Gadget Writing

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

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

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.

Review: Turtle Beach z300 headset. Super flexible, shame about the sound

The Turtle Beach Z300 is a super flexible gaming headset, with wired and wireless connections, Dolby 7.1 virtual surround sound, and extra features like switchable dynamic range compression. It is primarily for PC gaming, but also works with Mac (no Dolby surround) and with any Bluetooth-compatible device – which means almost any smartphone or tablet. You can also use the wire to plug it into any device with a 3.5mm audio jack.

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In the box you get the headset, detachable microphone, USB cable, jack cable, USB transceiver, and some documents including a note about having to download the Dolby 7.1 drivers. I still recommend downloading the online manual, which is more detailed than anything in the box.

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A few more details on the three ways to connect:

Wireless via a USB transceiver. This is the preferred method for a PC. The USB transceiver is pre-paired and indicates via an LED whether or not the headset is connected.

Traditional wire. A jack cable is supplied which connects to the left earcup and has a standard four-way 3.5mm jack on the other end, suitable for a phone or tablet. In wired mode you still need to charge the headset and have it powered on.

Bluetooth. You can pair with up to two devices. The right earcup has Bluetooth volume controls, and a Bluetooth button for answering, rejecting and ending calls.

The actual headset seems sturdily made and features a fabric-covered headband and earpads. The material feels slightly coarse at first, and the earcups are slightly on the small side, but in practice I found the comfort reasonable.

The microphone is on a flexible boom and is detachable. You can also swing it up above the left earcup to get it out of the way.

You charge the Z300 via a mini USB port on the right earcup, which annoyingly is the old type, not the slightly smaller one now found on most phones and tablets. A cable is supplied, though it is too short to reach from the floor to your headset if you are wearing it, and in my case too short even to reach from the front panel of my PC. You might want to get a longer cable if you expect to charge while wearing. Play time is specified at 15 hours.

An annoyance: there is no indication of remaining charge.

How about the other controls? There are several:

Power on/off on the left earcup and easy to find by feel. The headset automatically powers off after 5 minutes of inactivity.

Master volume on left earcup.

Mic monitor volume on left earcup. This controls how much sound from the mic is fed back to your. It does not affect the volume heard on the other side.

Tone on left earcup: cycles through 4 “game modes”. These are Flat, Bass boost, Treble boost, and Bass and Treble boost. I generally used the Flat mode for this review.

Dynamic Range Compression on left earcup: raises the volume of quiet sounds. The effect seems minimal to me.

Bluetooth controls on right earcup: as mentioned above.

If you use the USB transceiver and a Windows PC you can insteall a Dolby 7.1 driver. Note: these are stereo headphones, but when used with this driver they support Dolby’s virtual surround system. You enable this by going into the Windows sound properties dialog (eg right-click the speaker icon and choose Playback Devices), then showing the properties dialog for the Turtle Beach speakers. A surround sound tab then lets you enable “Dolby Headphone”. You can also choose between two modes: Music or Movie.

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Enabling Dolby Headphone makes a substantial difference to the sound. It is distinctly louder, and the sound seems to fill out more. On games with true surround sound, the virtual sound should mean that you get spatial clues about the source of an explosion or footstep, for example, though you need to make sure the game is set to output in surround sound.

I tried this and reckon it works a bit. It is not as good as a headset I tried that really did have multiple speakers. My big gripe though is that if you enable Dolby Headphone, it messes up true stereo, for example on music. You no longer hear the mix as intended.

This would not matter too much if it were easy to switch Dolby Headphone on and off, but it is a hassle to go into Windows sound controls every time. I would like to see more effort go into usability.

How about the sound quality? Here is my second big gripe about this headset. The sound is not great, with anaemic bass and a nothing special in the mid-range or treble. For gaming it is not too bad, and I did find the audio atmospheric if you can live without much bass thunder, but for music they are not good enough.

The microphone quality is fine. I tried the headset with Dragon Dictate, just to check the quality, and got high accuracy of transcription which is a good sign.

In summary, the flexibility is exceptional, the build quality is fine, but the sound is lacking. Personally I would not use these as my main headset because I do both gaming and music listening; but if your main use is gaming they would be OK.

Price is around $170 or £170 (better value in the USA it seems).

Review: Innergie PocketCell pocket battery charger: elegant design though limited capacity

Smartphone battery life has marched backwards, or so it seems: my ancient HTC Desire still lasts longer on a full charge than my newer Nokia Lumia 620 or Sony Xperia T. Another problem is tablets: battery life is decent compared to a laptop, but it is easy to get caught towards the end of the day or on a plane with an exhausted battery.

The solution, if you cannot get to a charger, is one of those pocket chargers for topping up your device. These are popular promotional giveaways, which means I have a drawer full of them (or would if I had kept them); but many are rubbish: bulky, fiddly with lots of assorted adapters to cope with different phones, and some with pointless adornments like solar panels.

I make a partial exception for a PowerTrip charger I received recently, which has an impressive 5700mAh battery, but it is still ugly, comes with three cables, and has silly extras like a solar panel and ability to work as a memory stick.

By contrast, the Innergie PocketCell is the first charger I have seen which has immediately impressed me with its design.

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There are only two pieces you need to carry with you, the small battery pack itself and a clever three-in-one cable in which the adapters snap together, so you can charge a device with Mini-B or Micro-B USB (the two popular types), or an Apple 30-pin dock connector (if you have an iPhone 5 or another device with the new Lightning Connector you are out of luck unless you have an adaptor).

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The same connector also serves to charge the PocketCell, using one of the many USB mains chargers you almost certainly already possess, or by plugging into a PC or Mac. The PocketCell has a USB Type A socket for output, and a Micro-B for input, so you cannot easily get it wrong.

On the side of the PocketCell is a button which you press to discover the current charge. It lights up to four LEDs, to indicate the level of charge remaining.

Battery capacity is 3000 mAh; not as good as a PowerTrip, but decent considering that it is less than one-third the size and much lighter (72g/ 2.5oz).

I tried the PowerCell on an iPhone 4 with a fully expired battery (at least, expired to the point where it would not switch on).

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The phone charged successfully, during which time the PocketCell got somewhat warm, but with impressive speed of charge. After the charge the PocketCell was pretty much exhausted.

The PocketCell supports 2.1 amp fast charge, which means it is fine for charging an iPad or other tablets with USB power.

The small size, nice design, and effective charging of the Innergie PocketCell means this device might actually find its way into your bag. The downside is that it is more expensive (especially in the UK) than some other portable chargers with equal or greater capacity, but its elegance and usability is worth a bit extra.

While I recommend the device, check that 3000 mAh is sufficient for you before purchase. I have also heard that the three in one cable is a little delicate, though you can get replacements if necessary or use a standard USB cable.

 

Expanding the Raspberry Pi with PiFace and Pi Rack

The marvellous Raspberry Pi, essentially a cheap, small PC, is a great device for education or home projects like media streaming. Out of the box though, it is not ideal for controlling other devices other than by USB or ethernet. What if you wanted to to use it to operate a switch under program control? You can use the GPIO (General Purpose IO) header, but it is a considerable step up in terms of the electronics knowledge needed for success (and to avoid damaging your Pi).

Element14 has an answer to this in the form of the PiFace, which connects to the GPIO header and provides a range of inputs and outputs. To be precise:

  • 2 changeover relays. These switch a link between a central common pin and two other pins.
  • 8 open-collector outputs. You can use these as switches for an externally powered device.
  • 8 digital inputs. These detect whether a contact is open or closed.
  • 4 switches. These close the first four inputs when depressed.

Element14 kindly supplied a PiFace to me for review, along with another accessory, the Pi Rack, of which more in a moment.

The PiFace comes in a small cardboard box with a regulatory compliance leaflet and no other documentation.

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Here is a closer view:

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You can see the inputs at bottom left, the outputs at top right, and the relays on the right. The following diagram from the Element14 site shows the details:

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The PiFace fits on top of the Raspberry Pi. A rubber foot on the underside rests on the HDMI port relieving the strain on the GPIO connector. If you have a standard size Raspberry Pi case, it will no longer fit once the PiFace is attached, though you can still use the base of the case as I did for my tests. Note that by default the PiFace takes power from the Pi, though this has implications for the power supply you use, which must be 850-1400 mA for the model B Pi.

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On the software side, installation is either by downloading a pre-built Raspbian image with the software already in place, or by modifying your existing installation. I am using the soft-float Debian Wheezy build and chose the latter route. It is not difficult; just enable the SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) driver by removing it from the modprobe blacklist, run an install script, and reboot. The scripts come from a github repository here.

The PiFace software includes a nice emulator which lets you operate the switches. I am not sure that emulator is quite the right description because it really does operate the switches.

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Being more of a software person than an electronics engineer, I set myself a simple task: to operate a light switch under program control. I used a child’s electronics kit to provide the light. First I tried using the relay, which was very simple: it is just a switch. Next I used one of the open-collector outputs which also worked once I had found out that the negative connection from my external 3V power supply connects to GND on the PiFace. Here is my light in action:

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Note the LED is lit on the output terminal indicating that the switch is ON. Rather than the external supply, I could have taken 5v from the PiFace. A very simple test, but if you can switch a bulb on and off you can switch any number of other things as well, provided the voltage is not too great. Above 5v requires changing some jumper settings and even the relays should not be used for voltages over 20v or currents greater than 5A.

What about programmatic control? Libraries are supplied for Python, C and Scratch (a visual programming language primarily for education). I adapted the example Python script as follows:

from time import sleep
import piface.pfio as pfio
pfio.init()

while (not pfio.digital_read(1)):
if (pfio.digital_read(0)):
  pfio.digital_write(2,1)
else:
  pfio.digital_write(2,0)
sleep(1)

print "Bye"

This script loops until you depress (or otherwise close) the second physical switch or input on the PiFace. It reads the value of the first input, and if it is ON it turns on the output which lights the bulb. Rather pointless, but shows how easy it is to turn a physical device on and off under program control, and to respond to the value on an input.

I like the PiFace though it is in competition with the slightly more expensive Gertboard which has a motor controller, Digital to analogue and analogue to digital converters, and an on-board programmable MCU (Microcontroller). You might not need those features though, making PiFace a better choice.

A snag with the PiFace is that it uses the GPIO port and therefore prevents you using that port for anything else. In order to fix this and to increase the expandability of the Raspberry Pi, Element14 also supply the Pi Rack. This is a simple affair that give you four connections to the GPIO port. You can use this to operate more than one PiFace (each must have a different jumper-set address) or to use other GPIO devices such as the Pi Camera Module. The Pi Rack has its own 5v power input though no power supply comes in the box. Jumpers let you select which power supply to use on a connector-by-connector basis, and to swap the SPI CE (chip enable) lines if needed.

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Here is the Pi Rack in use with a PiFace. In practice you would want additional support for the PiFace rather than just relying on the connector.

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Currently the PiFace Digital is £20.30 and the Pi Rack £6.99.

DTS Headphone X surround sound from stereo is astonishing though Z+ music app disappoints

I first heard the DTS surround sound from stereo demo at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The technology is called Headphone X. It was astonishing. You went into the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 theatre – it was in association with Qualcomm become some DTS technology is baked into the latest Snapdragon chipset – sat in a plush armchair, and donned stereo headphones.

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The next thing you knew, sound was coming from front left. Then front right. Then rear left. The illusion was amazing, and I was not the only one who removed their headphones temporarily to check that they really were the sole source of the sound.

I interviewed the DTS folk about the technology, and also spoke to the guys at Dolby. Nothing new, said the Dolby folk, we’ve had virtual surround sound for years. Yet, the demo at the Dolby stand fell far short of what DTS was showing.

Now you can try it, if you have an Android or iOS device. Download the Z+ app and listen to the demo.

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I tried this on someone today, and his “Wow!” reaction showed that the demo is still astonishing. You know it is an illusion, but it sounds as if you are seated in the middle of a room with five or more speakers.

If DTS has proved that surround sound from stereo is possible, what are the implications? Surround sound has not failed exactly, but its inconvenience has limited take-up. Many surround mixes of music albums are now hard to find, because they were made for long out of print SACD or DVD-Audio releases. What if you could easily download all these mixes and enjoy them with stereo headphones or earbuds?

An enticing thought, but there are caveats. The Z+ app, for example, is disappointing once you get beyond the demo. The only album it plays is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to the Superman film, Man of Steel. One track is included for free, and the others are in-app purchases. It sounds good, but the surround effect is less convincing than it is in the demo. I heard better music demos in Barcelona. I also get superior sound on the iPhone than on the iPad (it is an iPhone app), though I might be imagining it, and in both cases I get occasional stuttering, though that may be because I am not testing on the latest generation Apple hardware.

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An app that only plays one album is not a revolution in sound, and if this is to go mainstream, DTS needs to sell its technology to one of the major music download or streaming services and have it built-in to the client app. It has made a start, with its Qualcomm deal which is meant to be in shipping chipsets from “the second half of 2013” according to the information in Barcelona. My guess is that any problems with stuttering will be removed when there is hardware support.

How does it work? The DTS guys told that it “it’s psychoacoustics. You’re triggering the brain with responses that induce it to say, this is from here. It’s a combination of timing and frequency. That’s traditional virtualisation.” After that, they explained, they apply room acoustics that take the illusion to another level. This could be the room acoustic of the studio, achieving a holy grail for audio engineers, or that of the listener’s own room or a concert hall, for example. The room acoustic can be user-selectable, though this is not a feature of the current Z+ app.

There is a caveat that might upset hi-fi enthusiasts. Think about it. Virtual surround sound is delivered in stereo, which seems impossible, but then again we only have two ears. Our ears are designed to hear sounds more clearly if they are in front of us. Therefore, to simulate a sound coming from behind you, do you need to make it less clear?

I put this point to a guy from DTS, that parts of the music are in a sense deliberately distorted or muffled. “That occurs naturally by our head,” I was told. So is the fidelity of the sound reduced in order to achieve the surround illusion? “No differently than speakers in a surround system would do anyway,” he said.

Another caveat is that, by design, the system only works with headphones. Of course, if you have a full surround system in your room, you can play surround mixes in the normal way, turning to the DTS technology only for headphone listening. Headphones are also unable to recreate the effect of a sub-woofer which you can feel in your chest. “It’s a physical element. We’re not going to be able to replicate it,” said DTS.

Headphones are unbeatable though if you want to recreate the acoustic of a different room, such as the studio where the music was mixed. Further, for a mass market, delivering surround sound through a mobile device and standard earphones is the right approach.

The Z+ app is disappointing, but I would nevertheless encourage anyone with an interest in audio technology to download it and try the demo. Headphone X has huge potential and I shall follow its progress with interest.