All posts by Tim Anderson

As Cisco closes down Flip, is device convergence finally happening?

Cisco is closing down the Flip video camera business it acquired with Pure Digital in May 2009:

Cisco will close down its Flip business and support current FlipShare customers and partners with a transition plan.

A sad day for Flip enthusiasts. The cool thing about a Flip device is that making a video is quick, easy and cheap. Most commentators say Flip is being killed because Smartphones now do this equally well; though this thoughtful post by Michael Mace says it is more to do with Cisco not understanding the consumer market, and being too slow to deliver upgraded Flip devices:

It’s almost impossible for any enterprise company to be successful in consumer, just as successful consumer companies usually fail in enterprise. The habits and business practices that make them a winner in one market doom them in the other.

Maybe it is a bit of both. I have a Flip and I rarely use it, though I am not really a good example since I take more still pictures than videos. Most of the time it stays at home, because I already have too many things to carry and too many devices to keep charged.

My problem though is that convergence is happening too slowly. I have slightly different requirements from most people. I do interviews so I need high quality recordings, and I take snaps which I use to illustrate posts and articles. I also do a lot of typing on the road.

This means I end up taking a Windows 7 netbook – I have given up travelling with a full-power laptop – for typing, email, and browsing the web.

The netbook has a built-in microphone which is rubbish, and an microphone input which I find does not work well either, so I carry a dedicated recorder as well. It is an antique, an iRiver H40, but with a 40GB hard drive, 6 hrs battery life on its original battery, and a decent microphone input with plug-in power, it still works well for me. I use a small Sony table microphone which gives me excellent quality, and that makes it possible to transcribe interviews even when there is background noise. Even though it is “only voice” I find that recording in high quality with a proper microphone is worth the effort; when the iRiver finally gives up I might go to something like the Edirol R-09HR to replace it. 

As for photos, I have tried using a smartphone but get better results from a dedicated Canon camera, so much so that it is worth carrying this extra device.

Of course I still need a mobile phone. I also tempted to pack a tablet or Amazon Kindle for  reading; but how many devices is too many?

I am still hopeful that I may find a smartphone with a camera that is good enough, and audio recording that is good enough, and maybe with an add-on keyboard I could leave the netbook at home as well; or take a tablet instead of a netbook.

But for now I am still weighed down with phone, camera, recorder, microphone and netbook. Roll on converged devices, I can’t wait!

Pentax looks to comic heroes to attract buyers

Pentax is a great name in cameras; I’ve always thought of it as an aspirational range. So this was unexpected:

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It looks kinda downmarket to me, despite wonder woman’s status as a classic super hero. Or you might prefer Green Lantern:

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Anyway, for a modest £119.99, from May 1st 2011, you will be able, to grab a DC Super Heroes RS100 collector pack, complete with 14 megapixel camera, 4GB SD card, 4x optical zoom, HD video recording, and a 3″ LCD screen. And did I mention the customisable front skin with a choice of seven super heroes according to your mood – you can easily change them thanks to a clip-on lens ring and transparent front plate.

There are other colourful options available at the Pentax Chameleon site.

Measuring the Freeloader Classic solar mobile charger

I wrote about the Freeloader Classic last month but at that time had not actually tried a unit. I was then sent one to look at but with mixed results. It arrived partially charged, so I opened it an put it on an inside window sill thinking it would charge fully in a few days.

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I was disappointed to find that the reverse happened; it actually lost its charge. It is as if there is a small power drain simply from attaching the panels, and if that exceeds what is delivered then the unit runs out of power.

To be fair though, the manual notes that being behind glass severely decreases the charging speed – down to around one third of that outside – because of UV filters in the glass. Further, England in March is not a good time for bright sunlight.

So how good is the Freeloader? I took some measurements.

Inside in a naturally lighted room, the Freeloader panel delivered just 0.4mA. Negligible.

Outside in early morning sunlight, this rises to 15 mA. Still very small.

However, outside in late morning sunlight, on a bright day, the panel managed over 65 mA and 6.5v. This is close to the rated spec of 75mA at 5.5v – the manual says 150mA but that is for two panels. In the picture below I’ve left the multimeter on hold to display the measurement.

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The battery in the Freeloader is 1200 mAh. So at 130 mA it would take 9.5 hours or so to charge.

These figure are not bad, and it is a great concept, but impractical for many of us. How much bright sunlight do you get? Can you leave it somewhere sunny, outside, and safe? How will it cope with downpours?

Solar Technology also offers a supercharger panel, twice as powerful at 1.5watt, and designed to attach to the back of a rucksack. That could work when you are out and about.

Escaping Apple: trying to switch away is hard

Mark Wadham posts his Thoughts on switching to Android. Last week he sold his iPhone 4 and switched to an HTC Desire S. I found this interesting, since I have an iPhone 4 and an HTC Desire.

The motive behind Wadham’s switch was to escape Apple’s “over-controlling ways”, rather than immediate dissatisfaction with its products, and there is mild disappointment running through his whole piece:

So in summary, android isn’t really /that/ far off the iPhone. It’s missing the cleanness of the user experience, consistency in the user interface and the glorious wealth of apps, but hopefully that will all come in time. This is a great little phone and I’m happy I made the switch. It’s not as fun to use as an iPhone, and if you’re a real UX freak you should probably stick with the iPhone at least for now, but if you’re someone who likes to tweak and customise and play around with your device android seems much more suited than Apple’s offering.

There is also some irony: HTC’s offering is not as free as he would like.

I would have loved to get rid of HTC Sense and install one of the modded roms like Cyanogen, but that currently isn’t possible due to restrictions HTC has placed on these new handsets …The good news is that, according to the research I’ve done, the root for the Desire S (and the incredible S) isn’t far off.Actually the worst thing about this phone is that it comes with a Facebook app that I can’t remove until it gets rooted.

Still, there is no question that Android is a less tightly controlled platform than iOS. The fact that you can install apps from outside Google’s Android Market is all you need to know.

In usability though, Android falls short. It lacks the obsessive attention to design that characterises Apple’s devices and software; and once you are used to iOS it is particularly hard to switch:

Eventually I got the hang of it, but even now after two days of playing and installing apps and tweaks, the UI still feels counter-intuitive and I have to consciously remember how to do things rather than it being obvious and simple like iOS.

One thing I have noticed since getting these two phones is the impact of Apple’s dock connector. There are countless iPhone/iPod docks and although there is often an option to use a non-Apple device with a mini-jack cable it is not as convenient or elegant. You cannot easily build a generic Android dock because there is no exact equivalent.

Another issue is apps. Once you have purchased a bunch of apps, you can transfer these to another iOS device. If you switch to Android, you have to start again.

There is also iTunes to think about. Let’s say you have got used to iTunes and have your music stored there. While it is possible to transfer non-DRM music to Android or other non-Apple devices, it is not necessarily obvious how to do so; and iTunes itself will only sync to Apple devices. Personally I am not a fan of iTunes; but I can see how it tends to encourage users to stick with Apple.

The bottom line is that escaping Apple requires some determination, once you are hooked into its ecosystem.

Does HDCD make CDs sound worse?

HDCD stands for High Definition Compatible Digital and was developed by Pacific Microsonics, a company acquired by Microsoft in 2000. HDCD encodes the signal on a standard CD in such a way that when decoded it has extended dynamic range and supposedly lower distortion – it is claimed to provide the near-equivalent to 20 bit audio despite the fact that CD is 16-bit.

The snag with HDCD is that not all players decode it. The idea is that HDCD is relatively benign in this respect, and HDCD-encoded CDs still sound good when played back without decoding.

Now audio engineer Steve Hoffman, who specialises in remastering classic CDs for maximum fidelity, says that HDCD actually makes CDs sound worse:

It degrades the sound and it bugs me. I’ve tried everything, every way and it just diminishes the fidelity.

Stephen Marsh, of Stephen Marsh Mastering, who works with Hoffman, adds:

In the interest of giving the HDCD system the fairest of all shakes, I again today ran our completed Bad Co. master through it D to D in 2 additional configurations. First I took our fully prepped, edited 24 bit/44.1 out of converter aes through the HDCD box, outputting 16/44.1 HDCD. Second – I took our 24/88.2 captures and ran those through the box to 16/44.1 HDCD. In both instances we found the HDCD box to be at least as detrimental to the sound as we heard while A to D’ing with it Friday – if not more! In particular – I listened to the HDCD encoded material in un-decoded fashion so I could get a sense of what most consumers are going to hear. Even through the best converters in the room the results were very unsettling: Namely – there was a dip at around 8K the took all the snap and sparkle out of the snare and deflated the air out of the tracks. Engaging the decoding circuits and monitoring through the HDCD D to A’s lent an overall ‘generic’ feel to the sound – it sounded fine, don’t get me wrong – but it didn’t sound special and was certainly not an improvement.

The HDCD concept has always bothered me as well. It is fixing a problem that does not need fixing: neither distortion, nor dynamic range is an issue with standard 16/44 CDs. The fact that not all CDs will be decoded correctly is a worry. Finally, any processing risks degrading the sound, and other things being equal the straightest path is the best.

I recall discovering back in the days of compact cassette that recording and playback with Dolby switched off generally sounded best, even though tape hiss on a cassette was a real problem that did need fixing.

Even if Hoffman and Marsh are wrong, and HDCD does sound better when properly decoded, the fact that it often is not properly decoded is good reason to steer clear.

Now that CDs are commonly ripped to a music server HDCD encoding is still problematic. Illustrate’s dBpoweramp has a decoder that creates a 24-bit file from HDCD-encoded CDs.

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Review: Lenco iPD-4500 portable iPod dock–zip up your sounds

Today’s gadget is an iPod travel dock with a few distinctive features. The Lenco iPD-4500 zips up to look like a sturdy travel bag; though at 250 x 180 x 80mm it is on the bulky side.

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It is not really a bag, but unzips to form an iPod dock in the base with speakers in the top.

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Although  it looks as if there are four speaker drivers it seems only the lower pair are active. The top panel is ported for better bass extension.

The unit has a built-in rechargeable NiMH battery which claims up to 8 hours of playback from a full charge. A mains adaptor is supplied. If mains power is on, then when seated in the dock, the iPod or iPhone charges, but not when on battery.

Along with the iPod dock there is a standard mini-jack input for non-Apple devices or smaller iPods. Controls on the device itself are limited to on-off and volume, but a compartment on the base unit opens to reveal a tiny remote, secured in a clip, with on-off, play-pause, track forward and back, and volume.

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Lenco also supplies a short mini-jack cable. I would have preferred a longer cable, since the short one will be awkward if you want to connect, say, a laptop for playing a movie; but of course you can use your own cable.

Sound quality

So how does it sound? Contrary to what I had expected from the advertised “bass boost”, this is not a particularly bass-heavy or boomy unit but has a pleasantly balanced sound. It is important to set your expectations. No, the iPD-4500 does not sound as good as docks geared more for home use, that are heavier, larger and more expensive. Compare it to the tiny speaker in an iPhone though, and it is a massive improvement. I rate it one of the better-sounding travel docks I have tried. It is worth experimenting with position too; you can get a weightier sound by positioning the dock near a wall or in a corner. As with any audio device, I recommend hearing it before purchase if possible.

According to the rather uninformative specifications there are 2 x 3W speakers, though without qualification 3W does not mean much. What you really want to know is how loud it goes; and the answer is loud enough for enjoying music in a hotel room or a small tent; but not loud enough if you really want to rock out or drown out significant background noise.

Design and appearance

It has to be said, this is not a beautiful device. A colleague said it looks like a toasted sandwich maker; and I see her point. It does not bother me because I care more about the convenience and the sound, but it is a factor.

I also noticed that the hinged panel which gives access to the front compartment tends to catch when you try to close it so needs to be operated with care.

On the plus side, when zipped up the iPD-4500 does feel securely protected from knocks and bumps, and I would be more confident about subjecting this to the rough and tumble of travel luggage than with most portable speakers.

A flaw is that the mains adaptor does not fit in the pouch, but has to be carried separately. Further, if you were camping rather than in a hotel, it might not be easy to recharge. A car adaptor would be worth considering.

Value for money

The iPD-4500 is on offer for around £75.00 which is at the upper end of the price range for a portable iPod dock. Then again, it sounds good, includes a rechargeable battery and a remote, and has a particularly robust integrated case.

It still strikes me as a premium price; and bear in mind that the Logitech Rechargeable Speaker S315i, for example, claims up to 20 hours playback, though with no remote, and plays somewhat louder. The S315i is nominally more expensive, but seems widely discounted to below the price of the iPD-4500.

What might swing it is if you particularly like the sound quality, or if the strong packaging suits your travelling lifestyle.

 

More germs on an iPhone than on a toilet seat? Proporta’s screen protectors kill the other kind of bugs.

Today’s inbox brings the disturbing news that:

In independent laboratory tests, the E. coli population on an untreated screen protector soared from 200,000 to 13 million in 24 hours.

Note the inclusion of the word “untreated” in this sentence, preparing us for the good news that:

The unique SteriTouch® coating on Proporta Antimicrobial Screen Protectors not only prevent this unbridled growth, but eradicates the E. coli completely.

The idea is that touch screens get, well, touched a lot; possibly even by more than one person. Touching spreads germs, so if you want to be safe maybe Proporta’s new “anti-bacterial germ resistant advanced screen protector with steritouch for iPad2” is just the thing for you. Bug-zapping screen protectors are also available for iPhone4, iPod touch, HTC Desire HD, Blackberry Torch, and Samsung Galaxy S2.

If this sounds like your thing, head over to Proporta’s site where you can also learn that

the average mobile has 25,127 germs per square inch, whilst the average toilet seat has just 49.

While quoting this sounds like a great way of annoying an Apple fanperson, the scientist in me would like a bit more information please. What about other things in our life that are touched frequently, door handles for example? How does the risk from using an “untreated” mobile device compare with that from, say, shaking hands with someone? Or travelling on the London Underground in the rush hour?

I am all in favour of a cleaner, healthier world; though I also recall theories that too much hygiene can be counter-productive since the body’s built-in defences need some enemies to munch on in order to operate at full efficiency. It makes some kind of intuitive sense.

Still, if you would like your shiny new Apple iPad2 to be more germ-free than a toilet seat, it looks like an Antimicrobial Screen Protector is the answer.

Amazon introduces its cloud player – but Spotify makes more sense

Amazon has introduced its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive offers 5GB of online storage free, with further storage available for a fee. For example, an additional 15GB costs $20 per year, and you can have a full 1000GB for $1000 per year.

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Having said that, a note in the FAQ says that:

The 5 GB free storage plan is available to all Amazon.com customers, however further upgrades to the storage plan are currently unavailable in the following countries

where the list is of countries in Europe including the UK.

The Cloud Drive looks nicely implemented except that there is no provision as far as I can tell for sharing. It is an odd omission, unless Amazon sees Cloud Drive as mainly for storing personal music and media purchases and wishes to discourage breach of copyright, so I am guessing this is the case. This does make rivals like Microsoft’s SkyDrive more interesting for general cloud storage though, particularly as you get 25GB free with SkyDrive.

So on to the Cloud Player. There are two versions, a web player that is part of Cloud Drive, and an Android player which is part of the Amazon MP3 application. My first attempt at using the web player failed – US customers only:

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However, when I uploaded some MP3 files to the Cloud Drive they played fine in the Cloud Player:

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I tried the Android player briefly. It worked well with MP3s already on my device, but I have not yet attempted to sign into the Cloud Drive.

There is no player for Apple iOS and when I visited the site in mobile Safari even the web player did not appear, though this may be another UK/USA issue.

Naturally Amazon is encouraging use of Cloud Drive and Cloud Player with its MP3 store. The idea is that you no longer need bother to download MP3 files. Just store them in Cloud Drive, and play them wherever you are, though download remains an option either on purchase or later from the Cloud Drive.

A few observations. Cloud Drive is a welcome feature, though it is nothing new and crippled by lack of sharing capability. Other applications built on Amazon S3 cloud storage do include the ability to share files.

Cloud Player enhances the Amazon MP3 store and I suppose is worth having, though I am sceptical about this model of music purchase. Once you have moved the focus of music storage from local drives to the cloud, and playback from the local network to cloud streaming, then a subscription model that offers everything available on the service makes more sense. This is what Spotify does successfully, though I appreciate that not all music is available on Spotify, and that some countries including the USA cannot use it.

I wonder what happens when you store an MP3 purchase in Cloud Drive? Does Amazon really store a separate copy for every user, or does it simply link to its master copy so that it appears to be in your personal space? The latter would save storage space; and the idea shows that technically it might not be difficult for Amazon to transition from a model based on individual track purchase to one based on all-you-can-hear subscription.

Agreeing this with the music labels and making financial sense of such a deal is another matter; but I hope that this new Cloud Player is a step in that direction.

Fixing modern plastic junk that should be thrown away

I have a Canon MX700 all-in-one printer. I have written about it before. It went wrong and would do nothing but issue a sullen error 6a80. I discovered a way of clearing the error but still could not print; I remarked:

I now think that somehow cleaning up this part of the printer (which is hard to get at) could fix it.

This weekend the time came to prove it, or else to chuck it away. I should have thrown it away. Even though I pretty much fixed it, the time it took and the frustration it caused was really not worth it. Well, it could be worth it if you enjoy such things as a hobby; I am not sure if I do, but I do hate throwing stuff away that can be made to work with a bit of effort, so I guess I get some satisfaction from the process.

Technically of course the correct advice is to get a machine like this fixed by an authorised Canon service engineer, but this is not cost-effective for a three-year-old cheapish all-in-one inkjet printer. It might well have cost more than a new printer of better specification. A skilled engineer would have worked faster than I worked; but you have to get the machine to her and back again; it still takes a certain amount of time to strip a machine down, clean it up and re-assemble it; a professional engineer would probably have replaced parts that I was happy to clean up and re-use, so there would have been a parts cost; and there is an overhead of invoicing and so on; it is not surprising that the costs mount up.

My further observation is that machines like this which are mostly clipped together are not designed for extensive servicing. It is hard to take it apart without breaking a few delicate plastic clips or tabs. I guess once you learn exactly where to tug and how hard to press you get better at it; but clip on parts are not ideal if you plan to remove and re-assemble them with any frequency.

If we were serious about reducing waste we would address this. For example, if you require manufacturers to offer extended warranties as standard, then it is in their interests to make products that are more reliable and more fixable.

In the meantime, fools like me waste time fixing modern plastic junk that should be thrown away.

15 minutes with the Nintendo 3DS

Today I got to try a Nintendo 3DS for the first time. A few first impressions.

It is a neat unit though it feels a little flimsy compared to the original DS or the DS Lite. I like the charging dock that comes in the box. Here it is, complete with genuine user fingerprints. The joystick (or circle pad) on the left is beautifully responsive.

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My first question was: what is the 3D like? The answer is that it really works.

I spent some time playing with the Augmented Reality game, where you lay cards on a table, point the 3DS rear cameras at them, and see magic happen as three dimensional creatures emerge, intermingled with the real world around them.

Photographing this takes more skill than I possess, but to give you the idea, here are four Augmented Reality cards (all in the box as standard) that I have laid on the desk:

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and here is a snap of the 3DS top screen viewing those cards in the AR game:

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You cannot see it from this image, but the 3D effect is vivid, and the background is the desk on which the cards are placed. A gimmick, but an engaging one.

The built-in AR game is a lot of fun and makes use of the AR background in that you have to pan the camera around the targets to shoot successfully, something which cannot be reproduced in a purely screen-based game.

What about eye strain? I am not sure; but the 3D screen did seem to strain my eyes slightly. There is a slider which lets you reduce or disable the 3D effect easily, so the eye strain possibility should not deter you, except that since you are paying for a 3D device it is a shame not to use it.

There is a lot more packed into the 3Ds though. It has an accelerometer and gyroscope, one front and two rear (for 3D) cameras, and wireless LAN that supports WPA/WPA2 at last – this was an annoyance with the older WEP-only models.

The software has the usual Nintendo quality, complete with the ability to create Mii avatars similar to those on the Wii, but this time they can be based on a snapshot of someone’s face taken with the built-in camera.

The downside versus the original DS is the battery life – just 3-5 hours.

Still, DS fans will love the 3DS. But will it grow its market? I’m doubtful. A lot of the market for casual gaming has passed to smartphones now; and for someone with a modern smartphone, the 3DS duplicates a lot of functionality. Few smartphones have 3D of course, though I did see the LG Optimus 3D at Mobile World Congress last month.

But how important a feature is 3D? That is an open question, and I guess depends on how much difference it makes to gameplay. My quick impression is that while it is truly impressive when first encountered, it is something you soon feel you could manage without – but that is only a quick impression and I could be proved wrong.