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Mio MiVue 688: record your driving

The Mio MiVue 688 is a high quality dashcam which will record your journeys as well as alerting you to lane drift and speed cameras.

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In the box is the device itself – around 90 x 45 x 37mm – together with a vehicle power adapter and a suction mount. You will need a couple more things to get going: a Micro SD memory card (8GB to 128GB) and a USB Mini-B to type A cable, presuming you want to connect it to a PC. It is always annoying to find that that you have to buy extras, though you may have some spares anyway, and also annoying that MiVue still use the older Mini-B connector which is relatively uncommon now.

The MiVue 688 has a rechargeable battery, though for full use you will want to keep it powered continuously with the adapter.

After charging, the first thing you will want to do is to set the date and time as well as your preferred distance measure. Being in the UK I set it to miles.

In doing so, you will get an idea of how the MiVue’s controls work. There is a nice bright LED colour display, but it is not touch control. Instead, there are 6 buttons:

  • Power button on the left edge
  • Event button (for emergency recording) on the front right
  • Four function buttons on the right edge

The control system is not all that intuitive. By default the unit records when it is on. The function keys come into play when you go into the menu. The top key is the menu key; it displays or exits the current menu. The next key is Enter. The two lower keys are cursor keys. At first you might think that the buttons align with the menu item you want to operate, but they do not. Of course you are not intended to operate this fiddly menu system while driving.

The normal use is that recording starts as soon as the unit receives power, in other words when you start the engine. It then records continuously, creating 3-minute video files. If it runs out of space it overwrites old files.

When you start recording you get a view of what it is recording on the screen. After a short time, this blanks out and you just get the time. However it is still recording.

The device has a Sony Exmor video processor, does 1080p video recording and displays on a 2.7″ screen. It has an F1.8 aperture and a 140⁰ wide angle lens.

The MiVue 688 in use

I tried the MiVue on a 3-hour journey on a rather damp day. The first challenge is mounting the MiVue, the main problem being getting the power cable connected without it hanging dangerously or getting in the way. I found some short lengths of gaffer tape essential, to secure the cable to the edge of the windscreen. The MiVue cable is fortunately fairly long.

I then sited the camera towards the top of the windscreen. Again, care is needed as you do not want it to obscure your view.

I found the way the device works confusing at first. In particular, I thought that when the screen changed from the live recording to the clock, that recording had stopped. It was only when I got back and connected the device to a PC that I realised the entire journey was on video. I do think this is preferable; despite the emergency button, you want the recording to happen without having to think about it.

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My journey passed without incident, but having a recording, given how simple this is to achieve, does make sense. If you are the innocent party in a collision, it will provide crucial evidence. Note that it records your speed and exact location as it goes, thanks to built-in GPS. A side-effect of having a dashcam may be that you are less inclined to take chances, knowing that there will be evidence.

When we parked, I removed the MiVue, because I did not want the embarrassment of risking theft of my loan gadget. This is a dilemma, as the MiVue has a parking function that will automatically record if it detects a collision when parked. If you think someone might steal the device though, that will not help you.

Annoyances

Wiring up the MiVue all felt a bit DIY and it would be good to see provision for dashcams built into modern vehicles. I also found several nits with the MiVue:

  • Menu system not intuitive
  • Old type of USB connector
  • Getting started leaflet barely adequate (you can download a slightly better manual)
  • Packaging does not make it clear that you need to supply your own memory card and USB cable – as well as Gaffer tape or equivalent

Extras

On the plus side, there are a few extras. The safety camera warnings worked, though if you have SatNav of some kind you probably already have this. There is the parking function mentioned above. The speed always shows, and since this is more accurate than my in-car speedometer this is a benefit.

A camera feature lets you take still images. Could be handy after an incident.

A motion sensor kicks in a recording automatically in the event of sudden movement. This also tends to happen when handling the unit, for example connecting it to a PC!

There are also some Advanced Driver Assistance features. Specifically, this covers Lane Departure Warning (could be a life-saver if you fell asleep), which beeps if you drift out of your lane; and Front Collision Warning System which beeps if it thinks you are driving too close to the vehicle in front.

These are handy features, but require regular calibration to work. You have to tell the MiVue where is the horizon and where is the end of your bonnet (hood). You cannot do this while driving so require a passenger.

I would have thought the AI for this kind of feature could do this calibration automatically as systems like this evolve.

MiVue Manager

You can download a MiVue Manager app to help you view your videos. I did not get on well with this. The first annoyance was that the MiVue Manager app insists on running with admin rights on Windows. Next, I found it still did not work because of missing codecs.

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However I can view the videos fine using the Windows 10 built-in app, or VLC. So I gave up on the MiVue Manager.

Conclusion

The MiVue 688 will cost you around £150 and works well. As noted above though, there are some annoyances and you might prefer a touch control unit like the 658, which is a similar price.

I am still impressed. The quality of the video is very good, and this MiVue provides significant benefit at modest cost.

More information here.

Meizu M3 Max: Android 6.0 phablet, good value if you don’t mind Flyme OS

Meizu, one of the top ten smartphone manufacturers in China, has just brought out the M3 Max, an Android 6.0 phablet currently on offer for $224.99 (around £185), which seems great value for a 6.0″ smartphone complete with dual SIMs slots and fingerprint reader. I have been using it for a while to see how it stacks up against the competition.

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My M3 Max is a sample, and while I believe it matches the production model in terms of hardware, you may find a few more concessions to non-Chinese users in the version for European and US markets. That said, my sample does include the Google Play Store and a thing called GMS Installer which assists installation of the Google Mobile Services required for Google-flavoured Android, which is what most users in countries like the UK and USA require.

This was my first experience of Meizu’s Flyme OS, a custom version of Android, and the distinctive one-button control. The front button on the M3 Max has multiple functions. Tap lightly and it is a back button. Press and click and it is a home button. Rest your finger and it is a fingerprint reader. And if you are wondering how to switch applications, that is a swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

I like having a hardware button, but I am not convinced that one button improves on the traditional Android three buttons: back, home, and app switcher. I also prefer the fingerprint reader on the back, as on recent Huawei phones. That said, I soon got used to it. You can register more than one fingerprint, and I found it useful to register my right thumb I can pick up the phone and tap my thumb on the front to unlock it.

Setting the phone up was a little more challenging than with Android devices designed primarily for our market. Meizu/Flyme has alternative apps for common requirements such as web browser, maps, music and even app store. I found myself downloading a bunch of apps to get a more familiar experience, including the Google Chrome browser, OneDrive, Outlook, Twitter, Facebook and Spotify. I did have a few issues with the Play store initially – it would open and immediately crash – but things seemed to settle down after I applied a few updates.

There are a few compromises in a phone at this price point. The fingerprint reader is not the equal of the one on the Huawei P9 or Honor 8, for example, taking longer to register my fingerprint and requiring slightly more careful positioning to read it, but it still works satisfactorily. In day to day use I have no complaints about the responsiveness of the OS or the battery life.

Physically the M3 Max has a metal body and a smooth finish. The design is straightforward but pleasant enough. The case is 7.9mm thick, which makes it a relatively thin device if that is important to you. It is somewhat heavy though, about 190g, though in return you get a reassuringly solid feel.

There are a few compromises in a phone at this price point. The fingerprint reader is not the equal of the one on the Huawei P9 or Honor 8, for example, taking longer to register my fingerprint and requiring slightly more careful positioning to read it, but it still works satisfactorily. In day to day use I have no complaints about the responsiveness of the OS or the battery life.

Physically the M3 Max has a metal body and a smooth finish. The design is straightforward but pleasant enough. The case is 7.9mm thick, which makes it a relatively thin device if that is important to you. It is somewhat heavy though, about 190g, though in return you get a reassuringly solid feel.

The Flyme skin supports floating windows after a fashion.

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Even on a 6″ device though, it is not all that useful since you can only really make use of one app at a time.

Swipe down from the top to reveal notifications and the usual array of Android shortcuts.

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The camera is nothing spectacular but does cover most of the features you are likely to want. Tap the Auto button to reveal popular features like Panorama and Macro. This is also the route to video recording.

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If you choose Manual on this screen, you can make your own settings for
Exposure time

  • ISO
  • Focus
  • Exposure compensation
  • Saturation
  • Contrast
  • White balance

A decent range of controls.

The Settings button lets you specify photo size as well as other features like grid lines.

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Benchmarks and specifications

I ran some benchmarks. PC Mark came up with a score of 3156 for its Work 2.0 performance.

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Geekbench 4.0.1 delivered:

  • 1475 RenderScript Score
  • 683 Single-Core Score
  • 2670 Multi-Core Score

While these results are unexciting, at this price point they are more than reasonable.

Specifications

  • Android 6
  • ARM MT6755M 1 GHz 8 core CPU
  • 6” display, 1080×1920, 480 ppi
  • Capacitive touch screen
  • GPS
  • 3GB RAM
  • 64GB storage
  • Second SIM slot can also be used for up to 128GB SD card
  • Mali-T860 GPU
  • 13MP rear camera
  • 5MP front camera
  • 4100 mAH battery
  • Weight 190g
  • Size 163.4 x 81.6 x 7.9mm

Conclusion

Meizu is not a well-known brand in the UK or USA, but they are a major Chinese vendor, though pitching towards the lower end of the market. This is a good value device and a solid choice if you are looking for a phablet-style phone in this price range and can put up with a slightly less familiar Android experience.

You can purchase from here.

Review: Vibe FLI Over headphones with “Extreme bass”

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Can you get true bass from headphones? Arguably not quite, since you can feel real bass in your chest, whereas with headphones the air simply is not moving. You can still get the sound right, and that is the promise of Vibe’s Fli-over headphones with “extreme bass”.

This promise caught my interest, since bass quality (or its lack) is one of the biggest differentiators between live and recorded music. I dislike bloated, mushy bass; but I do want to hear the full frequencies, whether it is the tuneful plucking of a double bass in a jazz group, or the pounding drum sounds in rock or rap. Listening at home you often miss out, partly because of lower volume levels, and partly because most systems do not do bass well.

But do the Fli-overs deliver?

I put on the Fli-overs with some trepidation. Was I going to hear pumped-up bass that wrecks the musical balance? Fortunately I did not. The sound is slightly warm and tilted a little towards the low-end, but it is also sweet and tuneful. Where is the extreme bass though?

The answer is that it depends what you play. I happened to put on “No more I love you’s” by Annie Lennox and heard for the first time the deep bass in the slow beat in the opening part of the song. Hmm, I thought, perhaps there is something in the claims.

I sought out some rap and electronica that shows off bass performance, by artists like Psyph Morrison, The Dream, and Bassotronic. If this kind of music is your bag, and you don’t want your headphones to make the bass toned-down and polite, you will find the Fli-overs do a better job than most.

On the Miles Davis track So What, from Kind of Blue, you can follow the bass line easily, without it being overwhelming.

Overall the sound is above average for headphones at this price level. I find them enjoyable for any kind of music, though better for rock and jazz than for classical, where I find the sound a little closed-in and lacking in clarity and detail compared to the best I have heard, but still decent.

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I am not so sure about the comfort though. The earpads are soft but the earcups rather ungenerous in size for an over-ear design, making it hard to find a comfortable position (of course this kind of thing varies from person to person). The headband is lined with a firm rubbery material that feels somewhat hard. The grip of the headphones is tighter than most, though will likely looosen over time. If you wear glasses as I do, this again makes them less comfortable. They are not the worst I have worn, but if comfort is a priority I would suggest looking elsewhere, or at least trying them out before purchase.

The cable is just over 1.5m (though it says 1.0m on the box), enough for most environments, and is a flat style that is somewhat resistant to tangling. There is a microphone and call/answer button in the cord, so you can use these as a headset for a mobile phone, or for voice over IP calls on a tablet. I found this worked well on a Nexus Android tablet.

The headphones have a closed back and noise isolation is good in both directions. They also fold, though no bag is supplied, and would be quite suitable for use in flight.

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if you want to enjoy music where deep bass is central to the experience, these cans will deliver where most do not.

More information on the Vibe site here.

Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.

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In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.

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The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.

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This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.

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Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.

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Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on 169.254.1.1. However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.

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Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware 2.05.2.01.

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.

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I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).

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Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.

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As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.

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It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material

Specifications

  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA

Review: Nokia Lumia 630 – a lot of smartphone for the money

Microsoft/Nokia has released the Lumia 630 Windows Phone in the UK. It is notable for two reasons:

  • The first phone on sale with Windows Phone 8.1 installed
  • A budget contender with a full range of features at around £100. For example, o2.co.uk offer it for £99.99 with a “Pay & Go” tariff from £10.00 monthly. Amazon.co.uk is currently offering it sim-free for £128.29.

The quick summary:

  • 4.5″ 854×480 LCD screen
  • 5MP rear camera
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • MicroSD slot supporting up to 128GB
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core 1.2 GHz processor
  • Bluetooth 4.0, wi-fi, WCDMA,GSM,A-GPS etc
  • 1830 mAh removable battery

What is missing? Among the compromises here, there is no front-facing camera, the only sensor is an accelerometer, the screen resolution is poor compared to a high-end smartphone, and there is no dedicated camera button.

The older Lumia 625 has some features missing on the 630, including a camera button, LED Flash, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor, Nokia’s “super sensitive touch” screen, and LTE. The 625 is a similar price, so if those features matter to you it might be a better buy, though you have to put up with the older and slower S4 processor.

The Lumia 630 does support Nokia’s SensorCore feature, which lets apps like Health & Fitness (pre-installed) track movement through an API without consuming much power.

The lack of a camera button or Flash is disappointing, considering Nokia’s reputation as a brand good for photography.

Out of the box

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The Lumia 630 is a basic package. No headset is included, presumably on the grounds that you likely have one already, though buying one separately is inexpensive. There is a mains charger; you probably have one of these already too, but it might not be optimal for this particular device, which may be why Nokia chose to prioritise this over the headset.

In order to fit the SIM, you pop the phone out of its shell; it feels if anything a bit too easy, though the phone shows no sign of falling apart accidentally so far.

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The software of course is Windows Phone 8.1, with several nice improvements including a notification screen accessed by swiping down from the top. This works even from the lock screen, and gives immediate access to the camera, which may explain why the button is missing. I still miss the button though.

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Cortana, the virtual personal assistant currently in beta, is not yet present in the UK. You can enable Cortana with a bit of effort by changing your language and region, but it is not recommended other than for temporary experimentation.

I hit one problem in setup. The automatic date and time setting does not work, at least not with my carrier (Three). This in turn broke some other features including SkyDrive and Exchange/Office 365 email, until I set it manually. The manual setting is not brilliant though, since when I turned the set off and on again, it came up with a setting from several days ago. This looks like a software bug so I hope it will be fixed soon.

Here is the home screen pretty much out of the box, though I have connected it to Exchange:

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This is NOT how I prefer to set up my home screen on a Windows phone. Normally I reduce all the tiles to the smallest size other than the phone icon, which I have large so I can hit it as easily as possible. This fits more icons on the screen and gets rid of the annoying People live tile animations. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

The apps prominent above the fold include PhotoBeamer, which lets you show pictures on a friend’s Windows Phone (a cool app), LINE which is a messaging app, and the excellent HERE maps and Nokia Camera.

Scroll down and you get Facebook, Skype, HERE Drive, Nokia Mix Radio, OneDrive, calendar and several more.

A word about apps

I do not intend this to be another reviews of a Windows Phone which say, “great phone but the apps are lacking.” It is true to the extent that Windows Phone lacks the great support with iOS and Android get in terms of apps. Windows Phone owners have to put up with seeing “available for iOS and Android” for apps which they might  otherwise like to install, and with apps that are less well maintained or up to date than those for the two more popular platforms.

Clearly, the way to fix this is for lots more people to buy Windows Phones. Therefore, not to buy a Windows Phone because of the app shortage merely perpetuates the problem.

But how bad is it? The answer will be different depending which apps matter to you; but there are a couple of reasons why it is not, in my opinion, all that bad.

One is that Microsoft has its own platform, putting it in a stronger position than say, Blackberry or even Apple (if iOS were not already popular). The Microsoft platform includes maps and driving (Nokia), search (Bing), messaging (Skype), email and cloud documents (Office 365) and online storage (OneDrive).

Second, the Windows app store is not as moribund as the Windows 8 app store. There are decent apps in most categories and support from third parties like Spotify, WhatsApp, Instagram or the BBC is improving.

If you love Google, this is unlikely to be the phone for you, since it seems almost to go out of its way not to support Windows Phone.

On the other hand, there are Windows Phone apps which I miss on other platforms, including Nokia Camera, HERE Drive, and the built-in email and calendar apps.

It is a factor, but not a showstopper.

Lumia 630 in use

My experience of using the 630 is mainly positive. Performance is great; the phone is fast and responsive. Battery life is good too:

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Note that the Battery Saver is off by default, but I prefer having it come on automatically as needed.

Battery life is nothing special if you use the phone intensively, such as to watch a video or play a game, but when it on standby it is better than previous Windows phones I have tried.

The camera is better than I had expected, given the annoyances mentioned above. For casual snaps it is up to the mark you would expect from a budget smartphone.

This is not PureView though; do not expect the same quality as on Nokia’s high-end phones. See here for some comparative snaps.

Audio on the Lumia 630 sounds fine when played with a high quality headset. I played the same track on the 630, the Lumia 1020, and from a PC via a dedicated headphone amplifer. Possibly the 630 sounds slightly thin compared to the more expensive setups, but the earbuds or headphones you use will likely make the most difference.

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Health and Fitness tracking, using the Bing app, is fun and saves having to manage a separate device like a Fitbit.

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I have yet to catch out the 630 on performance. Youtube videos and BBC iPlayer played smoothly.

The display is on the dull side but no enough to spoil the experience. However I did notice grey marks (presumably shadows of the glue that holds the screen on) at the top of the screen, visible on light backgrounds, which is a slight annoyance.

Conclusion

The Lumia 630 is a budget smartphone with a lot to offer. There are just a few annoyances: features missing that were present on the 625, slightly dull screen, and some signs of cost-cutting. These are small blemishes though when you consider what you do get for a modest outlay.

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Review: Sonocent Audio Notetaker, making sense of recorded interviews and meetings

Why bother taking written notes, when you can simply record the audio of a meeting or interview and listen to it later? I do this a lot, but it is problematic. You end up with an MP3 which has all the info within it, but with no quick way to find a half-remembered statement. Of course you can transcribe everything, or get it transcribed, but that is not quick; it will likely take longer than the original event if you want to transcribe it all, and even selective transcription is a slow process. You can get better at this, and I have formed a habit of noting times when I hear something which I am likely to refer to later, but standard audio players (such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes) are designed for music and not great for this kind of work.

There is also an annoying problem with application focus if you want to transcribe a recording. You have Word open, you have your recording open in Foobar, but to control Foobar you have to switch focus away from Word, which means you cannot type until you focus back. There are utilities around to overcome this – my solution was to write my own Word macro which can pause and rewind a recording with keyboard shortcuts – but it is another issue to fix.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker is an application for Windows or Mac dedicated to making sense of speech recordings. Audio Notetaker lets you create documents which include audio, text and images. If you have an existing audio recording, you can import it into a new Audio Notetaker documnent and start to work with it. The audio is copied into the document, rather than being added as a reference, so these documents tend to be large, a little larger than the original.

The primary feature is the the way recordings are visualised and navigated. When you import a recording, it shows as a series of bars in a large panel, rather than the single horizontal scrolling view that most audio players present. Each bar represents a phrase, determined by Audio Notetaker according to pauses in the speech. This is not altogether reliable since speakers may pause mid-phrase, but you can split or merge bars if needed. The length of each bar varies according to the content, but typically seems to be around 3-15 seconds. You navigate the recording by clicking on the bars, and annotate it by assigning colours to bars according to your own scheme, such as blue for a potential quote, or brown for “boring, skip this”.

If you are transcribing, you can type into either to two text panes, one of which is called Reference and the other just Text. When you are typing in one of these panes, you can use keyboard shortcuts to control the audio, such as Ctrl+Space for play/pause, Ctrl+\ to skip back, and Ctrl+/ to skip forward. The Reference and Text panes are functionally identical, but let you keep two different types of notes with one recording. There is also an image pane, which can include images, PDFs or PowerPoint presentations.

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How do you synchronise your notes or transcription with the audio to which it relates? Audio Notetaker does not do this automatically, but does allow you to insert section breaks which split the document into vertical sections. You can create these breaks with keyboard shortcuts. I would prefer it if Audio Notetaker automatically set hotlinks so that I could tell exactly what audio was playing when I made a note, but sections are nevertheless useful.

For example, if you have an interview, a logical approach would be to make each question and each answer a section. Then you can easily navigate to the answer you want.

You can use background colouring to further distinguish between sections.

A common problem with audio recordings is that they are at too low a level. Audio Notetaker has its own volume control which can boost the volume beyond what is possible with the Windows volume control.

There is also a noise cancellation button, to remove the dreaded hiss.

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Advanced features

Those are the basics; but Audio Notetaker has a few other capabilities.

One idea is that you might want to record the content of an online conference. For this purpose, you can record from any of your input or output devices (it might seem strange to record from an output device, but this is the equivalent of a “what you hear” setting).

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This approach is further supported by the ability to capture a screen and insert it into the document. When you choose the screen capture tool, you get a moveable, resizeable frame that you position over the area you want to capture.

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Another scenario is that you want to create a simple video with a PowerPoint slide show and an audio voiceover. You can do this by importing the PowerPoint and recording your speech, then choosing Export Audio and Images as Video (MP4 or WMV).

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You can also export the text and images in RTF format (suitable for most word processors).

Internally, Audio Notetaker uses Opus Audio Encoding which is an internet standard.

You can also have Audio Notetaker read back text to you using the Windows text to speech engine (I am not sure how this works on a Mac).

Final words

The best feature of Audio Notetaker is the way it lets you navigate an audio file. It is quicker to click on a bar in the panel than using a horizontal scroller or noting the time and going to that point.

The sections work OK but I would personally like some way of embedding notes that are hotlinked to points in the audio with a finer granularity than sections.

I am not sure of the value of features like importing PowerPoint slides, adding audio, and exporting as a video, when PowerPoint itself has support for narrations and export to video. I would prefer it if the developers focused on the core proposition in Audio Notetaker: making it easy to index, annotate and navigate speech recordings.

I would also like to see integration with a transcription service. Automated transcription would be great but does not usually work well with typical field recordings; more realistically, perhaps Sonocent could integrate with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or another service where humans will transcribe your recording for a fee.

Nevertheless, Audio Notetaker is nicely designed software that addresses a poorly-served niche; well worth consideration for journalists, students, secretaries, takers of minutes, or anyone who uses audio recordings as part of their workflow.

You can find Audio Notetaker on the Sonocent site, and obtain it as a free trial, or by subscription for a period, or with a perpetual licence. For example, six months for an individual license is £29.99; a perpetual licence is £95.99 (including VAT).

It is available for PC or Mac.

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.

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.