Category Archives: gadgets

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.

Honor 7x: a great value mid-range smartphone spoilt by unexciting design

Honor is Huawei’s youth/consumer smartphone brand and deserves its reputation for putting out smartphones with compelling features for their price. Just released in the UK is the Honor 7x, a mid-range phone whose most striking features are a 5.93" 2160×1080 (18:9) display and dual-lens camera.

I came to respect the Honor brand when I tried the Honor 8, a gorgeous translucent blue device which at the time seemed to provide all the best features of Huawei’s premium phone at a lower price. The Honor 8 is 18 months old now, but still on sale for around £70 more than a 7x (there is also an Honor 9 which I have not tried). The 5.2" 1920 x 1080 screen happens to be the perfect size for my hands.

What about the new 7x though?

The 7x feels solid and well-made though unexciting in appearance. The smooth rear of the matt metal case is broken only by the fingerprint reader and dual camera lenses and flash. On the front there is the phone speaker and front-facing camera at the top of the screen, media speaker, microphone, headset socket and Micro-B USB along the bottom edge. The larger than average screen does make for a phone that is less comfortable to hold than a smaller device, but that is the trade-off you make.

The Kirin 659 processor has 8 ARM Cortex-A53 cores, comprised of 4 high-speed 2.38 GHz cores and 4 power-saving 1.7 GHz cores. SoC (System on a Chip) also includes an ARM Mali-T830 graphics processing unit. This is a mid-range processor which is fine for everyday use but not a powerhouse.  Benchmark performance is around 15% better than Samsung’s Exynos 7 Octa 7870, found in the Galaxy A3, for example.

PC Mark came up with a score of 4930, a little behind the older Honor 8 at 5799.

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The screen resolution at 2160 x 1080 is impressive, though I found it a little dull on the default automatic brightness settings.

Music audio quality is great on headphones or high quality earbuds, but poor using the built-in loudspeaker – usually not important, but I have heard much better.

Where this phone shines is in photography. The dual lens is now well proven technology from Huawei/Honor and does make a difference, enabling better focusing and sharper images. If you enable the wide aperture in the camera, you can refocus pictures after the event, a magical feature.

If you swipe from the left in the camera app, you can select between a dozen or so modes, including Photo, Pro Photo, video, panorama, time-lapse, effects  and more. Selecting Pro Photo enables controls for metering (determines how the camera calculates the exposure), ISO, shutter speed,  exposure compensation (affects brightness) and focus mode.

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If you swipe from the right, you can access settings including photo resolution (default is 4608 x 3456), storage location, GPS tagging, object tracking and more. There is no option for RAW images though.

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Along the top of the camera screen are settings for flash, wide aperture, portrait mode, moving picture (records a short video when you take a picture), and front/rear camera enable.

There are also a couple of features aimed at selfies or group photos, where you want to be in the picture. If you enable audio control, the camera will take a picture when you say “Cheese”. If you enable gesture control (only works with the front camera), you can take a picture by raising your hand, triggering a countdown. I tried both features and they work.

How are the actual results though? Here is a snap taken with default settings on the 7x, though I’ve resized the image for this blog:

and here it is again on the Honor 8:

Personally I think the colours are a bit more natural on the Honor 8 but there is not much between them. I was also impressed with the detail when zoomed in. In the hands of an expert you could take excellent pictures with this, and those of us taking quick snaps will be happy too.

Likes, dislikes and conclusion

For 25% of the price of Apple’s latest iPhone, you get a solid and capable device with above average photographic capability and a high resolution display. I also like the fact that the fingerprint reader is on the rear, even though this is against the recent trend. This makes it easy to pick up and unlock the phone with one hand, with no need for face recognition.

Still, while I would be happy to recommend the phone, I do not love it. The design is plain and functional, rather out of keeping with Honor’s “for the brave” slogan. No NFC is a negative, and it is a shame Honor has provided the old micro USB instead of USB C as on the premium models.

These are minor nitpicks though and I cannot fault it for value or essential features.

Specification

OS Android 7
Chipset 8-core Kirin 659 (4 x 2.38GHz + 4 x 1.7 GHz)
Battery 3340 mAh
Screen 2160 x 1080
Rear camera Dual lens 16MP + 2MP, F/0.95 – F/16 aperture
Front Camera 8MP
Connectivity 802.11 b/g/n wifi, Bluetooth 4.1, USB 2.0
Dimensions 156.5mm x 75.3mm x 7.6mm
Weight 165g
Memory 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, microSD up to 256GB
SIM slots Dual TD-LTE/FDD LTE/WCDMA/GSM SIM or SIM + microSD
Fingerprint reader Rear
Sensors Proximity, ambient light, compass, gravity
Audio 3.5mm headset jack
Materials Metal unibody design
Price £269.99

The Scalford Hi-Fi show is dead – long live the Kegworth “Europe’s biggest Hi-Fi enthusiasts show”?

It was March 2009 when I took part in an unusual Hi-Fi show, variously known as the Scalford, Wigwam, Wam or Pie Show (Pie show because Scalford is near Melton Mowbray, home of the Pork Pie, and Pie rhymes with Hi-Fi). Wigwam was and is a Hi-Fi enthusiasts forum and the idea was to put on a show where the kit on show was not the latest stuff from big brands, but rather actual systems in use by enthusiasts. Without the normal income from commercial exhibitors, the cost of the hotel booking was met by the entrance fee (£10 as I recall). Exhibitor rooms were free other than a small contribution to public liability insurance. The early shows were run by audio show specialists Chester who did it, they said, as a community building exercise.

Scalford Hall is an English country hotel which must once have been a grand country residence. it is beautiful, rambling and impractical, but full of atmosphere.

The show was an extraordinary success. There was a vastly greater variety of gear on show than at commercial shows, ranging from conventional and modern to old and home-made. The exhibitors were enthusiasts who loved to talk about their systems, and the sound achieved was in general rather better than most. A few pictures, not from the first show:

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Personally I had a great time at Scalford and exhibited 8 years in succession (starting with the first). Hmm let me see:

2009: plain Squeezebox, Naim 32.5/Hicap/250 and Kans 

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2010: Ergo speakers designed by James at another HiFi forum, Pink Fish Media,  loaned to me for the event. Same source and amplification.

2011: Active Speakers AVI ADM 9 with BK subwoofer

2012: Linn Kaber loudspeakers with Naim amplification; my least successful room I feel. I thought the Naim amplifier would get the Kabers sounding at their best but the sound was average and I was not sure how to fix it. 

2013: Active Speakers Behringer B3031A. The theme here was how to get a great sound on a small budget, and the Behringer active speakers offer a lot for the price.

2014: Amplifier comparison Naim as above vs Yamaha AS500

This was fascinating; a modern budget amplifier compared to a classic pre-power combination loved by many but also considered coloured. Most thought both sounded great and were not sure which was which.

2015: DSD vs PCM comparison using Teac DSD DAC 

2016: Raspberry Pi system no separate amplifier

Some of these events have separate write-ups on this blog.

My goal was not to have the best sounding system but to do something interesting and enjoyable.

Enjoyable it was, but also hard work – at first I didn’t bother booking a room for the night as I lived within 45 minute drive, but I gradually realised that staying over worked better both for access to the room and for hearing other rooms the night before.

Heaving equipment around is no fun even though I didn’t have the heaviest stuff, even so amplifiers, subs and speaker stands are hefty enough. Some of my stuff got a bit bashed about too, though scratches rather than real damage.

The earliest events were run supposedly at break-even or thereabouts by Chester. The only commercial presence in the early shows was a record shop in the lobby.

I was personally fine with everything as we were doing something a bit different that would not otherwise be possible.

Gradually more commercial rooms appeared and it became harder and harder to secure good rooms. My room in year 1 was brilliant and sounded great as a result. Many of the rooms though were small hotel bedrooms in an extension rather than the older part of the building, with poor sound insulation. It was hard to get a good sound in these rooms.

I also began (speaking personally) to feel a bit unappreciated as it was the exhibitors who made the event worth going to, but we paid for the privilege and if someone managed to make some money (as I believe the organisers did in some years) none of it came to us not even a free beer or two. After the first couple of shows the organisation passed to the owners of the WigWam forum, which itself changed hands a few times. In 2017 my heart was no longer in it and I did not exhibit.

The trend towards greater commercialism continues and the WigWam’s current owners now promote the event as "Europe’s Biggest HiFi Enthusiasts Show". The cost for exhibitors has increased and now starts at £85. I have fond recollections of the show and hope it goes from strength to strength, but last year felt it was no longer for me.

Scalford was a wonderful venue, quirky and romantic, visitors could still be surprised to open a door or ascend a stairway and find a corridor of rooms they had somehow missed. Of course it was also a bit impractical and the catering rather ho-hum but it wasn’t a big deal for me.

The show is now moving to Kegworth, just off the M1 near Nottingham. The move to a hotel handy for the motorway and airport is another step away from the atmosphere and culture of the initial concept.

That said, I have no doubt that it will remain a remarkable and unusual event and hope it continues to be a great success.

A quick look at Surface Book 2: powerful but heavy

Microsoft’s Surface range is now extensive. There is the Surface Pro (tablet with keyboard cover), the Surface Laptop (laptop with thin keyboard), and the Surface Book (detachable tablet). And the Surface Studio, an all-in-one desktop. Just announced, and on display here at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in London, is Surface Book 2.

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The device feels very solid and the one I saw has an impressive spec: an 8th Gen Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 discrete GPU. And up to 17 hours battery life.

All good stuff; but I have a couple of reservations. One is the weight; “from 3.38 lbs (1.534 Kg) ”, according to the spec. By contrast, the Surface Laptop starts at 1.69 lbs (0.767 Kg).

That makes the Book 2 heavy in today’s terms. I am used to ultrabook-style laptops now.

Of course you can lighten your load by just using the tablet. Will you though? I rarely see Windows convertible or detachable devices used other than like laptops, with the keyboard attached. The Surface is more likely to be used like a tablet, since you can simply fold the keyboard cover back, but with the Book you either leave the keyboard at home, and put up with short battery life, or have it at least in your bag.

Mio MiVue 688: record your driving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MiVue 688 in use

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

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

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

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

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

Annoyances

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

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

Extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

MiVue Manager

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

More information here.

Review: Libratone Zipp Mini

I am quite taken with this Libratone wireless speaker, though I had a few setup hassles. The device comes in a distinctive cylindrical box with a nightingale image on the top. Unpack it and you get a medium-size desktop (or table or shelf) speaker, around 22cm high, with a colourful cover that looks zipped on and a carry strap. There is also a power supply with UK and European adaptors, and a very brief instruction leaflet.

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Plug in, and the device starts charging. The leaflet says to download the app (for iOS or Android) and “set up and play”. It was not quite so easy for me, using Android. The app is over-designed, by which I mean it looks great but does not always work intuitively. It did not find the speaker automatically, insisted that a wi-fi connection was better than Bluetooth, but gave me no help connecting.

After tinkering for a bit I went to the website and followed the steps for manual wi-fi setup. Essentially you temporarily disconnect from your normal Wi-fi connection, connect your wi-fi directly to the Zipp, go to 192.168.1.1 in the browser, select your home wi-fi network, enter the password, and you are done.

Everything worked perfectly after that. I fired up Spotify, played some music, selected the Zipp under Spotify Connect, and it sounded great. For some Android apps you may need a Bluetooth connection though, or you can use DLNA. The beauty of Spotify Connect is that the connection is direct from the speaker to the internet, it does not depend on the app running, so you can switch off your phone and it still plays. It is actually a better solution than Apple Airplay for internet streaming.

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The Nightingale button

Control is either via the app, or through the Nightingale button on the top of the speaker. The button works really well. Tap to pause or resume. Slide finger clockwise or anti-clockwise for volume. Skip forward or back by tapping the right or left edge. Then there is a neat “hush” feature: place your hand over the button and it mutes temporarily.

A bit more about the sound. Although this is the smaller Zipp Mini, you can tell that Libratone has taken trouble to make it sound good, and it is impressively rich and full considering the size of the unit. You are getting your money’s worth, despite what seems a high price.

I spent some time comparing the Zipp with Squeezebox Radio, another (but sadly discontinued) wireless audio device I rate highly. Both are mono, both sound good. I did notice that the Zipp has deeper bass and a slightly softer more recessed treble. I cannot decide for sure which sounds better, but I am slightly inclined towards the Libratone, which is actually high praise.

One lovely feature of the Zipp is internet radio, which comes via Vtuner. This is hidden in the feature called Favourites. You select favourite radio stations in the app, with the default being BBC stations and Classic FM. You can change your favourites by tapping the Nightingale icon in the app (another hidden, over-designed feature) and tapping My Radio.

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Once set up, tap the heart button on the Nightingale button on the device to switch to radio. Tap twice to skip to the next station. Internet radio does not depend on having the app running, it works directly from the Zipp.

The Zipp has a power button, press and hold to power on or off, tap to show remaining battery. It also has an aux jack socket, for wired playback from any source, and a USB socket which you can use either for charging a phone, or for playback from music files on USB storage (I did not try this, but a wide range of formats are supported, including MP3, WAV, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, AAC, AIFF and ALAC). You can also use USB for wired playback from iOS, but not from other devices.

Apple Airplay is supported and worked great when I tried it with an iPad. One thing to note: there is currently no iPad app, so you have to search for the iPhone app, which does also work on the iPad.

This very flexible device also supports Bluetooth 4.1 and you can use it as a speaker phone, just tap the Nightingale button to answer a call, so yes it has a microphone too. It also supports DLNA which means you can “play to” the device on some applications, such as Windows Media Player.

If you have more than one Zipp you can connect them for multi-speaker playback. You can select Stereo if you have two speakers or more, but Libratone recommend something they call FullRoom, which means leave it to their digital signal processing (DSP).

Sadly I only have one Zipp, but there are a few options in the app to set DSP optimization for things like Outdoor, Shelf and Floor. I did not notice a huge difference.

You can get different colour covers, and I tried removing mine. It is a bit fiddly, and the current Zipp Mini does not quite match the explanation on the Libratone site. The handle on this Zipp does not come off; you unzip the cover, twist to disconnect the zip, then feed the handle through the hole. Not something you are likely to do often.

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The device naked

Finally, if you are curious like me, here are some specifications:

  • Class D amplifier
  • 1 x 3” woofer, 1 x 1” tweeter 2 x 3.5” low frequency radiators
  • Frequency response 60-20,000 Hz (no dB range specified)
  • Maximum volume 96 dB SPL/1m
  • 2400 mAhs battery
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • 10 hours of playback approx.

Conclusion? I really like the Zipp Mini. It sounds great, supports a wide range of standards, and works well for Internet radio. I like the appearance, the Nightingale button is elegant, and you can expand it with more speakers if needed. This or the larger Zipp model might be all the hi-fi you need.

Caveats: many of the features are a bit hidden, initial setup I found fiddly, the supplied instructions are hopelessly inadequate, and with all those choices it can get confusing.

No matter, it is a lovely device.

More information on the vendor’s site here.

HP’s Elite Slice and the problem with modular PCs

“HP reinvents the desktop” says the press release announcing the Elite Slice, a small modular PC, composed of square sections which you stack together.

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“It is the first modular commercial desktop with cable-less connectivity” adds the release, which caused me to pause. I was sure I had seen something like it before; and certainly it looks not unlike Acer’s Revo Build:

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Acer’s Revo Build

Nevertheless, I have a high regard for HP’s PC products, and often recommend them, so I was interested in the Elite Slice.

The base unit is 6.5″ (16.51cm) square and 1.38″ (3.5cm) deep and can be powered from a display using a USB Type-C cable to minimise cables. Various specifications are available, with 6th gen Intel Core i3, i5 or i7, and up to 32GB RAM. HDMI and DisplayPort video output is included. Storage is SSD from 128GB to 512GB. Availability is from the end of September 2016, and price is “from £500”.

In practice you are likely to spend more than that. On HP’s US site, you can order an Elite Slice G1 with Windows 10 Pro, Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, USB mouse, 65 watt power supply for $1235.00 (around £950).

So what modules can you get? On offer currently is an optical disk drive and a Bang & Olufsen audio module. There is also a mounting plate that lets you fix the unit to the wall.

There are other options that are not actual modules, but can be specified when you purchase. These include a wireless charging plate (so you can charge your phone by placing it on top of the Slice) and a fingerprint reader.

There is also a HP Collaboration Cover which once again has to be specified with your original purchase. This is for conferencing and adds the functionality of a Skype for Business (Lync) phone. You can buy this bundled with the audio module as the “Elite Slice for Meeting Rooms”, priced from £649.

I looked at the Elite Slice at the Showstoppers press event just before the IFA show in Berlin last week. It is a good looking unit and will likely be fine as a small business PC.

That said, I am a sceptic when it comes to the modular concept. For a start, the HP Elite is not all that modular, with several options only available on initial purchase (fingerprint reader, wireless charging, conferencing cover). “Covers … require factory configuration and cannot be combined with other Slice covers” says the small print; so if you want wireless charging as well as conferencing, bad luck.

Second, the HP Elite Slice is actually less modular than a traditional PC. While I was looking at the PC, another visitor asked whether a more powerful GPU is available. “We are looking at doing a GPU module” was the answer. However, buy a standard PC with a PCI Express slot and you can choose from a wide range of GPUs, though you might need to upgrade the power supply to run it; that is also easily done.

The downside of a traditional PC is that it is bulky and clunky compared to a neat thing like the Elite; but it sits under the desk so who cares?

Be warned too that if you buy a HP Elite in the hope of a regular flow of exciting modules over the next year or two, you may well be disappointed. Another bright idea will come along and the Elite will be forgotten – just as we heard nothing from Acer about the Revo Build at this year’s IFA.

More details on the Elite Slice are here.

DatAshur encrypted drives: protect your data but be sure to back it up too

The iStorage DataAshur USB flash drive is a neat way to encrypt your data. Lost USB storage devices are a common cause of data theft anxiety: in most cases the finder won’t care about your data but you can never be certain.

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The DatAshur is simple to operate but highly secure, presuming it meets the advertised specification. All data written to the drive is automatically encrypted with 256-bit AES CBC (Advanced Encryption Standard with Cipher Block Chaining) and meets the US FIPS 140-2 standard. The encryption is transparent to the operating system, since decryption is built into the device and enabled by entering a PIN of 7 to 15 digits.

Note that a snag with this arrangement is that if your PC is compromised a hacker might be able to read the data while the drive is connected. If you are really anxious you could get round this by working offline, or perhaps using Microsoft’s clever Windows to Go (WTG) technology where you boot from a USB device and work in isolation from the host operating system. Unfortunately DatAshur does not support WTG (as far as I know) but there are alternatives which do, or you could boot into WTG and then insert your DatAshur device.

Normally you enter the PIN to unlock the drive before connecting it to a PC or Mac. This does mean that the DatAshur requires a battery, and a rechargeable battery is built in. However if the battery is exhausted you can still get your data back by recharging the device (it charges whenever it is plugged into a USB port).

OK, so what happens if a bad guy gets your device and enters PINs repeatedly until the right one is found? This will not work (unless you chose 1234567 or something like that) since after 10 failed tries the device resets, deleting all your data.

You should avoid, then, the following scenario. You give your DatAshur drive to your friend to show it off. “I’ve just updated all my expenses on this and there is no way you’ll be able to get at the data”. Friend fiddles for a bit. “Indeed,and neither can you”.

Here then is the security dilemma: the better the security, the more you risk losing access to your own data.

The DatAshur does have an additional feature which mitigates the risk of forgetting the PIN. You can actually set two PINs, a user PIN and an admin PIN. The admin PIN could be retained by a security department at work, or kept in some other safe place. This still will not rescue you though if more than 10 attempts are made.

What this means is that data you cannot afford to lose must be backed up as well as encrypted, with all the complexity that backup involves (must be off-site and secure).

Still, if you understand the implications this is a neat solution, provided you do not need to use those pesky mobile devices that lack USB ports.

The product tested has a capacity from 4GB to 32GB and has a smart, strong metal case. The plastic personal edition runs from 8GB to 32GB and is less robust. An SSD model offers from 30GB to 240GB, and larger desktop units support SSD or hard drive storage from 64GB to 6TB, with USB 3.0 for fast data transfer.

Prices range from around £30 inc VAT for an 8GB Personal USB stick, to £39.50 for the 4GB professional device reviewed here, up to £470 for the monster 6TB drive or £691 for a USB 3.0 external SSD (prices taken from a popular online retailer). The cost strikes me as reasonable for well-made secure storage.

More information on DatAshur is here.

Microsoft Band: do you want to track your health? and with a Microsoft device?

Data on human health has immense value. At an individual level, use of that data has the potential to enhance well-being and productivity, to extend life, and in some cases to avert disaster – such as prompting early investigation into a heart condition. In aggregate, more data on human health enables deeper medical research, especially when combined with other data about lifestyle, profession, location, diet and so on. Medicine is big business, so this is a business opportunity as well as (one hopes) a benefit to humanity.

There is also a dark side to this data. The more data an insurance company has on our health, the more likely they are to exclude the conditions we are most likely to suffer (defeating the purpose of insurance) or to ratchet up premiums for worse risks. Do we trust the industry, whether that is the IT industry or the insurance industry, to safeguard our personal data from being used against us?

The value of this data goes some way to explaining the IT industry’s obsession with fitness gadgets, an obsession that seems to go beyond the demand. I tried a Fitbit for several months, a wristband version. It is a great device, and I found the data interesting, but not enough to motivate me to keep the thing charged up and on my wrist, after the novelty wore off.

The reality is that most of us strike a balance between keeping vaguely fit while not allowing health concerns to dominate our lives. Coffee may be bad for you, but it is also a lovely drink; there is no point in extending life if you cannot also enjoy it.

How much health data, then, is too much?

These questions are likely to come to the fore as increasing numbers of health-monitoring devices come our way, especially multi-purpose devices that do health monitoring as one of several useful functions.

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Enter Microsoft Band, which the company successfully kept under wraps until a couple of days ago. It’s $199, works with Windows Phone, Android and iOS, and packs in a lot of features, though its 48 hours battery life is too short for my liking (I am hard to please; my plain old watch has a 10-year battery life).

Band hooks into the Microsoft Health platform. There are apps for all three supported phones, and data goes into a cloud service which delivers “intelligent insights” for you. “The more you share with Microsoft Health, the more accurate and helpful your insights will become,” says the blurb. There seems to be a link with Health Vault, a service which provides for sharing of health information with health professionals; of course the company says privacy and security are highly protected.

If I buy one (only available in the US currently) it will be more for its non-health features. Microsoft Band (by linking to your mobile over low-energy Bluetooth) will do calendar alerts, email previews, plain old watch mode (so it is actually a smartwatch), facebook posts, Twitter messages, weather, and (on Windows Phone only), Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant.

There is a built-in microphone and you can speak to Cortana on the go. I’ve been trying Cortana since it was was announced at Microsoft’s Build conference earlier this year, and she/it is pretty good. Cortana is not just voice activated search; it is also an example of voice UI, so you can make appointments, take notes, or ask for directions. Its voice recognition and question parsing is impressive, in my experience, though of course not perfect.

As ever I have a developer’s eye on this and I think it is interesting. Voice recognition, touch screen, and semi-permanent link with a smartphone is a powerful combination, if Microsoft opens this up to developers; and I will find it surprising if it does not.

In fact, there are already third-party apps, if you count the Starbucks partnership. You can pair a Starbucks card with Microsoft Band, and pay for coffee with it. The method is rather low-tech: the Band will display a barcode which the Starbucks scanner can read, but still, it beats searching for your card or even pulling out your mobile.

And there is of course the health tracking aspect. There are a ton of sensors here:

  • GPS
  • UV monitor (detect when sunscreen is required)
  • Optical heart rate sensor
  • Gyrometer
  • 3-axis accelerometer
  • “Galvanic skin response”: probably measures electrical conductivity of the skin to assess moisture level
  • Skin temperature
  • Microphone and touch screen

Haptic vibration is used for alerts.

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Can Microsoft make a success of the Band and steal a march from Apple, whose Watch (which also does fitness tracking) is coming early next year? Apple’s device will be more beautiful, more expensive, and has more functions; but it will not work so well with Android or Windows Phone.

The big downer with Microsoft Band is that it is US only for the moment. Health Vault is already in the UK so we may see a UK release; the possibilities for global rollout are uncertain.

Review: Kingston Predator 1TB USB stick, huge capacity but at a price

You can never have too much storage. Cloud storage has solved some problems – for example, it is probably what you now use to show images to a friend or customer – but there are still plenty of cases when you want your stuff with you. Videos, large engineering drawings, backups, virtual hard drives, high resolution audio files; the list goes on.

The advent of tablets and ultrabooks with SSDs in place of hard drives also means that on-board storage has actually reduced, compared to that laptop you used to carry with you.

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Enter Kingston, with the HyperX Predator 1TB USB 3.0 flash drive (there is also a 512GB version). Open the tin box and there it is, complete with key ring and USB cable.

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It’s small compared to a hard drive, but large for a USB stick, measuring 72mm x 26.94mm x 21mm. However, the chunky size and zinc alloy case do give you the sense that Kingston means business.

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The pen does not come with the drive; I have included it in the picture above to give you an idea of the size; it is not really that large. Note too that the zinc alloy sleeve pulls out to protect the the USB connection; it slides open and shut a little too easily for my liking. Still, it is a smart design.

What about the performance? Kingston specifies 240 MB/s read and 160 MB/s write. On my Core i5 PC with USB 3.0 I get that or slightly better copying a file:

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There are some caveats though. Initially I tried using the supplied USB cable, but the drive did not work properly. If I tried to copy a 1.5GB file the drive dismounted itself and the copy failed. I plugged the drive directly into the USB 3.0 port and it then worked perfectly.

I then tried the drive on a laptop that which has a USB 3.0 port. It worked fine with or without the cable. I am not sure what to conclude from this other than USB can be finicky.

The design of the device means that you may not be able to push the USB connection fully home, or that the device may protrude below the base of your laptop or tablet. In these cases you do need the cable.

At this price I would like to see integrated encryption, though users can use Windows Bitlocker or similar to protect their data if it is sensitive.

Despite these niggles, the device is gorgeous and amazing, in terms of the capacity you can now put in your pocket.

Is it good value? It depends what you pay of course. Right now, this thing costs £679.98 on Amazon.co.uk, supposedly a 42% saving on an RRP of £1,169.99. But you could save some money by getting one of those portable USB 3.0 cases and sticking a 1TB SSD inside; currently a Samsung 1TB SSD costs £285.75 on Amazon as well as boasting better performance: 540 MB/s read and 520 MB/s write, though even USB 3.0 will slow it down a bit.

What you would end up with though is a portable drive that is bulkier and for which a cable is unavoidable. You cannot hang it on a keyring. It is less convenient.

So there it is: if you want a handy USB stick with 1TB capacity now you can have it, but at a price.

Specification

  • USB 3.0 backward compatible with USB 2.0
  • File format: exFAT
  • Speed1 USB 3.0: 240MB/s read and 160MB/s write. USB 2.0: 30MB/s read and 30MB/s write
  • Dimensions without key ring: 72mm x 26.94mm x 21mm