Gadget Writing

Welcome to Gadget Writing. This is where you will find articles and reviews on hi-fi and consumer technology.

Surface Go: Microsoft has another go at a budget tablet

Microsoft has announced Surface Go, a cheaper, smaller model to sit at the budge end of its Surface range of tablets and laptops.

The new model starts at $399, will be available for pre-order today in selected territories, and ships on August 2nd.

In the UK, the Surface Go is £379 inc VAT for 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, or £509.99 inc VAT for 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.

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I go back a long way with Surface, having been at the launch of the first device, Surface RT, back in 2012. The device was a flop, but I liked it. The design was genuinely innovative and sought to make sense of a Windows in transition from desktop-only to a viable touch/tablet device. It failed primarily because of the poor range of available apps, lack of user acceptance for Windows 8, and somewhat underpowered hardware. There were also keyboard issues: the fabric-based Touch keyboard was difficult to use because it gave no tactile feedback, and the Type keyboard less elegant and still somewhat awkward.

Surface Pro came next, and while it was more useful thanks to full Windows 8 and an Intel Core i5 CPU, it was disappointing, with battery life issues and a tendency to stay on in your bag, overheating and wasting battery. There were other niggling issues.

The big disappointment of Surface for me is that even with full, Apple-like control over hardware and software, the devices have not been trouble-free.

Another issue today is that Windows 10 is not designed for touch in the same way as Windows 8. Therefore you rarely see Windows tablets used as tablets; they are almost always used as laptops, even if they are 2-in-1 devices. The original kickstand design is therefore rather pointless. If I got another Surface it would be a Surface Laptop or Surface Book.

Of course they are not all bad. It is premium hardware and some of the devices are delightful to use and perform well. They are expensive though, and I suggest careful comparison with what you can get for the same money from partners like HP, Lenovo and others.

What about this one? Key specs:

  • 10″ screen, kickstand design
  • 1800 x 1200 (217 PPI) resolution
  • 8.3mm thick
  • USB-C 3.1 port, MicroSD, headphone jack socket
  • Intel® Pentium® Gold Processor 4415Y
  • Windows Hello camera supporting face-recognition log in
  • Up to nine hours battery life
  • Intel® HD Graphics 615
  • Display supports Surface Pen with 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity
  • Signature Type Cover with trackpad supporting 5-point gestures
  • Windows Hello face authentication camera (front-facing)
  • 5.0 MP front-facing camera with 1080p Skype HD video
  • 8.0 MP rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD video
  • Single microphone
  • 2W stereo speakers with Dolby® Audio™ Premium

It sounds a great deal for £379 or $399 but you will pay more, for three reasons:

  • The base spec is minimal in terms of RAM and SSD storage and you will want the higher model
  • The Type Cover is essential and will cost – a Pro Type Cover is $159.99 and this may be a bit less
  • The Surface Pen is £99.99 or $99.99

This means your $399 will soon be $550 or more.

It could still be a good deal if it turns out to be a nice device. The Hello camera is a plus point, but where I would particularly recommend a Surface is if you want Pen support. Microsoft is good at this. Unfortunately I do not get on well with pen input, but some people do, and for artists and designers it is a real advantage.

TalkTalk’s new Sagemcom FAST 5364 Router and WiFi Hub

TalkTalk has a new router available to its 4 million broadband customers in the UK. The router is made by Sagemcom and called the FAST 5364. The company will sell you one for £120 here but it comes for free if you get the Faster Fibre Broadband package; or for £30 with the Fast Broadband package.

TalkTalk’s previous router was the Huawei HG633 or for some luckier customers the HG635, or perhaps a DLINK DSL3782. The HG633 is a poor product with slow WiFi performance and 100 Mbps Ethernet ports. The FAST 5364 looks like an effort to put things right. It is not worth £120 (you can get a better 3rd-party router for that money) but it is well worth £30 as an upgrade.

The router comes in a smart box with a big emphasis on the step-by-step guide to getting started.

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The router itself has a perforated plastic case with a flip-out stand. On the back are four Gigabit Ethernet ports, a WAN port, a VDSL/ADSL Broadband port, a WPS button and an on-off switch. There is also a recessed Reset button.

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A handy feature is that the WiFi details are on a removable panel. The router admin password is on the back label but not on the removeable panel – better for security.

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Getting started

Presuming you are a TalkTalk customer, it should just be a matter of connecting the cables and turning on. In my case it took a little longer as I am not a TalkTalk consumer customer. I connected up, then logged into the admin at http://192.168.1.1 to enter my username and password for the internet connection, following which I was online. An LED on the front turns from amber to white to confirm.

There is an oddity though. The FAST 5364 has a red Ethernet port marked WAN. This should be suitable for connecting to a cable modem or any internet connection via Ethernet. However when I tried to use this it did not work, but kept on trying to connect via ADSL/VDSL. Either this is deliberately disabled, or this is a firmware bug.

Performance and specification

The good news is that performance on the FAST 5364 is good. Here is the spec:

Antennas: 4×4 5GHz and 3×3 2.4GHz

WiFi: 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) and MU-MIMO 5GHz Wi-Fi (802.11 a/n/ac)

Broadband: ADSL2+ & VDSL2

A point of interest here is that the WiFi supports a technology called Beamforming. This uses an array of antennas to optimise the signal. It is called Beamforming because it shapes the the beam according to the location of the client.

In addition, MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multi-input, Multi-output) means that multiple WiFi streams are available, so multiple users can each have a dedicated stream. This means better performance when you have many users. TalkTalk claims up to 50 devices can connect with high quality.

Features

The FAST 5364 is managed through a web browser. Like many devices, it has a simplified dashboard along with “Advanced settings”.

From the simple dashboard, you can view status, change WiFi network name and password, and not much else.

If you click Manage my devices and then Manage advanced settings, you get to another dashboard.

Then you can click Access Control, where you get to manage the firewall, and set the admin password for the router.

Or you can click TalkTalk WI-Fi Hub, where you get more detailed status information, and can manage DHCP, Light control (literally whether the LED lights up or not), DNS (this sets the DNS server which connected clients use), DynDNS (which supports several dynamic DNS providers, not just DynDNS), Route for adding static routes, and Maintenance for firmware updates, logs, and setting an NTP server (so your router knows the time and date).

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Or you can click Internet Connectivity so you can set a DNS server to be used on the WAN side as well as username, password and other settings if you cannot connect automatically.

Firewall and port forwarding

The firewall in your router is critically important for security. Further, users often want to configure port forwarding to enable multi-user online gaming or other services to work.

Dealing with this can be fiddly so most modern routers support a feature called UPnP which lets devices on your network request port forwarding automatically.

Personally I dislike UPnP because it is a security risk if an insecure device is present on your network (cheap security cameras are a notorious example). I like to control which ports are forwarded manually. That said, UPnP is better in some ways since it allows the same port to be forwarded to different devices depending on what is in use. It is a trade-off. Ideally you should be able to specify which devices are allowed to use UPnP but that level of control is not available here. Instead, you can turn UPnP on or off.

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On the Port Forwarding screen, you can add rules manually, or select Games and Applications, which automatically sets the rules for the selected item if you specify its IP address on the network.

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You can get to this same screen via Connected Devices, in which case the IP address of the selected device is pre-populated.

The Firewall management gives you four levels:

Low: Allow all traffic both LAN->WAN and WAN->LAN. Not recommended, but not quite as bad as it sounds since NAT will give you some protection.

Medium: Allow all traffic LAN->WAN. Block NETBIOS traffic WAN->LAN. This is the default. More relaxed than I would like, presuming it means that all other traffic WAN->LAN is allowed, which is the obvious interpretation.

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High: Allow common protocols LAN->WAN. Block all traffic WAN->LAN. A good secure setting but could be annoying since you will not be able to connect to non-standard ports and will probably find some web sites or applications not working as they should.

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Custom: This seems to be the High setting but shown as custom rules, with the ability to add new rules. Thus with some effort you could set a rule to allow all traffic LAN->WAN, and block all traffic WAN->LAN except where you add a custom rule. To my mind this should be the default.

Most home users will never find this screen so it seems that TalkTalk is opening up its customers to a rather insecure setup by default, especially if there are bugs discovered in the router firmware.

I am asking TalkTalk about this and will let you know the response.

Missing features

The most obvious missing feature, compared to previous TalkTalk routers, is the lack of any USB port to attach local storage. This can be useful for media sharing. It is no great loss though, as you would be better off getting a proper NAS device and attaching it to one of the wired Ethernet ports.

Next, there is no provision for VPN connections. Of course you can set up a VPN endpoint on another device and configure the firewall to allow the traffic.

I cannot see a specific option to set a DHCP reservation, though I suspect this happens automatically. This is important when publishing services or even games, as the internal IP must not change.

There is no option to set a guest WiFi network, with access to the internet but not the local network.

Overall I would describe the router and firewall features as basic but adequate.

TalkTalk vs third party routers

Should you use a TalkTalk-supplied router, or get your own? There are really only a couple of reasons to use the TalkTalk one. First, it comes free or at a low price with your broadband bundle. Second, if you need support, the TalkTalk router is both understood and manageable by TalkTalk staff. Yes, TalkTalk can access your router, via the TR-069 protocol designed for this purpose (and which you cannot disable, as far as I can tell). If you want an easy life with as much as possible automatically configured, it makes sense to use a TalkTalk router.

That said, if you get a third-party router you can make sure it has all the features you need and configure it exactly as you want. These routers will not be accessible by TalkTalk staff. I would recommend this approach if you have anything beyond basic connectivity needs, and if you want the most secure setup. Keep a TalkTalk router handy in case you need to connect it for the sake of a support incident.

Final remarks

TalkTalk users are saying that the new router performs much better than the old ones (though this is not a high bar). For example:

“this is a very very good router with strong stable wifi. It is a massive upgrade to any of the routers supplied currently and its not just the wifi that is better. I get 16 meg upload now was 14 before”

That sounds good, and really this is a much better device than the previous TalkTalk offerings.

My main quibble is over the questionable default firewall settings. The browser UI is not great but may well improve over time. Inability to use the WAN port with a cable modem is annoying, and it would be good to see a more comprehensive range of features, though given that most users just want to plug in and go, a wide range of features is not the most important thing.

On Face Unlock

Face unlock is a common feature on premium (and even mid-range) devices today. Notable examples are Apple with the iPhone X, Microsoft with Windows Hello (when fully implemented with a depth-sensing camera like Intel RealSense), and on Android phones including Samsung Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 and Honor View 10 and Honor 10 AI

I’ve been trying the Honor 10 AI and naturally enabled the Face Unlock, passing warnings that it was less secure than a PIN or password. Why less secure? It is not stated, but a typical issue is being able to log in with a picture of the normal user (this would not work with Microsoft Hello).

Security is an issue, but I was also interested in how desirable this is as a feature. So far I am not convinced. Technically it works reasonably well. It is not 100% effective, especially in either bright sunlight or dim light, but most of the time it successfully unlocks the Honor phone. It is all the more impressive because I sometimes wear glasses, and it works whether or not I am wearing them.

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I enjoyed face unlock at first, since it removes a bit of friction in day to day use. Then I came across annoyances. Sometimes the face recognition takes longer than a PIN, if the lighting conditions are not optimal, and occasionally it fails. It has introduced a touch of uncertainty to the unlock process, whereas the PIN is fully reliable and controllable. I tried the optional “wake on pick up” feature and again had a mixed experience; sometimes the the phone would light up and unlock when I did not need it.

Conclusion? It is something I can easily live without so a low priority when choosing a new phone. Whereas fingerprint unlock, now that the technology has matured to the point of high reliability, is something I still enjoy.

Asus Project Precog dual-screen laptop: innovation in PC hardware, but missing the keyboard may be too high a price

Asus has announced Project Precog at Computex in Taiwan. This is a dual-screen laptop with a 360° hinge and no keyboard.

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The name suggests a focus on AI, but how much AI is actually baked into this device? Not that much. It features “Intelligent Touch” that will change the virtual interface automatically and adjust the keyboard location or switch to stylus mode. It includes Cortana and Amazon Alexa for voice control. And the press release remarks optimistically that “The dual-screen design of Project Precog lets users keep their main tasks in full view while virtual assistants process other tasks on the second screen,” whatever that means – not much is my guess, since is the CPU that processes tasks, not the screen.

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Even so, kudos to Asus for innovation. The company has a long history of bold product launches; some fail, some, like the inexpensive 2007 Eee PC which ran Linux, have been significant. The Eee PC was both a lot of fun and helped to raise awareness of alternatives to Windows.

The notable feature of Project Precog of course is not so much the AI, but the fact that it has two screens and no keyboard. Instead, if you want to type, you get an on-screen keyboard. The trade-off is extra screen space at the cost of convenient typing.

I am not sure about this one. I like dual screens, and like many people much prefer using two screens for desktop work. That said, I am also a keyboard addict. After many experiments with on-screen keyboards on iPads, Windows and Android tablets, I am convinced that the lack of tactile feedback and give on a virtual keyboard makes them more tiring to work on and therefore less productive.

Still, not everyone works in the same way as I do; and until we get to try a Project Precog device (no date announced), we will not know how well it works or how useful the second screen turns out to be.

OnePlus 6: another contender for best value premium smartphone

Hot on the heels of the Honor 10 AI comes the OnePlus 6, another example of a high-end smartphone at an affordable price.

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The OnePlus 6 has a 6.28″ display and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845: 4 x2.8 GHz plus 4×1.7 GHz Kryo CPU cores and Adreno 630 GPU. The 845 also features the Hexagon 685 DSP including the Snapdragon Neural Processing Engine so it can make its own claim to AI processing.

Glass body, notch, face unlock, fingerprint sensor on the rear where it belongs, and a 16MP + 20MP rear camera.

The camera is interesting. There are three cameras, two rear and one front, all based on Sony sensors. Unlike the Honor 10, you get OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) to help reduce camera shake. Pixel count is slightly lower than on the Honor 10 though.

Another benefit of the OnePlus 6 is water-resistance. It will survive a quick dunk, apparently, but not immersion.

Prices are a tad higher than for an Honor 10 but still well below a Samsung S9 (£739) though of course the price you actually pay may vary:

6GB RAM + 64GB Storage £469
8GB RAM + 128GB Storage £519
8GB RAM + 256GB Storage £569

Honor 10 AI smartphone launched in London, and here are my first impressions

The Honor 10 “AI” has been launched in London, and is on sale now either on contract with Three (exclusively), or unlocked from major retailers. Price is from £31 pay monthly (free handset), or SIM-free at £399.99.

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Why would you buy an Honor 10? Mainly because it is a high-end phone at a competitive price, especially if photography is important to you. As far as I can tell, Honor (which is a brand of Huawei) offers the best value of any major smartphone brand.

How is the Honor brand differentiated from Huawei? When I first came across the brand, it was focused on a cost-conscious, fashion-conscious youth market, and direct selling rather than a big high street presence. It is a consumer brand whereas Huawei is business and consumer. At the London launch, the consumer focus is still evident, but I got the impression that the company is broadening its reach, and the deal with Three and sale through other major retailers shows that Honor does now want to be on the high street.

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What follows is a quick first impression. At the launch, Honor made a big deal of the phone’s multi-layer glass body, which gives a 3D radiant effect as you view the rear of the phone. I quite like the design but in this respect it is not really all that different from the glass body of the (excellent) Honor 8, launched in 2016. I also wonder how often it will end up hidden by a case. The Honor 10 AI is supplied with a transparent gel case, and even this spoils the effect somewhat.

The display is great through, bright and high resolution. Reflectivity is a problem, but that is true of most phones. Notable is that by default there is a notch at the top around the front camera, but that you can disable this in settings. I think the notch (on this or any phone) is an ugly feature and was quick to disable it. Unfortunately screenshots do not show the notch so you will have to make do with my snaps from another phone:

With notch:

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Without notch:

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The camera specs are outstanding, with dual rear lens 24MP + 16MP, and 24MP front. At the launch at least half the presentation was devoted to the photography, and in particular the “AI” feature. The Honor 10 has an NPU (Neural Processing Unit), which is hardware acceleration for processes involved in image recognition. All smartphone cameras do a ton of work in software to optimize images, but the Honor 10 should be faster and use less power than most rivals thanks to the NPU. The AI works in several ways. If it recognises the photo as one of around 500 “scenarios”, it will optimize for that scenario. At a detail level, image recognition will segment a picture into objects it recognises, such as sky, buildings, people and so on, and optimize accordingly. For example, people get high priority, and especially the person who is the subject of a portrait. It will also segment the image of a person into hair, eyes, mouth and so on, for further optimisation.

What is optimisation? This is the key question. One of the AI effects is bokeh (blurring the background) which can be a nice way to make a portrait. On the other hand, if you take a picture of someone with the Niagara Falls in the background, do you really want it blurred to streaks of grey so that the picture might have been taken anywhere? It is a problem, and sometimes the AI will make your picture worse. I am reserving judgment on this, but will do another post on the subject after more hands-on.

Of course you can disable the AI, and in the Pro camera mode you can capture RAW images, so this is a strong mobile for photography even if you do not like the AI aspect. I have taken a few snaps and been impressed with the clarity and detail.

24MP for the front camera is exceptional so if selfies are your thing this is a good choice.

You have various options for unlocking the device: PIN, password, pattern swipe, fingerprint, proximity of Bluetooth device, or Face Unlock. The fingerprint reader is on the front, which is a negative for me as I prefer a rear fingerprint reader that lets you grab the device with one hand and instantly unlock. But you can do this anyway with Face Unlock, though Honor warns that this is the least secure option as it might work with a similar face (or possibly a picture). I found the Face Unlock effective, even with or without spectacles.

The fingerprint scanner is behind glass which Honor says helps if your finger is wet.

There are a few compromises. A single speaker means sound is OK but not great; it is fine through headphones or an external speaker though. No wireless charging.

Geekbench scores

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PC Mark scores

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So how much has performance improved since the Honor 8 in 2016? On PCMark, Work 2.0 performance was 5799 on the Honor 8, 7069 on the 10 (+21%). Geekbench 4 CPU scores go from 5556 multi-core on the 8 to 6636 on the 10 (+19.4%).  The GPU though is more substantially improved, 4728 on the 8 and 8585 on 10 (+81.5%). These figures take no account of the new NPU.

First impressions

I must confess to some disappointment that the only use Honor seems to have found for its NPU is photo enhancement, important though this is. It does not worry me much though. I will report back on the camera, but first impressions are good, and this strikes me as a strong contender as a high-end phone at a mid-range price. 128GB storage is generous.

Spec summary

OS: Android 8.1 “Oreo” with  EMUI (“Emotion UI”) 8.1 user interface

Screen: 5.84″ 19:9, 2280p x 1080p, 432 PPI, Removeable notch

Chipset: Kirin 970 8-core, 4x A73 @ 2.36 GHz, 4x A53 @ 1.84 GHz

Integrated GPU: ARM Mali-G72MP12 746 MHz

Integrated NPU (Neural Processing Unit): Hardware acceleration for machine learning/AI

RAM: 4GB

Storage: 128GB ROM.

Dual SIM: Yes (nano SIM)

NFC: Yes

Sensors: Gravity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Gyroscope, Compass, Fingerprint sensor, infrared sensor, Hall sensor, GPS

WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz/5GHz

Bluetooth: 4.2

Connections: USB 2.0 Type-C, 3.5mm headphone socket

Frequency bands: 4G LTE TDD: B38/B40/B414G LTE FDD: B1/B3/B5/B7/B8/B19/B203G WCDMA: B1/B2/B5/B8/B6/B192G GSM: B2/B3/B5/B8

Size and weight: 149.6 mm x 71.2 mm  x 7.7 mm, 153g

Battery: 3,400 mAh,  50% charge in 25 minutes. No wireless charging.

Fingerprint sensor: Front, under glass

Face unlock: Yes

Rear camera: Rear: 24MP + 16MP Dual Lens Camera,F1.8 Aperture.

Front camera: 24MP

Review: Orbitsound Dock E30 one-box audio system with wireless charging aims to fix the problems of stereo

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It is simple but appealing: one small box instead of all the clutter of a conventional hi-fi system. Orbtisound’s Dock E30 is also designed for today’s audio ecosystem. It supports wireless playback with Apple AirPlay, Spotify Connect, Android audio streaming over Wi-Fi, and also Bluetooth aptX and wired input via analogue or optical digital signals. There is an app for iOS and Android, and you can even dock your phone either by sitting it in the groove provided, handy for seeing cover art. You can also charge a phone using the built-in Qi wireless charging (as used by Apple), or by connecting a cable (not supplied) to a USB-C charging support. For wireless charging though you should lay the phone flat on the charging plate rather than standing it up.

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Wireless charging aside, this is all what you expect from a modern audio system; but the Dock E30 has something distinctive. This is the technology called Airsound. Orbitsound says that the problem with conventional stereo is that you have to sit in a sweet spot dead centre between and in front of the speakers to get a true audio image. “We have managed to overcome this inherent limitation in stereo by doing away with the idea of left and right channels,” says Orbitsound. What they have come up with, explained to some extent here and here, is a three-speaker system, where the sound of the main front speaker is modified by two “spatial” side speakers to give, it is claimed, a stereo experience wherever you sit. There is said to be a particular advantage when you have more than one speaker connected.

Orbitsound’s explanation of Airsound is sketchy, to say the least, but it helped me to understand the results of my listening tests. I set up the Dock E30 in my living room and tried it using various types of connection from both iOS and Android. For the main listening test though I settled on wired input for maximum consistency. I compared the E30 with several other speaker systems, including the slightly more expensive Sony SRS-X9 (now replaced by the similar SRS-X99).

First impressions are good, with a powerful bass reinforced by the passive bass radiators on the back of the unit. The power output is not specified, but I got plenty enough volume for my smallish living room. I tried walking round the room and found a good consistency of sound, though frankly the SRS-X9 which uses conventional stereo speakers was also pretty good in this respect.

How does the sound compare to that from the Sony? I found my notes contradictory at first. I felt the sound, while decent, was smoother and better defined on the Sony than on the Dock E30. At the same time, I could sometimes hear details on the Dock E30 more clearly than on the Sony. One example was the delicate guitar in the background during the intro to Steely Dan’s song Peg (which is beautifully recorded). It was more prominent on the Dock E30, even though overall I felt that the Sony had more clarity.

Pondering Orbitsound’s claim of a true stereo image wherever you sit, I pulled out a handy test track, Paul Simon’s Cars. In the middle of the track there is a little stereo effect. “You can drive them on the left” comes out of the left speaker, then “you can drive them on the right” from the right. Then Simon resumes singing in a central position.

I have to say, the Dock E30 made a complete mess of this effect. Bizarrely, the “on the right” vocal projected to the left of the image. On the Sony, everything was as it should be, so no, I had not got the channels reversed anywhere. Bear in mind that the Dock E30 only has one front-facing speaker; the other drive front-facing driver is a passive bass radiator.

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Audio processing: pros and cons

In the end this is all about processing. Orbitsound is trying to get a sense of room-filling stereo from a small box. It does this by munging the stereo signal into a mono part on the main speaker, supplemented by two spatial effects speakers that fire outwards from the left and right ends of the Dock E30, using some kind of algorithm that is not really designed to give you a true stereo image, but rather to create an illusion of depth.

This I believe explains why I found the sound perplexing at times. Some details might be brought out more prominently, others not.

You can adjust the Airsound effect by holding down mute for three seconds on the remote, then spinning the volume dial. If you adjust it for minimum Airsound, you get something close to mono. This is not a bad thing; I love my mono Squeezebox Radio. If you adjust for maximum Airsound, the sound become echoey and phasey, something which is not to my taste but might be an effect you enjoy.

Setting Airsound to minimum is close, but I would like to see an option to disable it completely and simply have mono, though that would be rather a waste of three speakers.

Don’t worry, just listen?

Listening to the stereo effects in Cars is an edge case. I found the Dock E30 enjoyable to listen to with music from classical to jazz to pop and rock. It has good bass extension, which can be excessive at times, but is easily controlled using the tone controls on the remote. Most people are not going to worry about the processing and can just listen.

Personally though I am more purist. I favour a less processed sound and prefer the clean, honest clarity of a system like the Sony XRS X9.

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A good buy?

Leaving aside the Airsound debate, the Dock E30 offers good sound quality with exceptional bass for its size.

The design is subjective of course, but while it is not objectionable, there are better-looking speaker systems in my opinion. The groove on top may trap dust, and the controls on the front are not beautiful.

On the other hand, I am very happy with the flexibility of the unit. It has a generous range of inputs, both wired and wireless. The remote with its tone controls and mute button is excellent.

The ability to charge your phone is a nice bonus.

Unfortunately I am not convinced by Airsound or that this is the best use of three speaker drivers; but at the same time it is good to see some innovative thinking. I recommend that you audition before purchase.

Specifications

Frequency response: 70Hz-17.5kHz +/- 3dB

Tone controls: Bass and treble, +/- 8dB

Drivers: 3 x 48mm neodymium drivers, 3 x 90x60mm passive bass radiators

Optional subwoofer

Removable magnetic grille

Remote

Dimensions: 291x150z114mm

Weight: 4kg

Colour: Black, Bamboo or White

A Windows 10 annoyance: controlling autoplay

I installed Cyberlink PowerDVD on a new  Windows 10 PC (Fall Creators Update) and was annoyed to find that it opened whenever I put a CD into the computer drive.

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PowerDVD is a good DVD and Blu-Ray player though the company’s products are among the most annoying in terms of pressing you to upgrade or buy additional products. I was not surprised that it had grabbed an autoplay association even though I did not recall getting any options on installation. Windows 10 is meant to give the user more control in this respect.

I typed AutoPlay into the Start menu and up came the Windows 10 settings. Autoplay is on, but there is no setting for CDs.

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This dialog also has a link for Default App Settings so I clicked that.

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No setting for CDs here, though there is a default music player, and it is not PowerDVD. I clicked the link in this dialog for Set defaults by app and selected PowerDVD. Perhaps this would show me what it has hooked into.

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So apparently Power Media Player has grabbed the file association for files ending dot (no further extension) but it did not show how it was picking up CD autoplay. In fact, .CDA files are set to VLC. Further, if you don’t like an association here, you can’t easily change it. I clicked the dot link and got this:

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No, there is no option for “Do nothing”; and if you have ever clicked that “Look for an app in the Store” thing, you will know how unrewarding it is.

Hmm, I wonder if the old Control Panel can help? I opened Control Panel and typed Autoplay:

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So there it is. A nice logical dialog, and I dropped down the list for Audio CD and Enhanced Audio CD and selected Take no action.

I’ve posted this for two reasons. First, in case anyone else struggles to find this setting. And second, because it shows how far Microsoft has to go before Windows 10 settings are coherent and logical for users.

The price of free Wi-Fi, and is it a fair deal?

Here we are in a pub trying to get on the Wi-Fi. The good news: it is free:

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But the provider wants my mobile number. I am a little wary. I hate being called on my mobile, other than by people I want to hear from. Let’s have a look at the T&C. Luckily, this really is free:

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But everything has a cost, right? Let’s have a look at that “privacy” policy. I put privacy in quotes because in reality such policies are often bad news for your privacy:

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Now we get to the heart of it. And I don’t like it. Here we go:

“You also agree to information about you and your use of the Service including, but not limited to, how you conduct your account being used, analysed and assessed by us and the other parties identified in the paragraph above and selected third parties for marketing purposes”

[You give permission to us and to everyone else in the world that we choose to use your data for marketing]

“…including, amongst other things, to identify and offer you by phone, post, our mobile network, your mobile phone, email, text (SMS), media messaging, automated dialling equipment or other means, any further products, services and offers which we think might interest you.”

[You give permission for us to spam you with phone calls, texts, emails, automated dialling and any other means we can think of]

“…If you do not wish your details to be used for marketing purposes, please write to The Data Controller, Telefönica UK Limited, 260 Bath Road, Slough, SLI 4DX stating your full name, address, account number and mobile phone number.”

[You can only escape by writing to us with old-fashioned pen and paper and a stamp and note you have to include your account number for the account that you likely have no clue you even have; and even then, who is to say whether those selected third parties will treat your personal details with equal care and concern?]

A fair deal?

You get free Wi-Fi, O2 gets the right to spam you forever. A fair deal? It could be OK. Maybe there won’t in fact be much spam. And since you only give your mobile number, you probably won’t get email spam (unless some heartless organisation has a database linking the two, or you are persuaded to divulge it).

In the end it is not the deal itself I object to; that is my (and your) decision to make. What I dislike is that the terms are hidden. Note that the thing you are likely to care about is clause 26 and you have to not only view the terms but scroll right down in order to find it.

Any why the opt-out by post only? There is only one reason I can think of. To make it difficult.

Windows Mixed Reality: Acer headset review and Microsoft’s (lack of) content problem

Acer kindly loaned me a Windows Mixed Reality headset to review, which I have been trying over the holiday period.

First, an aside. I had a couple of sessions with Windows Mixed Reality before doing this review. One was at IFA in Berlin at the end of August 2017, where the hardware and especially the software was described as late preview. The second was at the Future Decoded event in London, early November. On both occasions, I was guided through a session either by the hardware vendor or by Microsoft. Those sessions were useful for getting a hands-on experience; but an extended review at home has given me a different understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the product. Readers beware: those rushed “reviews” based on hands-on sessions at vendor events are poor guides to what a product is really like.

A second observation: I wandered into a few computer game shops before Christmas and Windows Mixed Reality hardware was nowhere to be seen. That is partly because PC gaming has hardly any bricks and mortar presence now. Retailers focus on console gaming, where there is still some money to be made before all the software becomes download-only. PC game sales are now mainly Steam-powered, with a little bit of competition from other download stores including GOS and Microsoft’s Windows Store. That Steam and download dominance has many implications, one of which is invisibility on the High Street.

What about those people (and there must be some) who did unwrap a Windows Mixed Reality headset on Christmas morning? Well, unless they knew exactly what they were getting and enjoy being on the bleeding edge I’m guessing they will have been a little perplexed and disappointed. The problem is not the hardware, nor even Microsoft’s implementation of virtual reality. The problem is the lack of great games (or other virtual reality experiences).

This may improve, provided Microsoft sustains enough momentum to make Windows Mixed Reality worth supporting. The key here is the relationship with Steam. Microsoft cheerfully told the press that Steam VR is supported. The reality is that Steam VR support comes via preview software which you get via Steam and which states that it “is not complete and may or may not change further.” It will probably all be fine eventually, but that is not reassuring for early adopters.

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My experience so far is that native Windows MR apps (from the Microsoft Store) work more smoothly, but the best content is on Steam VR. The current Steam preview does work though with a few limitations (no haptic feedback) and other issues depending on how much effort the game developers have put into supporting Windows MR.

I tried Windows MR on a well-specified gaming PC: Core i7 with NVIDIA’s superb GTX 1080 GPU. Games in general run super smoothly on this hardware.

Getting started

A Windows Mixed Reality headset has a wired connection to a PC, broken out into an HDMI and a USB 3.0 connection. You need Windows 10 Fall Creators Update installed, and Setup should be a matter of plugging in your headset, whereupon the hardware is detected, and a setup wizard starts up, downloading additional software as required.

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In my case it did not go well. Setup started OK but went into a spin, giving me a corrupt screen and never completing. The problem, it turned out, was that my GPU has only one HDMI port, which I was already using for the main display. I had the headset plugged into a DisplayPort socket via an adapter. I switched this around, so that the headset uses the real HDMI port, and the display uses the adapter. Everything then worked perfectly.

The controllers use Bluetooth. I was wary, because in my previous demos the controllers had been problematic, dropping their connection from time to time, but these work fine.

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They are perhaps a bit bulky, thanks to their illuminated rings which are presumably a key part of the tracking system. They also chew batteries.

The Acer headsets are slightly cheaper than average, but I’ve enjoyed my time with this one. I wear glasses but the headset fits comfortably over them.

A big selling point of the Windows system is that no external tracking sensors are required. This is called inside-out tracking. It is a great feature and makes it easier just to plug in and go. That said, you have to choose between a stationary position, or free movement; and if you choose free movement, you have to set up a virtual boundary so that you do not walk into physical objects while immersed in a VR experience.

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The boundary is an important feature but also illustrates an inherent issue with full VR immersion: you really are isolated from the real world. Motion sickness and disorientation can also be a problem, the reason being that the images your brain perceives do not match the physical movement your body feels.

Once set up, you are in Microsoft’s virtual house, which serves as a kind of customizable Start menu for your VR experiences.

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The house is OK though it seems to me over-elaborate for its function, which is to launch games and apps.

I must state at this point that yes, a virtual reality experience is amazing and a new kind of computing. The ability to look all around is extraordinary when you first encounter it, and adds a level of realism which you cannot otherwise achieve. That said, there is some frustration when you discover that the virtual world is not really as extensive as it first appears, just as you get in an adventure game when you find that not all doors open and there are invisible barriers everywhere. I am pretty sure though that a must-have VR game will come along at some point and drive many new sales – though not necessarily for Windows Mixed Reality of course.

I looked for content in the Windows Store. It is slim pickings. There’s Minecraft, which is stunning in VR, until you realise that the controls do not work quite so well as they do in the conventional version. There is Space Pirate, an old-school arcade game which is a lot of fun. There is Arizona Sunshine, which is fine if you like shooting zombies.

I headed over to Steam. The way this works is that you install the Steam app, then launch Windows Mixed Reality, then launch a VR game from your Steam library. You can access the Windows Desktop from within the Windows MR world, though it is not much fun. Although the VR headset offers two 1440 x 1440 displays I found it impossible to keep everything in sharp focus all the time. This does not matter all that much in the context of a VR game or experience, but makes the desktop and desktop applications difficult to use.

I did find lots of goodies in the Steam VR store though. There is Google Earth VR, which is not marked as supporting Windows MR but works. There is also The Lab, which a Steam VR demo which does a great job of showing what the platform can do, with several mini-games and other experiences – including a fab archery game called Longbow where you defend your castle from approaching hordes. You can even fire flaming arrows.

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Asteroids! VR, a short, wordless VR film which is nice to watch once. It’s free though!

Mainstream VR?

Irrespective of who provides the hardware, VR has some issues. Even with inside-out tracking, a Windows Mixed Reality setup is somewhat bulky and makes the wearer look silly. The kit will become lighter, as well as integrating audio. HTC’s Vive Pro, just announced at CES, offers built-in headphones and has a wireless option, using Intel’s WiGig technology.

Even so, there are inherent issues with a fully immersive environment. You are vulnerable in various ways. Having people around wearing earbuds and staring at a screen is bad enough, but VR takes anti-social to another level.

The added expense of creating the content is another issue, though the right tools can do an amazing job of simplifying and accelerating the process.

It is worth noting that VR has been around for a long time. Check out the history here. Virtual Reality arcade machines in 1991. Sega VR Glasses in 1993. Why has this stuff taken so long to take off, and remains in its early stages? It is partly about technology catching up to the point of real usability and affordability, but also an open question about how much VR we want and need.