Category Archives: tablets

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The closest I got to Windows on ARM at Microsoft BUILD 2011

A couple of the stands in the exhibition at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last week were showing Windows on ARM. This one was on the NVIDIA stand and was most likely running its Tegra 2 SoC (System on a Chip) though Tegra 3 (code-name Kal-El) is apparently now in production. The tablet was displayed under a plastic shroud which could only be lifted when someone from Microsoft was present, though I was able to get this snap of the machine sans shroud. I was not permitted to handle the machine.

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I have blanked out part of the background because it was black on black.

My main observation: it looks just like the Intel version. This screen shows a Metro app running side by side with the Windows desktop, and showing the “charms” on the right.

Gartner reports that Apple will have the tablet market almost to itself in 2011 (73.4% market share). I believe Windows on ARM is critical to Microsoft’s strategy to compete. In principle, it should be cheaper and more efficient than an Intel device, and one that is more locked-down in the style to which Apple has made us accustomed.

If Microsoft and its hardware partners can get the size, weight and design details right, I suspect I would rather have a Windows 8 tablet than an iPad. One advantage is the ability to have two apps side by side. Microsoft’s new user interface works really well with touch. I will expect to find a Windows remote desktop client there by default, and better support for Microsoft Office and SharePoint than I find in the iPad.

By the time Windows 8 comes out though, we will likely have iPad 3 with who-knows-what improvements; Apple has all the apps; and breaking into this market will not be easy.

Review: Hands On with the HP TouchPad

When I saw HP’s TouchPad on display at the Mobile World Congress last February I thought it looked good and wanted to have a closer look. I have been doing so for the last couple of days. The TouchPad is a 9.7” tablet similar in size to Apple’s iPad and iPad 2. It comes with 16 or 32GB of storage, 1024x 768 display, wi-fi, Bluetooth, dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2Ghz processor, and front-facing camera. Battery life is up to around 9 hours. The TouchPad runs WebOS, the operating system acquired with Palm, and which seems to form the basis of HP’s mobile device strategy.

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Since a large part of HP’s business comes from selling and servicing Windows servers and PCs, it would make sense for the TouchPad to have excellent support for Microsoft’s platform. Then again, why is it running WebOS and not Windows? There are several reasons. First, Microsoft refuses to allow the Windows Phone 7 OS to be used in a tablet form factor, and the first tablet-friendly Windows OS will be Windows 8 which is not yet available. Second, HP has been down the Windows Mobile track before, and seen Apple takeover the market.

HP has good reason therefore to take a non-Microsoft approach to mobile. However, you can see in the TouchPad the downside of that decision. Exchange support is good, but SharePoint support non-existent. The TouchPad makes a terrible client for Office 365. There is no sign of Microsoft Lync or even MSN Messenger in its messaging account options:

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Why does this matter? Well, in the end the question is why you, or anyone, is going to buy an HP TouchPad rather than one of its competitors. There is a gap in the market for an business-focused tablet with strong support for Microsoft’s platform, and I wondered if HP, with its strength in that market, might fill it with the TouchPad. In this respect it is a disappointment. It is behind Apple’s iPad, which lets me open and save documents from SharePoint via WebDAV, and edit them in Pages or Numbers; and even the iPad is weak in this area.

Look and feel

I hate making constant comparisons with Apple’s device, but it is hard to avoid because it sets the standard at this price level. With its rounded corners and glossy black finish, the TouchPad is OK but feels inelegant and chunky in comparison to the iPad 2. For example, both the iPad and the TouchPad have a single recessed button that acts as a kind of home key. On the iPad it is a round button that fits your finger nicely; on the TouchPad it is rectangular and slightly sharp-edged, and therefore less pleasant to operate. A tiny detail, but one that when combined with others makes the TouchPad feel less well designed.

More seriously, the touch screen seems less responsive than that on the iPad. This may be as much to do with software as hardware, but sometimes taps seem to get lost. I also had difficulty with the screen rotating at the wrong moment; this can be a problem on the iPad too but seems worse on the TouchPad, though you can lock the screen if it gets too annoying. Sometimes the screen flickers slightly; this may be to do with power management but it is unpleasant.

On the plus side, WebOS has a card-based interface that works well. Each app shows as a card when not full screen, and you can flick between cards to select a running app, or flick the card up to close it.

Another plus is the Touchstone accessory which does wireless charging; a great feature though this was not included in the review sample.

Setup

Setting up the TouchPad was straightforward, though I saw more of the spinning wait circle than I would have liked. You are required to set up a WebOS account, but there is no requirement to enter credit card details until the point where you actually want to buy an app. I did twice get the message “we are unable to create an account for you. Please try again in a few minutes or contact HP for help,” but third time was lucky.

My next step was to connect to Exchange. The TouchPad absolutely refused my first attempt because it did not trust my self-signed certificate. By contrast, most devices merely throw up a warning and then let you continue. I fixed this by going to Settings – Device Info, which has a Certificate Manager in its drop-down menu. I copied the certificate to the TouchPad over USB and then installed it.

Exchange worked OK after that, though the mail client is sluggish. I do not know if it is related, but soon after setting up Exchange I got a “Memory critical, too many cards” message and the TouchPad pretty much died, though it revived after a restart.

I also added accounts for DropBox and for Box.net, both of which offer cloud storage and synchronisation.

Finally, I added some music. I installed the beta of HP Play, which is a music player and library manager. Once installed, you can drag music to the HP TouchPad when connected over USB.

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This worked; but with hindsight I was nearly as well off copying MP3 files directly using Windows Explorer. The main benefit of HP Play is drag-and-drop playlist management. You can also set up auto-synchronisation, but I turned this off as I prefer to select what goes on the device manually.

Sound quality on the TouchPad is decent even using the internal speakers. Here is one way in which the TouchPad improves on Apple’s iPad, though the difference disappears if you use external speakers or headphones. Formats supported are DRM-free MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR, QCELP, and WAV. No FLAC which is a shame.

The printed user guide for the TouchPad is just a few pages, but there is a detailed manual you can download – recommended for TouchPad owners.

Apps

A selection of apps comes supplied with the TouchPad.

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I am interested in Quickoffice, which lets you view a wide selection of document formats, but sorry to find that all documents are read-only. Adobe Reader is also installed. Printing is supported, as you would expect from HP, but my network printer is a Canon and does not work with the TouchPad.

The web browser is based on WebKit and includes Adobe Flash 10.3 but not Oracle Java. The Youtube “app” just links to the Youtube web site – what is the point of that? BBC iPlayer work nicely

Maps is Bing Maps and looks good, with options for Satellite and Bird’s Eye views as well as “Show traffic” which is meant to indicate which roads are busy but did not seem to work for me. You can also get turn by turn directions.

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You can install new apps by going to the Downloads screen and tapping HP App Catalog.

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The selection of apps is weak though, especially in comparison to iPad or Android. HP needs to attract more developers to WebOS; but they will only come if HP can make a success of the devices.

Amazon Kindle is meant to work on the TouchPad but is nowhere to be seen, although it is referenced in the user guide. Apparently it has appeared for US users.

Conclusions

My immediate impression of the HP Touchpad is that it is promising but not yet good enough to win much market share, especially given that the price is similar to that of the iPad. At the time of writing, the TouchPad costs around £400 for the 16GB version, as does Apple’s iPad 2.

That said, there are a few reasons why you might want one of these:

  • Printing to HP printers
  • USB Drive support when attached to a PC or Mac
  • Adobe Flash
  • Multi-tasking with WebOS card interface
  • Wireless charging
  • Integration with HP Pre 3 smartphone
  • Above average sound quality

None of these strike me as a must-have, but there will be scenarios where they tilt the balance in favour of the TouchPad.

The problem with the TouchPad is that it is insufficiently distinctive from Apple’s offering, but its usability and performance is in most respects less good.

The promise is there; but can HP get enough momentum behind the platform to attract a stronger set of third-party apps, as well as fine-tuning the performance and design?

I am doubtful. HP, like RIM, is going to have difficulty maintaining its own mobile platform. In the end it may have to either join the Android crowd, or mend its relationship with Microsoft.

Thanks to Dabs.com for supplying the review loan.

Asus announces combined smartphone and tablet – the Padfone

Asus has announced the Padfone, a combined tablet and smartphone running Google Android. The phone docks inside the tablet, which means you get an internet-connected tablet without having to pay for an additional SIM card and contract. It is a similar concept to Motorola’s Atrix, which combines smartphone and netbook. I like the concept and its efficiency, though I am not sure that this is quite the right approach.

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Asus is also having another at at Linux on a netbook. The Eee PC X101 will run MeeGo, the Linux-based operating system which was once a joint Intel-Nokia project, but ditched by Nokia in favour of Windows Phone. MeeGo enables Asus to offer the X101 at a lower price than would be the case with Windows, as well as offering snappier performance; however there will also be a Windows 7 option so I guess the market will decide.

Battle of the portables: Netbook vs Apple iPad 2

A semi-serious comparison

The popularity of tablets has seriously undermined the market for netbooks, according to many reports. But to what extent are the two comparable, and if they are, is a tablet unequivocally superior? I’m asking the question as much as answering, because I am trying out an iPad 2 and intrigued to see to what extent it can replace the netbook with which I normally travel. I have found I prefer the netbook to a laptop when out and about: the lightness and long battery life is worth the performance limitations for me.

The comparison is not straightforward. An iPad is a thing of beauty, whereas a typical netbook is an obvious compromise, nearly a laptop but limited in memory and performance. For some people that is enough; they will say, it is not about features, it is about the experience, and it is night and day.

Even so there are things that the netbook does better. What follows are some notes on the subject, based on the iPad vs a Toshiba NB 300 netbook with which I am familiar. I may add or amend the entries, so check back for updates.

1. Price

iPad2: £399 (wi-fi with 16GB)

Toshiba netbook: £230.00 (based on typical current price of NB305)

Winner: netbook

the netbook comes with Windows 7 starter, a crippled version of Windows, and only 1MB RAM. You probably want to add 1GB RAM (£17.00). If you want to join your netbook to a business domain you’ll need to upgrade Windows 7 to the Professional version; if you want to get rid of the annoying ads in Office Starter you’ll need to upgrade Office too.

2. Ease of setup:

iPad2: Switch on, and it asks you to connect to a computer running iTunes. This actually has its annoyances. iTunes is rather slow and bloated especially on Windows. When you connect, the default is auto-sync, which means iTunes will attempt to copy its music library to your iPad, likely not have enough room, and copy a random selection. If you have an iPhone, you will also get all your iPhone apps copied across, like it or not, which means you have to delete the ones you do not want.

Toshiba netbook: I recounted the “fairly dismal” experience of setting up a Toshiba netbook here. The main problem is all the trialware that is pre-installed, plus a bunch of Toshiba utilities of varying quality. Rather than repeat it all here, I will show show the screenshot a few minutes after first power-on:

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

3. Boot time

iPad 2: instant

Toshiba: ages. Better from hibernation, though still much slower than iPad 2. Better from sleep, but I am not a big fan of sleep because it drains the battery and occasionally crashes on resume.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

4. Multi-tasking, or the ability to do several things at once

iPad 2: does multi-task but the experience is not great. Only one app is visible at a time, and to switch you have to double-click the big button, swipe through a list of apps, and tap the one you want.

Toshiba: It’s Windows. Fortunately Microsoft changed its mind about having a limit of three apps you can run at once. You can run lots of apps, switch between them with alt-tab or by clicking a taskbar icon, and size them small so you can see more than one on-screen at one time.

The simplicity of one app to view is meant to be an advantage of iOS; but while the Windows model can be troublesome – see the above screenshot for proof- I’d like to see some improvement in this part of iOS. It is not a matter of screen size: the screen size on the netbook is similar to that of the iPad.

Winner: netbook

5. Keyboard

iPad 2: soft keyboard that obscures half the screen, or add-on physical keyboard.

Toshiba netbook: traditional clamshell design with integrated keyboard.

I do a lot of typing, and my speed is substantially better on a physical keyboard. However I do not like carrying lots of accessories, and while the iPad add-on  keyboard is fine at a desk, if you are in a confined space such as an aeroplane the clamshell design works better than a loose keyboard.

That said, I recall hearing how a school that issued all its pupils and staff with iPads was surprised by how few wanted keyboards. Some kids apparently prefer the soft keyboard to “all those buttons”, so it may depend what you are used to. However, even if you replaced the “Keyboard” heading with “Text input”, my vote would still go to the netbook.

Winner: netbook

6. Touch control

iPad 2: yes

Toshiba netbook: no

I’m putting this in just to make the point. Even a Windows tablet, with a stylus, is less convenient to use with touch than an iPad.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

7. Applications

iPad 2: A bazillion apps available in the app store, cheap or free to purchase, a snap to install. Not so many for iPad as for iPhone, but still a good number.

Toshiba netbook: It’s Windows. They are a bit slow to load, but I run Microsoft Office, Outlook, several web browsers, music apps, games, network utilities and all sorts of other stuff.

Winner: I am going to call this a tie. There are some beautiful apps for the iPad 2, but I miss the features of Windows apps like Office. With the netbook my experience is that I can do almost anything that I can do with a desktop PC, although more slowly, but that is not the case with the iPad 2. On the other hand, the way apps can be installed and removed in a blink on the iPad 2 is a delight compared to Windows setup.

8. File system and storage

iPad 2: There is a file system, but it is hidden from the user.

Toshiba netbook: Yes. I can save a document from one app, and open it in another. I can connect to it over a network and copy files from one folder to another. Not possible on the iPad 2 without workarounds like iTunes and DropBox; and even then some things are difficult. For example, you cannot save a document from Pages on the iPad directly to your DropBox. Let me add that the netbook has a 250GB hard drive, whereas the iPad gets by with a maximum of 32GB solid state storage – though also note that solid state storage is faster to access, and that because the iPad is designed to work like that it does not feel particularly space-constrained.

Winner by a mile: netbook

9. Connectivity

iPad 2: Wireless network, or devices that accept Apple’s proprietary connector. You can attach the iPad to a PC with USB, but only iTunes really understands it, unless you just want to copy photos and videos. Apple offers an add-on camera connectivity kit for downloading photos from a camera, and AirPrint for printing over a network. It is annoying that you have to buy add-ons to do what a netbook does out of the box.

Toshiba netbook: Three standard USB ports, you can attach external hard drives or most USB devices such as printers.

Winner: netbook

10. Battery life

iPad 2: Apple says up to 10 hours, but I have never managed as much as that. Maybe 7 or 8 hours.

Toshiba netbook: I get about 6 hours on wifi, more than that without.

In practice, I have no quibble with either machine – though I am envious of Amazon Kindle owners with their one month charge.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2.

11. Portability

iPad 2: no bigger than a pad of paper. It is not exactly pocketable, but slips easily into any kind of bag or briefcase. It perhaps needs the protection of a case, but even in a case it is not bulky.

Toshiba netbook: fatter and uglier than an iPad, but still very portable. The worst thing is the power supply, if you need it: the Apple mains adaptor is much smaller than Toshiba’s effort.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2

12. Watching videos

iPad 2: Great. It is like a portable TV or DVD player, but better – as long as you have a strong wifi connection and BBC iPlayer or the like. Just prop it up on its stand (most cases have one) and enjoy.

Toshiba netbook: it works but the graphics capabilities are inferior and it feels like you are looking at a netbook.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

13. Built in cameras and microphone

iPad 2: two cameras, front and back, and a microphone that works.

Toshiba netbook: webcam and microphone, but they are junk; I have not seen a netbook with anything decent.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

14. Reading eBooks

iPad 2: iBooks app and Amazon Kindle app. I prefer the Kindle app, though whether it will survive Apple’s assault on alternative readers I am not sure.

Toshiba netbook: Kindle app, as well as Adobe Reader etc.

A tablet is great for reading, much better than a netbook. However despite its humble appearance Amazon’s Kindle device really is better for reading, thanks to a screen you can read in sunlight, much longer battery life, and free internet access to download books everywhere.

Winner: iPad 2, though a Kindle is better

15. Attract admiring glances

iPad 2: Yes

Toshiba netbook: No

Winner: I did say “semi-serious”.

Apple’s iPad 2 Smart Cover: great stand, poor cover

I’ve been trying Apple’s iPad 2 recently, complete with the official Smart Cover.

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This was shown off at the launch event. It is meant to combine various features:

  • Keep your screen safe from scratches
  • Turn the iPad on and off when opened and closed
  • Clean the iPad screen with its microfiber lining
  • Form a support for the iPad for typing
  • Form a stand for the iPad so you can use it as an expensive digital photo frame

Although a cover seems a simple thing, it seems the results of considerable design effort. It has a magnetic strip which attaches to the left long edge of the unit. The magnet is strong, the fit is perfectly snug, the iPad does turn on and off as advertised.

So what’s wrong? One issue is that unless you detach it completely, the cover is a nuisance when open. You can fold it round the back, but it slips and slides a bit as well as covering the rear camera. So you can detach it, but then you have to put it somewhere, and the magnetic strip is more fiddly to detach and re-attach than a simple slip-on cover.

More seriously, users have complained about several issues:

  • Cover is too flimsy to offer good protection
  • The close fit of the hinge lessens over a few weeks, presumably as the metal bends and stretches slightly
  • The microfiber lining forms the base when used as a stand, so picks up dirt that then gets deposited on your screen

Some users say it it flops over when used as a stand, but I believe this is because they are folding it the wrong way. You must fold it against the grain, so the microfiber is on the outside. Otherwise, yes it flops.

My view: the Smart Cover makes a poor cover, but a great stand. Of course it is a huge price to pay for just a stand, but if you are using the iPad to watch BBC iPlayer, for example, the stand is perfect, much better than trying to prop it up somehow.

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It is a terrible cover though. Bear that in mind before you buy.

The rise of the eBook is a profound change in our culture

The Association of American Publishers has announced that in February 2011 ebooks ranked above print in all trade categories. Note that these figures are for the USA, and that in revenue ebooks are well behind print – $164.1M vs $441.7M. It is also worth noting that print sales are falling fast, 24.8% year on year, whereas ebooks are growing fast, 202.3% year on year.

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This does sound like a reprise of what has happened in the music industry, where broadly speaking physical formats are heading toward obsolescence, download is growing, but the overall pie is smaller because of the ease of piracy. There is perhaps another more subtle point, that when the marginal cost of production is near zero, prices too tend to race to the bottom in a competitive market.

Books are not equivalent to music. Physical books still have advantages. They have zero battery requirements, work well in sunlight, some have beautiful pictures, you can write on them and fold back the corner of a page, and so  on. There are more advantages to ebooks though, in cost, weight, searchability, interactivity, and freedom from the constraints of a printed page. Years ago I was in the book publishing industry, and convinced that ebooks would take off much sooner than in fact they did. Much money was wasted in the light of false dawns. I remember – though it was long after I was involved – how some booksellers invested in Microsoft’s .lit format, readable on PCs and Pocket PCs, only to discover that there was little market for it.

What changed? It was no single thing; but factors include the advent of high-contrast screens that are both low-power and readable outside; the appearance of dedicated tablet-style readers that are lightweight but with book-sized screens; the marketing muscle of Amazon with the Kindle and Apple with the iPad – though the iPad screen is sub-optimal for reading – and some mysterious change in public perception that caused ebooks to transition from niche to mainstream.

Books are not going away of course, just as CDs and even vinyl records are still with us. I think though we can expect more high street closures, and libraries wondering what exactly their role is meant to be, and that the publishing industry is going to struggle with this transition just as the music industry has done. Ebook growth will continue, and as Amazon battles its rivals we will see the price of the Kindle fall further. Apple will lock its community more tightly to iTunes, as its policy on forbidding in-app purchases that do not go through its own App Store and pay the Apple tax plays out.

That is all incidental. What I am struggling to put into words is what the decline of the printed word means for our culture. You can argue that it is merely a symptom of what the internet has brought us, which is true in its way; but it is a particularly tangible symptom. No longer will you be able to go into someone’s room and see clues about their interests and abilities by glancing at bookshelves.

I am on a train, and by one of life’s strange synergies someone has just sat down next to me and pulled out a Kindle.

I do not mean to be negative. Much though I love books, there are now better ways to store and read words, and while the printed word may be in decline, the written word has never been more popular. I am in no doubt though that this is a profound change.

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!

Don’t be fooled. 24-bit will not fix computer audio

Record producer Jimmy Iovine now chairman of Interscope and CEO of Beats by Dr Dre, says there are huge quality problems in the music industry. I listened to his talk during HP’s launch event for its TouchPad tablet and new smartphones.

“We’re trying to fix the degradation of music that the digital revolution has caused,” says Iovine. “Quality is being destroyed on a massive scale”.

So what has gone wrong? Iovine’s speech is short on technical detail, but he identifies several issues. First, he implies that 24-bit digital audio is necessary for good sound:

We record our music in 24-bit. The record industry downgrades that to 16-bit. Why? I don’t know. It’s not because they’re geniuses.

Second, he says that “the PC has become the de facto home stereo for young people” but that sound is an afterthought for most computer manufacturers. “No-one cares about sound”.

Finally, he says that HP working with, no surprise, his own company Beats by Dr Dre, has fixed the problem:

We have a million laptops with Beats audio in with HP … HP’s laptops, the Envy and the Pavilion, actually feel the way the music feels in the studio. I can tell you, that is the only PC in the world that can do that.

Beats Audio is in the Touchpad as well, hence Iovine’s appearance. “The Touchpad is a musical instrument” says Iovine.

I am a music and audio enthusiast and part of me wants to agree with Iovine. Part of me though finds the whole speech disgraceful.

Let’s start with the positive. It is true that the digital revolution has had mixed results for audio quality in the home. In general, convenience has won out over sound quality, and iPod docks are the new home stereo, compromised by little loudspeakers in plastic cabinets, usually with lossy-compressed audio files as the source.

Why then is Iovine’s speech disgraceful? Simply because it is disconnected from technical reality for no other reason than to market his product.

Iovine says he does not know why 24-bit files are downgraded to 16-bit. That is implausible. The first reason is historical. 16-bit audio was chosen for the CD format back in the eighties. The second reason is that there is an advantage in reducing the size of audio data, whether that is to fit more on a CD, or to reduce download time, bandwidth and storage on a PC or portable player.

But how much is the sound degraded when converted from 24-bit to 16-bit? PCM audio has a sampling rate as well as a bit-depth. CD or Redbook quality is 16-bit sampled at 44,100 Hz, usually abbreviated to 16/44. High resolution audio is usually 24/96 or even 24/192.

The question then: what are the limitations of 16/44 audio? We can be precise about this. Nyquist’s Theorem says that the 44,100 Hz sampling rate is enough to perfectly recapture a band-limited audio signal where the highest frequency is 22,500 Hz. Human hearing may extends to 20,000 Hz in ideal conditions, but few can hear much above 18,000 Hz and this diminishes with age.

Redbook audio also limits the dynamic range (difference between quietest and loudest passages) to 96dB.

In theory then it seems that 16/44 should be good enough for the limits of human hearing. Still, there are other factors which mean that what is achieved falls short of what is theoretically possible. Higher resolution formats might therefore sound better. But do they? See here for a previous article on the subject; I has also done a more recent test of my own. It is difficult to be definitive; but my view is that in ideal conditions the difference is subtle at best.

Now think of a PC or Tablet computer. The conditions are far from ideal. There is no room for a powerful amplifier, and any built-in speakers are tiny. Headphones partly solve this problem for personal listening, even more so when they are powered headphones such as the high-end ones marketed by Beats, but that has nothing to do with what is in the PC or tablet.

I am sure it is true that sound quality is a low priority for most laptop or PC vendors, but one of the reasons is that the technology behind digital audio converters is mature and even the cheap audio chipsets built into mass-market motherboards are unlikely to be the weak link in most computer audio setups.

The speakers built into a portable computer are most likely a bit hopeless – and it may well be that HPs are better than most – but that is easily overcome by plugging in powered speakers, or using an external digital to analog converter (DAC). Some of these use USB connections so that you can use them with any USB-equipped device.

Nevertheless, Iovine is correct that the industry has degraded audio. The reason is not 24-bit vs 16-bit, but poor sound engineering, especially the reduced dynamic range inflicted on us by the loudness wars.

The culprits: not the PC manufacturers as Iovine claims, but rather the record industry. Note that Iovine is chairman of a record company.

It breaks my heart to hear the obvious distortion in the loud passages during a magnificent performance such as Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s Hurt. That is an engineering failure.

HTC’s new Android tablet has a stylus

A big surprise here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: HTC’s new tablet, the HTC Flyer, comes with a stylus. “People can rediscover the natural act of writing,” says the press release.

My first reaction is that this a mistake. I have had tablets with pens before, and while I like the ability to take notes, I also find the pen a nuisance. They are awkward in confined spaces like an economy seat in an aeroplane, and expensive to lose. HTC’s pen is battery powered, so I suppose you could also have the annoyance of a pen that runs out of juice. HTC’s stylus does not clip into a bay on the device, but does have a dedicated pocket in the case.

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On the plus side, you can write, draw and annotate content using the pen, which has a variety of settings for colour and tip. For some tasks, a pen is the ideal implement.

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The device does have other attractions. The pre-release devices have Android 2.4, but HTC says it may well run Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, which is designed for tablets, by the time it is launched in Q2 2011 or soon after. It has a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset; 7” screen; 1024 x 600 resolution; 1GB RAM and 32GB storage, expandable with micro SD cards. Battery is said provide 4 hours of video playback, which sounds less than ideal. HTC will also offer a video download service “HTC Watch”.

A feature which will be familiar to OneNote users is called Timemark. This lets you take notes which synch to an audio recording, so tapping a word in your notes takes you to that point in the audio. Notes also synchronize with Evernote, a cloud-based note synchronization service.

Viewsonic ViewPad 10 Pro does Windows and Android – but Windows first

Viewsonic has announced the ViewPad 10 Pro, a 10” tablet that runs both Microsoft Windows 7 and Google Android 2.2.

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I saw the ViewPad 10 Pro briefly this morning here at Mobile World Congress. Specs include Intel Oak Trail chipset, 2GB RAM, 32GB storage, and front-facing camera for conferencing.

The big appeal of the ViewPad 10 Pro, successor to the ViewPad 10, is that it runs Android as well as Windows. Just tap a button, and Android appears in place of Windows.

Sounds good; but as Viewsonic explained how this works I became doubtful. Apparently Android runs in a virtual machine on top of Windows. I have nothing against virtualization; but this approach does suggest some compromises in terms of Android performance and efficiency. No matter how clever Viewsonic has been in its implementation, some resources will still be devoted to Windows during an Android session and battery life will be less good than it might be.

I can see more sense in running Android first, for the sake of its speed and efficiency on low-power hardware, and Windows in virtualization for when you need to dip into Excel or some other Windows application.

The upside of this approach is that you can switch between the two without having to to do a hard reboot.

Viewsonic says you will be able to get one of these in your hands around May 2011.