Gadget Writing

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

Review: Eminent EM7195 HD media player

The EM7195 is an HD media player from the Dutch company Eminent.

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But what is an HD Media Player? In this case, it is a box that connects to your TV and home network. It is a self-contained media center whose functions include:

  • Play and record free-to-view digital broadcasts and pause live TV
  • Play a wide range of video and audio media from an internal or external hard drive or over the network
  • View images from attached devices or from the card reader
  • Play YouTube videos or other internet media from sites including Flickr, Picassa and blip.tv
  • Download files from internet newsgroups and BitTorrent sites

The EM7195 supports 1080p video output, hence the “HD” designation. It has a twin DVB-T tuner, so you can play one channel and record another simultaneously. This works with Freeview in the UK, but note that Freeview HD, which is gradually being rolled out, requires DVB-T2 so is not compatible with the EM7195.

Eminent says the EM7195 is based on the “next-generation RT1183DD+ processor.” I presume this is the RTD1183 which is not currently listed on the Realtek site though as this post observes it is referenced on the DivX site as being certified in May 2009, making “next-generation” a stretch, especially as players with the latest RTD1185 chipset are already appearing from other manufacturers.

Note that the review unit was supplied with a 3.5″ 1TB SATA internal hard drive; however this is optional though recommended. Currently a 1TB drive costs from around £45.00.

Unpacking and setting up

Opening the packaging reveals a black box along with a remote and a substantial collection of cables.

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The unit feels well made and is backed by a five year warranty. It has a small fan but this is quiet and I did not find it audible in normal use. The hard drive is fitted by opening a flap in the side, and slots in without screws. Cables supplied include HDMI, optical SPDIF, USB 3.0 and SATA. There is also an internal antenna though unless you happen to have a particularly strong TV signal I doubt you would want to use it. Batteries for the backlit remote are included.

For the test I connected an external antenna. I connected the EM7195 to an HD TV with the HDMI cable. I connected a surround sound home theatre receiver with the optical cable. I also connected it to my network using a wired connection. If you want to use wifi, you need an optional USB wifi adapter. Eminent’s EM4576 is recommended; I do not know if other brands might also work. This is the back of the unit:

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Note that it has one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports on the back. There is also a card reader slot and a further USB 2.0 port on the side. The ethernet port is only 100Mb, presumably because of the older Realtek chipset.

In order to complete the setup, I went into setup to scan for TV channels. This was successful and enabled an EPG (Electronic Program Guide) from which I could browse channels and schedule recordings.

I also set up an UPNP server on my network, and ripped some DVDs, in order to test some of the other features. More on this below.

The software

Ah, the software. I am not sure exactly what the Eminent runs, but I would bet that it runs on Linux and that it was not developed entirely by Eminent. A clue is it includes a primitive web browser with a “web portal” menu option that directs you to a Chinese site. Overall the software is functional but rough and ready compared to what you may be used to from Apple, Sony or Microsoft.

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The main screen is a menu with options for Movies, Music, Photo, TV, Internet, Document and Setup. There is an option to have the EM7195 start up with this menu, or go straight into TV mode. You can decorate the menu background by applying a theme, but the ones supplied soon gave me a headache so I reverted to plain black.

Navigating the menus is mostly straightforward, though it can be tedious. The EM7195 does not seem to do any indexing of the content, so you have to navigate to it. For example, if you go to Movies, you can choose HDD, then the folder or subfolder you want, then select the video file you want to play.

A strong point of the EM7195 is its support for a wide range of formats. Supported video formats include AVCHD, H.264, VC-1, MPEG 1-4, TS, ISO and MOV. Supported audio formats include AAC, PCM, DTS and Ogg Vorbis.

If you are on a Windows network, you can use SAMBA, a Linux utility that lets you use Windows networking protocols with Linux. This works both to and from the EM7195, so you can play files that are on shared network folders, and also use the EM7195 as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive for your PCs. This is also useful if you want to copy a DVD you have ripped on a PC. That said, the fastest way to copy files is over USB 3.0, if you have a PC equipped with a USB 3.0 port.

Some of the menu options are perplexing. If you select DVD on the Movie menu, for example, the unit just declares “No loader,” presumably because there is no physical DVD drive present. The software is not fully documented by the supplied manual, though most of it is self-explanatory, especially if you are used to playing with Linux and media center software.

Eminent has announced a new user interface for its software which looks more attractive, though whether it is really easier and quicker to navigate is an open question. This will be made available as a free update.

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Performance

The picture quality of digital TV is good but slightly over-saturated; I suspect this can be fixed by tweaking settings on the TV, or on the EM7195, or both. I scheduled a TV recording to the hard drive and this worked well.

I have a substantial collection of FLAC files, ripped from CD, which I normally play using a Squeezebox. I could play these by navigated to them over the network, but for easier access I downloaded Asset UPnP from the excellent illustrate site, and ran this on a PC to publish the FLAC collection. You can also use Windows Media Player as a UPnP server, but this does not work with FLAC.

I tried the EM7195’s Internet Media support, with mixed results. It has an application for playing YouTube videos. You can search YouTube, then select a result with the remote and click OK to play. However, not all videos would play, and those that did not play showed no error, just did nothing. Performance was fine on the the ones that did play OK.

I ripped some DVDs in various formats. The easiest approach is to create an ISO image from a DVD; these play fine on the EM7195. They tend to be large files, but with a 1TB drive there is plenty of room. One annoyance is that to get surround sound you have to set the audio output to RAW (pass-through), which means that the EM7195 volume control does not work. I then found that YouTube was silent and had to set the audio output back to LPCM.

I have some audio files in high-res formats, in other words more than the 16 bit / 44 Khz of standard CD. These played fine, but were downsampled to 16-bit, even when played directly from the EM7195 hard drive. I could get the EM7195 to output 16/48 but that was the maximum. I regard this as a minor point, but if you are an audio enthusiast who wants to play high res files at the maximum resolution, this is probably not the unit for you.

Ripping DVD and Blu-Ray discs

One of the attractions of the EM7195 is that you can potentially put all your DVDs in a box out of the way, and play them from the internal hard drive.

The complication is that to do this you have to rip them. DVD ripping software is a jungle, mainly because most commercial discs are encrypted, and although it is well know how to decrypt them, it may not be legal. Essentially you can choose from a plethora of open source tools which need to be combined in the right sequence and with the right arguments for you to get what you want; or more user-friendly software which is usually paid-for and from companies which do not admit to any geographical address or phone number on their websites; or software proclaimed as FREE on a myriad of sites which may or may not do what you want and might be accompanied by unwelcome malware guests.

That is a shame since ripping a DVD to a file is convenient not only for media centers like this one, but also for mobile devices like Apple’s iPad which do not include DVD drives.

Presuming you do find a way to rip your DVDs, they play fine on the EM7195 as long as the encryption has been removed. You can also play unprotected Blue-Ray ISO images, though the EM7195 does not support their Java menus.

Other features

The EM7195 also has built in BitTorrent software. I did not try this though I did have a look. You can manage torrent downloads through the remote and TV, or from a web user interface called Neighbor Web

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There is a web browser as mentioned above, but I found it unusable. There is a slide show feature for photos.

Verdict

I enjoyed using the Eminent 7195. Playing and recording digital TV is easy and convenient, and I liked being able to play DVD ISOs from the hard drive. SAMBA support is a great feature, ensuring that the 7195 plays nicely with a Windows network. Support for FLAC audio is also welcome. The unit seems well-made, has a generous set of ports, runs quietly, and is unobtrusive.

That said, if you want to do more than time-shifting digital TV this product is best suited to enthusiasts who can get to grips with ripping DVDs, cope with inconveniences like switching the SPDIF output between RAW and LPCM to get the best from different sources, and put up with the quirky software. I will be interested to see the updated firmware when it arrives; it might be worth waiting for this before buying.

Lack of Gigabit ethernet is a disappointment, as is the need for an add-on USB device for wifi support.

For UK users, it is a shame that there is no support for BBC iPlayer or the catch-up services from Channel 4 (4oD) and ITV (ITV Player). The EM7195 fails to take advantage from its internet connectivity. Yes there is BitTorrent support and access to YouTube and Flickr, but this could be much better. Social networking support is completely absent.

It seems to me that the future of media center boxes is in software that is not only highly usable, but also extensible with downloadable apps. I would also like to see a companion app for iPhone or Android, as this approach has more potential than a traditional infra-red remote.

The challenge for Eminent is to improve its software to make better use of the hardware.

Review: Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset and why you need A2DP

The Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset is a handy device that clips over one ear to give hands-free calling. The device comes with a small power adaptor, though it also charges through USB using the supplied cable. There are also a couple of microphone windshields and a spare ear gel.

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The Wave has an on-off button, a volume control, a status display showing battery and Bluetooth connection information, and an answer-end button at the tip of the microphone boom.

I charged it up and established a connection with an Apple iPhone 4 with no issues. Call quality was good. I was also able to use voice control, by squeezing the answer-end button and holding until it gives a short beep. The results were dire – I never know who the iPhone will try to call when I say “Call <name>” – but I blame this on the iPhone rather than the Wave. Maybe I have the wrong kind of voice.

You can mute or unmute a call by pressing both volume up and down simultaneously. You can also do call on hold by pressing the answer-end button during a call, and then pressing it again to switch between calls, provided your phone supports this feature.

The Wave can be paired and connected to two devices simultaneously, handy if you have two phones in use.

There are a couple of things I like about the Wave. It has an unusual design, with the ear gel protruding sideways from the speaker, but it is actually easy to fit and comfortable, perhaps more so than the Plantronics  Voyager Pro which I reviewed recently.

Another plus is the position of the buttons. If you are wearing your headset, you have to find the buttons by feel. In the case of the Wave, the one button you will need constantly is answer-end, and sticking this on the end of the microphone boom makes it easy to find and use.

On the negative side, I do not feel the sound quality is quite the equal of the Voyager Pro. It is also annoying that if you play music on the iPhone, it comes out of the iPhone speaker, not the headset. The reason is that the Wave lacks support for the A2DP (Advances Audio Distribution Profile), the Bluetooth spec which supports high quality music audio.

Jabra says the Wave is particularly good at wind noise reduction. I was not able to test this, and have not personally found this a problem with Bluetooth headsets, but if you encounter this frequently the Wave could be worth a look.

The Wave is cheaper than the Voyager Pro+ (you need the + version for A2dP). Typical prices on Amazon.co.uk are currently around £40.00 for the Wave and around £50 for the Voyager Pro+.

Still, if you do not care about listening to music you may prefer the Wave. It does the job nicely, and I do like its handy answer-end button.

Manufactuer’s specs:

  • Talk time 6 hours
  • Standby 8 days
  • Range 10 meters

 

Google seeks to automate the home

Google made a bunch of announcements at its Google I/O keynote today. It showed off the next version of Android, called “Ice Cream Sandwich”; it announced its Music Beta, a service which looks a lot like Amazon’s Cloud Player, in which you upload your music collection to the cloud; it announced movie rentals.

The most intriguing announcements though were about how Android devices will be able to connect to other devices in future. The Open Accessory API lets manufacturers create devices which talk to Android over USB, and in future over Bluetooth, in a standard manner. The idea is that if you have an Android-compatible device – Google demoed an exercise bike – you can attach your smartphone and do some clever stuff, such as controlling it, analysing its data, or whatever is appropriate.

A related idea is called Android@Home. Google has developed a new lightweight wireless protocol which will let manufacturers create household devices that can communicate with Android:

We previewed an initiative called Android@Home, which allows Android apps to discover, connect and communicate with appliances and devices in your home.

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The automated home is a grand concept where almost any device, from a light to a coffee maker to a fridge or a door becomes available to control and program. However, the examples Google gave were not exciting: playing a CD by waving it at a player, coding an alarm clock to turn the light on gradually. Big deal.

It is not really a new concept. Sun had ideas to develop Java as a universal runtime and language to automate the home. Microsoft has similar thoughts, maybe using the .NET Micro Framework. So far none of these efforts have come to much – will Google’s initiative be different?

Probably not; but there is something else going on here. I travel a bit, and it is now common to find an iPod dock in your hotel room. If you have an Ipod or iPhone you just plug in and go; if you have a non-Apple device, you are out of luck. That is a kind of pressure exerted on every guest, a hint that they might be better off with an Apple device.

Google wants to do the same for a variety of other devices, but with respect to Android. Here is a refrigerator, and by the way, if you have an Android device you can do this other clever stuff like, I don’t know, alerting you if the temperature goes too high, or letting you peek at the contents from your smartphone so you can see if you need to buy milk.

Same with the Open Accessory API. If Google can sign up enough manufacturers, it will be increasingly difficult for non-Android devices to compete.

That said, we did not hear much about Google TV at today’s keynote. Why? Because it has flopped; a reminder that not all Google’s efforts succeed.

Logitech’s Squeezebox app for iPhone and iPad: nice to have but a missed opportunity

Logitech has released a Squeezebox control app for iPhone and iPad, to match an existing app for Android.

I am a Squeezebox fan. The system is excellent for multi-room – just put a Squeezebox player in any room where you want music, put it on your home network (usually wifi), and it finds your music collection. You can get a player like the Touch, which I reviewed here, or an all-in-one unit like the Boom, which I reviewed here. I rip CDs to FLAC using dbPowerAmp. Squeezebox does multi-room properly, in that each player can play something different, and the sound quality is generally excellent. Internet radio is also available, and there is no need to have a separate tuner.

That said, the appeal of Squeezebox is limited by the techie nature of the product, especially the software. When Logitech acquired Slimdevices in 2006, I thought we might see a new focus on ease of use, but it has not really happened. Apple does this better, making it hard for Squeezebox to compete with iTunes and Airport Express or Apple TV, even though the Squeezebox system is more open and superior in some ways.

There are multiple ways to control a Squeezebox player. You can use a remote to navigate the display on the player, whether the simple but bold display on a Classic, or the graphical colour display on a Touch. You can use touch control on a Touch screen. You can use a web browser on a PC, Mac or any machine on the network. Or you use an app such as SqueezePlay on a PC, or third party apps like iPeng on iOS, or Squeezepad on an iPad.

All these methods work, but in general the web browser is the most feature-rich and good if you are sitting at a desk, while the apps are better if you have a suitable device like an iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone. The remotes work, but you need to be close enough to read the display and navigation can be fiddly.

An iPhone app is ideal though, so it is great news that Logitech has now released an official app for the iPhone. It is free, and unless you already have iPeng a must-have for Squeezebox users who have an iPhone. Apps are better than a remote for all sorts of reasons:

  • No need to point at an infra-red receptor
  • No need to read a distant display
  • Album artwork on the remote
  • More features conveniently available

I downloaded the new app and ran it. The first thing you have to do is to log into Mysqueezebox.com, Logitech’s internet service. In fact, the impression you get is that you cannot use the app without logging on. I am not sure if there is any way round this, but it seems odd to me. Presuming you are using a local Squeezebox server, why require log-on to an internet service?

I already have a Mysqueezebox account though, so I logged on, whereupon the various players we have around the house appeared for selection. Once selected, I get a menu similar to that on a physical player or on SqueezePlay:

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If I click My Music, I can navigate using the usual range of options, including Artists, Albums, Genres, New Music (which means recently added) or my favourite, Random Mix. Just selected an album is not enough to play it, but shows the tracks; tapping the first track starts it playing. Eventually you will get the Now Playing screen, which you can also access by pressing the musical note icon on the Home screen.

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Perhaps I am fussy, but I am not happy with this screen. As you can see, the album artwork is overlaid with text and controls, and although a progress bar can be shown or hidden by tapping, the other controls seem immoveable, which means you cannot see the full artwork.

My other complaint is that the user interface, while familiar to those who already know Squeezebox, lacks the usability you expect from an iPhone app. Operating it takes too many taps. Take search, for example. You want to find a different song, so you tap Back to get the Home screen, then Search. Type something in, then click Search. The next screen then asks whether you want to search in My Music or Internet Radio. You tap My Music, and still get no results, just a list that says Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists. You tap Songs, and now you finally get a results list. Tap a song to play.

Personally I think search is such a critical function that it should be available directly from the Now Playing screen; and that it should be smart enough to look for matches anywhere it can and present some top matches immediately.

Another annoyance is that you cannot actually play a song through the iPhone itself. This is such an obvious feature that I cannot understand why Logitech has not implemented it; it would enable your Squeezebox music collection for personal listening on a device. Perhaps Logitech imagines that it is protecting sales of its players, when in fact it is just undermining the appeal of the system.

Well, it is free, I like the Squeezebox system, and the app is useful, so perhaps I am complaining too much. It is frustrating though, because with a little investment in software Logitech could bring its excellent features to a broader group of users.

As Cisco closes down Flip, is device convergence finally happening?

Cisco is closing down the Flip video camera business it acquired with Pure Digital in May 2009:

Cisco will close down its Flip business and support current FlipShare customers and partners with a transition plan.

A sad day for Flip enthusiasts. The cool thing about a Flip device is that making a video is quick, easy and cheap. Most commentators say Flip is being killed because Smartphones now do this equally well; though this thoughtful post by Michael Mace says it is more to do with Cisco not understanding the consumer market, and being too slow to deliver upgraded Flip devices:

It’s almost impossible for any enterprise company to be successful in consumer, just as successful consumer companies usually fail in enterprise. The habits and business practices that make them a winner in one market doom them in the other.

Maybe it is a bit of both. I have a Flip and I rarely use it, though I am not really a good example since I take more still pictures than videos. Most of the time it stays at home, because I already have too many things to carry and too many devices to keep charged.

My problem though is that convergence is happening too slowly. I have slightly different requirements from most people. I do interviews so I need high quality recordings, and I take snaps which I use to illustrate posts and articles. I also do a lot of typing on the road.

This means I end up taking a Windows 7 netbook – I have given up travelling with a full-power laptop – for typing, email, and browsing the web.

The netbook has a built-in microphone which is rubbish, and an microphone input which I find does not work well either, so I carry a dedicated recorder as well. It is an antique, an iRiver H40, but with a 40GB hard drive, 6 hrs battery life on its original battery, and a decent microphone input with plug-in power, it still works well for me. I use a small Sony table microphone which gives me excellent quality, and that makes it possible to transcribe interviews even when there is background noise. Even though it is “only voice” I find that recording in high quality with a proper microphone is worth the effort; when the iRiver finally gives up I might go to something like the Edirol R-09HR to replace it. 

As for photos, I have tried using a smartphone but get better results from a dedicated Canon camera, so much so that it is worth carrying this extra device.

Of course I still need a mobile phone. I also tempted to pack a tablet or Amazon Kindle for  reading; but how many devices is too many?

I am still hopeful that I may find a smartphone with a camera that is good enough, and audio recording that is good enough, and maybe with an add-on keyboard I could leave the netbook at home as well; or take a tablet instead of a netbook.

But for now I am still weighed down with phone, camera, recorder, microphone and netbook. Roll on converged devices, I can’t wait!

Pentax looks to comic heroes to attract buyers

Pentax is a great name in cameras; I’ve always thought of it as an aspirational range. So this was unexpected:

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It looks kinda downmarket to me, despite wonder woman’s status as a classic super hero. Or you might prefer Green Lantern:

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Anyway, for a modest £119.99, from May 1st 2011, you will be able, to grab a DC Super Heroes RS100 collector pack, complete with 14 megapixel camera, 4GB SD card, 4x optical zoom, HD video recording, and a 3″ LCD screen. And did I mention the customisable front skin with a choice of seven super heroes according to your mood – you can easily change them thanks to a clip-on lens ring and transparent front plate.

There are other colourful options available at the Pentax Chameleon site.

Measuring the Freeloader Classic solar mobile charger

I wrote about the Freeloader Classic last month but at that time had not actually tried a unit. I was then sent one to look at but with mixed results. It arrived partially charged, so I opened it an put it on an inside window sill thinking it would charge fully in a few days.

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I was disappointed to find that the reverse happened; it actually lost its charge. It is as if there is a small power drain simply from attaching the panels, and if that exceeds what is delivered then the unit runs out of power.

To be fair though, the manual notes that being behind glass severely decreases the charging speed – down to around one third of that outside – because of UV filters in the glass. Further, England in March is not a good time for bright sunlight.

So how good is the Freeloader? I took some measurements.

Inside in a naturally lighted room, the Freeloader panel delivered just 0.4mA. Negligible.

Outside in early morning sunlight, this rises to 15 mA. Still very small.

However, outside in late morning sunlight, on a bright day, the panel managed over 65 mA and 6.5v. This is close to the rated spec of 75mA at 5.5v – the manual says 150mA but that is for two panels. In the picture below I’ve left the multimeter on hold to display the measurement.

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The battery in the Freeloader is 1200 mAh. So at 130 mA it would take 9.5 hours or so to charge.

These figure are not bad, and it is a great concept, but impractical for many of us. How much bright sunlight do you get? Can you leave it somewhere sunny, outside, and safe? How will it cope with downpours?

Solar Technology also offers a supercharger panel, twice as powerful at 1.5watt, and designed to attach to the back of a rucksack. That could work when you are out and about.

More germs on an iPhone than on a toilet seat? Proporta’s screen protectors kill the other kind of bugs.

Today’s inbox brings the disturbing news that:

In independent laboratory tests, the E. coli population on an untreated screen protector soared from 200,000 to 13 million in 24 hours.

Note the inclusion of the word “untreated” in this sentence, preparing us for the good news that:

The unique SteriTouch® coating on Proporta Antimicrobial Screen Protectors not only prevent this unbridled growth, but eradicates the E. coli completely.

The idea is that touch screens get, well, touched a lot; possibly even by more than one person. Touching spreads germs, so if you want to be safe maybe Proporta’s new “anti-bacterial germ resistant advanced screen protector with steritouch for iPad2” is just the thing for you. Bug-zapping screen protectors are also available for iPhone4, iPod touch, HTC Desire HD, Blackberry Torch, and Samsung Galaxy S2.

If this sounds like your thing, head over to Proporta’s site where you can also learn that

the average mobile has 25,127 germs per square inch, whilst the average toilet seat has just 49.

While quoting this sounds like a great way of annoying an Apple fanperson, the scientist in me would like a bit more information please. What about other things in our life that are touched frequently, door handles for example? How does the risk from using an “untreated” mobile device compare with that from, say, shaking hands with someone? Or travelling on the London Underground in the rush hour?

I am all in favour of a cleaner, healthier world; though I also recall theories that too much hygiene can be counter-productive since the body’s built-in defences need some enemies to munch on in order to operate at full efficiency. It makes some kind of intuitive sense.

Still, if you would like your shiny new Apple iPad2 to be more germ-free than a toilet seat, it looks like an Antimicrobial Screen Protector is the answer.

Review: Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2 – go hands free everywhere

Today’s gadget is a Bluetooth headset, the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2. This little guy fits snugly in your ear and provides hands-free calls with your mobile or PC softphone. The UC stands for Unified Communications; and indeed, once I had plugged in the supplied Bluetooth adapter, which is pre-paired with the headset, my Microsoft Lync client automatically picked it up. It also works well with Skype.

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While that sounds simple, there are actually a fair number of features packed into this device. Some are more successful than others, but it is high quality and thoughtfully put together, right down to the unobtrusive magnetic closure on the padded case.

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Not shown in the picture above, the set also includes a few foam ear tip covers, which are comfortable but tricky to fit, and a mains adapter for charging when there is no suitable PC or laptop to hand.

I have to say that the fit of this headset is excellent: once in place you soon forget about it, and it feels secure and stable. Having wrestled with numerous more awkward headset designs over the years, this is not something I take for granted.

Now a few details. The headset has several controls: volume up and down on the top of the ear clip, power button near the bottom of the ear clip (above the micro USB charging port), and a call button at the ear end of the microphone stalk, in effect on top of the ear pad. These buttons have multiple functions depending on the state of the device and how you press them, so there is a bit of a learning process. For example, pressing and holding both volume buttons when music is playing pauses or resumes the music. Pressing and holding both volume buttons during a call mutes or unmutes the microphone.

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Much of the time you will be pressing these buttons while the headset is on, so you need to feel your way, as it were. How easy you find this will vary from one person to another. I found the volume buttons natural and easy to use, partly because if you rest your thumb on the bottom of the unit, you can easily squeeze the buttons at the top. The power button is a bit harder to find and use, but that does not matter too much because you would most likely take the headset off to use it, though it does speak the remaining talk time if you tap it and this can be handy.

I was less happy with the call button. If you are wearing the headset, and a call comes in, you have to tap this to answer. You can also use two taps to call back the last number, and tap and hold to use voice dialling on your mobile. I found the call button awkward to press and insufficiently tactile, though I am sure this improves with practice.

By way of mitigation, the Voyager has an auto-answer feature. A sensor in the device detects whether or not you are wearing it, and if you put the headset on when a call comes in, it will auto-answer.

The sensor also pauses music automatically when you remove the headset, and restarts when you put them back on.

If you pair the Voyager with an iPhone, you get a useful battery meter at the top right of the screen.

I found the Voyager rather good for listening to music. The quality is fine considering that it is mono. Of course it lacks the immersive sound and quality of stereo headphones; but that is the point – you would use the Voyager when you want private background music while still being in touch with what is going on around you. It is easy to carry on a conversation, for example, while music is playing.

I tried the voice dialling. This is a great idea in principle, since you can initiate a call without ever touching your mobile. First you have to press and hold the call button for two seconds, which is a little awkward as mentioned above. After a pause the Voyager beeps, and you can then speak a name to call. If you are lucky and it is found successfully, the Voyager reads the name to you, and if there are multiple numbers you can specify which one to call. If you are unlucky and your mobile starts calling the wrong person, a single tap on the call button ends the call.

I had some success with this, though it is a bit of an adventure. The key is patience. Once you have spoken the name, there is a wait of several seconds, at least with the iPhone, before anything happens.

PC Software

If you have a PC, you can install the Plantronics software to control your Voyager. The software is downloaded from the Plantronics site. You get a battery monitor that sits in the notification area:

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and a control panel that reports the detail of your device model and firmware, and offers a number of settings.

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Once again, the Voyager earns its UC designation by letting you automatically set your presence status when the device is worn or removed, though I struggled to find a setting for this that made sense for me personally.

One nice feature is that the Voyager integrates with PC media players as well as softphones, though some of my favourite media players are missing from the list.

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If you are a Mac user it seems you are less well served by software, though Bluetooth audio still works, and note that the Voyager integrates well with the Apple iPhone.

The Voyager Pro UC copes with both a PC and a mobile connected simultaneously – that is one of the things you are paying extra for – but I found that some details could get confused. For example, the iPhone got into an state where it could not play music though the Voyager until I disconnected the PC.

Extras

The Voyager is expensive for a Bluetooth headset, but is particularly well equipped. The case is well made and has a belt clip as well as a little pocket for the USB Bluetooth adapter. The mains adapter has an LED to indicate the charging state. The Bluetooth adapter has an LED to show whether the headset is connected, and flashes while data is being transmitted.

Conclusion

Overall I am impressed with both the quality and the range of features in the Voyager Pro. It works well alongside Microsoft Lync, for which it is optimized, and in my view it works even better as a headset for an iPhone or other smartphone.

Note though that if you do not need the Unified Communications features or the USB Bluetooth adapter, then the older Voyager Pro + model is less than half the price. However this model lacks the Smart Sensor of the Pro UC v2.

My main gripe is with the awkward call button. Personally I’d like to see this repositioned next to the volume buttons for easier access.

It is also worth noting that even six hours talk time, which you get from a full charge, soon disappears if you play background music, so charging can be a bit of a nuisance.

Nevertheless, using a device like this shows that it really is not necessary to juggle with a handset just to take a phone call; and if you can get voice dialling to work, you can keep the mobile out of sight until you need it for something important like browsing the web or, well, playing a game.

 

Review: Seagate GoFlex for Mac portable hard drive

I have been trying Seagate’s GoFlex for Mac portable drive, which packs 1TB of storage into a small, light, USB-powered package.

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The drive measures around 120x88x22mm – small enough to fit easily in a pocket or bag. Spin speed is 5400 RPM which is a little disappointing.

But what makes it a “Mac” drive? Mainly that it comes pre-formatted with Apple’s HFS + (Hierarchical File System Plus) file system, which is ideal for performance and reliability under OS X. A possible snag is that HFS+ is not readable from Windows by default, though Seagate has a solution, of which more in a moment.

It is worth noting that you can easily reformat the drive for Windows NTFS if you want.

There is a GoFlex app for the Mac which includes an information tab, a drive test, and the ability to disable the activity lights on the drive. I cannot imagine why you would want to do that.

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Seagate’s GoFlex series has a few extra tricks. The most distinctive is that the interface is removable, which means you are not restricted to the usual USB 2.0. This GoFlex for Mac drive come with two, one for USB 2.0 and the other for FireWire 800, which is substantially faster: up to 786Mbps vs 480 Mbps. USB 3.0 and eSATA interfaces are available separately.

Currently the MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro have FireWire 800 ports. It does make sense to use the faster port when available, especially with a drive of this size, though I cannot help thinking it would have been even handier if Seagate had managed to build the two ports into the main case, rather than having them as clip-on extras.

Still, the fact that you can remove the interface enables another GoFlex trick, the ability to slot the drive into a Media Sharing Dock. I’ve reviewed this dock here; it is a handy device though I have some usability concerns. I tried this with the GoFlex Mac and it worked well, an advantage being that you can access the files over a network irrespective of whether your operating system understands HFS+. Trivial point: the GoFlex drive is silver whereas the dock is black, a slight visual mismatch.

But what if you want to direct-attach your GoFlex for Mac drive to a Windows machine? Seagate has done a deal with Paragon to bundle its HFS for Windows driver. This normally costs around $40.00. It works too; though installation was not quite seamless. The problem is that the drive has to be attached for the install to work, presumably to protect Paragon from unauthorised installs. But when you attach the drive, both Windows and the Seagate Manager for Windows (if installed) prompt you to format it.

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If you agree to format the drive, you will lose any files already on it, so I clicked Cancel. However, while installing the drive software I got this dialog *again* – I suppose the thing to do is to check “don’t show again”. Seagate should update its Windows manager software to be HFS-aware. Once I had the Paragon HFS+ driver installed, and restarted Windows, everything was fine.

I would guess though that most customers for this drive will be using it with Macs and will not run into this issue. It is nice to have a drive designed with the Apple Mac in mind, and with generous 1TB or 1.5TB capacity this is a solid product.

Disclosure: Kudos to Seagate for asking me to mention in my review that that the review sample does not have to be returned.