Apple and Google have put up a simplified Bluetooth pair-up approach for commissioning newly-purchased Bluetooth headsets and other accessory devices with host devices based on their mobile operating systems.
This approach has the Bluetooth device sending out a short range “beacon” to compliant host devices, causing them to pop up a notification inviting the user to instigate the pair-up procedure. Google even had the ability to invite users to download and install any companion apps for devices designed with the “app-cessory” approach.
It is rather than having the user head to the Bluetooth menu on their host device and to make sure they choose the Bluetooth peripheral device they intend to pair to. This can be arduous where Bluetooth device names appear to be very confusing such as to only show a model number or the device is being set up in an area where other Bluetooth devices are being setup to be discoverable such as “always ready to pair” default setups like Alpine car stereos.
Now Microsoft is working on similar functionality that will appear in the next or subsequent feature release of Windows 10. In this case, Windows users will have the ability to enable or disable this feature and the notifications will appear as pop-up messages.
.. to make these easy to set up
The Windows 10 host computer would need to be equipped with a Bluetooth interface compliant to Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart) standards for this function to work. It effectively makes the user experience for Bluetooth devices very similar to the “plug-and-play” experience that Microsoft achieved for peripherals directly connected to a Windows host computer.
Why would I suspect that a user be required to put a “fast-pair” Bluetooth device in setup mode?
One reason that I would see some manufacturers require a user to place a “fast-pair” Bluetooth peripheral device in a setup mode or specifically enable this feature on that device would be to conserve battery runtime on a portable device. Here, having a device broadcasting the beacon signal all the time may be taking power away from the device’s main functionality thus shortening the battery’s runtime.
It could also be a device security requirement to cater for environments where multiple compliant host devices are likely to exist and you want to make sure that your accessory device isn’t ending up pairing to someone else’s host device. It is an important issue with health and allied devices like fitness bands which work with your smartphone and these devices are dealing with very personal information. This can also be a user-experience issue regarding pop-up notificatiosn for other users’ devices.
What is showing up now is that a simplified user experience is being made available whenever you are commissioning a newer Bluetooth device.
Google has answered the setup method that Apple has implemented for their AirPod wireless in-ear headset by implementing a software-driven “quick-pair” setup that will be part of Android.
This method, called Bluetooth Fast Pairing, works on Android handsets and other devices that run Android 6.0 Marshmallow onwards and have Google Play Services 11.7 or newer installed and support Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart) connectivity. You will have to enable Bluetooth and Location functionality in your handset, but you don’t have to look at Bluetooth device lists on your smartphone for a particular device identifier to complete the setup process.
Click or tap this image to see Google Fast Pairing in action
It is meant to provide quick discovery of your compliant Bluetooth accessory device in order to expedite the setup process that is involved with new devices or to “repair” Bluetooth connections that have failed. This latter situation can easily occur if data in the device regarding associated Bluetooth devices becomes corrupted or their is excessive Bluetooth interference.
The user experience will require you to put your accessory device like a Bluetooth headset, speakers or car stereo in to Bluetooth-setup mode. This may simply be through you holding down the “setup” or “pair” button till a LED flashes a certain way or you hear a distinct tone. On the other hand in the case of home and car audio equipment that has a display of some form, you using the “Setup Menu” to select “Bluetooth Setup” or something similar.
Then you receive a notification message on your Android device which refers to the device you just enabled for pairing, showing its product name and a thumbnail image of the device. Tap on this notification to continue the setup process and you may receive an invitation to download a companion app for those devices that work on the “app-cessory” model for extended functionality.
Google implements this by using Bluetooth Low Energy “beacon” technology to enable the device-discovery process. This is similar to the various beacon approaches for marketing and indoor navigation that are being facilitated by Bluetooth Low Energy, but they only appear while your accessory device is in “Bluetooth setup” mode.
The Google Play servers provide information about the device such as its thumbnail image, product name or link to a companion app based on a “primary-key” identifier that is part of the Bluetooth Low Energy “beacon” presented by the device. Then, once you tap the notification popup on your Android device, the pairing and establishment process takes place under Bluetooth Classic technology.
I see this also as being similar to the various “Plug And Play” discovery process implemented in Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS whenever you connect newer peripherals to your computer. This is where Microsoft and Apple keep data about various peripherals and expansion cards that are or have been on the market to facilitate installation of any necessary drivers or other software or invocation of class drivers that are part of the operating system. For Google and the Android platform, they could take this further with USB-C and USB Micro-AB OTG connectivity to implement the same kind of “plug and play” setup for peripherals connected this way to Android devices.
This system could be taken further by integrating similar logic and server-hosted databases in to other operating systems for regular and mobile computer platforms to improve and expedite the setup process for Bluetooth devices where the host device supports Bluetooth Low Energy operation. Here, I would like to see it based on the same identifiers broadcast by each of the accessory devices.
The Bluetooth Fast Pairing ability that Google gave to the Android platform complements NFC-based “touch and go” pairing that has been used with that platform as another method to simplify the setup process. This is more for manufacturers who don’t have enough room in their accessory device’s design to provide an NFC area for “touch-and-go” setup thanks to very small devices or where NFC doesn’t play well with the device’s aesthetics or functionality.
It may be a point of confusion for device designers like Alpine with their car stereos who place their devices in “discoverable” or “pairing” mode all the time so you can commence enrolling your accessory device at your phone’s user interface. Here, the device manufacturer may have to limit its availability to certain circumstances like no devices paired or connected, or you having to select the “Bluetooth” source or “Setup” mode to invoke discoverability.
At least Google have put up a way to allow quicker setup for Bluetooth accessories with their Android platform devices without the need to build the requirement in to the hardware.
– Bluetooth circum-aural closed-back noise-cancelling headset
A trend that will be surfacing with the voice-driven personal assistants is that the speaker or headset device doesn’t need to be directly connected to a home network to access the Internet.
Here, some of these devices will connect to a computer or mobile device via Bluetooth or a similar technology but work in an “app-cessory” manner with a vendor-supplied app. Here, this app will serve as a gateway to a voice-driven personal assistant platform which can be hosted natively or through an add-on app, with this function activated through a dedicated button on the audio accessory device.
The first example of these is the Bose QuietComfort QC35 II which is an active noise-cancelling over-the-ear headset, but this setup will also appear with more headphones products from Bose. In this case, the headset connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and works with a Bose-supplied control app but works hand in glove with the Google Assistant app, available for Android and iOS.
But all audio accessories should be able to work with Siri, Google Now, Bixby and Cortana
There is a special button on the Bose QuietComfort headset that is mapped by the control app to trigger Google Assistant while messages that come in are read by Google Assistant in a text-to-voice manner. You will expect the Google Assistant to do what it can including providing voice-driven access to resources. This is while the headset is optimised to work at its best with voice recognition even when faced with noisy environments like public transport.
As I was highlighting in the last paragraph, such devices will be acoustically optimised for error-free voice recognition, preferably with the chosen platform. One method that will be commonly used would be to implement a microphone array that uses the multiple microphones to focus on the user’s voice.
This will be augmented with dynamic sound enhancement for the voice-driven personal assistant platform so that you can hear the personal assistant clearly when it replies.
But could these headphones and speakers be seen as a gimmick when any wired or Bluetooth headset can work with your mobile platform’s integral voice assistant without the need for any extra software? This is where you can, for example, dwell on the “call” button on your headset to invoke Siri or Google Now, then interact with that assistant to make a call or send a message for example.
Personally, I would just like to see the voice-recognition abilities of an audio accessory improved so that they can work with whichever voice-driven personal assistant you use. This would be in the form of something like microphone arrays or something similar, along with a standard function mapping for voice-assistant buttons. Similarly, audio adaptors and wearables like smartwatches and fitness bands could be focused towards supporting the “visual component” of voice-driven personal-assistant platforms by showing visual information on their displays that augment the voice-driven experience.
Any of you who have used Bluetooth headsets with your smartphones may have come across situations where the headset ceases to function or sounds the “low battery” signal when you use these devices a lot. This can happen more so if you are listening to music then make or take a long phone call using the headset and is something I had experienced many times with the Sony SBH-52 audio adaptor. But the audio protocol is being worked on to avoiding consuming too much battery runtime.
.. as it could with Bluetooth headsets
Apple and Cochlear, who are behind the Australian-invented Cochlear Implant hearing-assistance technology, have developed Bluetooth Low Energy Audio to provide a high-quality audio link between mobile devices and headsets but make very little demands on the battery. As well, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group are working on a similar protocol to achieve these same gains, with the goal to have it part of Bluetooth 5.0. But this has to be supported in a vendor-independent manner in the same context as the current Bluetooth audio technologies that are in circulation.
But why is there an imperative to develop a low-energy audio profile for Bluetooth?
One key usage class is to integrate Bluetooth audio functionality in to hearing aids and similar hearing-assistance devices that are expected to run for a very long time. Here, we are also talking about very small intra-aural devices that may sit in or on your ear or be integrated in a set of eyeglasses. The goal is to allow not just for audio access to your smartphone during calls or multimedia activity but even to have an audio pathway from the phone’s microphone to the hearing-assistance device as well as the phone being a control surface for that device.
Similarly, there is a usage goal to improve battery runtime for Bluetooth headsets and audio adaptors such as to avoid the situation I have described above. It can also cater towards improved intra-aural Bluetooth headset designs or lightweight designs that can, again, run for a long time.
Let’s not forget the fact that smartwatches are being given audio abilities, typically to allow for use with a voice-activated personal assistant. But devices of this ilk could be set up to serve full time as a Bluetooth headphone audio adaptor with the full hands-free operation. The expectation here as well could even be to have the display on the wearable active while in use, whether to show the time, steps taken or metadata about the call in progress or whatever you are listening to.
Once audio over Bluetooth Low Energy technology is standardised, it could be a major improvement path for Bluetooth-based audio applications.
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.
If you have owned a Nikon digital camera, you may have dealt with the Ultra Accessory Connector (UAC) as a method to tether your camera to your computer for, perhaps, downloading. This would typically be facilitated using a USB to UAC cable that came in the box with your camera.
Apple is resurrecting this connector as part of its MFi (Made For iOS) accessories program for iOS devices. There was a lot of confusion in the computing press regarding this connector because it could be about a different socket existing on a subsequent iPhone or iPad, or devices and accessories not working unless “you get with the program” – be part of the Apple ecosystem.
But the Ultra Accessory Connector is about how its use as an intermediary or accessory-side connector on a pair of headphones. It is being called on because an increasing number of newer smartphones and ultraportable laptops won’t be equipped with the traditional 3.5mm headset jack where you can connect a wired headset.
There is also the same appeal where headphones will have integral digital-analogue audio circuitry and there has to he a way to connect these to your smartphone if you are going the “wired” path. It is something very familiar to those of us who use a USB headset with our computers or a Bluetooth headset or audio adaptor with our smartphones. Here, manufacturers will see better digital-analogue circuitry and / or sound-processing technology such as microphone arrays, accessory-side sound-tuning and active noise cancellation as a way to differentiate their product ranges more effectively and innovate their products.
It will still be feasible to keep a level playing field for headphones that use USB or other wired digital links.
The approach that is being pushed here is for a headset or pair of headphones to have the UAC connection as an accessory-side connection. Typically this will be as a “lump” on the headphone cable like what is used for remote control or a microphone, which comes apart. On the other hand, the most probable implementation for a pair of traditionally-styled “cans” would be a socket installed on one of the earcups similar to what happens for detachable-cord implementations. The headset would then be supplied with one or more application-specific connection cables that have a UAC-connector on the accessory side and the appropriate connector (Apple Lightning, USB-A, USB-C or 3.5mm phone plug) on the equipment side. There is also a goal to have such cables also available through the aftermarket thanks to accessory suppliers like Belkin.
The UAC connection is meant to facilitate a digital connection that works with USB or Apple Lightning norms along with the standard stereo analogue connection. Here, it means that an accessory cable can exist which has the traditional 3.5mm phone plug on it to allow use with equipment that still maintains this connection. This includes still being able to use the 6.35mm headphone jack adaptor to connect your headpbones to hi-fi equipment or the two-pin airline adaptor to plug in to your aeroplane seat’s in-flight-entertainment connection. It also encompasses the goal with the Apple Lightning and USB-C standards to provide analogue pass-through from equipment-side digital-analogue circuitry to cater for the cheaper headset designs.
In the digital context, this can mean that the sound processing circuitry can present itself to Apple’s iOS devices or “open-frame” USB Audio implementations properly as the equipment expects. Apple still sees this as being important because their newer MacBook laptops are being equipped just with USB-C connections and MacOS is still providing class-driver support for USB-Audio devices. But most other regular-computer and mobile operating systems are providing a similar level of support for USB Audio.
But what needs to happen in both camps is for proper operating-system-level support for audio input and output in both the communications and multimedia contexts, along with accessory-side remote control for call management, media transport control and volume control at least. It may also include the ability to use a basic display on the accessory to show information like current time, incoming calls and messages and media-play details, something that can earn its keep with in-line remote-control accessories.
The UAC connection type can lead to the idea of “feature modules” or “enhancement modules” that add extra functionality to or improve the sound quality of existing UAC headphones. For example, they could offer:
a highly-strung DAC circuit as an upgrade path for better sound quality with premium headphones;
a Bluetooth adaptor to add Bluetooth wireless functionality to a set of existing wired “cans”;
an advanced remote control with display so you can keep your device in your pocket;
or an extended-power module which allows you to use external battery packs to obtain long operating times out of your smartphone and advanced headset.
What the UAC connector that Apple is pushing for is the ability to headset manufacturers to continue to work on feature headsets that can work across all of the computing platforms. As well, I also see the UAC connector as a pathway to innovation because manufacturers will be encouraged to work on features that work across all phone platforms. This is more so as we invest in the premium headsets to go with our smartphones and computers so we can listen to music or watch those videos while we are on the train.
A very dominant usage case being highlighted for laptops and 2-in-1 computers is the creation of a fully-fledged workstation at your main workspace or game-playing space. This involves connecting the portable computer to at least one larger-sized screen along with a desktop-grade full-size keyboard and mouse. Such workstations may even be the place where you connect extra non-portable storage devices like USB hard disks or optical drives or connect to your network via a blue Ethernet cable rather than the Wi-Fi wireless connection for improved reliability.
USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports will be seen as the way to connect expansion docks, peripherals and the like to your laptop
The USB-C connector and its higher-speed variant, the Thunderbolt 3 connector have been valued as a way to provide a single-cable connection option between your laptop and the normally-sessile peripherals once you used an expansion module, commonly known as a docking station or dock. Here, you would connect all the peripherals to this expansion module then connect your laptop computer to that same device via USB-C or Thunderbolt. This is also underscored by a significant number of these devices being equipped with USB Power Delivery to power the portable computer from that same device, underscoring that “one cable to connect” goal.
Let’s not forget that some manufacturers are integrating this “dock” functionality in to some of their display monitors so that these screens are where you can connect your keyboard, mouse and external hard disk.
Lenovo had pitched the ThinkVision P24h and P27h monitors which have a qHD (2560×1440) display resolution and an sRGB high colour gamut “out of the box”. These monitors, with the super-narrow bezel, implement a USB-C connection to the host computer facilitating a DisplayPort 1.2 connection, the data connection, and a Power Delivery connection with a power budget of 45W, along with a four-port self-powered USB hub.
LG’s 32″ 4K monitor with HDR10
LG had teased a 32” 4K monitor which has the narrow bezel and can handle HDR10 video but also offer this similar USB-C connectivity and USB hub. They also tweaked the monitor’s integral speakers for that bit of extra “kick” from the bass. They also are pleasing the gamer clans by offering the UltraFine 34” 5K and 4K UHD gaming monitors with features like AMD’s FreeSync technology and 1ms motion-blur reduction.
Dell had advanced a range of monitors including the UltraSharp 32” 8K UHD model and the 27” Ultrathin monitor which has its electronics housed in its base. This monitor implements USB-C connectivity to the host along with a QHD display.
It’s not 4K resolution in this Dell 32″ monitor, it is 8K resolution
They even advanced the 24” Touch monitor with an integral 10-point touchscreen along with the 24” Video Conferencing Monitor which has an integral Full-HD IR Webcam that has a privacy shutter. This monitor’s camera also adds on support for facial-recognition login under Windows Hello while the sound is catered for with a pair of 5-watt speakers and a noise-cancelling microphone built in.
Dell’s slimline 27″ monitor with its electronics in its base
Even households aren’t left out with a range of monitors from Dell that are designed with aesthetics and high-grade on-screen experiences. For example, the Dell 24 and 27 monitors (S2418HX / S2718HX) implement the ultra-narrow-bezel design being implemented in most of Dell’s laptops and all-in-ones plus the ability to support HDR along with Waves.Maxx sound tuning.
For those of us who have a screen that currently “ticks the boxes” for our computing experience at our desks, most of the manufacturers are offering highly-capable Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks. Remember that you can daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 peripherals from the same Thunderbolt-3 bus, which can open up a range of possibilities.
For example, Lenovo and Dell are offering these expansion modules as part of their official accessory lineups. Lenovo’s contribution is in the form of the ThinkPad Thunderbolt 3 dock (US279) with video connectivity in the form of 2 DisplayPort, HDMI and VGA ports; 5 USB 3.0 ports; audio jack for those speakers; a Gigabit Ethernet port; and USB Power Delivery for the host computer with a power budget of 60 watts. There is a USB-C variant that offers similar functionality for computers not equipped with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. But Belkin have previewed the Thunderbolt 3 version of their original Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock, which will have 3 USB-3 connections, 2 Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connections, two audio connections, a DisplayPort video connection and a Gigabit Ethernet connection. This device can supply a USB Power Deliver power-demand of 85 watts, again reducing the need for extra power supplies for your computer.
In the last post I wrote about CES 2017, I had cited Zotac’s external “card-cage” graphics module which uses Thunderbolt 3 connectivity as a way to enhance their “midget PC” product. This isn’t the only product of its kind to appear at this show. MSI also premiered the GUS (Graphics Upgrade System) “card-cage” external GPU system. This is styled for gaming and is a refresh of their original GUS external graphics module that they launched in 2012, but implementing the Thunderbolt 3 standard. It has a 500W power supply and USB 3.0 Type-C and Type-A connections.
Beyond the docking stations or, should I say, expansion modules, there have been a few other computer accessories with one being of note in the form of a Kingston 2Tb USB thumb drive.
The home network
A key trend affecting the home network this year at the CES 2017 is the concept of distributed Wi-Fi wireless systems. This consists of kits that use multiple devices to spread the Wi-Fi network’s coverage over a large area. They have appeared because most householders have run in to issues with their home network’s Wi-Fi wireless segment not providing reliable wireless coverage everywhere in their house.
They are typically based on a single chipset and most of them implement a dedicated wireless backhaul between the slave devices and the master access point. A significant number of these devices implement a “mesh” topology where there is a “root” node that works as a router along with multiple access point “nodes” that connect with each other and the “root” node to provide Wi-Fi coverage, using multiple backhaul connections for load-balancing, fail-safe operation and increased bandwidth. Other systems implement the traditional router and range-extender method with a single upstream connection but have a simplified setup method and properly-simple roaming between the access points.
The problem with these systems is that you have to use equipment that is offered by the manufacturer as part of that same system. This means that there isn’t any of the interoperability available which, at the moment, is stifling innovation.
Qualcomm launched their Wi-Fi mesh chipsets which can implement Bluetooth, CSRMesh and Zigbee also to support the “Internet Of Things”. The software is based also around a dedicated software framework and cloud-services. But these systems also support wired backhauls and multiple-hop mesh setups.
D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package
D-Link had premiered the Covr distributed Wi-Fi system which consists of a router and a wireless extender that implements the automatic setup and simplified roaming. For those of us with existing home networks, they also offered a Covr HomePlug system consisting of two wireless access points linked by a HomePlug AV2 powerline backbone. Another example that purely uses a Wi-Fi backbone is the NETGEAR Orbi which implements a router and a satellite extender device.
On the other hand, Linksys provided a true-mesh setup in the form of the Velop Wi-Fi system that implements multiple nodes. The Velop system even is able to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant such as controlling the guest Wi-Fi network or asking Alexa to quote your network’s credentials. Click or tap on this link to see a Linksys YouTube video which explains what Velop is about if you can’t see it below.
As well, Linksys have launched the WRT32X Gaming Router which implements the Rivet Networks Killer Wi-Fi chipset similar to what is implemented in the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook. Here, it is optimised to work with client devices that implement the Rivet Networks Killer chipsets but is a 3×3 802.11ac MU-MIMO system that supports 160kHz bandwidth. There is also the EA8300 Max-Stream AC2200 Tri-band MU-MIMO Gigabit Router which is a more affordable device based on a 2×2 802.11ac three-radio design. Both these routers are equipped with Gigabit Ethernet for LAN and WAN (Internet) connections.
Linksys even offered a WUSB400M dual-band MU-MIMO 802.11ac USB wireless network adaptor as a way to retrofit your existing laptop or desktop computer for the new-spec Wi-Fi segments. This network adaptor connects to the host computer via USB 3.0 and can work at a 2×2 AC1200 setup.
What Linksys have been offering is a representative of another trend affecting the home network’s Wi-Fi segment where Wi-Fi network infrastructure hardware is working on a simultaneous three-band approach, operating on the 2.4GHz, 5.0GHz and 5.8GHz wavebands at the same time. As well, Wi-Fi repeaters are even being setup to implement the 5GHz bands as the preferred backhaul. Amped Wireless is another company also offering the three-band Wi-Fi network-infrastructure equipment in the form of a router and an extender.
NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch – for the home network or home entertainment unit
NETGEAR’s not silent here with the Nighthawk S8000 Media Switch which is a media-optimised Ethernet switch implementing some of the quality-of-service technologies in their managed switches but optimised for household use. As well, this house-friendly switch can support functions like link-aggregation for increased throughput on supported devices like desktop computers and NAS units with two Gigabit Ethernet connections supporting this mode.
This is also intended to complement the Nighthawk X10 gaming and media router which has an integrated Plex Media Server for USB Mass-Storage devices connected to this router’s USB ports. It is also one of the first few home routers to offer 802.11ad WiGig (60GHz) same-room wireless network LAN segment capable of a throughput three times that of the fastest 802.11ac Wi-Fi network; along with the 802.11ac 4×4 MU-MIMO three-band Wi-Fi wireless LAN segment.
As well, there are 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports which can also support port-trunking for failover or high-throughput operation like the Nighthawk S8000 switch along with the WAN (Internet) side being looked after by a Gigabit Ethernet connection. The processing horsepower in this performance router is looked after by a 1.7GHz four-core CPU and it can support VLAN setups of the port or 802.1q tag variety.
Both these devices are pitched at “core” online and VR gaming enthusiasts with those hotted-up gaming rigs along with people who are in to streaming 4K ultra-high-definition TV content. But they can also earn their keep with those of us who run our businesses from home and want “big-business-grade” connectivity for IP-based communications or cloud computing.
Another trend that is surfacing is security-optimised broadband routers for the home network. These offer the “unified threat management” abilities associated with business-grade Internet setups but in a manner that appeals to the ordinary household. The latest from this class of network-Internet “edge” device is the Norton Core router. This device implements content-filtering and security software that is also focused towards the Internet-of-Things devices in your household due to the increased awareness of security risks and poor software maintenance practices associated with these devices.
The self-updating router works with Symantec’s DNS service to prevent DNS hijacks as well as implementing deep-packet inspection on unencrypted traffic to screen for malware and network intrusions. As for encrypted traffic, the Norton Core router will inspect packet headers for and connections of this traffic class. It also comes with Norton Core Security Plus endpoint-protection software which is a variant of the business-grade Security Premium endpoint software and can be run on 20 devices running either Windows, MacOS, iOS or Android but the router is dependent on this endpoint software for the full protection..
Lenovo Smart Storage home NAS
Most of the network-attached-storage units were focused on the “personal cloud” trend with the device being the centre of your data-storage universe while software and services work to locate these devices from afar. Similarly, some of them are using rich media servers which can do things like obtain further data about your media content. One of these devices is one that Lenovo launched called the Smart Storage 6Tb NAS which implements facial image recognition along with event-driven recognition to make it easier to identify and organise pictures of people just like what Facebook and Windows Photo Gallery were about. This unit has 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi for portable use but can be connected to your home network via an Ethernet cable.
The next article about the 2017 CES will be highlighting the trends affecting home entertainment including the new smart TVs that will be showing up.
I am reviewing the Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset which is a USB-connected gaming headset designed by SteelSeries on behalf of Dell.
This is a practice that a lot of manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the computing and consumer-electronics game have been involved in where they ask someone else to design and make the product to be sold under the client’s name. Infact, most of the Japanese consumer-electronics names had engaged in the practice themselves, either making “white-label” products for other companies to sell under their own labels or being the companies who called on others to design and build products.
One of the ways you would know that this headset was a SteelSeries design was the speaker cloth on the earcups had the label “Acoustics by SteelSeries” written on it. As well, I had a look through the product documentation and it required me to install the SteelSeries Engine software to be installed on my computer so I could gain more control over the headset.
applies to circum-aural or supra-aural designs
Primary sound path
Microphone integrated in left earcup
Active Noise Cancellation
Connection for main operation
USB Audio via Type-A
The headset itself
The Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset is designed like most circum-aural headsets and implements the USB bus as its way of connecting to host devices. As to appeal to the gaming community, each earcup has a glowing white ring which illuminates when you have the headphones plugged in to your computer. But, as I have said later on in the review, you can determine whether this glowing occurs or not or what colour is used thanks to a configuration program called SteelSeries Engine.
I have done most of the reviewing of this headset without using the SteelSeries Engine control software, which would represent requirements where you can’t or don’t want to add extra software to your computer to gain more out of these headphones.
Connectivity and Functionality
How the Dell AE2 headset connects to your computer
The Dell AE2 Performance Headset connects to USB-equipped computing devices using its USB Type-A connector and presents itself to them as a USB Audio input and output device. Windows 10 was able to even identify this headset as headphones and give this device priority over existing default audio devices like integrated speakers in a monitor or laptop. The headset has a maximum rated power draw of 150mA which means it shouldn’t place much demand on your laptop’s battery power as well as being able to work comfortably on a four-port bus-powered USB hub being used by input devices.
I had tried using this headset with my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Android smartphone by connecting it to the phone via a USB OTG cable. Here, it would work as a USB Audio device but I had found that this functionality didn’t extend to communications tasks like using the phone. Here, I would communicate with the caller via the smartphone’s speaker and microphone rather than through the Dell USB headset. The USB-based audio device as a mobile-phone accessory is becoming a reality thanks to USB Type-C connectivity and manufacturers doing away with the 3.5mm audio jack on their phones.
You can run the SteelSeries Engine 3 software on your Windows or Macintosh computer, which effectively allows you to gain more control over the headset. This program offers a DTS Headphone 7.1 surround decoder for headphone applications, a five-band graphic equaliser, a microphone-optimisation program along with the ability to control the lights on the earcups. You could even have the lighting change colour based on games events which works for some games thanks to API hooks that SteelSeries have published for game studios to use.
This program works properly as advertised and you don’t need to have it running all the time you use the headphones, which can be a boon for those of us who use laptops while on battery power.
SteelSeries design highlighted in earcups
These headphones are very comfortable to wear for a significant amount of time thanks to the circum-aural design and the fact that your ears are not touching anything hard. As well, they don’t feel sticky after that long time of use because of assuring some airflow around the foam surrounds.
The Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset is able to handle music in a similar manner to most circum-aural headphones by being able to put up some good bass response. It was also able to work well with the vocals and other instruments but you may experience a bit of reduction of higher frequencies – it is not really something with hi-fi credentials for listening to detailed music.
Glowing ring on earcups
I have also tried these headphones with some video content in the form of watching an Inspector Morse episode (Sins Of The Fathers) from a DVD using my desktop computer. Here, the dialogue came across very clearly and I was able to hear the sound effects distinctly with the added bass response doing some justice to certain effects like the rumbling heard in the brewery that was part of the story. There were a few brewery scenes in that same show which represented a sound presentation not dissimilar from what would be expected from a lot of action-based computer games with people traipsing around the factory, the rumbling of machinery and the music score, with the Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset handling them very well.
I had placed a call using Skype to someone I know and they had noticed that I was able to come across very clearly with the headset while I was able to hear them very clearly. The Dell AE2 headset can earn its keep as a communications headset for VoIP softphones and similar online calling platforms, especially if they implement high-quality voice codecs.
Noise Reduction and handling of noisy environments
The Dell AE2 headset offers a significant amount of noise reduction which can be a boon for those of us who are commuting or working in a noisy office. It may not be as effective as active noise cancellation but can suit most of us in these environments.
Limitations and Points Of Improvement
One of the problems that will need to be answered with these USB headsets is for all mobile operating systems to treat them as headsets when they are connected to mobile devices.
Another desirable feature would be to have a hardware switch on the headset that turns the lighting on and off so you can be able to reduce your laptop’s battery drain when you run them and avoid the need to run a configuration program to achieve this goal. As well, headsets of this kind could benefit from a volume control on the earcups that controls the host system’s volume using the standard USB protocols.
Similarly, Dell and SteelSeries could implement a USB Type-C detachable connection so that they can be provided with a detachable cable allowing them to last longer by allowing you to replace damaged cables. This would also cater towards the newer USB Type-C direction as more of the computers come with this connection.
Personally, I would position the Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset more as suitable as a general-purpose computer headset for applications where you want to hear your computer software’s audio privately but are not expecting to pay attention to how music comes across through them. This is rather than just as something for chatting during games or hearing games effects privately and intensely.
The Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset also represents a newer trend for headphone construction where there is emphasis on “digital to the earpiece”, which can open up many points of innovation like optimised sound or active noise cancellation. The USB connectivity allows for this to work for wired-headset setups including allowing the host device to actually power the headset.
Previously, the USB standard has become effectively a “DC power supply” standard for smartphones and tablets. This has avoided the need to end up with a desk drawer full of power supplies and battery chargers with the associated question of which one works with which device. It has also led to various points of innovation like USB external battery packs and multiple-outlet USB “charging bars”. Similarly, gadgets like lights, fans and cup warmers have also appeared that can be powered from a computer’s USB port or a USB charger.
There was also the environmental view that we will see less chargers destined to landfill when devices are finally retired or less need to supply chargers with mobile phones. But a common reality is that most of these USB chargers end up being kept near or plugged into power outlets around the house more as a way of allowing “convenience charging” for our gadgets.
But the problem has surface where particular USB chargers don’t do the job properly when charging particular devices, especially high-end smartphones or tablets. Here, you need to be sure that you use something like a 2.1A charger for these devices and have them connected using a cable known to work.
The new USB Type-C standard is bring this concept as a low-profile connection for newer smartphones along with using the USB Power Delivery standard to extend this convenience to larger tablets and laptops. But there have been situations where substandard USB Type-C leads and chargers have been appearing on the market placing our new gadgets at risk of damage due to them being improperly powered.
Now the USB Implementers Forum have brought forward a certification program for USB Type-C chargers and leads with this program augmented by a logo. What will happen is that a charger or external battery pack will have to show this logo and state its power capacity in watts so you can be sure it will charge your Ultrabook or 2-in-1 as well as your smartphone.
What should be required is that the logo and the power output is stamped on the charger body itself and also a colour code is standardised for the power output. Having such a colour code could be useful when recognising which charger from a bunch of chargers could handle your gadget or which one is the right one to buy when you look at that display rack.
At least something is being done to make it easier to be sure we end up with the right USB Type-C power-supply device for that 2-in-1 Ultrabook or smartphone without the risk of the computer not charging or being damaged.
I had come across in my email a Kogan ad where they were offering a highly-capable USB dock with integrated video support for 2 displays. Here, they are offering the product for AUD$120 including tax but excluding shipping.
This device has 2 USB 3.0 ports and 4 USB 2.0 ports, which can come in handy with a mix of USB input devices and USB storage devices along with an integrated USB sound module and USB-Gigabit-Ethernet network adaptor.
For video, there is a DVI connection and an HDMI connection for displays that work to DVI or HDMI specifications. From the manufacturer’s site, there is also meant to be a DVI-VGA adaptor so you can use it with that VGA-only display or projector. This functionality is supported according to Displaylink standards for USB-video adaptors.
It is targeted at laptop users who use current-spec laptops but want to maintain a desktop workspace with “full-bore” peripherals like full-sized input devices or larger monitors, let alone a reliable Ethernet or HomePlug AV500 connection to the network. Here, the idea is that a person who uses a “work-home” laptop can quickly connect and disconnect the laptop to and from this expansion module using one plug while all the peripherals are in place, connected to this device.
In some cases, it can also be of benefit to those of us who use small desktop computers like all-in-ones or “Next Unit Of Computing” devices where there isn’t much in the way of connectivity; or for those of us who carry around a laptop that doesn’t have much in the way of external-device connectivity but don’t want to worry about losing adaptors left right and centre when you move from place to place.
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