Monthly Archives: December 2012

Async USB audio streaming at 24-bit 192Khz with Logitech Squeezebox Touch

The discontinued Logitech Squeezebox Touch is a fine product for multi-room audio streaming, though sadly discontinued. The Touch is limited to a maximum audio resolution of 24-bit and 96Khz – or is it? While this is true of the internal DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter), an audio enthusiast known as Triode set about modifying the firmware to output higher resolutions.

Another aspect of his work was to enable use of the USB port on the Touch, which was originally designed for attaching storage, to support an asynchronous USB DAC. The idea of async USB audio is that the clock which controls the decoding is in the DAC and independent of the source. There is an explanation by Vincent Kars here:

In this mode an external clock is used to clock the data out of the buffer and a feedback stream is setup to tell the host how much data to send.

A control circuit monitors the status of the buffer and tells the host to increase the amount of data if the buffer is getting too empty or to decrease if it’s getting too full.
Since the readout clock is not dependent on anything going on with the bus, it can be fed directly from a low jitter oscillator, no PLL need apply.

Is async USB audio really necessary? Is any resolution above 16/44 necessary for playback? I am sceptical, but after getting hold of a Teac UD-H01 which supports both async USB and resolutions up to 24/192 I thought it would be fun to try it. 

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I followed the steps here which worked perfectly. They involve installing a Squeezebox app called Enhanced Digital Output, and installing a modified Linux kernel (the Touch runs Linux). The modifications are reversible, which is reassuring.

I then tried one of the the few Flac-encoded music files I have in 24/192 format. I still cannot tell you whether either the format or the asynchronous aspect makes a difference; but I can say that the sound is exceptionally good, though it also sounds excellent with well-mastered 16/44 sources.

Subjectively it improves on the internal DAC in the Touch, with deeper bass, a more spacious sound, better separation between instruments, more natural vocals, and all the usual hi-fi clichés.

Leaving that aside though, kudos to Triode for his achievement.

Review: Skullcandy Navigator, smart on-ear headphones with microphone and special controls for Apple devices

Skullcandy has released the Navigator on-ear headphones, using some of the same technology found in the over-ear Aviator though simplified and at a lower price. An inline microphone is included, with buttons to control call answer, play, pause and volume on iOS devices.

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The Navigator is a stylish device, with the glossy black finish on the outside of the ear cups nicely offset by sliver chrome trim and sliders. The cups fold inwards for storage and a silky drawstring bag is supplied. The cable is detachable, which is always a good thing since if you are are lucky the cable will detach when you trip over it rather than breaking internally, and if you are unlucky you can replace it.

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In the box you get a a guide to the “MIC3” button controls and a leaflet showing how to attach the cable, along with the headphones, bag and cable itself.

The soft inside of the ear pieces has a cutaway section showing the Skullcandy logo.

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While the designers no doubt thought this a nice touch, it looks like there is potential for the edges to lift or tear here, but only time will show whether this is a real concern.

Sound

The sound is decent but falls short of greatness, no more or less than you would expect at this price point. First impressions are good, with a smooth sound and adequate bass, but close listening revealed some compromises. The sound is a little recessed, with accentuated bass and slightly dulled treble, with the result that handclaps, for example, sound less real and natural than they should.

Listening to Sade’s By Your Side, with its strong rhythmic bass lines, is always revealing; it is on my list of difficult tracks. On an iPad this was disappointing, with the bass turning to mush and the treble detail getting lost too. Switching to a desktop PC and a dedicated headphone amplifier made a substantial improvement and the music became enjoyable, though still some distance from how it can sound with the best equipment.

Mirror in the Bathroom by the Beat (or English Beat) is a punchy and demanding track that is also good for revealing gear differences. The Navigators are claimed to have “punchy and powerful bass” but on this track they sounded too polite, losing too much of the rhythmic drive in the song, and again recessing the treble too much.

Adele’s Daydreamer sounded reasonable with forward vocals, though the Navigator loses some of the delicacy of the guitar picking and the sound is a little closed-in compared to better units.

The sound is unexceptional then; but good enough for casual use.

Having a microphone built in is great though. Plugged into Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet, this set made a great job of a Skype call with clear, solid sound at both ends of the call.

Controls

The Navigator’s inline microphone includes controls for use with iOS.

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The plus and minus buttons control the volume, while the central clicker is multi-function. One click is for play/pause, or to take a call if ringing. Two clicks in quick succession moves to the next track, and three clicks the previous track.

On the Surface RT the microphone worked fine, but the controls did nothing.

Comfort

Headphones are personal things and ideally you will try these before you buy. In general the design is good, with plenty of travel on the rails to which the ear pieces attach so that you can fit these headphones to the size of your head.

Unfortunately I found the clamping pressure too tight, though over time this may reduce a little. The result for me was that I could not wear these headphones comfortably for an extended period. This might not be the case for you; but I cannot agree with the “insanely comfortable” claim in the press release.

Conclusion

The design is beautiful, the inline microphone useful, and the sound is not too bad. Overall I rate these a reasonable but unexceptional purchase, but only if you can wear them without discomfort. If you prefer a slightly looser fit, these will not be for you.

The Skullcandy Navigator comes in three colours: Black, White or Royal Blue. It costs £84.99.

Review: Edifier MP250+ Sound to Go Plus

The problem: small mobile devices are great for portability but their built-in speakers (if they exist) are poor, thanks to their tiny size and sub-optimal enclosures. The latest tablets sound better than earlier models, but it still pays to plug in an external powered speaker.

Edifier’s Sound to Go Plus could be the answer. This wedge-shaped single-unit powered speaker system is 261mm long and 36mm high – in other works, a shade longer than a 10” iPad.

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Several things are distinctive.

First, it feels robust and high quality, thanks to its brushed aluminium shell. Second, it is not just a powered speaker, but also a USB sound device that was recognised immediately by the Mac, Windows 8 and Windows RT devices I tried.

Third, it packs in four 1.25” drive units and a 30mm x 90mm passive bass radiator for a fuller sound that you might expect from such a compact speaker.

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The unit comes with audio cable, USB cable, and a simple black bag, though you will struggle to get the cables as well as the device into the bag.

Charging is via USB and no mains adapter is supplied. Many smartphone adapters will work, or you can charge from a PC or Mac.

Operation

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The Sound to Go Plus has two modes of operation. The first is USB-based, and works by attaching the gadget to a PC or Mac and then selecting it as the default audio output device. The second is based on a standard 3.5mm jack socket. This is necessary, because most smartphones and tablets, including Apple’s iPad, do not recognise USB audio devices. Microsoft’s Surface RT is an exception, and worked fine with the Edifier and a USB cable.

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The existence of two modes does add some complexity though. Edifier has designed it so that the analogue jack input takes priority. This means that if a jack cable is connected, the USB audio connection does not work. If both are connected to the same machine, neither works.

The advantage of the USB connection is first that it sounds better, and second that the device will charge while it plays.

Volume buttons are on each end of the device, down on the left, up on the right. Once connected, you turn the device on by depressing both simultaneously. This is smart, since it is unlikely to happen by accident in your bag.

Sound quality

Sound and mobile is all about compromise. I compared the Sound to Go Plus with several alternatives, from built-in speakers on an iPad or Surface RT, to various other portable systems.

The Sound to Go Plus was a big improvement on the built-in speakers. Sound is deeper, crisper, smoother and more detailed.

Compare to a grown-up pair of powered speakers like the superb Audyssey Lower East Side, admittedly more expensive and less portable, and the Sound to Go Plus is boxy, bass-shy and constricted.

That said, the Edifier sounds miles better than a old Creative Labs Travelsound unit I tried. The Travelsound is also a one-piece design, but with only a single drive unit per channel and no passive bass radiator. The Edifier won easily.

I was less sure about the comparison with the X-Mini Kai. The Kai is a mono unit but even with only one drive unit it lost only narrowly to the Edifier. The Kai’s brighter sound made the Edifier sound slightly muffled and the bass on the Kai is also decent, though in the end the Edifier’s smoother, weightier sound won my preference. The Edifier also feels stronger and more business-like than the quirky Kai with its concertina design.

Still, a unit like this is not about the ultimate in sound quality. It is about getting acceptable sound while on the go, and in this respect the Edifier impresses. It is not squawky or annoying, build quality is good, and watching a movie or playing background music with this is more fun than using what is built into a tablet.

Volume is just about good enough, though I would have liked a little more power.

Conclusion

The Edifier Sound to Go Plus is a great little device and worth considering if you are looking for better sound while travelling.

 

Review: Cooking the QOOQ way – do you want a tablet in your kitchen?

Throw out those cookery books. What you really want is a kitchen gadget that has thousands of recipes, searchable with a few quick taps, with video demonstrations for the tricky bits and extra features like auto-created shopping lists and the ability to play background music, right?

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If that sounds good to you, you should take a look at the QOOQ, a 10” tablet designed for the kitchen. It is splash-proof and wipe-clean, with legs that sensibly lift it clear of the surface in case any pools of liquid should appear (not that they would).

Last week I visited Unowhy, the company behind QOOQ, at their Paris head office. I also got to try the QOOQ for a couple of days. It is a great little device, but there are some caveats, and note that you need an on-going subscription for full usage. Read on to see if QOOQ is for you.

The device

A QOOQ is a capacitive-touch tablet powered by a ARM Cortex A9 dual core chipset and running Linux. No, it is not Android; it reports itself as a QOOQ-specific Linux build, and the software is written in native code using the QT framework. It is also locked down so that you cannot get access to the operating system without a service password that is not supplied. This means you cannot install applications other than a few supplied utilities. This is an appliance, not a general-purpose tablet, though it does have a web browser, an email client, a photo viewer and a music player so it covers the basics.

The device feels sturdy and well made, though note that the protruding legs make it an awkward thing for most purposes other than sitting on a kitchen surface. There is a USB port and an SD card slot, so you can add music files or photos. An obvious secondary purpose is to add some family photos and have them display as a slideshow.

On the right-hand side of the unit are controls for on-off and volume.

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On the left, the ports and headphone socket, behind a rubber cover that has an annoying tendency to come loose. You get card slot, USB 2.0 port, wired ethernet and audio. Nice to see the wired ethernet socket but I doubt this gets much use; how many households have wired ethernet in the kitchen?

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I did not test battery life in detail but it worked fine for a few hours; however this is unimportant since it can be mains-powered during normal use.

Music sounds pretty good even through the built-in speakers. Of course you can get better sound using an external powered speaker.

Wi-Fi support covers B G and N standards and worked well for me.

Overall the hardware is excellent, well designed for its purpose. The main problem, aside from the loose cover mentioned above, is that if you operate the screen while cooking you will likely want to touch the screen sometimes with hands covered in food. QOOQ can easily be wiped clean, but a few dabs of flour or butter on the screen and it gets hard to read. A small hardware rocker for scrolling and clicking would help, so that you could avoid touching the screen itself.

The software

In the main, interacting with QOOQ feels like running a single application, though the web browser runs full screen and takes you out of it to some extent. The browser seems to be based on WebKit (like Apple Safari, Android and Google Chrome) and includes Flash player 10.1 though this is disabled by default; the system warns that it may run out of memory if Flash is enabled. Think of the browser as something basic for occasional use, though it does come into play for the QOOQ help system such as it is (more on that later). You could also look up recipes on the internet outside the QOOQ system (perish the thought) and take advantage of the device that way.

I could not figure out how to get screengrabs, so had to make do with the old point-the-camera-at-the-screen routine. Here is the home page.

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You can see the idea. The main menu is on the left hand side, giving access to recipes, index of chefs, cooking guide, meal planner, shopping list, and the all-important search.

The home page includes  a spotlight recipe, online magazine, and on the right hand side, a customisable column of supplementary apps, including web browser, internet radio, weather app, video player, and access to local storage, though this last is limited to photos and music files.

Once into a recipe, QOOQ has a commendably clear layout. You get tabs for ingredients, utensils, and then the heart of it, preparation with step-by-step instructions. In the best case, there is a video available, to which the steps are hot-linked so that tapping a step shows how to do it in the video. Brilliant. If there is no video, then you get a colour picture of the finished dish as a minimum. There is also information on preparation time and cooking time.

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Now the not-so-good. QOOQ is made in France and recently adapted for the English market. The biggest market is the USA, so all the weights and measures are in US-style cups, tablespoons, and imperial pounds and ounces. There was no way to change this in the review unit though Unowhy mentioned that metric measurements are on the way so there is hope.

There is also a problem with the videos. Most of the videos were recorded in French with chefs explaining their actions. In order to adapt them for English, Unowhy has overdubbed these with a rather wooden voiceover translation. You can still hear the French original faintly in the background. Not good.

Selecting Help is unrewarding for English users. You get a page not found message.

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Along with the core recipe database, QOOQ has some other features. There is a meal planner, which works but sometimes caught us out. You cannot select Saturday and choose a meal; you have to select a recipe and add it to Saturday.

You can have QOOQ generate a shopping list and email it to you. This could be useful, though I was amused to see “13 3/8 tbs. Water” on my shopping list.

There is also a rather complex system of user profiles, tastes and techniques which frankly I never fully figured out (and help is no help as you can see above).

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Users can build up profiles of which ingredients they like and which techniques they have mastered, which one assumes are taken into account if you use QOOQ’s meal suggestion feature, and possibly in other ways. I suspect many users will ignore this aspect of QOOQ.

Searching for a recipe

Cooking a meal is merely the last step in a process that begins with the harder task of deciding what to cook. QOOQ has a search feature that lets you search by recipe name, or by ingredient.

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This is a little confusing. There are two search tabs. The first search tab is for “All QOOQ”.  You can search for recipes here, but only by name. If you select ingredients, you will be searching the food encyclopaedia, and end up with an entry all about onions, for example, rather than recipes containing onions. If you want to search by ingredient, you need the ingredient tab. Search shows the number of results as you type.

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The results are shown in a scrolling list, in one of two views. The detail view is the best, and shows preparation time, difficulty, cost of ingredients, and cost to acquire the recipe if you do not have a full subscription (more on this later). You can filter the view in various ways, such as only recipes with videos. You can sort by various fields such as calories, or preparation time.

Despite the richness of the information, QOOQ’s search could do with some work. It is disappointing that you cannot filter by specialist requirements such as vegetarian or gluten-free meals. The search is also too complicated. QOOQ should learn from Google and have a single search page with intelligent results. Another limitation is that the recipe search does not account, we think, for synonyms, so you might have to experiment. Still, it is good enough and you will likely find what you want if QOOQ has it on offer.

Note that some of the recipes are on the internet and will be downloaded on the fly. This aspect works seamlessly, and any background downloads are invisible to the user.

The recipes

This is the heart of it. How are the recipes?

This is a collection for serious cooks. Note that Unowhy has focused on chefs, and persuading well-regarded chefs to share their techniques and recipes under the eye of a video camera. That is fantastique and beyond price for professionals or ardent throwers of dinner parties. I found QOOQ better than any cookery book I can think of for suggesting cooking ideas and enabling me to judge how feasible each recipe would be, bearing in mind available skills, ingredients, and batterie de cuisine.

That said, QOOQ leans strongly towards the high end of cooking. My search for a lowly Christmas Pudding came up blank; and the synonym Plum Pudding was no better.

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I also looked in vain for general techniques like how to roast a duck (having enjoyed duck brûlée on a recent occasion); the duck recipes are all more advanced and interesting than that.

In other words, there are many wonderful recipes here that will inspire you, but I am not sure it is ideal as an everyday companion for the less expert, though this could easily be fixed by adding more content.

You are meant to be able to add your own recipes using software downloaded from the QOOQ site, but I could not find it; the French language site is more extensive so it is probably there somewhere.

The cost

Is QOOQ worth it? That is the question, and to answer this we need to look at the cost.

A QOOQ costs $399 which is about £260. For this you get the tablet and 1000 “recipes, videos and techniques”.

My loan QOOQ was able to search 3681 recipes. What about recipes beyond the supplied 1000?

Here you have two choices. You can purchase an all-you-can-eat (ho ho) subscription which is $99.00 (£65) per year or  $9.90 (£6.50) per month. Alternatively, you can buy individual recipes for credits. Recipes seem to cost between 2 and 8 credits, and a credit costs $4.90 for 20, so that means recipes cost from 50c to $2.00, or from about 30p to £1.30. Once purchased, a recipe is yours for ever.

Unless you are a professional, the individual recipes strike me as better value, especially as you can use them again and again.

Bear in mind though that there are countless free recipes on the internet, which you can even view on the QOOQ using the built-in browser. Certainly the QOOQ offers a premium experience and its recipes are exclusive. Having an expert chef explain a recipe to you in the comfort of your own kitchen is worth a lot. But this is not a mass market proposition.

A Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10  device propped up against the toaster is not quite so good for cooking, but works in or out of the kitchen. A quick search for “splashproof iPad case” got me some results too.

Final thoughts

A QOOQ is a smart device with some fabulous content; yes it is the ideal gift for the cookery enthusiast who has everything. It is somewhat quirky and the transition from French to English is frustrating and incomplete in places.

Is it for the rest of us though? In its current form, probably not. That said, there is potentially a wide market for these recipes and videos, particularly if the company can build up a bigger collection of true English videos or improve the production of the French videos with English dubbing.

QOOQ would also benefit greatly from true social media integration. Currently you can rate your own recipes, but you cannot see other people’s ratings. I would like to see user ratings and discussions fully integrated, so you can learn what other people liked, what went wrong, discuss alternate ingredients and techniques and so on.

In the end it is all about the content, which is why the company would do well to promote its content more strongly apart from the device. We were told in Paris that users can subscribe to the web site and get recipes without having to buy a QOOQ, but I cannot see any way to do that currently (perhaps you can do this in French). This is needed, along with iPad and Android apps.

The QOOQ was born not out of a desire to make a kitchen tablet, but because the founders wanted a way of preserving recipes and skills. It was “how to immortalise recipes before you die”, as explained by company co-founder Guillaume Hepp.

The QOOQ should be a premium way to get the content, rather than the main delivery channel.

You can get your QOOQ here.

Nokia forms 71% of Windows Phone market according to AdDuplex research

These figures from AdDuplex, which runs an ad network for Windows Phone, surprised me. The company studies its stats for a random day in November, the 30th, and reports that 71% of the Windows Phone devices contacting its servers were from Nokia. The Lumia 710 leads with 24%, followed by Lumia 800 at 18%, and the Lumia 900 at 7%.

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The obvious conclusion is that Nokia dominates the Windows Phone market. Bad news for HTC, which seems to be making a real effort with its 8X release (the 20th most popular device according to the stats).

Dominating the market may sound good for Nokia, but unfortunately the entire market is relatively small. The risk for the platform is that it becomes in effect a Nokia-only OS with all the other OEMs focused on Android.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition. Capture Xbox and PS3 gaming action for YouTube.

The Hauppauge HD PVR2 is a gadget for capturing video from an HDMI or component video source, such as an XBox 360 or PlayStation 3 games console, and has replaced the popular HD PVR, which was component video only. 

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The concept is simple: instead of connecting you console directly to your TV or A/V amplifier, connect it to the HD PVR2. Then connect the unit to a PC or Mac via USB, and to the original TV or amplifier via HDMI. Your PC can then capture the video (and audio) while you are playing the game using the big screen. Hauppauge says the delay between input and output is only 60 microseconds, which you will not notice.

The use of HDMI makes connecting the PVR2 simpler than with its predecessor. Instaead of a bunch of component audio connections, there is just power, USB, HDMI in and out, and an A/V input that connects to component video sources where needed. The A/V input has a special cable that gives floating sockets for component video and analogue audio. The unit is also supplied with a cable suitable for connecting to a PS3.

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You might need component input in two cases:

1. Your games console lacks HDMI – for example, Nintendo Wii.

2. The HDMI output is encrypted for copyright protection. This is the case with the PS3, but not the XBox. Since component video and analogue audio cannot be encrypted, you can capture anything this way.

Getting started

Hooking up the HD PVR2 was easy, but getting started was troublesome. We tried a succession of Windows 7 laptops, including a Pentium Dual Core 2.3Ghz, a Core 2 Duo at 2.6 Ghz Pentium, and a Core i5 at 1.6 Ghz. The pattern with all these was similar: the drivers and software installed OK, HDMI pass-through worked, the capture might work once, but then there were frustrating errors. The problems:

  • Difficult or impossible to select the HD PVR2 as the input device in the capture software
  • Capture software hanging
  • USB device error reported

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This was tedious, partly because nothing could be captured, and partly because the only way to retry was to reboot both the laptop and the HD PVR2.

Swapping to a high-spec USB cable seemed to help a little, but soon the old problems were back, even after applying the latest driver updates from Hauppauge support.

Just before giving up, we connected to another Windows 7 Core i5 laptop, speed this time 2.5Ghz. Everything worked perfectly.

It is not clear what to conclude here. Hauppauge specifies:

Laptop or desktop PC with 3.0 GHz single core or 2.0 GHz multi-core processor

and adds in the FAQ:

You can record HD PVR 2 video on pretty much any PC. Older, slow, laptop or desktop PCs can be used to record HD PVR 2 video.

But when you playback an HD PVR 2 recording on your PC screen, you need a fast CPU and at least 256MB of graphics memory.

All our machines meet the spec. Either our sample box is particularly fussy, or Hauppauge is optimistic about the minimum requirements, or there are other factors at play.

Bundled software and Mac support

Hauppauge supplies Windows drivers for the HD PVR2 along with a version of Arcsoft ShowBiz for capturing and editing video.

If you want to use a Mac, Hauppauge recommends  third-party software called HDPVRCapture which costs an additional $29.95.

ShowBiz is easy to use and provides simple editing features and output to AVCHD, AVI, MPEG1, QTMOV or WMV. You can also upload direct to YouTube with a wizard.

You don’t have to use ShowBiz if you have other capture software you prefer.

Another feature is called Personal Logo. This is a separate application which lets you specify a bitmap as a logo to appear on your captured videos, along with its position and transparency. Handy for reminding everyone who you are on YouTube, or for publications posting review footage.

Capturing video

Once your system is up and working, you can start capturing video with one of two methods. The first is to hit a large corner button on top of the HD PVR2, which automatically starts up ShowBiz in capture mode. Alternatively, you can start ShowBiz, select Capture, and click Start.

While capturing, you can see the video running on the PC. There is several seconds delay between your live gameplay and the capture stream, which is confusing to watch, so ignore it and focus on your gameplay. When you are done hit stop. Videos are saved automatically, by default to the Videos folder on your PC, named according to the date and time.

Next, you can edit the video in ShowBiz. I created the following video and uploaded it to YouTube as a demo. However, I could not get the YouTube unload in ShowBiz to work. I saved the file as an AVI and uploaded it manually.

Settings in depth

When you run the Capture module in ArcSoft ShowBiz it exposes a number of settings, which you get to by clicking Device and Format Settings.

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Device Settings lets you set brightness, contrast, Hue, Saturation and Sharpness.

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Format settings gets you a bunch of settings which gives extensive control subject to the limitations of the hardware. Here are the settings for the H264 encoder:

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Here are the video settings:

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and the audio properties:

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All this looks impressive though many users will just want to click and go. Mostly this works OK, though check that you have 16:9 specified if you use widescreen.

Note that 1080p at 60 fps (frames per second) is captured at a maximum of 30 fps, and 1080p at 50 fps is captured at a maximum of 25 fps.

Annoyances

Hauppauge says that your PC does not need to be on for HDMI pass-through to work. Despite this, we found that if you turn the system on from cold, pass-through does not work until the USB connection to a PC is made. Once up and running, you can disconnect and turn the PC off and pass-through still works.

ArcSoft ShowBiz is very basic. Fortunately you can import the captured videos into other editors.

Having to use component video for the PS3 is annoying but not the fault of Hauppauge. It is surprising in some ways that the XBox generally outputs an unencrypted HDMI stream.

Conclusion

When this device was not working I wanted to throw it out of the window; but once I got it running it was great. The bundled software is poor, documentation is thin, and it is just a little quirky, but the ability to capture your gaming output is worth a bit of hassle.