Monthly Archives: October 2011

Review: Broadway 2T network TV streamer for PC and iPad or mobile device

If you feel like watching TV on your PC or mobile device, there are a host of options, including live TV on the internet, or add-on TV cards or USB devices that attach to a PC or Mac. Once you have TV playing on your computer, there are apps which will let you stream it to a mobile device such as an Apple iPhone, iPad or Android tablet.

Another option which I saw at the recent Digital Winter event in London is Elgato’s eyetv, which attaches to an iPad port, and the portable tivizen which streams TV over wi-fi.

Lots of options; but also plenty to go wrong. Most of the devices use DVB-T digital TV, which in the UK enables all the Freeview channels, but getting a good enough signal from a portable aerial is a challenge. Installing a PC card works well if you connect it to a rooftop aerial, but it does mean messing with drivers and application software; and then further hassles if you want to watch elsewhere in the house.

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Broadway 2T, from pctv systems (part of Hauppauge Digital Inc) takes a more flexible and potentially hassle-free approach. This is a TV card (not HD) with internet streaming software in a wi-fi connected box. Plug-in, and you can stream TV on any device round the house, or even over the internet when you are out and about.

That is the idea anyway, and I put it to the test with a review unit. It is a box about the size of a stack of 4 CDs, with twin aerials for wi-fi connection.

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On the back are a range of ports, including wired ethernet, TV aerial, inputs for analog CVBS and S-Video and audio, two USB ports and an IR blaster connection.

There is also a USB port on the front; but all the USB ports are documented as “for future use”. It would make sense if in some future version you could connect directly to a PC over USB; but why three ports will be useful in future is something of a mystery.

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There is also a collection of cables: power, internal aerial, ethernet, IR blaster marked “For future use” but now enabled, and screws for wall mounting.

I have what is probably the ideal setup for Broadway 2T: a rooftop aerial connection and wired ethernet with a wi-fi access point. The internal aerial is unlikely to be much use unless you live in a area of particularly strong signal.

I connected the unit and fired up a web browser. If you browse to http://distan.tv/ the remote web site runs a script that detects the local PCTV, so it is no trouble to find on the network. I ran the setup wizard, including a channel scan and setting passwords for admin and TV access, and was rewarded with 44 channels found.

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Next, I browsed to the page on iPhone, iPad and PC and was able to select a channel and watch straight away. No drivers needed; and the Flash video on a PC is replaced by an iOS-friendly H.264 stream automatically when needed.

Here it is on an iPad; PC is similar.

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and on iPhone

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Of course there is a full-screen view.

You can also get at all the settings from any web browser.

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So far so good; but one flaw is that there is no program guide in the web view. You have to discover what is on elsewhere.

The next step was to install the PC software (Windows only) which adds features including a program guide, pause/resume and recording. This involves installing an application called TV Center from the supplied CD.

At this point the hassle-free experience disappeared. The software installed but while it detected the Broadway 2T, it could not find any channels. I also puzzled over the settings. Did my unit have an Antenna, or an Aerial system? Why was the Antenna Configuration option disabled?

The CD also installs a driver for Windows 7 media center, and I tried that too. Again, the unit was detected, but no channels found.

Eventually I discovered that you need to install a patch from the PCTV web site before the PC software or Media Center will work with Broadway 2T firmware above 2.5. After that, the TV Center application worked, but I still found it unpredictable and not much fun to use. Sometimes it opens as a transparent window, and has to be coaxed into displaying TV by twiddling with the settings.

Microsoft’s Media Center software is nicer to use, though it is really designed for use with a remote. A bonus though is that if you do not mind keeping your PC on, you can use the Media Center nicely from an Xbox 360.

The Broadway 2T has dual DVB tuners, which is meant to mean that you can record one channel while watching another, or watch different channels on different devices. This does work, but I found the unit reluctant to let go of a channel even when not actually playing, which causes errors.

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I feel that the application could handle this better. For example, why not show a list of which channels are in use and give an option to turn one off? On occasion I resorted to rebooting, which you can do through the browser.

Overall the software is indifferent in quality and lacks polish.

If you want to view over the internet while out and about, you can do this by forwarding a port on your router to the Broadway 2T box. It would be best to reserve its IP address or use a static IP before doing this. The port is 80 by default, but can be changed. Remote viewing works fine provided that you have a good wi-fi connection. If you succeed in watching over 3G, beware the high data transfer as well as poor quality if the connection is weak.

The IR Blaster lets you use Broadway 2T with a set-top box such as satellite TV. Connect the output from the box to the input on the Broadway 2T, then connect the IR Blaster cable so that the Broadway 2T can control the set-top box by emulating the commands of a remote control. I did not try this feature.

Summary and verdict

I enjoyed having live TV available on any network-connected device around the house, and this combined with easy setup of the browser-based streaming is the main advantage of the Broadway 2T. Viewing TV remotely is a bonus.

The poor quality of the Windows-only software counts against the unit though, and I would have preferred a better browser-based app and to forget the PC application.

It is easy to imagine how this could be improved. Attach some USB storage, improve the server app, and there is no reason in principle why this box could not handle PVR (personal video recorder) functions as well as supporting an EPG (Electronic Program Guide), though I have no idea what PCTV has in mind for those spare ports.

Nevertheless, this is a useful device even with its current limitations.

Bridge for Apple iPad and iPhone: FunBridge upgraded, no longer free

GOTO Games has updated Funbridge for iOS to version 3.0, adding many features and introducing a per-game fee.

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FunBridge is a Contract Bridge app in which the play is always online. You play against the computer but compare your score to that of others. In this new version the game engine seems little changed, but interaction with others is much greater, making it more like the web version.

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In the earlier release, you could see your ranking and which users were in the top 10 for a tournament of 10 games, but you could not discover anything about another user beyond the username. Now there are user profiles and you can see another user’s overall ranking and, if they choose to provide it, name, age, location and About me notes.

Tournaments no longer stand alone, but are grouped into series which match you with players of similar standard. Rankings are decided after each period of a week, based on the results from short 3-game tournaments, provided you play at least 5 during the period. There are 35 series, and after each period the top 25% are promoted and the bottom 25% demoted from each.

You can also play in old-style Daily Tournaments, which are now more frequent than before with a new one every two hours, but these are not grouped into series. You can also play practice hands. The Daily Tournaments and practice hands are scored with IMPs (International Match Points), whereas the Series Tournaments are scored with pairs-style percentages; if you score just slightly more then others, you get 100%, and even a good score can get you 0% if everyone else made an overtrick.

The other big change to mention is that play is no longer free, though you get an introductory 100 games.

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Games cost from 3p each falling to 1.75p if you purchase 1000 at a time. FunBridge will give you 5 games free if you reveal your birthday and another 5 for your city. Is your birthday worth more than 15p?

This makes FunBridge expensive compared to most iOS games. It is a different model to the web version, where you pay €9.90 per month (a bit less if you subscribe for a year) for unlimited games. That would buy around 400 games on the iOS version so you win or lose depending how often you play.

The game itself truly is a lot of fun, though I have found a few frustrations. The play is generally good, though eccentric occasionally. The bidding can be perplexing, especially as the bidding conventions are not described in detail, so you have to guess exactly which variant the computer is supposed to be playing. There is help for the meaning of simple bids, but this does not always match the selected convention and cannot be trusted.

Still, everyone is in the same situation so it is fair!

Hands seem to be tilted towards interesting deals; I have never seen a 10-card suit in one hand in regular bridge but I have in FunBridge.

Gameplay can be annoyingly slow even on a good connection; though perhaps when everyone has played all their free games this will improve!

A fun game; but with the new subscription model I wonder if we will see some alternatives at lower cost. It would also be good to see a version for Android and other mobile operating systems.

If the laptop had been invented after the tablet …

I attended a press briefing for a new kind of portable computing device which its inventors are calling a “laptop” and have been trying out a review sample.

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Unlike today’s one-piece slate form factor, the laptop has a hinged top which when open forms the screen. The lower piece, called the keyboard, has physical buttons representing the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and other useful inputs, more or less matching the on-screen input panel we are used to.

The makers claim that a keyboard is faster to use than an input panel, but I am not convinced. One of the problems is that you are either looking at the screen, or the keyboard, and it takes a lot of practice to type without looking at the keyboard and missing what is appearing on the screen.

The real benefit is that without an input panel, there is more space on the screen for the application. Still, bearing in mind that the input panel disappears when not in use, this is not really such a big deal.

The downside of the laptop is that the two-piece design makes it bulkier and potentially more delicate than a conventional tablet. I also found that while it works fine on a desk, in a constrained space such as in an aeroplane seat the hinge design is awkward to use, and on several occasions I gave in to the frustration and used my normal tablet instead.

If you are standing up, the laptop is horrible to use, whereas a tablet works fine: you can hold it in one hand and control it with the other.

Laptops will be more expensive than tablets because of the more complex design, though we were shown a cheaper variant that has a passive screen which does not respond to touch.

This is odd to use; at first you find yourself constantly stabbing at the screen by mistake, but eventually you can train yourself to do everything with the keyboard. Just make sure you do not ever switch back to a tablet, otherwise when you come back to the laptop you will find yourself stabbing the screen again!

In order to mitigate the lack of touch control on these low-end devices, the designers have added an on-screen pointer which you can think of as a virtual finger. A small area in the centre of the keyboard is touch-sensitive, and moving your finger there moves the on-screen “finger”. You can then tap or click a button to simulate a finger tap.

It is a clever idea, though operating at one remove from the screen itself takes some getting used to. In the end though, it feels like a step backwards and for most users the extra cost of the normal touch screen is well worth it.

My view: for certain specialist tasks the laptop may catch on, but I cannot see it succeeding in the mass market.

Inspired by Ten failings that will check the tablet’s rise

Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5

Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a voice dictation system for Windows, and there is a similar but not identical version available for the Mac. I have been trying version 11.5 in its Premium edition.

Voice recognition is interesting on several levels. Dictation can be quicker than typing, avoids repetitive strain injury, and for some users may be the only practical way to input text and control a computer.

Voice control is also a computing aspiration. In science fiction novels and films from 40 or 50 years ago, the characters use voice to interact with computers like Asimov’s Multivac or Kubrick’s HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a matter of course. It has proved a difficult problem though, and even the best voice recognition systems are frustrating to work with, since mistakes are frequent and corrections difficult.

That said, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the best I have used. Let me answer a few questions:

Q: Is Dragon good enough to use for real work?

A: Yes. Fire up Dragon, then Microsoft Word, start dictating, and you can write a document without too much pain. Of course there will be errors, but Dragon has an excellent correction system. In the following example, I said “The reason” but Dragon heard “Losing”. I then spoke the command “Select losing” and Dragon popped up a selection box.

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Now I just have to say “Choose 1” and the error will be fixed.

It is not always so easy, and you may have to spell words like place names and specialist vocabulary, but Dragon learns and you get better at dictating, so perseverance pays.

Dragon has a sidebar which is great when you are learning the system, as it shows brief contextual help for the most commonly used commands. It does occupy significant screen space, so best used when you have a large screen or more than one display.

Q: What is the key to success with dictation?

First, use a good microphone. Some editions of Dragon come with a Plantronics Bluetooth headset, which is ideal for the task. Trying to dictate using the mic built into a laptop, or one of those cheap gaming mics, will only lead to frustration.

Second, be patient. Your first day or two with Dragon will be frustrating, but it gets better.

A quiet room also helps, but with a headset this is not so critical.

Q: Is Dragon good enough that you would use it by choice, even when you could use keyboard and mouse?

For me, not yet. I type professionally, so I am pretty fast, and I do find Dragon gets in the way. If I could reel off a few thousand words in one blast, I might use Dragon, but in practice I find I need to task-switch frequently, checking a fact, searching the web, finding a screenshot, or listening to an interview. You can do almost anything in Windows using Dragon, but using a mouse and and keyboard is much quicker. If you use Dragon just for dictation that is fine, though you do have to set Dragon to stop listening when you are performing other tasks, otherwise Dragon will do something unexpected.

Work patterns vary, and some voices are easier than others for Dragon to interpret, so this is a matter of individual preference.

Q: Do you need Dragon when Windows has its own voice recognition system?

I did a quick test. I read the following paragraph, from a guide book that happens to be close by:

Original:

This little book is not properly a “guide” but rather a collection of random notes and thoughts, and I have published it mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from Wroxham with Broads Tours.

Windows 7:

This little book it is not properly A “guide” but rather a collection of London dates and courts, and I had published in mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from locks on withdrawn schools.

Dragon:

This little book is not properly a “guide” but rather a collection of random notes and thoughts, and I have published it mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from locks and with Broads Tours.

Not a rigorous test; but with my voice and on this particular passage Dragon is well ahead, and that accords with my general impression. I do think the Windows system is usable, but the extra cost of Dragon is worth it if you expect to use dictation frequently.

Q: Any other snags with Dragon?

Yes. Dragon hooks deeply into Windows, as it must do in order to control things like window switching and mouse movement, and I saw an impact on performance and stability. I suspect this can be improved by fine-tuning Dragon’s configuration and by keeping Windows as plain as possible. It also seems to work much better with software for which it is specifically designed, such as Microsoft Office, than with generic text input into software it does not know about, such as Windows Live Writer.

Q: What is new in version 11.5?

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 is a free upgrade from 11. The most obvious new feature from 11 is that you can use an iPhone as a remote wi-fi microphone. I tried this, which requires creating a new profile specifically for the purpose, and found it works nearly as well as with the Plantronics headset. However, the headset is a lot more convenient so I am not sure what is the benefit.

There are also new commands including “Post to Twitter” and “Post to Facebook”, and both the user interface and the voice recognition engine have been fine-tuned in this version.

Finally, version 11.5 specifically supports Windows 7 SP1 and Internet Explorer 9.

Q: Any other features worth mentioning?

The Premium edition has a transcription feature. No, this will not successfully interpret your recorded interview, though I suppose this might work in ideal circumstances. Rather, it is intended to let you dictate into a recording device for transcription later. This is an interesting way of working. It is easier to pause and restart a recorder than to interrupt a live dictation session, and Dragon can take more time over analysing a recording than when it has to keep up with your voice.

Concluding remarks

Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking gets significantly better with each new version, tipping me further towards the point where I may start using it in preference to typing. It is not only a matter of improved algorithms, but also more powerful hardware that enables Dragon to do more intensive processing. Although I am not quite ready to use it myself day to day, I think this is a brilliant product, and would not hesitate to recommend it. I also think it is inevitable that voice dictation will eventually become the norm for text input, at least in quiet environments, as the technology continues to improve.

   

Kingston Wi-Drive extends iOS storage, but not hassle-free

I have been trying out the Kingston Wi-Drive, which expands the storage of an iOS device using a pocketable wireless solid-state drive.

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The unit is about the size of a mobile phone, but smoother and lighter, and available with capacity of 16GB or 32GB.

The drive comes with a minimalist instruction leaflet which tells you to charge it by attaching the USB cable to a PC or Mac, add content by accessing it as an external drive, and then when charged, download and run the free Wi-Drive app on your iPad or iPhone.

I got this working without too much trouble. I added a movie to the drive and was able to watch it on an iPad, which is handy given that there is no DVD drive, though if it was sourced from a DVD you have to work out how to rip the DVD to a file first. I also added some documents and pictures, and was able to view these on iOS without any issues.

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The app seems to be designed primarily for iPhone, which means it looks a little odd on an iPad, though it does run full-screen. There is a thumbnail view, for images, and for documents there is an option to open them in apps that understand the file format. For example, I could open a Word 2010 document in Pages.

So far so good; but I found some annoyances. The first is that when you connect to the Wi-Drive, you are no longer connected to the Internet unless you also have 3G. The solution is to go into the Wi-Drive settings and configure your normal wi-fi connection as a bridge. The leaflet does not mention this, but it is explained here.

The bridge did not work at first. I had to change my Netgear router so that it is WPA 2 only, rather than supporting both WPA and WPA 2. This is mentioned in the FAQ:

Wi-Drive’s bridge function supports a single security protocol only: WEP, WPA, or WPA2. These may also appear as WPA ONLY, WPA2 ONLY, etc. Wi-Drive does NOT support mixed mode.

I also configured security on the Wi-Drive wi-fi connection. By default, it is wide open to your neighbours; and if you have the bridge enabled, bypasses the security of your home wi-fi connection as well. On the other hand, the fact that up to three users can connect is a good thing if, for example, you wanted to share some files with friends or colleagues at a meeting.

If you are using the device on the road, in a cafe or airport for example, it would be difficult to connect to the internet as well as to the drive. If you are flying, the airline will probably not allow you to use the Wi-Drive.

Most annoying is that when the device is connected to a computer, the contents become inaccessible. Even connecting to a USB charger seems to be enough to disable it. When it is not connected to a computer, the battery starts running down; it only lasts 4 hours.

This means that you should not think of the Wi-Drive as permanently attached storage. Rather, think of it as something you can switch on when needed.

Poking around on the drive, I noticed that it has the Apache web server installed. When the bridge is operating, you can browse to the device from a web browser on your computer and access the contents or change the settings.

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This is a handy device; but it could be better. I would like to see a memory card slot – and Kingston would benefit as it sells memory cards – as well as a longer battery life. Kingston also needs to fix it so you can use it on iOS while it is connected to a computer and charging. The Wi-Drive app could do with a bit more polish too, particularly the iPad version.

As it is, the Wi-Drive is great if it exactly fits your need, but make sure you can live with it before parting with your money.

Drobo storage devices: beyond RAID

I attended Digital Winter in London this week, an event where gadgets are shown to the press.

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One that caught my eye was the Drobo range of storage devices. The market is saturated with external storage solutions, but Drobo has a neat system where you simply slot any 3.5” Sata drive – no drive bracket required – into one of its units and it will add it to a pool of storage. Drobo supports thin provisioning, which means you will typically create a volume on the pool that is bigger than the space actually available. When you are running out of space, a light on the unit will turn yellow, you buy another drive and slot it in. Presuming you have two or more drives, RAID-like resiliency is built in, though Drobo calls its system BeyondRAID because of its greater flexibility. There is even an option for dual disk redundancy, so that any two drives can fail without loss of data.

I was reminded of Microsoft’s new Storage Spaces in Windows Server 8 which offers some similar features, but of course is not yet available except in early preview.

Drobo boxes support USB, FireWire, and in the high-end models iSCSI.

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The snag: prices start at €359,00 for the 4 Bay firewire and USB 2.0 model, and the one you really want, the 8-bay DroboPro with iSCSI, is €1359.00. In the business range, the 12-bay iSCSI SAN is €10,799 and supports SAS as well as Sata drives.

Document security and Apple iCloud

I have just set up iCloud on three Apple devices: a Mac, an iPad 2, and an iPhone 4.

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On the iOS devices I was asked if I wanted to use iCloud, and when I agreed, watched as all my documents were transferred from the device to iCloud.com.

I then went to the iCloud website, signed in with my Apple ID – username and password – and saw that all my documents were there ready for download.

I also tried editing a document on the iPhone. In moments, the edited document was also updated on the iPad.

All very convenient; but I realised that I’d just sent up to the cloud a couple of documents that include information I do not want to share. How safe is it on iCloud? Does Apple encrypt the documents?

I looked at Apple’s iCloud information and on the support site and found nothing about security on a quick look, other than that traffic is SSL encrypted, so here are my own observations.

First, access to iCloud.com is protected only by the username and password which form your Apple ID. Sony recently reported a breach of 93,000 accounts on the PlayStation network, apparently based on a list of username/password combinations that a hacker found elsewhere. In other words, some other popular site(s) suffered a security breach, and the hacker automated an attack on the PlayStation Network on the assumption that the same credentials might be used there. The majority failed, but 93,000 succeeded, demonstrating that this is not a small risk.

Second, I wondered if I could mitigate the risk by encrypting my iCloud documents. I cannot find a way to set a password on a Pages document in iOS, but I can do so on the Mac. I password-protected a document, and then uploaded it to iCloud. Next, I opened this on the iPad. I was prompted for the password – good. However, I then modified the document in Pages on the iPad. This automatically updated the document on iCloud, but it was no longer password protected. I do not recall seeing a warning about the password protection being removed. It looks as if password protection does not iWork if you use iOS.

Third, I found this statement in Apple’s terms of service for iwork.com. It is repeated in the terms for MobileMe, and which I cannot yet find terms for iCloud.com it may well be the same there too:

Access to Your Account and Content

You acknowledge and agree that Apple may access, use, preserve and/or disclose your account information and Content if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, disclosure, or preservation is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process or request; (b) enforce these TOS, including investigation of any potential violation thereof; (c) detect, prevent or otherwise address security, fraud or technical issues; or (d) protect the rights, property or safety of Apple, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

I guess what this means is that if you have confidential documents, iCloud.com is not a sensible place to keep them.

I would like to see some way of disabling cloud sync for specified documents, but as far as I can tell there is no such feature yet.

Further, if your Apple ID is the same username and password that you use on dozens of other sites on which you have been required to register, it would be worth changing it to something long and unique. I would also suggest reviewing the insecurity questions, which are not for your protection, but to reduce the number of password reset requests which support have to deal with. The best answers are those which are not true and therefore potentially discoverable, but made-up ones, as essentially these are secondary passwords.

New Sony PlayStation Network hack: not as bad as you may have heard

Sony’s Chief Security Officer Philip Reitinger has reported a new attack on the PlayStation network leading to headlines stating Sony hacked again. Has the company not learned from the incidents earlier this year?

Actually, it probably has; the new hacking attempt does not exploit any weakness in Sony’s network unless you consider any system reliant on username/password to be weak – not an unreasonable opinion, but given that the likes of Apple and Amazon and PayPal still use it, hardly fair to single out Sony.

If you read the statement carefully, it says that somebody obtained a large list of username/password pairs and ran them against Sony’s network. Further:

given that … the overwhelming majority of the pairs resulted in failed matching attempts, it is likely the data came from another source and not from our Networks

Because of the large number of PlayStation users, there were still 93,000 successful matches, which to its credit Sony says it detected – presumably there was a pattern to the attack, such as a limited range of source IP numbers or other evidence of automated log-in attempts.

If Sony is right, and the list of passwords came from another source, there is no reason why the hacker might not try the same list against other targets and this is not evidence of a weakness in the PlayStation network itself.

As Reitinger notes:

We want to take this opportunity to remind our consumers about the increasingly common threat of fraudulent activity online, as well as the importance of having a strong password and having a username/password combination that is not associated with other online services or sites. We encourage you to choose unique, hard-to-guess passwords and always look for unusual activity in your account.

It is good advice, though can be impractical if you have a very large number of online accounts. Something like PasswordSafe or Keypass is near-essential for managing them, if you are serious about maintaining numerous different combinations.

From what we know so far though, this is not evidence of continued weakness in the PlayStation network; rather, it is evidence of the continued prevalence of hacking attempts. Kudos to Sony for its open reporting.