Product Review – Sony SRS-DB500 2.1 active speakers

I am reviewing the Sony SRS-DB500 2.1 active speaker system which is the first multi-purpose high-quality active speaker system that I have reviewd for this blog.

This piece of hardware may not be to do with the home network but I am reviewing these speakers because they may end up being used as PC speakers, speakers for use with personal-audio equipment or simply as extension speakers for most of the Internet radios that I have reviewed here. User groups like churches may be interested in this speaker system as a separately-controlled “overflow speaker” for use with their public-address systems.

Description

This set of active speakers is based on a 2.1 speaker setup where there are two speaker units capable of reproducing the midrange and treble frequencies working alongside a bass unit that reproduces the bass frequencies. Here, the bass unit has all the amplification for this system and provides 75W (4 ohms 10% THD) per channel amplification for the speaker units and 150W (2 ohms 10% THD) for the bass speaker.

There are two inputs for this unit – one pair of RCA jacks located on the back and one 1/8” jack on the front. This is so you can connect two different signal sources like a PC and an iPod.

Fit and finish

The bass unit does feel very heave even though it uses Class-D amplifiers, which usually indicates that the equipment is of very good quality. This also influences the sound, especially with the subwoofer because what you hear from this unit is just whatever is in the recording.

When you operate the controls, there is a feeling of them being smooth, which is another hallmark of good-quality equipment.

Controls

There is a main control knob that is a rotary encoder with orange “halo” ring. Here, the orange marker indicated current position when it is adjusted or can be set to act as a VU meter or decorative halo at other times.

This control and the controls on the remote offer local volume and tone control, which is of use for line-level sources such as a CD player, or the Zone 2 or 3 outputs on the STR-DA5500ES receiver that I have reviewed. There isn’t a setting to set the speaker to bypass or “home” these controls for use with preamp-level outputs that have their own tone and volume controls.

When you adjust the ton settings on the bass unit, you have to press BASS or TREBLE then adjust the main knob. It is hard to know which settings are “tone-flat” for proper assessment and there aren’t any preset tone curves like “bass boost”, which may disappoint younger people who want to instantly “pump up” the bass.

Sound Quality

I have played “Café Del Mar” albums amongst other music material through this speaker and it handles the bulk of the music – the midrange and treble notes – properly without any “breaking up”.

The bass does exist but doesn’t “boom” or sound like an old juke box even if you turn the system up. Therefore I find that this system is capable of yielding a “mature” sound with any recording you throw at it.

Conclusion and Placement Notes

This speaker system would be useful as speakers for a desktop or laptop computer or can work as extension speakers for an MP3 or network-media player, a Discman or one of the Internet radios that I reviewed. I would also recommend using it as supplementary-area speakers for the Sony STR-DA5500ES home-theatre receiver that I reviewed or other amplifiers that expose a volume-independent line-level output.

The only limitation is that there isn’t an ability for them to make them easily work properly as pure active speakers for a pre-amplifier, where there is tone adjustment at the amplifier. This could be facilitated through a “power-only” mode which bypasses the controls.

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Product Review – Sony STR-DA5500ES network-enabled home theatre receiver

I am reviewing the Sony STR-DA5500ES high-end home theatre receiver which is the first network-capable home-theatre receiver that I have reviewed in my blog. At the moment, Sony have supplied me with the SRS-DB500 2.1 powered speaker set which I will be reviewing in a separate article on this blog, for use with this receiver.

Some of you who may not understand sophisticated audio setups will benefit from a reference page which will explain the terms that I will use when describing this receiver and other audio equipment in this blog.

This unit is the second model down from the top-of-the-line STR-DA6400ES receiver in Sony’s high-end “ES” range of home-theatre receivers but is still very capable in its home-theatre-hub role.

Fit and finish

This receiver has the same fit and finish associated with the good-quality Sony hi-fi equipment that has existed for many years/ The controls are smooth and properly responsive and the unit’s finish looks “very polished”.

Usability

This unit excels on useability in a similar manner to most Sony home AV equipment that I have used.It has that very bright vacuum-fluorescent display that is easy to read even at dim levels and the controls are easy to manage.

Normally comes with two remotes – one with many buttons for controlling a home-theatre system’s components and for full control of the receiver; one for GUI-based control of the receiver.

Connectivity and Flexibility

This high-end receiver excels in this field of connectivity and flexibility. There are seven 120W power amplifiers built in to this unit’s chassis. You can set up a 7.1-channel speaker setup so you can properly enjoy movie content on Blu-Ray discs that is mixed to a Dolby Digital EX 7.1-channel sound-mix. On the other hand, you can set up a 5.1-channel speaker setup for Dolby Digital 5.1-channel sound-mixes commonly on digital TV or DVD and use the two spare power amplifiers for different setups.

Firstly, you could have speakers in another room to play another stereo sound source to that room or set up a sophisticated “bi-amp” setup where the tweeters and woofers in a capably-wired pair of front speakers are amplified separately. The limitation with this receiver is that there isn’t the ability to have the crossover functionality or the amplifier levels managed in a bi-amped setup.

An example of very good connectivity options

The multi-zone feature also allows for yet another zone to be catered fro as an audio-only stereo zone but with its own amplifier. Similarly, the secondary zone can be amplified with another amplifier. The line outputs for the extra zones are in fact line-level outputs that are independent of the main volume control and you would have to adjust the sound at the remote amplifiers.

These setups also allow you to “scale up” your sound system as you see fit and can afford the extra equipment. You can even start with a pair of good stereo speakers and, as you can afford them, connect up extra speakers for your surround-sound setup.

There are plenty of audio and video inputs for extra audio and video equipment, Music enthusiasts are even catered for with a phono input for a good turntable as well as two tape loops for recording devices like cassette or MiniDisc decks. These same connections can be used for connecting up a computer’s sound subsystem for recording vinyl or cassettes to the hard disk rather than using those poor-quality USB turntables. Those music enthusiasts who believe that the audio reproduction of a dedicated CD player connected to the analogue inputs is better than that of a DVD or Blu-Ray player connected to the HDMI or optical digital inputs of this receiver can connect the CD player to these inputs.

The front panel provides walk-up connections for 1 regular video source (composite video, stereo analogue audio and optical digital audio) and 1 HDMI video source.

There is a DMPORT connection for use with optional Sony-supplied modules that provide connection to and control of various portable devices. These include Sony Walkman MP3 players, phones that have Bluetooth A2DP functionality like my Nokia N85 as well as Apple iPods and iPhones..

For video displays, there is connection for two HDMI-equipped video display devices so you can run a projector or smaller “operator-console” LCD screen alongside the regular large-screen LCD or plasma display. The receiver also supports video-signal conversion from regular video signals to HDMI signals, which means no need to connect composite or component cables to the main display to gain benefit from legacy video sources.

Network AV

The receiver offers some network-enabled functionality but this is limited to playback of DLNA media content with the user controlling the receiver through its remote control and requiring the video display attached to any of the monitor outputs being on to select toe content. For radio functionality, the unit can only work with Rhapsody or Shoutcast Internet radio services.

This network connectivity is made feasible by the receiver having an Ethernet connection. This means that it can work also with HomePlug AV powerline networks when you use a HomePlug AV-Ethernet bridge; and is my preferred “no-new-wires” network-connection method for connecting home-theatre and hi-fi equipment to a home network.

When you navigate a DLNA media server, you have to choose the kind of content you are after – music, pictures or video. If you browse around the same server for content outside the class you selected, this receiver will not start any of that content.

It could be feasible to select audio content by using the receiver’s built-in display and through the use of either the remote control or controls on the unit’s front panel. For Internet-radio functionality, it could be feasible to select Internet-radio content from vTuner, RadioTime or Reciva directories which include access to local radio from other countries.

Sound quality

The sound quality is as you would expect for high-end Sony gear, where it is not coloured. I even noticed this with my computer’s sound which was fed through the SACD/CD input and out through the Preamp outputs to the SRS-DB500 speaker set. I switched the unit in to regular 2-channel mode, then to “analogue direct” to assess whether the digital circuitry was colouring the sound. The receiver and the active speakers were set to “tone-flat” – bass and treble at centre positions in order to really assess how it sounded and I had played one of the early “Café Del Mar” recordings from my PC.

The reason I use this kind of recording is to assess the equipment from a mature user’s viewpoint and find out how it handles music other than aggressively-amplified pop music. In the context of the home theatre, it would also include being able to yield the whole soundtrack of a movie or TV series.

I haven’t been able to test the receiver with regular passive speakers but the power amplifiers are something worth trying out and using.

Limitations and Points of Improvement

I had mentioned that there could be some points of improvement as far as network operation goes. These include the ability to use the unit’s display and controls to select and control audio material from DLNA servers on the home network, without the need to switch on the TV display. Similarly, the receiver could offer what competing home-theatre receivers offer where you can “tune in to” Internet-radio stations offered by vTuner, Reciva or RadioTime directories.

For operation, a main point of improvement would be to allocate one video monitor as a “control monitor” while the other monitor shows video content. Here, it could allow for a smaller screen to be used for this purpose while the larger screen is used for the primary video.

Conclusion and Placement notes

Save for certain network-media limitations, this receiver would be considered as a worthy candidate for a primary “hub unit” for the main home-theatre area. It is also well-placed for audio enthusiasts or people who have material on legacy formats like vinyl records and want to be able to play these material on good equipment.

Notes:

The cited output power is based on manufacturers’ specifications with an 8-ohm speaker load and 0.09% total harmonic distortion (minimum quoted in the specifications).

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Debunking the hysteria and paranoia about Google’s Street View Wi-Fi site surveys

Introduction

Over this last few weeks, there has been hysterical media and political activity in Europe and Australia concerning Google’s Street View activities. This activity has become focused on the collection of Wi-Fi network data by the Street Survey vehicles which grab the initial street images.

The hysteria focused on identifying details about Internet use and Wi-Fi devices that existed at individuals’ addresses and that this data could be used to spy on individuals.

The truth

Wi-Fi site surveys are a part of Wi-Fi networking life

The Wi-Fi site survey is associated with nefarious activities like wardriving but it is commonly practised as part of Wi-Fi network use.

When you want to connect to your Wi-Fi wireless network with a client device, you will come to a point in the device’s setup operation where you see a list of SSIDs, then you choose the SSID that you wish to connect to. This is an elementary form of a site survey.

This is extended to technology enthusiasts like myself who activate Wi-Fi network scanning functions on smartphones to see a list of wireless networks operating in the neighbourhood that they are in for curiosity’s sake. Here, we see the list of SSIDs and an icon beside each SSID that indicates whether the network is protected or not. The practice also extends to use of “Wi-Fi-finder” devices to look for open Wi-Fi networks.

Similarly, people who are optimising wireless networks will use software like inSSIDer (which I have reviewed) or HeatMapper for site surveys and wireless-network optimisation. This software can also yield information about the BSSID and operating channel for that particular SSID and more sophisticated versions can use spectrum analysers to determine interfering frequencies or determine the location using support for GPS modules.

This leads me to Navizon and Skyhook Wireless who have done these surveys in order to turn these beacons in to a location tool in a similar manner to GPS or mobile-phone-tower-based positioning. The most common application of this is the Apple iPhone platform which uses this information for locating the phone during setup, avoiding the need for users to determine their time zone or location.

What does my Wi-Fi network yield

A normally-setup wireless access point or router will send out a “beacon” with contains the following data:

  • SSID or ESSID which is the wireless network name
  • BSSID which is the MAC address for the access point’s radio transceiver. This MAC address does not have any relationship to the Ethernet MAC address or the broadband (WAN) interface’s MAC address on your wireless router.
  • Information required to determine security protocol to establish a successful conection

This data that is in this “beacon” is publicly available in a similar context to the information written on a vehicle’s registration label which would have the registration number (written on the number plates / license plates) and the VIN (vehicle identification number) for that vehicle.

It is also worth knowing that all access points and wireless routers have the option to turn off SSID broadcast. Here, you don’t have the SSID made available but have the network listed as a “hidden network” on some devices. This is something you can do in your router’s or access point’s Web-based management interface

When your network client devices are active in your wireless network and are “talking” to your wireless access point or router, they don’t broadcast an SSID or other beacon because they have “latched on” to that access point or router. This data will usually be encrypeted as part of the WPA security protocols that should be in place on your private wireless network.

Conclusion

Once you know how the Wi-Fi network works, you should then know that a site-survey operation should not gather the actual data that is moved across the network.

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The HTML5 vs Flash debate

The computer press have been running articles regarding the use of Flash or HTML5 in highly-interactive Web sites such as video sites.

It has started off with Apple wanting to move iPhone and iPad towards HTML5 / H264 video by proscribing Flash runtime engines from these platforms and forcing developers to move to the HTML5 / H264 platform. This caused Google to write YouTube client-side apps for these platforms and develop an HTML5 site. Then Microsoft and others worked towards implementing HTML5 in their next browser issue, with some browsers being equipped with HTML5 interpreters.

The debate about HTML5 vs Flash has been more “video-centric” because Adobe Flash was mainly used by YouTube to display the many videos hosted on that site.

It is worth noting that the FLV files used in YouTube and similar Flash applications are container files with the video and audio encoded using the H.263 video codec. The HTML5-based video applications will use FLV, MOV or AVI container files with H.264 video codecs which are becoming the standard for high-resolution video.

Applications beyond video

Adobe Flash has been used for applications beyond video. Primarily it has been used for high-interactivity applications like games such as Farmville on Facebook or the casual games on MiniClip because it offers a quick-response user interface and easy development that these applications needed. Here, it has offered a “write-once run-anywhere” platform for these Web-centric applications with plenty of “rapid-application-development” tools.

It is also worth knowing that most of these games refer to back-end databases and / or “client-local” cookie files to persistently store game-state and other user-generated data. These programs will then have to work with the different data stores as they are used.

Web-based runtime environments for partially-linked programs

HTML5 has a variety of inherent elements that allow for vector-graphics and interactivity for highly-interactive applications. It also may be of benefit to open-source software developers and Linux advocates/

But there are some developers, most notably games developers, who want to keep their source-code closed in order to control reuse of that code. These developers also want to provide programs in a manner where the target machine doesn’t have to interpret or compile code before it is of use, which will benefit high-interactivity applications where quick response is desired.

These developers typically want to provide these programs as either an executable file or a “p-code” (partially-linked) program file which is run by an interpreter or just-in-time compiler program, known as a runtime module, that works with these files on the target platform. At the moment, there isn’t a mechanism for delivering a compiled HTML5 file in a “write once, run anywhere” manner.

Java

An interactive-applications developer could work with the latest version of Java to develop these kind of applications in a “write-once run-anywhere” platform. This platform is natively supported by the Blu-Ray Disc system as part of providing interactive video from discs and/or the Internet through that system. It could then lead to someone writing a games disc that runs classic games types on any old Blu-Ray Disc player without the player being a games console.

The main issue with this is that not all platforms, especially tablet and handheld platforms, support Java natively. As well, desktop support for Java may require the Java runtime software to be downloaded separately from Sun.

Microsoft Silverlight

As well, Microsoft is wanting to advance their Silverlight runtime platform for client-executed Web applications but this platform has not yet been ported for anything outside general-purpose computers running the Windows operating-system family. Again, this is another platform for Web-based highly-interactive content that requires the client machine to work with a “runtime module”.

Apple’s control over what runs on their platforms

One of the main cornerstones in this debate is what Apple wants out of the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch platforms. They want to maintain control over programs and highly-interactive content that runs on this platform and preserve the requirement that all such content is obtained through the iTunes App Store. The practice of supplying a “runtime module” for pre-compiled “p-code” software available elsewhere, such as what happens with Java and Flash, works against this ideal because Apple can’t see the program’s code before it runs on an iPod or iPhone. Therefore Apple have proscribed the creation of such modules for this platform.

Some Apple skeptics may also have a fear that Apple may change their desktop platform away from the Macintosh (MacOS X) platform where their is a “free-for-all” for software development towards a platform not dissimilar to the iPhone or iPad platform with a controlled development environment. This is like how they retired the Apple II platform in the early 90s in order to focus on the Macintosh platform.

The open question

Therefore, there is an “open question” concerning Web-based software development. It is whether the likes of Farmville or Bejewelled should be developed using HTML5 and in a vulnerably-open manner or whether they should be packaged as “p-code” and delivered to a runtime environment? It also includes whether Apple should expect developers to create a separate client-side app for their iPhone / iPod / iPad devices for each game or highly-interactive site that they work on.

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Product Review – Western Digital MyBook World network-attached storage device (1 Terabyte)

WD My Book World Edition network hard driveI am now reviewing the Western Digital MyBook World network-attached storage device which is the first such device to be reviewed in this blog.

It is a white box about the size of an average paperback book such as a personal Bible but has a white “operation” light along the spine. This light can be turned off through the Web-based configuration menus under the “System-Advanced” screen in the Advanced menus. There is a vent along the top of the unit to allow for proper cooling.

Connection

It can connect to an Ethernet network, even a Gigabit one which would be part of high-end routers and equipment optimised for “next-generation” broadband services. There is also a USB socket for use with adding external USB storage or USB printers that can work as network printers to the network.

Storage

This unit has 1 Terabyte worth of storage available on it, which would be the minimum required for these devices. If you use it primarily as a media server, you would have plenty of room for many hours of high-definition video, oodles of “many-megapixel” pictures and many hours of audio content using good-quality codecs.

This is provisioned through one hard disk but the step-up model (WD MyBook World Edition II) has the ability to work with two user-replaceable hard disks and can support a two-disk RAID data-mirror setup.

Ethernet connection to the NAS

Ethernet connection to the WD NAS

Network functionality

It may be worth noting that I have run this unit on the latest firmware and is a wise practice to do whenever you buy these units to make sure they run the latest firmware.

It can work with the common network file protocols like FTP and SMB, but the Samba (SMB) server can’t handle credentials situations where you have the same username and password as one of the computers. As well, it isn’t easy to create a NAS share with a “public read-only” access condition where you have to log in to add or modify files on that share but anyone can read the files.

There is support for “cloud backup” and “cloud remote access” with WD’s MioNet cloud-based remote servers, but I haven’t tried this feature out yet.

The main function that I have appreciated in this NAS is the TwonkyMedia UPnP AV MediaServer function. This positions the NAS as a very capable network media library that provisions the media to standards-based media devices. It can also work as an external media drive for iTunes-based media setups.

This has allowed for PC-free media serving where I could play “ripped” audio files on any of the Internet radios that I have reviewed without needing to have the computer on. As well, it has improved the reliability of my UPnP-based media experience because the network hard disk is doing just that job of providing the media rather than a PC that does this amongst other activities. The UPnP functionality could be better supported by working with other shares that can be set up as “public read-only”, rather than just the “Public” share. It would then increase its validity as a media server in businesses where media collections are at risk of unauthorised alteration.

Points of Improvement

As I have outlined in the review, I would like to make it easier to provide “public read-only” shares which are able to be edited by authorised users but the files can be viewed by anyone without authentication and media files can simply be provided for playback by UPnP devices. This can make it easier to share media or other files across the network without fear of accidental or malicious alteration or deletion.

There could be some finer control on the status LED by providing for a static “bar-graph” display that indicates how much disk space has been used, or light-up only as a “distress signal” or if the hard disk is in active service. This is so you can know what is going on without that bright light staying on all the time.

Summary and Placement Notes

I would suggest using this hard disk as a “simple network backup” device or as a dedicated UPnP media server device for the home or small-business network. In the latter usage case, these businesses could easily relegate this unit as a secondary “media-server” NAS alongside their primary NAS that provides regular network file-service functions and establish UPnP AV / DLNA in their realms as I have talked about in a separate article.

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Product Review – OXX Digital Classic DAB+ tabletop Internet radio

OXX Classic V Internet radioI am reviewing another of the Internet radios that are in that “mantel-radio” form factor like the Kogan Internet radio that I previously reviewed. From what I have noticed, it was as though it was the Kogan radio but without an iPod dock and in a glossy white cabinet.

The set is connected to mains power via a mains cord that is attached to the set rather than the usual AC adaptor that plugs in to the set. This is more in line with the traditional mantel radio or most of the clock radios that are currently ins use and will be likely to benefit people who have to deal with crowded power outlets and powerboards,

The set uses a bitmap LCD display which yields a large clock display whenever it is turned off and provides a useable menu display. The knobs are of an equal shape and all the buttons are lined up under the display in a single row. This may impair useability for older people because the labelling is too small.

On the other hand, the volume control is a real analogue volume control rather than the rotary encoder that I have used on most Internet radios and other recent consumer electronics. This will appeal more to mature people who want greater control of the set’s output volume – I have even heard that a sign of a person’s maturity is knowing that the volume control can be turned down rather than always up!!!!

Connectivity

Kogan and OXX Internet radios

Kogan and OXX Internet radios alongside each other

Like the Kogan table radio, there is an auxiliary input for external audio equipment like MP3 players and Discmans as well as a headphone jack which you can use as an external speaker jack when connected to active speakers.

It also excels on network connectivity through the provision of an Ethernet socket for use with wired networks, including HomePlug powerline networks. The wireless-network connectivity has been improved through support for WPS “push-push” setups as well as network profiles for multiple different wireless networks.

Lately, I had visited another location where this set was in use as a kitchen radio and was setting it up to work with a multiple-access-point wireless network and it shows each access point as a single entity even though the network was set up as an extended-service-set. This is still a problem with the Frontier chipset Internet radios because they are presumed to be kept in a single position rather than moved around the network. As well, the WPS “push-push” setup experience went very smoothly without a problem when I enrolled it with a router that was set up to work as an access point.

Use

There are four preset buttons for each of the operating bands as well as support for integration with the “www.wifiradio-frontier.com” Internet-radio portal. This then allows for a larger list of preferred stations to be kept consistent across multiple sets.

The unit also has improvements in other areas like dead-programme “clean-up” with DAB multiplexes for sets that are moved between towns or whenever the multiplexes are rearranged. Similarly there is also an equaliser function with five tone presets and manual adjustment for bass and treble. There wasn’t a loudness-compensation control on the manual tone adjustment unlike other Frontier radios with similar firmware.

It does work well with DLNA media services, especially the TwonkyMedia Server that is part of the Western Digital MyBook World Edition network hard disk. At the moment, it only works as a media player that can be operated from its control surface.

Bitmap display on OXX radio

Bitmap display on OXX radio

When this set is run at a loud volume, it sounds as loud as the Kogan set, which is loud enough to cut over noisy kitchen appliances for example.

Limitations and Points of Improvement

One main limitation that I have experienced is the tendency to work on a small buffer which causes the radio to “start and stop” especially when playing some overseas Internet radio stations. It may be also limited through problems with Wi-Fi networks that may be difficult in some areas. The problem may also become worse as more people “hit on to” Internet radio – the new “short-wave” band, and servers don’t work well for quality of service. Other radios don’t seem to be as sensitive to this problem as much as this model.

A point of improvement that I would like to see would be steps to make the set more ergonomic and easier to use. For example, I would like to make the buttons more prominent so they are easier to find. This is more so for the on-off button and the mode button. As well, the LCD display could be better replaced with one of the monochrome OLED displays to improve on readability, or could be engineered to fill the display panel space more to make better use of that space.

Other than that, there wasn’t any other main limitation with this particular set for its class.

Conclusion

Although there is the limitation with the set working on a small buffer and being more prone to “start-stop” behaviour with Internet radio, it can work well as a tabletop radio / network media player for an office, waiting room, small shop or kitchen. I wouldn’t recommend this set for use in a workshop or similar location because of the glossy finish being more susceptible to damage that occurs in those areas.

Update note – 18 May 2012

I have added some further experience notes about the OXX Digital Classic DAB+ Internet radio since this review was published. This is due to my using a a radio of the same model that had been purchased by someone whose home network I was servicing and optimising.

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DLNA now one of the hallmarks of a standards-based mobile phone

News article – from the horse’s mouth

Mobile Handset Manufacturers Attain DLNA Certified® Status – DLNA

My comments

From this press release, I had noticed that the mobile-handset brands that have been considered of high value had also added DLNA, whether as a control point, media player / renderer or media server, to their feature lineup. This will mean that they will work with a DLNA-based home media network in a proper way, whether to play music or exhibit photos and videos existing on the phone on home AV equipment or become remote controls for home AV equipment.

These companies have also moved towards other standards-based activities like adopting OMTP standards such as use of a microUSB connector for power and data as well as a 3.5mm four-conductor jack for wired headsets. Most of these phones also operate their Bluetooth functionality in a purely standards-based way that will work, such as proper “object push” between phones. The different phones may work to a Symbian S60 or UIQ operating system, or the Android operation system or an inhouse operating system like Bada, but they work with other devices on a level playing field.

Compare this with Apple where the iPhone, considered to be the “coolest phone in town”, doesn’t work with other phones or peripherals unless you pay big money for “apps” or Apple-approved peripherals; or work out various “kludges” to achieve compatibility.

It will be interesting to see whether the smartphone market moves towards standards-based compatibility (use of OMTP standards like microUSB, proper Bluetooth behaviour, DLNA) or stay with what looks “cool” and move towards an ecosystem defined by Apple.

For me, I would certainly stick towards standards-based operation like DLNA if I was choosing a smartphone when I have an opportunity to upgrade my phone.

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Following the UK election on the Internet

This year, the UK election has become a “cliffhanger” election with all the sagas concerning government “sleaze” and expenses rorts. There is even a lot of speculation about a “hung parliament” existing in Westminster. It is now easy to monitor this count from wherever you are in the world with your computer and / or your Internet radio.

The BBC offer the best resources for this information. Their news.bbc.co.uk Web site is running an always-updated “dashboard” view with bar graphs for each party and a voting map for the whole of the country. You can delve further to monitor your electorate or an electorate that is critical to the election.

If you tune your Internet radio to BBC Radio 4 or find this station using vTuner, Reciva or RadioTime to play through your computer, you can hear a running commentary on the count with interviews from past and present MPs as well as declared counts as they come through.

The main newspapers like the Telegraph or Times also will offer a ticker or “dashboard” view of the election count through their Internet sites as well

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Product Review – Hewlett-Packard Photosmart Premium Fax (C309 Series)

I am now reviewing the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart Premium Fax all-in-one printer, which might be considered as a “bridge” product between the devices which are pitched at the consumer market and the devices pitched at the small-business market. HP Photosmart Premium Fax

The unit is finished in a gloss-white finish which may make it look the part with earlier Apple iPods or similar devices and has a good-quality fit and finish about it. You still get a CD full of drivers and software to run this printer on Windows and MacOS X but the best location for the latest driver and software files is at the HP support website.

Accessibility

The printer is similar to the other HP inkjet machines I have reviewed. Here, it is easy to access the mechanism which is important when loading ink cartridges or rectifying paper jams without requiring much effort to open the access lid or mess with stays.

The unit’s display, although a bit small like most colour displays used on “all-in-one” devices, is still bright and easy to read. It also can be angled up to suit your preferred viewing arrangement.

Connectivity

One major drawcard that this printer excels in is connectivity beyond the usual “direct-to-PC” USB connection.

Network and Camera Connectivity

It can be connected to an 802.11g Wi-Fi wireless network or an Ethernet network. This also gives it an advantage when you want to have reliable network printing or use of HomePlug or MoCA “no-new-wires” wired-network technologies.

You can enrol it to any 802.11g WPA2-Personal network either using Windows Connect Now (USB / memory-card configuration transfer) or from the unit’s control panel. When you enter the WPA Passphrase, you can “pick-n-choose” the characters on the LCD screen keyboard or enter it “SMS-style” using the numeric keypad.

There is a Bluetooth interface available if you want to connect your laptop or PDA to the printer for wireless printing. This also works as a method for printing pictures from standards-compliant Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and cameras. If you use an Apple iPhone, you may have to look through iTunes for an app that supports Bluetooth Object Push Profile.

There is a USB host port for use when you print from a USB memory key or a PictBridge-enabled camera. At the moment, this port can’t be used with external optical drives for printing from CDs. There is also a memory card reader for use when you want to print from your camera card. Here, it can work with SDHC cards as well as regular SD, MemoryStick, XD Picture Cards and CompactFlash cards.

The printer can work as a UPnP printer but this functionality hasn’t been fully exploited in the marketplace. As well, it can work as a DPWS printer which provides for full integration with Windows Vista and 7 computers.

Walk-up functionality

The printer supports walk-up functionality for printing from camera cards with image select on the machine’s LCD screen or from DPOF print-lists or a camera operated in PictBridge mode. This is improved with the use of a separate feed tray for 4×6 paper for use with turning out prints of “happy snaps”. Here, the machine can turn out these pictures very quickly, which is important when you print from your camera card or PictBridge-connected camera.

You also have copying functionality that would be equivalent to what was offered from top-of-the-range office copiers of the late 80s, save for the ability to work with A3 paper. This includes a “RADF”-type automatic document feeder that “turns over” the original page to copy both sides as well as double-sided printing.

You can scan images or documents to USB thumbdrives or memory cards using the control panel, but if you want to scan documents to a computer on the network from the control panel, you have to install the full software on each of the computers.

The fax functionality is similar to what was offered on the OfficeJet 6500. This is with the ability to work with separate or shared phone lines, including the ability to work with distinctive-ring fax numbers like FaxStream Duet; or answering machines. There is still the limitation concerning the memory capacity when it comes to delayed sending and the unit can only use its memory to hold incoming faxes in case of problems like paper / ink shortage.

There is also a “Quick Forms” function for printing out some paper-based games as well as pre-printed paper types like ruled notepaper, graph paper or music manuscript paper. With this function, there isn’t much configuration available with printing some of these paper types. For example, the music paper is only limited to 10 staves for portrait layout or 8 staves for landscape layout. This may be a limitation for some musicians who need to score music for the organ or write “vocal melody + piano arrangement” scores, which depend on having groups of three staves.

Scanning

This unit is the first all-in-one that I have used which has a “double-sided” automatic document feeder. This feature, once reserved for some high-end office copiers, can allow you to save time in scanning documents that are printed on both sides. This would make the machine more legitimate for applications like creating digital archives of paper documents or making paper documents available on the Web.

It can support “pull-scanning” with Windows Image Acquisition but you would need to install the full HP software if you want to do “push-scanning” over the network. The reason is that most of the operating systems haven’t yet supported network-based “push scanning” or the ability to enumerate scan destinations to a scanner “out of the box”.

Printing

For a consumer machine, this unit is very flexible when it comes to printing. It has a separate photo tray for snapshot-sized paper and has a mechanism for printing on to optical discs that are capable of being printed on by inkjet printers.

There is the ability to save paper by use of an automatic duplexer that permits the printer to use both sides of the paper. This device will add 15 seconds per page to the printout time as it allows the ink to dry on one side before working on the other side.

Print reliability

The printer can handle large printing jobs of up to 100 sheets adequately, but it may be better to use wired network connectivity if you do this kind of printing frequently. I had noticed that there was a squeaking noise coming from the duplexer when it was doing a double-sided print run but this may be a problem specific to a well-used review sample that was “doing the rounds”.

If you are using the automatic double-sided printing facility in this printer, each side of the document may shift by as much as 5 centimetres to the other side. This may affect projects where you expect both sides to line up accurately and you may have to use manual double-sided printing for these projects.

Print quality

The document print quality is very sharp, of a standard similar to most of the good inkjet printers around. But when it comes to handling photos, the Photosmart Premium Fax is very accurate especially with flesh tones. Even throwing an older picture of a old friend’s “mustard collection” at this printer also showed up how it performed with an image of many different colours.

These photographic-quality tests were done using a full-size print on A4 sheets of the HP Advanced Photo Paper, so I can assess the quality of the prints more easily.

Limitations and Points of Improvement

The printer could benefit from WPS easy-setup for wireless networks now that most wireless routers that are on the market now support this kind of setup and device enrolment.  It could also benefit from Internet-based time synchronisation with automatically-updated daylight-savings rules so that users don’t have to make sure the clock, which is important for the fax function, is kept accurate.

This machine may be positioned as a “top-shelf” consumer all-in-one printer but could support the use of OfficeJet ink cartridges as an alternative or in addition to the Photosmart cartridges. This could then allow for use of higher-capacity document-centric cartridges for document printing while the photo-centric cartridges could be used for “high-graphics” work like photo printing. This would then improve the Photosmart Premium Fax all-in-one printer’s position as a “bridge” printer that stands between the consumer class and the small-business class of printers.

As I have said many times in this blog, including other printer reviews, printer manufacturers should look towards providing increased local non-volatile flash memory in to all of their network printer and all-in-one designs now that the cost of such memory has become affordable. It can be offered as a user-installed option like a separate card slot for SDHC cards or 2.5” SATA storage slot for hard disks and SSD drives; or supplied as standard with the printer. This can then increase capacity for such situations as deferred printing, scheduled “fax-to-memory” reception, scheduled fax transmission and large print or fax runs. It can also allow one to remove their camera card or PictBridge-connected camera while their pictures are being printed so they don’t appear to be tying up the machine and they can continue to grab more shots.

Conclusion and Placement Notes

This all-in-one printer would be best placed as the main printer for a home office, especially where there is a likelihood for people to print photos from the computer or a camera. The fax function will also be considered important for users who run a small business or organisation from their home.

On the other hand, if you are after a networkable “all-in-one” printer and you don’t print many digital pictures from your camera, you may be better off going for an economy small-business model like the HP OfficeJet 6500 which I have reviewed previously.

Declaration of Benefit

After this review was published, I have taken up the offer of purchasing a new HP Photosmart Premium Fax printer directly through HP at a 50% discount as part of a standard agreement that they have with journalists, but this hasn’t affected my reviews concerning HP products.

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Arrival of e-paper-based sun-resistant displays for portable computer devices

News articles

Sonnenresistente Displays gehen in Massenproduktion – Der Standard (Austria – German language)

From the horse’s mouth

Pixel Qi – web site

My comments on this technology

If you have ever tried to use your laptop, mobile phone or digital camera outside on a bright sunny day, you will have found it very difficult to read the device’s screen in that bright sunlight. Some users may have fashioned up loupes or shades to force the sun away from the screen and others may have preferred to work in shady areas like under a tree or in a shadow.

Pixel Qi have designed a colour display which uses a combination of LCD and e-paper technology to avoid this washout problem. It has the advantage of the always-backlit standard colour LCD display but uses the e-paper technology to enable reflective viewing in brighter lighting environments. This has also allowed for the backlight to be used only as needed, thus saving power and allowing for a longer operating time when on battery power.

Some people may think that these advanced displays won’t work well with video or games but they have the same refresh rate as the current-generation standard LCD display thus will work properly with these applications.

At the moment, the only screen size that is being built with this technology is the 10.1” widescreen which will be pitched at e-book readers, netbooks, subnotebooks, tablet devices and high-end large-screen electronic picture frames. This is mainly because they are supplying this technology to the low-power laptops that are part of the “One Laptop Per Child” project. They are yet to make smaller and larger screens for the other display applications like standard laptops, regular electronic picture frames digital cameras or HDTVs.

What I am definitely pleased about with this technology is that there is a colour LCD display that is friendly to all lighting environments and can allow portable devices to run longer.

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