Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review: Cygnett Bluetooth Keyboard for iPad, Windows

In the iPad era there is increasing demand for wireless keyboards that will transform your tablet into a productive writing machine. I have tried a number of such gadgets recently, including a bargain-price iPad keyboard case and an expensive Samsung keyboard to go with the Slate I have been using for Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

Both keyboards work, but with so many annoyances that I rarely use them. The keyboard case works well enough, if you can cope with squishy keys and a tiny power switch, but adds so much weight and bulk to the iPad that it becomes like a laptop, and in doing so loses much of its appeal. The Samsung keyboard on the other hand has a quality feel but lacks a proper power switch, and I found the only way to prevent it powering up when in your bag is to remove the batteries, which is a nuisance. Further, there is some kind of design fault with the keys which can get stuck down; they pop back easily enough, but after a few times something snaps and I now have a key that slopes slightly.

Enter the Cygnett Bluetooth Keyboard, primarily designed for the iPad but which works find with the Slate and no doubt numerous other devices, and which is priced competitively considering it has hard keys and is rechargeable.

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I found several things to like.

First, it has a real on/off switch on the back, something I value having experienced problems with Samsung’s soft power key.

Second, it is small, and will fit in the the top inside pocket of a man’s jacket or tucked into a flap in almost any bag or case. The longest side of the keypad is around 1.5cm less than the length of the iPad itself.

Third, it seems robust and the keys are pleasantly responsive.

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Getting started was simple enough. Charge it using the supplied USB connector, and pair with the iPad or other device by depressing the recessed pairing key, scanning for new devices, and typing the code given.

I find I can get a good speed on this device, though it is a little cramped especially if you do true touch typing using all your fingers. Still, this is mainly a matter of practice and it is a big step up, for me, from the soft keyboard on an iPad or tablet. Another reason to prefer a physical keyboard is that you get twice as much screen space to view your document.

The keypad also works fine with my Windows 8 Slate, though it has Mac-style keys so no Windows key. Of course you can use Ctrl-Esc for this. There is a Print Screen key though, so from my point of view all the important keys are covered. There is no right Shift key.

One small disappointment: although it has a mini USB socket for charging, this keypad is wireless only. It will not work as a USB keyboard even if you use a full USB cable, rather than the charge-only cable supplied. A shame, because there are circumstances when a USB keyboard is useful, such as for changing BIOS settings on a Windows tablet.

The keypad also works with some Android devices. However I was unable to pair it with an HTC Desire smartphone, and I have seen reports of similar issues with other Android mobile devices. If the device prompts for a number to type on the keyboard, you are in business. If it suggests typing a generic code such as 0000 on the device, it does not work, though there may be a workaround of which I am not aware.

Another limitation: you can only pair the keypad with one device at a time.

Nevertheless, I like this keypad better than the Samsung keyboard which cost much more. Recommended.

 

Apple’s space-age Campus 2 plans revealed: complete with amphitheatre

I am just back from San Jose; and on the flight back happened to be seated next to a Cupertino resident who had just received a brochure from Apple entitled Apple Campus 2, along with a letter from Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer beginning “Dear Neighbor”, describing the plans and requesting support.

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I found the document fascinating for several reasons. First, this will be a remarkable building. The building is a four-storey circle that looks like an elegant flying saucer come to land. It will include “one of the largest corporate campus solar installations in the world” and will be 100% powered by renewable energy. It will also have 300 electric vehicle charging stations. The “High performance smart building” will use, according to the document, 30% less energy than a typical office building.

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The majority of the parking will be underground and Apple will create a landscape that is 80% green space, 120 acres of it, creating “a peaceful environment for our employees”. Currently there are 4,273 trees on the site; this will increase to 6,000 trees.

The landscape design of meadows and woodland will create an ecologically rich oak savanna and forest reminiscent of the early Santa Clara Valley. Extensive landscaping including apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees will recall Cupertino’s agricultural past.

The site also includes a “world-class auditorium to host product launches and our corporate events”. For unstated reasons there is also an amphitheatre in the enclosed garden.

It sounds delightful; but Apple does note that “As with the current site, Apple Campus 2 will not be open to the public.”

Another key point: “The campus will be clean, with no manufacturing or heavy industrial activity onsite”. The reason of course is that Apple has exported such activity to China, far out of sight of its genteel Cupertino neighbours.

Since the site, delightful though it may be, will be closed to the public, Apple’s appeal for the support of local residents is based on other things: improvements the company plans for surrounding roads, and the fact that Apple is the largest tax payer in Cupertino. The new campus will “allow Apple to remain in Cupertino,” the brochure says, with the veiled threat of departure should the plans not be granted.

Finally, I was intrigued by Apple’s solicitation of support. Here are the options on the reply-paid card:

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There is no option to object to the plans; but there is space for written comments.

Apple says that the plans will be considered by the City of Cupertino “later this year”, that it will break ground immediately approval is granted, and expects to occupy the campus in 2015.

Review: Kingston 240GB V+200 ssdNow SSD kit

Prices for SSDs (solid-state drives) are falling and capacity is rising, so much so that fitting one now looks eminently sensible if you value performance and can manage with a bit less space than a hard drive offers – though note that you should really run Windows 7, or on the Mac OSX Snow Leopard or later, as these operating systems support SSD TRIM, improving performance by telling the drive which blocks of data are no longer in use and can be safely deleted.

The primary benefit of SSD is performance, but you also get silent running and lower power consumption.

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This Kingston kit is a generous bundle, suitable for converting a laptop or desktop. It includes a USB-powered external disk caddy which assists with the transfer of your existing data as well as enabling you to continue using your old laptop drive for external storage if you wish. There are also brackets and cables so you can fit the drive into a desktop PC, and a CD containing an Acronis disk clone tool.

The recommended method for installation depends on whether you are upgrading a laptop or a desktop.  The first step is the same for both and may be the hardest: reduce the size of the data on your existing drive to less than 240GB. Next, if you are on a laptop, you remove the existing drive install the SSD, fit the existing drive to the caddy and connect it with USB, reboot using the CD, boot into Acronis and clone the existing drive to the SSD.

If you are on a desktop, your existing 3.5” drive will not fit into the caddy, so you fit the SSD to the caddy, connect, reboot into Acronis, clone the existing drive to the SSD, and then switch off and replace the existing desktop drive with the SSD using the brackets provided.

For this review I used the former approach but either should work well. On a three-year old laptop running Windows 7 64-bit I was rewarded with a Windows Experience Index for the hard drive of 7.7.

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However, this laptop only has SATA 2, whereas the drive supports SATA 3 and would work faster if this were available.

Kingston quotes 480 MB/s for sequential writes and power consumption of 0.565w idle rising to 2.065w for writes.

If you do not need the kit you can get the SSD a little cheaper on its own.

An excellent kit though, and the Acronis cloning solution is cleaner than others I have seen which require software to be installed in Windows.

 

Fast service at Microsoft store in San Jose

I made a brief visit to the Valley Fair mall in San Jose yesterday and took a quick look at the Microsoft and Apple stores.

Personally I like the Microsoft stores. It is probably not the cheapest place to buy a Windows machine, but you do get the Signature install which as Microsoft notes:

Many new PCs come filled with lots of trialware and sample software that slows your computer down—removing all that is a pain, so we do it for you!

So much for the famous Windows partner ecosystem, eh! But I reckon this is worth the extra cost for most people.

Now, before looking at the following images, which were just snapped as I passed, note that:

1. It was a quiet Monday afternoon and none of the stores was busy.

2. I guess San Jose is Apple land; certainly I have not seen the Seattle store this quiet.

Nevertheless, there did seem to be a mismatch between the numbers of staff and customers. When I went in I was offered help three times and a free drink once.

The guy in yellow at the front left is protesting about some alleged Microsoft misdemeanour.

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The Apple store was not exactly heaving and there were plenty of blue shirts, but a few more customers.

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A vending machine with a difference: this one buys your old phone

I`m visiting San Jose and looked into the Valley Fair shopping mall. I was intrigued to see an inverse vending machine, one that buys your old phone or other gadgets.

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You tap the screen to start the sale or get a valuation. Then you pop your old phone into the receptacle and the machine checks it out, using “Advanced machine vision and artificial intelligence” to work out what you have put in. You have power up your device for a second stage evaluation, presumably to check whether it actually works. Finally, you get paid in cash or credit, with an option to donate to charity.

The EcoATM machine will take anything, though some devices have zero value in which case you have only the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from recycling.

I was offered up to $104 for my 8GB Apple iPhone 4, though it was a valuation only since the machine was sadly not fully working. Of course you could do better on eBay, but instant cash and no hassle has its attractions.

OK, so what if you grab someone else’s phone, throw it into the machine, and walk away with the cash? The makers claim to have all sorts of anti-theft measures, including video of you doing the deed, though conceptually the idea does seem vulnerable to abuse.

These machines are USA only at the moment, though an international roll-out is planned.

Find out more here, or by watching the video below.

A taste of the high end at a bargain price: Behringer 3031A active loudspeakers

I have been taking an interest in active loudspeakers after sampling AVI’s ADM 9.1 model which deliver clear, uncoloured sound in a convenient package with built-in DAC and remote volume control. though they lack bass extension and really need a sub-woofer to perform at their best.

The ADM 9.1s are good value considering that you get a complete just-add-source package; but still not exactly a casual purchase at £1250 (May 2012). What about some of those active monitors at the low end of the music studio market, can that deliver some of the active magic at a lower price?

A quick hunt led to these Behringer 3031A active monitors which offer a remarkable specification for the price – around £300 at the time of writing. Ribbon tweeter, 150w amplifier in each speaker, 50Hz to 24 KHz frequency response, what can go wrong? I could not resist getting a pair for review, especially as there are surprisingly few reports on these speakers out on the internet, considering that they have been available since 2009.

Note that I am reviewing these as hi-fi speakers even though they are designed for studio use.

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Why so few reviews? It may be because Behringer has a mixed reputation in the pro audio community. The products are popular and good value, but the company is accused of lack of originality in design and poor quality in manufacture. Since the prices undercut most competition there could be some industry in-fighting going on. Behringer undoubtedly aims at the low end of the studio and hobbyist market, and manufactures in large Chinese factories, but I doubt their quality is all that bad given that their largest reseller Thomann offers a 3-year warranty. Still, a cautionary note there.

“They’re heavy”, said the delivery man, and I unpacked the monitors to find a pair of very solid, weighty loudspeakers (15Kg each according to the spec). The cabinet is MDF though the front baffle is some kind of plastic with a metal plate into which the drivers are set. There are two slim vertical ports. No grilles and these will not win prizes for appearance, though they are not too bad. This is about the sound though; look elsewhere if you are after hi-fi as furniture.

Wiring up

The B3031As have two balanced inputs, with XLR or 1/4” jacks. Most hi-fi cables use unbalanced RCA phonos; however you can easily get RCA to jack plug cables from a music equipment store or online. Using a balanced connection is better, if your pre-amplifier offers that option, but I used an unbalanced mono 1/4” jack for each input without any issues. One interesting and cost-effective choice is the new Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus, around £350 from Richer Sounds in the UK or $600 in the USA, which has balanced outputs and includes a pre-amplifier, though I have not tried this combination.

I tried the B3031As in two configurations. The first was with a Beresford Caiman DAC, which also has a built-in pre-amplifer. The second was with a Naim 32.5 pre-amplifier. Neither of these has balanced outputs. My source is a Logitech Squeezebox Touch. Note that this also has a volume control and built-in DAC, so for the most cost-effective system you could go straight from the Touch to the speakers, though I have not tried that as yet.

The main point is that you must have some sort of pre-amplifier output with a way of adjusting the volume, since the B3031As do not really have a volume control. There is an input level trim control which in effect is the same thing, but this is only designed for setting a convenient level during setup, not for constant use.

In order to use the Caiman I have to set the input trim near its maximum, in order to get a full range of volume from the speakers. The Naim 3.5 has a more powerful output and I can set the input trim to 0dB with very satisfactory results.

Although the sound was good direct from the Caiman, I got better results from the Naim, though obviously this adds greatly to the cost. A full pre-amplifier is also more convenient since you have additional inputs available.

Controls

The back panel of the B3031A has several controls. The on-off switch is conveniently sited on the top. The inputs are slightly less conveniently on the underside, though this does mean that the cables hang vertically which is tidy.

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Then there are several additional controls:

Input Trim: Control input gain from –6dB to +6bB, as mentioned above.

Low Frequency: Cut the response from 60Hz and below between 0 and –6dB. The purpose is to integrate smoothly with a subwoofer or, if monitoring, to simulate a small speaker system.

Room Compensation: Cut the response from 300Hz and below between 0 and –6dB. The purpose is to reduce excessive bass if the speakers are sites against a wall or in a corner.

High Frequency: Adjust the response around 8kHz from +2dB to –4dB. The purpose is to tailor the high frequencies to allow for room effects.

Power mode: You can set the power to On, Auto, or Off. This one mystifies me. You do not need Off since you can more easily press the Power switch on the top. The Auto mode is meant to put the speakers into standby when not in use, but in my tests it was a disaster. The speakers would turn off during quiet passages. Admittedly that was with the rather low output from the Caiman DAC; but I suggest NOT using this option.

Mute Low and Mute High: mutes the high or low drivers, apparently “for service use”.

Frequency response

Each speaker comes with an individual calibration certificate, which is a nice touch especially at this price point.

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I presume this is done in an anechoic chamber; the frequency response in a normal room will be less even. One point interests me though. The certificate shows that the bass response does not begin to drop noticeably until 40Hz; yet the published specification is 50Hz-24Khz. That accords with my listening tests, in that the bass is well extended and unlike AVI’s ADM 9.1, these speakers work fine without a subwoofer.

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Electronics

The amplifier packs are easy to unscrew from the back panel so I took a look, though I do not recommend this as it may invalidate your warranty. Also note that amplifiers can give you an electric shock even after they have been unplugged, thanks to the charge held by capacitors.

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Note the beefy toroidal transformer.

Listening tests

So how do they sound? In a word, excellent. They display the characteristics you would expect from an active system: exceptional clarity, a somewhat lean sound due to absence of boom, neutral tone, and an honest reproduction of the source which occasionally counts against your enjoyment if it is slightly distorted (play Peaceful Easy Feeling by the Eagles. Hear the distortion? Good, you have an accurate system).

I positioned the speakers on stands well into the room and only a few feet apart. These are more suitable for hi-fi than some monitors because the ribbon tweeters have a wide dispersal, which means the sweet spot of good listening positions is larger.

When I first switched on, I thought the bass was a little light. Then I played Stravinksky’s Firebird in the great performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. The drum sounded with dramatic effect; it is obvious that these speakers have no problem with bass.

I played Roads by Portishead, a demanding track that begins with a pulsing low-frequency tone that can easily cause speakers to buzz or the sound to break up. The B3031A coped with this as well as I have heard; then Beth Gibbons’ vocals come in with startling clarity, a stunning contrast.

The B3031A’s coped with Sade’s By Your Side, on which the strong bass can easily overwhelm and distort, with ease. You can hear the silky vocals, the pumping percussion, the fingers sliding on the guitar, the ticking cymbals, the swirling organ.

Ashkenazy playing Chopin sounds dynamic and natural. There is no boominess in the lower end nor breakup in the loud passages.

Is there anything these speakers do not do well? A few observations. If you like to rock out to heavy metal, I am not sure that this type of speaker is the best, though the B3031A is better than some in this regard. They are just a bit too polite, and further, maybe a floorstander with the chest-shaking bass that only a floorstander can deliver is a better choice.

Although the sound is generally excellent, these speakers do not quite have the refinement and limpidity I have heard from active ATCs costing many times more, for example.

Be reasonable though. You can get a pair of these delivered for around £300. What else would sound as good for the money?

Conclusion

My immediate conclusion is that these are a fantastic hi-fi bargain. If you can live with the looks and the Behringer name, you are getting a real taste of the high-end for what most audio enthusiasts would regard as as a low-budget price.

Admittedly the setup is a little more complex than some, since you need a pre-amplifier of some kind, though there are now DACs around at a reasonable price which have this included.

Specifications

Inputs: Balanced XLR or 1/4” jack.

Input trim: –6dB to +6dB

Tweeter: 2” ribbon

Woofer: 8 3/4” Kevlar

Woofer amplification: 100w RMS 150w peak at 4 ohms, 0.1% THD

Tweeter amplification: 30w RMS 75w peak at 6 ohms, 0.1% THD

Crossover frequency: 3.6Khz

Frequency response: Quoted 50Hz to 24Khz, no range given.

Max spl: 113dB at 1m per pair

Power consumption: max 200w

Dimensions: 400 x 250 x 290mm

Weight: 15Kg

Buying the B3031A

If you buy a pair of these pay special attention to whether you are buying a single speaker or a pair. In the pro music market, monitors are often sold individually, which means that great price must be doubled if you are after a stereo pair. That said, the B3031A is often, but not always, sold in pairs. This usually works out better value. Check the small print carefully!