Monthly Archives: July 2013

Dragon Notes Review: quick voice to text for Windows 8, but is it good enough?

When I saw that Nuance had released a Dragon Notes app for Windows 8 I was intrigued for two reasons.

First, I am interested in tracking the health of the app market for Windows 8, and an app from a company as well respected as Nuance is worth looking at.

Second, I have great respect for the Dragon Dictate application for speech to text. Dragon Dictate is superb; indispensable if you cannot use a keyboard for some reason, and valuable even if you can, whether to fend off RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or to help transcribe an interview. If Notes is based on the same engine, it could be very useful.

I installed it for review and was intrigued to find that it is not a real Windows 8 app, installed from the Windows Store. Rather, it is a desktop app designed to look superficially like Metro, the touch-friendly user interface in Windows Store apps. That said, the effect is rather odd since it does not run full screen or support the normal gestures and conventions, like settings in the Charms menu.

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Still, it is mostly touch-friendly. I say “mostly” because occasionally it departs from the Metro-style user interface and reverts to something more like desktop-style – like these small and ugly buttons in the delete confirmation dialog:

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This is sloppy design; look at the lack of margin around the button captions, the childish “No Way!”, and the fact that these buttons are smaller than they should be for comfortable touch control.

In the main part of the user interface the design remains poor. The font size is too small and there appears to be no way to change it. “Settings” lets you access Help, select language, connect to Twitter and Facebook, and register the product. That is all.

The big question though: how well does it work? Dragon Notes is different from Dragon Dictate, in that there is no voice training; it just does its best with whatever voice it hears.

Notes are easy to make; just tap Record, and tap again (or stop talking) to finish. You can transcribe for a maximum of 30 seconds, though you can also append to an existing note.

My initial results on a Surface Pro tablet, using the built-in microphone, were dire. Hardly any words were recognised. Before giving up though, I had a look at the microphone settings and made a recording using Sound Recorder. The result was a distorted mess, and I do not blame Dragon Notes for making no sense of it. I changed the levels in Windows, reducing the “Microphone Boost” until the level was reasonable but not distorted.

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The improvement in Dragon Notes was dramatic. Speaking a simple note slowly and carefully I could get almost perfect accuracy.

I attached a high quality Plantronics headset and tried Wordsworth’s Daffodils:

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Not bad, but not perfect either. (I did dictate “over” rather than “o’er” as the latter is just too difficult for Dragon).

Here is one of my efforts with the built-in microphone:

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Again, not that bad, but not something you could use without editing.

And that could be a problem. In the full Dragon Dictate you can use commands like “Select Fattening” and then select a correction, or repeat the word, or spell it. The only commands in Dragon Notes are for basic punctuation, posting to Facebook and Twitter, sending in an email, or searching the web.

This last is fun when it works. Tap to record, speak a word or phrase, then when it is recognised say “Search the web”.

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Summary: simple voice to text that works somewhat, terrible user interface design but basic enough that you will not struggle to use it.

Imitating a Metro user interface is a mistake; it is neither one thing nor the other. It is a shame Nuance did not do a proper Windows Store app.

That aside, how useful is this? It all hinges on the quality of the voice recognition, which will vary according to your voice, your microphone, and the quietness of your surroundings.

In the worst case it will be useless. In the best case, I can see some value in dictating a quick note rather than struggling to type with the on-screen keyboard, presuming you are in fact using a tablet.

It would help though if Dragon would record your voice as well as transcribing it, so that if the text is not intelligible you can later refer back to the recording.

A lot of the time you will end up having to edit the note with the keyboard to fix problems, which lessens its value.

Plenty of potential here, but with sloppy fake Metro design and features that are too limited it cannot yet be recommended.

More information on Dragon Notes is here.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus capture and streaming device

Hauppauge’s HD PVR 2 is a video capture device. The idea is that you connect it between a video source, such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and the TV or home theatre system you normally use. Instant pass-through means you can continue to play games as normal, provided that the HD PVR 2 is powered up.

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At the same time, the HD PVR 2 outputs the sound and video to a PC or Mac via USB. Capture software running on the computer lets you save your gaming session to disk, or broadcast it to a live streaming service like twitch.tv so that your followers can watch you gaming triumphs and tragedies in real time, complete with voiceover commentary if you feel inclined to provide it.

I reviewed the original HD PVR 2 here. The Gaming Edition Plus has several new features:

  • Mac software is provided in the box, whereas before it was extra cost
  • An optical audio input is provided, so you can get surround-sound from a PS3
  • Updated software now includes StreamEez for live streaming of the captured video

In addition, whether because of firmware or driver updates, I found the HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus generally less troublesome than the earlier model.

In the box

Kudos to Hauppauge for supplying a generous collection of cables.

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Along with the software CD and a getting started leaflet, you get a USB cable, two HDMI cables, a 5-way special cable for connecting component video and stereo audio to the A/V input on the unit, and an adapter cable in case you prefer to use standard RCA cables for component video and audio.

The reason for both HDMI and component support is that the HD PVR 2 only works with unencrypted HDMI signals. This means it works with HDMI from the Xbox 360 but not from the PS3. In cases where unencrypted HDMI is not available, you will use the component option.

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In order to get 5.1 surround sound without HDMI, you will need the optical in for audio.

The HD PVR2 itself is relatively compact. The snap below shows it with a CD so you can get a sense of the size.

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Setup and usage

Setup is a matter of first making all the connections, including the USB connection to your computer, and then installing the software and drivers from the supplied CD.

There are two primary applications. One is Hauppauge Capture. You can use this to capture video in .TS (H.264) format, do basic editing, export videos to MP4, upload videos to YouTube, and stream to twitch.tv or Ustream. You can add a personal logo to your videos via Settings.

Capture is at a maximum of 1080p at 30fps, or you can downscale as needed.

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The other supplied application is ArcsSoft TotalMedia ShowBiz 3.5. This can also also capture directly from the HD PVR 2, and in fact the documentation seems to steer you towards using ShowBiz rather than Hauppauge Capture. The ShowBiz editor has more features, including basic transition effects, storyboard and timeline, lettering, and upload to YouTube or export to file.

Setup was straightforward, though note that passthrough does not work until you have selected the video and audio input in settings on the PC. Once set, you can turn off or disconnect the computer and it continues to work.

Both applications worked well in my tests. While passthrough seems instant, there is a significant delay before video is captured, which is disorientating at first. I did experience occasional glitches. On one occasion the capture failed several minutes into a longer recording for no reason that I can see, but it seemed to be a one-off.

What about streaming to twitch.tv? I was excited to try this, and impressed by the ease of setup. Login is built into the capture application.

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However I discovered that my ADSL broadband connection was too slow for live streaming and although I could see that the connection was working, the image simply stuttered and broke up.

Live streaming is also demanding on your hardware. See this thread for a discussion of the requirements.

In other words, for successful video capture any modern PC or Mac should work fine, but do not assume live streaming will work unless you have the right hardware and broadband connection.

Conclusion

I was impressed by how reliable the HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus compared to the earlier version. If you want to get creative with video sourced from a gaming console, or any video source, you need a capture device, and this Hauppauge is an affordable and reliable choice. The supplied software is basic, but of course you can use other video editors like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere Pro with the files that you capture.

Recommended.

The HD PVR 2 costs around £130 – £150 in the UK. More details from the manufacturer’s website here.

DTS Headphone X surround sound from stereo is astonishing though Z+ music app disappoints

I first heard the DTS surround sound from stereo demo at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The technology is called Headphone X. It was astonishing. You went into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 theatre – it was in association with Qualcomm become some DTS technology is baked into the latest Snapdragon chipset – sat in a plush armchair, and donned stereo headphones.

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The next thing you knew, sound was coming from front left. Then front right. Then rear left. The illusion was amazing, and I was not the only one who removed their headphones temporarily to check that they really were the sole source of the sound.

I interviewed the DTS folk about the technology, and also spoke to the guys at Dolby. Nothing new, said the Dolby folk, we’ve had virtual surround sound for years. Yet, the demo at the Dolby stand fell far short of what DTS was showing.

Now you can try it, if you have an Android or iOS device. Download the Z+ app and listen to the demo.

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I tried this on someone today, and his “Wow!” reaction showed that the demo is still astonishing. You know it is an illusion, but it sounds as if you are seated in the middle of a room with five or more speakers.

If DTS has proved that surround sound from stereo is possible, what are the implications? Surround sound has not failed exactly, but its inconvenience has limited take-up. Many surround mixes of music albums are now hard to find, because they were made for long out of print SACD or DVD-Audio releases. What if you could easily download all these mixes and enjoy them with stereo headphones or earbuds?

An enticing thought, but there are caveats. The Z+ app, for example, is disappointing once you get beyond the demo. The only album it plays is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to the Superman film, Man of Steel. One track is included for free, and the others are in-app purchases. It sounds good, but the surround effect is less convincing than it is in the demo. I heard better music demos in Barcelona. I also get superior sound on the iPhone than on the iPad (it is an iPhone app), though I might be imagining it, and in both cases I get occasional stuttering, though that may be because I am not testing on the latest generation Apple hardware.

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An app that only plays one album is not a revolution in sound, and if this is to go mainstream, DTS needs to sell its technology to one of the major music download or streaming services and have it built-in to the client app. It has made a start, with its Qualcomm deal which is meant to be in shipping chipsets from “the second half of 2013” according to the information in Barcelona. My guess is that any problems with stuttering will be removed when there is hardware support.

How does it work? The DTS guys told that it “it’s psychoacoustics. You’re triggering the brain with responses that induce it to say, this is from here. It’s a combination of timing and frequency. That’s traditional virtualisation.” After that, they explained, they apply room acoustics that take the illusion to another level. This could be the room acoustic of the studio, achieving a holy grail for audio engineers, or that of the listener’s own room or a concert hall, for example. The room acoustic can be user-selectable, though this is not a feature of the current Z+ app.

There is a caveat that might upset hi-fi enthusiasts. Think about it. Virtual surround sound is delivered in stereo, which seems impossible, but then again we only have two ears. Our ears are designed to hear sounds more clearly if they are in front of us. Therefore, to simulate a sound coming from behind you, do you need to make it less clear?

I put this point to a guy from DTS, that parts of the music are in a sense deliberately distorted or muffled. “That occurs naturally by our head,” I was told. So is the fidelity of the sound reduced in order to achieve the surround illusion? “No differently than speakers in a surround system would do anyway,” he said.

Another caveat is that, by design, the system only works with headphones. Of course, if you have a full surround system in your room, you can play surround mixes in the normal way, turning to the DTS technology only for headphone listening. Headphones are also unable to recreate the effect of a sub-woofer which you can feel in your chest. “It’s a physical element. We’re not going to be able to replicate it,” said DTS.

Headphones are unbeatable though if you want to recreate the acoustic of a different room, such as the studio where the music was mixed. Further, for a mass market, delivering surround sound through a mobile device and standard earphones is the right approach.

The Z+ app is disappointing, but I would nevertheless encourage anyone with an interest in audio technology to download it and try the demo. Headphone X has huge potential and I shall follow its progress with interest.

Review: Acer Iconia W3 with Windows 8.1 Preview

Attendees at Microsoft’s Build conference last month were given an Acer Iconia W3 tablet, presumably because it is the earliest examples of Windows 8 on an 8″ tablet. I find it hard to assess; it seems good value but is a frustrating device.

The specs in summary:

  • Processor: Intel Atom Z2760 1.50 GHz Dual-core
  • Memory: 2GB
  • Storage: 64GB SSD
  • Card slot: MicroSD up to 64 GB
  • Display: 8.1″ Active Matrix TFT Colour LCD WXGA 1280 x 800
  • Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD, shared memory
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Ports: HDMI, Micro USB, headset/speaker jack
  • Cameras: Front and rear
  • Microphone: Yes
  • Battery: 2-cell Li-Polymer 6800 mAh
  • Size and weight: 11.4 x 134.9 x 219 mm, 500g
  • Price: Around £350 or $430

Since this is an x86 device, it comes with full Windows 8.x, not the locked-down Windows RT edition. My guess is that Acer did this because Windows RT has been a hard sell, thanks to the poor selection of Windows Store apps on offer, indifferent performance, and confusion among customers when they discover that none of their existing Windows apps will run.

On the other had, do you really want full desktop Windows on an 8.1″ device? I view it with mixed feelings. Technically it runs well, and means that you have amazing capability in a small and highly portable device. The case against is that desktop Windows is designed neither for touch, nor to run on such a small screen. In order to use it, you need good eyesight and ideally a keyboard and mouse. The mouse is especially important, since targeting small desktop icons with fingers (at which I have become quite adept on larger Windows slates) is a real challenge on this tiny display.

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There is a matching Bluetooth keyboard/dock (included in the picture above) which is available for around $80 and which was also handed out at Build. The underside of the keyboard forms a kind of case.

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I am typing this review, naturally, on this very keyboard, and I am would not want to tackle it with only the on-screen keyboard. It feels cheap and plastic though, and I saw one Build delegate struggling with a broken key after only a day of use. Keyboards are quite delicate (some more than others), and arguably it would make more sense to protect the keyboard with the tablet, than the tablet with the keyboard.

Another issue is that the Bluetooth keyboard does not include a trackpad, perhaps because it would require a docking connector rather than just Bluetooth. However as mentioned above, the lack of a mouse is equally troublesome in desktop Windows. Therefore I have plugged in a USB mouse in order to work on this review.

Of course, once you have loaded your bag with keyboard and mouse as well as tablet, you begin to wonder whether a conventional laptop would have been easier. I admire Microsoft’s Surface design, where the keyboard cover does include a trackpad, and where the keys on the Type cover are folded inside the cover and therefore protected in your bag. The Surface Pro is far more expensive, but Surface RT not so much, and I suggest that Surface RT is a more satisfying product despite its locked-down desktop, especially with Windows 8.1 which includes Outlook.

The Iconia W3 also has a grainy screen. It is usable, but the worst screen I have seen for a while, and not helped by a high-gloss reflective surface.

Annoyance number three is the micro USB port. Few devices expect to find micro USB on the PC side, so you will need an adaptor. The Build handout included one, but I suspect this is not in the box by default. Even with an adaptor though, it is a nuisance, though I appreciate the difficulty in including a USB A port on a slim device like this.

Performance is no more than so-so, which is what you would expect from the Atom CPU. On SunSpider 1.0, for example, with IE11, the W3 scores 671.5ms, better than Surface RT at 1029.2ms but behind Surface Pro at 209ms. I think it is good enough for a device of this kind.

The device does get uncomfortably hot though, in an area at back right which I presume is close to the CPU.

The W3 does have its plus points. Battery life is good, Office Home Premium is included in the price, and it is what it claims to be: a small tablet capable of running full desktop Windows. That means you can use VLC to watch videos on a flight, or Live Writer for writing blog posts, or FileZilla for FTP, or Putty for SSH, to mention a few utilities that I miss on Windows RT.

Making sense of this device means reversing your thinking about Windows. You should plan to spend most of your time in the “Modern” tablet user interface, while occasionally dipping into the desktop. If that mode of working makes sense for you, and you want an 8.1″ device, the Iconia W3 is a reasonable purchase. Take note of all the caveats though. A close look at this device makes you realise why Microsoft embarked on the Surface project.

Bing Maps app on Windows 8: rubbish compared to Bing Maps on the web

I have been looking at the Bing Maps app on Windows 8 and 8.1 (it is the same).

It is surprising how poor it is. The web version is better, which is odd because you would have thought they used the same data.

Here is what I get from the app if I search for public transport between Derby and Birmingham (on a direct rail route):

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Bing Maps on the web has no problem with this:

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Here is another random example. Bing maps app cannot find Dubrovnik airport. A search only finds Dubrovnik.

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Oddly, if you know where the airport is, it is in fact marked on the map.

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Web app: no problem:

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If Microsoft wants Windows 8 tablets to succeed, glaring problems like this need fixing. Before the release of Windows 8.1 later this year.

Virtual Reality with Oculus Rift

I tried these on during Microsoft’s Build conference, at the Xamarin party. No, it is not me in the picture.

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No, it’s not Microsoft’s answer to Google Glass. Rather, it is the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality headset funded by a Kickstarter project that achieved nearly 10 times its original goal.

Unfortunately it is hard to photograph, but what you get is a view of a 3D virtual world which responds to the turn of your head. The added realism is extraordinary, even though the current model shows a slightly pixelated screen; this will apparently be fixed for the first commercial release.

There is one snag with the Rift, which is the urge to move around by walking. Not too good in as you will soon hit the wall. The developers have thought of this, and I saw a picture of a walking platform, where you walk on the spot and sensors pick up your direction of virtual travel. Unfortunately my guess is that such a platform will fail the “conveniently fits in the living room” test.

It will not necessarily be the Oculus Rift; but virtual reality is so compelling that its time must surely come. It would be utterly great with more movement sensors so that you could climb walls, engage in sword fights and so on.

Wearing a great big headset is unsocial though as the point is to immerse yourself in a virtual world. Looking like an idiot also comes with the territory. Hit or miss? Not sure.