Gadget Writing

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

Google Assistant was all over IFA in Berlin. What are the implications?

Last week I attended IFA in Berlin, perhaps Europe’s biggest consumer electronics event, and was struck by the ubiquity of Google Assistant. The company spent big on promoting its digital assistant both outside and inside the venue.

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Mach mal, Google; or in English, Go Google.

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On the stands and in press briefings I soon lost count of who was supporting Google’s voice assistant. A few examples:

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JBL/Harman in its earbuds

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Lenovo with its Home Control Solutions – Lenovo also uses its own cloud and will support Amazon Alexa

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LG with audio, TV, kitchen, home automation and more

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Bang & Olufsen with its smart speakers. No logo, but it is using Google Assistant both as a feature in itself (voice search and so on) and to control other audio devices.

And Sony with its TVs and more. For example, then new AF9 and ZF9 series: “Using the Google Assistant with both the AF9 and ZF9 will be even easier. Both models have built-in microphones that will free the hands; now you simply talk to the TV to find what you quickly want, or to ask the Google Assistant to play TV shows, movies, and more.*

I was only at IFA for the pre-conference press days so this is just a snapshot of what I saw; there were many more Google Assistant integrations on display, and quite a few (though not as many) for Amazon Alexa.

It is fair to say then that Google is treating this as a high priority and having considerable success in getting vendors to sign up.

What is Google Assistant?

Google Assistant really only needs three things in order to work. A microphone, to hear you. An internet connection, to send your voice input to its internet service for voice to text transcription, and then to its AI/Search service to find a suitable response. And a speaker, to output the result. You can get it as a product called Google Home but it is the software and internet service that counts.

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Vendors of smart devices – anything that has an internet connection – can develop integrations so that Google Assistant can control them. So you can say, “Hey Google, turn on the living room light” and it will be so. Cool.

Amazon Alexa has similar features and this is Google’s main competition. Alexa was first and ties in well with Amazon services such as shopping and media. However Google has the advantage of its search services, its control of Android, and its extensive personal data derived from search, Android, Google Maps and location services, GMail and more. This means Google can do better AI and richer personalisation.

Natural language UI

Back in March I attended an AI Assistant Summit in London organised by Re-Work. One of the speakers was Yariv Adan, a Product Lead at Google Assistant.

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I attend lots of presentations but this one made a particular impact on me. Adan believes that natural language UI is the next big technological shift. The preceding ones he identified were the Internet in the nineties and smartphones in the early years of this century. Adan envisages an era in which we no longer constantly pull out devices.

“I believe the next revolution is happening now, powered by AI. I call it the paradigm switch to natural UI. Instead of humans adapting to machines, machines adapt to humans. What we’re trying to create is we interact with machines the same way we interact with each other, in a natural way. Meaning using natural language, showing things, pointing at things, assuming context, assuming a human-like memory, expecting personality, humour, opinion, some kind of an emotional connection, empathy.

[In future] it is not the device changing, it is the device disappearing. We are not going to interact with devices any more. We are starting to interact with this AI entity, an ambient entity that exists everywhere.”

Note: If you ever read Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels, you will recognise this as very like his Multivac computer, which hears and responds to your questions wherever you are.

“Imagine now that everything is connected, that the entity follows you. That there is no more device that you need to take out, turn on, speak to it. It’s around you, it’s on the TV, it’s in the speakers, it’s in your headphones, it’s in the watch, it’s in the auto, it’s there. Internet of things, any connected device that only has a speaker you can actually start interacting with that thing,”

said Adan.

Adan gave a number of demonstrations. Incidentally, he never uttered the words “Hey Google”. Simply, he spoke into his phone, where I presume some special version of Google Assistant was running. In particular, he was keen to show how the AI is learning about context and memory. So he asked what is the largest castle in the UK where people live. Answer: Windsor Castle. Then, Who built it? When? Is it open now? How can I get there by public transport? What about food? In each case, the Assistant answered as a human would, understanding that the topic was Windsor Castle. “I found some restaurants within 0.4 miles,” said the Assistant, betraying a touch of computer-style logic.

“Thank you you’re awesome,” says Adan. “Not a problem”, responds the Assistant. This is an example of personality or emotion, key factors, said Adan, in making interaction natural.

Adan also talked about personalisation. “Show me my flight”. The Assistant knows he is away from home and also has access to his mailbox, from where it has parse flight details. So it answers this generic question with specific details about tomorrow’s flight to Zurich.

“Where did I park my car?” In this case, Adan had taken a picture of his car after parking. The Assistant knew the location of the picture and was able to show both the image and its place on a map.

“I want to show how we use some of that power for the ecosystem that we have built … we’re trying to make that revolution to a place where you don’t need to think about the machine any more, where you just interact in a way that is natural. I am optimistic, I think the revolution is happening now.”

Implications and unintended consequences

An earlier speaker at the Re-Work event (sorry I forget who it was) noted that voice systems give simplified results compared to text-based searches. Often you only get one result. Back in the nineties, we used to talk about “10 blue links” as the typical result of a search. This meant that you had some sort of choice about where you clicked, and an easy way to get several different perspectives. Getting just one result is great if the answer is purely factual and is correct, but reinforces the winner-takes-all tendency. Instead of being on the first page of results, you have to be top. Or possibly pay for advertising; that aspect has not yet emerged in the voice assistant world.

If we get into the habit of shopping via voice assistants, it will be disruptive for brands. Maybe Amazon Basics will do well, if users simply say “get me some A4 paper” rather than specifying a brand. Maybe more and more decisions will be taken for you. “Get me a takeaway dinner”, perhaps, with the assistant knowing both what you like, and what you ate yesterday and the day before.

All this is speculation, but it is obvious that a shift from screens to voice for both transactions and information will have consequences for vendors and information providers; and that probably it will tend to reduce rather than increase diversity.

What about your personal data? This is a big question and one that the industry hates to talk about. I heard nothing about it at IFA. The assumption was that if you could turn on a light, or play some music, without leaving your chair, that must be a good thing. Yet, having a device or devices in your home listening to your every word (in case you might say “Hey Google”) is something that makes me uncomfortable. I do not want Google reading my emails or tracking my location, but it is becoming hard to avoid.

For most people, Google Assistant will just be a feature of their TV, or audio system, or a way to call up recipes in the kitchen.

From Google’s perspective though, it is safe to assume that the ability to collect data is a key reason for its strong promotion and drive behind Google Assistant. That data has enormous value. Targeted advertising is the start, but it also provides deep insight into how we live, trends in human behaviour, changing patterns of consumption, and much more. When things are going wrong with our health, our finances or our relationships, it is not implausible that Google may know before we do.

This is a lot of power to give a giant US corporation; and we should also note that in some scenarios, if the US government were to demand that data be handed over, a company like Google has no choice but to comply.

Personalisation can make our lives better, but also has the potential to harm us. An area of concern is that of shared risk, such as health insurance. Insurers may be reluctant to give policies to those people most likely to make a claim. Could Google’s data store somehow end up impacting our ability to insure, or its cost?

Personalisation is always a trade-off. Organisation gets my data; I get a benefit. I shop at a supermarket and this is fairly transparent. I use a loyalty card so the shop knows what I buy; in return I get discount points and special offers.

In the case of Google Assistant it is not so transparent. The EU’s GDPR legislation has helped, giving citizens the right to access their data and the right to be forgotten. However, we are still in the era of one-sided privacy policies and in many cases the binary choice of agree, or do not use our services. This becomes a problem if the service provider has anything close to a monopoly, which is true in Google’s case. Regulation, it seems to me, is exactly the right answer to the risks inherent in putting too much power in the hands of a business entity.

For myself, I am happy to cross the room and turn on the light, and to find my flight in my calendar. The trade-off is not worth it. But if Adan’s “ambient entity” comes to pass (which is actually most likely Google) I am not sure of the extent to which I will have a choice.

Adan’s work is terrific and the ability for machines to converse with humans in something close to a natural way is a huge technical achievement. I have nothing but respect for him and his team. It is part of a wider picture though, about data gathering, personalisation, and control of information and transactions, and it seems to me that this deserves more attention.

Where next for Windows Mixed Reality? At IFA, Acer has an upgraded headset at IFA; Dell is showing Oculus Rift

It is classic Microsoft. Launch something before it is ready, then struggle to persuade the market to take a second look after it is fixed.

This may prove to be the Windows Mixed Reality story. At IFA in Berlin last year, all the major Windows PC vendors seemed to have headsets to show and talked it up in their press events. This year, Acer has a nice new generation headset, but Asus made no mention of upgrading its hardware. Dell is showing Oculus Rift on its stand, and apparently is having an internal debate about future Mixed Reality hardware.

I reviewed Acer’s first headset and the technology in general late last year. The main problem was lack of content. In particular, the Steam VR compatibility was in preview and not very good.

Today I tried the new headset briefly at the Acer booth.

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The good news: it is a big improvement. It feels less bulky but well made, and has integrated headphones. It felt comfortable even over glasses.

On the software side, I played a short Halo demo. The demo begins with a promising encounter with visceral Halo aliens, but becomes a rather dull shooting game. Still, even the intro shows what is possible.

I was assured that Steam VR compatibility is now much improved, but would like to try for myself.

The big questions are twofold. Will VR really take off at all, and if it does, will anyone use Windows Mixed Reality?

Audirvana Plus for Windows review: a music player which combines convenience and no-compromise audio

Audirvana Plus, an audiophile music player for the Mac, has now been released for Windows.

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Audirvana was developed in France by Damien Plisson, originally as an open source project (you can still get this here but it has not been updated since 2012). The description there still applies: “No equalizer, no trendy special effects, just the music”.  Both Mac and Windows come with music players bundled with the operating system – in Apple’s case the mighty iTunes – but the issue which Audirvana addresses is that these players are about convenience and features as well as sound quality.

Another problem is that the sound system in a modern operating system is complex and needs to support every kind of application while from the user’s perspective it should “just work”; and this can mean compromises, such as resampling or normalizing the audio. This does not matter in most circumstances, but if you want the best possible sound and spend money on high-res downloads or streaming, for example, you want bit-perfect sound.

This perhaps is a good reason not to play music directly from a PC or Mac; but the counter-argument is that using your existing computer reduces the box-count (and expense) of streaming, and that the flexibility and processing power of desktop computer is handy too.

So what does Audirvana offer? The Windows version is still to some extent work in progress and not yet as full-featured as the Mac version; however the developers are promising to add the missing pieces later. However the product is already a capable player with the following key features:

1. Wide range of supported formats including AIFF, WAVE, AAC, MP3, FLAC, Monkey Audio APE, WavPack, Apple Lossless, DSD (DSDIFF including DST compressed, DSF, and SACD ISO images).

DSD support works whether or not you have a DSD DAC. If you have a DSD DAC, you get full native DSD. If you do not, Audirvana will convert to hi-res PCM and it still sounds good. You can control how the DSD is converted in settings, such as the amount of gain to apply (without it, DSD files will sound quiet).

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Here is a DSD file playing on a non-DSD DAC:

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2. MQA unfolding whether or not you have an MQA DAC. The way this works is similar to DSD. If you have an MQA DAC, the decoding will take place in hardware. If you do not, Audirvana will process the MQA track in software. For example, I have a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz MQA-encoded FLAC that plays in Foobar 2000 as a 16/44 file, downloaded from here. In Audirvana though, the same file claims to be 24-bit/352.8 kHz track.

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That resolution is not  genuine; but what matters is that MQA decoding is taking place. If the file is played through an MQA-capable DAC like the Meridian Explorer 2, I get a green light indicating MQA decoding on the DAC. If I play the “original resolution” version, I get a blue light indicating “MQA Studio”. WASAPI and ASIO support. WASAPI is the native Windows standard which enables bit-perfect output and is aimed at professional audio engineers. ASIO is a standard with similar features developed by Steinberg.

3. A library manager which performs well with large numbers of tracks. I tried it with over 50,000 tracks and it was perfectly responsive. It uses the open source SQLITE database manager.

4. Hi-res streaming via Qobuz, HIRESAUDIO or Tidal. There is no support for the likes of Spotify or Apple Music; I guess these are not the target market because they use lossy compression.

Not available yet, but coming, is a remote app for iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), audio effects via VST plugins, and kernel streaming output.

The Audirvana User Interface

Audirvana is delivered as a download though it is a click-once application which means it updates semi-automatically, prompting you to update if an update is available. The user interface is, from the point of view of a Windows user, rather quirky. There is no menu or ribbon, but by clicking around you can find what you need. Some of the settings are accessed by clicking a gearwheel icon, others (such as the per-device options shown in the illustration above) by clicking an arrow to the right of the device name. There is also a compact view, obtained by clicking a symbol at top left, designed for playback once you have lined up the tracks you want.

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The current version seems unreliable when it comes to showing cover art in the library. Sometimes cover art shows up in the mini view, but not the full view.

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Searching the library is quick, but because the user interface is fairly blocky, you do not see many results on a page. An option just to show details in a list would be good (or perhaps it exists but I have not clicked in the right place yet).

I can forgive all this since despite a few annoyances the user interface is responsive, the search fast, and playback itself works well.

Sound quality

How much impact does the music player have on sound quality? This is difficult to answer definitively. On the one hand, the amount of distortion introduced by a sub-optimal player should be negligible compared to other sources of distortion. On the other hand, if you have gone to the trouble and expense of investing in hi-res downloads, streaming or DSD, it must be worth ensuring that every link in the chain does justice to those sources.

It is true that on Windows, with its enthusiastic technical audiophile community, most of what Audirvana does can be achieved with free players such as Foobar 2000 or VLC. There is also the excellent JRiver as an alternative paid-for player, though this lacks software MQA decoding (appreciating that not everyone likes or needs this).

That said, the uncomplicated user interface of Audirvana Plus is great for audio enthusiasts who would rather not spend too much time fiddling with settings or plugins. Support for the iOS remote app is an unfortunate missing piece at present, and Android users miss out too.

The Windows version needs a bit more work then (I also encounted some unpleasant noises when trying to adjust the volume within the application), but it does enough right to justify its relatively modest cost, and the bugs will fixed. Head over to the Audirvana site for a free trial.

All the way from 1997: Compaq PC Companion C140 still works, but as badly as it did on launch

I am having a clear-out which is bringing back memories and unearthing some intriguing items. One is this Compaq C140 PC Companion, running Windows CE, which launched in December 1997.

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The beauty of this device is that it takes two AA batteries. I stuck in some new ones and found that it started up fine, not bad after more than 20 years. Most more recent devices have a non-replaceable rechargeable battery which usually fails long before the rest of the electronics, rendering the entire device useless (at least without surgery).

The C140 runs Windows CE 1.0 and has a monochrome touch screen designed to be used mainly with a stylus. 4MB RAM, 4MB storage, and comes with versions of Word, Excel, Calendar, Contacts and Tasks. There is also a calculator and a world clock. It is expandable with PCMCIA cards (though not many have drivers). The idea is that you link it to your PC with the supplied serial cable and synch with Outlook, hence PC Companion.

The odd thing is, looking at this device I still find it superficially compelling. A pocketable device running Word and Excel, with a full QWERTY keyboard, stylus holder so you do not lose it, what’s not to like?

A lot, unfortunately. The biggest problem is the screen. There is a backlight and a contrast dial, but it is faint and hard to read in most lights and you constantly fiddle with the contrast.

The next issue is the keyboard. It is too cramped to type comfortably. And the format, though it looks reassuringly like a small laptop, is actually awkward to use. It works on a desk, which seems to miss the point, but handheld it is useless. You need three hands, one for the device, one for the stylus, and a third for typing. The design is just wrong and has not been thought through.

I have searched for years for small portable devices with fast text input. I suppose a smartphone with a Swype keyboard or similar comes closest but I am still more productive with a laptop and in practice the thing that has made most improvement for me is that laptops have become lighter and with longer battery life.

Spare a thought though for Microsoft (and its partners) with its long history of trying to make mobile work. You can argue back and forth about whether it was right to abandon Windows Phone, but whatever your views, it is a shame that decades of effort ended that way.

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