Monitor your home when away: Jabbakam IP camera service reviewed

About to head off for your summer break? What may happen back home is always a concern; but if you want a bit more piece of mind, how about a live webcam view of what is going on in places you care about?

Of course you can easily purchase a security camera kit from your favourite electronic hobbyist store, but it is not a complete solution. Recording video to a hard drive is all very well, but what if the thief takes a hammer to it or even nabs it? Further, returning home to find two-week old footage of a break-in is of limited use compared to a live alert.

In other words, you need not only a camera but also a service. This used to be expensive, but does not need to be in the internet era. What about a cheap camera that sends images to a web site, enabling you to log in from anywhere and check what is going on? And how about an email or SMS alert triggered by motion detection?

This is exactly what Jabbakam does. The basic kit costs £59.95 and £5.95 per month, for which you get an IP camera and 14 days of video footage stored online. You can also use your own camera if you have a suitable one; the main requirement is that it supports motion detection, enabling the alerting feature, and reducing the number of images that need to be sent to the web service. More expensive subscriptions store video for longer; £13.95 per month gets you 90 days. SMS alerts cost extra.

Developed by a company based in Guernsey, the product is not so much the camera, but rather the web application and service. The camera itself is a simple but well-made affair, with a wall-mountable bracket and a swivel joint that lets you angle it. You can also adjust focus by twisting the lens.

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Under the webcam are ports for wired Ethernet and power.

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Given that the serial number starts YCAM I have a hunch it may be made for Jabbakam by Y-cam.

The camera must be wired to your broadband router. If you are on a business network you may have firewall issues; I tried on my own network and found it did not work behind the firewall, but have not investigated in detail.

So how about the service? I signed into Jabbakam and found that set-up was pretty much IJW (It Just Works). The camera was detected and I could view live images. Video is a slightly generous term, since each image is one second apart, and the quality is not fantastic, but gives you a good idea of what is happening. You can add additional cameras if you want fuller coverage of your home or workplace.

I also set up email alerting. This seems to work well. When the camera detects movement you get an email with a still image attached. Click the link in the email, and you can view the video. There is also an iPhone app that shows recent images. Advanced settings let you schedule alerts, for example to avoid having them active when you yourself are moving around.

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Jabbakam is not just intended for security. The web service also has the concept of networks, which enable you to share your camera with others. The number is small at the moment, but I did see one called Birdboxes of Jabbakam which I guess is for ornithology enthusiasts.

There was one aspect of Jabbakam that I found troubling. A mash-up with Google Maps lets you see where cameras of other users are installed, and clicking on a camera gives you the name and address of the user and a link to send a private message:

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I discovered that this information sharing is on by default:

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This surprised me, as I would have thought that a typical Jabbakam user would be sensitive about sharing these details.

Finally, I should mention that Jabbakam has a RESTful API for developers, though the documentation is incomplete at the moment and the application showcase is empty. Apparently this is being worked on, so watch the space if you are interested.

A good buy? On the plus side, Jabbakam seems to me nicely done, easy to set up, and delivers what is claimed: remote video monitoring of any indoor location. The alert service is particularly useful, though this only works if the camera is pointing somewhere that should normally be motion-free. For example, pointing the camera at a car parked on the street outside your home might seem a good idea, except that the alert would go off every time someone walked by. I should also observe that the supplied camera only works indoors, so it would need to be at a window.

There are questions of course about the effectiveness of CCTV security. Blurry pictures of hooded figures may not do you much good in terms of identifying the villains, though the alert service could be an advantage.

What are the social implications if large numbers of people choose to stick surveillance cameras all over their homes? I am not sure, but it is a question worth reflecting on.

That said, for someone on holiday who would like the ability to check that everything is in order at home, this seems to me a neat and smart solution.

Same price: four eMachine ER1401 or one Apple Mac Mini

This machine at ebuyer.com caught my eye:

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For your £130 you get AMD Athlon Dual Core K325, 2GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce 9200, HDMI out, and Linpus 9.5 Linux. The ER1401 also include wifi, 2 USB ports, S/P DIF digital out, headphone out, wired ethernet, and VGA for a standard computer display.

I probably would not have noticed it, except that I have just purchased a Mac Mini:

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The Mac has plenty to offer over the ER1401 of course. There is not only the slick new OS X Lion OS, but also a Thunderbolt port, Bluetooth, 4 USB ports, twice as much hard drive space, memory upgradeable to 8GB rather than 4GB, FireWire 800 port, and an SDXC card slot.

Linux is free, but if you decided to put Windows 7 on your ER1401 the cost would climb a bit.

Still, it happens that the Mac mini, Apple’s cheapest Mac, is just over four times the price of the ER1401. If you just need a small computer to do some task like playing BBC iPlayer on your TV, or running Squeezebox server, the eMachine model wins the value prize.

Review: Hands On with the HP TouchPad

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

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

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

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

Look and feel

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

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

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

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

Setup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apps

A selection of apps comes supplied with the TouchPad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Dabs.com for supplying the review loan.

Renault’s electric Frendzy includes RIM Playbook, external 37” screen

I am not a motoring journalist, but this is a car I would like to review. Renault’s Frendzy, which will be shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, has several notable features:

1. It’s electric

2. An asymmetric design in which the passenger’s side represents business, and the driver’s side leisure.

3. An external 37” widescreen display embedded into the passenger side door, which is a sliding affair with no window.

4. A dock for the RIM Playbook.

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The Playbook does obvious things like navigation, but also more than that:

As soon as it is plugged in, it becomes an integral element of the vehicle and configures itself into the Renault environment. Continuity of work is assured once the device is removed, and it can of course be used for all of the renowned BlackBerry PlayBook tablet features.

The device has an important role to play, too, in the customization of the vehicle as it controls the exterior screen while the vehicle is in motion and when parked, for business as well as for personal uses – pictograms illustrating life with electric vehicles, or the viewing of a film, for example.

says the release.

5. RFID sensors in the door sills. If you are delivering goods that have RFID chips, you can have a truly intelligent courier service. The packages can inform the vehicle of their destination, talk to the navigation system to display the route, and I presume could even raise the alarm if you drove away from the destination having forgotten to deliver parcel 3 of 3.

All cool; and I have not even mentioned the interior lighting can be switched from green for work to orange for leisure.

At the same time, I have some questions.

I am not sure whether giving the driver easy access to a full-featured tablet is wise, as I would rather he concentrated on driving rather than posting messages to Facebook or engaging in the latest MMORG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game).

It also seems a bit of a waste having the 37” screen external. I can see the sense for advertising, though having the screen on the side means it will be more visible to pedestrians than to other motorists, and is even 37” really big enough to get a message across at the kind of distance that will be typical? Renault says:

… a large external screen that can display useful messages or information (such as “making deliveries” or “back in five minutes”, the battery-charging method or the remaining charge) or advertising messages, either whilst parked or on the move.

I am not sure that I really want to tell the world how low my battery is.

The one thing you cannot do with the external screen is watch a film on it, unless you park and have a picnic I guess, though not to worry:

Depending on their mood of the moment, children can watch a film or play games on the touch-sensitive pad which slides out from the back of the driver’s seat. They can even draw on a special slate integrated into the sliding door.

Finally, I am amused by the trouble Renault has taken with the sound scheme – yes, since electric vehicles are inherently silent but need to make a noise for safely reasons, even the sound has a personality:

FRENDZY’s dual personality prompted Renault and IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique / Musique) to develop a broad range of sounds. The programme has led to a variety of sounds that are emitted both inside and outside of the vehicle to ensure that everyone can tell whether it is in business or passenger car mode, thanks simply to its sound signature.

More information on the Frendzy is here.

Keyboards, consoles and living rooms: Trust Thinity reviewed

Computers are for the study, consoles for the living room, right? Kind-of, but we are seeing some convergence. The box under your TV might actually be a Mac Mini or a PC, or you might be browsing the web on your Sony PS3. From time to time you hit a problem: game controllers are lousy for text input.

I was an early adopter for Microsoft’s Media Center PC, and hit exactly this problem. Microsoft’s media center remote was good in its way, but sometimes I needed a keyboard and mouse. I ended up getting a wireless keyboard. However I also discovered that a keyboard, while great for a desk, is an awkward thing to have lying around in a living room.

This is the problem Trust is trying to address with its Thinity Wireless Entertainment Keyboard. This is a small keyboard – think netbook-sized – with an integrated trackpad. It comes with a USB wifi adaptor and a stand/charger.

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When sat in its charger it is reasonably stylish as these things go, but still looks like a keyboard.

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The Thinity is compatible with Windows PCs – why not Mac? – Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. There is no need to install drivers, just plug in the USB device and it works. That said, there is no caps lock indicator on the keyboard, so you can download a software indicator for Windows if you want.

The trackpad is actually multitouch, and as well as having hardware left and right buttons,  tapping with three fingers makes a right button click, and it behaves as a scroller if you drag with two fingers.

How is it then? Well, it does the job and is easier than using a game controller to type URLs and passwords. I cannot rate it highly though, since it is not a particularly well-designed keyboard. The keys are close together and it is hard to type at speed. I would not enjoy using it as a main PC keyboard; I wrote most of this review with it but found it a struggle.

It is also a shame that there are no configuration options for Windows. I would like to turn off tapping, which I personally find a nuisance because of accidental clicking though I know others who love it.

Although the Trust brand is associated with budget gear, I get the impression that the company set out to make at least a mid-range product, with multi-touch keypad and a long-lasting li-ion battery. Unfortunately it needs a bit more design effort, making it seem over-priced for what it is. There are little annoyances, like the fiddly on-off switch, the support tabs on the back that are hard to prise open, and the fact that the keyboard flexes a little more than it should.

Logitech’s Google TV, the Revue, has a keyboard/trackpad that is only a little larger, but is more usable.

But do you want a keyboard in the living room at all? Personally I am doubtful. They are a transitional necessity. I am a fan of apps rather than remotes. The virtual keyboard on an Apple iPad does all that is necessary for occasional text input in a more elegant and living-room-friendly manner. Nintendo is taking this same direction with the Wii U, which has a touch controller with its own screen.

Of course these devices cost more and do more than a simple wireless keyboard, but they are inherently better suited to the task. One factor is that when you type, you do not want to be 12 feet away from where the letters are appearing on a screen. With a screen-equipped remote, they are right in front of you.

That does not solve the immediate problem with a PS3, Xbox or Media Center PC, so you will still need something like the Thinity, though I would suggest you check out the competition too. Long term though, I do not think we will see many keyboards in the living room.

Asus announces combined smartphone and tablet – the Padfone

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

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

Review: Q2 Internet Radio, colourful minimalism

This one is nearly brilliant. The Q2 Internet Radio is a cute 10cm cube which does just one thing: play internet radio.

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This gadget is from the UK-based Armour Group, and the company has endeavoured to learn the lesson of Apple and to create a device that is attractive, usable, and avoids the distraction of myriad features that are rarely used.

The Q2 supports just four channels, selected by you. You change channel by turning the device, with the number on top indicating the current choice. Increase volume by tilting the cube back, decrease by tilting it forward, mute by turning it on end.

Round the back there is an on-off button, a USB port and a headphone socket; and that is about it for controls. The rechargeable battery gives around 14 hours playback time according to the manufacturer. An LED that is just about visible through the speaker grille shows the status: green for online, red for offline, flashing amber for low battery.

The Q2 comes in a smart box and is just asking to be given to someone, a gift that even technophobes will enjoy.

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Setup is a matter of downloading and installing an application on your Windows or Mac (Linux not supported yet) and then connecting the Q2. The application has a bold and colourful drag-and-drop approach, and it is a matter of moments to select a wifi network, enter the security key, and then select stations or podcasts for the four available channels. Just in case you did not know, there are thousands of internet radio stations, though quality varies and I found that some channels did not actually play. Still, you will have no trouble finding four good ones.

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Now, I have a few reservations about this device, but let me start with the good news. Operating the unit is genuinely easy, it looks good presuming you find a colour you like, and sound quality – though mono unless you use headphones – is remarkable considering the small size. Here’s why:

The Q2 Radio uses a custom designed full range 2.4” 4 ohm drive unit chosen for good sensitivity and matched to the 140 Hz tuned port enclosure.

Biquad DSP filters are used to voice the sound, giving a smooth listening response and added bass extension from the speaker system.

The amplifier is a high efficiency Class AB BTL type, optimised for battery operation, giving typically less than 0.1% THD under normal operating conditions. The use of a Class AB rather than Class D type amplifier results in both lower noise and distortion.

So far so good; but this device does have frustrations.

I am all in favour of minimalism, but wonder if this has been taken too far here. What if you or those who share your home want more than four channels? Changing the presets is a hassle. I also found that controlling the volume control by tilt is not really a great idea, since it is easy to over-shoot and have to tilt it the other way.

The Q2 feels well made, but I noticed that the rubberised surface picks up dust easily.

Now, there are a couple of things that Amour could do to improve the Q2. The first is to add Bluetooth with A2DP support, so that it could act as a remote powered speaker for a smartphone.

Second, the Q2 is crying out for an app that would let you control it from a smartphone. As it is, you have to connect it to a computer via USB to make any change to its settings. An app would be more elegant, and allow the Q2 to take real advantage of the thousands of internet radio stations available.

As it is, this is an expensive device for what it does. It is worth noting a some of the limitations that are inherent to its design. It needs to be in range of a wifi connection, so it is not suitable for travel, and most hotspots will not work because they require a login. It is not suitable for a bedside radio, since it has no clock or alarm. It does not support USB charging, so you need to use the supplied mains adaptor.

A few flaws then; but the Q2 is FUN and would make a delightful present. Yes, you can get more elsewhere for the same price; but value for money is not what this product is about.

Review: Eminent EM7195 HD media player

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking and setting up

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

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

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

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

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

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

The software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Performance

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

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

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

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

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

Ripping DVD and Blu-Ray discs

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

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

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

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

Other features

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset and why you need A2DP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manufactuer’s specs:

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

 

Google seeks to automate the home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Writing