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, 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 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

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.

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.

Logitech UE9000 Headphones

My first impression: monsters. Big, heavy monsters. In reality they’re not much heavier than my BlackBox M14 ANC headphones that I use for flying, but compared to lightweight in-ear monitors that I normally wear, they’re huge. So, what do you get in this big package?Custom_format_UE9000_BTY1 MED

  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR support
  • Active noise cancellation
  • Optional wired connection with mic and remote
  • Built-in lithium batteries and micro-USB charging
  • Talk-through support when in wireless mode
  • Logitech UE “sound signature”

Basically, the UE9000’s are stacked with every feature you might want from headphones. Run them as premium wired headphones and they sound fantastic. Turn on the built-in amp and they sound even better. Sound reproduction is great, with punchy lows and crystal-clear high notes. But with the NZ$599 price you would expect nothing less.

If you prefer to run without wires, unplug the (extremely well engineered and sturdy) blue cable, and pair them with your Bluetooth device. Again sound seems fine (Bluetooth is never going to be as good as a wired connection), but the cool thing is these headphones also work perfectly as a Bluetooth headset. It’s strange because there’s no nerdy boom mic, but my voice came through loud and clear.

The Active Noise Cancelling is up there with the best – blocking out what little background noise leaks through the comfy ear pads. Given how effective even passive noise protection is on these ‘phones, one cool addition is “Talk-Through”: if you’re using the headphones in wireless mode, you can tap a button on top of the left headphone to reduce the music volume and activate the built-in microphones so you can hear external noises. This way you can chat to people without having to take the headphones off.

Battery life is excellent. I’ve tried to run them flat listening to music for an entire work day on Bluetooth, but was unable to drain the battery. Even if  you could do so, there’s nothing stopping you leaving the micro-USB charge cable attached while you listen.


  • Fantastic sound quality
  • Great wireless performance
  • Talk-through
  • Excellent Logitech / UE build quality


  • Fairly heavy
  • Expensive (but not really compared to other high-end noise cancelling headphones)



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