USB flash drives: a modern design canvas

USB flash drives were invented around 12 years ago. They soon became commonplace, so designers differentiate with creative designs. I have a drawer full of them and have picked out some that caught my eye.

I like the understated elegance of this Adobe stick.

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though for elegance perhaps this Kingston is the winner. Paperclip included so you get the scale:

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This Huawei stick pays homage to Rubik’s Cube:

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This Google man is a favourite:

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though for the full effect you have to plug him in:

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The designer of this Asus stick plays on the fact that they are sometimes called USB keys:

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This one from Supertooth is a fake music player or something:

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Marley goes for the natural wood effect of course:

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Finally a reminder of where we started. I am not sure of the date of this stick but I have not attended a Borland event for many years:

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It has an LED that lights when plugged in. But the real shocker is the size, shown on the back along with a rather obscure warning:

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Still, bearing in mind that a floppy disk was not normally bigger than 1.44MB, 16MB is not to be sniffed at.

I also suggest that the era of USB flash drives will soon pass. Apple does not support USB storage in iOS, other than to a limited extent for cameras, and just as CDs gave way to USB drives, the USB devices will be replaced by wireless transfer, either locally or via the internet. Some press releases now arrive with links to Dropbox folders. How sensible.

OEM vendors: it’s Google, not Microsoft you need to watch

When Microsoft announced Surface, its first own-brand PC, it raised immediate questions about the implications for the company’s hardware partners.

Not long after, and Google has also announced a tablet, the Nexus 7.

It looks a neat device. 7″ 1280×800 display, Corning-toughened glass, NFC, accelerometer, GPS, gyroscope, wi-fi, Bluetooth, and a Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor. Plus you get Google’s latest “Jelly Bean” operating system.

By coincidence, I have just been reviewing another Android tablet, from a brand you likely have not heard of: the Gemini JoyTAB 8″ running “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

I did not get on well with the JoyTAB. It is full of the compromises you expect from a device made down to a price with little attention to design.

But the price. I thought the JoyTAB was at least good value at £149.00. What chance does it have against a Nexus 7 for just £10 more – and with £15 of Play Store credit thrown in?

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The Nexus 7 is made by Asus so you can argue that at least one OEM vendor is not losing out here. Even so, competing with this thing will not be easy. 

We do not yet know the price of the Surface, either in Windows RT or Intel guise. My prediction is that Microsoft will aim to price it more like an Apple iPad than a Nexus. Although Microsoft is desperate for Windows 8 tablets to succeed, it also makes its money selling the software, Windows and Office, that is included in Surface. It cannot afford to price it too low.

By contrast, Google makes little money from software. Android is free. Google makes money from advertising, and also hopes to build its profit from the content market, where it takes a cut of every sale. If NFC payment takes off, it might even profit from every payment you make with an Android device.

I am right behind Microsoft in what it is doing with Surface. It has been let down by its OEM partners, with too much hastily designed and/or low quality hardware, further impaired by unwanted bundled software and poor customizations. Surface follows on from Microsoft Signature in challenging those partners to up their game. Long term, they will benefit from Microsoft’s efforts to improve Windows devices overall.

How Android tablet vendors will benefit from Nexus is less clear.

Nexus Q streaming device: you will use Cloud, you will use Android, says Google

Google’s Nexus Q is a streaming device. It is a spherical object with the following connections: optical S/PDIF digital output to connect to a hi-fi, wired ethernet, USB connection for “service and support”, and speaker outputs.

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The top half of the Nexus Q twists to control the volume. Tap the top LED to mute the sound.

The built-in class D stereo amplifier is 12.5 watts per channel.

There are also 32 multi-colour LEDs on the unit which blink in time to the music. This could be annoying but presumably there is a way to disable it.

You can stream music and video apparently, only from Google. This can be your own songs uploaded to Google, or purchased from the Play store.

Why would you want to stream music from the cloud, when it is already stored locally in iTunes, say, or in FLAC for a Squeezebox system? Cloud streaming can be high quality, but playing uncompressed audio over the local network is better still.

Why does not Nexus support standards like DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) streaming, so that you could stream to it from a variety of media servers?

Most seriously, Google says:

Requirements: Phone or Tablet running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or higher with access to Google Play

Is Google really saying that you cannot control streaming to a Nexus Q with a PC, Mac, iPad or any other non-Android device? For example, I am sitting here working at a PC. Do I have to pick up my phone in order to control Nexus Q? Or run the Android emulator, I guess?

One mitigating factor: developers can install stuff on the Nexus Q via that USB connector. I am guessing then what we may see these missing features plugged by third-party efforts.

The Nexus Q has the concept of “social streaming”. What this means is that if you enable guest mode, anyone else on the network who has an Android device can also stream their music. That could be fun, or could be chaos, but it is an interesting feature.

Music shared on the device is transient, according to this Wired article:

The queue is a transient song list, and not an actual playlist. When you add a song to the queue, the Nexus Q owner can listen to the track for 24 hours, even after you’ve left.

The price is $299.

Microsoft Surface has changed the Windows 8 conversation

The Register ran two online discussions on Windows 8, in which I participated along with Mary Jo Foley and Gavin Clarke.

The first was on 25th April and is here. A typical comment:

I personally think Windows 8 can’t bag Microsoft the kind of runaway success they had with Windows 95 or XP. It’s going to turn off many PC users and the success of Windows tablets is uncertain.

The second was on 20th June, following the announcement of Surface, a Windows 8 tablet to be sold by Microsoft itself. Typical comment:

I definitely want one. iPad for kids, Surface for grown ups. First bit of kit I’ve wanted in years.

 

 

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Review: Philips Voice Tracer digital recorder

I am in favour of device convergence, but still find myself carrying a dedicated recorder when out and about. I tend to record a lot of stuff, almost all voice, and there are three reasons for having a separate recorder, rather than using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The first is battery life. Sometimes I am without mains power for most of the day, and there are few devices that I can rely on for the number of hours required. Occasionally a key interview comes up at short notice and I hate the thought of being caught out.

The second is quality. This is the most important. A recording is only useful if you can hear what was said, and getting a high quality recording makes the job much easier, particularly if the environment is noisy and the speaker distant. The last interview I did was in a pizza restaurant, for example.

The third is convenience. If you are doing an interview, your focus must be entirely on the interview, not on the equipment. Time spent powering stuff up, fiddling with settings, or checking that it is working, is an unwelcome distraction. The only thing worse than not having a recorder with you is recording silence – which means you did not scribble furiously because you thought you would have a recording.

Once I failed because my microphone was plugged into a headphone socket. Another time I relied on the built-in mic on a tablet PC, and ended up not with silence, but with a recording that sounded just like the sound of a man talking, except that you could not make out any of the words. The interview was with game designer Peter Molyneux and would have been rather interesting. I had to make do with my recollections. Never again.

For years I have been using an iRiver H140, a hard drive player and recorder which is something of a classic. I bought it in 2004 and the battery still lasts 8 hours on a single charge. It has a mic input with plug-in power and I get great results using an external Sony microphone. On a recent trip to California though I left the charger at home, and the unit is so old that it lacks USB charging.

I therefore made an emergency trip to Fry’s in San Jose. Not my favourite store; but it did have some voice recorders. I bought a Philips Voice Tracer LFH0884, slightly discounted because the packaging had been opened, with a warning on the label that a customer might have returned it. Judging by the odd recordings I found on it, that most likely was the case. Still, it worked.

I picked out the Philips for several reasons:

  • 8GB on-board storage
  • Rechargeable batteries with USB charging (also takes 2 standard AAAs). Battery life 50 hours recording time. 
  • Attaches to a PC as USB storage device
  • Stereo (makes it easier to pick out voices in noisy environments)
  • Choice of recording formats right up to uncompressed WAV
  • Input for external microphone

I also noticed that this particular model comes with three microphones, as seen in the picture below.

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Specifically, there is a built-in microphone, a tie-clip microphone, and a “zoom” microphone which attaches to the end of the device. You also get a USB cable and a set of earbuds.

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Supposedly the Zoom microphone is ideal for recording a distant voice, such as a speaker at a lecture. It is meant to focus on sounds directly in front of the device. It works in tandem with a software setting for Zoom. I have not tested this thoroughly yet though I am sceptical.

Operation

The Voice Tracer is easy to use, though the user interface can be annoying and I recommend a quick read of the manual. On the top end of the unit are the mic and earphone sockets and the built-in mics. On the left is a hold switch. At the bottom end is a mini USB port. The main controls are on the top, being a four-point rocker switch, a central button, and four additional buttons for Index, Menu, Record and Stop/Delete.

The short guide is this. Make a recording by pressing Record, and stop it by pressing Stop. Add an index point during a recording by pressing Index. Not too bad.

There is also a built-in speaker so you can play recordings out loud in poor but audible quality.

The Menu button gives access to a set of icons each of which controls a setting.

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For example, the Rec setting offers 6 modes, from 8kbps mono (SLP or Super Long Play) to PCM which is uncompressed WAV. I recommend the Super High Quality (SHQ) mode which is an acceptable 192kbps stereo MP3. The difference between this and the next one down (64kbps) is clearly audible, but WAV is overkill and takes too much space unless you are recording music, for which this is not really the best device. I would like to have seen a 320kps stereo MP3 mode.

You can fit 95 hours of SHQ mode recordings on the 8GB built-in storage, which is plenty. Even with WAV you can fit 13 hours.

The menu has numerous options though it falls short in certain areas. In particular, you cannot control the recording level other than by a crude Hi or Lo mic sensitivity setting. You do get a lot of (to my mind) unnecessary features such as an alarm clock, FM radio, basic editing such as splitting files, and three EQ settings for music (Pop, Jazz or Classic).

Audio settings, in addition to the quality mode and mic sensitivity mentioned above, are Voice Activation which is meant to start and stop recording automatically, and Clear Voice which boosts quiet passages automatically. There is also a Line In mode which converts the mic input socket for a high-level input.

The sound

With three microphones to choose from, how is the sound? To give you an idea, I recorded a sample of my own voice using the built-in mic, the zoom mic, the tie-clip mic, and an external Sony electrec condenser microphone that cost more than the recorder. I normalised the level of each recording. I also added a sample of the Sony mic recorded into a PC using an external pre-amp, as a reference. The samples are here.

A few observations then.

First, the sound quality is fine for my intended purpose, recording talks and interviews. Of the various microphones, my preference is the tie-clip, partly because I prefer to use a microphone attached by a cable. With the built-in and zoom microphones, any movement of the device or use of its controls is picked up as noise. That said, I do not always use the tie-clip mic clipped to clothing. I often use it as a table microphone, sometimes attaching it to a credit card for stability.

What about using a third-party external microphone like the Sony? Here, the news is not particularly good. The Sony sounds OK, but the level is too low even when set for high sensitivity. This is why it is hissy on my sample. I tried using an external preamp, but my preamp has no output level control, and it was too high for the Voice Tracer and was clipping, even on the Line In setting.

If only Philips would ditch the silly radio and alarm clock, and provide an input level setting instead, this would not be such a problem.

Still, bearing in mind that this is designed as a voice recorder, not a general purpose digital recorder, it does a good enough job. I have used it with success for dozens of interviews now.

Note: the exact model reviewed above appears to be US only. The LFH0865 seems a close equivalent, and is available in the UK.

 

Close up with Asus PadFone: is a converged device in your future?

Asus held an event in London to show off the devices it revealed at Computex in Taipei recently, though sadly there was no Windows RT device to be seen.

Among the Zenbook Ultrabooks and Transformer Primes there was something innovative though, which was a near-final sample of the PadFone, which combines smartphone, tablet and Android laptop into one package.

The thinking is simple: why have an expensive smartphone as well as an expensive tablet, each perhaps with its own SIM card and contract, when the smartphone can power both? In the PadFone, the phone docks into the tablet, and the tablet clips into a keyboard case. As a final flourish, there is an optional headset stylus, a stylus with a Bluetooth headset built-in so you can answer the phone easily when it is docked.

Here are the three main pieces:

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The tablet, note, is useless until you dock the phone. You do this by opening a flap on the back and dropping it in.

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The tablet then works just like any other Android tablet, though it is heavier than average, and has a bulbous section on the underside.

Attach to the keyboard case, and you have a laptop.

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The tablet has a 10.1”, 1280 x 800 screen with Gorilla Glass, a speaker and headphone jack, and a front-facing camera.

The phone has 1GB RAM, 16GB flash storage plus Micro-SD support, Qualcomm 8260A Snapdragon S4 Dual-core processor with Andreno 225 GPU, rear camera and its own front-facing camera, and runs Android ICS.

The keyboard adds USB ports and a card reader.

Each device has its own battery so a full setup has three batteries, or  four if you count one in the stylus headset. However you can have scenarios where the tablet is out of power but the phone is not, for example, which would be annoying.

I spent some time with the PadFone, scribbling on the excellent note-taking app which comes with it, and assembling and disassembling the unit to get a feel for how it works. There is plenty to like. The phone itself looks great and seems fast and capable. Docking and removing it is straightforward, particularly since the flap acts as a lever to eject the phone gently. Asus assured me that it has been tested for thousands of insertions. The tablet worked well too, though it is heavier than most and the protrusion which holds the smartphone is inelegant.

A winner then? I am not sure. It is interesting and innovative, but the mechanics need some refinement. Most people have a case to protect their smartphones, but for the PadFone you will either need to remove the phone from its case when you dock it, or else treat the tablet as the case, in which case it will not slip so easily into a jacket pocket or handbag.

The stylus headset is not just a gimmick; you will need this, or another Bluetooth headset, to make sense of using the phone when it is docked.

Some variations on this theme occur to me. After another generation of miniaturisation, perhaps you could design a phone so slim that it fits into the case more like an old PCMCIA card used to slot into a laptop, without an ugly protruding flap? Another idea would be to make all the communication between phone and tablet wireless, building just enough smarts into the tablet that it works as a kind of remote desktop into your phone.

The Asus folk present told me that the PadFone is first-generation and we can expect the concept to evolve. Another goal is to make a splash in the smartphone market, using the PadFone as differentiation from all the other Android devices out there.

Apparently the PadFone will normally be sold on contract, and while it will be bundled with the tablet, whose name is the PadFone Station, the keyboard and stylus headset will be optional extras.

A vending machine with a difference: this one buys your old phone

I`m visiting San Jose and looked into the Valley Fair shopping mall. I was intrigued to see an inverse vending machine, one that buys your old phone or other gadgets.

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You tap the screen to start the sale or get a valuation. Then you pop your old phone into the receptacle and the machine checks it out, using “Advanced machine vision and artificial intelligence” to work out what you have put in. You have power up your device for a second stage evaluation, presumably to check whether it actually works. Finally, you get paid in cash or credit, with an option to donate to charity.

The EcoATM machine will take anything, though some devices have zero value in which case you have only the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from recycling.

I was offered up to $104 for my 8GB Apple iPhone 4, though it was a valuation only since the machine was sadly not fully working. Of course you could do better on eBay, but instant cash and no hassle has its attractions.

OK, so what if you grab someone else’s phone, throw it into the machine, and walk away with the cash? The makers claim to have all sorts of anti-theft measures, including video of you doing the deed, though conceptually the idea does seem vulnerable to abuse.

These machines are USA only at the moment, though an international roll-out is planned.

Find out more here, or by watching the video below.

Whoosh! Review: Samsung 830 series SSD kit

Is it worth replacing your laptop’s hard drive with a solid state drive instead? If you can put up with a few limitations (and perhaps a smaller drive) then it probably is. SSD is faster than a spinning disk, and you will notice this in the form of faster boot, faster application loading, and a snappier system in general. Battery life may improve too.

This review covers the Samsung 830 series 128GB SSD, specifically the laptop installation kit which contains all you need (except the screwdriver).

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Laptop drives are usually easy to replace physically, but migrating your operating system can be tricky. Samsung seems to be making an effort to simplify this, though it could do better. The essentials are here though, particularly a very handy cable that lets you connect your new SSD as an external USB drive. This means you can image your existing drive to the SSD, then replace the drive and boot as normal. The package also includes two CDs, one for Norton Ghost and the other for some utilities and documentation. Finally there is a short printed manual and of course the drive itself. Since it is thinner than a hard drive, a spacer is supplied which bulks it out to the size of a standard 2.5” drive if necessary.

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The laptop I picked for this test is a Dell running Windows 7 64-bit. It has a 160GB 7200 rpm Seagate drive – typical of a laptop which is a few years old.

Curiously, although all the kit is supplied to migrate from your existing hard drive, there is a note in the instruction leaflet that says “Samsung recommends that you do a fresh OS install to ensure an optimal operating environment for your new SSD”. Good advice, except that laptops usually do not come with Windows install media, and if they do it is recovery media with recreates the original install, which is not quite the same as a fresh install. Another problem with a fresh install is the time-consuming job of reinstalling your applications. There are many advantages to migration rather than clean install, even if the final result is not optimal. You can also tweak an existing Windows install for SSD so it is not that bad.

A problem with this kit is that although it does have all you need, it lacks a simple step by step guide. That is not for want of trying; someone has worked hard on the interactive manual on one of the CDs. Even so, with a printed manual that covers both desktop and laptop versions of the kit, two CDs, Samsung’s Magician utility as well as Norton Ghost, it ends up being a confusing bundle.

Most laptops only have one drive, and you may well find that there is more data on your current drive than there is space on the new SSD. I recall a note somewhere that advises you to delete unimportant data to make space. Alternatively, you could get Samsung’s 256GB kit for around twice the price. On a desktop, you would likely use an SSD drive for booting and for the operating system, but conventional hard drives for data.

Norton Ghost is not my favourite disk utility. It is a backup tool as well as a drive cloning utility, and has a rather complex and intrusive install. An alternative is to use the backup and restore built into Windows 7, which would work fine for this although you will need an additional external drive as well as a Windows restore CD or bootable USB device. There are also leaner tools such as Drive Snapshot which work well.

Still, for this review I decided to use the tools in the bundle and installed Norton Ghost. The Ghost install flashed many command prompts at me and then hung for ages doing apparently nothing. I gave up, tried to cancel the installation without success, and rebooted to find that the install had apparently succeeded. I did not trust it so did a repair install which did complete, giving me reasonable confidence that I had Ghost installed OK.

If you go the Ghost route, you should read the document called NortonGhost_Data_Migration_User_Manual_(English).pdf which is in the MagicianSoftware folder on the Samsung Magician CD. The main issue is that Windows 7 creates a hidden system partition which you need to copy to the SSD *first*, otherwise Windows 7 will not boot.

I then attached the SSD drive with the supplied USB cable and ran Ghost to copy the partitions. It took around two hours for my 100GB of data.

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I then switched the drive with the hard drive installed in the laptop. This was pretty easy, though I did need the supplied spacer in order to press the hard drive close enough to the case for the stubby screws to bite.

Booted up, and Windows warned that it had not been shut down properly. I chose a Normal start, Windows detected the new drive, reconfigured itself, and requested a further restart. That was it.

Well, not quite. I ran Outlook which decided it had to recreate its offline cached mailbox completely. Mine is huge so that took a while.

I also used the Samsung Magician utility to optimize Windows for an SSD install.

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This utility tweaks a few settings, such as disabling Super Fetch. It also recommends disabling the Windows indexing service. The idea is to reduce the number of disk writes, bearing in mind that SSDs gradually wear and their capacity reduces as data is deleted and written.

There are other Windows tweaks you can make to optimize for SSD. Tom’s hardware has a handy list here. Note that there are trade-offs. Disabling the indexing service may be a good idea for the SSD, but can be inconvenient, particularly if you use Outlook whose search depends on it. Disabling System Restore means you lose its benefit if something in Windows gets corrupted and will have to resort to other restore methods.

Was it worth it? Here are the PassMark before and after results:

  Old 7200 RPM HD New SSD Drive
Disk Mark 234.7 2186.9
Sequential Read 31.4 241.2
Sequential Write 31.2 205.4
Random Seek + RW 2.31 158.2

and here are the results of the PassMark advanced drive test, showing that disk speed improved from 3.7 MB/Sec to 34.8 MB/Sec:

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A glance tells you all you need to know: the SSD is much faster. The Disk Mark improves by 931%.

In use the laptop feels like a new machine; everything happens faster than before. It is worth the hassle.

    

Nokia gradually fixing Lumia 800, battery life much improved

Nokia has rolled out several updates to its Lumia 800 Windows Phone. The latest is version 1600.2487.8107.12070, which for many users has greatly improved battery life, probably the biggest problem with the phone.

Whether you have this update pushed to you automatically depends on operators, region and who knows what. I followed the unofficial instructions here in order to get the update early and it worked fine for me; but try this at your own risk.

In my case battery life improved from needing to charge daily to running for several days with light use. Results do vary though. You can see how you are doing by running the Nokia diagnostics app and checking battery status.

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Check the figure for Discharging. If it is 70 mA or less you are doing well. If it is up at 140 mA or higher your phone will not last long on a full charge. Note that for some reason the screen capture utility I use bumped up the battery drain, which on my Lumia hovers around 74 mA since the update.

Some have found that disabling 3G in the “Highest connection speed” setting, under Mobile network substantially extends battery life. Worth a try if you care more about battery life than getting the highest data speeds.

Of course users should not be having these kinds of problems; but despite some hassles – the will not turn on issue is the worst for me but I hope is now fixed – I like the phone increasingly. The feel of the device in your hands is excellent, it is responsive, email works well with Exchange, and the Nokia Drive turn-by-turn directions are proving useful, to mention a few things.

There are still a few annoying bugs. The camera is not as good as it should be, bearing in mind Nokia’s boasting about the Carl Zeiss lens, and a future update may improve the colour balance. There is a volume bug introduced in the latest update, that blasts your ears if a call comes in and your volume is set below 14.

App availability is still limited on Windows Phone. I would like to see a Dropbox client, for example.

Nevertheless, Nokia has created an excellent smartphone and seems to be serious about maintaining and improving it.

The meta-story here is that Microsoft’s success depends on the commitment of its hardware partners. Although Windows Phone was available from others such as HTC and Samsung, who no doubt made a substantial investment, those companies are more committed to Android and that shows in the quality of the devices and the way they are marketed.

Will this story repeat when it comes to Windows 8 tablets, particularly on ARM, which to my mind is the critical platform here?

The best ear buds I have heard: Wolfson’s Digital Silence DS-421D with noise cancellation

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month I caught up with Wolfson Microelectronics, who make digital converter chips and other audio components. They do not sell many products to end users, but are making an exception for the Digital Silence range of noise-cancelling headsets.

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The origin of the technology here is in the company’s 2007 acquisition of Sonaptic Ltd, specialists in micro-acoustics, or in other words getting good sound from mobile devices.

The Digital Silence range is unusual among ear buds in including noise cancellation. In other words, microphones on the outside of the buds pick up external sounds, phase reverse them, and add them to the input signal so that you hear more of the music (or voice, if listening to a call) and less of the external sound.

The new Digital Silence range has three models, of which I have been testing the DS-421D, which is set for general availability shortly.

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What you get is a stereo headset with clip-on controller, spare ear foams, mini-jack adaptors to cope with the fact that some mobiles wire up their 4-pole mini-jacks differently, USB charging cable, and a black zip-up carrying case. As with most headsets, there is also a built-in microphone and answer button. By default they are iPhone-ready, but will work with pretty much any mobile or player with a standard 3.5mm mini-jack output.

The controller has a rechargeable battery, charged by a USB connection, and specified to last for 14 hours of playback. A switch on the controller enables ANC and lights a green LED to show that the battery is OK. The ear buds work without ANC as well, so if the battery gives out you still have music. In a quiet environment, you might also prefer not to use ANC in case it adds artefacts to the sound.

A button on the side of the controller marked Monitor has a dual purpose. Press it to mute the sound; or press and hold to change the ANC filter. There is no display, but the unit plays one, two or three beeps to indicate the selection:

General: 20dB cancellation across a wide frequency band

Aeroplane: Low frequency cancellation such as found in an aeroplane is emphasised.

Office: Speech frequency cancellation around 200Hz – 1kHz is emphasised

Other products in the range are the DS-101A (around £30.00) and the DS-321D (around £50). I do not have a price yet for the DS-421D itself but was told “Under £100”. The DS-101A does not have selectable filters or a call/answer button.

Sound quality

Enough of the technology, how is the sound? This is what counts, and I am impressed. The DS-421D headset sounds excellent even without ANC engaged. No amount of noise cancellation would make them good if they were poor to begin with, and I suspect this fundamental good design is actually more important than the clever processing.

I used a variety of ear-buds for comparison. My regular set are Shure SE210 noise-isolating (not cancelling) ear-buds which I find easily out-perform the ones that come free with smartphones and iPods. I was taken aback by how much better the 421D sounded. The biggest difference is in the bass extension, but the sound is also smoother but without loss of clarity. These are the first ear buds I have used where you do not feel you are compromising by not using over the ear headphones.

The noise cancelling works. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, these will not deliver “digital silence”, but they will substantially reduce the noise. It is a bit like shutting it behind a door. There is also a slight change in the quality of the sound, for the better in my opinion, being a little richer than before. I used the DS-421D on an aeroplane and on the London Underground and had worthwhile results in both cases. I could have the volume lower and still enjoy the music.

I also compared the DS-421D to a set of Sennheiser PXC 300 foldable noise-cancelling headphones. The PXC 300 was slightly more effective in killing background noise, but the reason I tend to leave these at home is that they are bulky and use two AAA batteries which give out if I forget to switch them off. The DS-421D is more convenient. As for sound quality, it is close and I might even give 421D the edge.

The DS-421D is mainly for music, but I found the headset functionality useful too. I used it for Skype on a Windows 8 tablet and it worked much better than using the built-in microphone.

Design

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The design of the DS-421D  is excellent in terms of technology, but I am not so sure about the ergonomics. The length of cable between the ear buds and the controller is short, so you cannot clip the controller to your belt. It must be on your collar or perhaps top pocket. You could leave it dangling, but it is heavy enough to be a nuisance if you do.

Visually, the design looks a bit geeky to me; not unattractive, but I can imagine the DS-421D losing out among the more fashion-conscious purchasers.

Conclusion

Regular traveller who likes music? I recommend you give these a try. Now you can have noise-cancellation and high quality sound and a small, light headset.

Technical addendum

Wolfson’s noise-cancelling system is called myZone ANC (Ambient Noise Cancellation) which the company says uses “feed-forward, rather than the usual feedback systems”.

What is that then? I hunted around and eventually found Wolfson’s white paper on the subject*. Here is an illustration of feedback versus feed-forward:

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The figure on the left is a feedback system where the microphone is placed between the loudspeaker and the ear. In the feed-forward system the microphone is external so that the external noise is detected, inverted and added to the input. An advantage is that this does not require a sealed enclosure around the ear.

The main problem with implementation is time-aligning the cancellation signal with the input signal. Wolfson’s solution:

By placing microphones at the rim of the headphone, the ambient noise signal can be acquired and driven to the loudspeaker in advance of its arrival at the eardrum, thus compensating for the intrinsic response time of the loudspeaker.

The illustration in the paper shows a ring array of 5 microphones around each headphone, but since the DS-421D is a small earbud I doubt it has such an array. There is only one visible microphone aperture. Still, this gives some indication of the technology used.

Wolfson did not invent feed-forward as far as I know, so its innovation is in the area of how to achieve accurate time-alignment of the cancellation signal.

*The paper is called Ambient Noise Cancellation for Headphones and Headsets. I cannot find a direct link, but if you go here and search for resources for the WM2002 you will find it.

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