Monthly Archives: June 2012

OEM vendors: it’s Google, not Microsoft you need to watch

When Microsoft announced Surface, its first own-brand PC, it raised immediate questions about the implications for the company’s hardware partners.

Not long after, and Google has also announced a tablet, the Nexus 7.

It looks a neat device. 7″ 1280×800 display, Corning-toughened glass, NFC, accelerometer, GPS, gyroscope, wi-fi, Bluetooth, and a Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor. Plus you get Google’s latest “Jelly Bean” operating system.

By coincidence, I have just been reviewing another Android tablet, from a brand you likely have not heard of: the Gemini JoyTAB 8″ running “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

I did not get on well with the JoyTAB. It is full of the compromises you expect from a device made down to a price with little attention to design.

But the price. I thought the JoyTAB was at least good value at £149.00. What chance does it have against a Nexus 7 for just £10 more – and with £15 of Play Store credit thrown in?

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The Nexus 7 is made by Asus so you can argue that at least one OEM vendor is not losing out here. Even so, competing with this thing will not be easy. 

We do not yet know the price of the Surface, either in Windows RT or Intel guise. My prediction is that Microsoft will aim to price it more like an Apple iPad than a Nexus. Although Microsoft is desperate for Windows 8 tablets to succeed, it also makes its money selling the software, Windows and Office, that is included in Surface. It cannot afford to price it too low.

By contrast, Google makes little money from software. Android is free. Google makes money from advertising, and also hopes to build its profit from the content market, where it takes a cut of every sale. If NFC payment takes off, it might even profit from every payment you make with an Android device.

I am right behind Microsoft in what it is doing with Surface. It has been let down by its OEM partners, with too much hastily designed and/or low quality hardware, further impaired by unwanted bundled software and poor customizations. Surface follows on from Microsoft Signature in challenging those partners to up their game. Long term, they will benefit from Microsoft’s efforts to improve Windows devices overall.

How Android tablet vendors will benefit from Nexus is less clear.

Nexus Q streaming device: you will use Cloud, you will use Android, says Google

Google’s Nexus Q is a streaming device. It is a spherical object with the following connections: optical S/PDIF digital output to connect to a hi-fi, wired ethernet, USB connection for “service and support”, and speaker outputs.

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The top half of the Nexus Q twists to control the volume. Tap the top LED to mute the sound.

The built-in class D stereo amplifier is 12.5 watts per channel.

There are also 32 multi-colour LEDs on the unit which blink in time to the music. This could be annoying but presumably there is a way to disable it.

You can stream music and video apparently, only from Google. This can be your own songs uploaded to Google, or purchased from the Play store.

Why would you want to stream music from the cloud, when it is already stored locally in iTunes, say, or in FLAC for a Squeezebox system? Cloud streaming can be high quality, but playing uncompressed audio over the local network is better still.

Why does not Nexus support standards like DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) streaming, so that you could stream to it from a variety of media servers?

Most seriously, Google says:

Requirements: Phone or Tablet running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or higher with access to Google Play

Is Google really saying that you cannot control streaming to a Nexus Q with a PC, Mac, iPad or any other non-Android device? For example, I am sitting here working at a PC. Do I have to pick up my phone in order to control Nexus Q? Or run the Android emulator, I guess?

One mitigating factor: developers can install stuff on the Nexus Q via that USB connector. I am guessing then what we may see these missing features plugged by third-party efforts.

The Nexus Q has the concept of “social streaming”. What this means is that if you enable guest mode, anyone else on the network who has an Android device can also stream their music. That could be fun, or could be chaos, but it is an interesting feature.

Music shared on the device is transient, according to this Wired article:

The queue is a transient song list, and not an actual playlist. When you add a song to the queue, the Nexus Q owner can listen to the track for 24 hours, even after you’ve left.

The price is $299.

Review: JoyTAB 8" Android tablet. Do you need to spend more?

How much Android tablet can you get for £150.00? Quite a lot, as this JoyTAB 8″ tablet from Gemini Devices demonstrates. No complaint about the specs: ARM Cortex A8 1.2Ghz processor, Mali-400 GPU, 512MB RAM, 8GB storage, running Android 4.03 “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

There is also a Micro-SD slot (confusingly labelled “TF Card”), a front-facing camera, headphone jack, USB connector, mini HDMI port, and wi-fi.

No Bluetooth, unfortunately, but you cannot have everything. Though given the choice, I would rather have Bluetooth than HDMI.

Still, no real complaint about the specs. How is it in use?

The unit is light though it feels a bit plastic, particularly the switches on the front and side, but they work fine. There is not much to see on the front: black screen, black surround, and two physical buttons, one for menu and one for back. On the side, there are buttons for power, volume and home. Personally I would rather have the home button on the front, but it is no big deal.

On the bottom edge are the connectors for USB, power, HTML, SD card and sound. Not clear why the SD slot is labelled “TF Card”, but I stuck a 4GB SD card in there and it worked instantly.

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I turned on, and was greeted with the JoyTAB wallpaper, its brightness perhaps compensating for the rather dim screen.

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Wi-fi connected smoothly, and I had a quick look at the apps:

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Nothing exceptional here. Documents To Go is a trial, Twitter and BBC iPlayer I added myself.

Unfortunately BBC iPlayer was a letdown. The app bounces you to the browser, and the browser says my phone (?) is not supported.

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I tried updating Flash Player to the latest version with no improvement. In fairness, this may be a BBC issue, though iPlayer works fine on other Android tablets I have tried.

YouTube mostly works, but video is not too good. It looks dark and detail is lost.

I got an even more entertaining error when I attempted to play my Google music in the browser.

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Web browsing in general is a mixed experience. Mostly it is good enough, though searching Google is slow and jerky if you have incremental search enabled.

Not only is the screen dim, it is unresponsive too. Pinching and zooming is an effort, and when it does work it is not smooth.

Still, Angry Birds works well, email works with both Microsoft Exchange and Google Mail, and battery life seems not bad though charging is slow even with mains.

I connected it to a PC and got an error. USB storage shows up if you enable it in settings, but it did not connect as an Android device. I fixed this by installing the (unsigned) driver from Gemini, which I found in a forum post here.

While I have not seen any faults, the test device does make odd, quiet popping noises from time to time when charging, which is a concern.

In the end I cannot give this a recommendation. It is good value in one sense, but if you can stretch to a Samsung Galaxy, which admittedly is twice the price, you do get a substantially better experience. An Apple iPad costs even more; but if you want silky-smooth touch control, a beautiful screen, and for everything to just work, then it is worth the money.

What if you only have £149? My pick would be something like a nearly new HTC Flyer, currently on offer at Amazon UK for around that price. Yes, it only runs Android 3.x “Honeycomb”, but it is a lovely device with a great screen and HTC’s customised Sense UI.

Update: It is worth adding that Google has now announced the 7″ Nexus Tablet which is on offer in the UK for £159 for the 8GB version or £199 for 16GB. That changes the rules.

Microsoft Surface has changed the Windows 8 conversation

The Register ran two online discussions on Windows 8, in which I participated along with Mary Jo Foley and Gavin Clarke.

The first was on 25th April and is here. A typical comment:

I personally think Windows 8 can’t bag Microsoft the kind of runaway success they had with Windows 95 or XP. It’s going to turn off many PC users and the success of Windows tablets is uncertain.

The second was on 20th June, following the announcement of Surface, a Windows 8 tablet to be sold by Microsoft itself. Typical comment:

I definitely want one. iPad for kids, Surface for grown ups. First bit of kit I’ve wanted in years.

 

 

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Review: Philips Voice Tracer digital recorder

I am in favour of device convergence, but still find myself carrying a dedicated recorder when out and about. I tend to record a lot of stuff, almost all voice, and there are three reasons for having a separate recorder, rather than using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The first is battery life. Sometimes I am without mains power for most of the day, and there are few devices that I can rely on for the number of hours required. Occasionally a key interview comes up at short notice and I hate the thought of being caught out.

The second is quality. This is the most important. A recording is only useful if you can hear what was said, and getting a high quality recording makes the job much easier, particularly if the environment is noisy and the speaker distant. The last interview I did was in a pizza restaurant, for example.

The third is convenience. If you are doing an interview, your focus must be entirely on the interview, not on the equipment. Time spent powering stuff up, fiddling with settings, or checking that it is working, is an unwelcome distraction. The only thing worse than not having a recorder with you is recording silence – which means you did not scribble furiously because you thought you would have a recording.

Once I failed because my microphone was plugged into a headphone socket. Another time I relied on the built-in mic on a tablet PC, and ended up not with silence, but with a recording that sounded just like the sound of a man talking, except that you could not make out any of the words. The interview was with game designer Peter Molyneux and would have been rather interesting. I had to make do with my recollections. Never again.

For years I have been using an iRiver H140, a hard drive player and recorder which is something of a classic. I bought it in 2004 and the battery still lasts 8 hours on a single charge. It has a mic input with plug-in power and I get great results using an external Sony microphone. On a recent trip to California though I left the charger at home, and the unit is so old that it lacks USB charging.

I therefore made an emergency trip to Fry’s in San Jose. Not my favourite store; but it did have some voice recorders. I bought a Philips Voice Tracer LFH0884, slightly discounted because the packaging had been opened, with a warning on the label that a customer might have returned it. Judging by the odd recordings I found on it, that most likely was the case. Still, it worked.

I picked out the Philips for several reasons:

  • 8GB on-board storage
  • Rechargeable batteries with USB charging (also takes 2 standard AAAs). Battery life 50 hours recording time. 
  • Attaches to a PC as USB storage device
  • Stereo (makes it easier to pick out voices in noisy environments)
  • Choice of recording formats right up to uncompressed WAV
  • Input for external microphone

I also noticed that this particular model comes with three microphones, as seen in the picture below.

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Specifically, there is a built-in microphone, a tie-clip microphone, and a “zoom” microphone which attaches to the end of the device. You also get a USB cable and a set of earbuds.

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Supposedly the Zoom microphone is ideal for recording a distant voice, such as a speaker at a lecture. It is meant to focus on sounds directly in front of the device. It works in tandem with a software setting for Zoom. I have not tested this thoroughly yet though I am sceptical.

Operation

The Voice Tracer is easy to use, though the user interface can be annoying and I recommend a quick read of the manual. On the top end of the unit are the mic and earphone sockets and the built-in mics. On the left is a hold switch. At the bottom end is a mini USB port. The main controls are on the top, being a four-point rocker switch, a central button, and four additional buttons for Index, Menu, Record and Stop/Delete.

The short guide is this. Make a recording by pressing Record, and stop it by pressing Stop. Add an index point during a recording by pressing Index. Not too bad.

There is also a built-in speaker so you can play recordings out loud in poor but audible quality.

The Menu button gives access to a set of icons each of which controls a setting.

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For example, the Rec setting offers 6 modes, from 8kbps mono (SLP or Super Long Play) to PCM which is uncompressed WAV. I recommend the Super High Quality (SHQ) mode which is an acceptable 192kbps stereo MP3. The difference between this and the next one down (64kbps) is clearly audible, but WAV is overkill and takes too much space unless you are recording music, for which this is not really the best device. I would like to have seen a 320kps stereo MP3 mode.

You can fit 95 hours of SHQ mode recordings on the 8GB built-in storage, which is plenty. Even with WAV you can fit 13 hours.

The menu has numerous options though it falls short in certain areas. In particular, you cannot control the recording level other than by a crude Hi or Lo mic sensitivity setting. You do get a lot of (to my mind) unnecessary features such as an alarm clock, FM radio, basic editing such as splitting files, and three EQ settings for music (Pop, Jazz or Classic).

Audio settings, in addition to the quality mode and mic sensitivity mentioned above, are Voice Activation which is meant to start and stop recording automatically, and Clear Voice which boosts quiet passages automatically. There is also a Line In mode which converts the mic input socket for a high-level input.

The sound

With three microphones to choose from, how is the sound? To give you an idea, I recorded a sample of my own voice using the built-in mic, the zoom mic, the tie-clip mic, and an external Sony electrec condenser microphone that cost more than the recorder. I normalised the level of each recording. I also added a sample of the Sony mic recorded into a PC using an external pre-amp, as a reference. The samples are here.

A few observations then.

First, the sound quality is fine for my intended purpose, recording talks and interviews. Of the various microphones, my preference is the tie-clip, partly because I prefer to use a microphone attached by a cable. With the built-in and zoom microphones, any movement of the device or use of its controls is picked up as noise. That said, I do not always use the tie-clip mic clipped to clothing. I often use it as a table microphone, sometimes attaching it to a credit card for stability.

What about using a third-party external microphone like the Sony? Here, the news is not particularly good. The Sony sounds OK, but the level is too low even when set for high sensitivity. This is why it is hissy on my sample. I tried using an external preamp, but my preamp has no output level control, and it was too high for the Voice Tracer and was clipping, even on the Line In setting.

If only Philips would ditch the silly radio and alarm clock, and provide an input level setting instead, this would not be such a problem.

Still, bearing in mind that this is designed as a voice recorder, not a general purpose digital recorder, it does a good enough job. I have used it with success for dozens of interviews now.

Note: the exact model reviewed above appears to be US only. The LFH0865 seems a close equivalent, and is available in the UK.

 

Common sense on non-upgradeable Windows 7 Phones

Poor old Microsoft. It announces a strong set of features for the next generation of Windows Phones, which I have covered in some detail here, including the news that it will be built on the full Windows 8 kernel, not the cut-down Windows CE as before. So how do people react? Not so much with acclaim for these features, but rather with shock and disappointment at the dreadful news: existing Windows Phone 7.x handsets cannot be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. This must be the end of Nokia, the argument goes, as sales will now stop dead until the new one is on sale.

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Of course it would be better if Microsoft had managed to stay compatible with current hardware, but I think the fuss is overdone. Here is why.

  • First, we have seen this coming. It has been known for ages that Windows Phone would move from Windows CE to Windows 8. I first posted about it in March 2011 and it was fully confirmed about in February this year.
  • Second, it was never likely that Windows Phone 8 would run on Windows Phone 7 hardware. Perhaps it could be made to run, but of course you would not get multi-core, and it would probably not run well. A change of operating system is hard to accommodate.
  • Third, upgradability of smartphones is always an uncertain business. Operators do not like firmware upgrades, since it only causes them hassle. Some users like them, but mostly the vocal minority of tech enthusiasts, rather than the less vocal majority who simply want their phones to keep on working.
  • Fourth, Microsoft is in fact upgrading Windows Phone 7.x devices, with the most visible aspect of the upgrade, the new start screen. It is not ideal, but it is substantial; and there will be other new features in Windows Phone 7.8.

I doubt therefore that Windows Phone 7 sales will stop dead because of this.

Microsoft’s bigger problem, of course, is that the thing is not selling that well anyway. At this stage, it makes sense for the company to go all-out with the best possible features in Windows Phone 8, rather than compromising for the sake of the relatively small number of 7.x owners.

Another question: is Nokia damaged by this? My view is simple. Nokia, for better or worse, has tied its fortunes closely to those of Microsoft. In other words, what is good for Microsoft is good for Nokia. Nokia is the number one hardware partner for Windows Phone, and the prototype shown at the Windows Summit yesterday was a Nokia device. If Windows Phone 8 is a winner, Nokia wins too.

Close up with Asus PadFone: is a converged device in your future?

Asus held an event in London to show off the devices it revealed at Computex in Taipei recently, though sadly there was no Windows RT device to be seen.

Among the Zenbook Ultrabooks and Transformer Primes there was something innovative though, which was a near-final sample of the PadFone, which combines smartphone, tablet and Android laptop into one package.

The thinking is simple: why have an expensive smartphone as well as an expensive tablet, each perhaps with its own SIM card and contract, when the smartphone can power both? In the PadFone, the phone docks into the tablet, and the tablet clips into a keyboard case. As a final flourish, there is an optional headset stylus, a stylus with a Bluetooth headset built-in so you can answer the phone easily when it is docked.

Here are the three main pieces:

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The tablet, note, is useless until you dock the phone. You do this by opening a flap on the back and dropping it in.

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The tablet then works just like any other Android tablet, though it is heavier than average, and has a bulbous section on the underside.

Attach to the keyboard case, and you have a laptop.

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The tablet has a 10.1”, 1280 x 800 screen with Gorilla Glass, a speaker and headphone jack, and a front-facing camera.

The phone has 1GB RAM, 16GB flash storage plus Micro-SD support, Qualcomm 8260A Snapdragon S4 Dual-core processor with Andreno 225 GPU, rear camera and its own front-facing camera, and runs Android ICS.

The keyboard adds USB ports and a card reader.

Each device has its own battery so a full setup has three batteries, or  four if you count one in the stylus headset. However you can have scenarios where the tablet is out of power but the phone is not, for example, which would be annoying.

I spent some time with the PadFone, scribbling on the excellent note-taking app which comes with it, and assembling and disassembling the unit to get a feel for how it works. There is plenty to like. The phone itself looks great and seems fast and capable. Docking and removing it is straightforward, particularly since the flap acts as a lever to eject the phone gently. Asus assured me that it has been tested for thousands of insertions. The tablet worked well too, though it is heavier than most and the protrusion which holds the smartphone is inelegant.

A winner then? I am not sure. It is interesting and innovative, but the mechanics need some refinement. Most people have a case to protect their smartphones, but for the PadFone you will either need to remove the phone from its case when you dock it, or else treat the tablet as the case, in which case it will not slip so easily into a jacket pocket or handbag.

The stylus headset is not just a gimmick; you will need this, or another Bluetooth headset, to make sense of using the phone when it is docked.

Some variations on this theme occur to me. After another generation of miniaturisation, perhaps you could design a phone so slim that it fits into the case more like an old PCMCIA card used to slot into a laptop, without an ugly protruding flap? Another idea would be to make all the communication between phone and tablet wireless, building just enough smarts into the tablet that it works as a kind of remote desktop into your phone.

The Asus folk present told me that the PadFone is first-generation and we can expect the concept to evolve. Another goal is to make a splash in the smartphone market, using the PadFone as differentiation from all the other Android devices out there.

Apparently the PadFone will normally be sold on contract, and while it will be bundled with the tablet, whose name is the PadFone Station, the keyboard and stylus headset will be optional extras.

Would you be happy to visit your doctor online? John Sculley says most of us should

I’m at the Cloud Computing World Forum in London where former Apple CEO John Sculley has been speaking about healthcare in the cloud. Sculley is involved with a US company called MDLive which lets you make a virtual appointment with a doctor rather than turning up at your local surgery, sitting in the waiting room for an hour, and then getting 7 minutes consultation.

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Sculley says this puts together several strands:

  • Most visits to the doctor are unnecessary
  • In person visits are more expensive and there is always pressure to reduce costs
  • Sensor technology is in its infancy but promises much – we already have Fitbit and the like, which monitors exercise, but in future your mobile may alert you to an impending heart attack or perform other automated monitoring of your health, and upload data to an internet service.

I asked Sculley if there had been studies of accuracy of diagnosis from an in-person versus an online appointment. The online ones are actually more accurate, he claims, because they make better use of available data.

Sculley calls online doctor surgeries an example of “Domain Expertise as a Service”, the implication being that the same kind of logic will apply to other kinds of consultation, not just healthcare.

In Windows 8: the perfect Metro news app for obsessives

I have been playing with the Metro apps in Windows 8 Release Preview. It is only a small thing, but I am impressed with the ease with which you can customise the Bing News app to add your own special interests. See the video below for a quick demonstration.

You will also see that I struggled to find out how to remove a custom section. This seems to be the way with Windows 8 in Metro: easy when you know how, but you have to figure it out.

Ninja Gaiden 3 comes to Nintendo Wii U

I had enormous fun with Ninja Gaiden on Xbox, especially the first version which was repeatedly refined until, as Ninja Gaiden Black, it came near to gaming perfection. Never mind the plot: the action was intense, challenging and deep.

Ninja Gaiden 2 was more gory but less satisfying, though it was another big game with gorgeous environments – I particularly liked the watery city which was reminiscent of Venice – and more important, tough fighting that rewarded skill rather than button-bashing.

Ninja Gaiden 3 on the other hand was a disappointment, removing most of what was enjoyable about the game. The combat system was simplified and it became just another button bash.

Now the game is among those promised for the Nintendo Wii U. Is it possible that the new version, called Razor’s Edge, fixes the problems?

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The description does seem to recognise what went wrong:

NINJA GAIDEN 3 has been reworked to bring to Wii U the truly intense, high-speed challenge and action NINJA GAIDEN fans demand. With more weapon and Ninpo types, a new character progression system, a redesigned battle system and the return of dismemberment, NINJA GAIDEN 3: Razor’s Edge improves upon the original NINJA GAIDEN 3 in every way and offers Wii U exclusive features and functionalities.

Improving on the original Ninja Gaiden 3, you might remark, will not be difficult. Even so, fans now have some reason to hope for another decent edition of Ninja Gaiden.