Category Archives: tablets

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Microsoft should have made a separate Windows for tablets say critics – but it did

David Pogue at the New York Times expresses a common view in his take on Windows 8.1:

The more you work with Windows 8, the more screamingly obvious the solution becomes: Split it up. Offer regular Windows on regular computers, offer TileWorld on tablets. That way, everyone has to learn only one operating system, and each operating system is suited to its task.

Simple, eh? One of several flaws in this argument though is that Microsoft did exactly that.

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What is Windows RT? It is a Windows tablet OS where only Windows Store apps can be installed. Admittedly the presence of the desktop in Windows RT, in order to run Office and to access settings that would otherwise be unavailable, is a sign that Windows RT is not quite done; but you can ignore it if you want. If you are looking for Windows 8 for tablets only, here it is.

Did the market love Windows RT? No, on the contrary, Microsoft had to write down $900 million on excess Surface RT inventory and OEM partners have pretty much abandoned it, leaving Surface 2, which also runs RT, alone in the market.

What was wrong with Windows RT? While you can identify missteps in naming and marketing, the fundamental reason is the weak app ecosystem, which limits what you can do.

There is no reason to think that some other variant of Windows RT – for example, one without a desktop at all, or renamed “Surface OS” – would have fared any better. It would probably have been a bigger disaster, lacking even the benefit of Microsoft Office.

Personally I like Windows RT and I think it is strategically important, though rumours suggest that it will be absorbed into a future Windows Phone OS:

Right now, Microsoft has two ARM-based Windows operating systems: The Windows Phone OS and the Windows RT OS. The thinking is these will be one by Spring 2015. Because it tends to be easier to take a “smaller” OS and add to it than to take a larger one and remove features from it, it’s likely that the Windows Phone OS is the one on top of which the new operating systems group will build.

The reasoning, incidentally, does not altogether make sense, though I do not doubt Mary Jo Foley’s reporting. Windows Phone itself is based on a cut-down version of a larger operating system, with the Windows 7 range built on Windows CE and the Windows 8 range built on the full Windows NT kernel. What we will get, I suspect, is unification of the app platform in Windows Phone and Windows 8, and the question will be what happens to the desktop and ability to run full Office in this ARM Windows vNext.

Aside: of all the gadgets I carry around, it is Surface RT that draws the most approving comment from non-technical friends, thanks to its small size, excellent screen, long battery life, and ability to run Word and Excel as well as tablet apps. Of course it is too expensive and too slow, in its first release, and while Surface 2 may fix performance, it will not fix the premium price.

7 types of Windows 8 users and non-users

When I was in Seattle earlier this month I visited the Microsoft Store in Bellevue. I nearly bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, but also observed an enthusiastic salesperson showing off Surface 2 (a pre-launch demo unit) to an older customer. She watched patiently while he showed how it handled pictures, SkyDrive, Office, Email, Facebook and more. At the end she said. “I don’t need any of that. Show me your cheapest laptop.”

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Yes, it’s tough for Microsoft. The incident got me thinking about computer users today and whether or not they are in the market for Windows 8 (or the forthcoming Windows 8.1).

Here is a light-hearted at some categories of users. And yes, I think I have met all of them. For those that are saying no, what would change their minds?

1. The Apple fan.

Switched to Mac from Windows XP around 2007. Has Mac, iPhone, iPad. So much easier, no anti-virus nags, boots quicker, less annoying, always works smoothly. Occasionally runs a Windows app on Parallels but nothing non-nuclear would persuade them to switch back.

Buying Windows 8? No.

2. The Enterprise admin.

In latter stages of migration from Windows XP to Windows 7. Still a few XP machines running awkward apps or run by awkward people. Last holdouts should be gone by year end. Job done, won’t even think about another migration for 3-5 years. Next focus is on BYOD (Bring your own device); will be mostly iPhones and iPads with the occasional Android or Windows 8 tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Mostly no.

3. The older Windows user

Son thinks a Mac would be better, but Windows works fine, is well understood, and does all that is needed. No desire to upgrade but when PC conks out will look for the most familiar looking machine at a good price. Would prefer Windows 7 but may be forced into Windows 8 if those are the only machines on offer.

Buying Windows 8? Maybe reluctantly.

4. The PC guy

This is the guy who understands PCs back to front. Never saw the point of Macs, overpriced, fewer apps, and little different in functionality. First thing to do with a new PC is either spend 3 hours removing all the crapware, or reinstall Windows from scratch. The Windows 8 user interface took some adjustment at first but fine with it now, likes the slightly better performance, and even uses a few Metro apps on the Surface Pro tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Yes, best Windows yet.

5. The tablet family

Used to update the family PC every few years, but mum got an iPad, son got an Android tablet, then dad went Android too, and now they spend so much time doing email, games, web browsing, YouTube, Facebook and BBC iPlayer on the tablets that the PC gets little use. It’s still handy for household accounts but it won’t be replaced unless it breaks.

Buying Windows 8? Not soon, and maybe not ever.

6. The tried it once never again person

It was embarrassing. Used Windows for years, then a friend brought over a Windows 8 laptop. Clicked on desktop, but with no Start button how do you run anything? Clicked around, right-clicked, pressed ESC, pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del, but nothing doing. Friend was laughing. Now the sight of Windows 8 evokes a chill shudder. Never, just never.

Buying Windows 8? No way.

7. The “Make it like 7” person

Windows 8? No problem, it’s just like 7 really. Installed Start8, got the Start menu back, set it to boot to desktop, set file associations for PDF and images to desktop apps, and never sees the Metro environment.

Buying Windows 8? Kind-of, but will never run a Metro app.

Fixing an unresponsive screen on a Samsung Series 7 Slate with Windows 8

I currently travel with a Windows 8 slate, the slate being the retail Samsung Series 7 model (similar but not the same as the one given to Build attendees in 2011).

It is a decent machine with good performance, but has one considerable annoyance. From time to time, when waking the device from sleep or even turning on from cold, the screen stops responding to touch. The crude fix is to reset it by turning it off, then holding down the power button so it reboots. Open documents may be lost of course.

I do not have a cure for this behaviour, though I would love to know. However I have discovered the cause, which is that one or both Intel USB host controllers fails to start. You can see the problem in Device Manager:

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How do you even get to this screen? Well, on my machine, if the top Intel host controller has a problem, then pen input fails but touch works. If the second Intel host controller fails, touch input fails but pen input works. If both fail (which also happens) you are sunk unless you can remote desktop in from another machine on the network.

Once you are in – via pen, touch, or remote desktop – right-click the offending controller and choose Disable. Then right-click again and choose Enable. This will fix the problem until next time.

A likely fix would be an updated driver for the host controller. The current driver dates from 2006.

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However I cannot easily find anything more up to date.

Update: I have succeeded in updating the driver to one from February 2013 but it does not fix the problem. My conclusion is that the error in the USB Enhanced Host Controller is the symptom and not the cause of the issue. It is a resume or power-on problem; such as something happening too quickly or in the wrong order. Again, suggestions welcome!

HP ElitePad 900: a tablet that is easy to disassemble thanks to magnetic screen attachment

I saw the HP ElitePad Windows 8 slate at a trade show last week and was impressed by a feature I had not heard about before: easy serviceability.

Tablets are usually intimidating to disassemble, thanks to screens that are either glued in place or which require alarming force to prise away. The ElitePad is different. It is a slate which is actually easier to take apart than most laptops, thanks to magnetic attachment. HP supplies a  depolarising jig into which you slot the tablet, whereupon you can easily remove the screen with a suction handle. There are a couple of screws to undo first, but it looks like an easy job.

Here are a few screen grabs from the explanatory video (embedded at the end of this post) which show what is involved. This is the tablet in the jig with the screen about to be removed.

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This is the screen coming away.

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And here is the unit with screen removed.

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Once opened up, HP says you can replace these parts:

  • Dock connector
  • speaker system
  • SD and Sim card connector
  • webcam
  • NFC (Near Field Communications) sensor
  • battery
  • wireless LAN
  • antennas
  • power board
  • motherboard
  • processor
  • memory card

According to the video, the motherboard “contains the SSD” which sounds disappointing, since one of the first things you might want to do is to replace the rather small 32GB or 64GB SSD with a larger one.

Unfortunately this feature is not aimed at home users wanting to modify or fix their own tablets; you need the jig and HP training. At least, that is the official line; but I imagine that the DIY community will also benefit from this approach.

The ElitePad has a 10″ 1280×800 screen, dual core Z2760 Atom processor, 2GB RAM, and 32GB or 64GB SSD. It also supports memory expansion via an SD card, and there an option for a SIM for mobile broadband. Battery life is around 8 hours.

HP is using expansion jackets to adapt the ElitePad for specialist tasks – a throwback to the iPaq (remember that?) handheld computer which used the same concept. This includes jackets with additional battery, a productivity jacket with a keyboard and stand, a jacket for medical use, a retail POS (point of sale) option, and a rugged case for outside use. I hated the iPaq jackets, which were horribly bulky, but these look like a better proposition, though it is still a shame to bulk up your nice slim slate with fat case.

According to HP, a key selling point of the ElitePad is enterprise manageability thanks to Active Directory support. Of course this is x86 Windows 8, not Windows RT which cannot be domain-joined.

I do get the impression that HP has put considerable effort into the ElitePad which is not just a me-too Windows 8 product. Good to see.

The main snag with the ElitePad is its high price. It starts at $699 in the US, or £520 + VAT in the UK, and considering the lowly specification in terms of processing power, and the extra cost of the accessories, it looks poor value, though if it is a perfect fit for your business it might still be worth it (and no doubt you will get a better price if you buy in quantity).

Review: Three-in-one Jabra Revo headphones and headset: wired, wireless and USB

If headphones are judged on versatility, the Jabra Revo wins the prize. It works wired and wireless, it’s a USB audio device, it’s a headset with remote control, and as a final flourish it folds into a moderately compact size that you can slip in the supplied bag.

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You might think that the result of this flexibility would be a fiddly and complex device, but this is not the case. The Revo has an elegant design and looks modern and sleek. The construction feels high quality as well; these headphones are lovely to handle.

In the solid plastic box you get the headphones, a drawstring bag, a USB cable, an audio cable (with four connectors on each 3.5mm jack, suitable for a headset connection to a mobile phone or tablet. The cables are braided for tangle-free connections, and bright orange so you will not miss them.

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There is also a “Getting started” leaflet which I recommend you read, since not everything is obvious.

Step one is to charge the headphones. This is done using the USB cable. No charger is supplied, but you probably have a few of these already, or you can plug into any PC or Mac. A red light comes on while charging, and turns off when charging is complete, which takes about two hours from flat.

Step two is to pair the headphones with your mobile device. For this you can put a three-way on/off/pairing switch, tucked under the right-hand earphone, into the pairing position, for pairing in the normal way. Alternatively, just put it to the On position, and touch an NFC-enabled device to the left earphone (as I noted, not everything is obvious). This should then pair automatically, subject to a prompt on your mobile device.

I had mixed success with NFC. A Sony Xperia T smartphone failed twice, with a message “Could not pair Jabra Revo”, but worked on the third attempt. A Nokia Lumia 620 worked on the second attempt.

More than one device can be connected simultaneously, though only one at a time will play. I found this worked; I could play music on one device, then press play on another device and it automatically switched.

The good news is that Bluetooth audio worked well for me, with no skips or stutters, perhaps thanks to Jabra’s long experience with mobile communications. Volume was low to begin with, but note that the back of the right-hand earphone is also a touch volume control, and with a few strokes you can get more than enough volume.

There are also buttons at the centre of each earphone.

The right-hand button is multi-function, and does play/pause, or answer/end call, or reject a call if you hold it down, or redial last number if you double-tap.

The left-hand button is for the Jabra Sound App for iOS or Android. It is meant to launch the app, but this did not work for me with the Sony Xperia.

If you want to use the headphones wired, just plug the audio cable into the headphones. No battery power is required. If you want to use them as a USB device, attach the USB cable to a computer, wait for the drivers to install, and it works. I tried it with Skype and got reasonable results, though the microphone quality is less good than that of the headphones.

Jabra Sound app

If you have an Apple iOS or Google Android device, you can download the Jabra Sound app. This is a music player which claims to optimise sound for the headphones. The app is free but requires a code, supplied with the headphones, to activate it.

Using the app, you specify which Jabra headphones you are using. Next, you can set Dolby Processing, Mobile Surround, and Equalisation. If you turn Dolby Processing off, the other options are disabled as well.

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I am a sceptic when it comes to this kind of processing, and the Jabra Sound app did nothing to convince me that it is worthwhile. I listened to I.G.Y. by Donald Fagen, which is a well-recorded track, and found that adding “Mobile Surround” made it noticeably worse, less natural and less clear. The equalizer could be useful though, particularly as the Revo are not the most neutral headphones I have heard.

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Jabra Sound is a music player and only works with local music files. You cannot use it with Spotify or Google Play or other streaming services.

Revo in use

The comfort of these on-ear headphones is good, though tastes vary and I found them just a little stiff. Then again, wireless implies mobility and a firm fit is no bad thing.

How about the sound? There are a couple of points to note. First, all connections are not equal. I found that the wired connection sounds best, followed by the USB connection, followed by the wireless connection. That does not mean that wireless sounds bad, but I did find it slightly grainy in comparison. Only slightly; if you think Bluetooth audio means low quality sound, think again.

Second, the Revo seems to accentuate the bass, a little too much for my taste. This may be good marketing as many people seem to prefer this kind of sound, but if you want to hear what the mastering engineer intended you may prefer a more neutral sound.

These points aside, the sound is sweet, clear and refined. They are not reference quality, being easily bettered by, say, high-end Sennheisers, Judged purely on the basis of sound quality for the price, the Revo is nothing special. On the other hand, this is a bundle of smart technology, considering that it is also a wireless headset with a built-in touch volume control. This makes it hard to make a fair comparison. Given the capabilities of the product overall, the sound quality is decent.

I have mixed feelings about the touch controls. The ability to control volume and skip music tracks using taps and strokes is elegant, but inevitably there is more scope for mis-taps than with conventional buttons, and I found the volume control imprecise. That said, it is great to have volume and play/pause on the headphones themselves.

Conclusion

The Revo has a lot going for it. Elegant design, high quality construction, good wireless performance without any skips or stutters, and unmatched flexibility – remember, this is a headset that you can use for phone calls as well as for enjoying music.

On the negative side, the tonality is a little bass-heavy and the sound quality good but no better than it should be considering the premium price.

If the flexibility is something you can make use of, the Revo is a strong contender.

Specifications:

Driver size 40mm
Impedance 32 Ohm
Frequency response (no tolerance given) 20Hz – 20,000Hz
Sensitivity 119 dB at 1v/1kHz
Weight 240g
Battery life 12 hours playback/10 days standby
Charge time 2 hours
Wireless range 10m

 

Review: Logitech K811 Bluetooth Easy-Switch keyboard for iPad, Mac and more

I travel a lot and use a tablet rather than a laptop, and have gone through numerous Bluetooth keyboards. These are a necessity for me, since the tablet I use is either an iPad, which has no USB slot for a wireless transceiver, or a Windows slate that has only one USB slot that is often occupied.

It is surprising how much can go wrong. Some of the issues I have had (NOT with this keyboard let me emphasise) are keyboards turning themselves on in your bag and performing random actions; keys physically coming off the keyboard while in your bag; and tedious reconnection attempts when the Bluetooth pairing somehow breaks.
Another annoyance is that most Bluetooth keyboards can only pair with one device, forcing you to re-pair every time you switch.

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Not any more. Logitech’s K811 keyboard can be paired with up to three devices simultaneously. The first three function keys across the top of the keyboard select which one you want to use.

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This keyboard is designed for iPad, iPhone or Mac, but I found it also worked fine with the Windows tablet subject to few annoyances (keys that are incorrectly marked).

Specifically, on Windows all the alphabetic keys work correctly, as do the numbers, and most of the special characters. The main issues are that backslash types # but can be found on the § key, and @ and ” are transposed. No Windows key of course, but Ctrl-Esc works. Really not too bad.

Note that there is a PC version of the keyboard, called the K810, which seems similar but is a little cheaper. So get that if you only have PCs, but if you have a mix of devices, the Apple one is fine.

While the keyboard is probably not a good choice if you only use a non-Apple tablet, if you have a mix then it can still be useful.

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This is a standard Mac keyboard though too small to have a separate numeric pad. The function keys default to the special functions, like dimming the backlight, and you have to press the Fn key to get the standard functions.

Physically the keyboard feels sturdy and well-made though it can flex just slightly in the middle since it has four small rubber feet. This did not cause me any problems. The keyboard is big enough for typing at speed and in comfort, and small enough that it tucks easily into most bags. It is 29cm on the longest side.

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There are some little details that I like. The Connect button can be depressed easily with a finger, no need to find a small pointed object, though I have never pressed it accidentally. There is an on-off switch that is unlikely to slide by accident, avoiding those bag-typing problems mentioned above.

The keyboard has a built-in, non-replaceable rechargeable battery, charged via a USB cable. Battery life is said to be 20 hours of typing with the backlight on, or an impressive one year with the backlight off. You can adjust the brightness of the backlight using the function keys, though it resets when you next switch off and on, so you will probably end up with the backlight on most of the time, though it does dim automatically if you do not type for a while.

The coolest feature is a sensor that detects your hands and turns the backlight on, if the keyboard has been idle, before your hands touch the keys. A bit of a gimmick, but you can’t help admiring it.

Bluetooth switching really does work. I tried a test with an iPad and a Windows tablet. Press the key for the 1st device, and typed text appears on the iPad. Press the key for the 2nd device, and typed text appears on the Windows tablet. Reconnection seems quicker than average.

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Overall I love the keyboard, and recommend it. I would have liked a protective bag to help prevent damage to the keys when loose in a larger bag, and suggest care with this as it is a common problem.

If you just want a keyboard for an iPad, you might be better off with one of the Logitech keyboard covers. If you have several mobile devices though, this is great, with a quality and convenience that justifies its price.

   

Review: Seagate Wireless Plus combines hard drive and wi-fi for storage on the go

Need more storage for your tablet or smartphone? If so, the Seagate Wireless Plus could be just the thing. In a nutshell, this is a 1TB USB 3.0 external drive with battery power and a wi-fi access point built in. Attach it to your PC or Mac and fill it with stuff: a zillion MP3s, or a pile of videos, or pictures, or boring business presentations, or whatever you need. On the road, you power up the drive, connect your mobile device to the built-in wi-fi, and play what you want – though note there are a few complications, of which more below.

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In the box you get the drive, a USB mains adaptor, a USB port that attaches to the drive, a USB 3.0 cable, and a brief getting started manual.

To be clear, there is a protective cover on the end of the drive which pops off to reveal what looks like Seagate’s GoFlex port. Another piece plugs into this, converting it to a USB port. Slightly awkward, because you may well lose the protective cover and end up having the USB adaptor permanently attached.

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Setup is a matter of charging the battery and then connecting your mobile device to the drive’s integrated wi-fi access point. By default this is an unencrypted open connection, and if you intend to travel with the unit I recommend setting a password, which converts it into a secure encrypted connection.

Next, you download the free Seagate media app for iOS or Android, at which point you can view the contents and playback media such as music and video. What if you have a mobile device other than iOS or Android? Hang on, all is not lost.

The inherent problem here is that connecting storage to a mobile device is not as simple as on a computer, where it just appears as another drive, especially on Apple’s iOS which does not directly expose a file system to the user. This is the reason for the Seagate Media app.

Second, the obvious problem with connecting to a dedicated wi-fi access point on the Seagate drive is that you will no longer be connected to any other wi-fi network and therefore may be disconnected from the internet, or forced to use your data connection.

Fortunately Seagate has a solution, called “concurrent mode”. You use Seagate’s app to connect your drive to a second wi-fi network, such as your home wi-fi, and then your internet connectivity is restored.

While this mostly works, it is an inconvenience, since if you are out and about you will need to do this for any new wi-fi connection point you want to use. Further, as soon as you turn the drive off (or the battery runs out) you will have to connect your mobile device separately. If you then later want to reconnect to the Seagate, you have to change the wi-fi settings on the mobile again, so it is a little bit of hassle.

I used the drive on both an iPad and an Android phone, and found the setup fairly straightforward, though the Android mysteriously needed restarting before it worked properly. Playing media from the drive via the app works fine for video, images and music.

If you have a device that is neither Apple nor Android, you can still use it by connecting the wifi on the device to the Seagate, and then browsing to a mini web server on the drive. The question is: where to point the browser? Help was not helpful on this point, suggesting a wirelessplus URL that did not work at all for me, but I noticed that the network was in the 172.25.0 range, took a stab at 172.25.0.1 and found that it worked. Using a Nokia Windows Phone, for which there is no Seagate app, I could connect to the device, stay on the internet, and still easily play the media. Here is the browser view on Windows Phone:

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You can also access settings from the browser and check status:

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That said, as I connected various devices to the Seagate I found its behaviour increasingly unpredictable. On the iPad I got a mysterious message saying I was connecting through another device and should connect directly, even when I was connected directly as far as I could tell. Sometimes you lose internet connectivity and the second network connection needed to be kicked back into life through settings. You are meant to be able to have up to eight devices connected, with up to three streaming media simultaneously, but maybe this is optimistic.

The wi-fi complications are not Seagate’s fault, but inherent to providing additional storage for mobile devices, though I wonder if the firmware could be improved a bit.
Connecting the drive to a computer over USB disables the network connectivity but is otherwise straightforward. The drive is formatted with the Windows NTFS format, and a read-write NTFS driver is supplied for Mac users. Apparently you can also convert the drive to Mac HFS+ format though I did not try it. It uses a fast USB 3.0 connection when available, which is a big plus since it is much faster than USB 2.0.

There is some sync software for Windows supplied but I do not really see the point of it; personally I prefer simply to copy stuff across as needed.

According to the manual, the drive takes 3 hours to charge fully, and then has about 10 hours battery life streaming, or 25 hours standby, which is enough for most journeys. If you fancy using this on a flight, note that some airlines may not allow wi-fi to be enabled which would prevent use of the drive, other than via a laptop and USB.

Despite the fact that it is not hassle-free, I rate this drive highly based on its generous 1TB capacity and the fact that it also works fine as a standard USB 3.0 external drive, making all the mobile and battery-powered capability a nice bonus. If you need serious extra local storage for a tablet or smartphone, I cannot think of any better option.

That is the question though: do you need extra local storage for a mobile device? Internet-based storage like Dropbox, Skydrive or Google Music is more convenient, provided of course that you can connect. Most mobile devices come with built-in storage that is enough for a few videos or a fair amount of MP3 music.

There are certain scenarios where Wireless Plus will be useful, but I am not sure how common they are for most people.

Update: The Wireless Plus can also be used as a DLNA server and I have successfully used this feature both on the iPad (you can download a DNLA client from the app store; I used 8player Lite) and on Windows:

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Can you use this then as a standalone music server? Yes, though it is a shame there is no option to join the Wireless Plus to your existing network directly. I am guessing there is a way of hacking this though, if you can figure it out. It is not too bad, since once it is connected to your network using concurrent mode, other devices on your network can see it.

You can also play media from the Wireless Plus to Airplay devices such as Apple TV.

Contract Bridge on a tablet: Funbridge vs Bridgebase vs Bridge Baron

Bridge is an ideal game for a tablet, well suited to touch control and the kind of game you can play for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, which is excellent for travellers.

So what are the choices? Here is a quick look at some favourites.

Funbridge is available for iPhone, iPad and Android. There are also versions for Windows and Mac. The Android edition is the newest but works fine, though of all of them it is the iOS release that is the nicest to use.

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The way Funbridge works is that you always play against a computer, though this is on the internet rather than running locally, but your scores are compared with other humans playing the same hands. I have not tried the “Two players game” so I am not sure how that works, except that the other player has to be a “friend” in the Funbridge community system. It looks like you play with your friend against two bots.

Funbridge has a lot to like. The user interface is excellent, much the best of all the tablet bridge software I have used and better than most desktop bridge software too. There is a good variety of game options, including one-off games, tournaments of 5 games each, and a series ladder you can climb from 1 club to 7 no trumps. You can select one of 6 conventions, including ACOL, SAYC (American Standard), and 5 card major at three levels from beginner to expert. I think this is a hint that to get the best from Funbridge you should use the 5 card major system.

Another nice feature of Funbridge is that you can go back and replay a hand to try a different line of play. You can also see all the other scores on any hand, and how they were bid and played.

Funbridge is not perfect though. The bidding is eccentric at times, and it can be hard to persuade your partner bot to play in no trumps rather than a suit. There is definitely an art to winning at Funbridge that is a different from what it takes to win at a real bridge table.

Since you are playing against a cloud-based server, you can only play if you have an internet connection. Not so good for most flights.

Funbridge is a pay per game service. Currently 50 deals costs £1.49 (about 3p each) or if you pay more the per-deal cost falls to under 2p. Unlimited deals for a year costs £69.99.

That said, you can get 10 games a week for free, though you only get the 10 free games if you have no paid games in your account; slightly unfair to the paying customers.

Bridgebase is available for iPad, iPhone, Android and Amazon Kindle. Bridgebase also offers a browser-based game based on Adobe Flash. Like Funbridge, you can only play with an internet connection. You can either play with human opponents, or solo with three bots.

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Of course human opponents are more fun, though there are advantages to playing with bots. No pressure, you can think for as long as you like, and none of the issues which afflict online bridge, such as players simply disappearing when in a bad contract, or being bad tempered if you make a mistake.

The Bridgebase user interface is OK though feels clunky compared to the smoothness of Funbridge. As in Funbridge, you can compare your score with other human players even if you play against bots. You cannot replay games, but you can undo your play which means you can easily cheat against the bots if you feel so inclined. Against humans your opponents have to approve an undo, which they will be reluctant to do other then in cases of genuine mis-taps.

The biggest problem with Bridgebase is the standard of the bots, which is much weaker than Funbridge. The play can be quite bizarre at times, sometimes excellent, sometimes daft.

A weak feature is that if your computer partner wins the auction, it also plays the contract, sometimes badly. I do not see the point of this. You may find yourself playing “hideous hog” style (Victor Mollo’s character who always tried to play the contract) as it is painful reaching a good contract but watching the bot throw it away.

Bridgebase is free to play, though there are subscription options online to get some extra features.

Bridge Baron is available for Android, iPad, iPhone, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. It is inexpensive (£13.99 currently on the App Store) but you have to pay separately for each platform. Unlike the other two games, Bridge Baron runs entirely on your device, which is good if you are offline, but means you do not compare your score against other humans. You can set the standard from novice to advanced.

Bridge Baron plays well enough to be fun, though well short of the best computer players. You can replay games at will. You can compare your score against the Baron’s score, review the bidding and play, and undo your play at will. You can also ask for a hint from the Baron.

The Bridge Baron user interface is basic, a little worse than Bridgebase (though faster) and much worse than Funbridge. I do not know why the card icons are so small; it is like playing on a huge table.

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Still, good fun and good value.

Conclusion

All three of these games have something to commend them. Funbridge for the best user interface and a standard good enough to be enjoyable despite a few eccentricities. Bridgebase for the option to play with real people, and for free play with bots. Bridge Baron for playing offline.

On the other hand, Bridgebase is spoilt by the poor play of its bots. Bridge Baron is dull because you cannot compare your score with other humans. Funbridge is the one I choose if I have some deals available, but can get expensive if you play a lot, and you will get annoyed with your computer partner from time to time.

There is nothing on a tablet that comes close to Jack Bridge for standard of play.

Finally, note there is no bridge app for Windows RT. So if you are a bridge addict with a Surface RT, you are out of luck.

I am done with laptops

2012 was the year I lost interest in laptops. It happened in February, when I was in Seattle and purchased a Samsung Windows 7 Slate for the purpose of testing Windows 8.

This Slate has an Intel Core i5 CPU and is a flawed device. With Windows 7 it was particularly bad, since Windows 7 is not much fun for touch control. Windows 8 is much better, though now and again the screen will not respond to touch after being woken from sleep, and a cold reboot is needed.

That said, performance is fine, and the Slate has a couple of characteristics which I like. One is small size. It fits easily in almost any bag. In fact, I can put this Slate, an iPad and a Surface RT in a bag and they take up no more room that with a typical 15.6” laptop.

The second is convenience. If you are travelling, a laptop is an awkward and unsocial thing. I have come to dislike the clamshell design, which has to be unfolded before it will work, and positioned so that you can type on the keyboard and see the screen.

I do not pretend that desktop Windows has a great user interface for touch control, but I have become more adept at hitting small targets in the likes of Outlook. In addition, many tasks like browsing the web or viewing photos work fine in the touch-friendly “Metro” personality of Windows 8.

What about when you need to sit down and do some serious typing, coding, or intricate image manipulation? This is when I pull out a keyboard and mouse and get something similar to a laptop experience.

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The above shows my instant coffee-shop office, with wireless keyboard and mouse, and internet connection through mobile phone. Though I have abandoned the keyboard and mouse shown, preferring a Bluetooth set I picked up late last year which leaves does not require a free USB port.

I am not sure why I would ever want another laptop. When in the office, I prefer a PC under the desk to a laptop on the desk. A tablet, whether Windows, Android or iOS, works better for mobility, even if mobility means watching iPlayer in the living room rather than travelling around the world.

Nor do I like hybrid tablets with twisty screens and keyboards, which lose the simplicity and instant usability of the tablet concept. I make an exception for Microsoft’s Surface RT, particularly with the touch keyboard cover, which does not get in the way or take up significant space, but does form a usable keyboard and trackpad when needed. There will always be an advantage to using a physical keyboard, since even if you get on fine with a soft keyboard there is no escaping the large slice of screen it occupies. Well, until we can type with detected thought processes I guess.

I am told that an iPad with a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard is also a nice combination, though I have not tried this yet.