Monthly Archives: April 2012

Hands on with Samsung’s Galaxy Note

I had a quick hands-on with Samsung’s Galaxy Note. It is a lovely gadget though I have some reservations about its appeal.

The two notable features of the Galaxy Note, which runs Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” but will upgrade to Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”, are its 5.3” 1280 x 800 AMOLED screen and its stylus, which you can slide out from an integrated holder. The device is beautifully slim and light, but the large screen means that you do feel a little conspicuous holding it to your ear as a phone. Whether you mind about this is an individual thing, but I can imagine that some will be put off using it as their main mobile phone.

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Behind the gorgeous screen sits a 1.4GHz dual-core ARM CPU, as part of the Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC, and an ARM Mali-400 GPU. Video flies on this thing, and its high resolution goes a long way to make up for the small screen – small relative to a TV or full-size tablet that is. It is the perfect device for watching video on the go if you would rather not carry an 10” tablet around with you.

If you do need a larger screen, and have a network-connected Samsung B handy, you can use a feature called AllShare Play to stream the video to the TV. Typical scenarios might be showing your holiday video to mum and dad when you go round to visit, or showing your business presentation to customers on a TV in their conference room. I am sure this will become commonplace on many devices, especially as it uses standard DLNA protocols, and it is handier than having to fiddle with wired HDMI connections.

Then there is the stylus. Android is designed for touch control, so a stylus is not that useful for navigating the UI, but does come into its own for note-taking, sketching and drawing. Samsung calls the stylus the S Pen, and it is supported by several apps. There is a multimedia memo app called S-Memo, Touchnote for creating multimedia e-postcards, Zen Brush for sketching with a pressure-sensitive brush effect, and TouchRetouch for photo editing, among others.

I found it easy to take a photo, crop it, write on it, and attach it to an email. Sharing on Facebook or the like is easy too.

A great device; but I am not sure of the market, and not sure that there is much enthusiasm for styluses outside niche uses. HTC achieved disappointing sales with its Flyer tablet last year, even though this is also an excellent device to play with.

The other problem is that the Note is too small to be an excellent tablet and too large to be an excellent phone.

It is great for games though, and if you are looking for a pocketable but powerful multimedia tablet it could be just the thing.

Full specs are here.

Ubuntu 12.04: a fresh take on Linux

Canonical has released Ubuntu 12.04, a “long term support” version which will be supported for five years on both desktop and server.

I installed the new release on Microsoft’s Hyper-V. Installation was straightforward: download iso of install CD, mount in new Hyper-V VM, install, and wait while updates are downloaded.

This is the first time I have tried Unity, the desktop shell originally designed for netbooks which is now the default in Ubuntu. It is a clean, minimalist shell with a launcher on the left edge. The launcher is like the Windows 7 taskbar, in that it lets you quit as well as launch applications. The screenshot below is more or less the default, though I have added Google Chrome and locked the Terminal to the launcher.

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I found the new Ubuntu a little perplexing at first. What about applications not on the launcher?

The secret is the top left button, called Dash home. Click this, and a dashboard appears.

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At the foot of the screen are icons for Home, Applications, Files and folders, Music and video. Each one displays different shortcuts, but also operates as a search scope. In Ubuntu 12.04 search is a primary means of navigation. For example, to install the Audacity sound editor, I selected Applications and typed “Aud”. Audacity was then listed as an app available for download. There is also the Ubuntu Software Centre which is Ubuntu App Store.

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Where the search UI gets rather odd is with the new Head Up Display (HUD). Run Audacity and it appears without any menu. If you click on the top bar (Mac style) the menu bar appears. Alternatively, you can press Alt, and a search box appears that says “Type your command”. I typed “pref” and the Preferences menu items appeared in a list.

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However, this only works for applications that support it. If you run a LibreOffice app (the office suite that comes with Ubuntu 12.04) and press Alt, you get the HUD search but it will apply to the Ubuntu desktop and not the Libre Office app.

Some apps, such as Terminal, show menus both on the app window and in the top bar. All a bit messy and confusing.

Underneath it is still a variant of Debian Linux of course.

The strong points of Linux, and Ubuntu in particular, are evident in this release as you would expect, including multiple desktop workspaces, and easy discovery and install of new applications. Another key feature is Ubuntu One, cloud storage and sync with 5GB free. An additional 20GB is $29.99 a year. There is also a music streaming service for $39.99 a year, with 20GB of storage included and apps for iOS and Android. This only covers streaming of your own music files and photos, though you can purchase additional tracks from the Ubuntu One Music Store.

I have long since given up expecting that Ubuntu, or any desktop Linux, will truly unsettle Windows or Mac, even though considering the price (free), Ubuntu 12.04 is great, and with applications like LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Firefox and Chrome, and GIMP, it easily meets everyday computing needs. Rather, it is Android, which is Linux-based, that has disrupted mobile computing, and in tablet form is beginning to encroach on laptop territory. Still, I doubt Android would have happened without desktop Linux before it.

Which online storage service? SkyDrive is best value but lacks cool factor

This week both Microsoft and Google got their act together and released Dropbox-like applications for their online storage services, SkyDrive and Google Drive respectively.

Why has Dropbox been winning in this space? Fantastic convenience. Just save a file into the Dropbox folder on your PC or Mac, and it syncs everywhere, including iOS and Android mobiles. No official Windows Phone 7 client yet; but nothing is perfect.

Now both SkyDrive and the new Google Drive are equally convenient, though with variations in platform support. Apple iCloud is also worth a mention, since it syncs across iOS and Mac devices. So too is Box, though I doubt either Box or Dropbox enjoyed the recent launches from the big guys.

How do they compare? Here is a quick look at the pros and cons. First, pricing per month:

  Free 25GB 50GB
Apple iCloud 5GB $3.33 $8.33
Box 5GB $9.99 $19.99
Dropbox 2GB   $9.99
Google Drive 5GB $2.49 $4.99 (100GB)
Microsoft SkyDrive 7GB $0.83
(27GB)
$2.08
(52GB)

and then platform support:

  Web Android Black
berry
iOS Linux Mac Windows Windows
Phone
Apple iCloud X X X Limited X
Box X X
Dropbox X
Google Drive X X X
Microsoft SkyDrive X X X

Before you say it though, this is not really about price and it is hard to compare like with like – though it is obvious that SkyDrive wins on cost. Note also that existing SkyDrive users have a free upgrade to 25GB if they move quickly.

A few quick notes on the differences between these services:

Apple iCloud is not exposed as cloud storage as such. Rather, this is an API built into iOS and the latest OS X. Well behaved applications are expected to use storage in a way that supports the iCloud service. Apple’s service takes care of synchronisation across devices. Apple’s own apps such as iWork support iCloud. The advantage is that users barely need to think about it; synchronisation just happens – too much so for some tastes, since you may end up spraying your documents all over and trusting them to iCloud without realising it. As you might expect from Apple, cross-platform support is poor.

Box is the most expensive service, though it has a corporate focus that will appeal to businesses. For example, you can set expiration dates for shared content. Enterprise plans include Active Directory and LDAP support. There are numerous additional apps which use the Box service. With Box, as with Dropbox, there is an argument that since you are using a company dedicated to cross-platform online storage, you are less vulnerable to major changes in your service caused by a change of policy by one of the giants. Then again, will these specialists survive now that the big guns are all in?

Dropbox deserves credit for showing the others how to do it, Apple iCloud aside. Excellent integration on Mac and Windows, and excellent apps on the supported mobile platforms. It has attracted huge numbers of free users though, raising questions about its business model, and its security record is not the best. One of the problems for all these services is that even 2GB of data is actually a lot, unless you get into space-devouring things like multimedia files or system backups. This means that many will never pay to upgrade.

Google Drive presents as a folder in Windows and on the Mac, but it is as much an extension of Google Apps, the online office suite, as it is a storage service. This can introduce friction. Documents in Google Apps appear there, with extensions like .gdoc and .gsheet, and if you double-click them they open in your web browser. Offline editing is not supported. Still, you do not have to use Google Apps with Google Drive. Another issue is that Google may trawl your data to personalise your advertising and so on, which is uncomfortable – though when it comes to paid-for or educational services, Google says:

Note that there is no ad-related scanning or processing in Google Apps for Education or Business with ads disabled

Google Drive can be upgraded to 16TB, which is a factor if you want huge capacity online; but by this stage you should be looking at specialist services like Amazon S3 and others.

Microsoft SkyDrive is also to some extent an adjunct to its online applications. Save an Office 2010 document in SkyDrive, and you can edit it online using Office Web Apps. Office Web Apps have frustrations, but the advantage is that the document format is the same on the web as it is on the desktop, so you can also edit it freely offline. A snag with SkyDrive is lack of an Android client, other than the browser.

Conclusions

There are many more differences between these services than I have described. Simply though, if you use a particular platform or application such as Apple, Google Apps or Microsoft Office, it makes sense to choose the service that aligns with it. If you want generic storage and do not care who provides it, SkyDrive is best value and I am surprised this has not been more widely observed in reports on the new launches.

One of Microsoft’s problems is that is perceived as an old-model company wedded to the desktop, and lacks the cool factor associated with Apple, Google and more recent arrivals like Dropbox.

Wireless speakers from Dynaudio: the new Xeo

Want to declutter your hi-fi? Dynaudio has one of the tidiest designs yet with its new Xeo range. What you get is a pair of active speakers with built-in DAC and wireless transmitter. The only wires you need are mains cables to power the speakers. There is also a remote for selecting the source and controlling the volume.

Xeo 5 is a floorstander with dual woofers.

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Xeo 3 is a standmount or bookshelf model measuring just 170 x 281 x 246mm.

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Both models have a 100w power rating (50w woofer and 50w tweeter).

You attach your sources to a transmitter box that accepts analog, digital or USB connections, though there is only one SP/DIF digital input which could be a nuisance, and it is optical only. Maximum digital resolution is 25 bit / 48 kHz.

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The range of the transmitter is (roughly) up to 50 meters through obstructions, or up to 100 meters in free space.

Price is around £1180 for the Xeo 3, or £2450 for the Xeo 5, plus £210 for the transmitter.

A neat solution; but for that kind of price you will want good sound and I hope to report on that soon.

My tribute to Jack Tramiel, Commodore PET and the Atari ST

Jack (or Jacek) Tramiel has died at the age of 83. He was born in Poland, survived Auschwitz, and emigrated to the USA in 1947. He founded a typewriter import company called Commodore Business Machines, which transitioned into digital calculators and then a computer called the Commodore PET.

This was my first computer, which I acquired second hand.

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I had an external disk drive that was almost as large as the computer itself. There was a word processor called WordCraft that was rather good, though you could only fit a page of A4 into the 32K of RAM. A spreadsheet called VisiCalc that was excellent. And a database manager whose name I forget that was terrible.

The great thing about the PET was that you had to program it. BASIC was in ROM, and in essence when the computer started up it said to you “write some code.”

You could also get a book called The Pet Revealed which indexed every address and what it did. This was a computer you could actually understand.

Tramiel left Commodore in 1984, after a triumph with the bestselling Commodore 64. He acquired the video game company Atari from Warner Communications. In 1985 Atari released a 16-bit computer called the Atari ST, based on the Motorola 68000 CPU.

atari-st
Picture © Bill Bertram, 2006

The Atari ST was my second computer. At the time, the choice was between the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, the Apple Macintosh, or a PC.  The Mac was too expensive, and the PC was both expensive and looked out-of-date with its character-based user interface. The ST (or “Jackintosh”) won over the Amiga for my purposes (mainly word processing) thanks to its excellent high-resolution 640 x 400 mono monitor and low price. I was sold.

The ST proved a great choice. There were many superb applications, and ones which come to mind are Protext, Signum, Superbase, Notator, Calamus, Logistix, Degas, Neodesk; and for gaming Dungeon Master, Populous, Falcon and more. I still have it in the loft though I really should find a better home for it.

The ST was also well supported for programming. I used mainly GFA Basic and HiSoft C. There was also an innovative game creator called STOS.

Admittedly there was a touch of “held together with string and glue” about the ST which I suspect was to do with Tramiel’s personality and desire to prioritise bringing value to the mass market. That said, my 1040STE in the loft still works so I cannot complain.

I learned a lot and achieved a lot with Tramiel’s computers. Thank you Jack Tramiel.

Audyssey Lower East Side speakers: remarkable sound quality in a compact package complete with DAC

Audyssey is a US company best known for its audio processing technology, as found in high-end home cinema receivers and the like. Recently the company has turned its attention to home audio, and now has a range with a couple of iPod/iPhone audio docks and these powered speakers, engagingly named “Lower East Side” (LSE), this being a tribute to a Manhattan neighbourhood which Audyssey says is “the stomping ground for bands propelling cutting-edge music at venues like CBGB, ABC No Rio and Arlene’s Grocery.”

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Audyssey is a company with attitude. You can expect that:

  • Audio quality will be high
  • Design will be individualistic but clean and uncomplicated
  • Products are for the modern listener equipped with Apple devices and the like, no CD player in sight
  • Prices will be at the premium end of the market

On that last point: do not write these off as too expensive until you have heard them. Yes, they are expensive compared to say a pair of Creative Inspire T10s (about 20% of the price) or Gigaworks T20 (about one third the price). Bear in mind though that the LESs have a built-in DAC and sound good enough than with something like a Mac Mini and nothing more you have a respectable and very compact home audio system.

What’s in the box

Inside the sturdy box you will find two powered speakers with integrated metal stands, each around 23cm (9 in) high and 12.4 cm (4.9in) wide including the stand. There is also a chunky power supply, a 3.5mm audio cable, a further cable that connects the two speakers, and a quick-start manual.

Connections are simple. The right-hand speaker has both optical and analogue audio inputs, plus a power socket. It also has a speaker output which you connect to the left-hand speaker with the supplied cable.

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Now attach a device with an audio output, and play.

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On the front of the right-hand speaker you will find a volume control which also switches the unit between standby and on. You do this by depressing the control, so when you turn it back on the volume remains as it was last set – a thoughtful detail.

Sound quality

The sound quality is remarkable. The aspect that is most surprising is the bass: put simply, these speakers sound much larger than they really are. The bass is not bloated or boomy though, especially if you use the digital input which I recommend.

I played Sade’s song By Your Side from Lover’s Rock. This song is characterised by deep bass which contrasts with Sade Adu’s silky clear vocals. On lesser systems the whole thing turns to mush, but this sounds great on the LESs. So does Prodigy’s Voodoo People, which depends on pounding bass for its potency.

The Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue is well conveyed, with piano that sounds like piano, the bass melodies easy to follow, and breathy trumpet that transports you back to the fifties studio where it was recorded (I seldom hear modern recordings that sound as good).

Any flaws? Well, you need to be realistic about the absolute volume level you can get from these things. They go loud enough for most listening, but you really want to rock out or party, look elsewhere. I would also worry about the longevity of the units if you max them out for long periods; though those fears may be unfounded.

The bass is prominent but not excessive in my view, unless you site them in a corner that further emphasises the bass, in which case you may find it too much.

I compared the LESs to a more expensive separates system with full-range floorstanding speakers. The LESs survived the comparison with credit; but you can hear how the vocals sound small and boxy relative to the large setup.

That said, when I was playing the LESs someone who came into the room was not sure whether the small or the large system was on; they are that good.

I compared the sound of the digital versus the line-in input. It goes without saying: if you use the line-in, then the quality is constrained by the quality of the DAC and pre-amplifier which precedes it. Attach a smartphone or MP3 player, for example, and it will probably be less good than the DAC in the LESs. Then again, most of these devices do not have a digital output so you have to make the best of it.

I used the Squeezebox Touch, which has a high quality DAC of its own, for a fairer comparison. It is hard to be sure, but to my ears the line-in option was slightly less clear than the digital, and slightly more bass-strong. My preference is for the digital connection.

Technical details

The supplied leaflet does not tell you much about the specifications. There are more details on the box:

  • Two silk-dome tweeters
  • Two 3.5” woofers
  • Two 4” passive bass radiators

These bass radiators are the secret of the LES’s extended bass. They occupy a large part of the back panel on each speaker:

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Note that these are not active speakers; they are correctly described as powered speakers because they have a built-in amplifier but the crossovers are passive, and the left-hand speaker receives an amplified signal from the right.

That said, in the hands of audio engineers a design like this has some of the advantages associated with an active loudspeaker. In particular, the amplifier can be designed specifically for the transducers, whereas a separate amplifier has to be designed to work with whatever speakers happen to be connected. This is especially true if you use the built-in DAC, allowing the integrated electronics to handle the entire analogue chain.

Audyssey revealed a few further details on its web site:

The LES speakers have passive crossovers.  We don’t list the amplifier power because it is meaningless in a powered speaker–it only has meaning in stand-alone amplifier.  The speakers are rated to produce 95 dB SPL at 1 m listening distance.  The optical input accepts PCM signals up to 24 bits/48 kHz.  Audyssey Smart Speaker technology is used to design the speaker driver, enclosure, and amplifier in conjunction with Audyssey EQ, Dynamic EQ and BassXT technologies.

I was interested in the remarks about high resolution PCM input. What about the common 24/96 format? I tried a 24/96 signal and the good news is that it played fine. Whether that means that the DAC actually fully supports 24/96, or whether it is played at 24/48 resolution, I do not know. I doubt that the difference would be audible.

Worth noting: both inputs are active all the time. This can be a good thing, if for example you want two sources plugged in, but only if you are careful not to play them both at once!

Annoyances

There are a few. One is that the speakers have an auto-standby feature, which kicks in if you stop playing music for a while. There is no auto-on though, so you have to get up and turn them on: fine if they are on your desk, but irritating if you are sitting at the other end of the room.

A remote volume control would be nice (and would deal with the standby problem too). That said, in most cases you have a volume control on the input that you can adjust remotely, but this is not always the case.

The line-in needs a relatively high signal level in order to make use of the full volume of which the speakers are capable.

The power supply is not universal. This means you cannot buy these in the USA but use them in the UK, for example, unless you get a new power supply or step-down transformer. The power supply is also rather bulky, for which there may be good audio reasons, but it detracts from the compactness of the design.

Conclusions

Despite a few niggles, the sound quality on offer is extraordinary for the size of these speakers; they are the best speakers of this type which I have heard. If you want something to sit on your desk plugged into a Mac or PC, but without compromising sound quality, these are ideal. They also make a great companion to a Squeezebox Touch or similar: all your music, in good quality with little clutter.