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Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.

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In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.

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The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.

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This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.

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Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.

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Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on 169.254.1.1. However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.

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Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware 2.05.2.01.

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.

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I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).

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Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.

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As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.

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It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material

Specifications

  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA

Event report: Sony demonstrates the high-res audio HAP-Z1ES player at the Audio Lounge in London

I went along to the Audio Lounge in London to hear Sony’s Eric Kingdon (Senior European Technical Marketing Manager) and Mike Somerset (Product Marketing Manager) talk about high resolution audio and demonstrate the HAP-Z1ES player.

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The HAP-Z1ES costs £1,999 and plays both DSD (the format of SACD) and PCM formats, including DSDIFF,DSF,WAV,FLAC,ALAC,MP3 and ATRAC. PCM is up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD up to double DSD (DSD 128). It was demonstrated with the Sony TA-A1E amplifier (also £1999) and the Crystal Cable Arabesque Mini loudspeakers which costs €12,999 (not sure of £ price) including the stands.

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This was a small event for customers and there were around 20 attending. Ruth Phypers at the Audio Lounge gave us a warm welcome and conveyed nothing other than enthusiasm for audio; no high-pressure sales here. The talk and demonstration took place in the basement listening room.

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High resolution audio is controversial, in that there is evidence that even CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) is good enough to capture everything we can hear in normal music played at normal levels – see Monty Montgomery’s excellent technical explanation and accompanying videos for why – and I was interested to see how Sony is pitching high-res to its potential customers. I was also interested to see if it would broach the tricky subject of DSD vs PCM and whether there is any audible difference.

In this respect it was a curious event as you will see. One of the odd things was that little music was played, maybe 10 minutes out of a one and a half hour presentation.

Somerset kicked things off, explaining the battle between convenience and quality in music reproduction. “We’ve lost a lot in quality” he said, thanks to the popularity of MP3. So what does Sony mean by high-res? Anything beyond CD quality, he said, confusing the issue: is it MP3 that is limiting audio quality today, or CD?

“A lot of people out there think CD, that’s as good as it gets, nothing better, obviously we know that’s not true,” he said.

That said, he made the point that the Z1ES is not just designed for high-res, but to perform well with most formats and resolution. It has a DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which supposedly improves the sound of lossy-compressed audio by “improving the spectrum” (according to the slide; I still have no idea what this means); and a DSD remastering engine that converts lossless PCM to double DSD on the fly (the PCM file remains as-is and it is not stored twice).

Why would you want to do that? I asked Kingdon later who said it was a matter of personal taste; you should take it home and try it. Personally I’m not sure why it should make any difference at all to the sound; you would have thought it would be audibly transparent if the double DSD encoding is doing its job, and if it does sound different it raises the question of whether the DSD conversion ends up colouring the sound; unless perhaps the DAC is more capable with DSD than with PCM. On this latter point Kingdon said no; the Burr-Brown DAC is excellent for PCM. DSD remastering is optional and you can easily enable or disable the feature.

Somerset also explained that the Z1ES does not stream music; it copies audio files to its own internal storage (1TB hard drive). However it can detect when music is added to a network location such as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive and copy it automatically. The reason it is copied and not streamed is to eliminate network latency, he said. If 1TB is not enough, you can attach a USB external drive, but this must be reformatted to Ext4 by the system, deleting any existing files.

The Ext4 limitation was a matter of some discussion and discontent among the audience. The Z1ES runs Linux internally, hence the requirement for Ext4, but Linux can mount other file formats successfully so a future firmware update will likely remove this limitation.

Kingdon then answered questions – would the unit go out of date quickly? No, it will have a long life, he promised. Why no video output? “It’s a pure audio product,” he said.

Eventually we got to a demo. Somerset kicked off by playing a Bob Dylan track, Blowing in the Wind (recorded in 1963) in three different formats. The first was 24-bit 88.2 kHz flac (I imagine derived from the DSD used for the SACD release, as conversions from SACD often end up as 24/88). The second was 256kpbs MP3. Finally, there was what he described as a “heavily compressed” MP3, though the exact resolution was not specified. All were derived from the same original source, we were told.

“For me, focusing on the vocals, you can really hear the difference in brightness,” said Somerset.

The odd thing was that (to my ears) the 24/88 version did indeed sound brighter and slightly louder than the MP3, which I find puzzling. I’m not aware of any technical reason why high resolution audio should sound any brighter (or tonally different) from CD or MP3. There was not a dramatic difference in overall quality from what little I could tell in the few seconds of music we heard, but I was not sure that the brighter sound was an improvement; Dylan can sound a little strident at times and the slightly mellower (and dare I say, more analogue-sounding) MP3 version could well be preferred.

We switched back and forth a couple of times, and then Somerset played the “heavily compressed” version. This sounded OK too, from what I could hear of it, which might explain why Somerset talked over it and stopped playing it quickly, saying how bad it was.

Next we heard a DSD download from Blue Coast records; it was Immediately Blessed by Keith Greeninger. This sounded superb, far better than the Dylan, though I doubt this was much to do with formats, but more because it was a modern recording made by a dedicated audiophile label. It was the best sound we heard.

Daft Punk followed, at 24/88.2, and then a 24/96 Linda Ronstadt track from 1983, and then a Nat King Cole song from 1957 in 16/44.1 format.

That was it for demos, if I remember right. What was notable to me was that Sony never demonstrated high-res vs CD quality, played only one DSD track, and used mostly older recordings. Some of these older recordings do indeed sound great, but I doubt it is the best way to demonstrate high resolution audio. If you attended the session as a high-res sceptic you would have heard nothing to change your mind.

Another odd thing was that we heard tracks there were available on SACD but played to us as PCM, most likely converted from the SACD source. Why did we not hear the DSD? It is probably do to with the difficulty all of us have in ripping SACD to audio files, which can only done (as far as I am aware) with a hacked PlayStation 3 with old firmware.

I asked Kingdon why Sony does not make its high-res products like the Z1ES more attractive by giving us the ability to rip SACD at best quality? The record companies would not like it, he said. “I’ve had this discussion so many times, I’ve got a big SACD collection, some of it isn’t available any more, I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you.”

Despite some frustration at the brevity and content of the demos, this was an enjoyable event with great hospitality from the Audio Lounge, some fascinating recollections from Kingdon of his time with Sony over many years, and a high level of warmth and friendliness all round.

Now if I were Sony I would use the best possible sources to show off high-res audio and the new player, and avoid misleading comparisons or doubtful technical statements. The fact is that many high-res sources, whether SACD, DVD Audio (which you can easily rip to a player like this) or downloads, do sound excellent, and for many that is more than enough to justify purchase.

Would a beautifully mastered CD or CD-quality download sound just as good? Possibly, and the fact that Sony did not attempt to demonstrate the difference, but compared high-res to MP3, lends support to the idea. If there really is a big difference, why not demonstrate it?

As for the Z1ES itself, I heard enough to know that it can sound very good indeed. It is disappointing that it has no surround sound capability, and no digital input so you could use it as an external DAC, but those are not show-stoppers. For myself I would be more inclined to invest in a standalone DAC, maybe one which is both DSD and PCM capable, but if you like simplicity, then a machine with its own storage, DAC, remote, and handy screen for album artwork does make sense.

Smartphone Camera fun: Nokia Lumia 1020 vs Sony Xperia Z2

Sony has announced the latest Xperia, the X2, here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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The Z2 boasts “a pro-grade camera far beyond smartphone class performance”, and captures images at 20.7MP, as inscribed on the rear:

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Sony calls its imaging sensor technology Exmor, and the Xperia Z2 uses Exmor RS for mobile.

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The camera software on the Z2 has an extensive range of options, some of which are shown below.

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How does it compare though with Nokia’s PureView technology, and in particular the Lumia 1020 with its 41MP camera?

First, I tried taking a similar point and shoot picture of the delightful view from the Sony stand.

Here is the Sony. It is a detail from the full image, so you can view it at full resolution:

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and here is the Lumia:

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Note that I am not using a tripod so the quality is influenced by how good the image stabilisation software is, as well as the inherent quality of the optics.

Sony has a special demo to show off the low-light performance of the Z2.

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See that small hole? You align the phone so that the camera can see through the hole, and take a picture. It looks like it will turn out blank, but actually picks up an image from the low light:

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This is not full resolution, but you get the idea.

My first effort with the Lumia was a disaster:

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I was sure it could do better, so I whacked up the ISO sensitivity and set the shutter to 4s:

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Still, in terms of automatic settings detection, the Sony proved more effective.

Which camera is better? On this quick and dirty test I felt that both phones performed well, but I am not ready to give up the Lumia 1020 yet. Then again, you do have to live with the slight protrusion of the Lumia 1020 lens from the body, whereas the Z2 is perfectly smooth.

Disclaimer: I am not a photographer and my interest is in taking quick pictures of decent quality conveniently rather than getting the best that can be achieved. I look forward to more detailed comparisons of the Z2 vs Lumia 1020 from photography enthusiasts in due course.

Microsoft’s Xbox One almost invisible at Gadget Show Live

I looked in on London’s Gadget Show Live this morning. It was the usual frustrating experience: the things that were interesting were surrounded by hordes of visitors so you could barely get a look.

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Here is what I found curious. Microsoft is the lead sponsor, but the Xbox One was shown only on a tiny stand near the back of the hall. Here it is – all of it.

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By contrast, Sony had a huge stand for PlayStation 4. Apologies; my snap does not show the scale well.

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That said, Microsoft had its own massive stand, but for Windows, with a strong push for Surface tablets and a reasonable presence for Windows Phone.

However, if you look at the demographic of the show, with lots of kids even on a Friday, it is better suited to gaming consoles than to relatively expensive tablets – though to be fair, the Windows tablets seemed to be attracting a fair amount of attention.

I had a chat with a guy from Sonos at its stand. Will Sonos support high resolution formats (better then CD quality)? This is almost a trick question as I’m not sure you can hear the difference; but there is nevertheless strong demand for it in the slightly crazy world of high-end audio. Apparently there are ways to do it now, but the Sonos engineers are working at bringing full support into the range.

Sonos has apps for iOS and Android; what if I have a Windows Phone? No support yet but again I got the impression that this is being looked at. There is a public API so third-party support is also possible. They appear also to be considering a Windows 8 store app though nothing is confirmed.

Panasonic had a rather lovely 4K display running full resolution video – only £5,499 – as well as a 3D display which looked great though it requires glasses. Don’t bother with 4K unless you have a 42″ or bigger screen, I was told by a Panasonic guy.

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I also watched a bit of Gadget Show Live in the Super Theatre. Sorry, but I thought it was dreadful. Little innovation on show, slightly risqué humour despite the presence of many kids in the audience – “I’ve got a new girlfriend, you should see her Nokias” said a robot comedian, for example. I may be in a minority as the show overall seemed to go down OK.

Talking of the robot comedian, it was controlled by a Windows 8 tablet strapped to its back. After three or four jokes something went wrong and it had to be controlled manually, reducing the robot to little more than a fancy powered loudspeaker. Never mind.

Review: Sony HDR-PJ320E Handycam Camcorder and Projector: nice features, shame about the image quality

The Sony PJ320E is an HD camcorder with a neat trick: it is also a projector, making it a true all-in-one device. Shoot your video, dim the lights, sit back and watch your creation on the nearest wall. You can also use it as a projector for any device with HDMI output, which includes most new laptops and some tablets.

The perfect camcorder then? I wish it were; but unfortunately its core feature, making videos, is disappointing considering the price, plus there are a few other limitations to be aware of.

What you get is the camcorder, mains adapter, a micro to standard HDMI cable, and a USB extender cable. The reason for the extender cable is that the camcorder has a very short (4cm or so) USB cable built-in, which tucks into the handle when not in use. Handy, and will work OK with a laptop, but if you have a desktop PC you will probably want to use the extender cable.

What you don’t get with this particular model is any storage. There is none built-in, and no SD card is supplied. So you have to supply your own SD card. It supports SD, SDHC, SDXC, and Sony’s own Memory Stick media, up to 64GB. For the SD cards, class 4 or faster is specified. I used a 32GB class 10 SDHC card.

Operation

Like most camcorders, this one has a grip handle and flip-out screen. You can twist the flip-out screen around so it faces forward, handy for the self-timer. Menus are chosen by touch control on the screen, and while this works it is a rather small screen and fiddly to operate.

There are also some physical buttons: zoom lever, photo button, and start/stop for video recording. On the inside panel are buttons for projector mode, play and power, and along the top a focus slider for projecting. The camcorder can be mounted on a tripod.

There are two shooting modes, video and photo. In some video modes you can still take photos with the photo button, but not vice versa.

Connection options are generous. There is a flap on the side covering power in and multi video out (for TVs that lack an HDMI input), though the multi video connector is an optional extra. On the inner panel you get HDMI in and out (the in being for projecting), and microphone in with plug-in power.

The device is light and compact and basic operation is easy. The main snag is the slightly awkward menu system.

Specifications

On paper this is a decent camcorder. Here are a few key specifications:

30x optical zoom extended to 55x for video recording.
Still photos up to 8.0 mega pixels, 16:9 format
1080 HD video recording, 16:9 format
Focal distance 1.9-57mm
Frame rate 50i or 50p
Projector resolution 640 x 360
Projector brightness 13 lumens
Battery life: typical 75 minutes recording, 240 minutes playback

Image quality

My biggest concern with this device is that I could not achieve excellent results. Don’t even think of using this for still photos; they are poor quality despite their high pixel count.

Here is a shot of some daffodils:

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I took a similar shot on my excellent Canon S100 camera:

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The difference is more apparent when you zoom in. Sony first, Canon next:

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How about videos? Here the Sony comes out better, as you would expect. The Canon S100 can also take videos, but while the image quality was still better on the Canon, it was more jerky when panning; the Sony is much better at steadying the image, for handheld videos. Credit to Sony for that.

Here is a quick video of the flowers using default automatic settings. Note: to get the best quality set it to play in 1080p:

This struck me as over-exposed, and I tried again using manual exposure:

I got the best results using the highest available quality (no surprise).

The video quality is not that bad, but less good than the resolution would lead you to expect.

Note that the lens is a Sony G lens, not a Carl Zeiss as used on some Sony models.

Sound quality

The audio side is pretty good. Built-in stereo mic on the front, option for external mic with plug-in power support, Dolby Digital recording.

Projecting

Of course the Sony is also a projector, which is a lot of fun. The projector is the DLP type which is ideal for portability. The downside is that it is low resolution and the lamp is not very powerful, but that is expected. It certainly beats having to peer at the tiny screen to watch a video, though if you have a TV handy you will probably be better off connecting to that with HDMI rather than projecting.

The HDMI input means you can connect other devices. I tried this with a Sony Xperia phone which supports MHL, meaning that the USB port can be used for HDMI output with a suitable adaptor. This worked well, and I could project a video from the phone through the Sony camcorder.

Will you use this much though? What about purchasing a separate pocket projector and a conventional camcorder instead – you will probably get better quality for both, and spend no more money.

Features

There are a range of options in the menus though documentation for these is not great. Features include Spot focus, which focuses automatically on a subject you touch, and Smile shutter, which automatically takes a picture when it detects a smile! I tested this and it actually worked, good fun.

There is a useful feature called My Button. Four buttons on the left of the touch screen are user-assignable, so you can quickly access a feature without having to scroll through the menus.

Other features include white balance adjustment, self-timer, manual focus, low light optimization, wind noise reduction for the mic, and of course image size and quality.

Software

Sony supplies free software for PC and PlayStation 3, called PlayMemories. You can import images and video from the camcorder, upload to a cloud service for sharing, and burn DVD or Blu-ray discs. Mac users miss out on this, but can still easily import from the camcorder.

Conclusion

I like the features of this camcorder and if the image quality were better I would love it. As it is, I feel it is a nice device let down by poor optics. It is light and convenient though, with some fun features. Recommended if the combination of camcorder and projector in one unit is particularly useful, but for pure video quality you could do better.

New Sony PlayStation Network hack: not as bad as you may have heard

Sony’s Chief Security Officer Philip Reitinger has reported a new attack on the PlayStation network leading to headlines stating Sony hacked again. Has the company not learned from the incidents earlier this year?

Actually, it probably has; the new hacking attempt does not exploit any weakness in Sony’s network unless you consider any system reliant on username/password to be weak – not an unreasonable opinion, but given that the likes of Apple and Amazon and PayPal still use it, hardly fair to single out Sony.

If you read the statement carefully, it says that somebody obtained a large list of username/password pairs and ran them against Sony’s network. Further:

given that … the overwhelming majority of the pairs resulted in failed matching attempts, it is likely the data came from another source and not from our Networks

Because of the large number of PlayStation users, there were still 93,000 successful matches, which to its credit Sony says it detected – presumably there was a pattern to the attack, such as a limited range of source IP numbers or other evidence of automated log-in attempts.

If Sony is right, and the list of passwords came from another source, there is no reason why the hacker might not try the same list against other targets and this is not evidence of a weakness in the PlayStation network itself.

As Reitinger notes:

We want to take this opportunity to remind our consumers about the increasingly common threat of fraudulent activity online, as well as the importance of having a strong password and having a username/password combination that is not associated with other online services or sites. We encourage you to choose unique, hard-to-guess passwords and always look for unusual activity in your account.

It is good advice, though can be impractical if you have a very large number of online accounts. Something like PasswordSafe or Keypass is near-essential for managing them, if you are serious about maintaining numerous different combinations.

From what we know so far though, this is not evidence of continued weakness in the PlayStation network; rather, it is evidence of the continued prevalence of hacking attempts. Kudos to Sony for its open reporting.

Sony PlayStation network hacked, some disclosure, questions remain

Sony has posted information about the “illegal intrusion on our systems” that has caused the PlayStation Network (PSN) to be closed temporarily. PSN is necessary for playing online games and downloading music and videos.

Sony has disclosed that:

Between April 17 and April 19 2011 an attacker gained access to “user account information”

The information includes:

name, address (city, state, zip), country, email address, birthdate, PlayStation Network/Qriocity password and login, and handle/PSN online ID. It is also possible that your profile data, including purchase history and billing address (city, state, zip), and your PlayStation Network/Qriocity password security answers may have been obtained.

The information might include:

While there is no evidence at this time that credit card data was taken, we cannot rule out the possibility. If you have provided your credit card data through PlayStation Network or Qriocity, out of an abundance of caution we are advising you that your credit card number (excluding security code) and expiration date may have been obtained

The remainder of the information is mainly generic advice on fraud prevention. Many comments to the blog post make the reasonable point: why were they not informed earlier?

How many users are on PSN? The number 75 million is widely reported. In January Sony claimed over 69 million PSN members.

It is easy to say that Sony should have operated a more secure system. Making a judgment on that is hard because there is a lot we do not know. Was this information encrypted? Sony says passwords were stolen, which may mean they were unencrypted though that is hard to believe; or that they were encrypted but likely to be easily decrypted, which is perhaps more likely. On the other hand the fact that encryption is not mentioned in the post tends to suggest that none of this information was encrypted.

The scale of the incident makes it remarkable but the fact of network intrusions and personal data being stolen is not surprising, and likely much more of this happens than is reported.

The state of internet security overall remains poor and what we see constantly is that security best practices are ignored. Convenience and the desire of marketers to grab as much personal data as possible constantly trumps security.

Here is Kim Cameron, Microsoft’s identity architect, writing in 2005:

We should build systems that employ identifying information on the basis that a breach is always possible. Such a breach represents a risk. To mitigate risk, it is best to acquire information only on a “need to know” basis, and to retain it only on a “need to retain” basis. By following these practices, we can ensure the least possible damage in the event of a breach.

The concept of “least identifying information” should be taken as meaning not only the fewest number of claims, but the information least likely to identify a given individual across multiple contexts. For example, if a scenario requires proof of being a certain age, then it is better to acquire and store the age category rather than the birth date. Date of birth is more likely, in association with other claims, to uniquely identify a subject, and so represents “more identifying information” which should be avoided if it is not needed.

Cameron’s thoughtful and excellent “laws of identity” lack take-up within Microsoft as well as elsewhere; the CardSpace system that was built to support it was scrapped.

An example of the low priority of security around the web is the prevalence of “password security answers” as Sony describes them. This is additional information that allow you to recover an account if the password is forgotten, especially if the email address associated with the account is no longer in use. Contrary to the impression given by the forms that require the information, these questions and answers reduce your security in order to ease the burden on support. They break Cameron’s laws of identity by providing the third party with information that it does not need, such as mother’s maiden name, though of course you can provide fictional answers and in fact I recommend this.

Personally I am also one of those people who never tick the “save credit card details” box. I am happy to enter them every time, rather than hand them over to a system of unknown security. Some sites do not let you make purchases without saving credit card details; as I recall, Amazon is one of them, and Apple another. This means the consequences of security breaches at these companies are greater, though I imagine they also make more sales since the friction of the purchasing process is reduced.

I am not optimistic that internet security will improve in the near future, though I guess that major breaches like this one are a force for reform.

Update: In a new post Sony says that credit card data was encrypted but personal data was not. I am surprised if this included passwords; but the IT world is full of surprises.

Using HTML 5 to mitigate locked-down platforms like Apple iOS

Apple has created a beautiful mobile platform; but it has some drawbacks. One was highlighted yesterday, when Apple rejected an app from Sony for reading and purchasing digital books on the device.

According to Apple’s Trudy Miller, as quoted in the New York Times:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app.

What Miller does not spell out is the further implication, which is that the purchase must go though the Apple App Store, and is therefore subject both to approval and to a 30% fee to Apple.

There is a suggestion that Apple is only applying the rule to books at the moment, but that could change. Other readers such as Amazon’s Kindle app will be affected though, after a grace period ending June 30 2011 for existing applications.

Currently these apps have a link which opens the browser, so that users can purchase on the web, and then download to the device, and this is what is annoying Apple. It is not clear to me whether Apple will be satisfied if that link is removed, but with users still to bypass the App Store by purchasing on the web.

It matters little. It is Apple’s platform, and tight control is one of its facets that makes it what it is. Apple can argue that it is enforcing the quality of the user experience. It seems to me that there are competition concerns if Apple comes to dominate a particular market; but don’t hold your breath for change driven by regulators.

What interests me about the issue is the extent to which HTML 5 apps provide a solution. Safari/WebKit on iPhone is a capable platform, and apps can even work offline and have local shortcuts installed. You can use local storage up to at least 5MB, with the user prompted to increase the limit if it is a SQL database – SQLite is built in to the platform.

Local storage is a problem for eReaders, though you can cache a fair amount of text even in 5MB. For many apps though, it is more than enough.

The more Apple locks down and taxes its platform, the more attractive the HTML5 alternative becomes.

Ten big tech trends from 2010

This was an amazing year for tech. Here are some of the things that struck me as significant.

Sun Java became Oracle Java

Oracle acquired Sun and set about imposing its authority on Java. Java is still Java, but Oracle lacks Sun’s commitment to open source and community – though even in Sun days there was tension in this area. That was nothing to the fireworks we saw in 2010, with Java Community Process members resigning, IBM switching from its commitment to the Apache Harmony project to the official OpenJDK, and the Apache foundation waging a war of words against Oracle that was impassioned but, it seems, futile.

Microsoft got cloud religion

Only up to a point, of course. This is the Windows and Office company, after all. However – and this is a little subjective – this was the year when Microsoft convinced me it is serious about Windows Azure for hosting our applications and data. In addition, it seems to me that the company is willing to upset its partners if necessary for the sake of its hosted Exchange and SharePoint – BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), soon to become Office 365.

This is a profound change for Microsoft, bearing in mind its business model. I spoke to a few partners when researching this article for the Register and was interested by the level of unease that was expressed.

Microsoft also announced some impressive customer wins for BPOS, especially in government, though the price the customers pay for these is never mentioned in the press releases.

Microsoft Silverlight shrank towards Windows-only

Silverlight is Microsoft’s browser plug-in which delivers multimedia and the .NET Framework to Windows and Mac; it is also the development platform for Windows Phone 7. It still works on a Mac, but in 2010 Microsoft made it clear that cross-platform Silverlight is no longer its strategy (if it ever was), and undermined the Mac version by adding Windows-specific features that interoperate with the local operating system. Silverlight is still an excellent runtime, powerful, relatively lightweight, easy to deploy, and supported by strong tools in Visual Studio 2010. If you have users who do not run Windows though, it now looks a brave choice.

The Apple iPad was a hit

I still have to pinch myself when thinking about how Microsoft now needs to catch up with Apple in tablet computing. I got my first tablet in 2003, yes seven years ago, and it ran Windows. Now despite seven years of product refinement it is obvious that Windows tablets miss the mark that Apple has hit with its first attempt – though drawing heavily on what it learnt with the equally successful iPhone. I see iPads all over the place, in business as well as elsewhere, and it seems to me that the success of a touch interface on this larger screen signifies a transition in personal computing that will have a big impact.

Google Android was a hit

Just when Apple seemed to have the future of mobile computing in its hands, Google’s Android alternative took off, benefiting from mass adoption by everyone-but-Apple among hardware manufacturers. Android is not as elegantly designed or as usable as Apple’s iOS, but it is close enough; and it is a relatively open platform that runs Adobe Flash and other apps that do not meet Apple’s approval. There are other contenders: Microsoft Windows Phone 7; RIM’s QNX-based OS in the PlayBook; HP’s Palm WebOS; Nokia Symbian and Intel/Nokia MeeGo – but how many mobile operating systems can succeed? Right now, all we can safely say is that Apple has real competition from Android.

HP fell out with Microsoft

Here is an interesting one. The year kicked off with a press release announcing that HP and Microsoft love each other to the extent of $250 million over three years – but if you looked closely, that turned out to be less than a similar deal in 2006. After that, the signs were even less friendly. HP acquired Palm in April, signalling its intent to compete with Windows Mobile rather than adopting it; and later this year HP announced that it was discontinuing its Windows Home Server range. Of course HP remains a strong partner for Windows servers, desktops and laptops; but these are obvious signs of strain.

The truth though is that these two companies need one another. I think they should kiss and make up.

eBook readers were a hit

I guess this is less developer-oriented; but 2010 was the year when electronic book publishing seemed to hit the mainstream. Like any book lover I have mixed feelings about this and its implications for bookshops. I doubt we will see books disappear to the same extent as records and CDs; but I do think that book downloads will grow rapidly over the next few years and that paper-and-ink sales will diminish. It is a fascinating tech battle too: Amazon Kindle vs Apple iPad vs the rest (Sony Reader, Barnes and Noble Nook, and others which share their EPUB format). I have a suspicion that converged devices like the iPad may win this one, but displays that are readable in sunlight have special requirements so I am not sure.

HTML 5 got real

2010 was a huge year for HTML 5 – partly because Microsoft announced its support in Internet Explorer 9, currently in beta; and partly because the continued growth of browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, and the WebKit-based Google Chrome, Apple Safari and numerous mobile browsers showed that HTML 5 would be an important platform with or without Microsoft. Yes, it is fragmented and unfinished; but more and more of HTML 5 is usable now or in the near future.

Adobe Flash survived Apple and HTML 5

2010 was the year of Steve Jobs’ notorious Thoughts on Flash as well as a big year for HTML 5, which encroaches on territory that used to require the services of a browser plug-in. Many people declared Adobe Flash dead, but the reality was different and the company had a great year. Apple’s focus on design and usability helps Adobe’s design-centric approach even while Apple’s refusal to allow Flash on its mobile computers opposes it.

Windows 7 was a hit

Huge relief in Redmond as Windows 7 sold and sold. The future belongs to mobile and cloud; but Windows is not going away soon, and version 7 is driving lots of upgrades as even XP diehards move over. I’m guessing that we will get first sight of Windows 8 in 2011. Another triumph, or another Vista?