Author: simonmackay

Amazon gives Alexa intercom abilities for their Echo devices

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Echo to replace that intercom you bought from Radio Shack

Amazon is turning every Echo device into an intercom | Engadget

Your Amazon Echo-Filled House Now has an Alexa Intercom System | Droid Life

Amazon wants the Echo to replace your home intercom | VentureBeat

My Comments

As the battle heats up between Amazon, Google and, very soon, Apple and Microsoft for the voice-driven home assistant platform, there is a strong likelihood that these platforms will acquire new features “out of the box” at a regular pace without the need to add a “skill” or app.

Initially Amazon added a telephony function to their Alexa platform with video telephony for the Echo Show videophone device.  Now they are introducing an intercom function for their Echo devices. It is due to the fact that a lot of the households that buy Amazon Echo devices will end up equipping their home with many of these devices, such as to kit out a pair of computer speakers or old boombox with an Echo Dot.

This may be similar to an intercom system that you may have used in your home, be it that little portable box that plugs in to the wall and uses your AC wiring as a communications path or that fancy radio-intercom setup integrated in your home with one of the units having an integrated radio tuner.

Here, you have to name each Echo device with a room-unique name when you set it up or revise its settings. Then you have to enable the “drop-in” functionality on the Alexa app, whereupon you can tell Alexa to call a specific device. You can set up the “drop-in” functionality to monitor a particular room such as to monitor a sleeping baby or hear if your older parent is calling out.

The system even works across the Internet rather than just your home network, which can come in handy with families and neighbours who want to keep in touch with each other in the same community.

You can upgrade your existing Amazon Echo equipment towards this functionality by simply updating the software in the Echo devices and the Alexa app to the latest version. But I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to roll this function out to other devices that are based on the Alexa platform or to work out ways to improve on it. Similarly, I wouldn’t put it past Google, Apple and Microsoft to answer Amazon with an intercom feature of their own.

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Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop–now refreshed

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Dell

Product Page

TV commercial – click or tap to play

Previous Coverage

Product Review of previous-generation unit

My Comments

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptopSometime during March this year, I reviewed the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop, simply known as the Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop, which was based on the 6th-generation Intel Core i7 CPU with a cheaper option for an Intel Core i5 CPU. Here, this high-performance computer was positioned as a gaming laptop that doesn’t show the aggressive looks of computers destined at this kind of user, rather it conveys a style similar to the typical 15” mainstream laptop. It was also kitted out with 8Gb RAM and a 1Tb hard disk for the cheaper i5 variant and 16Gb RAM, 128Gb solid-state disk and 1Tb hard disk for the more expensive i7 variant. This is also in conjunction with NVIDIA dedicated graphics that has 4Gb display memory and Optimus automatic switching between dedicated and integrated graphics.

In the review, I had positioned the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming product range at those of us who are chasing performance in a portable form. This was ranging from someone who wants something that can be quickly put away after use, or someone who is living a relatively nomadic lifestyle like one who works in the merchant navy or doing business placements around the world. I also exposed it towards students studying courses involving advanced graphics or people dabbling with photos, video or animation as a hobby or small-time business effort but don’t want to follow the Apple path.

But just lately, Dell refreshed the Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming series of high-performance laptop computers with the 7th Generation Intel processors, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 series dedicated graphics with the Ti variant being a product differentiator, The cheaper machines come with a 256Gb SSD while the premium model comes with a 1Tb hard disk as well. This is a process that happens with all of the computers that become available where a manufacturer will issue a newer model that is simply equipped with newer and better silicon but is like the model that was released prior when it comes to form, function and product positioning.

The entry-level configuration costs AUD$1399 and comes with Intel i5 horsepower, 8Gb RAM, 256Gb solid-state drive, and NVIDIA GTX 1050 graphics, The step-up model which costs AUD$1499 comes with the same specs as the entry-level model but uses the NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti which offers a level of better graphics performance. Then the premium model which costs AUD$1599 comes with the Intel i7 horsepower, 16Gb RAM, 1Tb hard disk and 256Gb SSD as secondary storage along with the NVIDIA GTX1050Ti graphics.

But Dell are riding on the Spider-Man Homecoming movie just about to be released in to Australian cinemas for the Australian winter school holidays by running a TV commercial themed around this movie that is now on your TV. I have watched this ad a few times and see it not just as a “games during class” concept but also the fact that these computers can be relevant with advanced graphics as part of a STEM or media-focused study curriculum.

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What is G.Fast all about?

Telstra Gateway Frontier modem router press picture courtesy of Telstra

G.Fast could be the next step for DSL-based fibre-copper broadband setups

There is a newer iteration of the DSL physical-loop network connection standards that has shown up on the scene lately. It is known as G.Fast and is intended for fibre-copper layouts that encompass a longer fibre run from the exchange or central office.

This is an improvement over the VDSL2 family of standards currently used for fibre-copper setups where there is a longer copper run, such as “fibre-to-the-node” or “fibre-to-the-cabinet” setups. What it is capable of is a bandwidth up to a Gigabit / second over a 500 metre copper run.

House

It could be about fibre to the front yard here

What has happened lately is that a compatibility-testing regime for this standard has been launched thanks to a number of laboratories who are undertaking these tests. As well, it is being put on the map as far as a copper-based last-mile communications standard goes.

Yarra's Edge apartment blocks

or high-speed fibre to the basement in these apartment blocks

There is interest in this technology for use as part of next-generation broadband setups where fibre and copper are used in the link, but it is targeted towards relatively-short copper runs.

Examples of these are:

  • fibre-to-the-distribution-point / fibre-to-the-curb – where the DSLAM modem is installed in a distribution point or frame that serves a street and, perhaps, some cul-de-sac courts
  • fibre-to-the-front-yard / fibre-to-the-frontage – where the DSLAM modem is located outside a single-occupancy property and just serves that property, or a DSLAM is set up to serve a small group of terrace houses or a small strip of shops.
  • fibre-to-the-building / fibre-to-the-basement – a setup used with multiple-occupancy buildings with the DSLAM equipment installed in a wiring closet or equipment room within the building and telephone cabling used between the equipment room and the individual premises.

Some of these deployments that serve few premises permit the use of a single-premises DSLAM box that is the size of a shoehox or, more realistically, one of those “shoebox-form” cassette recorders prevalent through the 1970s as an entry-level cassette recorder. This can be installed in an access pit or attached to a telegraph pole and could be “reverse powered” by the subscriber’s modem or a power injector installed on the subscriber’s premises.

The advantage being pitched is that a subscriber can head to “next-generation” Internet even if they are in a predicament that restricts or prohibits the deployment of new street-premises wiring infrastructure. This could range from brick or stone houses where it is costly in time and money to pull new wiring, through the desire to preserve a carefully-landscaped garden, to tenants who have to seek their landlord’s permission to install infrastructure, along with being sure someone is home to supervise the technicians installing the infrastructure.

Let’s not forget that a fibre-to-the-distribution-point setup or a fibre-to-the-building setup can also be ready for Gigabit broadband once G.Fast is implemented. There may also be the idea of using these DSLAMs as part of level-based telecommunications infrastructure in the high-rise buildings to assure high bandwidth across the development.

At the moment, G.Fast service customers will need to be supplied with a G.Fast DSL modem which they connect to their broadband router’s Ethernet WAN socket and the telephone line. This will happen as part of signing up to these next-generation Internet services that use that technology. But very soon it will lead towards the arrival of a subsequent generation of DSL modem routers that are equipped with a G.Fast / VDSL2+ / ADSL2+ modem as a WAN (Internet) connection option.

G.Fast will end up being suitable for population-dense urban areas being served by a fibre-optic next-generation broadband service as long as the copper cable run goes as far as the street.

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Full-fibre ISPs are calling for action to qualify next-generation broadband service in the UK

Article

Fibre optic cable trench in village lane - press picture courtesy of Gigaclear

Fibre to the premises courtesy of Gigaclear

“Full Fibre” ISPs Call on ASA to Stop Misleading UK “Fibre Broadband” Adverts | ISP Review

My Comments

While the NBN are taking things slowly to roll out next-generation broadband Internet in to Australian communities and providing most with a fibre-copper service, the UK are facing a similar problem.

Most of urban Britain are being provisioned with similar fibre-copper next-generation broadband service, typically “fibre-to-the-cabinet” with a copper VDSL2 link between the street cabinet and the customer’s door. This is while a handful of ISPs and infrastructure providers like Gigaclear, Cityfibre and Hyperoptic are running fibre-to-the-premises next-generation broadband infrastructure, whether to country properties or large urban developments.

But a lot of telcos and ISPs are using the word “fibre” as part of hawking their next-generation broadband Internet product, while it is seen as a keyword by the marketers to say that the service will provide higher bandwidth to the customer than what was normally expected. This is although they are running a fibre-copper Internet service in most of their territories.

What is being raised is how should a broadband service be qualified in relationship to its infrastructure when the service is advertised to the public. It isn’t just about whether a service implements fibre to the premises or not, but how much of the run between the exchange or head-end and the customer’s premises is being covered by a fibre link.

There has to be distinct keywords to say that a service is being provided “fibre-to-the-premises”, a “majority-fibre” service like fibre-to-the-building or fibre-to-the-distribution-point, or a “minority-fibre” service like fibre-to-the-cabinet. Other issues that need to be raised is whether a service is being delivered with symmetrical (upload / download) bandwidth or is an “exclusive bandwidth” service like active fibre where each customer gets the full contracted bandwidth rather than facing bandwidth contention.

What Gigaclear and co are raising is that customers need to know what they are able to get when they sign up for a next-generation broadband Internet service or other advanced telecommunications service.

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Spotify now ported for the Windows 10 Store

Articles

Spotify Windows 10 Store port

Spotify – now fully part of Windows 10

Spotify is now available in the Windows Store – The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Spotify

Press Release

Microsoft

Windows Blog post

Get Spotify from Microsoft Store for your Windows 10 computer

My Comments

One of the first Windows apps to be ported to the Windows 10 Store as a “Universal Windows Platform” app is Spotify. This port, facilitated with the Centennial “desktop-to-UWP” toolkit, is primarily to have it available for computers running the Windows 10 S variant of the Windows 10 operating system, which can’t accept anything other than what is available at the Windows Store.

Another feature that will also be par for the course will be that the Spotify Windows 10 client will be updated through Windows Store rather than always polling Spotify’s servers for software updates. But further versions of this client could exploit Windows 10’s features like using a Live Tile or showing notifications in the Action Center. As well, when Microsoft opens up more relevant API hooks in subsequent major Windows 10 updates that opens up newer functionality, it will be easier for the Spotify developers to take advantage of it.

I installed the port on my desktop computer which is running Windows 10 and found that this was a simplified installation routine which carried my Spotify account and other details across. It was really a simplified installation process for a crossgrade from the standalone package that Spotify offered.

Some reviewers had criticised some other Windows Store ports of existing Windows programs due to them enforcing the installation of the new software alongside the extant software or requiring the user to re-establish themselves with the services the software was a part of. But they appreciated the “one-touch” deployment process when drawing it down from the Windows Store whether this was a new installation or to upgrade the existing client.

What is being called out by Spotify is how a software developer can make a program available via the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 computers but cater to those users who have an existing desktop version of the program but want to take advantage of the new port.

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Product Review–Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 laptop

Introduction

I am reviewing Dell’s attempt to achieve a popularly-priced large 2-in-1 laptop that can appeal to all users. There is the Del Inspiron 13 5000 variant of this 2-in-1 which omits the USB-C and Intel RealSense camera and is sold for $200 cheaper normally. It is a system that reminds me of the first 13″ Dell Inspiron laptop that I had reviewed where there was a sense of value for money along with the durability in that product.

The model I am reviewing is equipped with the Intel 6th Generation Core processor which is the previous generation CPU. You may be coming across these computers through the sales and may want to see this as a chance to assess the bargain that is being offered. But I have quoted prices for the newer models that have been refreshed with the 7th generation (Kaby Lake) hardware.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotel

Price
– this configuration
Current generation:
AUD$1699 (Intel i5)
AUD$1899 (Intel i7)
Market Positioning Mainstream consumer laptop
Form Factor Convertible laptop
Processor Previous Generation
Intel Core i7-6500U
Current Generation
similar option:
Intel Core i7-7500U
cheaper option
Intel Core i5-7200U
RAM 8 GB
better option:
12 Gb
Secondary storage Previous Generation
256 GB SSD
similar option:
256 Gb SSD
better option:
512 Gb SSD
SDXC card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 620
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (Full HD) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Realtek HD Audio
Audio Improvements MaxxAudio
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual band
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.1
Modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C with Power Delivery
1 x USB 3.0 with Sleep and Charge
1 x USB 2.0
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
HDMI 1.4
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Authentication and Security RealSense camera
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in presentation-viewer mode at Rydges Hotel MelbourneI have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 convertible laptop is well built and uses an aluminium keyboard surround and palmrest that feels cool to the touch.

It has the similar weight to the typical recent-issue 13” mainstream laptop computer thus not being too heavy to carry around. To convert it between a tablet or laptop setup, I have found that it requires the right amount of effort for this process and it works smoothly. The experience would be similar to opening or closing most of the conventional laptops.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tablet modeAn issue that I keep an eye out for with laptops is how they keep their cool. Here, the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 uses vents located near the hinges to disperse waste heat. Here, it also allows the computer to be comfortable to use in all modes. As well, I had not noticed that there was excessive overheating even with playing video content through the computer.

User Interface

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tent modeThe Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1’s keyboard is easy to work with even if you are touch-typing. This illuminated keyboard has the right spacing but also has just enough tactile feedback so you can type quickly. But some users may find that they have to have the illuminated keyboard on to make it easy to see the letters.

The multi-touch trackpad works as expected and isn’t prone to being hair-trigger. Let’s not forget that the touchscreen works properly although it is glossy like on other consumer laptops.

Audio / Video

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Left-hand side - Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

Left-hand side – Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

The Intel integrated video system even could handle video playback from something like a Facebook home video without underperforming. This was even with the Dell 2-in-1 laptop running on its own batteries and sipping the current.

Although this laptop implements the Waves MaxxAudio sound tuning, the sound quality is very typical of most computers of its size. Here, it would be good enough for personal content viewing but don’t expect much especially if you want good-quality music playback whereupon I would prefer to use it with external sound systems.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Right-hand side - USB 2.0, SD card reader

Right-hand side – USB 2.0, SD card reader

The complement of connections on this computer allows for it to be future proof without requiring you to buy extra accessories.

Here, all the variants of the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 have a USB-C socket with Power Delivery both ways, but I would like to see a top-shelf variant of this model offering the Thunderbolt 3 connection rather than the standard USB-C connection. It would then open up the path towards external graphics modules and similar devices as a performance-improvement path. Of course there is the support for connecting monitors using this connection thanks to the DisplayPort alt support the connection has.

This is in addition to a standard HDMI port along with two USB Type-A connections – one being a 3.0 variant for external hard disks and the like and another for larger keyboards and mice. Dell still offers a USB-C expansion module that adds on another HDMI port, a VGA port for that old data projector they continue to use, a Gigabit Ethernet port that can work if your place is wired for Ethernet or with a HomePlug powerline network and a spare USB 3.0 port. This is something I would consider if I was valuing extra connectivity and can be tucked in to your backpack or messenger bag.

The Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1s offer the right mix of RAM and storage even in their baseline variants. This would be 256Gb for SSD storage and 8Gb RAM which means that you aren’t being starved when it comes to performance and data storage. Here, the SSD on the review sample had lived up to its performance expectations.

For those of you who have digital cameras, the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 comes with an SD card reader so you can easily and quickly download your pictures or footage on to the computer’s storage.

Battery Life

In most situations, the battery was able to last a day of regular computing without the need for me to have the power adaptor connected to the computer.

Other Usage Notes

Most people impressed by the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 as being a representative of the convertible 2-in-1 class of computer.  This is although these computers are not often purchased and once someone buys a touchscreen laptop or a 2-in-1, they will miss these features when they go back to a traditional design.

There are some users, typically those who moved to the Apple environment, who expressed worry about the keyboard on these computers ending up being damaged if the computer is used as a tablet or presentation-viewer setup. It typically represents a staid expectation amongst users when it comes to mobile personal computing where they are comfortable with a traditional clamshell laptop and a mobile-platform tablet.

Personally, I found that if I wanted to browse the Web at a table, I could simply have the computer in the “presentation—viewer” mode so that I am not taking up much room on the table.

I showed the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 computer to a representative from InfoXchange who visited the Melbourne Men’s Shed as part of a digital-literacy survey amongst its members. Here, they were impressed by the touchscreen in the context of older computer users and the use of a tablet as a personal computing device for this user class but liked the idea of the detachable form factor for those who have back issues. She  tried the fold-over aspect but may not have noticed it as offering the same advantage. They appreciated the idea of a keyboard so that these users can also do document-creation work but also liked the idea of the tablet or presentation-viewer modes being suitable for Web browsing or video viewing (think Netflix or catch-up TV).

Subsequently I met up with a new friend of mine who is of an older age group and they were impressed with the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1’s form factor including the touchscreen. Here, one of the features that intrigued them was the ability to zoom in to text with their fingers, something that appealed to them as they didn’t have the full vision that we take for granted.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

One way that Dell could improve on the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family would be to offer a Thunderbolt 3 connection as an option for the premium variants like the 7000 Series. This is while they use a USB-C with full Power Delivery for the affordable variants like the 5000 Series. It is alongside maintaining the commonly-used connections like the USB 3.0 connections or the HDMI video connection.

But I would still want to see Dell keep the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family as a value-priced “Yoga-class” convertible computer with the right mix of features that pitches towards what most people want. Here, they need to focus on a well-built affordable machine that can survive a lot of use but can appeal to most people without being the ultra-cool computer that answers Apple’s products.

Conclusion

A well-built 13″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook that represents value for money

Like I have seen with most of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup, I have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 convertible laptops have represented something that offers value for money in its product class.

This is something that is durable but is light enough to carry and is priced in a manner to have you think of it as a main or sole computing device which you can purpose as a large-screen tablet. The RAM and storage capacity offered in the available configurations underscore something that befits this use case whether you choose to run with the package based on the value-priced Intel i5 processor or the one based on the performance Intel i7 variant.

If more of those apps that appear on most iPads could be ported to Windows 10 and made available on the Windows Store, then the 2-in-1s like this Dell could be a viable alternative to the iPad that is kept at home.

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A four-horse race for voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Apple Homepod smart speaker press picture courtesy of Apple Inc.

Apple Homepod smart speaker – a competitor to Amazon, Google and Microsoft

Apple readying Siri-powered home assistant: report | Yaho 7 News

From the horse’s mouth

Apple

Press Release

My Comments

The voice-driven home assistant has approached a point of competition where there are four different actors involved.

This class of computing device is based around a speakerphone-type device that can respond to your voice by answering questions you put to it cause certain actions to occur at your command. It was initially brought on by Amazon with their Echo speaker and Alexa voice assistant, but was subsequently answered by Google with their Home speaker based on their Google Now platform.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Alexa platform now faces some healthy competition from Apple as well

Very recently Microsoft touted one of these speakers that is based on the Cortana voice-driven personal assistant platform. Not to be outdone, Apple just announced a smart speaker and voice-driven home assistant based on their Siri voice-driven personal assistant.

All of these companies have positioned themselves in a highly-competitive manner by using the same approach to how they present their devices. Here, they allow independent hardware vendors to license these technologies to use in their own “smart-speaker” or similar products. In the case of Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana, these systems can even show information in a visual manner on screen-equipped devices, whether that be in the form of a listing or a graphical “at-a-glance” display.

Harman Invoke Cortana-driven smart speaker press picture courtesy of Harman International

Harman Invoke Cortana-driven smart speaker

Similarly, they have extended their voice-driven assistant platforms by allowing third parties to add “skills” to them whether in the near term or later. These are additional abilities that users can add to their voice-driven assistant to make it perform additional tasks or interface with other devices. It also underscores the activity that these platform vendors are undertaking to integrated their voice-driven home assistant with home-automation and allied devices, allowing for things like dimming the lights or adjusting the heating at your command.

Let’s not forget that Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have over-the-top communications platforms equipped with videocall and messaging abilities that either are or will be integrated to their voice-driven home-assistant platforms. Amazon created their Alexa-based IP-telephony platform from scratch, adding it to the crowded sea of IP-communications platforms so it can tie in with their Alexa home-assistant platform. It could allow for you to ask Alexa, Cortana or Siri to immediately “drop a line” to someone using Alexa Messaging, Skype or iMessage / Facetime respectively. You could even use this to instantiate a videocall between yourself and your correspondent if both of you are using suitable equipment.

What do I see of this? Personally, I would find that hardware manufacturers such as the respected audio-equipment names may offer smart speakers and similar equipment that works across multiple platforms, requiring the user to determine which platform they want to use during setup or at a later time. Similar software developers who write interfaces for online service may be required to write “skills” for each of the platforms.

I also see it as being very similar to 1989 when there were multiple graphic-user-interfaces on the market with each computer platform having its own mouse-driven interface. Hello to “Hey Siri”, “Hi Cortana”, “OK Google” or “Alexa” to dim those lights, close that garage, start Spotify or whatever as you talk to that speaker.

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USB Audio 2.0 now supported in Windows 10 Creators Update

Article

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

Windows 10 Creators Update now provides native support for USB Audio 2.0 to allow these devices to run at their best out of the box when connected to a Windows PC

Confirmed: Windows 10 now supports USB Audio Class 2.0 | GadgetGuys

My Comments

For those of you who run highly-strung USB audio hardware like pro-quality USB analogue-digital interfaces or those audiophile-grade USB digital-analogue converters, the latest version of Windows 10 offers something for you.

It is to provide native driver support for USB Audio 2.0, the second version of the USB Audio device class that handles sound over the USB bus. These audio devices work independently of the USB physical connection type therefore they could work with a USB 2.0 connection, the higher-speed USB 3.0 connection or the USB-C connection. This version can handle higher-definition master-grade audio beyond the 24-bit 96kHz digital-audio specification. It also can natively handle the DSD files that started off with SACD discs and are another way of distributing high-definition master-grade audio content.

This improvement to the USB Audio standard was supported natively by MacOS and Linux but wasn’t supported by Windows. Instead, people who wanted to get the most out of their USB DAC or USB audio studio hardware had to install a driver file that was supplied by the USB audio device’s manufacture, either through a CD or USB stick supplied with the device or something to download from their Website.

Now if your computer is running Windows 10 Creator’s Update, it will be a simple plug-and-play install process to have Windows Media Player or Tidal coming through that USB DAC. But this is facilitated through the Windows DirectSound or WASAPI software-hardware audio paths.

The drivers that will come with your device may offer a highly-strung experience such as to work via higher-performance audio APIs other than the two previously-mentioned paths. As well, they may offer a control panel that allows you to better manage how the sound is handled.

Similarly, there may be other drivers that map the USB audio device’s control surface to Windows 10 in a manner more consistent with the manufacturer’s functionality expectations for that device. Examples of this may include mixing desks and DJ consoles with media transport buttons.

For manufacturers who design highly-strung USB audio devices, there is less of a requirement to write up and maintain software drivers for these devices. This can same them money and focus their R&D efforts on improved sound quality.

Hooray! Your Windows computer now can work out of the box with that USB-connected premium audio device with the full sound-quality expectations.

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Supporting hubs and repeaters in the Thunderbolt 3 standard

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

The same connector being used for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C may lead to confusion in more sophisticated setups

Increasingly Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 very-high-speed data connection standard has come on the scene as a product differentiator for computer products.

This standard works over the USB-C physical connection, thus allowing for a logical Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C data transfer setup.

But USB-C, like the preceding USB connection standards allows for a “tree-like” connection from the host computer device. This is facilitated through self-powered or bus-powered hubs which allow multiple device to be effectively connected to the same physical connection on the host computer or previous hub, subject to certain conditions like power budget.

On the other hand, the Thunderbolt connections can only be connected in a “daisy-chain” manner where only one device can be connected to another. This is also limited by the fact that you can only have six devices connected in a Thunderbolt data bus.

A situation that can easily crop up with the Thunderbolt 3 connection is the fact that there could be an expectation to run a connection setup for multiple devices in a “tree-like” approach. This is along with an expectation to have more than six devices on a Thunderbolt 3 data bus. It is aggravated through some of the devices that have their own power supplies being expected to be USB hubs along with these devices being equipped with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connections.

The classic example would be a Thunderbolt 3 RAID direct-attached-storage array along with an external GPU module and, perhaps, a Thunderbolt 3 dock (expansion module) as part of a workstation setup.

But there can be the desire to hang off more than six Thunderbolt 3 devices or establish a “tree-like” approach. This can happen where there is a desire to connect multiple storage or interface devices or you are dealing with low-tier Thunderbolt 3 devices that only have the one connection for the host computer.

In the audio recording studio environment, the Thunderbolt 3 connection can appeal with analogue-digital interfaces or digital mixers where there is the desire to connect many microphones, musical instruments and speakers to a digital-audio workstation. This can extend to the video sphere with ultra-high-definition cameras connected to a suitable AV interface for digital video production.

Similarly, Thunderbolt 3 offering support for a virtual “PCI Express” card bus may appeal to computing users running with multiple “card-cage” devices like the external graphics modules. Here, it may be about increased input-output abilities or working with high-performance graphics cards. Such a setup will become relevant with portable, all-in-one and small-form-factor desktop computers which don’t have the necessary support for the traditional interface cards that were the norm for regular computers.

A situation that can easily crop up with these devices is attempts to connect Thunderbolt 3 peripherals to other USB-C connections on upstream peripherals. This can lead to error messages and the whole setup not performing as expected.

What needs to be looked at is an extension to the Thunderbolt 3 specification to cater towards different bus layouts. This is more so to allow a peripheral to effectively reiterate one or more Thunderbolt 3 buses as if it is the equivalent of an Ethernet switch. It can also lead to the possibility of implementing active repeaters for a Thunderbolt 3 connection, something that could appeal to longer connection runs like the obvious stage-based applications.

It could be simply facilitated through a hardware-software device class for this specification that addresses “hub and repeater” behaviour. This can also include the ability for these devices to work as USB-C hubs including support for different power-supply paths and power budgets for the Power Delivery device class.

The same issue also includes a requirement for the host computer to identify where each Thunderbolt 3 peripheral is and map the bandwidth in a similar way to a city’s road system.

But it will be something that Intel will have to approach when they revise Thunderbolt 3.

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Do the large 2-in-1 convertible laptops still earn their keep?

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 courtesy of Lenovo

This style of 13″ or 15″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook is becoming more common in computer manufacturers’ product ranges

Increasingly most computer manufacturers are supplying at least one 2-in-1 convertible laptop that has a screen size of between 13” and 16” in their product lineups.

These work in a similar vein to the Lenovo Yoga range which made this concept more cost-effective. Here, the computer has a hinge that swivels through 360 degrees so that it changes between a laptop and a tablet, with the ability to be angled to be a viewer with the screen on a slant or to be set up in a “tent” mode that looks like an A-frame signhoard.

Some manufacturers like Dell, HP and Lenovo are offering a range of these computers with some models offering the kind of performance and storage expectations akin to most mainstream laptop computers for a price very close to one of these computers. This is while they offer the premium Ultrabook variants like HP’s Spectre X360 along with business-rated variants like HP’s Elitebook X360 that have all the security features desired by enterprise IT.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - tablet view

A large screen tablet for video viewing or e-book reading

These large convertible laptops have a screen size that appeals to regular laptop use which would underscore a lot of content-creation activity. But a significant number of people will consider them to be too large for use as a tablet, especially if the idea is to use it as something that takes over the iPad’s or Android tablet’s role. This is because these tablets have a screen size of between 10″ and 11″ that that yields a highly-portable device best suited to personal media consumption.

Some people may appreciate the large screen for these computers while used as a tablet compared to the conventional 10”-11” size pitched for tablet devices. For example older people and those who don’t have good eyesight will appreciate the large screen especially when it comes to reading or casual gameplay. It can also appeal to people who find the traditional laptop as their “comfort zone” but want to dabble with the tablet feel with that same screen size.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - image-viewer view

The viewer position that appeals for watching video content or flicking through photos on the sofa

Similarly, you could easily share the screen between two people.This is augmented by the use of that “presentation viewer” position which has the screen at that comfortable viewing angle while the keyboard serves as a base. In some cases, the larger area allows the weight of the base to be spread more easily. A classic example could be for the two of you to relax on the couch or in bed and watch that online video, or you to read through that PDF recipe file with the computer resting on the kitchen bench.

The large size screen in these tablet-based modes also allows us to see more text-based context without needing to zoom in and out or scroll the text. This can be useful for those of you who are presenting from material like notes stored on one of these computers.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - as a tent card

The tent view that can also appeal to use on the dining table or kitchen bench

The limitation with these larger convertible 2-in-1s regarding their size is that it may not appeal as something that is light enough to be pocketed away. Here, these computers would end up being transported in the same manner as the traditional laptop.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Yet it still can be a laptop for writing up what you want to write up

Similarly, there hasn’t been much effort taking place to port the mobile-platform games and apps to Windows 10, which just about all of these computers run. Here, a lot of these games that exist on the mobile platforms are optimised to exploit the touchscreen user experience which this class of computer offers as well. There is also the practice amongst a large number of “catch-up TV” and similar video-on-demand providers to expect the user to use the Web browser to visit their Web presence, but Windows 10 native apps written for these services can make for improved performance from these computers along with a sleek user experience.

I still see this class of computer earning their keep as a viable alternative to the traditional clamshell laptop computer and the 10” mobile-platform tablet that is always just used at home. Here, the large 2-in-1 convertible laptop can appeal to a large class of people who use a laptop or iPad just for the typical computing tasks such as video and photo viewing, word processing, Web browsing and online communications but who appreciate the large screen. As for the cost, even if the sticker price seems to be expensive, you are effectively buying two devices in one housing and are likely to end up likely to make heavy use of these computers rather than thinking of dealing with the two separate devices.

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