Windows 10 answers the problem of system sounds playing through that good sound sound system

This arrangement documented here will work with Windows 10 computers running the April Update (Build 1803) version of that operating system or newer versions.

I have just applied the latest feature update to my Windows 10 installation on my regular computer and it has come across with a feature that most of you will want to benefit from when you use your computer to play audio or video content.

This feature update called Windows 10 April Update or formerly Windows 10 Spring Update (Build number 1803 in the System dialog) implements the ability to determine which sound device a program uses. Some Win32 (traditionally-developed) programs, namely well-bred media editing and management programs or VoIP programs have the ability for a user to determine which sound device they want that program to use. But the Web browsers, along with Spotify or TuneIn Radio and most of the Microsoft Store apps don’t offer this ability.

HP Elitebook 2560p playing through Naim DAC-V1 USB DAC

Windows 10 April Update allows the speakers in this USB-based audio setup to play only the music while the audio alerts play through the laptop’s integrated speakers

This means that you could set things up so that the system sounds like that Windows error “ding” or the email alert sound don’t blast through the good sound system but play through the cheaper speaker setup like your laptop’s speakers. It is while Spotify or that other audio program plays through the good speakers or hi-fi system. Similarly, you may want that YouTube video or the game you are playing to have its sound come through your big TV’s speaker but don’t like the idea of the Windows audio prompts being a distraction by barging through those speakers.

Praise and worship at church

You can set things up so that the playout computer doesn’t play Windows audio alert sounds through PA systems like this church’s setup

This feature will be essential for those of you who use your computer with a PA system as an audio/video playout device and end up using baseline software that doesn’t offer the ability to manage the audio devices the software plays through. Here, you avoid having those PA speakers “magnifying” the audio prompts that Windows makes when a dialogue box pops up or new email comes in. Similarly, you could then have one audio-output device like headphones or low-powered speakers serve as a “cue” device that you use to verify or line-up the content you want to

Sound devices that you can send an app’s sound output through

play before you have it playing through the main speakers.

How do you go about this?

You would need to make sure that your computer is running with another sound device that is attached to the good sound system. This could be a separate sound card, USB sound module or DAC, or a Bluetooth audio adaptor. If you have the computer connected to a sound system equipped with Bluetooth, USB or similar audio functionality, you have effectively set up the secondary sound device. It also applies if you have connected it to the big TV or home-theatre setup using an HDMI cable.

Identifying the sound devices

Then you identify the two different sound devices – the one that you want as your “primary” device for monitoring audio prompts that Windows provides and the “secondary” one you want your multimedia content to play through.

The sound functionality that is built in to a laptop computer or a desktop computer’s motherboard will typically be represented by something like a Realtek, Intel HD Audio or similar chipset name. In most cases, this integrated-sound chipset serve the internal speakers in a laptop or a pair of cheap computer speakers connected to the audio sockets on a desktop computer’s motherboard.

Sony STR-DN1060 home theatre receiver press picture courtesy of Sony America

If you connect your computer to your monitor or TV through one of these home-theatre receivers using the HDMI connections on these sets, you will be using the separate HDMI audio subsystem facilitated by your computer’s graphics infrastructure for the sound that comes through the receiver

Display setups connected to your computer via HDMI or DisplayPort that have audio abilities will have those abilities seen as an audio function of the display infrastructure. Some of these cases like Intel integrated graphics chips will properly refer to the arrangement as “display audio” or “HDMI display audio” due to the function being separate from the computer’s main sound chipset. This arrangement also holds true if you are connecting HDMI audio devices like soundbars, HDMI audio adaptors and home-theatre receivers between your computer and your display using the HDMI cable.

Let’s not forget that USB or Bluetooth devices that use the Windows audio-device class drivers will still identify themselves by their device or chipset make and model. This is to avoid confusion that can exist if you connect multiple USB or Bluetooth audio devices to the same host computer.

Configuring your setup

Go to Settings (the gear icon in your Start menu) and click on the System option. Then click on the Sound menu on the left of the System menu page. Make sure the current sound device is the primary one that will drive your laptop, monitor or other cheaper speakers. Then click on “App volume and device preferences” to bring up the menu to determine which speakers Spotify or your other multimedia app will use.

If you added a new audio output device to your computer, Windows will automatically assume it is the default audio device. Here, if you want this device to be the secondary device, you would have to use the above-mentioned Settings – Sound panel to select the primary sound device to be the default device.

In my setup, I used my LG monitor which has an HDMI link and built-in speakers but yields laptop-quality sound as the primary sound device while a Motorola Bluetooth audio adaptor connected to an older boombox serves as the secondary sound device. Because I am using a traditional desktop PC, the Bluetooth link is facilitated through a USB Bluetooth modem.

Windows - System - Sound menu for app-based audio device selection

Spotify set up to play

Next to the app you wish to direct the sound output for, click on the drop-down box in the Output column. At the moment, this will say “Default”, but use this to select the output device you want to have the app come through such as the USB DAC or Bluetooth speaker.

Here, I tested the setup with a Win32 app in the form of the Windows Media Player and it does work properly even though that program provides the ability for users to determine the sound output device that they use. Then I tried it with a UWP (Microsoft Store) app in the form of Spotify’s Windows 10 port and this worked reliably. Subsequently, I also found that this setup worked with Google Chrome when playing a YouTube video. Through these tests, I made sure that the Windows sounds were playing through the primary speakers.

You may have to run totally different browsers if you want the sound from one Webpage to pass through one device while the sound from another Webpage passes through another. This can be of concern if, for example, you are running a YouTube playlist or something similar as background music while you are playing a Web-based social-media game.

Going back to normal operation

To get back to your normal settings, click the “Reset” button in the “App volume and device preferences” window to have all the sound sources work through your default devices.

You may find that some media content may stop if you switch audio devices while it is running. If you do use this ability to maintain a “cue” device and a “main” or “front-of-house” device for playout purposes, you will have to pause the media file before you switch audio devices or simply restart the media content after you switch.

Other abilities

There is the ability to determine which input device an app uses which can be good for Web-based, Microsoft Store or similar apps that don’t provide an option for you to choose which microphone device you are to use. This can come in handy if you want to use a more accurate microphone with Cortana, courseware apps or baseline notetaking apps rather than your 2-in-1’s built-in microphone.

In this case, you choose the Input device you want to use for each program or Web browser rather than choosing the Output device.

What improvements could be provided

This feature could be taken further through the use of a “Default Multimedia Audio Device” definition that is expressly used for media-player software and/or a “Default Game Audio Device” definition used for games.This could then allow a user to have an audio device work as the one to use for multimedia or gaming purposes while another is used for the system sounds. It can then lead to the ability to create an “audio device ladder” for each audio device class where connection of certain audio devices like headphones, HDMI-equipped TVs or USB DACs overrides other audio devices in a particular order.

Another issue that will crop up with this new ability that Windows 10 April Update provides is sending different audio content to different “jacks” served by the same audio infrastructure. It may come about through cheaper computer designs that only have one audio chipset for HDMI, internal-speaker and audio-jack output rather than allowing for a separate audio function that is part of a graphics infrastructure to support HDMI digital audio.

Conclusion

Now you are able to make sure that your Windows computer’s multimedia software can play through the speakers that would suit it best without having the various audio prompts that the Windows shell or office software creates blasting their way through those speakers.

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What is happening with driver-free printing

What is driver-free printing?

HP OfficeJet 6700 Premium business inkjet multifunction printer

Driver-free printing like AirPrint allows for use of printers like this HP OfficeJet without the need to install drivers or extra software on host computers

This is to be able to use a printer with a host computing device without the need to install drivers or additional software on that device.

The current situation with most operating systems is that since the rise of page-based printers, you had to install additional driver software to get all the software on your computer to work with your printer.

This involves one having to know what make and model the printer was and how it was connected to the host device. Then one would be  downloading the software from the printer manufacturer’s Website or the computer platform’s app store and installing it on that computer or loading it from media supplied with the printer by the manufacturer.

Of course, how your printer connects to your computer or mobile device, be it through a USB cable, a Bluetooth link or a network is about the physical link to that printer. Most of the standards associated with these connection methods don’t provide support for driver-free printing.

Why is there an imperative for driver-free printing?

Mobile computing

You could print from a mobile-platform tablet like this Lenovo to a range of printers without installing lots of extra apps. Infact you can use Mopria to print from this Lenovo Android tablet driver-free.

A key imperative behind driver-free printing is the concept of mobile computing. It is about using highly-portable computing devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets for personal computing no matter wherever you are. This may include being able to use someone else’s printer or a public printing facility to get that document or photo printed there and then.

Similarly it can be about paying a service provider to perform advanced printing tasks such as bulk printing and document finishing for a small business or community organisation, or a photo lab to turn out a special photo as a large high-quality print on glossy paper.

Dedicated Computing Devices

Furthermore, it can be about the idea of providing a computing device, especially a dedicated computing device with printing abilities. A key application would be interactive TV supported by a smart-TV or set-top-box platform. In this scenario, a viewer could do something like print out a recipe from a cooking show that they view on demand just by using the remote control.

Accessible Computing

In the case of accessible computing, some blind users are using PDA devices which use tactile data input similar to a Perkins Braille typewriter and voice or Braille tactile output. Here, these users want to yield information in hard-copy form for sighted users but these devices have the same software requirements as a dedicated computing device. Typically they would have to work according to common standards for driver-free printing.

Similar devices are being constructed to allow people to live a life independent of particular disabilities and these will benefit from driver-free hard-copy output.

Efforts that have taken place to achieve this goal

In the early days of personal computing, Epson used their ESC/P codes as a defacto standard for determining how dot-matrix impact printers format the characters they print if anything beyond ordinary ASCII text was required. This was effectively used by every manufacturer who offered dot-matrix and similar printers whether through licensing or emulation.

A similar situation took place with Adobe with PostScript and HP with PCL as common page-description languages for laser and inkjet page printers. Again, other manufacturers took this on with licensing or emulation of the various language-interpreter software for their products.

These standards fell away as GUI-based operating systems managed printing at the operating-system level rather than at the application level. This was underscored with some printer manufacturers working with Microsoft to push forward with GDI-based host-rasterised printing leading towards cost-effective printer designs.

There have been some initial efforts taking place for driver-free printing in particular application classes, especially where dedicated-function devices were involved. This was through the persistence of ESC/P and the ESC/POS derivative printer-control protocol within the point-of-sale receipt printer space, along with the use of PictBridge as a driver-free method for printing photos from consumer digital cameras.

Similarly some managed-business-printing and service-based-printing platforms implemented a “single-driver” approach for printing using these platforms. This was to achieve a goal towards one installable program needed to become part of the platform and print to any machine the user is authorised to print to regardless of make and model. But it didn’t really answer the need for true driver-free operation for a printing environment.

As the home network became more common and was seen as part of the home-entertainment technology sphere, the UPnP Forum and DLNA made attempts at driver-free printing as part of their standards. It was positioned as a way to allow, for example, Smart TVs, electronic picture frames and set-top boxes to yield hard-copy output of photos for example. HP were the only vendor whose mid-tier and premium consumer printers answered these standards as I have discovered while reviewing some of their products.

The Printer Working Group started working on IPP Everywhere as a way to achieve driver-free printing via the network or direct connections for both consumer and business applications. This even was about exposing printer capabilities and features without the need of adding in special software to do something like stapling or supporting PIN-driven secure job release.

One of the standard page-description languages specified for IPP Everywhere was the Adobe PDF format which is infact used for “download-to-print” situations. This is because it is seen as a file format that represents “electronic hard copy” and the common practice in the “download-to-print” use case is to prepare a document as a PDF file before making it available. The IPP Everywhere approach also included and defined a use case of “printing by reference” where the printer “fetches” the PDF document off the Web server for printing rather than the user downloading it in order to turn out a hard copy of it.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

Most iPhones and iPads implement AirPrint to allow for driver-free mobile printing

Apple was the first to make a serious breakthrough for driver-free printing and the IPP Everywhere goal when they added AirPrint to the version 4.2 of the iOS platform. This was important for iOS due to the desire not to add any extra machine-specific code for particular printers since the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch were mobile devices with constrained memory and storage space.

Google initially achieved something similar with their Google Cloud Print ecosystem which was being pitched for ChromeOS and Android. But this worked as a cloud-driven or hosted variation of print management solutions pitched at enterprises which offered a form of driverless or universal-driver printing to that user base.

But the Mopria Alliance have made a serious step closer with driverless printing by creating a network-based printing infrastructure for the Android platform. Google followed up the Cloud Print program with the Android Print Service software ecosystem which uses “plugins” that work in a same way to drivers. Here, the Mopria Alliance, founded by Canon, HP, Samsung and Xerox, worked towards a single plugin for driver-free printing and had these companies install firmware in their machines to present themselves across a logical network to Mopria-compliant hosts as well as process print jobs for these hosts.

What needs to happen

All printers that work with any network need to support AirPrint, IPP Everywhere and Mopria no matter what position they hold in a manufacturer’s product lineup. This will then incentivise the idea of driver-free network printing.

The IT industry also needs to investigate the use of device classes / profiles within the USB and Bluetooth standards to facilitate driver-free direct printing. This is because USB and Bluetooth are seen as connection types used for directly connecting a peripheral to a host computer device rather than connecting via a network. As well, driver-free direct printing could open up more use cases involving printing from dedicated-function devices.

Similarly, Microsoft needs to implement Mopria and/or IPP Everywhere in to Windows as part of a default print driver delivered with the desktop operating system. This would then allow for truly-portable printing from laptops, tablets and 2-in-1s running the Windows operating system.

Driver-free printing could come in to its own with interactive TV especially when you are dealing with cooking shows like MasterChef

A use case that needs to be put forward for driver-free printing is its relevance with interactive TV. In this case, it could be about watching a TV show whether linearly or on-demand, including watching content held on Blu-Ray discs and being able to, at a whim, print out resources relating to that show. Situations that can come up include printing a “white paper” associated with a public-affairs show or printing a recipe that was demonstrated in a cooking show. Even advertising could lead towards the ability for users to print out coupons in response to advertised specials, something that would be valued in the USA or complete a booking for an advertised event with the printer turning out the tickets. Such a concept can also extend to other “lean-back” apps offered on a smart-TV platform by providing a printing option to these apps.

But this would be about achieving a user experience that is about selecting the resource to print and instantiating the print job from a 10-foot “lean-back” user experience using a limited remote control. It would also include advertising the fact that printable resources exists for that show that you can print using the interactive-TV platform. Similarly, interactive-TV platforms like HBBTV, media-storage platforms like Blu-Ray, and smart-TV / set-top-box platforms like tvOS, Android TV or Samsung Smart Hub would need to support one or more of the driver-free printing platforms. In the case of tvOS, Apple could simply add AirPrint functionality to that set-top operating system so you could print from your Appl

The idea of driver-free printing will also be relevant to the smart home especially if it is desirable for devices therein to be able to provide hard copy on demand. For example, kitchen appliances that have access to online recipe libraries, an idea positioned by most of the big names in this field, may benefit from this feature because you could configure them to be set up for a particular recipe while your printer turns out the actual recipe with the ingredients list. But this concept will need to be driven by the use of “print by reference” standards for access to online resources.

As well, a driver-free printing setup should be able to recognise label and receipt printers in order to permit transaction-driven printing using these devices. For example, address labels could be turned out as a sheet of paper with all the labels on a regular printer or as a run of labels emerging from a label printer.

How could this affect printer design and product differentiation

The use of driver-free printing won’t deter printer manufacturers from improving their products’ output speed and quality. Infact, the use of standard page-description languages will lead towards the development of high-speed coprocessors and software that can quickly render print jobs sent to them in these formats.

There will also be a competitive emphasis on the number of functions available at a multifunction printer’s control panel with this being driven by app platforms maintained by the various printer manufacturers. Like with smart TVs, it could lead towards third parties including alliances developing app platforms for manufacturers who don’t want to invest in developing and maintaining an app platform.

Let’s not forget that printer manufacturers will maintain the “horses for courses” approach when it comes to designing printer models for both home and business use. But it will lead to an emphasis on refining the various product classes without needing to think about shoehorning driver and print-monitor software for the various host devices.

Conclusion

Once we see driver-free printing, it can lead towards simplified real plug-and-play printer setup for all kinds of users. Similarly it opens up printers towards a large class of device types beyond mobile and desktop computing devices.

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Google and Facebook are starting to bring accountability to political advertising

Articles

Australian House of Representatives ballot box - press picture courtesy of Australian Electoral Commission

Are you sure you are casting your vote without undue influence? (Courtesy of Australian Electoral Commission)

Facebook announces major changes to political ad policies | NBC News

Facebook reveals new political ad policies in wake of U.S. election | VentureBeat

What Can and Can’t You Do with Political Advertising on Facebook? | Spatially

Google Joins Facebook In Banning All Ads Related To Ireland’s Big Abortion Vote | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Facebook

Update on Our Advertising Transparency and Authenticity Efforts {Press Release)

Facebook will not be accepting referendum related ads from advertisers based outside of Ireland {Press Release)

Google

Supporting election integrity through greater advertising transparency (Blog Post)

My Comments

Over the last five months, a strong conversation has risen surrounding electioneering and political advertising on the online platforms including social media and online advertising.

The trends concerning this activity is that the political advertising spend is moving away from traditional print and broadcast media towards online media as we make more use of highly-portable computing devices to consume our information and entertainment.

Issues that have also been raised include the use of fake comments and pre-programmed auto-responding “bots” as part of political campaigns. This is alongside the rise of very divisive political campaigns during the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential election cycles that played on racial and religious prejudices. There is also the fact that nation states with improper intentions are seeing the idea of poisoning the information flow as another weapon in their cyber-warfare arsenal.

It has also been facilitated through the use of highly-focused data-driven campaign-targeting techniques based on factors like race, gender, location and interests, with this practice being highlighted in the Cambridge Analytica saga that caught up Facebook and Twitter.

As well, the online advertising and social media platforms have made it easy to create and maintain an advertising or editorial campaign that transcends jurisdictional borders. This is compared to traditional media that would be dependent on having the advertising material pass muster with the media outlet’s advertising staff in the outlet’s market before it hits the presses or the airwaves.

This issue will become more real with the use of addressable TV advertising which is currently practised with some advertising-based video-on-demand services and some cable-TV platforms but will become the norm with traditional linear TV being delivered through through the increasing use of interactive-TV platforms.

This technology would facilitate “hyper-targeting” of political campaigns such as municipal-level or postcode/ZIP-code targeting yet maintain the same “air of legitimacy” that the traditional TV experience provides, making it feasible to destabilise elections and civil discourse on the local-government level.

Election-oversight authorities in the various jurisdictions like the Australian Electoral Commission or the UK’s Electoral Commission have been doing battle with the online trend because most of the legislation and regulation surrounding political and election activities has been “set in stone” before the rise of the Internet. For example, in most jurisdictions, you will see or hear a disclosure tag after a political advertisement stating which organisation or individual was behind that ad. Or there will be financial reporting and auditing requirements for the election campaigns that take place before the polls.

Facebook and Google are having to face these realities through the use of updated advertising-platform policies which govern political advertising, But Facebook applies this to candidate-based campaigns and issues-based campaigns while Google applies this to candidate-based campaigns only at the time of writing.

Firstly there is a prohibition on political advertising from entities foreign to the jurisdiction that the ad is targeted for. This is in line with legislation and regulation implemented by most jurisdictions proscribing foreign donations to political campaigns affecting that jurisdiction.

This is augmented through a requirement for political advertisers to furnish proof of identity and residence in the targeted jurisdiction. In the case of Facebook, they apply this policy to pages and profiles with very large followings as well as ads. Similarly, they implement a postcard-based proof-of-residence procedure where they send a postcard by snail mail to the user’s US-based home / business address to very presence in the USA.

Facebook augments this requirement by using artificial-intelligence to flag if an ad is political or not, so they can make sure that the advertiser is complying with the requirements for political advertising on this platform.

Like with traditional media, political ads on both these platforms will be required to have a disclosure tag. But Facebook goes further by making this a hyperlink that end-users can click on to see details like verification documents, why the viewer saw the ad along with a link to the sponsoring organisation’s Facebook Page. This has more utility than the slide shown at the end of a TV or online ad, the voice-announcement at the end of a radio ad or small text at the bottom of a print-media ad or billboard poster which most of these tags represent.

Both of the Internet titans will also make sure details about these campaigns are available and transparent to end-users so they know what is going on. For example, Facebook requires advertisers to maintain a Facebook Page before they buy advertising on any of the Facebook-owned platforms. This will have a “View Ads” tab which includes details about targeting of each current and prior campaign with a four-year archive allowance.

Google has taken things further by making sure that political organisations, politicians, the media and journalists are aware of the resources they have to assure data security for their campaigns and other efforts. Here, they have prepared a “Protect Your Election” Webpage that highlights the resources that they provide that are relevant for each kind of player in a political campaign. This includes Project Shield to protect Websites against distributed denial-of-service attacks, along with enhanced security measures available to operators of Google Accounts associated with critical data.

Both companies have been implementing these procedures for North America with Facebook trying them out in Canada then “cementing” them in to the USA before the midterm Congress election cycle there. Both companies then took action to suspend political ads from foreign entities outside Ireland during the election cycle for the Eighth Amendment abortion referendum taking place in that country. Here, they have applied the prohibition until the close of polls on May 25 2018. Let’s not forget that these standards will be gradually rolled out in to other jurisdictions over time.

But what I would like to see is for companies who run online advertising and social-media activity to liaise strongly with election-oversight officials in the various jurisdictions especially if it affects a currently-running poll or one that is to take place in the near future. This is in order to advise these officials of any irregularities that are taking place with political advertising on their online platforms or for the officials to notify them about issues or threats that can manifest through the advertising process.

 

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A portable adaptor now exists to allow you to use Bluetooth headphones wirelessly with any audio device

Article

AirFly connects your AirPods to anything with a headphone jack | Engadget

Twelve South Debuts New ‘AirFly’ Wireless Transmitter for Using AirPods With In-Flight Entertainment Systems | MacRumors

From the horse’s mouth

TwelveSouth

AirFly Product Page

Use-case video – click or tap to play

My Comments

A reality that can easily surface with Bluetooth headsets like the Apple AirPods range or the JBL E45BT that I just reviewed is that you may want to use them wirelessly with any audio device.

An example of this would include using a Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro with the in-flight entertainment system during your flight but without dealing with headset cables that become tangled with your seat’s lift-up armrest or your seatbelt.

Or you work out at a fitness centre that uses an audio-distribution setup to pass TV sound or a workout-music mix to headphone jacks installed in the treadmills and similar machines so you can hear this sound through a pair of connected headphones. Here, you may want to use the Apple AirPods or your favourite lightweight Bluetooth headset to hear the TV audio or workout-music mix without ruining your headphones due to pulling on the headphone cable during that vigorous workout.

Similarly, you want to watch some late-night TV but don’t want to disturb other people who are sleeping. Here, using Bluetooth headphones with your existing TV equipment may be the dream come true because you could relax as comfortably as possible without worrying about that headphone cable connected between your TV and your headphones.

As well, you may want to use a Walkman device that plays legacy media like cassettes or CDs or a file-based audio player like an iPod to listen to music but maintain the cable-free manner associated with Bluetooth headphones.

Here, Twelve South have introduced the “AirFly” which is a compact Bluetooth audio adaptor that connects to any audio source equipped with the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. This battery-operated device presents itself as a Bluetooth A2DP audio source device to stream the sound from the host device to your Bluetooth headphones.

The AirFly is being pitched as a companion accessory to Apple’s AirPod range of intra-aural Bluetooth headsets and is the same size as the charging case that comes with these headsets. But it can work with any Bluetooth headset or audio adaptor compliant to the Bluetooth A2DP target-device profile. As well, this size is catering to portable applications like travel, gyms and the like.

It uses an integrated rechargeable battery that is expected to run for eight hours and this was proven in the Engadget review when the reviewer used it with a pair of Apple AirPods on an eight-hour transatlantic flight.

The setup process is very simple through the use of push-button pairing. Here, you just have to press the setup button on the AirFly device for 10 seconds to make it discoverable. Then you put the headphones in to “pairing” mode as if to enrol them with a new device. After this procedure is complete, you are ready to connect the AirFly to the device you want to wirelessly hear through your Bluetooth headphones.

The AirFly can also be part of a multipoint setup if your Bluetooth headset supports multipoint operation which most recently-issued headsets do. This will mean that you can still monitor your smartphone for calls through your Bluetooth headphones while you are, for example, watching a TV program and listening to its sound through those same headphones.

A question that may come about with the AirFly Bluetooth audio adaptor is how it will perform with Walkman-type portable radios that rely on the headphone cable as their antenna when you use these radios as an audio source. Here, it may not be able to perform that antenna functionality properly thanks to the short cable that is supplied with it, therefore the Walkman-type radio may not pull in the radio stations properly.

But what is being shown up here is the idea of a highly-portable Bluetooth audio-source adaptor that can stream an audio source through any Bluetooth headset or audio device.

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Wi-Fi defines a new standard for distributed wireless netowrks

Articles

NETGEAR Orbi distributed WiFi system press image courtesy of NETGEAR

Wi-Fi now to standardise the operation of distributed Wi-Fi setups like the NETGEAR Orbi with the EasyMesh standard

A new Wi-Fi standard could let different mesh routers work together | The Verge

Mesh Wifi gear from different companies could soon work together | Engadget

Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi EasyMesh certification aims to standardize mesh networks | PC World

From the horse’s mouth

Wi-Fi Alliance

Press Release

EasyMesh Product Page

My Comments

Increasingly, home and small-business Wi-Fi users are showing interest in distributed-WiFi network systems that implement simplified configuration and hands-off optimisation. They consist of multiple access-point devices and use a Wi-Fi path or, in the case of a few systems, an optional wired-network path to provide a backhaul to the router that links to your Internet service.

People are showing interest in these setups as a simplified way to assure Wi-Fi wireless-network coverage across a large or multi-storey / split-level building or a building that uses materials and construction techniques that play havoc with Wi-Fi network coverage. As well, they don’t want to deal with devices that are difficult to set up or to have to remember which SSID to use for best coverage in a particular area.

To the same extent, those of us who have separate buildings on our properties like a cabin or converted garage may want to be sure we can gain reliable access to the Internet and network resources from these buildings. Some of the distributed Wi-Fi systems like the Netgear Orbi can support wired backbones which can work with a HomePlug powerline link or Ethernet cable strung between the buildings and this could bring seamless Wi-Fi network operation to these buildings.

But the current problem with these systems is that you have to create the system with equipment from the same vendor or, in some cases, implementing a particular chipset. This makes it hard for customers to mix and match equipment to create a distributed-WiFi system that answers their needs exactly.

There is also the risk that if a manufacturer abandons their distributed-WiFi product line and one of the units fails, customers can’t replace the faulty unit with a new one from a different vendor – they would have to scrap the whole system. The same situation also applies if a customer wants to use a unit that offers specific functionality such as a router with higher security, a modem router or a weatherproof access point.

Enter the Wi-Fi Alliance who have established a certifiable standard with a trademark for these kind of systems. This standard, known as the EasyMesh standard and is part of their device-certification scheme, is based on the IEEE 1905.1 protocol for small-network configuration allows for “mix and match” operation of a distributed-WiFi system.

A network based on the Wi-Fi EasyMesh standard can implement a backhaul based on a Wi-Fi wireless and/or a wired (Ethernet, HomePlug powerline, MoCA TV-aerial / cable-TV coax, etc) medium. As well, the devices can support a dedicated Wi-Fi backhaul segment with dedicated radio transceivers or use the same Wi-Fi segment used to serve client computing devices.

There are two classes of device that exist across an EasyMesh Wi-Fi network – a Controller and an Agent device. The Controller co-ordinates what is happening with the network and typically it can be part of the Wi-Fi router that is the network-Internet “edge” of your home network. But it can be software running in another computer or an access point. You can have only one of these in operation on the one EasyMesh network.

The Agent device is the access point that your client devices such as your laptop, tablet or smartphone link to your home network through. These will connect to each other and to the Controller using the Wi-Fi, Ethernet or similar backbone.

A simplified setup and device-onboarding process takes place in an EasyMesh network, with the device-onboarding process typically being facilitated through methods like NFC or push-button setup. The onboarding procedure will also be about learning the capabilities that the new device offers such as what bands it operates on and whether they can be used simultaneously or what Wi-Fi standard is being supported by that device. Of course, initial network configuration may be about determining the ESSID (Wi-Fi network name) and, perhaps, a user-chosen passphrase for your network.

Let’s not forget that the EasyMesh network implements continual self-tuning for each Agent AP node. This means that if you add or remove extra Agent APs or move them around, they adjust their operating frequency and signal strength themselves. It also applies whenever neighbours set up or modify their Wi-Fi-based home networks.

The Controller device then monitors the network for best performance and will have the network steer client devices towards access points that offer the best bandwidth. As well, the Agent access points report their measurements to the Controller device and each other to provide the self-tuning self-healing network.

The Wi-Fi Alliance stated that there is the possibility of implementing Wi-Fi Certified EasyMesh at a software or firmware level without any particular requirements as far as the hardware is concerned. This could appeal to vendors to implement EasyMesh in to existing devices as part of, say, a firmware update which is a practice that AVM have done to enable some of their Fritz series of home-network equipment for distributed-Wi-Fi operation.

But what do I see the Wi-Fi Certified EasyMesh technology lead to?

There will be the ability to supply distributed-WiFi equipment that offers better value to the home or small-business user. This includes the ability for manufacturers to supply equipment that targets particular niches such as VPN-endpoint Wi-Fi routers for business or weatherproof access points for installation outdoors. Manufacturers could even consider the idea of integrating “mesh AP” functionality in to client devices so these devices could effectively boost Wi-Fi coverage in to an area.

The technology will benefit ISPs, telcos and cable-TV operators who supply Wi-Fi routers, typically modem routers, to their customers as part of providing Internet service. Here, it could become feasible to provide a modem router with EasyMesh capability to their customer and allow these customers to purchase the EasyMesh-compliant access points that suits their needs through the ISP’s storefront or a third-party retailer.

There is also room for the vendors to continually improve on their products in many different ways without needing to worry about risks associated with designing for a proprietary setup. Here, the algorithms associated with network-performance management can be tweaked in a manner so as to carry that improvement across an existing EasyMesh setup.

At the moment, the Wi-Fi EasyMesh solution will primarily be targeted at simple small networks but there will be a call to evolve this standard to support Wi-Fi-based VLAN setups. This is more so to cater for “guest networks”, FON-style shared-bandwidth setups and IP-based telephony which will make use of these setups. Here, a setup that answers these needs may may have to cater towards replicating the multiple SSIDs and network setups these networks implement while shifting data from each SSID to each “data pipe” like the Internet or a VoIP service.

But I see the Wi-Fi EasyMesh standard leading towards the ability for householders and small businesses to make sure that their small network’s Wi-Fi segment is providing the right coverage to suit their needs.

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JBL premieres a soundbar with a built-in Android TV set-top box

Articles

Google partners with JBL for an Android TV-powered soundbar | The Verge

JBL’s next soundbar doubles as an Android TV box | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Harman (JBL)

Smart TV Content Meets Amazing Sound: JBL and Google Developing LINK BAR (Press Release)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

One set-top-box manufacturer approached the subscription-TV and ISP market with the idea of integrating a set-top box and a soundbar in to the one physical unit.

It is to capitalise on the fact that most of us would prefer to use a soundbar rather than the multiple-speaker home-theatre setup. This is perhaps about budget issues or TV-positioning arrangements like the traditional “TV in the corner” arrangement to avoid competing with the view offered by a picture window or fireplace. As well, we may be more interested in maintaining a stereo system dedicated to music playback.

Now JBL has answered this product class through premiering at Google I/O 2018 the Link Bar soundbar which has a built-in Android TV set-top box. This unit has the full Android TV experience including the ability to download Android-TV-based native apps through the Google Play Store. It also has a microphone built in to it so you can speak to the Google Assistant to call up video content. As per requirements for the Android TV platform, you have to press a button to make the microphone come alive so you can speak to the Google Assistant

Android TV has appeared in some smart-TV devices, especially the NVIDIA Shield games console and a significant number of Sony smart TVs. But for JBL to issue this platform in a soundbar is very impressive and is an attempt to push out this product class. It is also an attempt to get Android beyond the smartphones and the tablets.

There is the ability to connect the Link Bar soundbar to your TV and video peripherals via HDMI with it honouring HDMI-CEC and HDMI-ARC expectations. This is taken further by you being able to switch sources or control the TV with your voice. As well, the Google Assistant is available independent of whether the TV is on or off and can work tightly with your Google Home smart-home setup.

JBL intends to have the Link Bar ready for release in to the US market at least by between September – November 2018.  Here, I would see this soundbar work well alongside most flat-screen TVs and have them become a Smart TV. But what needs to happen is that Google needs to keep the Android TV operating system up-to-date to make sure it works properly and securely all the time.

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DVB to introduce a simplified Internet-driven TV standard

Article

LG OLED TVs pres picture courtesy of LG

DVB-I could continue to push the traditional TV interface to Internet TV

DVB wants to enable streaming channels without app complexity | VideoNet

From the horse’s mouth

DVB

Press Release

My Comments

It is often said that today’s cool young viewers have done away with watching TV the traditional way where you select a channel and view a sequence of shows run on that channel.

Rather they are seen to prefer to watch on-demand content offered by one of many different on-demand services including “catch-up” TV services, making more of an effort to choose the kind of shows that interest them. It is underscored by the practice of “binge-watching” a TV series where one watches multiple episodes of that TV series along with Netflix and co implementing recommendations engines to list shows that one may be interested in.

TV remote control

It will maintain the traditional remote-control experience like channel surfing

But this traditional approach to  TV content consumption is still practised by most viewers, especially those of older generations.

Some viewers still like the idea of “channel surfing” where one flicks through the channels to discover something that could be of interest to them. In some areas like some of Australia’s capital cities, it was facilitated with some channels that were neighbouring each other on the dial. This habit has been made easier since television sets were equipped with remote controls or could be connected to devices like video recorders or cable boxes that provided remote-control channel change.

As well, it is seen by some of these viewers, including children, to be relaxing to watch a run of TV shows offered by one of the channels. Examples include an afternoon after school where children watch cartoons or similar TV shows, or the practice of having a TV news channel play while one engages in ordinary daily activities.

Let’s not forget that news and sports content totally lend themselves to this kind of viewing. In some cases, there may be two concurrent sporting fixtures of interest, such as the Boxing Day ritual in Australia where households flick between the Seven Network for the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and the Nine Network for the Boxing Day Test cricket match. Or one could flick through channels running different coverage of the same news event to compare how they cover it or look for further detail about that event.

Let’s not forget that the on-demand TV experience can be “linearised” for a viewer through being led on to recommended content or subsequent episodes of a series.

What is DVB doing to bridge the linear TV experience with the Internet?

The DVB Consortium who define the digital-TV standards that Europe, most of Asia and Oceania work with are working towards defining the DVB-I standard. I would suspect that most of this effort has been driven by Germany’s approach to free-to-air and pay TV where the idea of delivering TV service is to be media-agnostic and most, if not all, TV stations in the German-speaking countries are delivered by the traditional TV aerial, a cable-TV infrastructure or satellite TV.

The DVB-I standard is an IP-based TV broadcasting standard that supports the provision of linear-streaming TV services through the open Internet. Here it is intended to provide an app-free experience in a similar manner to TV services received via the traditional TV aerial, cable TV infrastructure or satellite dish. This means that a TV or set-top box can be connected to a home network and Internet service then the customer can be asked to add Internet-hosted streaming services to the programme lineup with the set discovering these services from a directory like what has happened with Internet radio.

There has been an earlier attempt at this goal in the USA with RVU technology that is part of the DLNA VidiPath specification, but it has been used primarily as an attempt to deliver cable-TV to secondary TV sets without the need for extra set-top boxes. This was also as part of an Obama-era effort to require cable-TV providers to deliver their pay-TV services to households without the need for each household to rent a set-top box from that provider.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

One app will be all that is needed to deliver TV to a smartphone, tablet or laptop

The goal will also be about providing a similar experience for Internet-streamed linear TV content as what we have traditionally experienced with broadcast TV, whether free-to-air or subscription (pay) service. This includes the ability to support logical channel numbers that allow for direct access to particular channels, the ability to quickly change channels no matter the source thus continuing the “channel-surfing” tradition.

But on the other hand, some service providers such as cable-TV providers will want to convey their branding and user interface to the end-user. This may also be seen as being important with broadcast-LAN device manufacturer, building owners / strata committees who run MATV setups, or hoteliers who want to persist their identity to the end-user. It can also apply to end-users who are using budget-level equipment where not much thought has been put in to the user interface. HBBTV has answered this need through the use of an “OpApp” or “Operator App” standard to permit the ability to deliver that operator-level interface, which would appeal to TV-service platforms of the Freeview kind.

For broadcasters, DVB-I would do away with the need to create and maintain client software that viewers would need for access to their content. This also does away with various platform issues that creep up with maintaining these apps including catering to each new smart-TV, computer or video-peripheral platform. It also means that people who own older Smart TVs or video peripherals based on platforms that have been abandoned or neglected by the set’s manufacturer aren’t at a disadvantage.

Some of the key benefits that could come about include:

A transport-medium independent operation approach for receiving linear TV broadcasts. This means that TV manufacturers and broadcasters can work towards a simplified “single line-up” for traditional TV broadcast services no matter whether they are carried over the Web or via satellite, cable or terrestrial RF means.

The ability to support broadcast-LAN infrastructure including cable-TV and master-antenna-TV (single antenna or satellite dish serving many TVs like in an apartment block) setups driven totally by IP (Internet Protocol) technology. This approach will be relevant with infrastructure-level broadband providers wanting to use their infrastructure to deliver free-to-air and/or pay-TV services, something being approached by Chorus in New Zealand.

Ability for niche TV services with traditional-style TV experience to exist via Internet due to no need to obtain broadcast-spectrum licences, set up transmitter equipment or get on board cable-TV infrastructure. In a lot of ways, this could reignite the possibility of community TV services coming back on board and not living in fear of losing their access to broadcast spectrum.

With the use of HBBTV (Hybrid Broadcast-Broadband TV), this standard could lead towards a rich linear + on-demand TV setup through traditional TV sets and set-top boxes without the need for special client software. Similarly, it could lead to the creation of gateway software for regular or mobile computer devices to provide access to commonly-available video content services through these devices, knowing that this software can work with newer IP-based broadcasters.

The DVB-I approach could then open up the pathway for a universal TV service that makes use of Internet-based infrastructure like next-generation broadband infrastructure without the need for it to be app-centric.

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Lexington residents undertakes their own effort to push a competitive broadband service

Article

Lexington Kentucky downtown (CBD) view photo By Madgeek1450 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Lexington to benefit from real Internet-service competition thanks to an emergency meeting by the city’s council

Angry With Charter, Lexington Forces Broadband Competition | Broadband News and DSL Reports

Lexington Is Downright Pissed About Charter’s High Prices | Broadband News And DSL Reports

Lexington gears up for citywide gigabit-speed internet service | SmileyPete

My Comments

Over the last few years, it has become much easier for the incumbent “Baby Bells” and cable-TV companies to get away with providing a customer-hostile service to most of the USA’s Internet users. This has manifested through onerous terms and conditions, price gouging and poor customer-service quality from these businesses so much so that the average

AT&T Touch-Tone phone - image courtesy of CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=936797

Lexington to keep the city from heading back to the Ma Bell days

American doesn’t have any faith in them for their telecommunications services.

It is while these established telcos and cablecos keep lobbying federal, state and local governments to prohibit the deployment of competitive telephony and Internet service and even have a new FCC chairman as their lapdog. In some ways, I describe this current situation as leading the USA’s telecommunications, cable-TV and Internet-service market back to the “Ma Bell” days before Carterfone and the AT&T breakup decree.

But Lexington, Kentucky have undertaken local-government action to facilitate competitive Internet service.

This was achieved through an emergency meeting of the municipal council to open the doors for MetroNet to set up shop in Lexington and provide their own Gigabit fibre-optic infrastructure in order to offer competing Internet service. It was in response to Charter, an incumbent cable-TV company offering cable-modem broadband, taking over Time-Warner Cable and Bright House Networks thus leading to rubbishy customer service and price-gouging.

Regular readers will be aware of the values of a next-generation broadband network based on Gigabit fibre technology. Here, these include home users benefiting form Internet-delivered 4K UHDTV content being quickly streamed or downloaded or reduced lag for online gameplay. Business users and people working from home can also benefit from being able to upload and download business-critical data quickly, implement streamed-video delivery without issues and see reliable use of cloud-driven “as-a-service” computing, amongst other things.

The fibre-optic service is to start coming on line late Northern Summer. Initially it will be rolled out to the area bracketed by east of Lexington’s downtown area and north of Richmond Road, East New Circle Road and the I-75 Interstate highway. The work had started off in January this year and is progressing smoothly.

The goal is to make Lexington, Kentucky the second Gigabit City in the USA, after Chattanooga in the neigbouring state of Tennessee. Here, the Chattanooga effort was facilitated by the city’s Electrical Power Board in 2009. The goal will also be for Lexington to be the USA’s largest Gigabit City. But could these efforts come on as a way to light up various Southern states of the US as places to conduct tech-focused business?

As has been achieved with real service competition especially on an infrastructure level, it will mean that the incumbent operators will have to lift their game to maintain customer loyalty. Infact Charter have registered interest to offer Gigabit-speed cable modem service in a few of their markets but could this competitive pressure have it happening in Lexington?

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Product Review–JBL E45BT On-Ear Bluetooth Headset

Introduction

I am reviewing the JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset which is a Bluetooth-equipped follow-on for the JBL E30 headset that I previously reviewed. It is my first effort at reviewing a Bluetooth headset that JBL is positioning as one that is fit for general-purpose applications.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

Price

RRP: AUD$149.95

Headset Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-ear
Driver Positioning Supra-aural (sits on the ear)
Driver Enclosure Closed back
Primary sound path Digital
Microphone position Microphone integrated in earcup

Functionality

Pitched for Commuting / street-use
Active Noise Cancellation No
Remote Control Music Transport (Bluetooth AVRCP)
Sound Volume
Call control (Wired / Bluetooth HFP)
Voice Assistant (Wired)

Connectivity

Connection for main operation Wired
Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
Wired path 2.5mm 4-pole analogue jack
Supplementary adaptors 3.5mm headset cord

The headset itself

The JBL E45BT On-Ear Bluetooth Headset is capable of being a wired headset using an included wired-headset cable that has a built-in microphone and control button. Or it can become a standalone Bluetooth wireless headset when linked to your smartphone or computer via Bluetooth.

As far a storage is concerned, both of the earcups can be swiveled flat and parallel with the headband. This makes for compact storage in your briefcase, laptop bag or other personal luggage.

Connectivity and Functionality

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset honours the Bluetooth Hands-Free and A2DP / AVRCP application profiles thus allowing it to work as a headset for a communications device or a music-playback device compliant to these standards.

The remote-control buttons for the volume and call-management functions are on the right-hand earcup, but JBL could make the middle button which serves as a play/pause or call answer/end button have a different tactile feel so it is easy to identify quickly. You have to hold the volume buttons down until you hear a beep to activate track-skip functionality.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset Bluetooth controls and wired-headset socket

Volume / media-transport controls for Bluetooth, wired headset socket, Bluetooth pairing button

This control arrangement doesn’t allow you to start redialling a missed call or busy number or instigate a session with Siri or the Google Assistant using Bluetooth. But it provides what is essential to start and stop music, take calls, change tracks or adjust the sound.

Users can connect the JBL E45BT to the host device in a wired manner using the supplied headset cord, something that can come in handy if the headset’s battery had died out or you have to operate your mobile device on “flight mode” where you can’t use its wireless functionality. But you can’t enable Bluetooth operation while you are using the wired connection, which puts aside the idea of connecting it to a Walkman, portable radio or iPod while having it monitor your smartphone for calls.

Multipoint support for two devices

There is multipoint support so you can use one pair of these headphones with two host devices. One situation that this can cater for would be if you use two phones such as a personal phone tied with your own account and a work-supplied phone tied to your employer’s account. Or it could cater towards you using a smartphone and a laptop or tablet at the same time with the laptop or tablet being used with video content, music or games while you have the smartphone ready to answer calls.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset MicroUSB charging port

MicroUSB charging port on left hand earcup

The setup procedure is relatively simple by you pressing the Bluetooth button on the headset’s right earcup to make it discoverable for the second source device then using the second device’s user interface to connect with the headset. In the case of a Windows-10-equipped laptop, you would use the Bluetooth menu in the Devices part of the Control Panel and click “Add A Device”. The headset will then be exclusively used by the second device.

Then your press the Bluetooth button again on the headset to make the headset discoverable and reconnect the original host device to the headset using that device’s user interface. Here, you have established a simple multipoint setup where whichever source device “comes on” plays through the headset. Phone calls or communications applications on each of the host devices that use the Bluetooth Hands Free Profile will always have priority over either device’s multimedia sources.

The multipoint functionality is destroyed if either device is disconnected but the JBL headset will normally re-establish this setup if you simply enable the connection again for both the same host devices.

Comfort

The user-comfort level for the JBL E45BT headset is very similar to most of the recent supra-aural headsets in that they don’t feel heavy or hard on your head even after a long time of use. The vinyl-covered earcups don’t even become sticky when you use this headset on a hot day.

Sound Quality

Music

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset can handle strong bass response but you need to use equalisation at the source device to ramp up the bass and treble. Other than than it does well with music and similar content.

As well, it conveys a sound quality that doesn’t cause listener fatigue during extended listening.

Video and game content

I have watched a foreign-language European TV crime drama and had found that the voices come through intelligibly and clearly with the full weight. As well, the sound effects came through clearly and naturally especially with gunshot or vehicle sounds which will also matter with the games played by “core” gamers.

Communications on phone or computer

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset even works well for communications applications with the ability to hear whom I talk to clearly while they can understand me. It doesn’t matter whether it is the regular mobile-telephony use or through one of the various VoIP services. As well, it can handle soft-spoken callers or those with a distinct accent as well as those who are on a difficult connection.

Noise Reduction and handling of noisy environments

I assess headphones also to identify how they perform in noisy environments like on a bus or in an underground train. This is to assess how they would cope when being used to provide you with entertainment while travelling on public transport or whether they can even shut out a noisy environment so you can make that videocall or listen to some music.

The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset doesn’t provide much in the way of noise reduction and you would have to make sure your program material or your phone’s call-volume setting was significantly loud if you want to have it compete in a noisy environment. This is something that would be expected for on-ear headphones.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

One key feature that the JBL E45BT is mission out on is the ability to support a “press-and-hold” operation for the Play/Pause/Call button. This would provide access to voice-driven operation on smartphones that run a voice-driven personal assistant, or could allow the ability to use the headset’s buttons to redial the last call you made or a call you missed.

Personally, I would like to see the microUSB connection on a headset used not just for charging a Bluetooth wireless headset like the JBL E45BT. Here, I would like to see these devices implement the USB Audio Class and Human Interface Device classes so they can become a wired digital headset when connected to a host device using a USB or Apple Lightning connection. This could be seen as a way to provide high-quality digital audio from a laptop or newer smartphone especially where the 3.5mm audio jack is likely to be seen as being one the way out.

As for the battery, I would personally like to see it being user-replaceable so you can keep the headset going as a Bluetooth headset for a long time rather than throwing it away if the battery starts to die out.

JBL could provide support for concurrent “wired + wireless” operation so that the headset could work as a wireless headset for one device but as wired headphones for another device. A situation where this can come in handy is whenever you use a headset like this with a music player or portable radio for audio content and your smartphone for calls. This situation is underscored especially with portable FM or DAB radios that use the headphone cable as their antenna, but is also underscored if you are using legacy media like cassettes or CDs or are using a high-capacity digital audio player for your music.

Another issue still to be ironed out with the use of Bluetooth headsets is to allow you to manage calls from VoIP platform software like Facebook Messenger or Viber using the controls on these headsets. At least this should be about the call-control buttons to answer or end an incoming call, but it will be an issue that needs to be addressed by Apple and Google as part of developing their iOS and Android mobile operating systems.

Conclusion

The JBL E45BT represents what is feasible for a good-quality baseline “over-the-ear” Bluetooth headset. Here, I would recommend this headset as something to be after if you want a general-purpose headset to work with your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

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USB hubs and dedicated-function devices–issues that may be of concern

There are many of the USB hubs that allow multiple USB devices to be connected to the one USB port. As well, some devices like external hard disks and keyboards are being equipped with their own USB hubs.

Brother HL-L8350CDW colour laser printer USB walk-up socket

USB sockets on printers like this Brother colour laser won’t easily support USB hub operation even if they have a use case for that application

The use of a USB hub is also used as an approach for creating multiple-function USB peripheral devices. Similarly, a device with multiple USB sockets for connecting peripheral devices would have the socket collection seen as a “root hub” if one controller chipset looks after that socket collection. It can also appeal to dedicated-function devices like routers, NAS devices, home entertainment or automotive infotainment setups offered in the aftermarket context where the manufacturer sees these devices as the hub of a system of devices.

USB hubs are divided between the “bus-powered” types powered by the host device and the “self-powered” types that have their own power-supply. The latter type can be a USB device like a printer or external hard disk that has its own power supply or a “bus-powered” USB hub that has a DC input socket for a power supply so it can become a “self-powered” hub.

Belkin USB hub

A typical USB hub which may cause problems with concurrently running multiple devices from a dedicated-function device

The idea of implementing a USB hub with a dedicated-function device can have a strong appeal with a variety of device types and combinations. For example, a router would implement a USB port for connecting a USB Mass-Storage Device like an external hard disk so it can become its own file server but also see this port for use with a USB mobile-broadband modem as a failover Internet-connection option. Or a business-grade printer which supports PIN-protected “secure job release” may use a keypad compliant to USB Human-Interface-Device specifications connected to its USB port which facilitates “walk-up” printing from a USB memory key. Even a Smart TV or set-top box may use the one USB port for viewing files from one or more Mass-Storage devices and / or work with a Webcam and a software client to be a group videophone terminal.

Technics Grand Class G30 hi-fi system with media server press image courtesy of Panasonic

USB sockets on consumer-electronics equipment may not properly support USB hubs

To the same extent, this could be about a setup involving a multifunction peripheral device. An example of this would be a USB keyboard with an integrated pointing device like a trackpad, trackball or thumbstick being connected to a games console or set-top box, with this setup allowing for the pointing device serving to navigate the user interface while the keyboard answers text-entry needs.

A problem that can occur with using USB hubs or hub-equipped USB peripherals with dedicated-function devices like printers, NAS devices or consumer-AV equipment is that such devices may not handle USB hubs consistently. For example, a USB keyboard that has a hub function may not be properly detected by a set-top box or games console.

This can happen due to a power limit placed on the host’s USB port, which can affect many devices connected behind a bus-powered USB hub. Or a very common reality is that the firmware for most dedicated-function devices is written to expect a single USB device having only one function to be connected to the device’s USB port.

What needs to happen is for a dedicated-function device to identify and enumerate each and every USB peripheral device it can properly support that is connected to its USB port whether directly or via a hub. This would be based on how much power is comfortably available across the USB bus whether provided by the host or downstream self-powered USB hubs. It is in addition to the device classes that are supported by the host device to fulfil its functions.

I previously touched on this issue in relationship to USB storage devices that contain multiple logical volumes being handled by dedicated-function devices. This was to address a USB memory key or external hard disk partitioned to multiple logical volumes, a multiple-slot memory-card adaptor presenting each slot as its own drive letter or devices that have fixed storage and removeable storage. There, I was raising how a printer or a stereo system with USB recording and playback could handles these USB devices properly.

Then the device may need to communicate error conditions concerning these setups. One of these would be a insufficient-power condition where there isn’t enough power available to comfortably run all the devices connected to the USB port via the hub. This may be with situations like external hard disks connected to the host device via a bus-powered hub along with other peripherals or a self-powered hub that degrades to bus-powered operation due to its “wall-wart” AC adaptor falling out of the power outlet or burning out. Here, such a status may be indicated through a flashing light on a limited-interface device like a router or a USB “too many devices” or “not enough power” message on devices that have displays.

If the USB bus exists with the hub in place but none of the connected devices are supported by the host’s firmware, you could see an error message with “unsupported devices” or “charging only” appear on the device. Otherwise, all supported devices would then be identified and enumerated no matter where they exist in the USB chain.

In this kind of situation, there would be an emphasis on using class-driver software for the various USB Device Classes that are relevant to the device’s functionality although there are some situations like USB modems may call for device-specific software support.

What would be essential for the USB hub or multifunction device to work properly with a dedicated-function device is that the device’s firmware has to support the USB Hub device class, including providing proper and consistent error handling. To the same extent, AC-powered devices like printers or home-entertainment equipment would need to provide a power output at its USB ports equivalent to what is offered with a regular desktop computer’s USB ports.

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