Review: Bayan Audio StreamPort Universal Bluetooth streamer

Problem: you want to play audio from your mobile device on powered speakers or through your home hi-fi. Usual solution: connect a cable from the earphone socket on your device to the powered speakers or to an input on your hi-fi. That is a little fiddly and untidy, so how about a wireless solution instead?

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This is where Bayan Audio’s StreamPort Universal comes in. This little USB-powered box in effect enables any audio system for Bluetooth. Simply connect the output from the StreamPort to your hi-fi or powered speakers, using either a 3.5mm jack socket or right and left phono sockets, and then pair it with your mobile device. Audio output is then redirected to the StreamPort and you can enjoy the music at full quality.

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In my tests the StreamPort worked exactly as advertised – well, nearly. You put the StreamPort into pairing mode by holding down power for 8 seconds. A Sony Experia T Android phone connected easily, I fired up Google Music, and was able to play one of thousands of tracks at what sounds to me very decent quality.

Next I tried an Apple iPad 2. Again, it paired first time. I started BBC iPlayer and was able to watch a recent broadcast with excellent sound over hi-fi speakers. A Windows 8 tablet also worked well.

You can pair up to four devices, but only one at a time will be active. If the “wrong” device grabs the connection, turn Bluetooth off on that device. If you pair a fifth device, it will simply forget one of the other pairings.

So what didn’t work? Well, the StreamPort supports NFC Secure Simple Pairing, which means you can connect a device simply by tapping it. I tried with the NFC-enabled Xperia T and got the amusingly polite message, “Unfortunately content sharing has stopped.” I am not sure whether this should have worked, but I put the failure down to this being a relatively new protocol; perhaps it would work with the newer Xperia Z. Note that Apple devices do not currently support NFC at all.

I also experienced very occasional audible stuttering, which is unfortunate, though most of the time everything was fine. Still, this could be annoying. I heard it on music on the iPad and on the Windows tablet, but BBC iPlayer was fine. I guess it may depend on the underlying bitrate and how much data is being transferred. I am reluctant to pin the blame on the StreamPort; rather, it is a common problem with Bluetooth audio, it may or may not be something you experience, and shows that the implementation of the standard (or the drivers) on devices has a little way to go before it is rock-solid everywhere.

Is the quality as good as it is through a cable? Generally not, though how noticeable the loss of quality is in the realm of “it depends”. It is a digital connection, so in some circumstances (if the analogue output is poor) it could be better.

Bear in mind that if you are using a mobile device as the source, you are probably not looking for the best possible sound quality; but you will probably be pleasantly surprised by how good it can sound.

The actual quality will depend first, on the quality of the source, and second, on what audio protocol the source negotiates with the StreamPort. Bayan states that best quality will be from Bluetooth devices that support aptX compressed audio. The protocol used is generally invisible to the user, so all you will notice is how good it sounds. Generally a more recent device will sound better. At a minimum, your Bluetooth source has to support version 2.1 and the A2DP profile, otherwise it will not work at all.

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In the box is the StreamPort, two audio connection cables, a USB cable for power, a USB mains adaptor, and a brief manual.

Two final thoughts. One is that Apple has its own AirPlay system for wireless audio; but thanks to the rise of Android we are seeing more Bluetooth audio devices coming on the market. Since Apple devices work with Bluetooth audio, but Android and other devices do not work with AirPlay, this is an obvious response to demand.

Second, it is reasonable to expect Bluetooth audio to be built into an increasing proportion of new playback equipment. Of course, in this case you will not need the StreamPort. It is not that common yet though, which makes the StreamPort a handy accessory. Recommended.

Two ways to make a spoon: 3D printing in action

Last week I attended the Monki Gras, a distinctive event exploring how to scale craft, mainly in the context of technology but also in the context of beer.

On the second day there was a light-hearted competition. Who can make a spoon faster, a wood carver, or a geek with a 3D printer?

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A skilled craftsperson can make a spoon in around half an hour, we learned.

In the other corner was a techie, a laptop computer and a 3D printer.

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Said techie (I did not get the name unfortunately) had downloaded a spoon design from the internet and was printing it on a Prusa Mendal RepRap machine. Cost: from a few hundred pounds if you self-assemble, or £1000 or more if you purchase complete.

The software is open source: slic3r to convert a 3D model into printing instructions, and pronterface to talk to the 3D printer.

Looking in more detail at the printer, what you have is a system of cogs, rails and stepper motors that lets a print head move in three dimensions. The raw material is a spool of green plastic from faberdashery. This could be fed from the rotating white spooler at the top of the machine, though in this case only a little was needed and it was floating loose.

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The plastic is melted by the print head and squirted out to form the object being printed. Apparently once formed it is reasonably rigid and strong.

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Attendees observed that the competition was pretty silly, since speed is not a goal of 3D printing (and the wood carver was indeed the victor). In that sense, 3D printing is a poor way of scaling craft, though it has some potential in that a brilliant design can be reproduced as an object many times over. If you want a lot though, it is worth investing in traditional plastic moulding: setup is expensive, but once you have done one, you can do thousands more cheaply.

Still, imagine what 3D printing enables. I have a nice set of headphones, for example, which are useless because a small plastic component has broken. If I can get hold of (or make) a 3D computer model of the part, I can now make that part for little cost. You do not even need your own 3D printer; services like Shapeways let you upload the design and get the part in the post a few days later.

In niche areas like model trains and landscapes, 3D printing makes models viable even if only a few are needed. You can also have exactly the size you want, rather than being restricted to the standard sizes that are volume manufactured.

For inventors, 3D printing makes prototyping easier. You can iterate through hundreds of slightly different designs and try them out physically, rather than relying on computer models.

The opportunities are fantastic, and you can get started for little cost; though the guy at Monki Gras did note that his RepRap was temperamental and therefore a high maintenance gadget. Maybe by making a few modified parts he can improve it.

Review: Logitech t620 Touch Mouse for Windows 8

Slowly but surely, the humble mouse has been getting more sophisticated. The first examples had just one button. Then came two buttons, then two buttons and a scroll wheel (which is also a third button), and of course wireless so you get a tidier desk at the expense of regular battery replacement.

The touch mouse takes the concept further, with a surface that detects gestures as well as clicks. Logitech’s t620 has an unblemished smooth polished surface and works by detecting where and how you stroke or tap it. It also has a physical click which functions as right, left or middle click depending where and how you click it. Middle click is the trickiest: click the lower 2/3 of the mouse with 2 fingers.

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The “scroll wheel” on the t620 is a matter of stroking the mouse vertically pretty much anywhere on its surface. It takes some adjustment, but has an elegance that a mouse with physical controls lacks. The downside is occasional lack of precision, on which I have more to say below.

This is a smart mouse, and comes with a small bag, a USB wireless receiver, and a printed setup guide. It runs on 2 AA batteries, though you can use just one if you prefer and it will still work. I found it a lightweight mouse even with both installed.

When you connect the mouse for the first time, Windows 8 will prompt to download the SetPoint control software, or you can download this from Logitech if the automatic download fails for some reason.

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Windows 7 is also supported, though some of the gestures, like Show Charms, are specific to Windows 8. The mouse works fine on a Mac though without any gesture support as far as I can tell; you do get right and left click, scrolling and so on.

I also tried the mouse on Surface RT, with puzzling results. A driver seemed to be installed, but no SetPoint software, and some gestures work but not others. My favourite, Show Charms, does not work on the Surface RT.

The SetPoint software is rather good, and shows a mini video demonstration of each gesture. You can also enable or disable each gesture, and in some cases set options. For example, you can have a double-tap show the Windows start screen either when executed anywhere on the mouse, or only when carried out on the lower 2/3. The trade-off is convenience versus the risk of triggering the action accidentally.

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Another important setting sets the pointer speed. I found the speed too fast on the default setting, which means the pointer shoots across the screen and is hard to control. Reducing the speed a couple of notches fixes this.

Windows has its own pointer speed setting too, and I guess it depends whether you want to set this globally for any mouse, or specifically for the t620. One thing I noticed using SetPoint is that the mouse speed is faster immediately after booting, until the SetPoint software starts running.

The USB wireless receiver is a Logitech Unifying Receiver, which means you can connect other Logitech devices such as a wireless keyboard through this single receiver. This could be important if you have something like a Slate with only a single USB port. For the same reason, I prefer Bluetooth devices on a Slate, though connection can be more troublesome. It is time the hardware manufacturers got together with Microsoft to improve wireless device connectivity without needed USB dongles.

The gestures

How about the gestures then? You get the following special actions:

  • Middle click (click lower 2/3 of mouse with 2 fingers)
  • Start Screen (double-tap lower 2/3 with 1 finger)
  • Show desktop (double-tap lower 2/3 with 2 fingers)
  • Switch applications (swipe from left edge)
  • Show Charms (swipe from right edge)
  • Vertical scrolling (swipe up and down)
  • Horizontal scrolling (swipe left and right)
  • Back/Forward (swipe left and right with two fingers)

You can also set scroll options. I tried with and without inertia, which lets you flick for an iPad-like continuous decelerating scroll, and decided that I like the feature.

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How well do the gestures work? Fairly well, but the problem with any touch device is that you can sometimes trigger actions by accident. I found this a problem in the browser, which has gestures for Back and Forward, with pages disappearing unbidden. The solution is to disable any features that do not work for you.

There is also a problem with horizontal scrolling versus the actions that swipe from left or right. It is easy to trigger a swipe action when trying to scroll.

Sometimes the mouse seems inexplicably fussy about what will or will not trigger an action. I like the Show Charms gesture, because this is otherwise awkward to do using the mouse. It does normally work, but sometimes I swipe in and nothing happens. This may improve with practice, or maybe it is a bug somewhere, I am not sure.

In general, practice does make a difference. For example, I discovered that a very light double-tap is best for the Start Screen gesture. In general, this device responds well to a light touch; trying to force a gesture to work with firmness seems counter-productive.

These issues illustrate the point that a touch device introduces an element of imprecision which some will find infuriating. If you play games with fast action and where any mis-click could be fatal, this mouse is not suitable.

The gain is significant too. The ability to do more with the mouse means less switching between mouse and keyboard. The quick flick to Show Charms makes Windows 8 more user-friendly, if you are using it without a touch screen.

Overall I like it, but be prepared for some time learning to get the best from this mouse, and expect to change some of the settings from the default.

 

Review: Edifier MP250+ Sound to Go Plus

The problem: small mobile devices are great for portability but their built-in speakers (if they exist) are poor, thanks to their tiny size and sub-optimal enclosures. The latest tablets sound better than earlier models, but it still pays to plug in an external powered speaker.

Edifier’s Sound to Go Plus could be the answer. This wedge-shaped single-unit powered speaker system is 261mm long and 36mm high – in other works, a shade longer than a 10” iPad.

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Several things are distinctive.

First, it feels robust and high quality, thanks to its brushed aluminium shell. Second, it is not just a powered speaker, but also a USB sound device that was recognised immediately by the Mac, Windows 8 and Windows RT devices I tried.

Third, it packs in four 1.25” drive units and a 30mm x 90mm passive bass radiator for a fuller sound that you might expect from such a compact speaker.

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The unit comes with audio cable, USB cable, and a simple black bag, though you will struggle to get the cables as well as the device into the bag.

Charging is via USB and no mains adapter is supplied. Many smartphone adapters will work, or you can charge from a PC or Mac.

Operation

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The Sound to Go Plus has two modes of operation. The first is USB-based, and works by attaching the gadget to a PC or Mac and then selecting it as the default audio output device. The second is based on a standard 3.5mm jack socket. This is necessary, because most smartphones and tablets, including Apple’s iPad, do not recognise USB audio devices. Microsoft’s Surface RT is an exception, and worked fine with the Edifier and a USB cable.

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The existence of two modes does add some complexity though. Edifier has designed it so that the analogue jack input takes priority. This means that if a jack cable is connected, the USB audio connection does not work. If both are connected to the same machine, neither works.

The advantage of the USB connection is first that it sounds better, and second that the device will charge while it plays.

Volume buttons are on each end of the device, down on the left, up on the right. Once connected, you turn the device on by depressing both simultaneously. This is smart, since it is unlikely to happen by accident in your bag.

Sound quality

Sound and mobile is all about compromise. I compared the Sound to Go Plus with several alternatives, from built-in speakers on an iPad or Surface RT, to various other portable systems.

The Sound to Go Plus was a big improvement on the built-in speakers. Sound is deeper, crisper, smoother and more detailed.

Compare to a grown-up pair of powered speakers like the superb Audyssey Lower East Side, admittedly more expensive and less portable, and the Sound to Go Plus is boxy, bass-shy and constricted.

That said, the Edifier sounds miles better than a old Creative Labs Travelsound unit I tried. The Travelsound is also a one-piece design, but with only a single drive unit per channel and no passive bass radiator. The Edifier won easily.

I was less sure about the comparison with the X-Mini Kai. The Kai is a mono unit but even with only one drive unit it lost only narrowly to the Edifier. The Kai’s brighter sound made the Edifier sound slightly muffled and the bass on the Kai is also decent, though in the end the Edifier’s smoother, weightier sound won my preference. The Edifier also feels stronger and more business-like than the quirky Kai with its concertina design.

Still, a unit like this is not about the ultimate in sound quality. It is about getting acceptable sound while on the go, and in this respect the Edifier impresses. It is not squawky or annoying, build quality is good, and watching a movie or playing background music with this is more fun than using what is built into a tablet.

Volume is just about good enough, though I would have liked a little more power.

Conclusion

The Edifier Sound to Go Plus is a great little device and worth considering if you are looking for better sound while travelling.

 

Review: Cooking the QOOQ way – do you want a tablet in your kitchen?

Throw out those cookery books. What you really want is a kitchen gadget that has thousands of recipes, searchable with a few quick taps, with video demonstrations for the tricky bits and extra features like auto-created shopping lists and the ability to play background music, right?

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If that sounds good to you, you should take a look at the QOOQ, a 10” tablet designed for the kitchen. It is splash-proof and wipe-clean, with legs that sensibly lift it clear of the surface in case any pools of liquid should appear (not that they would).

Last week I visited Unowhy, the company behind QOOQ, at their Paris head office. I also got to try the QOOQ for a couple of days. It is a great little device, but there are some caveats, and note that you need an on-going subscription for full usage. Read on to see if QOOQ is for you.

The device

A QOOQ is a capacitive-touch tablet powered by a ARM Cortex A9 dual core chipset and running Linux. No, it is not Android; it reports itself as a QOOQ-specific Linux build, and the software is written in native code using the QT framework. It is also locked down so that you cannot get access to the operating system without a service password that is not supplied. This means you cannot install applications other than a few supplied utilities. This is an appliance, not a general-purpose tablet, though it does have a web browser, an email client, a photo viewer and a music player so it covers the basics.

The device feels sturdy and well made, though note that the protruding legs make it an awkward thing for most purposes other than sitting on a kitchen surface. There is a USB port and an SD card slot, so you can add music files or photos. An obvious secondary purpose is to add some family photos and have them display as a slideshow.

On the right-hand side of the unit are controls for on-off and volume.

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On the left, the ports and headphone socket, behind a rubber cover that has an annoying tendency to come loose. You get card slot, USB 2.0 port, wired ethernet and audio. Nice to see the wired ethernet socket but I doubt this gets much use; how many households have wired ethernet in the kitchen?

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I did not test battery life in detail but it worked fine for a few hours; however this is unimportant since it can be mains-powered during normal use.

Music sounds pretty good even through the built-in speakers. Of course you can get better sound using an external powered speaker.

Wi-Fi support covers B G and N standards and worked well for me.

Overall the hardware is excellent, well designed for its purpose. The main problem, aside from the loose cover mentioned above, is that if you operate the screen while cooking you will likely want to touch the screen sometimes with hands covered in food. QOOQ can easily be wiped clean, but a few dabs of flour or butter on the screen and it gets hard to read. A small hardware rocker for scrolling and clicking would help, so that you could avoid touching the screen itself.

The software

In the main, interacting with QOOQ feels like running a single application, though the web browser runs full screen and takes you out of it to some extent. The browser seems to be based on WebKit (like Apple Safari, Android and Google Chrome) and includes Flash player 10.1 though this is disabled by default; the system warns that it may run out of memory if Flash is enabled. Think of the browser as something basic for occasional use, though it does come into play for the QOOQ help system such as it is (more on that later). You could also look up recipes on the internet outside the QOOQ system (perish the thought) and take advantage of the device that way.

I could not figure out how to get screengrabs, so had to make do with the old point-the-camera-at-the-screen routine. Here is the home page.

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You can see the idea. The main menu is on the left hand side, giving access to recipes, index of chefs, cooking guide, meal planner, shopping list, and the all-important search.

The home page includes  a spotlight recipe, online magazine, and on the right hand side, a customisable column of supplementary apps, including web browser, internet radio, weather app, video player, and access to local storage, though this last is limited to photos and music files.

Once into a recipe, QOOQ has a commendably clear layout. You get tabs for ingredients, utensils, and then the heart of it, preparation with step-by-step instructions. In the best case, there is a video available, to which the steps are hot-linked so that tapping a step shows how to do it in the video. Brilliant. If there is no video, then you get a colour picture of the finished dish as a minimum. There is also information on preparation time and cooking time.

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Now the not-so-good. QOOQ is made in France and recently adapted for the English market. The biggest market is the USA, so all the weights and measures are in US-style cups, tablespoons, and imperial pounds and ounces. There was no way to change this in the review unit though Unowhy mentioned that metric measurements are on the way so there is hope.

There is also a problem with the videos. Most of the videos were recorded in French with chefs explaining their actions. In order to adapt them for English, Unowhy has overdubbed these with a rather wooden voiceover translation. You can still hear the French original faintly in the background. Not good.

Selecting Help is unrewarding for English users. You get a page not found message.

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Along with the core recipe database, QOOQ has some other features. There is a meal planner, which works but sometimes caught us out. You cannot select Saturday and choose a meal; you have to select a recipe and add it to Saturday.

You can have QOOQ generate a shopping list and email it to you. This could be useful, though I was amused to see “13 3/8 tbs. Water” on my shopping list.

There is also a rather complex system of user profiles, tastes and techniques which frankly I never fully figured out (and help is no help as you can see above).

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Users can build up profiles of which ingredients they like and which techniques they have mastered, which one assumes are taken into account if you use QOOQ’s meal suggestion feature, and possibly in other ways. I suspect many users will ignore this aspect of QOOQ.

Searching for a recipe

Cooking a meal is merely the last step in a process that begins with the harder task of deciding what to cook. QOOQ has a search feature that lets you search by recipe name, or by ingredient.

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This is a little confusing. There are two search tabs. The first search tab is for “All QOOQ”.  You can search for recipes here, but only by name. If you select ingredients, you will be searching the food encyclopaedia, and end up with an entry all about onions, for example, rather than recipes containing onions. If you want to search by ingredient, you need the ingredient tab. Search shows the number of results as you type.

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The results are shown in a scrolling list, in one of two views. The detail view is the best, and shows preparation time, difficulty, cost of ingredients, and cost to acquire the recipe if you do not have a full subscription (more on this later). You can filter the view in various ways, such as only recipes with videos. You can sort by various fields such as calories, or preparation time.

Despite the richness of the information, QOOQ’s search could do with some work. It is disappointing that you cannot filter by specialist requirements such as vegetarian or gluten-free meals. The search is also too complicated. QOOQ should learn from Google and have a single search page with intelligent results. Another limitation is that the recipe search does not account, we think, for synonyms, so you might have to experiment. Still, it is good enough and you will likely find what you want if QOOQ has it on offer.

Note that some of the recipes are on the internet and will be downloaded on the fly. This aspect works seamlessly, and any background downloads are invisible to the user.

The recipes

This is the heart of it. How are the recipes?

This is a collection for serious cooks. Note that Unowhy has focused on chefs, and persuading well-regarded chefs to share their techniques and recipes under the eye of a video camera. That is fantastique and beyond price for professionals or ardent throwers of dinner parties. I found QOOQ better than any cookery book I can think of for suggesting cooking ideas and enabling me to judge how feasible each recipe would be, bearing in mind available skills, ingredients, and batterie de cuisine.

That said, QOOQ leans strongly towards the high end of cooking. My search for a lowly Christmas Pudding came up blank; and the synonym Plum Pudding was no better.

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I also looked in vain for general techniques like how to roast a duck (having enjoyed duck brûlée on a recent occasion); the duck recipes are all more advanced and interesting than that.

In other words, there are many wonderful recipes here that will inspire you, but I am not sure it is ideal as an everyday companion for the less expert, though this could easily be fixed by adding more content.

You are meant to be able to add your own recipes using software downloaded from the QOOQ site, but I could not find it; the French language site is more extensive so it is probably there somewhere.

The cost

Is QOOQ worth it? That is the question, and to answer this we need to look at the cost.

A QOOQ costs $399 which is about £260. For this you get the tablet and 1000 “recipes, videos and techniques”.

My loan QOOQ was able to search 3681 recipes. What about recipes beyond the supplied 1000?

Here you have two choices. You can purchase an all-you-can-eat (ho ho) subscription which is $99.00 (£65) per year or  $9.90 (£6.50) per month. Alternatively, you can buy individual recipes for credits. Recipes seem to cost between 2 and 8 credits, and a credit costs $4.90 for 20, so that means recipes cost from 50c to $2.00, or from about 30p to £1.30. Once purchased, a recipe is yours for ever.

Unless you are a professional, the individual recipes strike me as better value, especially as you can use them again and again.

Bear in mind though that there are countless free recipes on the internet, which you can even view on the QOOQ using the built-in browser. Certainly the QOOQ offers a premium experience and its recipes are exclusive. Having an expert chef explain a recipe to you in the comfort of your own kitchen is worth a lot. But this is not a mass market proposition.

A Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10  device propped up against the toaster is not quite so good for cooking, but works in or out of the kitchen. A quick search for “splashproof iPad case” got me some results too.

Final thoughts

A QOOQ is a smart device with some fabulous content; yes it is the ideal gift for the cookery enthusiast who has everything. It is somewhat quirky and the transition from French to English is frustrating and incomplete in places.

Is it for the rest of us though? In its current form, probably not. That said, there is potentially a wide market for these recipes and videos, particularly if the company can build up a bigger collection of true English videos or improve the production of the French videos with English dubbing.

QOOQ would also benefit greatly from true social media integration. Currently you can rate your own recipes, but you cannot see other people’s ratings. I would like to see user ratings and discussions fully integrated, so you can learn what other people liked, what went wrong, discuss alternate ingredients and techniques and so on.

In the end it is all about the content, which is why the company would do well to promote its content more strongly apart from the device. We were told in Paris that users can subscribe to the web site and get recipes without having to buy a QOOQ, but I cannot see any way to do that currently (perhaps you can do this in French). This is needed, along with iPad and Android apps.

The QOOQ was born not out of a desire to make a kitchen tablet, but because the founders wanted a way of preserving recipes and skills. It was “how to immortalise recipes before you die”, as explained by company co-founder Guillaume Hepp.

The QOOQ should be a premium way to get the content, rather than the main delivery channel.

You can get your QOOQ here.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition. Capture Xbox and PS3 gaming action for YouTube.

The Hauppauge HD PVR2 is a gadget for capturing video from an HDMI or component video source, such as an XBox 360 or PlayStation 3 games console, and has replaced the popular HD PVR, which was component video only. 

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The concept is simple: instead of connecting you console directly to your TV or A/V amplifier, connect it to the HD PVR2. Then connect the unit to a PC or Mac via USB, and to the original TV or amplifier via HDMI. Your PC can then capture the video (and audio) while you are playing the game using the big screen. Hauppauge says the delay between input and output is only 60 microseconds, which you will not notice.

The use of HDMI makes connecting the PVR2 simpler than with its predecessor. Instaead of a bunch of component audio connections, there is just power, USB, HDMI in and out, and an A/V input that connects to component video sources where needed. The A/V input has a special cable that gives floating sockets for component video and analogue audio. The unit is also supplied with a cable suitable for connecting to a PS3.

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You might need component input in two cases:

1. Your games console lacks HDMI – for example, Nintendo Wii.

2. The HDMI output is encrypted for copyright protection. This is the case with the PS3, but not the XBox. Since component video and analogue audio cannot be encrypted, you can capture anything this way.

Getting started

Hooking up the HD PVR2 was easy, but getting started was troublesome. We tried a succession of Windows 7 laptops, including a Pentium Dual Core 2.3Ghz, a Core 2 Duo at 2.6 Ghz Pentium, and a Core i5 at 1.6 Ghz. The pattern with all these was similar: the drivers and software installed OK, HDMI pass-through worked, the capture might work once, but then there were frustrating errors. The problems:

  • Difficult or impossible to select the HD PVR2 as the input device in the capture software
  • Capture software hanging
  • USB device error reported

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This was tedious, partly because nothing could be captured, and partly because the only way to retry was to reboot both the laptop and the HD PVR2.

Swapping to a high-spec USB cable seemed to help a little, but soon the old problems were back, even after applying the latest driver updates from Hauppauge support.

Just before giving up, we connected to another Windows 7 Core i5 laptop, speed this time 2.5Ghz. Everything worked perfectly.

It is not clear what to conclude here. Hauppauge specifies:

Laptop or desktop PC with 3.0 GHz single core or 2.0 GHz multi-core processor

and adds in the FAQ:

You can record HD PVR 2 video on pretty much any PC. Older, slow, laptop or desktop PCs can be used to record HD PVR 2 video.

But when you playback an HD PVR 2 recording on your PC screen, you need a fast CPU and at least 256MB of graphics memory.

All our machines meet the spec. Either our sample box is particularly fussy, or Hauppauge is optimistic about the minimum requirements, or there are other factors at play.

Bundled software and Mac support

Hauppauge supplies Windows drivers for the HD PVR2 along with a version of Arcsoft ShowBiz for capturing and editing video.

If you want to use a Mac, Hauppauge recommends  third-party software called HDPVRCapture which costs an additional $29.95.

ShowBiz is easy to use and provides simple editing features and output to AVCHD, AVI, MPEG1, QTMOV or WMV. You can also upload direct to YouTube with a wizard.

You don’t have to use ShowBiz if you have other capture software you prefer.

Another feature is called Personal Logo. This is a separate application which lets you specify a bitmap as a logo to appear on your captured videos, along with its position and transparency. Handy for reminding everyone who you are on YouTube, or for publications posting review footage.

Capturing video

Once your system is up and working, you can start capturing video with one of two methods. The first is to hit a large corner button on top of the HD PVR2, which automatically starts up ShowBiz in capture mode. Alternatively, you can start ShowBiz, select Capture, and click Start.

While capturing, you can see the video running on the PC. There is several seconds delay between your live gameplay and the capture stream, which is confusing to watch, so ignore it and focus on your gameplay. When you are done hit stop. Videos are saved automatically, by default to the Videos folder on your PC, named according to the date and time.

Next, you can edit the video in ShowBiz. I created the following video and uploaded it to YouTube as a demo. However, I could not get the YouTube unload in ShowBiz to work. I saved the file as an AVI and uploaded it manually.

Settings in depth

When you run the Capture module in ArcSoft ShowBiz it exposes a number of settings, which you get to by clicking Device and Format Settings.

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Device Settings lets you set brightness, contrast, Hue, Saturation and Sharpness.

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Format settings gets you a bunch of settings which gives extensive control subject to the limitations of the hardware. Here are the settings for the H264 encoder:

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Here are the video settings:

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and the audio properties:

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All this looks impressive though many users will just want to click and go. Mostly this works OK, though check that you have 16:9 specified if you use widescreen.

Note that 1080p at 60 fps (frames per second) is captured at a maximum of 30 fps, and 1080p at 50 fps is captured at a maximum of 25 fps.

Annoyances

Hauppauge says that your PC does not need to be on for HDMI pass-through to work. Despite this, we found that if you turn the system on from cold, pass-through does not work until the USB connection to a PC is made. Once up and running, you can disconnect and turn the PC off and pass-through still works.

ArcSoft ShowBiz is very basic. Fortunately you can import the captured videos into other editors.

Having to use component video for the PS3 is annoying but not the fault of Hauppauge. It is surprising in some ways that the XBox generally outputs an unencrypted HDMI stream.

Conclusion

When this device was not working I wanted to throw it out of the window; but once I got it running it was great. The bundled software is poor, documentation is thin, and it is just a little quirky, but the ability to capture your gaming output is worth a bit of hassle. 

 

The Surface RT desktop: more here than I had expected

I have been surprised by how much of the Windows 8 desktop is present in Windows RT. I had been expecting something more cut-down, to support Office, Explorer, Control Panel and a few other utilities. In fact, it seems to me pretty much the desktop we are used to, though there are differences such as the inability to join a domain. Here are a few screen grabs.

Control Panel is here, though despite the presence of Office 2013, it claims that no programs are installed.

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PowerShell is there – interesting, since you could write your own desktop utilities as scripts, making the desktop less locked down (and possibly less secure) that I had expected. The Windows Scripting Host is here too.

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and a command prompt, of course:

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Incidentally, for screen grabs the Snipping Tool is present. There is no Print Screen key on the touch keyboard cover, but this works fine with a Bluetooth keyboard (I don’t have a Type keyboard).

I’m intrigued by the presence of Windows Easy Transfer. Who might be upgrading their PC to Windows RT?

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Not quite everything is here. There is no Windows Media Player; you have to use the new-style apps.

Regedit is here, and prompts for UAC elevation just like on x86.

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Remote Desktop Connection is here. So is VPN connection, which works fine for me from the USA to my ISA Sever in the UK, but will depend on your setup (I am trying to clarify this point).

Broadly, everything seems to be here other than a few bits Microsoft chose to pull out. I had thought the reverse would be true.

Note: I attempted to write this post on Surface with Word as the blog authoring tool, but got stuck with the images. Live Writer is far better, which is a concern.

Boom time for audio?

The hi-fi industry is on its knees, or so I had thought. That may be true for traditional home stereos; but at a gadget briefing for UK press yesterday I saw more audio stands and stands highlighting audio products than I can recall. The themes: headgear (both headphones and earbuds) and wireless speakers.

As an example, Cygnett was highlighting its noise cancelling headphones and various earbuds, and told me that this is a fast-growing market.

I enjoyed the exotic things more of course, like the Edifier Spinnaker Bluetooth speakers – that little round thing is a wireless remote.

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Even more striking are the Opalum wall speakers, like this FLOW.4810 model, with an array of 48 1″ drivers in each active speaker.

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You can hang them on your wall like this:

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At the other end of the scale, BoomBotix showed its Boombot2 Bluetooth mini attached to the handlebars of a bike; a good way to make yourself unpopular, perhaps, but fun to see.

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Canadian speaker company PSB was showing its high-end M4U noise cancelling headphones

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I had a quick listen and they sounded good, though it is always hard to tell for sure in a crowded room. Neat feature: a press-button remote on the cable enables an external microphone so you can hear someone talking to you without removing the headphones.

Audyssey was there with its excellent powered speakers and docks; search this site for some reviews.

Another company with striking designs was Libratone, showing its Zipp AirPlay portable wireless speakers.

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One thing I did not see much of: old-style iPhone / iPod speaker docks that charge while you play. One exhibitor told me that users will think twice about buying docks with physical connectors now that Apple has changed the design and made everything incompatible without an adapter. In any case, wireless is more stylish. Bluetooth seems most favoured, since it is widely compatible; Android is making its mark and Apple-specific devices are becoming less attractive.

Also worth a mention is Urbanista, which showed its stylish headphones and earbuds, though the focus seems more on fashion than sound; like the London earbuds designed, I was told, to look like cuff links.

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The home stereo may be dead; but there is still innovation in audio. One factor is that almost any portable device – whether dedicated music player, smartphone or tablet – is capable of producing a high quality signal. Connect to the right headphones or active speakers and the magic begins.

Review: Logitech UE Smart Radio – the last Squeezebox?

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The Logitech UE (it stands for Ultimate Ears) Smart Radio has some history behind it. The Squeezebox music system originated with a company called Slim Devices and consisted of open source music streaming server software and hardware players which you connected over wired Ethernet or later Wi-Fi. Squeezebox build up an enthusiastic following, and in 2006 the company was acquired by Logitech which set about bringing the system to a wider market.

Logitech was only partially successful. Products like the Squeezebox Touch, reviewed here, won acclaim for their high sound quality and the flexibility of the system, but the weak point has always been that setup is too complex and quirky to win over the mass market.

Now Logitech seems to have abandoned efforts to beat Apple in home entertainment, and the UE Smart Radio is the only current product which still uses Squeezebox technology. Other products in the new UE range – headphones, wireless speakers – have nothing to do with Squeezebox.

Even the UE Smart Radio does not use Squeezebox branding at all. The blurb on the box says this:

Turn it on, connect to your Wi-Fi network and instantly have access to thousands of free internet radio stations from around the world, online music services, as well as the music stored on your computer.

It is intended to offer a simple out-of-the-box experience without any setup issues, whereas the physically similar Squeezebox Radio which preceded it was unashamedly part of the Squeezebox system.

Out of the box

Enough preamble, how is it out of the box? What you get is the UE Radio, a power supply, a standard 3.5mm mini-jack cable, and a brief introductory booklet in eleven languages.

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The unit has a beautiful though easily marked shiny black finish and surprisingly weighty, probably a sign of quality. A recess in the back forms a grip for easy carrying in one hand. There is an internal rechargeable battery which (says the manual) takes 6 hours to charge and then plays for 6 hours; of course you can use it while charging.

On the front is a 2.4 inch colour screen, 6 numbered presets, a large rotary controller, a smaller rotary volume control, a power button, and 8 further buttons: Home, Alarms, Add, Back, Rewind, Pause, Forward and Play.

There is also a stereo headphone jack (although the Radio itself has only a single speaker), and on the back, a wired Ethernet port and a 3.5mm jack input. The input jack means you can use the Smart Radio as a powered speaker for most MP3 players, iPods and smartphones.

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Finally there is a secret feature: an infrared receptor on the front. No remote is supplied, but if you have a Squeezebox remote it works. Since this is unadvertised I guess there is no guarantee the feature will remain.

What you do then is to plug in the power, switch on, and connect to your home network, usually via Wi-Fi. Next, wait a moment while the unit updates its firmware if necessary, and the unit is ready to play. A menu displays on the screen, and you use the rotary controller to navigate, pressing it in to select an option. Select Live Radio, pick a station, and play.

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Disclosure: in my case this is not what happened. I pressed play but no sound came forth. There was some kind of fault which later fixed itself. I am inclined to put this down to bad luck and possibly early firmware which will soon be updated. Incidentally, support was easy to contact and most helpful, which is not the case with every product.

When a station is playing you can easily assign a preset, simply with press and hold. You can also set alarms. When the unit is on standby it displays a clock, making this an excellent if pricey clock radio.

Radio is supplied through a link with tunein, which claims 50,000 stations. That means something for you, whatever your musical taste or location.

Sound quality

The sound quality is very good. Yes it is mono, but considering the size of the unit it is deep and rich, and lacks the annoying squawk of some small music players. The mono speaker has separate tweeter and woofer for extended frequency response.

I compared it to a Squeezebox Boom, a now obsolete stereo player which is considerably larger. The Boom was better in every way, deeper and sharper. That said, the Smart Radio sounded like a smaller version of the Boom, which I mean as a compliment. The Squeezebox team has always cared about sound quality, and it shows.

With internet radio, of course, the sound quality is limited by the source. I will say though that the Smart Radio is kind to poor sources and tends always to be listenable.

Remote app

If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, or an Android phone or tablet, you can download the Smart Radio app. This lets you control your Smart Radio remotely. No iPad support currently.

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If you have a local music streamer (see below) you can search and play from your own music library.

It also links to the Logitech UE Smart Radio cloud service, where you can add further music services such as Last.fm, Napster, Spotify, and the Live Music Archive to your Smart Radio. Adding a service like Spotify extends your music library to more music than you will be able to hear in your lifetime, though it does require a paid subscription.

Once you have created an account with Logitech, you can add services via the web site, and also set alarms on your Smart Radio.

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The UE Music Server

What if you want to play music from your own network? In this case you download and install the UE Music Library for Windows or Mac.

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Once installed, the Smart Radio automatically picks up the library and activates a My Music option in its menu. You can then play any music from the library either by navigating with the rotary controller, or by using the remote app.

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Album artwork displays on the Smart Radio screen.

Music is picked up from the standard music folders on your PC or Mac, and the Music Library will link to iTunes where available. Supported formats are MP3, Flac, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, AAC (MP4) and Apple Lossless (ALAC). You can add additional library locations from the Music Library control panel.

Smart Radio and Squeezebox

What then is the relationship of UE Smart Radio and the old Squeezebox? This is where it gets a little confusing. The UE Music Server is none other than the old Squeezebox Server (or Logitech Media Server), but cut down to remove many of the features. You can log onto the server with a web browser. The default port is 9000.

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So what has been removed? Most notably, plug-in support and the ability to control the player from the server.

If you have an existing Squeezebox server, the annoyance is that the Smart Radio will not connect to it. In mitigation, you can install the new UE Music Server alongside the existing server and it will automatically choose different ports and run without conflict. This mean there is no need to mess with your existing collection of music files.

It is a shame to lose remote control and plug-in support; but the essence of the Squeezebox system, the ability to play your music anywhere in the house, remains. If you have more than one Smart Radio, you can play different music on each unit. Potentially, Logitech could bring out further UE products that use the same server, for example a new version of the Touch designed to link to a hi-fi system, though whether it will is unknown. It may depend on whether the UE Smart Radio is a success.

You could use the headphone output as a line out for a hi-fi, but it is shame there is no true line out setting for this purpose.

Final words

Taken on its own merits, the Smart Radio is an excellent device, with good sound quality, portability around the house or anywhere it can connect to the Internet (note it will not play your local music library unless it is on your own network), and some handy extra features such as alarms, Spotify support and so on.

There are two main reservations. The first is whether the relatively high price will deter much of the potential market. You do get a lot for your money, especially once you hear the sound quality and grasp the full capabilities of the system, but it will seem expensive when presented as just an Internet radio player.

Second, to what extent has Logitech succeeded in making the Smart Radio “just work” in the manner for which Apple is famous? I am not fully convinced. The control system is still a little quirky. What does the Plus button do, for example? The manual describes the button as More, and it brings up a number of options. Squeezebox users will know why it is plus, which is because it means Add to playlist. The Smart Radio playlist is mostly hidden though, making this a confusing feature.

Installing the UE Music Server is not really difficult, unless you run into firewall issues, but it is surprising Logitech does not give more prominence to this part of the system. It is mentioned almost as an afterthought, even though it adds greatly to the value of the Smart Radio. The thinking I guess is that most users would now rather subscribe to Spotify or the like, than build up a library of their own music files. This will likely be the future, but I would guess that many potential customers still have music collections on computer that they would like to play. This is still the way Apple’s iTunes works, for example.

If you do not require battery power, you might be better off buying a Squeezebox Radio while stock lasts, since it is cheaper and physically similar.

While there are some excellent music services supported, it is a shame there is no support for Google Play or Amazon cloud player.

This may be the last of the Squeezebox line, but it remains a great system for music at home.

 

Apple looks mortal

This has been a bad week for technical journalism. Everything was going according to script; new iPhone announced on 12th September; not really much new but oh, the design, oh, the performance, oh, the small touches. Then those with early access to devices poured forth their reviews: “probably the most beautiful smartphone anyone has ever made,” said The Telegraph, while Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal said that “Apple has taken an already great product and made it better.”

Mossberg did say that the new Maps app in the iPhone5 was “the biggest drawback” though the faults he found were, in retrospect, minor. He observes the lack of public transport information, and add that “while I found Apple’s maps accurate, they tend to default to a more zoomed-in view than Google’s, making them look emptier until you zoom out.”

When iOS 6 was rolled out generally this week though, the public had a different take on the subject. One factor was that they looked at the maps in their own location, whereas early reviewers tend to be located in major cities. The big issue is not the lack of public transport routing, though that is an issue, but the poor quality of the data. It is simply not of release quality. One small example. Birmingham Airport is a significant destination in the UK, but if I search for it here, I get mysteriously directed to Aldridge Airport, 20 miles north.

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Note: “Aldridge Airport” closed in the sixties and is “Now an open space used for football, dogwalking and the buzz of radio controlled aircraft.”

Birmingham airport itself seems missing.

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This search is no challenge for Google Maps.

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Maps are important on a mobile device, and this was an instance where the technical press, labouring as usual under short deadlines and the unrealistic challenge of perfectly encapsulating the qualities of a complex product with a few days of skimpy research and a few hundred words, let the public down.

More significantly, it is the biggest PR disaster for Apple that I can think of in recent years, certainly since the launch of the iPod in 2001, which was in a sense the beginning of Apple’s mobile adventure. When a tube station puts out a notice mocking Apple’s maps you know that this is a problem that everyone is talking about, not just the Twitterati.

Why has Apple done this? It is paying the price for escaping Google dependence, a real problem, but one that you would have thought could have been better addressed by licensing maps from Microsoft or Nokia, both of which have better maps; or by sticking with Google a little longer while putting its own effort out as an alpha preview while it fixes the data.

Apple will no doubt fix its maps and the decision to break with Google may eventually look good, but it is hard to see how it can fix them quickly.

The big reveal here is how Apple is prioritising its long-term industry strategy ahead of the interests of its users. Apple has done this before; but never with such obvious harm to usability.

It is still, no doubt, a beautiful phone, and the maps issue will be solved, if only by using Google’s web maps instead.

Apple looks mortal though, and the script is not playing back as planned. People who once would only have considered Apple will now be more aware that alternatives are in some respects better. The longer the maps issue continues, the more significant will be the effect.

Apple should withdraw its broken maps, go back to Google at least temporarily and reinstate the old maps app.

Tech Writing