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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.

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: Edifier Spinnaker e30 Multimedia Speakers

Now these are smart. A pair of three-way active speakers shaped like spinnakers, with Bluetooth 2.1 support so you can use them without wires. I think wireless is the future of home audio, so high quality devices like this catch my interest. You come home, pull out your smartphone, press play and sweet music fills the living room.

The e30s have a wireless controller too, a bulbous device which gives out an other-worldly red glow from its base. Twist to set the volume, tap the top to turn on or switch input. Is this all you need?

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Here is a closer look. Each speaker stands around just over 400mm high. At the base they are about the size of a CD (remember them?), tapering to a point at the top. The speaker units are of plastic construction, mostly covered with acoustically transparent cloth, and with an aluminium protrusion at the base to give additional stability and a way of tidying the cables.

The right-hand speaker is the master, and has four connections:

  • Power in
  • Combined analogue/digital input
  • Subwoofer out
  • Connector for left-hand speaker

Internally, there are three drivers in each speaker, comprising a silk-dome tweeter, a 70mm mid-range unit, and a 116mm woofer. There appear to be six channels of amplification, one for each driver, rated at 10w RMS for the tweeter, 10w for the mid-range, and 25w for the bass, quoted per channel. Frequency response is quoted at 68Hz-20KHz +/- 3dB; good for speakers of this size, though for faithful low-frequency reproduction you will need to use that subwoofer connection.

Modes of operation

The Spinnakers are pretty flexible when it comes to connections. The analogue input is a standard 3.5mm jack which you can connect to any external player, such as a computer, an iPod, an Airport Express, or a CD player. This input doubles as an optical digital input, which I tested at 16/44 (standard CD resolution) without any issues. Alternatively you can use Bluetooth, with support for A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), which means that most modern tablets or smartphones will be able to play audio to the speakers. No worries about dock connector types or Apple’s proprietary AirPlay wireless system.

A possible scenario then is to have the speakers permanently wired to a computer or another source such as a Squeezebox or Sonos unit. Then you can use Bluetooth for convenience, and the wired source for best quality.

An obvious position for the speakers is either side of a desktop computer, but they are good enough to sit in the living room too, particularly when boosted with a subwoofer.

Setup

After unpacking the speakers, the first task is to charge the wireless controller using the supplied USB cable. Next, connect the power, connect the speakers to each other, and optionally connect to a wired source.

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This task is more awkward than it should be, since there is limited space in the base of the speaker and you have the bend the cable back firmly in order to align each plug with its socket. Next, you have to feed the cables through channels in the base of the unit in order to stand the speaker up without it rocking.

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I found the cable tended to come away from the channels easily if you move the speaker so it is all a bit fiddly.

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Next, find the controller and turn the speakers on by holding down its central button. The controller works as follows:

  • Press and hold top button to turn on, cycle between inputs, or turn off.
  • Tap top button to mute/unmute audio
  • Rotate controller to change volume
  • Hold down button and rotate controller to skip track back or next

The current status is shown by a light at the top of the right-hand speaker, which shows off for off, blue for Bluetooth, green for analogue wired input, and red for optical digital input.

Bluetooth pairing is rather simple. Switch to the Bluetooth input, then search for a Bluetooth device on the unit you want to connect. Select the Edifier and you are done. To connect a different device, repeat.

Sound quality

The sound is impressive, especially if you listen in the sweet spot in the centre with the speakers in front of you. The quality is rich and refined, especially with a wired connection, but also enjoyable via Bluetooth. They also go loud, not enough for parties or to annoy the neighbours perhaps, but plenty loud enough for most listening. To put some numbers on that, I measured over 85 dB without any obvious distortion. Bass is a little lightweight, but not so much as to spoil enjoyment.

I tried attaching a subwoofer which rounded out the sound nicely. The subwoofer output covers the range 20Hz – 100Hz and is pre-filtered. One note of caution is that the the output socket has a narrow entrance and I had to try a couple of different cables before finding one that fitted properly; the ill-fitting cable rewarded me with a horrible noise.

If I put on an audiophile hat I can find fault with the sound. It is slightly sibilant, especially via Bluetooth. There is some smearing of detail compared to a high-end system, and a slight boxiness to the sound. Vocals are not quite as natural. But here I am comparing to a system that is many times the size and price. In context, the e30’s sound fine and I doubt any purchaser will be unhappy with the sound.

Annoyances

There are a few issues with the Spinnakers. The worst flaw is the way the cabling is handled, awkward to fit, and tricky to press firmly enough into the holders to prevent a slight rockiness in the right-hand speaker which cannot be good for the sound.

Next, I don’t much like the way the status light works. It is not that easy to see from a distance. A status light on the controller rather than on the speaker would be welcome.

Another factor, not an annoyance exactly, is that the speakers are on the large side for a desktop – and the manual recommends having them 1 meter away from a monitor or TV set – but they are on the small side when placed on the floor.

Conclusion

Despite a few nits, I like these speakers for their stylish appearance, high sound quality, and flexible connections. The price may seem high, but bear in mind that you are getting amplification as well as loudspeakers, and sound that is well beyond most powered speakers. Set these up on a table, place a tablet in between, and you have a rich audio and video experience. I also like the idea of using these for a living room system, if they suit your decor.

A subwoofer is not essential but takes the sound to another level, provided of course that the sub is of equal or better quality than the Spinnakers.

Recommended.

 

Review: X-mini KAI, a Bluetooth audio dock you can put in your pocket

X-mini makes a popular range of what it calls Capsule Speakers, the latest of which doubles as a wireless speakerphone for your mobile, thanks to Bluetooth connectivity. Essentially, your smartphone sees it as a Bluetooth headset.

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First though, a word or two about the distinctive design. In the box you get the X-mini KAI, a USB charging cable that also has an audio cable for play-as-you-charge, a handy soft drawstring bag, and a tiny instruction manual.

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The X-mini KAI measures around 6cm in diameter and 8cm high when expanded. However, you can also push down the concertina and twist left to lock, whereupon it is just 5cm high. You can play it in this mode, but it sounds pretty bad. Still, easily small enough to put in your pocket.

Fit and finish is OK but could be better. Locking the unit shut takes some force and is slightly awkward because of all the switches. The multiple switches and ports do slightly spoil the appearance of the device and are somewhat fiddly to use.

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So how does it work? First, charge it via any USB connection. It takes at least 2.5 hours to charge fully, for which you get up to 8 hours of playback.

Once charged, you can use the KAI in several different modes. There is a three-position switch. Centre is off, or push left for wired audio, or push right for Bluetooth.

In wired mode, you can use the short 3.5mm jack connector which is coiled neatly in the base to connect to a SmartPhone, iPod, MP3 player or any audio device, and play your music. There is no volume control on the KAI in this mode, just control it from the audio device.

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The sound is mono of course, but not bad at all. You have to be realistic about what you can get from such a small speaker, but it is far better than the tinny sound you will hear from built-in speakers on phones and tablets.

I used it with the Google Nexus tablet with success. The Nexus is excellent for portable entertainment, particularly if you hack it a little to support Adobe Flash. Combine it with the KAI and you get much better sound from Google Music, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and the like.

X-mini quotes speaker power of 2.5w, frequency response of 100 Hz – 18 kHz, and distortion of less than 0.3%. Unfortunately these figures are meaningless without qualification; frequency response for example should be quoted as plus or minus 3dB or some such.

Still, with devices like this it is the experience that counts, since we are not talking hi-fi exactly. The KAI is a lot of fun, punchy and clear, you can hear a little bit of bass, and transforms the sound on your mobile device into something you can actually enjoy without earphones.

I compared the KAI to my trusty Creative Labs TravelSound. I give the nod to the TravelSound on sound quality, though the KAI was not embarrassed. However, bear in mind that the TravelSound has two speakers, is too big for the average pocket, and eats batteries unless you also carry a mains adaptor with you. KAI wins on convenience.

You can also wire two or more KAIs together for better sound, though I was not able to try this.

Wireless sound

The KAI also works over Bluetooth as mentioned above. To get this working, you slide the Audio key to the right. Then go to your mobile device, enable Bluetooth, and search for available devices. All going well, it will find the KAI and connect. This worked fine for me on the Nexus and on a Nokia Lumia 800 Smartphone.

Once connected, audio plays back through the KAI. It is as simple as that, and although there is some theoretical loss of quality, I did not find this audible on a casual comparison. Your battery will run down a little faster on both devices, but other than that it works just the same.

What’s nice about the wireless connection is that you can move your mobile device around the room and playback is not interrupted. The range is given as up to 10 metres, by which time you will hardly hear the KAI whether or not it is maintaining the connection. I tested this by walking around and the results were good.

In wireless mode an additional control on the KAI comes into play. Press down to play or pause. Move briefly right or left for previous or next track. Move and hold right or left for volume adjustment.

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You can also use the KAI as a speakerphone, and I tested this with an incoming call. When you hear the ring, press down the control above to answer. The music will pause, and you will hear your caller through the KAI. You can end the call by pressing the same control.

The snag with the call though was that my caller said I was hard to hear. I could fix this by holding the KAI close to my mouth but this was disappointing.

There is a mute button on the device, but note that this does not mute your voice when in a call. Rather, it mutes the speaker in the same way as during any audio playback.

Summing up

This is a great little device, ideal if you want a very small and portable travel speaker that still sounds decent. Bear in mind though that the X-mini capsule speaker is also available in a wired-only form for around a quarter of the price, so you are paying a lot for the Bluetooth and speakerphone features.

The wireless audio works really well, but the microphone seems insufficiently sensitive when used as a speakerphone and I would not want to use it for conference calling. That is a shame since this is otherwise a compelling feature, unless I was unlucky with my sample.

The review unit was supplied by Phone4U and you can find it here, price at the time of writing £79.99.

Audyssey Lower East Side speakers: remarkable sound quality in a compact package complete with DAC

Audyssey is a US company best known for its audio processing technology, as found in high-end home cinema receivers and the like. Recently the company has turned its attention to home audio, and now has a range with a couple of iPod/iPhone audio docks and these powered speakers, engagingly named “Lower East Side” (LSE), this being a tribute to a Manhattan neighbourhood which Audyssey says is “the stomping ground for bands propelling cutting-edge music at venues like CBGB, ABC No Rio and Arlene’s Grocery.”

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Audyssey is a company with attitude. You can expect that:

  • Audio quality will be high
  • Design will be individualistic but clean and uncomplicated
  • Products are for the modern listener equipped with Apple devices and the like, no CD player in sight
  • Prices will be at the premium end of the market

On that last point: do not write these off as too expensive until you have heard them. Yes, they are expensive compared to say a pair of Creative Inspire T10s (about 20% of the price) or Gigaworks T20 (about one third the price). Bear in mind though that the LESs have a built-in DAC and sound good enough than with something like a Mac Mini and nothing more you have a respectable and very compact home audio system.

What’s in the box

Inside the sturdy box you will find two powered speakers with integrated metal stands, each around 23cm (9 in) high and 12.4 cm (4.9in) wide including the stand. There is also a chunky power supply, a 3.5mm audio cable, a further cable that connects the two speakers, and a quick-start manual.

Connections are simple. The right-hand speaker has both optical and analogue audio inputs, plus a power socket. It also has a speaker output which you connect to the left-hand speaker with the supplied cable.

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Now attach a device with an audio output, and play.

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On the front of the right-hand speaker you will find a volume control which also switches the unit between standby and on. You do this by depressing the control, so when you turn it back on the volume remains as it was last set – a thoughtful detail.

Sound quality

The sound quality is remarkable. The aspect that is most surprising is the bass: put simply, these speakers sound much larger than they really are. The bass is not bloated or boomy though, especially if you use the digital input which I recommend.

I played Sade’s song By Your Side from Lover’s Rock. This song is characterised by deep bass which contrasts with Sade Adu’s silky clear vocals. On lesser systems the whole thing turns to mush, but this sounds great on the LESs. So does Prodigy’s Voodoo People, which depends on pounding bass for its potency.

The Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue is well conveyed, with piano that sounds like piano, the bass melodies easy to follow, and breathy trumpet that transports you back to the fifties studio where it was recorded (I seldom hear modern recordings that sound as good).

Any flaws? Well, you need to be realistic about the absolute volume level you can get from these things. They go loud enough for most listening, but you really want to rock out or party, look elsewhere. I would also worry about the longevity of the units if you max them out for long periods; though those fears may be unfounded.

The bass is prominent but not excessive in my view, unless you site them in a corner that further emphasises the bass, in which case you may find it too much.

I compared the LESs to a more expensive separates system with full-range floorstanding speakers. The LESs survived the comparison with credit; but you can hear how the vocals sound small and boxy relative to the large setup.

That said, when I was playing the LESs someone who came into the room was not sure whether the small or the large system was on; they are that good.

I compared the sound of the digital versus the line-in input. It goes without saying: if you use the line-in, then the quality is constrained by the quality of the DAC and pre-amplifier which precedes it. Attach a smartphone or MP3 player, for example, and it will probably be less good than the DAC in the LESs. Then again, most of these devices do not have a digital output so you have to make the best of it.

I used the Squeezebox Touch, which has a high quality DAC of its own, for a fairer comparison. It is hard to be sure, but to my ears the line-in option was slightly less clear than the digital, and slightly more bass-strong. My preference is for the digital connection.

Technical details

The supplied leaflet does not tell you much about the specifications. There are more details on the box:

  • Two silk-dome tweeters
  • Two 3.5” woofers
  • Two 4” passive bass radiators

These bass radiators are the secret of the LES’s extended bass. They occupy a large part of the back panel on each speaker:

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Note that these are not active speakers; they are correctly described as powered speakers because they have a built-in amplifier but the crossovers are passive, and the left-hand speaker receives an amplified signal from the right.

That said, in the hands of audio engineers a design like this has some of the advantages associated with an active loudspeaker. In particular, the amplifier can be designed specifically for the transducers, whereas a separate amplifier has to be designed to work with whatever speakers happen to be connected. This is especially true if you use the built-in DAC, allowing the integrated electronics to handle the entire analogue chain.

Audyssey revealed a few further details on its web site:

The LES speakers have passive crossovers.  We don’t list the amplifier power because it is meaningless in a powered speaker–it only has meaning in stand-alone amplifier.  The speakers are rated to produce 95 dB SPL at 1 m listening distance.  The optical input accepts PCM signals up to 24 bits/48 kHz.  Audyssey Smart Speaker technology is used to design the speaker driver, enclosure, and amplifier in conjunction with Audyssey EQ, Dynamic EQ and BassXT technologies.

I was interested in the remarks about high resolution PCM input. What about the common 24/96 format? I tried a 24/96 signal and the good news is that it played fine. Whether that means that the DAC actually fully supports 24/96, or whether it is played at 24/48 resolution, I do not know. I doubt that the difference would be audible.

Worth noting: both inputs are active all the time. This can be a good thing, if for example you want two sources plugged in, but only if you are careful not to play them both at once!

Annoyances

There are a few. One is that the speakers have an auto-standby feature, which kicks in if you stop playing music for a while. There is no auto-on though, so you have to get up and turn them on: fine if they are on your desk, but irritating if you are sitting at the other end of the room.

A remote volume control would be nice (and would deal with the standby problem too). That said, in most cases you have a volume control on the input that you can adjust remotely, but this is not always the case.

The line-in needs a relatively high signal level in order to make use of the full volume of which the speakers are capable.

The power supply is not universal. This means you cannot buy these in the USA but use them in the UK, for example, unless you get a new power supply or step-down transformer. The power supply is also rather bulky, for which there may be good audio reasons, but it detracts from the compactness of the design.

Conclusions

Despite a few niggles, the sound quality on offer is extraordinary for the size of these speakers; they are the best speakers of this type which I have heard. If you want something to sit on your desk plugged into a Mac or PC, but without compromising sound quality, these are ideal. They also make a great companion to a Squeezebox Touch or similar: all your music, in good quality with little clutter.

 

Bridge for Apple iPad and iPhone: FunBridge upgraded, no longer free

GOTO Games has updated Funbridge for iOS to version 3.0, adding many features and introducing a per-game fee.

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FunBridge is a Contract Bridge app in which the play is always online. You play against the computer but compare your score to that of others. In this new version the game engine seems little changed, but interaction with others is much greater, making it more like the web version.

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In the earlier release, you could see your ranking and which users were in the top 10 for a tournament of 10 games, but you could not discover anything about another user beyond the username. Now there are user profiles and you can see another user’s overall ranking and, if they choose to provide it, name, age, location and About me notes.

Tournaments no longer stand alone, but are grouped into series which match you with players of similar standard. Rankings are decided after each period of a week, based on the results from short 3-game tournaments, provided you play at least 5 during the period. There are 35 series, and after each period the top 25% are promoted and the bottom 25% demoted from each.

You can also play in old-style Daily Tournaments, which are now more frequent than before with a new one every two hours, but these are not grouped into series. You can also play practice hands. The Daily Tournaments and practice hands are scored with IMPs (International Match Points), whereas the Series Tournaments are scored with pairs-style percentages; if you score just slightly more then others, you get 100%, and even a good score can get you 0% if everyone else made an overtrick.

The other big change to mention is that play is no longer free, though you get an introductory 100 games.

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Games cost from 3p each falling to 1.75p if you purchase 1000 at a time. FunBridge will give you 5 games free if you reveal your birthday and another 5 for your city. Is your birthday worth more than 15p?

This makes FunBridge expensive compared to most iOS games. It is a different model to the web version, where you pay €9.90 per month (a bit less if you subscribe for a year) for unlimited games. That would buy around 400 games on the iOS version so you win or lose depending how often you play.

The game itself truly is a lot of fun, though I have found a few frustrations. The play is generally good, though eccentric occasionally. The bidding can be perplexing, especially as the bidding conventions are not described in detail, so you have to guess exactly which variant the computer is supposed to be playing. There is help for the meaning of simple bids, but this does not always match the selected convention and cannot be trusted.

Still, everyone is in the same situation so it is fair!

Hands seem to be tilted towards interesting deals; I have never seen a 10-card suit in one hand in regular bridge but I have in FunBridge.

Gameplay can be annoyingly slow even on a good connection; though perhaps when everyone has played all their free games this will improve!

A fun game; but with the new subscription model I wonder if we will see some alternatives at lower cost. It would also be good to see a version for Android and other mobile operating systems.

Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5

Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a voice dictation system for Windows, and there is a similar but not identical version available for the Mac. I have been trying version 11.5 in its Premium edition.

Voice recognition is interesting on several levels. Dictation can be quicker than typing, avoids repetitive strain injury, and for some users may be the only practical way to input text and control a computer.

Voice control is also a computing aspiration. In science fiction novels and films from 40 or 50 years ago, the characters use voice to interact with computers like Asimov’s Multivac or Kubrick’s HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a matter of course. It has proved a difficult problem though, and even the best voice recognition systems are frustrating to work with, since mistakes are frequent and corrections difficult.

That said, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the best I have used. Let me answer a few questions:

Q: Is Dragon good enough to use for real work?

A: Yes. Fire up Dragon, then Microsoft Word, start dictating, and you can write a document without too much pain. Of course there will be errors, but Dragon has an excellent correction system. In the following example, I said “The reason” but Dragon heard “Losing”. I then spoke the command “Select losing” and Dragon popped up a selection box.

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Now I just have to say “Choose 1” and the error will be fixed.

It is not always so easy, and you may have to spell words like place names and specialist vocabulary, but Dragon learns and you get better at dictating, so perseverance pays.

Dragon has a sidebar which is great when you are learning the system, as it shows brief contextual help for the most commonly used commands. It does occupy significant screen space, so best used when you have a large screen or more than one display.

Q: What is the key to success with dictation?

First, use a good microphone. Some editions of Dragon come with a Plantronics Bluetooth headset, which is ideal for the task. Trying to dictate using the mic built into a laptop, or one of those cheap gaming mics, will only lead to frustration.

Second, be patient. Your first day or two with Dragon will be frustrating, but it gets better.

A quiet room also helps, but with a headset this is not so critical.

Q: Is Dragon good enough that you would use it by choice, even when you could use keyboard and mouse?

For me, not yet. I type professionally, so I am pretty fast, and I do find Dragon gets in the way. If I could reel off a few thousand words in one blast, I might use Dragon, but in practice I find I need to task-switch frequently, checking a fact, searching the web, finding a screenshot, or listening to an interview. You can do almost anything in Windows using Dragon, but using a mouse and and keyboard is much quicker. If you use Dragon just for dictation that is fine, though you do have to set Dragon to stop listening when you are performing other tasks, otherwise Dragon will do something unexpected.

Work patterns vary, and some voices are easier than others for Dragon to interpret, so this is a matter of individual preference.

Q: Do you need Dragon when Windows has its own voice recognition system?

I did a quick test. I read the following paragraph, from a guide book that happens to be close by:

Original:

This little book is not properly a “guide” but rather a collection of random notes and thoughts, and I have published it mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from Wroxham with Broads Tours.

Windows 7:

This little book it is not properly A “guide” but rather a collection of London dates and courts, and I had published in mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from locks on withdrawn schools.

Dragon:

This little book is not properly a “guide” but rather a collection of random notes and thoughts, and I have published it mainly as a souvenir for those who make a short journey from locks and with Broads Tours.

Not a rigorous test; but with my voice and on this particular passage Dragon is well ahead, and that accords with my general impression. I do think the Windows system is usable, but the extra cost of Dragon is worth it if you expect to use dictation frequently.

Q: Any other snags with Dragon?

Yes. Dragon hooks deeply into Windows, as it must do in order to control things like window switching and mouse movement, and I saw an impact on performance and stability. I suspect this can be improved by fine-tuning Dragon’s configuration and by keeping Windows as plain as possible. It also seems to work much better with software for which it is specifically designed, such as Microsoft Office, than with generic text input into software it does not know about, such as Windows Live Writer.

Q: What is new in version 11.5?

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 is a free upgrade from 11. The most obvious new feature from 11 is that you can use an iPhone as a remote wi-fi microphone. I tried this, which requires creating a new profile specifically for the purpose, and found it works nearly as well as with the Plantronics headset. However, the headset is a lot more convenient so I am not sure what is the benefit.

There are also new commands including “Post to Twitter” and “Post to Facebook”, and both the user interface and the voice recognition engine have been fine-tuned in this version.

Finally, version 11.5 specifically supports Windows 7 SP1 and Internet Explorer 9.

Q: Any other features worth mentioning?

The Premium edition has a transcription feature. No, this will not successfully interpret your recorded interview, though I suppose this might work in ideal circumstances. Rather, it is intended to let you dictate into a recording device for transcription later. This is an interesting way of working. It is easier to pause and restart a recorder than to interrupt a live dictation session, and Dragon can take more time over analysing a recording than when it has to keep up with your voice.

Concluding remarks

Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking gets significantly better with each new version, tipping me further towards the point where I may start using it in preference to typing. It is not only a matter of improved algorithms, but also more powerful hardware that enables Dragon to do more intensive processing. Although I am not quite ready to use it myself day to day, I think this is a brilliant product, and would not hesitate to recommend it. I also think it is inevitable that voice dictation will eventually become the norm for text input, at least in quiet environments, as the technology continues to improve.

   

Review: Hands On with the HP TouchPad

When I saw HP’s TouchPad on display at the Mobile World Congress last February I thought it looked good and wanted to have a closer look. I have been doing so for the last couple of days. The TouchPad is a 9.7” tablet similar in size to Apple’s iPad and iPad 2. It comes with 16 or 32GB of storage, 1024x 768 display, wi-fi, Bluetooth, dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2Ghz processor, and front-facing camera. Battery life is up to around 9 hours. The TouchPad runs WebOS, the operating system acquired with Palm, and which seems to form the basis of HP’s mobile device strategy.

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Since a large part of HP’s business comes from selling and servicing Windows servers and PCs, it would make sense for the TouchPad to have excellent support for Microsoft’s platform. Then again, why is it running WebOS and not Windows? There are several reasons. First, Microsoft refuses to allow the Windows Phone 7 OS to be used in a tablet form factor, and the first tablet-friendly Windows OS will be Windows 8 which is not yet available. Second, HP has been down the Windows Mobile track before, and seen Apple takeover the market.

HP has good reason therefore to take a non-Microsoft approach to mobile. However, you can see in the TouchPad the downside of that decision. Exchange support is good, but SharePoint support non-existent. The TouchPad makes a terrible client for Office 365. There is no sign of Microsoft Lync or even MSN Messenger in its messaging account options:

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Why does this matter? Well, in the end the question is why you, or anyone, is going to buy an HP TouchPad rather than one of its competitors. There is a gap in the market for an business-focused tablet with strong support for Microsoft’s platform, and I wondered if HP, with its strength in that market, might fill it with the TouchPad. In this respect it is a disappointment. It is behind Apple’s iPad, which lets me open and save documents from SharePoint via WebDAV, and edit them in Pages or Numbers; and even the iPad is weak in this area.

Look and feel

I hate making constant comparisons with Apple’s device, but it is hard to avoid because it sets the standard at this price level. With its rounded corners and glossy black finish, the TouchPad is OK but feels inelegant and chunky in comparison to the iPad 2. For example, both the iPad and the TouchPad have a single recessed button that acts as a kind of home key. On the iPad it is a round button that fits your finger nicely; on the TouchPad it is rectangular and slightly sharp-edged, and therefore less pleasant to operate. A tiny detail, but one that when combined with others makes the TouchPad feel less well designed.

More seriously, the touch screen seems less responsive than that on the iPad. This may be as much to do with software as hardware, but sometimes taps seem to get lost. I also had difficulty with the screen rotating at the wrong moment; this can be a problem on the iPad too but seems worse on the TouchPad, though you can lock the screen if it gets too annoying. Sometimes the screen flickers slightly; this may be to do with power management but it is unpleasant.

On the plus side, WebOS has a card-based interface that works well. Each app shows as a card when not full screen, and you can flick between cards to select a running app, or flick the card up to close it.

Another plus is the Touchstone accessory which does wireless charging; a great feature though this was not included in the review sample.

Setup

Setting up the TouchPad was straightforward, though I saw more of the spinning wait circle than I would have liked. You are required to set up a WebOS account, but there is no requirement to enter credit card details until the point where you actually want to buy an app. I did twice get the message “we are unable to create an account for you. Please try again in a few minutes or contact HP for help,” but third time was lucky.

My next step was to connect to Exchange. The TouchPad absolutely refused my first attempt because it did not trust my self-signed certificate. By contrast, most devices merely throw up a warning and then let you continue. I fixed this by going to Settings – Device Info, which has a Certificate Manager in its drop-down menu. I copied the certificate to the TouchPad over USB and then installed it.

Exchange worked OK after that, though the mail client is sluggish. I do not know if it is related, but soon after setting up Exchange I got a “Memory critical, too many cards” message and the TouchPad pretty much died, though it revived after a restart.

I also added accounts for DropBox and for Box.net, both of which offer cloud storage and synchronisation.

Finally, I added some music. I installed the beta of HP Play, which is a music player and library manager. Once installed, you can drag music to the HP TouchPad when connected over USB.

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This worked; but with hindsight I was nearly as well off copying MP3 files directly using Windows Explorer. The main benefit of HP Play is drag-and-drop playlist management. You can also set up auto-synchronisation, but I turned this off as I prefer to select what goes on the device manually.

Sound quality on the TouchPad is decent even using the internal speakers. Here is one way in which the TouchPad improves on Apple’s iPad, though the difference disappears if you use external speakers or headphones. Formats supported are DRM-free MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR, QCELP, and WAV. No FLAC which is a shame.

The printed user guide for the TouchPad is just a few pages, but there is a detailed manual you can download – recommended for TouchPad owners.

Apps

A selection of apps comes supplied with the TouchPad.

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I am interested in Quickoffice, which lets you view a wide selection of document formats, but sorry to find that all documents are read-only. Adobe Reader is also installed. Printing is supported, as you would expect from HP, but my network printer is a Canon and does not work with the TouchPad.

The web browser is based on WebKit and includes Adobe Flash 10.3 but not Oracle Java. The Youtube “app” just links to the Youtube web site – what is the point of that? BBC iPlayer work nicely

Maps is Bing Maps and looks good, with options for Satellite and Bird’s Eye views as well as “Show traffic” which is meant to indicate which roads are busy but did not seem to work for me. You can also get turn by turn directions.

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You can install new apps by going to the Downloads screen and tapping HP App Catalog.

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The selection of apps is weak though, especially in comparison to iPad or Android. HP needs to attract more developers to WebOS; but they will only come if HP can make a success of the devices.

Amazon Kindle is meant to work on the TouchPad but is nowhere to be seen, although it is referenced in the user guide. Apparently it has appeared for US users.

Conclusions

My immediate impression of the HP Touchpad is that it is promising but not yet good enough to win much market share, especially given that the price is similar to that of the iPad. At the time of writing, the TouchPad costs around £400 for the 16GB version, as does Apple’s iPad 2.

That said, there are a few reasons why you might want one of these:

  • Printing to HP printers
  • USB Drive support when attached to a PC or Mac
  • Adobe Flash
  • Multi-tasking with WebOS card interface
  • Wireless charging
  • Integration with HP Pre 3 smartphone
  • Above average sound quality

None of these strike me as a must-have, but there will be scenarios where they tilt the balance in favour of the TouchPad.

The problem with the TouchPad is that it is insufficiently distinctive from Apple’s offering, but its usability and performance is in most respects less good.

The promise is there; but can HP get enough momentum behind the platform to attract a stronger set of third-party apps, as well as fine-tuning the performance and design?

I am doubtful. HP, like RIM, is going to have difficulty maintaining its own mobile platform. In the end it may have to either join the Android crowd, or mend its relationship with Microsoft.

Thanks to Dabs.com for supplying the review loan.

Keyboards, consoles and living rooms: Trust Thinity reviewed

Computers are for the study, consoles for the living room, right? Kind-of, but we are seeing some convergence. The box under your TV might actually be a Mac Mini or a PC, or you might be browsing the web on your Sony PS3. From time to time you hit a problem: game controllers are lousy for text input.

I was an early adopter for Microsoft’s Media Center PC, and hit exactly this problem. Microsoft’s media center remote was good in its way, but sometimes I needed a keyboard and mouse. I ended up getting a wireless keyboard. However I also discovered that a keyboard, while great for a desk, is an awkward thing to have lying around in a living room.

This is the problem Trust is trying to address with its Thinity Wireless Entertainment Keyboard. This is a small keyboard – think netbook-sized – with an integrated trackpad. It comes with a USB wifi adaptor and a stand/charger.

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When sat in its charger it is reasonably stylish as these things go, but still looks like a keyboard.

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The Thinity is compatible with Windows PCs – why not Mac? – Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. There is no need to install drivers, just plug in the USB device and it works. That said, there is no caps lock indicator on the keyboard, so you can download a software indicator for Windows if you want.

The trackpad is actually multitouch, and as well as having hardware left and right buttons,  tapping with three fingers makes a right button click, and it behaves as a scroller if you drag with two fingers.

How is it then? Well, it does the job and is easier than using a game controller to type URLs and passwords. I cannot rate it highly though, since it is not a particularly well-designed keyboard. The keys are close together and it is hard to type at speed. I would not enjoy using it as a main PC keyboard; I wrote most of this review with it but found it a struggle.

It is also a shame that there are no configuration options for Windows. I would like to turn off tapping, which I personally find a nuisance because of accidental clicking though I know others who love it.

Although the Trust brand is associated with budget gear, I get the impression that the company set out to make at least a mid-range product, with multi-touch keypad and a long-lasting li-ion battery. Unfortunately it needs a bit more design effort, making it seem over-priced for what it is. There are little annoyances, like the fiddly on-off switch, the support tabs on the back that are hard to prise open, and the fact that the keyboard flexes a little more than it should.

Logitech’s Google TV, the Revue, has a keyboard/trackpad that is only a little larger, but is more usable.

But do you want a keyboard in the living room at all? Personally I am doubtful. They are a transitional necessity. I am a fan of apps rather than remotes. The virtual keyboard on an Apple iPad does all that is necessary for occasional text input in a more elegant and living-room-friendly manner. Nintendo is taking this same direction with the Wii U, which has a touch controller with its own screen.

Of course these devices cost more and do more than a simple wireless keyboard, but they are inherently better suited to the task. One factor is that when you type, you do not want to be 12 feet away from where the letters are appearing on a screen. With a screen-equipped remote, they are right in front of you.

That does not solve the immediate problem with a PS3, Xbox or Media Center PC, so you will still need something like the Thinity, though I would suggest you check out the competition too. Long term though, I do not think we will see many keyboards in the living room.

Review: Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2 – go hands free everywhere

Today’s gadget is a Bluetooth headset, the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2. This little guy fits snugly in your ear and provides hands-free calls with your mobile or PC softphone. The UC stands for Unified Communications; and indeed, once I had plugged in the supplied Bluetooth adapter, which is pre-paired with the headset, my Microsoft Lync client automatically picked it up. It also works well with Skype.

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While that sounds simple, there are actually a fair number of features packed into this device. Some are more successful than others, but it is high quality and thoughtfully put together, right down to the unobtrusive magnetic closure on the padded case.

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Not shown in the picture above, the set also includes a few foam ear tip covers, which are comfortable but tricky to fit, and a mains adapter for charging when there is no suitable PC or laptop to hand.

I have to say that the fit of this headset is excellent: once in place you soon forget about it, and it feels secure and stable. Having wrestled with numerous more awkward headset designs over the years, this is not something I take for granted.

Now a few details. The headset has several controls: volume up and down on the top of the ear clip, power button near the bottom of the ear clip (above the micro USB charging port), and a call button at the ear end of the microphone stalk, in effect on top of the ear pad. These buttons have multiple functions depending on the state of the device and how you press them, so there is a bit of a learning process. For example, pressing and holding both volume buttons when music is playing pauses or resumes the music. Pressing and holding both volume buttons during a call mutes or unmutes the microphone.

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Much of the time you will be pressing these buttons while the headset is on, so you need to feel your way, as it were. How easy you find this will vary from one person to another. I found the volume buttons natural and easy to use, partly because if you rest your thumb on the bottom of the unit, you can easily squeeze the buttons at the top. The power button is a bit harder to find and use, but that does not matter too much because you would most likely take the headset off to use it, though it does speak the remaining talk time if you tap it and this can be handy.

I was less happy with the call button. If you are wearing the headset, and a call comes in, you have to tap this to answer. You can also use two taps to call back the last number, and tap and hold to use voice dialling on your mobile. I found the call button awkward to press and insufficiently tactile, though I am sure this improves with practice.

By way of mitigation, the Voyager has an auto-answer feature. A sensor in the device detects whether or not you are wearing it, and if you put the headset on when a call comes in, it will auto-answer.

The sensor also pauses music automatically when you remove the headset, and restarts when you put them back on.

If you pair the Voyager with an iPhone, you get a useful battery meter at the top right of the screen.

I found the Voyager rather good for listening to music. The quality is fine considering that it is mono. Of course it lacks the immersive sound and quality of stereo headphones; but that is the point – you would use the Voyager when you want private background music while still being in touch with what is going on around you. It is easy to carry on a conversation, for example, while music is playing.

I tried the voice dialling. This is a great idea in principle, since you can initiate a call without ever touching your mobile. First you have to press and hold the call button for two seconds, which is a little awkward as mentioned above. After a pause the Voyager beeps, and you can then speak a name to call. If you are lucky and it is found successfully, the Voyager reads the name to you, and if there are multiple numbers you can specify which one to call. If you are unlucky and your mobile starts calling the wrong person, a single tap on the call button ends the call.

I had some success with this, though it is a bit of an adventure. The key is patience. Once you have spoken the name, there is a wait of several seconds, at least with the iPhone, before anything happens.

PC Software

If you have a PC, you can install the Plantronics software to control your Voyager. The software is downloaded from the Plantronics site. You get a battery monitor that sits in the notification area:

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and a control panel that reports the detail of your device model and firmware, and offers a number of settings.

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Once again, the Voyager earns its UC designation by letting you automatically set your presence status when the device is worn or removed, though I struggled to find a setting for this that made sense for me personally.

One nice feature is that the Voyager integrates with PC media players as well as softphones, though some of my favourite media players are missing from the list.

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If you are a Mac user it seems you are less well served by software, though Bluetooth audio still works, and note that the Voyager integrates well with the Apple iPhone.

The Voyager Pro UC copes with both a PC and a mobile connected simultaneously – that is one of the things you are paying extra for – but I found that some details could get confused. For example, the iPhone got into an state where it could not play music though the Voyager until I disconnected the PC.

Extras

The Voyager is expensive for a Bluetooth headset, but is particularly well equipped. The case is well made and has a belt clip as well as a little pocket for the USB Bluetooth adapter. The mains adapter has an LED to indicate the charging state. The Bluetooth adapter has an LED to show whether the headset is connected, and flashes while data is being transmitted.

Conclusion

Overall I am impressed with both the quality and the range of features in the Voyager Pro. It works well alongside Microsoft Lync, for which it is optimized, and in my view it works even better as a headset for an iPhone or other smartphone.

Note though that if you do not need the Unified Communications features or the USB Bluetooth adapter, then the older Voyager Pro + model is less than half the price. However this model lacks the Smart Sensor of the Pro UC v2.

My main gripe is with the awkward call button. Personally I’d like to see this repositioned next to the volume buttons for easier access.

It is also worth noting that even six hours talk time, which you get from a full charge, soon disappears if you play background music, so charging can be a bit of a nuisance.

Nevertheless, using a device like this shows that it really is not necessary to juggle with a handset just to take a phone call; and if you can get voice dialling to work, you can keep the mobile out of sight until you need it for something important like browsing the web or, well, playing a game.