Gadget Writing

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

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Mad but great: Sony Walkman 2019 NW-A105

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Who would want an expensive dedicated mobile music player in 2019, when any mobile phone is capable of excellent sound quality, more likely streamed from Spotify or Apple Music than played directly from music files on the device? It is a bit crazy; but Sony is still out there promoting high resolution audio and believes that smartphones are not the last word in audio quality. The new NW-A105, which retails at £320 in the UK, is not even the top of its range. The Walkman WM1Z Signature Series is £2500, complete with gold-plated oxygen-free copper chassis, making the humble A105 seem quite a bargain.

The audio world is replete with misleading claims about what makes for good sound, and you can make the case that you will not get any audible benefits from spending this kind of money. That said, I attend Sony events from time to time – the latest was IFA in Berlin earlier this year – and I am always impressed by the sound quality of Sony’s high-end portable devices. I was glad to get the opportunity to review the NW-105 therefore. Who knows, it may not be quite the sonic equal of the WM1Z, but as soon as I tried it I was delighted by the almost uncanny realism of some of the best-recorded tracks I have available.

Which tracks? For example, I played Let me touch you for a while from the Live album by Alison Krauss and the Union Station, and was transported to the Louisville Palace in April 2002. There is space around the instruments, the guitars sound like guitars, you can follow the bass, the applause sounds like you are in the audience. Then Claire Martin’s cover of Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World. a demo track from Linn that is beautifully recorded, and you can hear immediately that the sound quality is a notch above what we normally hear. It is spacious, the instruments sound distinct and realistic, the vocals have great presence. Then the Cranberries, I Still Do, not demo quality this time, but you get the ethereal quality of the much-missed Dolores O’Riordan’s voice, the dense instrumentation, the thunderous bass at the end of the track. I just wanted to keep playing, in a way that I have not done for a while.

The A105 (which is more or less the same as the A100 and some other models) is notable for running Android 9.0, unlike some of the other models which run Sony’s own custom operating system. Running Android has pros and cons. On the plus side, it means you can run any Android app, such as Spotify, YouTube, Google Play Music, Apple Music, and so on. You can also connect to public wi-fi using your preferred web browser. The disadvantage is that Android consumes more space and drains the battery faster than Sony’s dedicated firmware.

I love this device, but it does have a number of annoyances. Here are the main ones:

  • Just 16GB of on-board storage, which soon fills up if you put a few hi-res albums on there. In fact, available storage is less than 7GB thanks to Android. A DSD album in SACD quality is typically between 1.5 and 2.0 GB. Fortunately there is a microSD slot (supports microSD, microSDHC, microSDXC) which lets you expand storage up to a theoretical maximum of 2TB. I fitted an inexpensive 200GB card.
  • You can play music either from the Sony Music Player or from other Android apps. If you play from the Sony player you get maximum sound quality and volume is controlled only by the Sony volume control. If you play from Android apps you are limited to 48 kHz/16-bit and higher resolutions will be downsampled, and volume is controlled by the Android media volume as well as by the Sony control. It’s best to turn the Android media volume to max and just use the Sony control.
  • The maximum volume is not that loud. If you have inefficient headphones and want to listen in noisy environments this could be a problem. I found that with Sennheiser HD 600 headphones, for example, it was not always loud enough. With other more efficient headphones, or with Shure earbuds it was fine. The volume depends on multiple factors, including the volume of the source, and whether you engage the “Dynamic Normalizer” sound affect.
  • The battery seems to drain quite fast if the unit is on standby. Turning wi-fi off helps, but you need to turn it off completely if you want to extend battery life. I recommend powering it off when not in use.

Format support is comprehensive, including MP3, FLAC, MP4 including Apple lossless, DSD right up to 11.2896 MHz, and MQA-encoded FLAC. DSD is converted to PCM. Hi-res is supported up to 32-bit/384 kHz

The home screen is standard Android with a link to a detailed manual, and three Sony apps: Music player, Sound adjustment and Ambient sound settings. The player app is basic but easy to use. The Sound Adjustment has various sound processors, including Dynamic Normalizer for normalizing volume between tracks, Vinyl Processor which supposedly “recreates the warm, rich playback of a turntable”, Clear Audio +, graphic equalizer, and DSEE HX which supposedly makes CD quality more like hi-res, and DC Phase Linearizer which is meant to make low frequencies “more analog”. You can also set Direct mode which bypasses all these and is my preferred setting. The Ambient control lets you enable noise cancelling and ambient sound mode (letting you hear external sounds through a headset); but these settings only work with a specific Sony headset.

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A fun feature is the cassette screen that you can set to appear on playback.

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The quality of the cassette varies according to the format. You can even see the reels spin faster if you fast forward or back. An nice touch.

As I experimented, I installed Spotify, tried Google Play Music, and used some Bluetooth headphones. Everything worked, but I have to say that some of the magic seems to disappear with all these options. On the Bluetooth side, the unit supports Bluetooth 5.0 and the A2DP, AVRCP, SPP, OPP and DID protocols. Codecs are SBC, LDAC, aptX, aptX HD and AAC. The quality you will get does depend partly on whether your headset supports the best resolutions. Unfortunately I don’t have a Sony headset that supports LDAC, a Sony-developed codec that supports 96 kHz/24-bit though with lossy compression. Perhaps that would make a difference. The sound is not by any means bad, just not as special as with a wired connection.

Similar reservations apply to the sound from Android sources other than the Sony player. I conjecture that the Sony player has some special support for the custom hardware that you do not get when playing via the Android sound system. Again, the quality is very good, but there is a noticeable difference to my ears.

The A105 supports Meridian’s MQA, a controversial effort to improve quality by folding high resolution into space in the audio file that would otherwise be unheard. I have a number of MQA demo files and can report that they do sound exceptionally good on the Sony, though whether this is because of MQA or simply that they are demo-quality recordings is open to question.

Update: I tried this on a flight for the first time. I used some Jabra headphones which have both a wired a a Bluetooth connect. In a quiet environment the wired connection sounds better. On the plane though, with the background roar of the engine, the volume was barely sufficient with wired. I switched to the Bluetooth which overcomes this since you are then using the built-in amplifier in the headset. In the end I felt this was preferable. Wireless is also an advantage in a somewhat cramped environment. It certainly made the flight pass more pleasantly.

Hardware

Android is fast and responsive on this player, thanks to 4GB RAM and a 4x 1.8 ARM chipset. CPU information is below:

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What has Sony done to achieve better quality? The specifications refer to things like the aluminium milled frame, film capacitors and “fine sound” resistors. There is also a circuit board layout optimized for sound with the audio. There is a bit more detail on the hardware here if you are curious. What makes a difference to the sound, and what is just marketing? Hard to say, but as I mentioned in the opening of this post, all I can say is that the sound quality is real.

Conclusion

Despite the high price (or low price if you measure it against other premium portable devices such as those from Astell & Kern, or higher in Sony’s range), this is a great device and one which offers many hours of enjoyment. There are a few cautions though. The annoyances are real, including the short battery life and limited volume. I am not sure it is worth it if you plan to use wireless headphones most of the time. And if you are impatient with the idea of downloading files or rippling physical media, in this age of streaming, it is not quite so compelling. None of these issues are dealbreakers for me; I am just enjoying the sound.

Marley Stir it up Wireless Turntable: a good introduction to the vinyl revival?

I have been trying a Marley Stir it Up Wireless turntable over the last couple of weeks.

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This is the wireless version of an older model, also called Stir it up. The name references a Bob Marley song, and yes there is a family connection. Marley manufactures a range of relatively inexpensive audio products with a distinctive emphasis on natural and recycled materials.

The turntable is no exception, and has an attractive bamboo plinth and a fabric cover in place of the usual Perspex (or similar) lid. The fabric cover is actually a bit annoying, since you cannot use it when a record is playing (it would flop all over it).

I am familiar with turntable setup, and otherwise would have found the setup instructions confusing. The belt is a suppled already fitted to the platter. You have to poke it round the drive pulley through a hole in the platter. That is not too hard, but there also conflicting and unclear instructions about how to set the tracking weight and bias correction. What you should do is to ignore the printed instructions and check out the video here. This explains that you fit the counterweight to the arm, adjust it until the cartridge floats just above the platter, then twist the weight gauge to zero, then twist the counterweight to 2.5g, the correct tracking force for the supplied Audio Technical 3600L cartridge. Then set the anti-skate to the same value as the tracking weight.

Connections on this turntable are flexible. You can switch the phono pre-amp on or off; if ON you do not need a phono input on your amplifier, just line in. Alternatively you can plug in headphones, or connect Bluetooth speakers, using the volume control at front right.

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There is also a USB port at the back of the unit. You can connect this to a PC or Mac to convert records to audio files.

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Playing record is a matter of placing the record on the platter, setting the speed as required, unclipping the arm, pulling the arm lowering lever FORWARD to lift it, moving the arm over the record (which starts the platter rotating), then pushing the lever BACK to lower it (I found the lever worked the opposite way to what I expected).

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All worked well though, and I was soon playing records. First impressions were good. I found the sound quality decent enough to be enjoyable and put on a few favourites. My question had been: can a cheapish turntable deliver good enough sound to make playing records fun? The answer, I felt, was yes.

This was despite some obvious weaknesses in the turntable. The arm does not move as freely as a top quality arm, and the fact that it operates a switch is sub-optimal; it is better to have a separate switch to turn the platter rotation on and off. I also noticed mechanical noise from the turntable, not enough to be spoil the music, but a bad sign. The cartridge is from a great manufacturer, but is about the cheapest in the range. Finally, the platter is lightweight, which is bad for speed stability.

This last point is important. I noticed that on some material the pitch was not as stable as it should be. Marley quote “less than 0.3%” for wow and flutter, which is rather high. I decided to do some measurement. I recorded a 3.15kHz tone into a digital recorded and opened the file in Audacity. Then I used the Wow and Flutter visualizer plugin from here. I repeated the test with my normal (old but much more expensive) turntable, a Roksan Xerxes, to get a comparison. In the following analysis, the +/- 1.0 represents 1% divergence from the average frequency. A perfect result would be a straight line. The Marley is the top chart, the Xerxes below.

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Essentially this shows a cyclic speed variation of up to about 1.8% peak to peak for the Marley, compared to around 0.4% for the Xerxes. Note that when converted to weighted RMS (root mean square) this is probably within spec for the Marley; but it is also obvious that the Marley is pretty bad. Does it matter? Well, it is certainly audible. Whether it bothers you depends partly on the kind of music you play, and partly on your sensitivity to this kind of distortion. I noticed it easily on Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, not so much on rock music.

The Marley is £229 full retail. Can you do better for the same price? That is hard to answer since the Marley does pack in a lot of flexibility. All you need to add is a Bluetooth speaker, or headphones, and you can listen to music. If you compare the Rega Planar 1, which is £229, you do get a turntable more obviously designed for best quality at the price, but it is more of a bare-bones design, lacking the phono pre-amp, headphone socket and wireless capabilities. And even the Rega Planar 1 does not have a great spec for wow and flutter; I cannot find a published spec but I believe it is around 0.2% – there is a discussion here.

I still feel the Marley is a good buy if you want to have some fun playing records, but getting the best quality out of records has never been cheap and this is true today as it was in the LP’s heyday back in the 60s and 70s.

I cannot fault the AT cartridge which gives a clean and lively sound. The headphone output is not very loud, but fine for some casual listening.

Is there any point, when streaming is so easy? All I can say is that playing records is good fun and at its best offers an organic, three-dimensional sound quality that you do not often hear from a digital source. Quite often records are less compressed than digital versions of the same music, which is also a reason why they can sound better. In terms of signal to noise, wow and flutter, distortion etc, digital is of course superior.

Just ahead of the launch of Oppo Reno 2, here is a look at Oppo Reno 10x Zoom

Oppo will launch Reno 2 on 16th October, under the heading “Make the world your studio”. Oppo mobiles have been making a an impression as an example of high quality technology at a price a bit less than you would pay for a Samsung or a Sony – similar in that respect to Huawei, though currently without the challenge Huawei faces in trying to market Android devices without Google Play services.

Oppo is a brand of BBK Electronics Corp, a Chinese company based in Chang’an, Dongguan. Other BBK Electronics brands include OnePlus and Vivo. If you combine the market share of all these brands, it is in the top four globally.

My first encounter with the Reno brand was in May this year when I attended the launch of the Reno 10x Zoom and the Reno 5G (essentially the 10x Zoom with 5G support) in London. Unfortunately I was not able to borrow a device for review until recently; however I have been using a 10x Zoom for the last couple of weeks and found it pretty interesting.

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First impression: this is a large device. It measures 7.72 x 16.2 x 0.93cm and weighs about 215g. The AMOLED screen diagonal is 16.9cm and the resolution 2340 x 1080 pixels.

Second impression: it takes amazing pictures. To me, this is not just a matter of specification. I am not a professional photographer, but do take thousands of photos for work. Unfortunately I don’t have an iPhone 11, Samsung Galaxy Note 10 to test against. The mobile I’ve actually been using of late is the Honor 10 AI, a year older and considerably cheaper than the Reno but with a decent camera. I present the below snaps not as a fair comparison but to show how the Reno 10x Zoom compares to a more ordinary smartphone camera.

Here is a random pic of some flowers taken with the Honor 10 AI (left) and the Reno 10x Zoom (right):

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Not too much in it? Try zooming in on some detail (same pic, cropped):

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The Reno 10x Zoom also, believe it not, has a zoom feature. Here is a detail from my snap of an old coin at 4.9x, hand-held, no tripod.

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There is something curious about this. Despite the name, the Reno has 5x optical zoom, with 10x and more (in fact up to 60x) available through digital processing. You soon learn that the quality is best when using the optical zoom alone; there is a noticeable change when you exceed 5x and not a good one.

The image stabilisation seems excellent.

The UI for this is therefore unfortunate. The way it works is that when you open the camera a small 1x button appears in the image. Tap it, and it goes to 2x.Tap again for 6x, and again for 10x. If you want other settings you either use pinch and zoom, or press and hold on the button whereupon a scale appears. Since there is a drop-off in quality after 5x, it would make more sense for the tap to give this setting.

There are four camera lenses on the Reno. On the rear, a 48MP f/1.7 wide, a 13MP f/2.4 telephoto, and an 8MP f/2.2 ultra-wide. The telephoto lens has a periscope design (like Huawei’s P30 Pro), meaning that the lens extends along with the length of the phone internally, using a prism to bend the light, so that the lens can be longer than a thin smartphone normally allows.

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There is also a small bump (surrounded by green in the pic below) which is a thoughtful feature to protect the lenses if the device is placed on a flat surface.

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On the front is a 16MP f/2.0 sensor which also gives great results, excellent for selfies or video conferencing. The notable feature here is that it is hinged and when not in use, slides into the body of the camera. This avoids having a notch. Nice feature.

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ColorOS and special features

We might wish that vendors just use stock Android but they prefer to customize it, probably in the hope that customers, once having learned a particular flavour of Android, will be reluctant to switch.

The Oppo variant is called ColorOS. One good thing about it is that you can download a manual which is currently 335pp. It is not specific to the Reno 10x Zoom and some things are wrong (it references a non-existent headphone jack, for example), but it helps if you want to understand the details of the system. You might not otherwise know, for example, that there is a setting which lets you open the camera by drawing an O gesture on the lock screen.

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How many customers will find and read this manual? My hunch is relatively few. Most people get a new smartphone, transfer their favourite apps, tap around a bit to work out how to set a few things as they want them, and then do not worry.

If you have a 10x, I particularly recommend reading the section on the camera as you will want to understand each feature and how to operate it.

The Reno 10x does have quite a few smart features. Another worth noting is “Auto answer when phone is near ear”. You can also have it so that it will automatically switch from speaker to receiver when you hold the phone to your ear.

Face unlock is supported but you are not walked through setting this up automatically. You are prompted to enrol a fingerprint though. The fingerprint sensor is under glass on the front – I prefer them on the rear – but there is a nice feature where the fingerprint area glows when you pick up the device. It works but it is not brilliant if conditions are sub-optimal, for example with a damp hand.

The Reno 10x Zoom supports split screen mode via a three-finger gesture. With a large high-resolution screen this may be useful. Here is Microsoft Teams (Left) with a web browser (Right).

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Settings – Smart services includes Riding mode, designed for cycling, which will disable all notifications except whitelisted calls.

VOOC (Voltage Open Loop Multistep Constant-current Charging) is Oppo’s fast charging technology.

Dolby Atmos audio is included and there are stereo speakers. Sound from these is nothing special, but sound from the bundled earbuds is excellent.

Quick conclusions

A Reno 10x Zoom is not a cheap smartphone, but it does cost less than the latest flagship devices from Apple or Samsung. If you are like me and need a great camera, it strikes me as a good choice. If you do not care much about the camera, look elsewhere.

Things I especially like:

  • Excellent camera
  • No notch
  • Great audio quality though supplied earbuds
  • Thoughtful design and high quality build

There are a few things against it though:

  • Relatively bulky
  • No wireless charging
  • No headphone jack (less important now that wireless earbuds are common)

Spec summary

OS: Android 9 with ColorOS 6

Screen: AMOLED 6.6″ 2340 x 1080 at 387 ppi

Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 SM8150 , 8 Core Kryo 485 2.85 GHz

Integrated GPU: Qualcomm Adreno 640

RAM: 8GB

Storage: 256GB

Dual SIM: Yes – 2 x Nano SIM or SIM + Micro SD

NFC: Yes

Sensors: Geomagnetic, Light, Proximity, Accelerometer, Gyro, Laser focus, dual-band GPS

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

Bluetooth: 5.0

Connections: USB Type-C with OTG support.

Size and weight: 162 mm x 77.2 mm  x 9.3 mm, 215g

Battery: 4065 mAh. No wireless charging.

Fingerprint sensor: Front, under glass

Face unlock: Yes

Rear camera: Rear: 48MP + 8MP + 13MP

Front camera: 16MP

Yamaha’s vinyl revival on display at IFA in Berlin including GT-5000 turntable

At IFA in Berlin, Europe’s biggest consumer electronics show, there is no doubting that the vinyl revival is real.

At times it did feel like going back in time. On the Teac stand there were posters for Led Zeppelin and The Who, records by Deep Purple and the Velvet Underground, and of course lots of turntables.

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Why all the interest in vinyl? Nostalgia is a factor but there is a little more to it. A record satisfies a psychological urge to collect, to own, to hold a piece of music that you admire, and streaming or downloading does not meet that need.

There is also the sound. At its best, records have an organic realism that digital audio rarely matches. Sometimes that is because of the freedom digital audio gives to mastering engineers to crush all the dynamics out of music in a quest to make everything as LOUD as possible. Other factors are the possibility of euphonic distortion in vinyl playback, or that excessive digital processing damages the purity of the sound. Records also have plenty of drawbacks, including vulnerability to physical damage, dust which collects on the needle, geometric issues which means that the arm is (most of the time) not exactly parallel to the groove, and the fact that he quality of reproduction drops near the centre of the record, where the speed is slower.

Somehow all these annoyances have not prevented vinyl sales from increasing, and audio companies are taking advantage. It is a gift for them, some slight relief from the trend towards smartphones, streaming, earbuds and wireless speakers in place of traditional hi-fi systems.

One of the craziest things I saw at IFA was Crosley’s RDS3, a miniature turntable too small even for a 7” single. It plays one-sided 3” records of which there are hardly any available to buy.Luckily it is not very expensive, and is typically sold on Record Store Day complete with a collectible 3” record which you can play again and again.

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Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, I was also intrigued by Yamaha’s GT-5000. It is a high-end turntable which is not yet in full production. I was told there are only three in existence at the moment, one on the stand at IFA, one in a listening room at IFA, and one at Yamaha’s head office in Japan.

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Before you ask, price will be around €7000, complete with arm. A lot, but in the world of high-end audio, not completely unaffordable.

There was a Yamaha GT-2000 turntable back in the eighties, the GT standing for “Gigantic and Tremendous”. Yamaha told me that engineers in retirement were consulted on this revived design.

The GT-5000 is part of a recently introduced 5000 series, including amplifier and loudspeakers, which takes a 100% analogue approach. The turntable is belt drive, and features a very heavy two-piece platter. The brass inner platter weights 2kg and the aluminium outer platter, 5.2kg. The high mass of the platter stabilises the rotation. The straight tonearm features a copper-plated aluminium inner tube and a carbon outer tube. The headshell is cut aluminium and is replaceable. You can adjust the speed ±1.5% in 0.1% increments. Output is via XLR balanced terminals or unbalanced RCA. Yamaha do not supply a cartridge but recommend the Ortofon Cadenza Black.

Partnering the GT-5000 is C-5000 pre-amplifier, the M-5000 100w per channel stereo power amplifier, and NS-5000 three-way loudspeakers. Both amplifiers have balanced connections and Yamaha has implemented what it calls “floating and balanced technology”:

Floating and balanced power amplifier technology delivers fully balanced amplification, with all amplifier circuitry including the power supply ‘floating’ from the electrical ground … one of the main goals of C-5000 development was to have completely balanced transmission of phono equaliser output, including the MC (moving coil) head amp … balanced transmission is well-known to be less susceptible to external noise, and these qualities are especially dramatic for minute signals between the phono cartridge and pre-amplifier.

In practice I suspect many buyers will partner the GT-5000 with their own choice of amplifier, but I do like the pure analogue approach which Yamaha has adopted. If you are going to pretend that digital audio does not exist you might as well do so consistently (I use Naim amplifiers from the eighties with my own turntable setup).

I did get a brief chance to hear the GT-5000 in the listening room at IFA. I was not familiar with the recording and cannot make meaningful comment except to say that yes, it sounded good, though perhaps slightly bright. I would need longer and to play some of my own familiar records to form a considered opinion.

What I do know is that if you want to play records, it really is worth investing in a high quality turntable, arm and cartridge; and that the pre-amplifier as well is critically important because of the low output, especially from moving coil cartridges.

GT-5000 arm geometry

There is one controversial aspect to the GT-5000 which is its arm geometry. All tonearms are a compromise. The ideal tonearm has zero friction, perfect rigidity, and parallel tracking at all points, unfortunately impossible to achieve. The GT-5000 has a short, straight arm, whereas most arms have an angled headshell and slightly overhang the centre of the platter. The problem with a short, straight arm is that it has a higher deviation from parallel than with a longer arm and angled headshell, so much so that it may only be suitable for a conical stylus. On the other hand, it does not require any bias adjustment, simplifying the design. With a straight arm, it would be geometrically preferable to have a very long arm but that may tend to resonate more as well as requiring a large plinth. I am inclined the give the GT-5000 the benefit of the doubt; it will be interesting to see detailed listening and performance tests in due course.

More information on the GT-5000 is here.

The decline of high end audio at CES and what it says about the audiophile market

I am not a regular at CES, the huge trade consumer technology fair in Las Vegas, but well recall my last visit, in 2014. I did the usual round of press conferences from various technology vendors, but reserved some time towards the end of my stay for the high-end audio rooms at the Venetian, one of the more civilized hotels in Vegas despite the fake canals.

There was plenty of activity there, floor upon floor of exhibitors showing all kinds of audio exotica, from cables thicker than your arm to amplifiers that would test the strength of your flooring. Of course there was plenty of audio on the main CES exhibits as well, but my observation at the time was that while the mainstream manufacturers like B&W and Sony had good sounds at relatively affordable prices, the crazy folk in the Venetian did achieve the best sonics, if you closed your eyes to the wild theories and bank-busting prices.

I was ushered into a room to hear a preview of Naim’s Statement amplifiers and heard a sound that was “muscular, etched and authoritative”, no less than it should be at £150,000 for a set.

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It appears that memories will now be all we have of the these great days in the Venetian. Last year CEPro reported:

Maybe the writing was on the wall last year at CES 2017 when two of the suites in the high-performance area were occupied by AARP and Serta Mattress. The running joke among attendees was the elderly audiophiles there could take a nap and check in on their retirement status while listening to audio …. “This is the end of high-performance audio at CES,” said one exhibitor bluntly.

This year it has played out more or less as expected:

The impact of the high-fidelity corner of CES was certainly diminished by any standard. Actual listening rooms were reduced to a single hallway, with some stragglers to be found a few floors upward.

says AudioStream.

The word is that High-End Munich has replaced CES to some extent; but this is not just a matter of which industry show is more fashionable. You only have to look around you at a hi-fi shows to note that these enthusiasts are mostly an older generation. The future does not look good.

There is no decline in music appreciation, so what is wrong? There are several factors which come to mind.

The first and most important is that technology has made high quality audio cheap and ubiquitous. Plug a decent pair of headphones into the smartphone you already have, and the quality is already more than satisfactory for most listeners. Spend a bit on powered wireless speakers and you can get superb sound. In other words, the excellent performance of mainstream audio has pushed the high-end market into a smaller and smaller niche.

The industry has also harmed itself by seemingly embracing every opportunity for hype, regardless of what science and engineering tell us. Exotic cables, digital resolutions beyond anything that human ears can hear, unwarranted fuss about jitter or mysterious timing issues (MQA anyone?), and more.

In the meantime, the music companies have done their best to make high resolution audio even more pointless by excessive dynamic range compression engineered into the music they release, wasting the fantastic dynamic range that is now possible and even on occasion introducing audible distortion.

I became an audio enthusiast when I heard how much I was missing by using mainstream budget equipment. I recall listening sessions in hi-fi shops where I was stunned by the realism, musicality and detail that was to be heard from familiar records when played back on high-end systems.

Such experiences are less likely today.

Fixing OneDrive Camera upload on Android

A feature of Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage is that you can set it to upload photos from your smartphone automatically. It is a handy feature, in part as a backup in case the you lose your mobile, and in part because it lets you easily get to them on your PC or Mac, for editing, printing or sharing.

This feature used to work reliably on Windows Phone but I have not found it so good on Android. Photos never seem to upload in the background, but only when you open the OneDrive app and tap Photos. Even then, it seems to stop uploading from time to time, as if everything is up to date when it is not.

The fix that I have found is to open OneDrive settings by tapping the Me icon (not a particularly intuitive place to find settings, but never mind).

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Then I turn Camera upload off. Go back to Photos. Go back to settings and turn Camera upload on again. It always kicks it back into life.

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It is worth noting of course that Google Photos also has this feature and it is likely to be enabled, unless you specifically took care not to enable it. And  cloud storage of photos on Google is free if you choose “High quality” for upload size. If you choose “Original” for upload size, you get 15GB free photo storage.

This being the case, why bother with OneDrive camera upload? A few reasons I can think of:

1. The Windows 10 Photos app integrates with OneDrive, showing previews of your images without downloading them and letting you download on demand.

2. You might have more space on OneDrive, especially if you use OneDrive for Business, which is now in beta

3. In a business context, automatic upload to OneDrive for Business has great potential. Think surveyors, engineers, medicine, anyone who does site visits for work

4. For consumers, it probably does not make sense to spread your stuff across both a Microsoft account and a Google account. If you have picked Microsoft, maybe because you use Windows or because you would rather trust Microsoft than Google with your personal data, then you would want your photos to be in OneDrive rather than Google Photos.

It is therefore unfortunate that in my experience it does now work right. I am not sure if this is just a bug in the app, or something to do with Android. In the end though, it is just another niggly thing that pushes Android users away from Microsoft and towards Google services.

David Bowie Is app: Floating in a most peculiar way

The exhibition David Bowie Is, originally at the Victoria and Albert museum in London and subsequently on tour around the world, has proved an enormous success with over 2 million visitors in 12 locations. Sony Entertainment has now released David Bowie Is AR Exhibition, an app for iOS and Android that uses Augmented Reality to enable users to enjoy the exhibition at home and whenever they like.

I found the app though-provoking. I am a fan of course, so keen to see the material; and I attended the London exhibition twice so I have some context.

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I tried the app on an Honor 10 AI – note that you have to download the Google ARCore library first, if it is not already installed. Then I ran the app and found it somewhat frustrating. When the app starts up, you get a calibrating screen and this has to complete before you can progress.

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If you struggle at all with this, I recommend having a look at the help, which says to “Find a well-lit surface with a visible pattern or a few flat items on it. A magazine on a desk or table works well.” Another tip is that the app is designed for a table-top experience. So sit at a desk, do not try walking around and using a wall.

The app streams a lot of data. So if you are on a poor connection, expect to wait while the orange thermometer bar fills up at the bottom of the screen. The streaming/caching could probably be much improved.

Once I got the app working I began to warm to it. You can think of it as a series of pages or virtual rooms. Each room has an array of object in it, and you tap an object to bring it into view. Once an object is focused like this, you can zoom in by moving the phone. Pinch to zoom should work too though I had some problems with it.

Here is a view of the recording page:

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and here I’ve brought a page of Bowie’s notes into view (note the caption which appears) and zoomed in; the resolution is good.

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The clever bit is that you can move objects around by tap and drag. This is a nice feature when viewing Bowie’s cut-up lyric technique, since you can drag the pieces around to exercise your own creativity.

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Fair enough, but is this really Augmented Reality? I’d argue not, since it does not mix the real world with the virtual world. It just uses the AR platform as a viewer into this virtualised environment.

The experience is good when it works, but not if you get disappearing content, endless “calibration”, stuttering videos, or content that is too small and stubbornly refuses to come into view – all issues which I encountered. It also requires a fairly high-end phone or tablet. So your environment has to be just right for it to work; not ideal for enjoying on a train journey, for example. And some of the content is literally shaky; I think this is a bug and may improve with an update.

Would it be better if it were presented in a more traditional ways, as a database of items which you could search and view? Unfortunately I think it would. This would also reduce the system requirements and enable more people to enjoy it.

It does look as if there is a lot here. According to the site:

56 costumes
38 songs
23 music videos
60 original lyric sheets
50 photos
33 drawings and sketches
7 paintings

I would love to be able to look up these items easily. Instead I have to hunt through the virtual rooms and hope I can find what I am looking for. Just like a real exhibition, complete with crowds and kids wanting toilets I guess. 

Review: Synology DS119J. Great system but single bay and underpowered hardware make it worth spending a bit more

Synology has released a new budget NAS, the DS119j, describing it as “An ideal first NAS for the home".

It looks similar to the DS115j which it probably replaces – currently both models are listed on Synology’s site. What is the difference? The operating system is now 64-bit, the CPU now a dual-core ARMv8, though still at 800 MHz, and the read/write performance slightly bumped from 100 MB/s to 108 MB/s, according to the documentation.

I doubt any of these details will matter to the intended users, except that the more powerful CPU will help performance – though it is still underpowered, if you want to take advantage of the many applications which this device supports.

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What you get is the Diskstation, which is a fairly slim white box with connections for power, 1GB Ethernet port, and 2 USB 2.0 ports. Disappointing to see the slow USB 2.0 standard used here. You will also find a power supply, an Ethernet cable, and a small bag of screws.

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The USB ports are for attaching USB storage devices or printers. These can then be accessed over the network.

The DS119j costs around £100.

Initial setup

You can buy these units either empty, as mine was, or pre-populated with a hard drive. Presuming it is empty, you slide the cover off, fit the 3.5" hard drive, secure it with four screws, then replace the cover and secure that with two screws.

What disk should you buy? A NAS is intended to be always on and you should get a 3.5" disk that is designed for this. Two common choices are the WD (Western Digital) Red series, and Seagate IronWolf series. At the time of writing, both a 4TB WD Red and a 4TB IronWolf are about £100 from Amazon UK. The IronWolf Pro is faster and specified for a longer life (no promises though), at around £150.

What about SSD? This is the future of storage (though the man from Seagate at Synology’s press event says hard drives will continue for a decade or more). SSD is much faster but on a home NAS that is compromised by accessing it over a network. It is much more expensive for the same amount of storage. You will need a SATA SSD and a 3.5" adapter. Probably not the right choice for this NAS.

Fitting the drive is not difficult, but neither it is as easy as it could be. It is not difficult to make bays in which drives can be securely fitted without screws. Further, the design of the bay is such that you have to angle a screwdriver slightly to turn the screws. Finally, the screw holes in the case are made entirely of plastic and it would be easy to overtighten then and strip the thread, so be careful.

Once assembled, you connect the drive to a wired network and power it on. In most home settings, you will attach the drive to a network port on your broadband router. In other cases you may have a separate network switch. You cannot connect it over wifi and this would anyway be a mistake as you need the higher performance and reliability of a cable connection.

To get started you connect the NAS to your network and therefore to the internet, and turn it on. In order to continue, you need to find it on the network which you can do in one of several ways including:

– Download the DS Finder app for Android or iOS.

– Download Synology Assistant for Windows, Mac or Linux

– Have a look at your DHCP manager (probably in your router management for home users) and find the IP address

If you use DS Finder you can set up the Synology DiskStation from your phone. Otherwise, you can use a web browser (my preferred option). All you need to do to get started is to choose a username and password. You can also choose whether to link your DiskStation with a Synology account and create a QuickConnect ID for it. If you do this, you will be able to connect to your DiskStation over the Internet.

The DiskStation sets itself up in a default configuration. You will have network folders for music, photo, video, and another called home for other documents. Under home you will also find Drive, which behaves like a folder but has extra features for synchronization and file sharing. For full use of Drive, you need to install a Drive client from Synology.

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If you attach a USB storage device to a port on the DS119j, it shows up automatically as usbshare1 on the network. This means that any USB drive becomes network storage, a handy feature, though only at USB 2.0 speed.

Synology DSM (Disk Station Manager)

Synology DSM is a version of Linux adapted by Synology. It is mature and robust, now at version 6.2. The reason a Synology NAS costs much more than say a 4TB WD Elements portable USB drive is that the Synology is actually a small server, focused on storage but capable of running many different types of application. DSM is the operating system. Like most Linux systems, you install applications via a package manager, and Synology maintains a long list of packages encompassing a diverse range of functions from backup and media serving through to business-oriented applications like running Java applications, a web server, Docker containers, support ticket management, email, and many more.

DSM also features a beautiful windowed user interface all running in the browser.

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The installation and upgrade of packages is smooth and whether you consider it as a NAS, or as a complete server system for small businesses, it is impressive and (compared to a traditional Windows or Linux server) easy to use.

The question in relation to the DS119j is whether DSM is overkill for such a small, low-power device.

Hyper Backup

Given that this NAS only has a single drive, it is particularly important to back up any data. Synology includes an application for this purpose, called Hyper Backup.

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Hyper Backup is very flexible and lets you backup to many destinations, including Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure, Synology’s own C2 cloud service, or to local storage. For example, you could attach a large USB drive to the USB port and backup to there. Scheduling is built in.

I had a quick look at the Synology C2 service. It did not go well. I use the default web browser on Windows 10, Edge, and using Hyper Backup to Synology C2 just got me this error message.

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I told Edge to pretend to be Firefox, which worked fine. I was invited to start a free trial. Then you get to choose a plan:

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Plans start at €9.99 + VAT for 100GB for a year. Of course if you fill your 4TB drive that will not be enough. On the other hand, not everything needs to be backed up. Things like downloads that you can download again, or videos ripped from disks, are not so critical, or better backed up to local drives. Cloud backup is ideal though for important documents since it is an off-site backup. I have not compared prices, but I suspect that something like Amazon S3 or Microsoft Azure would be better value than Synology C2, though integration will be smooth with Synology’s service. Synology has its own datacentre in Frankfurt so it is not just reselling Amazon S3; this may also help with compliance.

An ideal first NAS?

The DS119j is not an ideal NAS for one simple reason: it has only a single bay so does not provide resilient storage. In other words, you should not have data that is stored only on this DiskStation, unless it is not important to you. You should ensure that it is backed up, maybe to another NAS or external drive, or maybe to cloud storage.

Still, if you are aware of the risks with a single drive NAS and take sensible precautions, you can live with it.

I like Synology DSM which makes the small NAS devices great value as small servers. For home users, they are great for shared folders, media serving (I use Logitech Media Server with great success), and PC backup. For small business, they are a strong substitute for the role which used to be occupied by Microsoft’s Small Business Server as well as being cheaper and easier to use.

If you only want a networked file share, there are cheaper options from the likes of Buffalo, but Synology DSM is nicer to use.

If you want to make fuller use of DSM though, this model is not the best choice. I noticed the CPU often spiked just using the control panel and package manager.

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I would suggest stretching to at least the DS218j, which is similar but has 2 bays, 500MB of RAM and a faster CPU. Better still, I like the x86-based Plus series – but a 2-bay DS218+ is over £300. A DS218j is half that price and perhaps the sweet spot for home users.

Finally, Synology could do better with documentation for the first-time user. Getting started is not too bad, but the fact is that DSM presents you with a myriad of options and applications and a better orientation guide would be helpful.

Conclusion? OK, but get the DS218j if you can.

Linux applications and .NET Core on a Chromebook makes this an increasingly interesting device

I have been writing about Google Chromebooks of late and as part of my research went out and bought one, an HP Chromebook 14 that cost me less than £200. It runs an Intel Celeron N3350 processor and has a generous (at this price) 32GB storage; many of the cheaper models have only 16GB.

This is a low-end notebook for sure, but still boots quickly and works fine for general web browsing and productivity applications. Chrome OS (the proprietary version of the open source Chromium OS) is no longer an OS that essentially just runs Google’s Chrome browser, though that is still the main intent. It has for some time been able to run Android applications; these run in a container which itself runs Android. Android apps run fairly well though I have experienced some anomalies.

Recently Google has added support for Linux applications, though this is still in beta. The main motivation for this seems to be to run Android Studio, so that Googlers and others with smart Pixelbooks (high-end Chromebooks that cost between £999 and £1,699) can do a bit more with their expensive hardware.

I had not realised that even a lowly HP Chromebook 14 is now supported by the beta, but when I saw the option in settings I jumped at it.

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It took a little while to download but then I was able to open a Linux terminal. Like Android, Linux runs in a container. It is also worth noting that Chrome OS itself is based on Linux so in one sense Chromebooks have always run Linux; however they have been locked down so that you could not, until now, install applications other than web apps or Android.

Linux is therefore sandboxed. It is configured so that you do not have access to the general file system. However the Chromebook Files application has access to your user files in both Chrome OS and Linux.

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I found little documentation for running Linux applications so here are a few notes on my initial stumblings.

First, note that the Chromebook trackpad has no right-click. To right-click you do Alt-Click. Useful, because this is how you paste from the clipboard into the Linux terminal.

Similarly, there is no Delete key. To Delete you do Alt-Backspace.

I attribute these annoyances to the fact that Chrome OS was mostly developed by Mac users.

Second, no Linux desktop is installed. I did in fact install the lightweight LXDE with partial success but it does not work properly.

The idea is that you install GUI applications which run in their own window. It is integrated so that once installed, Linux applications appear in the Chromebook application menu.

I installed Firefox ESR (Extended Support Release).  Then I installed an application which promises to be particularly useful for me, Visual Studio Code. Next I installed the .NET Core SDK, following the instructions for Debian.

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Everything worked, and after installing the C# extension for VS Code I am able to debug and run .NET Core applications.

I understand that you will not be so lucky with VS Code if you have an ARM Chromebook. Intel x86 is the winner for compatibility.

What is significant to me is not only that you can now run desktop applications on a Chromebook, but also that you can work on a Chromebook without needing to be deeply hooked into the Google ecosystem. You still need a Google account of course, for log in and the Play Store.

You will also note from the screenshot above that Chrome OS is no longer just about a full-screen web browser. Multiple overlapping windows, just like Windows and Mac.

These changes might persuade me to spend a little more on a Chromebook next time around. Certainly the long battery life is attractive. Following a tip, I disabled Bluetooth, and my Chromebook battery app is reporting 48% remaining, 9 hrs 23 minutes. A little optimistic I suspect, but still fantastic.

Postscript: I was always a fan of the disliked Windows RT, which combined a locked-down operating system with the ability to run Windows applications. Maybe container technology is the answer to the conundrum of how to provide a fully capable operating system that is also protected from malware. Having said which, there is no doubt that these changes make Chromebooks more vulnerable to malware; even if it only runs in the Linux environment, it could be damaging and steal data. The OS itself though will be protected.

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.