Monthly Archives: March 2013

Review: Sony HDR-PJ320E Handycam Camcorder and Projector: nice features, shame about the image quality

The Sony PJ320E is an HD camcorder with a neat trick: it is also a projector, making it a true all-in-one device. Shoot your video, dim the lights, sit back and watch your creation on the nearest wall. You can also use it as a projector for any device with HDMI output, which includes most new laptops and some tablets.

The perfect camcorder then? I wish it were; but unfortunately its core feature, making videos, is disappointing considering the price, plus there are a few other limitations to be aware of.

What you get is the camcorder, mains adapter, a micro to standard HDMI cable, and a USB extender cable. The reason for the extender cable is that the camcorder has a very short (4cm or so) USB cable built-in, which tucks into the handle when not in use. Handy, and will work OK with a laptop, but if you have a desktop PC you will probably want to use the extender cable.

What you don’t get with this particular model is any storage. There is none built-in, and no SD card is supplied. So you have to supply your own SD card. It supports SD, SDHC, SDXC, and Sony’s own Memory Stick media, up to 64GB. For the SD cards, class 4 or faster is specified. I used a 32GB class 10 SDHC card.

Operation

Like most camcorders, this one has a grip handle and flip-out screen. You can twist the flip-out screen around so it faces forward, handy for the self-timer. Menus are chosen by touch control on the screen, and while this works it is a rather small screen and fiddly to operate.

There are also some physical buttons: zoom lever, photo button, and start/stop for video recording. On the inside panel are buttons for projector mode, play and power, and along the top a focus slider for projecting. The camcorder can be mounted on a tripod.

There are two shooting modes, video and photo. In some video modes you can still take photos with the photo button, but not vice versa.

Connection options are generous. There is a flap on the side covering power in and multi video out (for TVs that lack an HDMI input), though the multi video connector is an optional extra. On the inner panel you get HDMI in and out (the in being for projecting), and microphone in with plug-in power.

The device is light and compact and basic operation is easy. The main snag is the slightly awkward menu system.

Specifications

On paper this is a decent camcorder. Here are a few key specifications:

30x optical zoom extended to 55x for video recording.
Still photos up to 8.0 mega pixels, 16:9 format
1080 HD video recording, 16:9 format
Focal distance 1.9-57mm
Frame rate 50i or 50p
Projector resolution 640 x 360
Projector brightness 13 lumens
Battery life: typical 75 minutes recording, 240 minutes playback

Image quality

My biggest concern with this device is that I could not achieve excellent results. Don’t even think of using this for still photos; they are poor quality despite their high pixel count.

Here is a shot of some daffodils:

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I took a similar shot on my excellent Canon S100 camera:

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The difference is more apparent when you zoom in. Sony first, Canon next:

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How about videos? Here the Sony comes out better, as you would expect. The Canon S100 can also take videos, but while the image quality was still better on the Canon, it was more jerky when panning; the Sony is much better at steadying the image, for handheld videos. Credit to Sony for that.

Here is a quick video of the flowers using default automatic settings. Note: to get the best quality set it to play in 1080p:

This struck me as over-exposed, and I tried again using manual exposure:

I got the best results using the highest available quality (no surprise).

The video quality is not that bad, but less good than the resolution would lead you to expect.

Note that the lens is a Sony G lens, not a Carl Zeiss as used on some Sony models.

Sound quality

The audio side is pretty good. Built-in stereo mic on the front, option for external mic with plug-in power support, Dolby Digital recording.

Projecting

Of course the Sony is also a projector, which is a lot of fun. The projector is the DLP type which is ideal for portability. The downside is that it is low resolution and the lamp is not very powerful, but that is expected. It certainly beats having to peer at the tiny screen to watch a video, though if you have a TV handy you will probably be better off connecting to that with HDMI rather than projecting.

The HDMI input means you can connect other devices. I tried this with a Sony Xperia phone which supports MHL, meaning that the USB port can be used for HDMI output with a suitable adaptor. This worked well, and I could project a video from the phone through the Sony camcorder.

Will you use this much though? What about purchasing a separate pocket projector and a conventional camcorder instead – you will probably get better quality for both, and spend no more money.

Features

There are a range of options in the menus though documentation for these is not great. Features include Spot focus, which focuses automatically on a subject you touch, and Smile shutter, which automatically takes a picture when it detects a smile! I tested this and it actually worked, good fun.

There is a useful feature called My Button. Four buttons on the left of the touch screen are user-assignable, so you can quickly access a feature without having to scroll through the menus.

Other features include white balance adjustment, self-timer, manual focus, low light optimization, wind noise reduction for the mic, and of course image size and quality.

Software

Sony supplies free software for PC and PlayStation 3, called PlayMemories. You can import images and video from the camcorder, upload to a cloud service for sharing, and burn DVD or Blu-ray discs. Mac users miss out on this, but can still easily import from the camcorder.

Conclusion

I like the features of this camcorder and if the image quality were better I would love it. As it is, I feel it is a nice device let down by poor optics. It is light and convenient though, with some fun features. Recommended if the combination of camcorder and projector in one unit is particularly useful, but for pure video quality you could do better.

Review: Seagate Wireless Plus combines hard drive and wi-fi for storage on the go

Need more storage for your tablet or smartphone? If so, the Seagate Wireless Plus could be just the thing. In a nutshell, this is a 1TB USB 3.0 external drive with battery power and a wi-fi access point built in. Attach it to your PC or Mac and fill it with stuff: a zillion MP3s, or a pile of videos, or pictures, or boring business presentations, or whatever you need. On the road, you power up the drive, connect your mobile device to the built-in wi-fi, and play what you want – though note there are a few complications, of which more below.

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In the box you get the drive, a USB mains adaptor, a USB port that attaches to the drive, a USB 3.0 cable, and a brief getting started manual.

To be clear, there is a protective cover on the end of the drive which pops off to reveal what looks like Seagate’s GoFlex port. Another piece plugs into this, converting it to a USB port. Slightly awkward, because you may well lose the protective cover and end up having the USB adaptor permanently attached.

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Setup is a matter of charging the battery and then connecting your mobile device to the drive’s integrated wi-fi access point. By default this is an unencrypted open connection, and if you intend to travel with the unit I recommend setting a password, which converts it into a secure encrypted connection.

Next, you download the free Seagate media app for iOS or Android, at which point you can view the contents and playback media such as music and video. What if you have a mobile device other than iOS or Android? Hang on, all is not lost.

The inherent problem here is that connecting storage to a mobile device is not as simple as on a computer, where it just appears as another drive, especially on Apple’s iOS which does not directly expose a file system to the user. This is the reason for the Seagate Media app.

Second, the obvious problem with connecting to a dedicated wi-fi access point on the Seagate drive is that you will no longer be connected to any other wi-fi network and therefore may be disconnected from the internet, or forced to use your data connection.

Fortunately Seagate has a solution, called “concurrent mode”. You use Seagate’s app to connect your drive to a second wi-fi network, such as your home wi-fi, and then your internet connectivity is restored.

While this mostly works, it is an inconvenience, since if you are out and about you will need to do this for any new wi-fi connection point you want to use. Further, as soon as you turn the drive off (or the battery runs out) you will have to connect your mobile device separately. If you then later want to reconnect to the Seagate, you have to change the wi-fi settings on the mobile again, so it is a little bit of hassle.

I used the drive on both an iPad and an Android phone, and found the setup fairly straightforward, though the Android mysteriously needed restarting before it worked properly. Playing media from the drive via the app works fine for video, images and music.

If you have a device that is neither Apple nor Android, you can still use it by connecting the wifi on the device to the Seagate, and then browsing to a mini web server on the drive. The question is: where to point the browser? Help was not helpful on this point, suggesting a wirelessplus URL that did not work at all for me, but I noticed that the network was in the 172.25.0 range, took a stab at 172.25.0.1 and found that it worked. Using a Nokia Windows Phone, for which there is no Seagate app, I could connect to the device, stay on the internet, and still easily play the media. Here is the browser view on Windows Phone:

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You can also access settings from the browser and check status:

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That said, as I connected various devices to the Seagate I found its behaviour increasingly unpredictable. On the iPad I got a mysterious message saying I was connecting through another device and should connect directly, even when I was connected directly as far as I could tell. Sometimes you lose internet connectivity and the second network connection needed to be kicked back into life through settings. You are meant to be able to have up to eight devices connected, with up to three streaming media simultaneously, but maybe this is optimistic.

The wi-fi complications are not Seagate’s fault, but inherent to providing additional storage for mobile devices, though I wonder if the firmware could be improved a bit.
Connecting the drive to a computer over USB disables the network connectivity but is otherwise straightforward. The drive is formatted with the Windows NTFS format, and a read-write NTFS driver is supplied for Mac users. Apparently you can also convert the drive to Mac HFS+ format though I did not try it. It uses a fast USB 3.0 connection when available, which is a big plus since it is much faster than USB 2.0.

There is some sync software for Windows supplied but I do not really see the point of it; personally I prefer simply to copy stuff across as needed.

According to the manual, the drive takes 3 hours to charge fully, and then has about 10 hours battery life streaming, or 25 hours standby, which is enough for most journeys. If you fancy using this on a flight, note that some airlines may not allow wi-fi to be enabled which would prevent use of the drive, other than via a laptop and USB.

Despite the fact that it is not hassle-free, I rate this drive highly based on its generous 1TB capacity and the fact that it also works fine as a standard USB 3.0 external drive, making all the mobile and battery-powered capability a nice bonus. If you need serious extra local storage for a tablet or smartphone, I cannot think of any better option.

That is the question though: do you need extra local storage for a mobile device? Internet-based storage like Dropbox, Skydrive or Google Music is more convenient, provided of course that you can connect. Most mobile devices come with built-in storage that is enough for a few videos or a fair amount of MP3 music.

There are certain scenarios where Wireless Plus will be useful, but I am not sure how common they are for most people.

Update: The Wireless Plus can also be used as a DLNA server and I have successfully used this feature both on the iPad (you can download a DNLA client from the app store; I used 8player Lite) and on Windows:

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Can you use this then as a standalone music server? Yes, though it is a shame there is no option to join the Wireless Plus to your existing network directly. I am guessing there is a way of hacking this though, if you can figure it out. It is not too bad, since once it is connected to your network using concurrent mode, other devices on your network can see it.

You can also play media from the Wireless Plus to Airplay devices such as Apple TV.

Review: Bayan Audio StreamPort Universal Bluetooth streamer

Problem: you want to play audio from your mobile device on powered speakers or through your home hi-fi. Usual solution: connect a cable from the earphone socket on your device to the powered speakers or to an input on your hi-fi. That is a little fiddly and untidy, so how about a wireless solution instead?

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This is where Bayan Audio’s StreamPort Universal comes in. This little USB-powered box in effect enables any audio system for Bluetooth. Simply connect the output from the StreamPort to your hi-fi or powered speakers, using either a 3.5mm jack socket or right and left phono sockets, and then pair it with your mobile device. Audio output is then redirected to the StreamPort and you can enjoy the music at full quality.

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In my tests the StreamPort worked exactly as advertised – well, nearly. You put the StreamPort into pairing mode by holding down power for 8 seconds. A Sony Experia T Android phone connected easily, I fired up Google Music, and was able to play one of thousands of tracks at what sounds to me very decent quality.

Next I tried an Apple iPad 2. Again, it paired first time. I started BBC iPlayer and was able to watch a recent broadcast with excellent sound over hi-fi speakers. A Windows 8 tablet also worked well.

You can pair up to four devices, but only one at a time will be active. If the “wrong” device grabs the connection, turn Bluetooth off on that device. If you pair a fifth device, it will simply forget one of the other pairings.

So what didn’t work? Well, the StreamPort supports NFC Secure Simple Pairing, which means you can connect a device simply by tapping it. I tried with the NFC-enabled Xperia T and got the amusingly polite message, “Unfortunately content sharing has stopped.” I am not sure whether this should have worked, but I put the failure down to this being a relatively new protocol; perhaps it would work with the newer Xperia Z. Note that Apple devices do not currently support NFC at all.

I also experienced very occasional audible stuttering, which is unfortunate, though most of the time everything was fine. Still, this could be annoying. I heard it on music on the iPad and on the Windows tablet, but BBC iPlayer was fine. I guess it may depend on the underlying bitrate and how much data is being transferred. I am reluctant to pin the blame on the StreamPort; rather, it is a common problem with Bluetooth audio, it may or may not be something you experience, and shows that the implementation of the standard (or the drivers) on devices has a little way to go before it is rock-solid everywhere.

Is the quality as good as it is through a cable? Generally not, though how noticeable the loss of quality is in the realm of “it depends”. It is a digital connection, so in some circumstances (if the analogue output is poor) it could be better.

Bear in mind that if you are using a mobile device as the source, you are probably not looking for the best possible sound quality; but you will probably be pleasantly surprised by how good it can sound.

The actual quality will depend first, on the quality of the source, and second, on what audio protocol the source negotiates with the StreamPort. Bayan states that best quality will be from Bluetooth devices that support aptX compressed audio. The protocol used is generally invisible to the user, so all you will notice is how good it sounds. Generally a more recent device will sound better. At a minimum, your Bluetooth source has to support version 2.1 and the A2DP profile, otherwise it will not work at all.

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In the box is the StreamPort, two audio connection cables, a USB cable for power, a USB mains adaptor, and a brief manual.

Two final thoughts. One is that Apple has its own AirPlay system for wireless audio; but thanks to the rise of Android we are seeing more Bluetooth audio devices coming on the market. Since Apple devices work with Bluetooth audio, but Android and other devices do not work with AirPlay, this is an obvious response to demand.

Second, it is reasonable to expect Bluetooth audio to be built into an increasing proportion of new playback equipment. Of course, in this case you will not need the StreamPort. It is not that common yet though, which makes the StreamPort a handy accessory. Recommended.

Review: Olympus LS-14 24/96 audio recorder with Tresmic mic

The Olympus LS-14 is a portable digital recorder with integrated microphones. It supports recording at up to 96 kHz/24 bit. Although you might not hear much difference between this and CD quality (44.1 kHz/16-bit), the higher resolution is still worth it if you want to do any post-processing, as it gives you some headroom for processing without audible loss of quality.

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In the box is the recorder, a combined stand/clip which screws into the device (the screw hole is also the right size for direct tripod mounting), a zipped bag of reasonable quality, the usual USB cable, getting started manual, and batteries.

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The unit feels well made, though after a couple of days some plastic broke off the head of the bolt that attaches the clip. Glued back and seems OK, but annoying.

In the Olympus range, the LS-14 falls between the pro LS-100 with multi-track recording and XLR connectors, and the budget LS-12 which is similar to the LS-14 but with only 2GB internal storage and lacking some features like the third microphone.

There is a brief getting started manual, but I recommend you connect to a computer and copy the detailed manual from the internal storage as otherwise some features are a little perplexing (I thought the metronome feature was broken at first).

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The device seems well made but is not particularly small by today’s standards: 52.5 x 138.7 x 23.5mm. Not really bulky, but seems large compared to my Philips voice recorder, for example.

The most notable feature is the third microphone, which sits in the centre on the end of the unit. Olympus calls this the Tresmic mic, and it is the recording equivalent of a subwoofer, capturing low frequencies that would otherwise be missed.

The quoted frequency response of the internal mics is 20Hz – 20kHz with the Tresmic mic, or 60Hz – 20kHz without.

Unfortunately the level of the third mic is not separately controllable, though you can switch it off, and I found the bass tended to be excessive with it engaged. On the other hand, if you want to capture those low sounds you will be grateful for it, and I guess you can tweak the EQ later.

Recording formats range from 64kbps mono MP3, if you want to record for many hours and don’t care about the quality, to 96/24 PCM which will fill up your 4GB internal storage rather fast (about 1.5 hrs). Still, you will want this for pro recording.

There are three recording modes. In Smart mode, you press record, it spends 30 seconds adjusting the level automatically, and then starts recording. In Manual mode, you press record, adjust the level using the on-screen meters, then press record again to start. In Quick mode, you press record and it start, using the current levels.

There are a couple of extra features. In tuner mode, you can use the device to tune an instrument. It shows the note you are playing and whether it is sharp or flat. In Metronome mode, which only works during a recording, two lights flash and a tick sounds through the earphone output; you can adjust the timing of the beat.

On the right-hand side of the unit are microphone (with plug-in power) and line-in inputs, as well as an SD card slot (up to 32 GB). On the left-hand side is the USB connector, headphone out, and input for a receiver for the optional wireless remote.

Using the settings, you can set mic sensitivity, limiter (automatic level control) and a low-cut filter at 100Hz or 300Hz.

There is also a pre-recording feature. In this mode, the unit is constantly recording, and when you press Record it will capture the previous two seconds.

Various editing features are supported, such as trimming and dividing files, though since you are more likely to edit on a computer these are of limited value in my opinion. You can also overdub a file, provided it is in 14.1/16-bit format, though again, why not record the new track separately and combine on a computer later?

So how is the sound? In my tests, excellent, thanks to the high quality of the integrated microphones and electronics. It compared well to a decent external Sony mic, though that sounded good too with not too much noise from the mic preamp. That said, as noted above, personally I preferred the sound without the Tresmic mic which is rather a waste of the most distinctive feature of the LS-14.

I made some samples so you can hear the impact of the Tresmic mic for yourself:

Internal with 2 mics

Internal with 3 mics

External mic

Olympus states a maximum external sound pressure of 130 db making this suitable for recording live concerts; set the sensitivity to low and adjust the levels carefully.

The LS-14 microphones are rather sensitive to wind, so beware using it as a hand-held microphone or outside. No windjammer accessory is currently listed, though maybe the one for the LS-100 would work; test before you buy!

It is worth noting that the built-in microphones form a significant part of what you are paying for in the LS-14, so if you intend to use an external mic most of the time it is not good value. I am conflicted on this. I prefer external mics, partly because you can choose the right mic for the purpose, and partly because built-in mics inevitably pick up noises if you operate or handle the unit while recording. On the other hand, having a single device is convenient and that sometimes counts for more.

The supplied batteries are not rechargeable, though Olympus quote recording time of 43-46 hours which is not too bad. You can use the USB port for external power. I would have preferred rechargeable batteries and USB charging.

A somewhat hidden feature: you can change the USB connection type to “composite” in which case you can use it with your PC as a USB microphone. Probably not that useful.

For certain types of usage, I think this device is great. For example, you could use it to record school concerts, your live band or music rehearsals. The high quality microphones and high-res PCM format mean you will get great results, though I am wary of the Tresmic mic as mentioned above; try it with or without.

It is also handy as a high-quality recorder for things like capturing vinyl records to digital and works well with external microphones.

Negatives? A little bulky, sensitive to wind noise, batteries not rechargeable, and Tresmic mic prone to make boomy recordings. None of these are showstoppers, but worth noting.