CategoryReviews

Reviews of stuff…

Orbitsound SB60 Airsound vs M9 Soundbar

A little while back, I was contacted by reps from Orbitsound to ask whether I wanted to check out their SB60 Airsound Base. I’ve been looking for something with a bit more oomph than the plain old TV speakers, so I took them up on the offer.

SB60 Airsound™ Base

If I’m honest, I was pretty unimpressed with the SB60. It added a bit more volume to the TV output, but I found the overall output very muddy, especially when it comes to voices. Not being able to clearly distinguish voices from background noise and music is a fairly fundamental flaw for a device designed to sit under your television.

I’m not sure if it was the particular acoustics of our TV cabinet, or a fundamental flaw with the SB60, but it was bad enough that we found ourselves using the TV sound more often than not.

So, when I returned the SB60 and Orbitsound came back with an offer to also try their M9 Soundbar, I wasn’t expecting to be impressed.

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Livescribe 3 SmartPen

I’ll admit to being a bit of a pen nerd. I’ve been know to spend silly amounts of time and money at jetpens.com, and yeah I’ve owned and used a fountain pen. Hey, at least I don’t wear a fedora.

Despite this, I don’t actually write a lot. I spend 95% of my time behind a keyboard, and have got to the point where it really is faster for me to get my thoughts out with Evernote and a decent keyboard than it is to pick up a pen and paper. It is however the Evernote connection that got me interested in the Livescribe 3 SmartPen when the team from smartpen.co.nz got in touch.

smartpenSo what do I think of it? It’s a chunky pen. Not much bigger than a nice Cross or Rotring, but – surprisingly – a lot lighter. I’ve drawn a rendering of the pen, using the pen, at right. The ballpoint nib is at the very front tip of the pen, and behind it is a little cavity that I presume contains a camera. The nib being offset is a little weird at first, but you get used to it quickly. You operate the pen by twisting the middle section, which pops out the nib and turns the pen on.

By itself, the pen doesn’t actually do anything more than a regular ballpoint. The magic comes when you pair it with a smartphone and start writing on their special notebooks. Using the pattern on the paper, the pen can track what it is writing and send it direct to your phone. It’s pretty techy, and works incredibly well.

The required Livescribe+ app is serviceable, but not stellar. It works fine to sync pages from the smartpen, but I find I use it mainly as a bridge to Evernote, rather than for any particular heavy lifting. Here’s an example of what a page looks like once it’s synced to Evernote. I’m impressed with the clarity and resolution, and the pen doesn’t seem to miss any strokes even when I’m moving very fast.

Each page in the notebook has “buttons” for recording audio and tagging notes. I was a bit disappointed that audio recording requires the app to be running – the buttons on the notebook simply signal the app to start and stop recording. If the pen itself held the recordings, I’d use that function a lot more, because the offline pen mode is brilliant otherwise. That is: you can simply use the pen without your smartphone connected, and take many pages of notes before syncing with the app. This is perfect for conferences or lectures.

The Livescribe+ app will also convert your handwriting to editable text. I found this about 80-90% accurate, but my chicken-scratch handwriting is very sub-par. In experimentation if I slowed down just a little bit and concentrated on writing clearly, the accuracy was more like 98-100%. If you have neat handwriting, this would work ok.

livescribeI’ve found I use the pen a fair amount to capture a quick scribble, an image or perhaps a mindmap; sometimes a  page of notes in an environment where I don’t feel comfortable sitting bashing away at my laptop keyboard. I think if you’re a big pen-based note taker this pen could genuinely change your world, but for me it’s supplementary.

Still, for the size and weight, this thing is bloody remarkable. I like it.

 

 

Sphero 2: Not just a toy

I saw my first Sphero at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in 2013. Sphero wasn’t new at the time, but after seeing it in action I just had to have one. Who wouldn’t want a silly robotic ball that you can control with your smartphone?

Image via Time.com

Fast-forward 12 months and the revised Sphero 2 is on my desk. It’s faster, brighter and apparently more agile than the original. The 10 year-old and I had a blast putting the new Sphero through its paces, bumping down the hallway and occasionally hitting the ramps. Yup – it’s still pretty hard to get Sphero heading in the direction you want, but it sure is fun while you try.

Out of the box (which includes two jump ramps), Sphero 2 is quite a bit more fun than the original. A new career mode has been added to the basic smartphone app, encouraging users to play with Sphero to unlock new tricks and develop their control skills. There are of course a bunch of other apps to play with too.

But to me, just playing with Sphero using the provided apps is only the start.

Programming Sphero

Orbotix have obviously had a lot of feedback from people like me: coders and parents of curious 10 year olds. Their Sphero MacroLab and more advanced orbBasic apps provide a great way for kids (and adults) to experiment with basic programming techniques. I’m not sure how many institutes have taken up Orbotix’s education discount, but it looks like a great idea.

For those with more experience in coding, Orbotix provides a full Sphero SDK for most platforms, and a bunch of documentation and information via their official developer portal. Orbotix’s GitHub profile is a quick way to to see some of the available samples.

Perhaps one of the more zany things about Sphero is that you can use its location and orientation sensors as input devices, rather than just telling the robot where to go. There are a few examples of Sphero as an input device for gaming and 3D input, but perhaps the coolest one is using Sphero to control a drone:

The demo above uses the AR-Drone Sphero SDK. Perhaps you could take it to the next level by using the spheroSMS package to control the AR-Drone via Sphero via SMS?

In conclusion, Sphero is totally nuts, both as a simple toy and as a tool for education and software development. It’s just plain fun, and I can’t wait to play with the new Ollie, which promises to be like Sphero on steroids.

Grandroids: Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z, HTC One

Sometimes the planets just align in the world of smartphones. In the space of a couple of months, we’ve seen three flagship phones released that seem so similar in specification that they could have been cast from the same mold. They all have 1080p screens and stupid-fast quad core processors. So: what’s the difference? Which one should you buy?

Firstly, from a performance and utility perspective, there’s nothing between these phones. They all do everything you’d expect from a top-end smartphone, and they all do it screamingly fast. You will not be disappointed to own any of these phones.

Forced to pick their differences, here’s how I see it broken down in a few key areas:

Screen

Sony Xperia ZWhen I first saw the Xperia Z (the first of these phones I laid eyes on), I was absolutely floored by its display. 1920×1080 pixels on these screen sizes is frankly bonkers: you cannot pick out an individual pixel, and the huge space for rendering browser content is wonderful. But. But but but. Compared to the HTC One and Galaxy S4, the Z is just missing something. Slightly washed out perhaps? Poor viewing angles? Not a showstopper, but enough that you can easily feel the difference.

The Galaxy S4 screen isn’t without fault either: it’s incredibly bright and punchy, to the point of being offensive. If you get one I highly recommend going into the display settings and changing the display to “Movie” mode. Colours in that mode are more realistic and the screen becomes more comfortable to look at.

Out of the box, the HTC One’s screen is the best of the bunch in my opinion.

Apps and Launchers

All of these phones run Android 4 and have the Google Play store available to download any apps you may desire. However: they take different approaches to the out-of-box experience. The Xperia Z is the most “vanilla”, with a standard-ish Android launcher populated with a few specialist Sony apps.

HTC goes a bit further with their Flipboard-esque Blinkfeed homepage, from which you can swipe to get at, again, a standard Android icon based app launcher. Blinkfeed looks nice, but I think if I was to use the HTC One as my main phone, I’d replace the launcher with something more standard and fill it with the widgets I’d like to use, rather than having stuff pushed at me.

Samsung’s launcher is fairly vanilla, but it comes out of the box packed to the gunnels with … crap. I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put it. I understand Samsungs intentions here: they see that a large number of Android users don’t really install apps or use widgets, so they’re lending a helping hand: here’s your fitness app, and your photo gallery app, and here’s a voice thing, and a translator, oh and a note thing, and … and.

For a user who doesn’t know that the Play Store exists, this might be useful. For readers of this article, and most experienced Android users, this just means removing widgets and uninstalling Samsung crapware until you can make some space and install the decent apps you need. It reminds me, in a bad way, of the crapware that comes loaded on Windows PCs.

Camera

I want to love HTC’s approach to the camera on the One. The science nerd inside me says that having fewer pixels on a small sensor means bigger “photosites”, less noise, and better response in low light. However, the comparison posts that have popped up seem to show that the Galaxy S4 camera blows pretty much everything else out of the water in all but the crappiest lighting conditions.

As with other aspects, the HTC One and Xperia Z cameras are perfectly fine, and will serve you ok for quick snaps, but if you want the best photos out of your smartphone, then the S4 is the way to go.

Physical Design

Samsung Galaxy S4 Physically, the Galaxy S4 is just shit. The first experience out of the box has you removing the flimsy, bendy back cover to insert a battery. The feel of that cover just gives me no confidence in the build quality of the phone. Once on, it also feels sweaty and slippery. Compared to the HTC One and the Xperia Z, the Galaxy’s physical look and feel just fall well short of what we’ve come to expect of a modern flagship smartphone.

If looks and build quality don’t matter to you, this is not a problem. But even considering the S4’s other fantastic qualities, the physical feel of the phone is almost enough to put me off.

In comparison, the HTC One is probably the best looking and feeling phone of this size that I’ve laid hands on. The weight is fantastic, and the feel in the hand is just right. It’s solid enough to give you confidence while not being chunky, and the blend of curves and hard edges make for a great hand-feel.

Likewise, the Xperia Z looks stunning. An obsidian-black monolith, sealed all around with milspec waterproofing, the thing just wants to be touched. The water resistance is a welcome addition: being able to rinse a phone under running water is not something I expected to like, but after doing it a few times I wish I could do it to every phone I’ve owned.

Unfortunately the convenience of a washable phone comes with downsides: every time you want to charge the Z or plug your headphones in, you have to fiddle with the (thankfully well-engineered) port flaps. I’m not positive if the waterproofing remains in effect with the flaps open, but I’d guess not.

If I had to pick one of these three phones purely on looks, it would be the HTC One. If I was a tradesman or regular watersports participant, I’d go with the Xperia Z.

Conclusion

HTC oneIt’s bloody hard to pick a winner from this bunch. They each have their upsides and some very minor downs. The HTC One camera is a disappointment but it looks smashing; the Samsung feels cheesy but is incredibly light and has a fantastic camera; and the waterproof Z could come in very handy, while Sony have also done amazing things with the modding community.

Forced at gunpoint to pick a phone, I’d take the HTC One, but I’d not be at all upset to take home any of the three.

As usual, I’m happy to answer any specific questions in the comments below.

Double Review: Samsung DA-E750 and Logitech UE Boombox

I can’t think of the last time I used a stereo of any form. For the last few years at least, all of the music in our household has come from smartphones, so it’s not wonder that audio docks are evolving fast. In this review I take a look at a couple of offerings from Samsung and Logitech.

samsung e750The Samsung DA-E750 is a beast, which ever way you look at it. It’s 450mm wide and weighs almost 10kgs. I’m not sure if this heft comes from the heavy wooden case, the 100W faux vacuum tube amp, or the woven-glass speaker system. Any way you look at it, this thing is the very definition of super-premium – right down to the retail price: $899 (although JB HiFi will sell you one for $650).

Thankfully the sound generated from the Samsung is super-premium too. It packs a serious punch for something that’s not a full-blown stereo system. Plenty enough power for partying, my only complaint being that it’s a touch too bass-heavy when the volume is low.

Connectivity abounds with the DA-E750. You can connect it to your network via wireless or wired ethernet, and it will turn up as an Apple AirPlay and/or DLNA receiver. Otherwise just use Bluetooth to connect to the dock, or plug your iPhone in directly via the nifty pop-out plug dock. That same dock also has a standard micro USB charging plug, so any phone with a plug on the bottom should fit. My Nokia Lumia 920 sat there happily.

Logitech-UE-BoomboxSomewhat down the other end of the scale sits the Logitech UE Boombox. Weighing in at a svelte 2kg and priced at $349, the UE Boombox supports Bluetooth as a single connection option, and doesn’t have any form of physical dock.

The Logitech is designed to be portable, sporting a 6-hour battery and the ability to pair to 8 different devices and connect to 3 simultaneously. In practice it seems that the last device to play gets priority, so it can result in a bit of a war over audio if multiple phones are trying to play at the same time.

The sound from the Logitech is never going to compete with the Samsung, but it does a wonderful job for what it is. I can imagine it would be a winner with the kids on the beach.

These devices are definitely aimed at different markets and uses, but for me personally (not being a Lotto winner), the Logitech would be my choice if I was forced to select between the two. It’s easily portable, simple to use, and I kinda like the retro-cool styling.

However, if I did have a library with walnut shelving, deep-button leather couch, and a cigar humidor, the Samsung would absolutely take pride of place.

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