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.

BBC replaces Flash with Flash in Android iPlayer

The BBC has announced its solution to the lack of mobile Flash on Android devices, which meant that its iPlayer catch-up service did not work on recent devices like Google’s popular Nexus 7 (though there are hacks to make it work).

However, the BBC is not really replacing Flash, but instead creating a media player that is compiled from Flash into a native Android app. This means that the Flash runtime is compiled into the app.

In the end, Flash was still the best choice of media format for us to use. And the only practical technology for us to play this format back on Android is Adobe Air.

says the BBC’s Chris Yanda.

Yanda points out that using HTTP Live Streaming is impractical since it is not supported on versions of Android prior to Honeycomb; and the majority of Android devices in use are Froyo or Gingerbread.

Judging by the comments, users are glad to have something but disappointed with the BBC’s support for Android. The native iOS app is much better, especially considering that it now supports downloads. On a recent flight I took an iPad with me solely for the ability to watch iPlayer content offline.

Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows RT tablets will support Flash, as I understand it, though only for a limited subset of web sites. Presuming BBC iPlayer is on that list, it should work.

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Review: Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air for Apple AirPlay

Based in Los Angeles, Audyssey specialises in audio processing software. This is used in home theatre equipment such as multi-channel receivers, and also finds its way into TVs, mobile devices and cars. In 2010 Audyssey started making its own audio accessories, with an iPhone/iPod dock which I reviewed here. I was surprised how good they sounded. Since then I have kept a close eye (or ear) on the company’s small range of products. This is a company which cares about sound quality, and whose secret sauce is applying software to solve the problem of getting big, accurate sound from small enclosures.

The Lower East Side Audio Dock Air is an active loudspeaker system for Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming protocol. It also has a standard 3.5mm input for wired connection to MP3 players or other devices. Using AirPlay, you can play music and control the volume from a Mac or PC running iTunes, or from iOS devices including iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

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What you get in the box is the Audio Dock Air, an external power supply, a 3.5mm jack connector, and a Quick Start Guide that unlike many others is actually rather good.

The styling of the Dock Air is distinctive with its speaker systems firing left and right, though if you check out the internal shots later on you will see that the tweeters are actually directed more forwards than sideways.

Plug in the power and you can get started. For set up, you press and hold a pairing button on back, which lets you connect to the Dock over Wi-Fi. You than browse to a small web application on the Dock, where you complete the set up by connecting to your home Wi-Fi network. You can also rename the device, which could be particularly useful if you have several Dock Airs in different rooms.

Once fully connected, you can go to iTunes and click on the AirPlay button at bottom right of the iTunes window. There you can select the Dock Air, using whatever name you assigned during setup:

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Even more convenient is to download the Remote app for iOS. This lets you use your iOS device to control iTunes on the Mac or PC.

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You can also play music directly from iOS.

The sound

The sound quality is excellent as I have come to expect from Audyssey. There are a few points to note though. The first thing you notice is the bass extension, which is remarkable for a unit of this size. Drums have real thump, and bass guitar sounds like bass guitar. If you are used to the anaemic bass of most small speakers, hearing this from a small box is pleasing and unexpected. That said, the sound is not dominated by the bass. The treble is sharp and clear too; and I was struck by how easy it is to follow different strands in the music and to notice small details.

Playing Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, for example, you can easily hear the whispered “Son of a gun” right at the start of the track. Karajan’s Beethoven’s 9th sounds dramatic and powerful; a little lightweight compared to a full-range home stereo, but superb from a compact dock. Mika’s Billy Brown, a simple arrangement with a forward vocal, is conveyed with drama and deep bass from the accompaniment, with just a trace of confusion at the bottom end compared to my monitor reference speakers.

Given that this is a single box, you should not expect the best stereo image. You do get some limited stereo effect. The unit goes loud enough for most listening at home, but not for parties or neighbour-annoying rock out sessions,

I made a comparison with the Audyssey South of Market dock, which is just a little larger but a similar design. The older dock does not go quite so deep, though the sound is a shade cleaner; the Dock Air is slightly softer in tone though if you had your eyes closed you would guess it is larger, not smaller, than its predecessor. On Sade’s bass-heavy song By Your Side, the South of Market keeps a firmer grip than the Dock Air, though this is a difficult song to reproduce. Some listeners might find the bass in the Dock Air excessive, though it is not to my ears. I doubt anyone would think that of the South of Market dock. Both sound very good.

The not so good

Audyssey has a strong grip on audio technology, but less so with its manufacturing quality. It is not bad but could be better. The rotary volume control is slightly out of true on the review unit, for example. These are products that you have to hear to appreciate, and my guess that a little more investment in fit, finish and design would win more customers, bearing in mind the relatively high prices.

The responsiveness of the Dock Air can be laggy, both from iTunes and even more when used with the iOS Remote app. Some of this is down to the iTunes/AirPlay system, and no doubt some audio buffering in the Dock Air, but it can be annoying.

Switches and ports

The Dock Air is fairly minimalist when it comes to switches and ports. On the top of the unit is a rotary volume control and status LEDs.

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You can also control volume remotely, which you will probably do more often. The volume control is also a mute button; press down to mute, and again to unmute.

On the front is a headphone socket along with what looks like an infra-red receptor though if so it is undocumented.

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At the rear is the power, aux input, and pairing button. No on/off switch. I recommend turning off at the socket, connecting, and then switching on, presuming your mains sockets have switches.

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Underneath is a USB port, which Audyssey says is solely for future firmware updates.

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The technology

Audyssey does not give much away in its specifications for the Dock Air. It does state:

  • 3/4” tweeters
  • 3” woofers
  • 4” Passive bass radiator
  • Audyssey EQ
  • Audyssey BassXT
  • Audyssey Dynamic EQ

Of these, the last are the most interesting. What are they?

Audyssey EQ is not much documented, but in the context of another product I read that it corrects time and frequency response imperfections caused by the loudspeaker and cabinets.

BassXT “dynamically monitors the low frequency signals and constantly pushes the speaker to its maximum capability.” The over-simplification would be that it boosts the bass signal to compensate for the drop off in the frequency response of the woofer.

Dynamic EQ is a more sophisticated form of the “loudness” switch that you see on old hi-fi equipment. As Audyssey says, “It will preserve the and octave-to-octave balance of the content as you turn down the volume to make up for the changes that happen in human hearing at lower listening levels.”

Purists may feel that this is too much tinkering with the signal. My view is that the high quality results successfully validate the approach. With Audyssey products, it is a large part of what you are paying for.

Internals

The Dock Air is not designed to have its grilles or panels removed; however we had a quick look inside for this review. This shows one side of the unit with its 3” woofer and passive bass radiator.

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If you look carefully you can also see the tweeter at top left. Note that this points more towards the front than to the sides, though it is at an angle.

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Internally Audyssey has taken a lot of trouble with acoustic damping foam so that the sound is clean even at high volume. I was also impressed by the size of the loudspeaker magnets, which are bigger than I have seen on speakers many times larger.

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Conclusion

With rumours that Apple is redesigning its dock connector, thus threatening the compatibility of products like the South of Market dock, wireless is the future. If you value high sound quality and need an AirPlay speaker system, you will like the Lower East Side Audio Dock Air. Note that there is no Bluetooth support, so if you want to use non-Apple devices this is not suitable. A bit more attention to design and manufacturing quality would be welcome. But I do not know any other company that can get such great wide-range sound out of small boxes.

 

Free competition: Win a Kingston DataTraveler Locker+ secure USB Flash Drive

Ever worry about exposing confidential data by losing a USB Flash drive? Easy to do; but worry no more. A DataTraveler Locker+ secure drive is password protected, and after 10 failed attempts the data is wiped.

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Read our full review here. Then get one for free by entering our competition. Just answer the question and fill in your details below. One entry only per person or address please. Competition open to UK residents only. One winner will be chosen at random from those who answer correctly. Winner will be announced here and informed by email.

Closing date 14 September 2012

Note on privacy: Your details will NOT be retained after the close of the competition. You will not be added to any mailing list, nor will your details be shared with any third party.

 

Review: X-mini KAI, a Bluetooth audio dock you can put in your pocket

X-mini makes a popular range of what it calls Capsule Speakers, the latest of which doubles as a wireless speakerphone for your mobile, thanks to Bluetooth connectivity. Essentially, your smartphone sees it as a Bluetooth headset.

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First though, a word or two about the distinctive design. In the box you get the X-mini KAI, a USB charging cable that also has an audio cable for play-as-you-charge, a handy soft drawstring bag, and a tiny instruction manual.

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The X-mini KAI measures around 6cm in diameter and 8cm high when expanded. However, you can also push down the concertina and twist left to lock, whereupon it is just 5cm high. You can play it in this mode, but it sounds pretty bad. Still, easily small enough to put in your pocket.

Fit and finish is OK but could be better. Locking the unit shut takes some force and is slightly awkward because of all the switches. The multiple switches and ports do slightly spoil the appearance of the device and are somewhat fiddly to use.

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So how does it work? First, charge it via any USB connection. It takes at least 2.5 hours to charge fully, for which you get up to 8 hours of playback.

Once charged, you can use the KAI in several different modes. There is a three-position switch. Centre is off, or push left for wired audio, or push right for Bluetooth.

In wired mode, you can use the short 3.5mm jack connector which is coiled neatly in the base to connect to a SmartPhone, iPod, MP3 player or any audio device, and play your music. There is no volume control on the KAI in this mode, just control it from the audio device.

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The sound is mono of course, but not bad at all. You have to be realistic about what you can get from such a small speaker, but it is far better than the tinny sound you will hear from built-in speakers on phones and tablets.

I used it with the Google Nexus tablet with success. The Nexus is excellent for portable entertainment, particularly if you hack it a little to support Adobe Flash. Combine it with the KAI and you get much better sound from Google Music, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and the like.

X-mini quotes speaker power of 2.5w, frequency response of 100 Hz – 18 kHz, and distortion of less than 0.3%. Unfortunately these figures are meaningless without qualification; frequency response for example should be quoted as plus or minus 3dB or some such.

Still, with devices like this it is the experience that counts, since we are not talking hi-fi exactly. The KAI is a lot of fun, punchy and clear, you can hear a little bit of bass, and transforms the sound on your mobile device into something you can actually enjoy without earphones.

I compared the KAI to my trusty Creative Labs TravelSound. I give the nod to the TravelSound on sound quality, though the KAI was not embarrassed. However, bear in mind that the TravelSound has two speakers, is too big for the average pocket, and eats batteries unless you also carry a mains adaptor with you. KAI wins on convenience.

You can also wire two or more KAIs together for better sound, though I was not able to try this.

Wireless sound

The KAI also works over Bluetooth as mentioned above. To get this working, you slide the Audio key to the right. Then go to your mobile device, enable Bluetooth, and search for available devices. All going well, it will find the KAI and connect. This worked fine for me on the Nexus and on a Nokia Lumia 800 Smartphone.

Once connected, audio plays back through the KAI. It is as simple as that, and although there is some theoretical loss of quality, I did not find this audible on a casual comparison. Your battery will run down a little faster on both devices, but other than that it works just the same.

What’s nice about the wireless connection is that you can move your mobile device around the room and playback is not interrupted. The range is given as up to 10 metres, by which time you will hardly hear the KAI whether or not it is maintaining the connection. I tested this by walking around and the results were good.

In wireless mode an additional control on the KAI comes into play. Press down to play or pause. Move briefly right or left for previous or next track. Move and hold right or left for volume adjustment.

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You can also use the KAI as a speakerphone, and I tested this with an incoming call. When you hear the ring, press down the control above to answer. The music will pause, and you will hear your caller through the KAI. You can end the call by pressing the same control.

The snag with the call though was that my caller said I was hard to hear. I could fix this by holding the KAI close to my mouth but this was disappointing.

There is a mute button on the device, but note that this does not mute your voice when in a call. Rather, it mutes the speaker in the same way as during any audio playback.

Summing up

This is a great little device, ideal if you want a very small and portable travel speaker that still sounds decent. Bear in mind though that the X-mini capsule speaker is also available in a wired-only form for around a quarter of the price, so you are paying a lot for the Bluetooth and speakerphone features.

The wireless audio works really well, but the microphone seems insufficiently sensitive when used as a speakerphone and I would not want to use it for conference calling. That is a shame since this is otherwise a compelling feature, unless I was unlucky with my sample.

The review unit was supplied by Phone4U and you can find it here, price at the time of writing £79.99.

Building a cheap PC, and why it still beats tablets and laptops for value

I thought the Google Nexus tablet was good value, and compared to an Apple iPad or most other tablets out there it is, but for sheer capability on a budget a desktop PC has it beat.

Needing a cheap desktop I went along to Ebuyer and purchased the following:

  • Asus P8H61-MX SI Motherboard bundled with Intel Pentium G620 and 2GB DD3 RAM
  • Extra Value Micro ATX case with 500w PSU (unbranded)
  • Additional 2GB RAM

The total cost was £128.54 with free delivery. I then plucked a Sata DVD drive and a 200GB hard drive from a dead server, and put it all together, which took less than an hour. Next installed Windows 7 64-bit, for which fortunately I have a subscription license. Plugged in spare keyboard, mouse and monitor.

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I was impressed by the Windows Experience Index of 4.9, and Gaming graphics of 5.6 achieved by Intel’s integrated graphics. The board has VGA and DVI ports and supports dual displays. It also has HD audio and of course ethernet networking.

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What would it cost if I had not had spare DVD and hard drives? A 500GB drive is £42.70 and a DVD drive £11.94 currently, making £183.18, or £152.65 without the VAT.

Need Windows? You are a system builder, so you can get Windows Home Premium with SP1 64-bit for £75.99, or Professional for £104.98. Total cost with the cheaper option is £259.17, now more than a Google Nexus tablet (£159.00 for the 8GB version).

Add a screen, keyboard and mouse for £65.97 (BenQ LCD 18.5” 1366 x 768), and the complete system is £325.14, or £249.15 if you stick Ubuntu on in place of Windows 7.

Still, I’d bet that the average household has at least some reusable bits lying around.

The real point is how capable even a budget box like this turns out to be. The RAM is upgradeable to 16GB.

The dark side to all this is that the value of your old PC has plummeted since you bought it three or four years ago, and faults beyond the trivial are hardly worth repairing.

Finally, I should mention Raspberry Pi. The board complete with CPU, networking and graphics is £25.92. Add case, 4GB storage, power, keyboard, mouse, and HDMI monitor though, and my quick price for the complete system is £147.81, mostly for the monitor (Benq 21.5” HDMI). Of course there are many creative uses for a Raspberry Pi without buying a monitor.

My vote still goes to the PC for the best productivity on a budget.

PS let’s not forget the cheapest Mac, currently a Mac mini at £529. OS comes with it, but only 2GB RAM, no mouse, keyboard or monitor. Add those and it is over £600.

Canon PowerShot S100 vs Ixus 80 IS

I am not a photographer but take lots of snaps. I’ve been conscious for a while that my four-year old Canon Ixus 80 IS is not getting quite the results I would like so I have upgraded to a PowerShot S100, still relatively compact though larger and more expensive than the Ixus.

I expected an improvement but I am surprised how much better the S100 is. Here are a couple of comparisons. They are not all that scientific; they are what I got taking a snap at the default settings. This is the Ixus:

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and this is the PowerShot:

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Even more striking is this snap of a bee. This is a detail from a much larger shot as I did not get all that close to the bee, but the distance was similar. Here is the Ixus:

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and the S100:

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I hope that one of the outcomes will be better illustrations for this blog so keep reading!

 

Google Nexus 7: a little bit of everything you do

Google’s Nexus 7 is more than just a tablet. It is Google through and through: a trade where you get a cool device, and Google gets your data and the opportunity to sell you stuff, both advertising and content.

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That is why it is such good value; and it is good value. You get a 7″ 1280×800 display with toughened Corning glass; a Quad-core NVidia Tegra processor; WiFi; Bluetooth; NFC (Near Field Communications) with Android Beam; Accelerometer; GPS; Magnetometer, Gyroscope, 8 hours or so battery life, 1GB RAM, and 8 or 16GB (non-expandable) storage. It runs Android 4.1, “Jelly Bean”.

Not only is the spec decent, but the device is nicely done, though it has been put together quickly. The manufacturer, Asus, says that the Nexus was conceived at a meeting with Google in January, at CES 2012. A few points of interest from Asus:

  • The textured back cover is meant to “feel like a pair of premium driving gloves that will not slip out of your hands”.
  • There are two microphones, one on the top and one on the side, to avoid the chance of blocking audio input with your hand.
  • The display uses a single glass panel with a touch film layer, which Asus says makes it 42% thinner than a “standard touch display module”.

The display is excellent, bright to view and responsive to touch. I compared it to an HTC Flyer, another decent 7” Android tablet though now 18 months old, and the Nexus is sharper, more detailed and more vibrant.

The Nexus is also lighter and thinner than the Flyer, and performs better with its quad-core Tegra 3 vs the Flyer’s 1.%GHzz Snapdragon.

It is not all one way. The Flyer has a rear-facing camera, a microSD slot, and a stylus, all lacking on the Nexus. Still, the 16GB Flyer cost over £400 when it was released, and checking Amazon.co.uk today it is still over £200. The Nexus is £199.00 for 16GB, or £159.00 for 8GB, and comes with £15.00 credit towards content on the Google Play store.

In other words, the Nexus is fantastic value, and makes much of the competition look over-priced.

Nexus and you

First impressions of the Nexus are good. The device is easy to set up, though it insists that you sign in to a Google account. I had no problem setting up Exchange email alongside Gmail though.

There is an emphasis on content and one of the first things I noticed was the covers of a couple of CDs I recently purchased and ripped to my PC. The reason is that I have Google Music Manager installed on the PC, which had automatically uploaded them to Google Music, and now the Nexus was showing me recently uploaded music. It is what you can expect from a Google-connected life; stuff just shows up.

The home page is dominated by widgets recommending purchases. You can remove these but they set the tone: Google is trying to drive content sales.

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There is also a Google strip along the top of the home page which allows text or voice search. The first time you tap this, you get an invitation to sign up for Google Now, a service which mines your personal information, such as location, calendars and other data from Google and from third parties, in order to deliver alerts and reminders.

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Google Now is exactly in line with what former CEO Eric Schmidt said at Mobile World Congress back in 2010:

Google will know more about the customer because it benefits the customer if we know more about them.

Is it worth it? Does it matter if Google knows where you are, who your friends are, and where you are going? Can you trust Google not to misuse that information?

Those are big questions; and while I doubt that anything worse than occasional annoying advertising will happen if you switch on Google Now, it is also spooky and disturbing if you care about privacy.

Leaving aside the big issues, it is a great advertising opportunity for Google which can do targeting based not only on what it knows about you, but also on the context of where you are and what you are doing.

Nexus in use

What is the use of a 7” tablet? Quite a lot. It is a good size for personal media consumption, though it could do with a case that doubles as a stand for watching video. Web browsing works well using the Chrome browser. There is Maps, Skype, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, Kindle, music and games, calendar and email. The main limitation is that you need to be on WiFi, but most of the time that is not a problem.

The Nexus has three soft buttons: Home, Back and Recent apps.

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Recent apps shows thumbnails of what you have opened recently and feels like multitasking even though it does not guarantee that those apps are actually running.

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There are a few niggles. The Nexus has speech to text built-in. It kind-of works but so slowly that most will not bother with it. Typing is much quicker and more accurate, even on the soft keyboard.

No Adobe Flash, which is a disappointment, especially in the UK where BBC iPlayer is popular. Adobe is not making a version of Flash for Jelly Bean, though apparently older versions can be installed with a bit of manual effort. Flash cannot be installed directly from the Play store.

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Conclusion

I think Nexus will fly off the shelves. No it is not as good as an Apple iPad, but it is smaller, lighter and cheaper, all of which count for a lot.

With deals like this, Google is making life tough for its third-party partners, Asus aside, and giving Amazon (perhaps the immediate target) a challenge too. Nor will it be easy for the likes of Microsoft, RIM and Nokia coming into the market with new tablets, given everything that the Nexus does perfectly well and at a keen price.

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.

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