Gadget Writing

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

A quick look at Surface Book 2: powerful but heavy

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

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

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

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

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

Mio MiVue 688: record your driving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MiVue 688 in use

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

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

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

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

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

Annoyances

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

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

Extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

MiVue Manager

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

More information here.

Review: Libratone Zipp Mini

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

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

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

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

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The Nightingale button

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

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

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

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

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Once set up, tap the heart button on the Nightingale button on the device to switch to radio. Tap twice to skip to the next station. Internet radio does not depend on having the app running, it works directly https://www.itwriting.com/blog the Zipp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The device naked

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

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

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

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

No matter, it is a lovely device.

More information on the vendor’s site here.

HP’s Elite Slice and the problem with modular PCs

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

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

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Acer’s Revo Build

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More details on the Elite Slice are here.

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.

Raspberry Pi does Audio at the Wigwam HiFi Show 2016

The Wigwam Hifi Show is an unusual event, in that most of the exhibitors are not vendors with their latest and shiniest, but enthusiasts showing off their own systems. It is a lot of fun, with plenty of exotic and/or old equipment that you will not see or hear elsewhere.

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I have exhibited at the show in the past, and try to do something a little different each time. This year I thought it would be interesting to contrast the many multi-box and expensive systems with something at the other end of the scale. I was impressed when I reviewed the IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ for issue 36 of the MagPi magazine, so I took it along.

This unit is a board that plugs in on top of the main Raspberry Pi board.

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It is very simple, the only external connectors being power in, and left and right speaker terminals. It includes a DAC and a class D amplifier, based on the Texas Instruments (TI) TAS5756m chipset. The DAC is based on a Burr-Brown design.

I assembled my unit using a Raspberry Pi 2, the above board, and the matching case and power supply from IQ Audio. The power supply is the XP Power VEF50US15 which means I get up to 2x20w; if you use a VEF65US19 you can get 2x35w (both available from the IQAudio site).

Here it is in the room at Scalford Hall, home of the Wigwam event.

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The speakers shown are the Cambridge Audio Aero 6, though we also had a pair of Quad 11L and tried them both.

The way things work at this event is that you sleep in your room the night before, and the next morning the bed is removed and it becomes your exhibition room. Having tried the system with the bed in place, I was distressed to find it sounding markedly worse (bloated bass) once the bed was removed. With no time for proper experimentation we dragged the mattress back out of the cupboard and leant it against the wall, which improved matters; we also used foam bungs in the speaker ports to tame the bass. Not ideal, but shows the difficulty of getting good sound at short notice in small hotel rooms.

The Cambridge Audio Aero 6 speakers I would describe as a good budget choice; they sell for around £350. Philosophically (as with the Quads) they are designed to be clean, detailed and uncoloured. The choice of floorstanders rather than small standmounts was deliberate, as I wanted to demonstrate that using a tiny amplifier does not necessarily mean a small sound.

Having said that, we also put the Quads on from time to time, which are small standmounts. The sound was not radically different, though bass extension is less and to my ears the 11Ls are a little less precise than the Aeros, with a warmer sound. I preferred the Aeros but as ever with loudspeakers, tastes vary.

The complete parts list as shown:

  • Raspberry Pi 2 £26.00
  • IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ £57.99
  • IQAudio Pi-CASE+ £15.60
  • 15v Power Brick XP Power VEF50US15 £25.50

If I were buying today, I would recommend the new Raspberry Pi 3 and the more powerful 19v power supply which increases the cost by about £10.00.

So that is between £125 and £135 for the complete device, and then whatever you choose for the speakers.

For the demonstration I brought along a router with wi-fi, to which I attached a hard drive with lots of FLAC files ripped from CD, along with a few high-res files. The router lets you attach a USB drive and share it over the network, so I configured Volumio on the Pi to use that as its source. In a typical home setup, you would probably store your music on a NAS device and use your existing home network.

Where’s the amplifier?

There was a steady stream of visitors from around 10.00am to the close of the show at around 17.00. The goal was not to be the best sound at the show, but rather to be the smallest and still deliver decent sound quality, and for many visitors I think we succeeded. We stuck the equipment list on the wall and lots of people photographed it with the intention of looking into it further.

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A demo under way: spot the mattress leaning against the wall and the smaller Quad speakers alongside the Cambridge Audios.

A number of visitors knew of, or were even using, a Pi for streaming, but the idea of having the amplifier included on a small board was less familiar; it was fun when people asked where the amplifier was, or whether the speakers were active (they are not). Some were really astonished that you can get respectable sound quality from such a small box.

Volume was more than sufficient for a room this size and frankly plenty for most home situations though of course not for huge rooms or loud parties.

Note that despite playing loud throughout the day the amp board did not get warm at all; this is because a Class D design delivers almost all the power supplied as output to the loudspeakers.

A few early comments from the forums:

“The super small Raspberry Pi based system by onlyconnect was a brilliant demo of what can be achieved by something tiny and low cost.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t have heard it… To boot, completely taking price out of the equation, it was one of the better sounding systems at the show to my ears, I enjoyed that more than some far, far more expensive rigs.”

“Highlights. Onlyconnect’s raspi based system, honestly why pay more for music around the house?”

“Onlyconnect’s Raspberry system was impressive and wins the GVFM award.”

“Onlyconnect’s mini/budget system – just amazing how good a £125 raspberry pi setup containing streamer, dac, preamp and 35w per channel amp could sound. I can’t forget how flabbergasted another listener was to discover the total system cost  -” I’ve obviously doing it all wrong all these years”

“I spent a while looking for the amplifier, following the cables etc like everybody else. I was impressed by the sound coming out of the Cambridge Audio speakers, I would certainly put this in the top 40% of rooms based on the sound quality, maybe higher.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information on DatAshur is here.

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

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

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

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

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

How much health data, then, is too much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haptic vibration is used for alerts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specification

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

 

Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.

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In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.

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The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.

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This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.

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Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.

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Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on 169.254.1.1. However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.

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Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware 2.05.2.01.

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.

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I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).

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Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.

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As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.

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It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material

Specifications

  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA