with a passive audio filter, which can be changed according to preference. The PFE 02x comes with a single green filter, which you can see in the picture above, while the PFE 12x comes with gray and black filters and fitting tool.

The colours are significant. The black filters are said to amplify bass and high frequencies (what audiophiles call boom and tizz). The gray filters are meant to emphasize mid-range frequencies, while green are described as offering “perfect bass”.

According to Audeo:

In-house studies have shown that, when headphones exactly reproduce the response curve of the unobstructed ear, most people hear the sound as being very aggressive.

The response curve of Audéo PFE in-ear earphones is a compromise between a frequency range that compensates for the curve of the unobstructed ear and one that emphasizes bass and high-frequency sounds. This is what most people prefer.

In order to cover the widest possible range of user preferences we offer three audio filters.

Unfortunately the only filter I have tried is the green one supplied with the PFE 02x. However I am a little doubtful about the above explanation. The goal of hi-fi reproduction is neutrality, so that you hear whatever the musicians and engineers who created the sound intended. I appreciate though that when it comes to earbuds used on the move in all sorts of noisy environments, it does not makes sense to be purist about such things. Further, it is not realistic to expect earbuds to deliver the kind of bass you can get from full-range loudspeakers or even from high quality over-the-ear headphones, and indeed this is not the case with the Audéo. Still, what you care about is not the theory but the sound. How is it?

I carried out extensive listening tests with the Audéo earphones, comparing them to a high quality Shure earbuds as well as to a standard Apple set. My first observation is that the Audéo earphones do fit more snugly and securely than either of the others I tried, when fitted correctly, and that this close fit goes a long way towards obtaining a better and more consistent sound.

Second, I soon identified a certain character to the Audéo sound. In comparison to the Shure, the Perfect Fit earphones are slightly softer and less bright. On some music this was a good thing. I played My Jamaican Guy by Grace Jones, which has a funky beat and bright percussion. On the Shure the track was a little harsh, whereas the Audéo tamed the brightness while still letting you hear every detail. With Love over Gold by Dire Straits though, which is already a mellow track, I preferred the Shure which delivered beautiful clarity and separation, whereas the Audéo (while still sounding good) was less crisp. Daniel Barenboim playing solo piano sounded delightful though with slightly rolled off treble.

I did feel that both the Audéo and the Shure improved substantially on the Apple-supplied earphones, as they should considering their price, though even the bundled earphones are not that bad.

The strength of the Perfect Fit earphones is that they never sound bright or harsh; I found them consistently smooth and enjoyable. The sound is also clean and well extended, considering that they are earbuds. Isolation from external sounds is excellent, which is important if you are a frequent traveller.

The weakness is that they do in my opinion slightly soften and recess the sound.

That said, it may be that the other filters give the earphones a different character, and if you have the pack with a choice of filters it would be worth trying the variations to see which you prefer.

I may have been imagining it, but I felt that the earphones sounded particularly good with Apple’s iPhone.

Conclusion: a good choice, especially if you like a slightly mellow and polite presentation. If possible I recommend that you get the more expensive packs that include a case as well as alternative filters and the optional ear clips.

   

Kingston Wi-Drive: portable storage expansion for iPad and iPhone

Kingston has announced availability of the Wi-Drive. This product addresses an annoying limitation of the Apple iPhone and iPad: no USB port for external storage devices.

The Wi-Drive overcomes this by connecting wirelessly. It offers 16GB or 32GB of solid-state storage, with USB for charging and for access to the files from a PC or Mac. When you are on the go, you can put the Wi-Drive into your pocket. A free app on the iPhone, iPad or iTouch lets you access the files. The use of a network bridging means you can still access the internet. Battery life is said to be up to 4 hours, so I hope you can switch it off when not needed. You can also share the drive with up to three other users.

Example prices are £89.99 for the 16GB or £124.98 for the 32GB version.

It is a clever solution. That said, I have a couple of reservations. One is that the price is high compared to a simple USB device of the same capacity. That is not unreasonable given the extra technology needed, but it means it will only sell to users who really need it.

And do you need it? If you are on the internet, you could use a file synchronization service like Dropbox, or Apple’s own iDisk or forthcoming iCloud, to extend storage instead.

A second problem is that iOS does not expose its file system to the user. This means that external storage is less convenient on iOS than on other systems. Want to save a Pages document from iOS to the Wi-Drive? You probably cannot do so directly; there is no way to save direction to Dropbox either.

The Wi-Drive only exists because of Apple’s desire to control and supposedly simplify the operating system. It is a workaround, but not a perfect one, although that is not the fault of Kingston.

That said, I have not yet tried a Wi-Drive; I hope to bring you a proper review in due course.

An iOS security tip: tap and hold links in emails to preview links

Today I was using an iPad and received a fake email designed to look as if it were from Facebook. It was a good imitation of the Facebook style.

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In particular, the links for sign in look OK.

Outlook on Windows displays the actual link when you hover the mouse pointer over the link. As you can see, in this case it is nothing to do with Facebook:

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How do you do this on iOS? There is no mouse hover (though it could be down with a proximity sensor) but if you tap and hold on the link, iOS pops up a dialog revealing the scam:

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Worth mentioning as tapping and holding a link to inspect it is not obvious and some users may not be aware of this feature.

The iPad is still worse than Outlook for email security. Outlook does not download images by default. Downloading the image tells the spammer that you have opened the message:

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The iPad mail client downloads all images.

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In mitigation, most malware on web sites will not run on iOS. However you could still give away your password or other information if you are tricked by a deceptive web page or fake login.

Hiding links is a feature built into HTML. The designers of HTML figured out that we would rather see a friendly plain English link than a long URL. Unfortunately this feature, and related ones like the ability to make an image a link, play into the hands of the scammers and it is necessary to look at the real link before you follow it.

A better solution would be authenticated email, so that fake Facebook emails would be detected before they are displayed. Unfortunately we are still a long way from using authenticated emails as the norm.

Amazon.com offers U2 band members for sale

The last throes of physical media for music has spawned the appearance of fabulously expensive box sets which include a little bit of what fans want – like rare concerts, outtakes or new surround mixes – and a lot of what they probably will look at once and put away for ever, like paper memorabilia, badges and trinkets. In many cases vinyl records are included. It is all in the box, so if you want that little something, you have to get the lot, even if you do not have a turntable.

An example is David Bowie’s Station to Station box set, currently £96.92 at Amazon’s UK site, which has badges, vinyl, cards and a fan club certificate, and is also the only official source for a 5.1 mix of Bowie’s classic album on DVD.

Another is the Who’s Live at Leeds 40th Anniversary Special Edition, which includes vinyl album and single, poster and book, along with the only release on CD of the Who’s 1970 performance at Hull. Originally released at around £80, it sold out and now commands high prices on the collector’s market.

Now it is U2’s turn, and the band or its label seem determined to out-do the others in both unnecessary packaging and extravagant price. The Achtung Baby 20th Anniversary Über Deluxe Box Set, due in October, is £329.99 in the UK or $588.57 on Amazon’s US site. You get a magnetic puzzle box, 6 CDs, four DVDs, 5 vinyl singles, 16 prints, a book, a magazine, badges, a sticker sheet, and a pair of sunglasses.

However, it seems someone at Amazon has a sense of humour. Check the last words of the editorial description:

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Curiously those words do not appear in the UK description.

Monitor your home when away: Jabbakam IP camera service reviewed

About to head off for your summer break? What may happen back home is always a concern; but if you want a bit more piece of mind, how about a live webcam view of what is going on in places you care about?

Of course you can easily purchase a security camera kit from your favourite electronic hobbyist store, but it is not a complete solution. Recording video to a hard drive is all very well, but what if the thief takes a hammer to it or even nabs it? Further, returning home to find two-week old footage of a break-in is of limited use compared to a live alert.

In other words, you need not only a camera but also a service. This used to be expensive, but does not need to be in the internet era. What about a cheap camera that sends images to a web site, enabling you to log in from anywhere and check what is going on? And how about an email or SMS alert triggered by motion detection?

This is exactly what Jabbakam does. The basic kit costs £59.95 and £5.95 per month, for which you get an IP camera and 14 days of video footage stored online. You can also use your own camera if you have a suitable one; the main requirement is that it supports motion detection, enabling the alerting feature, and reducing the number of images that need to be sent to the web service. More expensive subscriptions store video for longer; £13.95 per month gets you 90 days. SMS alerts cost extra.

Developed by a company based in Guernsey, the product is not so much the camera, but rather the web application and service. The camera itself is a simple but well-made affair, with a wall-mountable bracket and a swivel joint that lets you angle it. You can also adjust focus by twisting the lens.

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Under the webcam are ports for wired Ethernet and power.

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Given that the serial number starts YCAM I have a hunch it may be made for Jabbakam by Y-cam.

The camera must be wired to your broadband router. If you are on a business network you may have firewall issues; I tried on my own network and found it did not work behind the firewall, but have not investigated in detail.

So how about the service? I signed into Jabbakam and found that set-up was pretty much IJW (It Just Works). The camera was detected and I could view live images. Video is a slightly generous term, since each image is one second apart, and the quality is not fantastic, but gives you a good idea of what is happening. You can add additional cameras if you want fuller coverage of your home or workplace.

I also set up email alerting. This seems to work well. When the camera detects movement you get an email with a still image attached. Click the link in the email, and you can view the video. There is also an iPhone app that shows recent images. Advanced settings let you schedule alerts, for example to avoid having them active when you yourself are moving around.

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Jabbakam is not just intended for security. The web service also has the concept of networks, which enable you to share your camera with others. The number is small at the moment, but I did see one called Birdboxes of Jabbakam which I guess is for ornithology enthusiasts.

There was one aspect of Jabbakam that I found troubling. A mash-up with Google Maps lets you see where cameras of other users are installed, and clicking on a camera gives you the name and address of the user and a link to send a private message:

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I discovered that this information sharing is on by default:

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This surprised me, as I would have thought that a typical Jabbakam user would be sensitive about sharing these details.

Finally, I should mention that Jabbakam has a RESTful API for developers, though the documentation is incomplete at the moment and the application showcase is empty. Apparently this is being worked on, so watch the space if you are interested.

A good buy? On the plus side, Jabbakam seems to me nicely done, easy to set up, and delivers what is claimed: remote video monitoring of any indoor location. The alert service is particularly useful, though this only works if the camera is pointing somewhere that should normally be motion-free. For example, pointing the camera at a car parked on the street outside your home might seem a good idea, except that the alert would go off every time someone walked by. I should also observe that the supplied camera only works indoors, so it would need to be at a window.

There are questions of course about the effectiveness of CCTV security. Blurry pictures of hooded figures may not do you much good in terms of identifying the villains, though the alert service could be an advantage.

What are the social implications if large numbers of people choose to stick surveillance cameras all over their homes? I am not sure, but it is a question worth reflecting on.

That said, for someone on holiday who would like the ability to check that everything is in order at home, this seems to me a neat and smart solution.

Same price: four eMachine ER1401 or one Apple Mac Mini

This machine at ebuyer.com caught my eye:

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For your £130 you get AMD Athlon Dual Core K325, 2GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce 9200, HDMI out, and Linpus 9.5 Linux. The ER1401 also include wifi, 2 USB ports, S/P DIF digital out, headphone out, wired ethernet, and VGA for a standard computer display.

I probably would not have noticed it, except that I have just purchased a Mac Mini:

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The Mac has plenty to offer over the ER1401 of course. There is not only the slick new OS X Lion OS, but also a Thunderbolt port, Bluetooth, 4 USB ports, twice as much hard drive space, memory upgradeable to 8GB rather than 4GB, FireWire 800 port, and an SDXC card slot.

Linux is free, but if you decided to put Windows 7 on your ER1401 the cost would climb a bit.

Still, it happens that the Mac mini, Apple’s cheapest Mac, is just over four times the price of the ER1401. If you just need a small computer to do some task like playing BBC iPlayer on your TV, or running Squeezebox server, the eMachine model wins the value prize.