simonmackay Archive

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.

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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?

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

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.

Send to Kindle

How do I see the state of play with network-based multiroom audio?

Definitive Technologies W-Series multiroom soundbar – an example of one of these network multiroom speakers

Increasingly everyone in the consumer audio-visual industry are releasing multiroom audio platforms that work across a small network to share audio content through your house.

This typically is used as a way for these vendors to “bind” most of their network-capable audio-video products having them serve as an endpoint for music around the house. For some manufacturers, this functionality is seen as a way to differentiate their consumer-electronics product ranges.

Key functions offered by most network-based multiroom audio platforms

Each unit in a network-based multiroom audio platform can be one of many AV device classes. These cam be: a speaker system that plays out the audio content; an adaptor device that plays the audio content through another sound system that has its own amplification and speakers; or a network-capable amplifier that connects to a set of speakers.

The adaptor devices are often promoted as a way to bring an existing hi-fi in to the context of a multiroom audio setup, but you could use computer speakers or a 1980s-era boombox for the same effect. Similarly, network-capable amplifiers may be seen as a way to get existing speakers as part of a multiroom audio setup.

There are different variations on the theme with soundbars that are connected to a TV, or receivers and stereo systems that are capable of acting in their own right as a sound system but can be part of these multiroom setups, or subwoofers that connect to the home network but exist to add some “kick” to the sound played by other speakers in the setup.

These work on the premise of the speakers existing on the same logical network of a “home / small-business” network setup. That is where

  • the network is connected to one router that typically gives it access to Internet service,
  • Wi-Fi wireless segments are set up according to the WPA-Personal (shared passphrase) arrangement
  • members of a network are not isolated and can easily discover each other
  • and you are not using a Web-based login page to use the network.

This Def Tech device is an “on-ramp” digital media adaptor for a network-based multiroom audio setup

The speakers can be set up as members of a logical group that typically represents a room, with the ability to have multiple logical speaker groups on the same logical network. Under normal operation, all speakers of that group play the same audio stream synchronously. As well, the hardware and software works together to avoid jitter and other problems associated with moving synchronous time-dependent audio content across packet-based networks.

Some platforms allow the creation of a multichannel group where a speaker or speakers play a channel of a stereo or multichannel soundmix. Here, you could have one speaker play the left channel of a stereo soundmix while another speaker plays the right channel of that stereo mix. This has led to the creation of surround-sound setups with a soundbar or surround-capable stereo receiver playing the front channels of a surround soundmix while wireless speakers look after the surround channels and low-frequency effects of that mix.

Let’s not forget that some systems have the ability to use certain speakers to handle particular frequency ranges of the audio stream. The obvious case is to bring in a wireless subwoofer to provide that bit of extra bass punch to the music. But it could be to use full-range speaker systems with improved bass response to complement speakers that don’t have that kind of bass response. In this case, the full-range speaker may be allow frequency-level adjustability and you could set things up so that it puts more of its power behind the bass while the other speakers provide stronger localised treble response.

Yamaha R-N402 Natural Sound Network Stereo Receiver press picture courtesy of Yamaha Australia

Yamaha R-N402 Network Stereo Receiver – a MusicCast-based example of a stereo component that cam stream its own sources to a network multiroom system or play content from an online or multiroom source

You can adjust the sound levels for each output device individually or adjust them all as a group, The individual approach can appeal to “party-mode” arrangements where different speakers are in different rooms and is of benefit where you can adjust the sound level on the device itself; but the group approach comes in handy with multiple speakers in one room such as a multichannel setup.

All of these setups use a mobile-platform app supplied by the platform vendor as the control surface. But some of them allow some form of elementary control like programme selection or sound-level adjustment through controls on the device or its remote control. Let’s not forget that an increasing number of these platforms are being supported by interfaces for one or more voice-driven home assistants so you can tell Amazon Alexa to adjust the volume or play a particular source through the system.

Most of these platforms allow a device to have integrated programme sources or input connections for external equipment and stream what’s playing through these sources or inputs through one or more other speakers. The applications put forward include to play the TV sound from a connected TV in the living room through a speaker in the kitchen or to have the music on a CD playing on the stereo system’s CD player coming through a speaker in the bedroom.

A party context for this feature could include connecting an audio adaptor with a line-level input to the DJ’s mixer output in parallel with his PA amplifier and speakers serving the dance-floor area. Then you “extend” the party sound that the DJ creates in to the other rooms using other wireless speakers / audio adaptors based on that same platform with each output device working at a level appropriate to the area each speaker or adaptor-equipped sound system is used in. Here, the multiroom audio setup can make it easy to provide “right-sized” amplification for other areas at the venue.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

The Denon HEOS multiroom speakers – a typical example of network-based multiroom devices

Increasingly, most of these platforms are being geared towards taking advantage of your home network to reproduce master-grade audio content recorded at the different speakers. Initially this was to cater towards file-based audio content sourced from online “download-to-own” music storefronts who cater to audiophiles but is catering towards high-quality streaming-music services. It also is a way to stream audio content from analogue sources such as your vinyl record collection across your home network without losing sound quality in the process.

The current limitations with these systems

The multiroom-audio platforms are created by the audio-equipment manufacturers or, in some cases, the companies who are behind the hardware chipsets used in these devices. Only one platform, namely DTS PlayFi, is created by a company who isn’t developing particular chipsets or equipment.

Here, this leads effectively to balkanisation of the network-based multiroom audio marketplace where you have to be sure all your equipment is part of one platform for it to work correctly. You may be able to work around this problem through connecting one unit from one platform to another unit belonging to another platform using a line-level, digital or Bluetooth connection, then juggling between two different mobile-platform apps to control the system.

What needs to happen?

As this product function evolves, there needs to be room to improve.

Firstly, there needs to be the ability for one to establish a network-based multiroom setup using devices based on different platforms. This would require creating and maintaining industry-wide standards and specifications under an umbrella “multiroom AV platform” that all the manufacturers can implement, in a similar way to HDMI-CEC equipment control via HDMI. The Wi-Fi Alliance have taken steps towards this by developing Wi-Fi TimeSync as a standards-based approach towards achieving audio synchronisation across Wi-Fi-based devices. Qualcomm is wanting to push the AllPlay

It would also be about identifying and creating multichannel audio setups that can work appropriately. In the case of a stereo setup, this would require the speakers to have the same output level and frequency response for a proper stereo pair. A surround setup would work with speakers that are part of a “pair” in the Front, Surround or Back (7.1 setups) having the same output level and frequency response. To the same extent, it could be about adding a subwoofer to speakers that can only handle the middle and higher frequencies.

Manufacturers also have to underscore whether these systems can work across any network segment types present in a home network including handling networks that are comprised of multiple segments. This can cater to wireless networks implementing either an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone, or one of the newer distributed-Wi-Fi networks. A few multiroom audio platforms have achieved this goal through the supply of equipment, typically stereo systems and adaptor devices, that uses Ethernet connectivity as well as Wi-Fi connectivity.

There is also the issue of allowing for network-based multiroom audio setups to have a high number of endpoint devices even on a typical home network. Here it is about how much can be handled across the typical network’s bandwidth especially if the network and devices implement up-to-date high-bandwidth technology.

This is important if one considers implementing one or more multichannel groups or use wireless subwoofers in every group for that bit of extra bass. It also is important where someone may want to run two or more logical groups at once with each logical group running the same or a different local or online content source.

Some manufacturers may determine device limits based on the number of logical groups that can be created. But I would still like to do away with placing an artificial ceiling on how large one can have their multiroom audio setup, with the only limit being the effective bandwidth available to the home network.

Conclusion

The network-based multiroom audio technology is showing some signs of maturity but a lot more effort needs to take place to assure a level playing field for consumers who want to implement such setups.

Send to Kindle

Epson has an A3-capable EcoTank printer that ticks all the boxes

Article Epson EcoTank WorkForce ET-16500 Multifunction A3+ printer product picture courtesy of Epson Australia

Epson Launches First Double-Sided A3+ 4-In-1 Inkjet EcoTank Printer | PC World

From the horse’s mouth

Epson Australia

EcoTank WorkForce ET-16500 A3+ Multifunction Printer

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Epson have previously released a range of piezo inkjet printers that implement their own continuous-inking system. This feature, known as EcoTank, has large-capacity tanks installed on the side of the printer and you add more ink to the machine’s ink supply by topping up these tanks from bottles of ink that Epson makes available. Here, the idea is to do away with the need to frequently replace ink cartridges when they run out.

But now they have refreshed this product lineup with all but two of the low-end models being equipped with auto-duplex printing. They have now taken things further by releasing the ET-16500 EcoTank multifunction which prints both sides on A3, Ledger or Tabloid paper and scans both sides of an original that is of any of these paper sizes.

This printer, which sells in Australia for AUD$1599 also offers the expected multifunction abilities like copying or G3 PSTN colour fax functionality. It also supports Google Cloud Print and can work with the Epson Connect Web / mobile printing subsystem, with it connected to your home or small-business network using 802.11g/n Wi-Fi or Ethernet technology.

It can turn out print jobs at a rate of 18 pages per minute according to the ISO standard and has two 250-sheet trays to hold the paper.  As well, the inks and printing system that Epson use are intended to give a quality equivalent to most laser printers. Let’s not forget that the ink tanks in this model are ultra-high-capacity to allow for increased printing of A3 or similar paper sizes. Some of these features may tempt you to buy the printer and see it serve as your organisation’s small office-based printing press.

But there are certain questions regarding output-tray or ink-tank capacities along wiht the time to print both sides of a page which can call out the issue of having this machine serve as that small-run printing press. On the other hand, you could simply focus the Epson towards signage, short print runs and the like as part of your promotion strategy especially where it has the high-capacity ink tanks and the EcoTank continuous-inking system.

Send to Kindle

Dell takes a leaf out of Detroit’s book with their budget gaming laptops

Articles

Dell G7 15 gaming laptop press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell G Series laptops – to be the “pony cars” of the gaming laptop scene

Dell’s new G series laptops pair gaming specs with a cheap plastic chassis | The Verge

Dell rebrands Inspiron gaming laptops to G Series, serves up four new models | Digital Trends

Dell’s G Series laptops are priced for every gamer | PC World

Dell’s Renamed Low-Cost Gaming Laptops are Thinner and Faster Than Before | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Ford Mustang fastback at car show

Dell used the same approach as Ford did in the 1960s with the original Mustang

During the heyday of the “good cars” that was represented through the 1960s and 1970s, the major vehicle builders worked on various ways to approach younger drivers who were after something that was special.

One of these was to offer a “pony car” which was a specifically-designed sporty-styled two-door car that had a wide range of power, trim and other options yet had a base model that was affordable to this class of buyer. Another was to place in to the product lineup for a standard family-car model a two-door coupe and / or a “sports sedan” / “sports saloon” that is a derivative of that standard family car and built on that same chassis but known under an exciting name with examples being the Holden Monaro or the Plymouth Duster. This would be available as something that young people could want to have when they are after something impressive.

Both these approaches were made feasible through the use of commonly-produced parts rather than special parts for most of the variants or option classes. As well, there was the option for vehicle builders to run with variants that are a bit more special such as racing-homologation specials as well as providing “up-sell” options for customers to vary their cars with.

The various laptop computer manufacturers are trying to work on a product class that can emulate what was achieved with these cars. Here, it is to achieve a range of affordable high-performance computers that can appeal to young buyers who want to play the latest “enthusiast-grade” games on.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – to be superseded by the Dell G Series

One of the steps that has taken place was to offer a high-performance “gaming-grade” variant of a standard laptop model like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop, one of which I had reviewed. This approach is similar to offering the “Sport” or “GT” variant of a common family-car model, where the vehicle is equipped with a performance-tuned powertrain like the Ford Falcon GT cars.

But Dell have come very closer to the mark associated with either the “pony cars” or the sporty-styled vehicles derived from the standard family-car model with the release of the Inspiron G series of affordable gamer-grade laptops. Here, they released the G3, G5 and G7 models with baseline models being equipped with traditional hard disks and small RAM amounts. But these were built on a very similar construction to the affordable mainstream laptops.

These models are intended to replace the Inspiron 15 Gaming series of performance laptops and it shows that they want to cater to the young gamers who may not afford the high-end gaming-focused models. As well, the G Series name tag is intended to replace the Inspiron nametag due to its association with Dell’s mainstream consumer laptop products which takes the “thunder” out of owning a special product. This is similar to the situation I called out earlier with sporty vehicles that are derivatives of family-car models having their own nameplate.

The G3, which is considered the entry-level model, comes with a 15” or a 17” Full-HD screen and is available in a black or blue finish with the 15” model also available in white. It also has a standard USB-C connection with Thunderbolt 3 as an extra-cost “upsell” option along with Bluetooth 5 connectivity. This computer is the thinnest of the series but doesn’t have as much ventilation as the others.

The G5 which is the step-up model, is a thicker unit with rear-facing ventilation and is finished in black or red. This, like the G7 is equipped with Thunderbolt 3 for an external graphics module along with Bluetooth 4 and has the ability for one to buy a fingerprint scanner as an option. Also it comes only with a 15” screen available in 4K or Full HD resolution.

The G7 is the top-shelf model totally optimised for performance. This is a thicker unit with increased ventilation and implements high-clocked CPU and RAM that is tuned for performance. It has similar connectivity to the G5 along with similar display technology and is the only computer in the lineup to implement the highly-powerful Intel Core i9 CPU that was launched as the high-performance laptop CPU as part of the latest Coffee Lake lineup.

All the computers will be implementing the latest Coffee Lake lineup of Intel high-performance Core CPUs, being the Core i5-8300HQ or Core i7-8750H processors depending on the specification. In the case of the high-performance G7, the Intel Core i9-8950HQ CPU will be offered as an option for high performance.

They all use standalone NVIDIA graphics processors to paint the picture on the display with a choice between the GeForce GTX1060 with Max-Q, the GeForce GTX1050Ti or the GeForce GTX1050. What is interesting about the GeForce GTX1060 with Max-Q is that it is designed to run with reduced power consumption and thermal output, thus allowing it to run cool in slim notebooks and do away with fans. But the limitation here is that the computer doesn’t have the same kind of graphics performance compared to a fully-fledged GeForce GTX1060 setup which would be deployed in the larger gaming laptops.

Lower-tier packages will run with mechanical hard drives while the better packages will offer use of hybrid hard disks (increased solid-state cache), solid-state drives or dual-drive setups with the system drive (C drive with operating system) being a solid-state device and data being held on a 1Tb hard disk known as the D drive.

I would see these machines serving as a high-performance solo computer for people like college / university students who want to work with high-end games or put their foot in to advanced graphics work. As well, I wouldn’t put it past Lenovo, HP and others to run with budget-priced high-performance gaming laptops in order to compete with Dell in courting this market segment.

Send to Kindle

Should I buy a laptop with integral mobile-broadband modem?

Article

Snapdragon smartphone electronics in 2-in-1 laptop press picture courtesy of Qualcomn

Is it worth it to consider integrated mobile-broadband modems in your next laptop purchase

Why you might (and might not) want a PC with LTE | Windows Central

My Comments

A trend that will be affecting portable computers will be the rise of laptops and notebooks that are equipped with an integrated mobile-broadband modem.

Previously this was a feature associated with premium business-grade laptops as an extra-cost option, but this is being encouraged as a product differentiator for a larger range of portable computers targeted at consumers and small businesses. The key feature callout will be that the computer is equipped with LTE connectivity and this feature has been brought along thanks to Windows 10 and the “Always Connected PC” vision.

Initially such computers will authenticate to the mobile network with a standard SIM card installed in a reader somewhere on the computer’s chassis. But newer designs will move towards an eSIM module integrated in the computer which provides for “over-the-air” provisioning by the telco or their agent.

Why this trend?

"Mi-Fi" portable wireless router

No need to use a Mi-Fi to obtain Internet on the road with your laptop if you have an integrated mobile-broadband modem but some situations may be better served with these devices

There is the feasibility of a secure connection anywhere within reach of mobile networks. It is something you may not benefit from when using a lot of legacy-configured public-access Wi-Fi networks.

As well, you avoid the need to set up Wi-Fi or USB tethering on your smartphone or tablet, or to use a “Mi-Fi” mobile-broadband router. Similarly, you shouldn’t need to worry about draining your battery in your “Mi-Fi” router or smartphone to keep the connection alive.

You also benefit from a faster link between the modem and the computer which is important for setups implementing LTE, because a lot of USB mobile-broadband modems don’t implement the newer variants of the USB standard. There is also the fact that an integral mobile-broadband modem design allows for a larger mobile-broadband antenna to be integrated in the laptop computer, rather than having to design a small mobile-broadband antenna to keep a relatively-compact product design for that “Mi-Fi”, USB modem stick or smartphone.

The laptop’s battery shouldn’t be affected in this case thanks to Windows 10 implementing “data-saver” and battery-management logic. There is also the fact that Windows 10 will implement a class driver and authentication software within the operating system’s code so you don’t need to run any extra software to get on board with mobile broadband.

There are some disadvantages with this approach

One of these is that the host computer may be fixed with the “current” technology and may not be able to take advantages of newer technologies or wavebands that the telco you subscribe to offers.

This can be an issue with the pending 5G mobile-broadband standards or Australian telcos like Telstra exploiting lower wavebands in the mobile spectrum with the goal to assure greater coverage in Australia’s larger rural areas but yield high data throughput. But if the mobile-broadband modem operates on a “software-defined” approach where it can work with extra subsequently-available firmware that can adapt to these situations, it may not be an issue.

Old caravan outside a house

They may not work optimumly in one of these metal-clad caravans

Another factor is the integrated-modem approach may not work properly in some usage scenarios where you have a strong signal in certain areas but a weak signal in other areas. This can be of concern for those of us who want to use our computing equipment in a post-1950s caravan or a campervan / motorhome with the vehicle’s housing being predominantly metal which can reduce radio throughput.

In these situations, you may have to use a USB modem on a long USB cable run or use a “Mi-Fi” router with some situations calling for the “two-piece” approach put forward by Solwise.

Another situation you may need to think of is whether you are intending to use multiple mobile devices on the road with the one mobile-hroadband service. Here, you may find that a “Mi-Fi” router set up as the hub of a mobile local-area network may be a better answer to your needs. This is more so if you are running many devices like mobile NAS units, Wi-Fi-capable mobile printers or Wi-Fi-capable digital cameras along with tablets that may not be equipped with mobile broadband.

Of course you will need to use a pre-paid or post-paid mobile broadband service that is provisioned in a manner compatible with your computer. In these cases, such services would be offered as a “SIM-only” or “existing-device” package where you aren’t buying a device under any form of subsidy.

Telcos can easily answer this through the provision of starter prepaid plans offered as part of the package when you buy your computer or by allowing the Windows Store that is part of Windows 10 to work as their agent. Of course you can front up to their bricks-and-mortar outlet to buy a “SIM-only” or “existing-device” prepaid plan for your computer.

On the other hand, most of the telcos will allow you to annex your new integrated modem to your post-paid mobile plan. This will be an important approach for those telcos who are offering a “shared-data” or “family” plan or underscore value for money with these plans.

What to look for

SIM card

Make sure that the SIM card fits your mobile-broadband-equipped laptop or that your service provider supports an eSIM for suitably-equipped laptops

You may have to be sure that your mobile-broadband-equipped laptop is able to connect with the mobile-broadband service that you want to use. Firstly you will have to pay attention to whatever SIM type your computer uses for authentication to the service that you choose.  That will be the kind of information you will have to supply to your mobile-broadband carrier when you are buying mobile-broadband service, or wish to buy other mobile-broadband devices which are “SIM-compatible” with your laptop with a view to moving our service amongst these devices.

As well, you would need to make sure your laptop does work “across the board” with all of the mobile-broadband services that you intend to yous. For example, if you wish to use a service like Telstra that prides itself on extensive coverage in rural areas, you may need to be sure that the mobile broadband modem can cover the lower ends of the spectrum used by this carrier. Another example would be to use it in a range of countries which work on different mobile-broadband frequencies.

People who run a post-paid mobile account should look towards being able to annex the data service used by the laptop’s integrated modem with their account. This can assure them of “many eggs in one basket” with the advantages such as paying through one bill and benefiting from deals that exploit this fact. As well, some providers may operate a deal with multiple SIMs for one number and underscore this for eSIM setups.

Conclusion

Here, it depends on your needs whether paying the extra expense for a laptop configuration with an integral mobile-broadband modem is worth it for you.

Send to Kindle

What is the new HEIF image file format about?

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

An iPhone or iPad running iOS 11 has native support for the HEIF image file format

A new image file format has started to surface over the last few years but it is based on a different approach to storing image files.

This file format, known as the HEIF or High Efficiency Image Format, is designed and managed by the MPEG group who have defined a lot of commonly-used video formats. It is being seen by some as the “still-image version of HEVC” with HEVC being the video codec used for 4K UHDTV video files. But it uses HEVC as the preferred codec for image files and will provide support for newer and better image codecs, including newer codecs offering lossless image compression in a similar vein to what FLAC offers for audio files.

Unlike JPEG and the other image files that have existed before it, HEIF is seen as a “container file” for multiple image and other objects rather than just one image file and some associated metadata. As well, the HEIF file format and the HEVC codec are designed to take advantage of today’s powerful computing hardware integrated in our devices.

The primary rule here for HEIF is that it is a container file format speci

Simple concept view of the HEIF image file format

fically for collections of still images. It is not really about replacing one of the video container file formats like MP4 or MKV which are specifically used primarily for video footage.

What will this mean?

One HEIF file could contain a collection of image files such as “mapping images” to improve image playback in certain situations. It can also contain the images taken during a “burst” shot where the camera takes a rapid sequence of images. This can also apply with image bracketing where you take a sequence of shots at different exposure, focus or other camera settings to identify an ideal image setup or create an advanced composite photograph.

This leads to HEIF dumping GIF as the carrier for animated images that are often provided on the Web. Here, you could use software to identify a sequence of images to be played like a video, including having them repeat in a loop thanks to the addition of in-file metadata. This emulates what the Apple Live Photos function was about with iOS and can allow users to create high-quality animations, cinemagraphs (still photos with a small discreet looping animation) or slide-shows in the one HEIF file.

HEIF uses the same codec associated with 4K UHDTV for digital photos

There is also the ability to store non-image objects like text, audio or video in an HEIF file along with the images which can lead to a lot of things. For example, you could set a smartphone to take a still and short video clip at the same time like with Apple Live Photos or you could have images with text or audio notes. On the other hand, you could attach “stamps”, text and emoji to a series of photos that will be sent as an email or message like what is often done with the “stories” features in some of the social networks. In some ways it could be seen as a way to package vector-graphics images with a “compatibility” or “preview” bitmap image.

The HEIF format will also support non-destructive metadata-based editing where this editing is carried out using metadata that describes rectangular crops or image rotations. This is so you could revise an edit at a later time or obtain another edit from the same master image.

It also leads to the use of “derived images” which are the results of one of these edits or image compositions like an HDR or stitched-together panorama image. These can be generated at the time the file is opened or can be created by the editing or image management software and inserted in the HEIF file with the original images. Such a concept could also extend to the rendering and creation of a video object that is inserted in the HEIF file.

HEIF makes better use of advanced photo options offered by advanced cameras

Here, having a derived image or video inserted in the HEIF file can benefit situations where the playback or server setup doesn’t have enough computing power to create an edit or composition of acceptable quality in an acceptable timeframe. Similarly, it could answer situations where the software used either at the production/editing, serving or playback devices does a superlative job of rendering the edits or compositions.

The file format even provides alternative viewing options for the same resource. For example, a user could see a wide-angle panorama image based on a series of shots as either a wide-aspect-ration image or a looping video sequence representing the camera panning across the scene.

What kind of support exists for the HEIF format?

At the moment, Apple’s iOS 11, tvOS 11 (Apple TV) and MacOS High Sierra provide native support for the HEIF format. The new iPhone and iPad provide hardware-level support for the HEVC codec that is part of this format and the iOS 11 platform along with the iCloud service provides inherent exporting of these images for email and other services not implementing this format.

Microsoft is intending to integrate HEIF in to Windows 10 from the Spring Creators Update onwards. As well, Google is intending to bake it in to the “P” version of Android which is their next feature version of that mobile platform.

As for dedicated devices like digital cameras, TVs and printers; there isn’t any native support for HEIF due to it being a relatively new image format. But most likely this will come about through newer devices or devices acquiring newer software.

Let’s not forget that newer image player and editing / management software that is continually maintained will be able to work with these files. The various online services like Dropbox, Apple iCloud or Facebook are or will be offering differing levels of HEIF image-file support the the evolution of their platform. Depending on the service, this will be to hold the files “as-is” or to export and display them in a “best-case” format.

There will be some compatibility issues with hardware and software that doesn’t support this format. This may be rectified with operating systems, image editing / management software or online services that offer HEIF file-conversion abilities. Such software will need to export particular images or derivative images in an HEIF file as a JPEG image for stills or a GIF, MP4 or QuickTime MOV file for timed sequences, animations and similar material.

In the context of DLNA-based media servers, it may be about a similar approach to an online service where the media server has to be able to export original or derived images from one of these files held on a NAS as a JPEG still image or a GIF or MP4 video file where appropriate.

Conclusion

As the container-based HEIF image format comes on to the scene as the possible replacement for JPEG and GIF image files, it could be about an image file format that shows promise for both the snapshooter or the advanced photographer.

Send to Kindle