Monthly Archives: November 2013

First thoughts on Xbox One: difficult to recommend right now

I received an Xbox One on launch day last week.

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I ordered this because I am interested in tracking Microsoft, and because I have had a lot of fun from the Xbox 360 and its predecessor, the original Xbox.

In the box you get the console, power brick, the new Kinect sensor, a single controller, a headset, and several leaflets including a pointless Day One “achievement” and a code to download FIFA 14.

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Setup is a matter of connecting an HDMI cable to your TV or, in my case, a receiver, and the Kinect to its special port. I also connected an ethernet cable.

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Finally I connected a digital TV PVR to the HDMI in. This enables the TV app on the Xbox One.

First impressions of the hardware are good. It looks elegant and feels well made. The controller is lovely to hold. The Kinect looks solid and sits comfortably in front of our TV.

I looked in vain for any specifications in the box. From other sources I believe the Xbox One has:

  • AMD chipset with 8 CPU cores at 1.75 GHz and 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 500 GB hard drive
  • AMD GPU with 768 cores supporting up to 3840×2160 (2160p) graphics.
  • Blu-ray drive
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11n wifi
  • HDMI out, HDMI in, 2 USB 3.0 ports, S/P DIF optical audio out.
  • 7.1 surround sound

First impressions of the software are so-so. It began by downloading a firmware update, which went quickly enough. However that was just the start. The Xbox One dashboard uses an app model; almost everything is an app. Each app has to be downloaded and installed, including the Blu-ray player, Xbox Music, Skype and so on. Even the system settings is an app.

I made the mistake of registering my free download of FIFA 14 as one of the first things I did. The download is huge, and while it proceeded most of the other functionality showed as “Queuing”.

I expected to be wowed by some gorgeous effects in the new dashboard, but in fact the design is rather pedestrian. It is a tiled user interface but not quite the same as Windows 8. The dashboard features a larger tile which represents the currently selected app. This may be a live preview in some cases, TV for example. You can select this to run full screen, or you can have a snap view which shows a secondary app running alongside.

The dashboard overall feels rather spartan, especially to begin with when nothing much has been downloaded.

All of this contributed to an overall out of box experience of “is that it?”

I remember unpacking the original Nintendo Wii, running the Sports game, and having an amazing time. By contrast getting started with Xbox One was rather drab.

There is a video store where you can buy or rent downloads. I tried a few previews which show in extremely poor quality, which I trust bears no comparison to what you get if you actually pay. It beats me why you would show worse-than-VHS previews of movies when trying to tempt people into paying for a download.

There there is Kinect. I have mixed feelings. First, it really is amazing. It feels like a huge step forward from the original Kinect. I downloaded Kinect Sports Rivals preview, which lets you ride a water racer where you clench your fist to accelerate and move invisible handlebars to steer. It works perfectly even when you are seated. Technically that is a huge achievement.

At the same time I have to say that I would rather use a controller. Are we ever going to get equally precise control with motion sensors, compared to what you get with a controller? If it is a bowling game, motion sensors do make sense, but for controlling a water racer I am not so sure.

I am looking forward to trying the fitness app, but currently I a get a log-in failure with a message “unable to connect to token service”. It could be a firewall issue. Annoying.

Voice control is another big feature. Again, I have mixed feelings. It works for the most part very well. You say “Xbox select” and available options show in green text on the screen.

The main problem I have with the voice control is lack of consistency. I am willing to invest the time getting good at voice control, but only if I can do nearly everything with it. Unfortunately many apps are not voice enabled. So you can start the YouTube app with voice, for example, but not search within it.

I also worry that voice control will be a liability in some scenarios. Such fun to enter a room full of intense gamers and say “Xbox Go Home”.

It is getting there though, and worth some effort just to be able to go into a room, say “Xbox play Miles Davis” and have it be so.

That brings me to Xbox Music. It seems pretty good for streaming from Microsoft’s service, but not for much else. In my case I have a huge library of music ripped from CD and would like to be able to play it on the Xbox One. Rumour said that there would be support for DLNA streaming but I cannot see any sign of it.

FIFA 2014 looks good though football games are not so much my thing. I do miss having a little leaflet with a quick guide to the controls; a downside of download games.

There are not many games available and some are extraordinarily expensive, £68.99 for Dead Rising Deluxe Edition for example.

The YouTube app is nicely done and a good way to while away time, lack of voice search aside.

There are occasional Windows-like annoyances. You start the console, it says “Hello Tim” and you think you are signed in. You open Xbox Music and it says you must sign in. You select to sign in and you get another screen saying you should sign in. Then you sign in and it works.

There is a lot more Windows in Xbox One than in its predecessor. The SkyDrive app lets you view your uploaded photos which is handy. Internet Explorer is there and works reasonably with voice control, but lack of Flash is a big problem given that multimedia is important in the kind of web browsing you are likely to do on a TV.

So what do I think? On the plus side, the hardware seems excellent. I like the new controller. I like the Blu-ray support. I like the YouTube app.

The sad thing though is that as of now an Xbox 360 is a lot more fun, with its rich array of available games, and mature dashboard and apps.

Lack of any backward compatibility is a disaster at this point in the new console’s lifecycle. It is also disappointing that you cannot yet install Windows 8 apps, which would have instantly provided an array of reasonably priced casual games.

Populate XBox One with some strong games and apps, give the dashboard a bit more polish, and it could be really good. As it stands though, I find this hard to recommend. This is a long-term worry, since it gives the competition a head start from which the One may never recover.

Microsoft also needs to be a little less greedy in terms of pushing its subscription services and give us more fun out of the box.

Kinect is the major differentiator, and we will have to watch this space. The technology is amazing but where are the stunning and delightful games or apps that take advantage of it? Whether or not these will arrive is a big unknown.

Microsoft Surface 2: still a hard sell at retail

I am a fan of Microsoft’s Surface 2; but looking at the display at Dixons in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 it is obvious that Microsoft has work to do in terms of retail presence.

There are no clues here as to why anyone might want to buy a Surface, and no indication that Surface 2 runs anything other than standard Windows 8, other than the two letters RT which you can read on the spec summary.

Windows RT is both better and worse than Windows on Intel. It is worse because you cannot install new desktop applications, but it is better because it is locked down and less likely to suffer from viruses or annoying OEM add-ons and customisations that usually result in a worse user experience.

Why did Microsoft not come up with a distinctive brand name for RT, such as AppWindows or StoreWindows or WinBook? I am open to negotiation should Microsoft wish to use one of my brand ideas :-)

Surface 2 has excellent performance, Microsoft Office is bundled including Outlook (though without the ability to run Visual Basic macros), and it is expandable using Micro SD cards or USB 3.0 devices, all features I miss when using an Apple iPad.

I do use the desktop a lot on Surface 2. Simple applications like Paint and Notepad are useful especially since they have, you know, cool resizable and overlapping windows so you can have multiple applications on view.

The Apple iPad is better displayed and I am sure its greater prominence is more than justified by relative sales.

 

Asus Transformer Book Trio combines Windows and Android – but what is it for?

Microsoft has one idea about how to combine desktop Windows with a tablet OS: mash them together into a single operating system and call it Windows 8.

Asus has another idea. Put Windows in the keyboard dock, Android in the tablet, and allow the tablet to be docket to form a Windows or Android laptop.

This is the Transformer Book Trio, just launched and on sale from 11 November 2013 at £899.99.

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All my instincts say this a terrible idea. Let Windows be Windows and Android Android, do not try to combine them.

Trying the machine though I found it was good fun. Just press the little Android button and it switches.

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and it becomes an Android laptop:

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The dock mechanism is a bit ugly but looks robust:

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There is the question still: what will you do with the keyboard when not in use? In a home context that is not a problem, but when on the road I find the most convenient place to keep a detachable keyboard is to attach it, making it more of a laptop than a tablet in practice.

Having two computers in one gives you a few options, which I did not have time to explore in detail. As I understand it, you can share storage in order to open a document prepared in Windows on Android, for example, and with two batteries there is scope for charging one from the other.

This is two separate computers though. It should really be called Duo, but Asus calls it Trio on the grounds that you can use it as a laptop or a desktop machine, with an external display.

The PC runs an Intel Core i5 4200U, and has 4GB RAM and 500GB hard drive. The display is 1920 x 1080 and supports capacitive 10-point multi-touch. Connectivity includes 802.11ac (dual-band) wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 2 USB 3.0 ports, Mini DisplayPort, and Micro-HDMI 1.4.

The tablet has an Intel Atom Z2560 with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage. Connectivity includes   802.11n (2.4GHz), Bluetooth 3.0, Micro-USB 2.0, microSD card slot.

Fun then; but what is the use case for this machine? This is where I am still having difficulty. It is somewhat expensive (though with a Core i5 performance is decent), and I have a hunch that users will end up sticking with one or the other OS most of the time – probably Windows given the price.

Oddly, it would make more sense to me to have a high-end Android device with the ability to run Windows when needed. This would address the case where a user wants to migrate to Android but occasionally needs a Windows app.

Brief hands on with new Asus Windows 8.1 T100 tablet – or should that be netbook?

Asus has launched two new tablets in the UK.

This one is the 10.1″ T100 has an Intel Atom “Bay Trail” Z3740 quad-core processor. The display is 1366 x 768 and supports capacitive multi-touch.

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You press a release button under the display to detach it from the keyboard, whereupon it becomes a tablet. This approach, it is now generally agreed, is better than a screen which twists over, since it gives you a reasonably thin and lightweight (550g) tablet rather one that is bulky and odd to hold. However, there is still the question of what you are going to do with the keyboard once detached, and I have a suspicion that these machines are likely to be almost permanently attached to the keyboard making them similar to netbooks.

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Microsoft’s Surface overcomes this to some extent, especially with the Touch keyboard cover that folds underneath and adds little weight or bulk.

On the other hand, the T100 strikes me as good value at £349.99 (which includes the keyboard dock), especially bearing in mind that Office Home and Student is bundled (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, but no Outlook).

The T100 comes with 2GB RAM and 32GB eMMC storage. Connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.0, Micro-USB, Micro-HDMI, MicroSD slot, and a USB 3.0 port in the docking keyboard.

I tried the T100 briefly. I was impressed with the performance; Word and Excel opened quickly and overall it feels quick and responsive. I did not like the keyboard much; it felt slightly spongy, but at this price a few weaknesses can be forgiven.

The tablet Windows key is not under the screen as with most Windows 8 tablets, but a button on the side. What looks like the Windows key in the above snap is inactive, and that logo will not show on the production units.

Microsoft’s Xbox One almost invisible at Gadget Show Live

I looked in on London’s Gadget Show Live this morning. It was the usual frustrating experience: the things that were interesting were surrounded by hordes of visitors so you could barely get a look.

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Here is what I found curious. Microsoft is the lead sponsor, but the Xbox One was shown only on a tiny stand near the back of the hall. Here it is – all of it.

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By contrast, Sony had a huge stand for PlayStation 4. Apologies; my snap does not show the scale well.

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That said, Microsoft had its own massive stand, but for Windows, with a strong push for Surface tablets and a reasonable presence for Windows Phone.

However, if you look at the demographic of the show, with lots of kids even on a Friday, it is better suited to gaming consoles than to relatively expensive tablets – though to be fair, the Windows tablets seemed to be attracting a fair amount of attention.

I had a chat with a guy from Sonos at its stand. Will Sonos support high resolution formats (better then CD quality)? This is almost a trick question as I’m not sure you can hear the difference; but there is nevertheless strong demand for it in the slightly crazy world of high-end audio. Apparently there are ways to do it now, but the Sonos engineers are working at bringing full support into the range.

Sonos has apps for iOS and Android; what if I have a Windows Phone? No support yet but again I got the impression that this is being looked at. There is a public API so third-party support is also possible. They appear also to be considering a Windows 8 store app though nothing is confirmed.

Panasonic had a rather lovely 4K display running full resolution video – only £5,499 – as well as a 3D display which looked great though it requires glasses. Don’t bother with 4K unless you have a 42″ or bigger screen, I was told by a Panasonic guy.

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I also watched a bit of Gadget Show Live in the Super Theatre. Sorry, but I thought it was dreadful. Little innovation on show, slightly risqué humour despite the presence of many kids in the audience – “I’ve got a new girlfriend, you should see her Nokias” said a robot comedian, for example. I may be in a minority as the show overall seemed to go down OK.

Talking of the robot comedian, it was controlled by a Windows 8 tablet strapped to its back. After three or four jokes something went wrong and it had to be controlled manually, reducing the robot to little more than a fancy powered loudspeaker. Never mind.

High end home entertainment with a Cornflake flavour

Tucked away on a side street off London’s Tottenham Court Road is The Cornflake Shop, which appeared back in the Eighties to sell high-end audio equipment with a more considered service than was available from the multitude of hi-fi shops which, at the time, thronged the main road.

Since that time the audio industry has changed and many dealers have struggled or closed. Hi-fi today, for most people, means an iPhone dock or a set of powered speakers. Despite those challenges, on a recent visit to London I was interested to see that the Cornflake Shop lives on; in fact, they have just opened a new showroom called the Art of Technology, Realised and whose window declares “The Smart App-artment”.

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I could not resist a visit. Inside it has a striking animated graphic projected on the wall and framed artefacts – a typewriter, an old tape recorder.

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I chatted with them about the state of the audio industry and was told that the their business had transitioned to something more like automating the home, but still with a strong element of home entertainment; they aim to have every installation include a fine music system. However they will still sell you just a CD player or a pair of loudspeakers if you ask, and now intend to renew their focus on high-end audio alongside the other things they do.

Go downstairs and a series of subterranean showrooms demonstrate various home environments.

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The back room, if that is the right word, is amazing; racks of networking gear, home entertainment controllers, music and video servers. They use Sonos for multi-room audio and Kaleidoscope, which lets you legally rip Blu-Ray to a server, for video.

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Would someone really have something like this in their home, I asked? Oh yes was the answer.

Then it was time to listen to some music. These striking Martin Logan loudspeakers from the Reserve ESL series combine electrostatic drivers for the mid-range and treble with a conventional sub-woofer.

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Spot the valve amplifier. What on earth are valves doing in an ultra-modern home entertainment setup? The answer is simply that they like the sound. There is an element of retro here.

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We played a couple of tracks, selected from an iPad app, and a music video, for which a large screen slid elegantly into view. It sounded good but I did not stay long enough to be able to comment in detail.

The Cornflake Shop always had its own individualistic and slightly quirky approach and it is great to see that this continues. You will get something stylish for your money that will deliver high quality home entertainment. But how much back-end kit do you need in the modern home? If you are looking for the minimum amount of wires and the smallest amount of equipment, this might not be the place for you.