All posts by Tim Anderson

Wireless power at Mobile World Congress: no more chargers?

At Mobile World Congress Fulton Innovation was showing off its wireless power technology called eCoupled. We are accustomed to the idea of transmitting data wirelessly, but less familiar with wireless power. It is possible though, and I saw several examples. One of the most striking but least useful is this cereal box, printed with conductive ink, which lights up when placed on a special shelf – the inset image shows the same packet before the title lit up.

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The technology has plenty of potential though. I travelled to Barcelona with a case full of chargers, and the idea of simply placing them on a charging shelf instead is compelling; this is already possible and I saw several examples. The Wireless Power Consortium has created a wireless power standard called Qi:

It will be no surprise to see Qi stations in the office, hotels, airports, railway stations as part of the normal infrastructure that offers wireless power charging service

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On the eCoupled site you can see some other ideas, like kitchen appliances that work simply by being placed on a powered surface:

eCoupled will one day integrate into the walls and surfaces of your home. If you’re watching the big game, the TV won’t need to be plugged in. Power will be delivered wirelessly via the eCoupled-enabled wall. In the kitchen, a multipurpose countertop will allow you to mix, chop, blend and boil all on the same powered surface. There will be no cords to plug in, or outlets to worry about.

The technology allows data transmission as well, so the glowing cereal box can also report when it has passed its sell-by date. Now that might actually serve a purpose.

Farewell to Bizarre Creations, makers of Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars

It is hard to understand why some of the best game studios go out of business, while lesser ones (I am not going to mention names) continue. The last time I felt like this was when Ensemble Studios, makers of Age of Empires, was closed by Microsoft. Today it is the turn of Activision’s Bizarre Creations, based in Liverpool.

There are countless racing games, but when I encountered Project Gotham Racing on the original Xbox I knew it was special. It is a hard game which rewards skill; you will not get far if you simply try to charge round the track. It is also street racing, with superb graphics capturing well-known locations like London and San Francisco. The graphics got better in the later versions of the game, but for gameplay I still have an affection for the first one.

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The other I will mention is Geometry Wars, which started as a mini-game in Project Gotham Racing 2, but came into its own as an arcade game for the Xbox 360. This one cannot be captured in a screenshot: it is where gaming meets art, creating fantastic visions of light and colour as you charge round the screen trying desperately to stay alive.

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Apparently the relative lack of success of the critically acclaimed but poor-selling game Blur, released in 2010, was the beginning of the end for Bizarre Creations.

Laments and memories can be found in the official forum here and also on neoGAF. Farewell video here.

Thank you to Bizarre Creations for some of the best gaming moments of my life.

Motorola Atrix – the future of the laptop?

I took a closer look at the Motorola Atrix on display here at Mobile World Congress. This is a smartphone built on NVidia’s Tegra 2 dual-core chipset. I’m interested in the concept as much as the device. Instead of carrying a laptop and a smartphone, you use the smartphone alone when out and about, or dock to a laptop-like screen and keyboard when at a desk. The dock has its own 36Wh battery so you are not tied to mains power.

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The Atrix has a few extra tricks as well. HDMI out enables HD video. An audio dock converts it to a decent portable music player.

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The smartphone also morphs into a controller if you use Motorola’s alternative dock, designed for fully external keyboard and screen.

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It is a compelling concept, though there is a little awkwardness in the way Motorola has implemented it. The Atrix has two graphical shells installed. One is Android. The other is a an alternative Linux shell which Motorola calls Webtop. While you can freely download apps to Android, the Webtop has just a few applications pre-installed by Motorola, and with no official way to add further applications. One of them is Firefox, so you can browse the web using a full-size browser.

The disconnect between Android and Webtop is mitigated by the ability to run Android within Webtop, either in its own smartphone-sized window, or full screen.

Personally I prefer the idea of running Android full screen, even though it is not designed for a laptop-sized screen, as I do not like the idea of having two separate sets of apps. That seems to miss the point of having a single device. On the other hand, Webtop does enable non-Android apps to run on Atrix, so I can see the value it adds.

Leaving that aside, I do think this is a great idea and one that I expect to become important. After all, if you do not think  Tegra 2 is quite powerful enough, you could wait for some future version built on the quad-core Tegra 3 (name not yet confirmed), which NVidia says is five times faster, and which may turn up in Smartphones late in 2011.

The LG Optimus 3D is amazing

Today I got to see the LG Optimus 3D here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I was impressed. Of course I cannot really capture it in a pic; but here it is anyway.

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It really is 3D, which is amazing after a lifetime of 2D screens, and with no spectacles required.

The trick is that there are two screen images. When you look at the screen, your right eye gets a slightly different angle on the screen than your left eye. The technology uses that different angle to deliver a different image to each eye. At least, this is how it was explained to me.

There is also a dual-lens camera so you can take your own 3D pics and videos. The Optimus 3D has a 1GHz OMAP4 dual-core processor, and HDMI output for connection to high resolution external displays.

3D is cool and makes for some immersive games. But how much extra will customers be willing to pay for 3D on a Smartphone? Interesting question.

HTC’s new Android tablet has a stylus

A big surprise here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: HTC’s new tablet, the HTC Flyer, comes with a stylus. “People can rediscover the natural act of writing,” says the press release.

My first reaction is that this a mistake. I have had tablets with pens before, and while I like the ability to take notes, I also find the pen a nuisance. They are awkward in confined spaces like an economy seat in an aeroplane, and expensive to lose. HTC’s pen is battery powered, so I suppose you could also have the annoyance of a pen that runs out of juice. HTC’s stylus does not clip into a bay on the device, but does have a dedicated pocket in the case.

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On the plus side, you can write, draw and annotate content using the pen, which has a variety of settings for colour and tip. For some tasks, a pen is the ideal implement.

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The device does have other attractions. The pre-release devices have Android 2.4, but HTC says it may well run Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, which is designed for tablets, by the time it is launched in Q2 2011 or soon after. It has a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset; 7” screen; 1024 x 600 resolution; 1GB RAM and 32GB storage, expandable with micro SD cards. Battery is said provide 4 hours of video playback, which sounds less than ideal. HTC will also offer a video download service “HTC Watch”.

A feature which will be familiar to OneNote users is called Timemark. This lets you take notes which synch to an audio recording, so tapping a word in your notes takes you to that point in the audio. Notes also synchronize with Evernote, a cloud-based note synchronization service.

Viewsonic ViewPad 10 Pro does Windows and Android – but Windows first

Viewsonic has announced the ViewPad 10 Pro, a 10” tablet that runs both Microsoft Windows 7 and Google Android 2.2.

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I saw the ViewPad 10 Pro briefly this morning here at Mobile World Congress. Specs include Intel Oak Trail chipset, 2GB RAM, 32GB storage, and front-facing camera for conferencing.

The big appeal of the ViewPad 10 Pro, successor to the ViewPad 10, is that it runs Android as well as Windows. Just tap a button, and Android appears in place of Windows.

Sounds good; but as Viewsonic explained how this works I became doubtful. Apparently Android runs in a virtual machine on top of Windows. I have nothing against virtualization; but this approach does suggest some compromises in terms of Android performance and efficiency. No matter how clever Viewsonic has been in its implementation, some resources will still be devoted to Windows during an Android session and battery life will be less good than it might be.

I can see more sense in running Android first, for the sake of its speed and efficiency on low-power hardware, and Windows in virtualization for when you need to dip into Excel or some other Windows application.

The upside of this approach is that you can switch between the two without having to to do a hard reboot.

Viewsonic says you will be able to get one of these in your hands around May 2011.

Dear BBC: please give us mobile apps for offline viewing

The BBC has announced apps for Android and iPad, sparking a bad-tempered discussion (see the comments) in which users complain about two things:

1. The requirement for Flash 10.1 or higher on Android, which limits it to Android 2.2

2. The fact that catch-up viewing is only available on-demand, as on the Web, and not for offline viewing.

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Both are interesting points, but to my mind the first is the biggest deal. As one of the commenters observes:

As people have pointed out you can use the web interface to watch so using up valuable memory on a phone for an app that does the same thing essentially is not very useful!

By contrast, the ability to download two or three programmes for viewing on the train or plane would be a huge feature. Downloaded video is also more robust even when you are online, thanks to the variability of typical wifi or 3G connections.

Storage is an issue, but not such a bad one now that cards with 16GB or more are commonplace. My HTC Desire currently has 14GB free on the storage card – plenty for a few videos in quality suitable for a tiny screen.

Apple’s devices do not support add-on storage cards, but even the cheapest iPhone 4 has 16GB of storage, as does the iPad.

Failing that, I would rather see the BBC invest in optimising its web site for mobile, rather than creating apps that add little value. See my earlier post, Why I don’t want to view bbc.co.uk through an app.

Too much to ask? The BBC’s Nick Reynolds promises a follow-up post next week, so perhaps we will discover then.

Fixing a laptop screen

When a friend showed me their two-year old Toshiba laptop that had suddenly developed a fault, I was not optimistic. The screen was showing a blur of horizontal lines and you could not even make out the image Windows was trying to show. Likely a faulty screen, but is it an economical repair?

I verified that it was only the screen that was faulty by connecting to an external display, which worked fine. Then I took a closer look at the faulty screen. I noticed that if I pressed the upper left screen trim, it started working. Release the pressure, and the lines reappeared. That seemed to me a good sign.

The last time I tangled with a laptop screen was a few years back. At that time, with the models I looked at, you had to remove the keyboard and numerous other parts to get at the screen; but it seems that it is simpler now. I removed the battery and power, and then unscrewed four screws in the screen trim, following which I could pop off the screen trim by gently prising it away. This enabled me to look at the back of the screen, where the model number was shown. It was a Samsung LCD screen. I figured it would probably be cheaper to search for the Samsung part, rather than finding out what Toshiba would charge for a replacement.

It turns out that a new screen is available for around £75-£85 from sites like this one. Probably worth it for a decent laptop just a couple of years old. The following video, from the same site, shows what is typically involved – though be warned, your particular laptop may be different.

Still, I was wondering if it needed a new screen at all. It might just be a loose connection, since I could fix it with finger pressure. I removed the screen completely by unscrewing it from its bracket, so I could easily get at the VGA connection. I lifted a small piece of tape and removed the connector. Then I reinserted it, pressing it home firmly. Reassembled the screen, replaced the battery and turned on.

Since then, no fault. Who knows, it may recur, but for nothing more than a short time with a screwdriver I am glad to have extended the life of this particular laptop.

PS If you try the above, you do so at your own risk. It is easy to do further damage, so if in doubt consult a specialist.

AVI preparing a successor to the ADM 9.1 – the floorstanding ADM 40

AVI is a small British hi-fi manufacturer who advocate active loudspeakers; its AVI 9.1 (recently lightly revised as the AVI 9T) is widely liked for its clean uncoloured sound and lack of clutter – all you need is a digital source. However the 9T lacks grunt and until now the recommended solution has been the companion subwoofer, which adds a substantial £800 to the cost. The 9T is £1125 so that is not far short of £2000 for the pair, making the value for money less impressive.

Now the company is preparing an all-in-one successor to the 9.1 – the floorstanding, 3-way active ADM 40. From what we know so far:

750 watt per-channel RMS amplification
3-way active crossover
8 inputs
Remote control

It will be possible to fine-tune the bass via the remote control; there will also be a companion iPhone app.

How much? According to AVI man Ashley James “under £3000 definitely, hopefully £2500”.

Hitherto AVI has been opposed to full-range loudspeakers, claiming that smaller two-way loudspeakers supplemented by a subwoofer is a better solution. Why the change of heart?

We don’t like typical three way lower crossovers because they are in the middle of the most music. Even  phase perfect ones are still reversing it and back again!!

However we’ve found that you get 95% of the intermod reduction by crossing over at 100 Hhz, a noticeable increase in clarity and dynamic range and the bass can be adjusted to suit rooms and program material, in this instance by remote, which isn’t possible with an old fashioned three way. And there’s an LFE input, so it’s a win win situation in a comparatively small speaker because we can use a Sub driver and not one for a three way.

says James.

On the face of it the ADM 40 will be better value than the ADM 9T plus subwoofer, as well as more convenient; one fewer box has to be a good thing. Then again, can AVI really deliver something as good as the 9T but with full range? The proof will be in the hearing.

There is a review of the ADM 9.1, similar to the 9T, here.

Update – oh dear:

We can’t get the performance from a floor stander and they cost disproportionately more for limited demand, so we’ve dropped the idea.

seems to be the latest news.

Surround sound 5.1 headphones–why and why not. Roccat Kave reviewed

There is something counter-intuitive about 5.1 headphones. Headphones just look so stereo. Can you really create the surround sound illusion with the speakers so close to the ears?

It turns out you can, or at least sufficiently so to make these Kave 5.1 headphones from Roccat a satisfying product. They are intended primarily as gaming headphones, which explains the attached microphone, though it could be handy for Skype calls and other such uses as well. Another common use is for movies, where surround sound adds to the drama and sense of immersion. They are not really intended for music; but I found them pretty good for that as well.

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What you get is a set of closed-back headphones with a relatively fat cable and an inline control box. The cable has four two-channel mini-jacks, one each for front pair, center and subwoofer, read pair, and microphone input, as well as a USB connector which supplies power and enables communication between the control box and the PC. You can flip open a panel on the control box to reveal channel sliders and to switch between “game” and “movies”.

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Installation is a matter of plugging the cables into your sound card and a USB port. You need a 5.1 sound card, since there is no decoder in the Kave. Another point of interest: the volume control and mute on the control box directly control the volume and mute on the PC, but the 5.1 balance controls operate on the signal after it is received from the sound care; at least, that is what I observed on my test system.

The plugs are colour-coded; I also found the Windows 7 5.1 configuration utility handy for checking that I had the connections right.

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There is a CD in the box but it does not contain any drivers as none is necessary. It does have a 5.1 demo video and a manual.

I tried the Kave with a variety of game, movie and music DVDs. In general I was impressed; but it is important to set expectations. I am a fan of Sennheiser headphones and use the high-end HD600 as well as a variety of cheaper sets. In comparison with the Sennheiser models the Kave is enjoyable but unrefined, and for listening in stereo a traditional set of headphones is probably what you want.

Equally, if you have a full home cinema setup and sit in the sweet spot with carefully-positioned loudspeakers and a proper sub, the Kave cannot compete favourably.

The point though is that such a setup is both expensive and often impractical; sometimes you need to listen privately or in another room.

In this context, and given a 5.1 mix, the Kave has real advantages, even for music. It is curious. I played with the sliders to compare the sound of the front and rear channels, and found that the positional difference is subtle and hard to detect. If you play a 5.1 mix with the Kave though, and then play the same downmixed to stereo, the sound is flat in comparison, in ways that even the purer hi-fi sound of something like the HD600 cannot altogether compensate for.

The benefit of true 5.1 sound is sometimes apparent in details that you can more easily hear, and sometimes a matter of a more three-dimensional sound.

The sub in the Kave is puny compared to a real one, but does add some grunt to games and movies. Confusingly, Rokkat also calls this a “Vibration unit” which lets them say that the Kave has “adjustable vibration” – all this means is that you can vary the level of the sub channel as you would expect. There is no additional vibration unit.

It is a compromise, and if possible you should try to hear the Kave in comparison with a high quality stereo set before making a decision; or ideally have both so that you can choose the best option for a particular title.

The Kave is on the heavy side but comfortable to wear. It has a blue neon light at the headphone end of the microphone stalk, and another which lights up when the microphone is muted; this is meant to look stylish and futuristic though will not appeal if your tastes are more towards the understated.

The Kave folds for convenience though it is hardly worth it as they are still somewhat bulky. The multiple connections and awkward control box make the Kave best suited for semi-permanent installation in a desktop PC, rather than something you would use on your travels.

Given its suitability for gaming, it is a shame that the Kave cannot be used easily with an Xbox 360 or PS3, though with adaptors you should be able to get it working, remote volume aside. It should work fine with a Mac though, if you have a suitable soundcard.

I do not mean to be negative. I was pleased with the Kave, which offers an excellent listening experience, recommended for games for movies and enjoyable for music as well.

Summary

Good points: Comfortable headphones that offer a taste of real 5.1 sound; well made and high quality.

Bad points: Multiple connections and floating control box can be inconvenient.

Summary: Real 5.1 sound headphones and most enjoyable, though less refined than stereo sets at a similar price level.