Buyer’s Guide – Buying an Internet radio

Introduction

You love the sound of overseas radio stations or are fed up with what is playing on the local radio bands, and want to hear something different. You have then dabbled in Internet radio, usually through clicking on “Listen Here” links on radio station sites or using programs and Internet-radio directories like vTuner. You then realise that it would be better to hear this content through a standalone Internet radio rather than moving your laptop computer around and hearing the content through tinny speakers or being tied to your desktop computer.

There used to be a few Internet radios on the market but the number is slowly increasing, with nearly every premium-radio brand or boutique electronics brand running at least one model in at least a tabletop or portable form factor. The units can also pick up podcasts and support “listen-again” functionality for podcasts and similar content. Nearly all of the Internet radios on the market will have a built-in tuner for at least FM and/or DAB digital radio; and, save for a few cheap units, they are capable of playing music held on a computer or network-attached storage device via the home network using at least the UPnP AV (DLNA) protocol.

Where to go

Not many mass-market home-appliance and consumer-electronics chain stores stock Internet radios at the moment because most of these chains perceive that “Average Joe Six-Pack” won’t understand these radios. This is more so in Australia because of it being a smaller market than the UK or USA. You may be lucky to buy a set from the electrical / consumer electronics department of one of the established department stores like Myer, David Jones, Macys, Selfridges or Marks & Spencers; or some supermarket chains like Aldi.

The best bet for finding Internet radios would be to go to an independent audio-video or electronics dealer like SoundStream or Radio Parts Group. Alternatively you could shop online through a place like Amazon or one of the catalogue-driven direct-marketing outlets like Sharper Image, Hammacher Schlemmer or Innovations. There are some manufacturers and distributors like Kogan who supply Internet radios and other equipment through their own direct-sales channels.

What do you need to know

Form factors

Tabletop (mantel) style

Tabletop Internet radios.jpg
Left: Denon S-52 Internet Radio / CD Player   Right: Tivoli Audio NetWorks Internet Radio

Examples: Denon S-52, Sangean WFR-1 Series, Pure Avanti Flow, Revo iBlik RadioStation, Kogan WiFi Digital Radio with iPod Dock

Kogan Internet radio

This is the most common type of Internet radio, where the set is similar to a clock radio or classic mantel / table radio. These units are designed to run only on AC power and have one or two integrated speakers.

 The reason Internet radios have appeared more in this class of set is because there is a renewed interest in this type of radio in the premium radio sector.

Most of these units have a line-level input jack so one can play a portable CD player or MP3 player through the radio’s speakers as well, in some cases, a line-level output to connect the radio to a recording device like a MiniDisc deck; or an external amplifier. Some units will have an integrated CD player, integrated iPod dock and / or USB socket to play music from a USB storage device.

The more expensive units like the Pure Avanti Flow, the Sangean WFR-1 Series or the Denon S-52 illustrated above have a sound quality that is very similar to one of the large high-end “ghetto-blasters” of the early 80s and can be an alternative to a regular bookshelf music system for a small apartment like a studio apartment or a college dorm room.

Portable style

Examples: Pure Evoke Flow, Roberts Stream 202, Revo Pico RadioStation

PureEvokeFlow.jpg

Pure Evoke Flow portable Internet radio

There is an increasing number of portable sets that are the same size as the typical portable radio of the kind with the large handle that sits on many kitchen benches and window sills. Most of these sets have a single speaker and will have a line-level input at least. A few of them can work on integrated batteries, either as a set of D-size cells or a rechargeable battery pack that is charged when the set is plugged in to AC power.

These units will typically have a sound quality reminiscent of the typical large portable radio or 1970s-era mono radio-cassette.

Internet-radio tuner

Examples: Sangean WFT-1 Series, Linn Akurate DS

These units don’t have built-in amplifiers or speakers and are designed to be connected to an existing music system via its line-level inputs or, in some cases, digital inputs. Some of these units may have a built-in DAB or FM tuner and can easily work as a replacement to an existing AM/FM tuner.

Some manufacturers may market these units as network music players because of their ability to play music held anywhere on the home network through the hi-fi system.

Music system or home-theatre receiver

Examples: Pioneer X-Z9 Network SACD Receiver, Denon AVR-5308, Onkyo TX-NR5007

Some tabletop music systems or home-theatre receivers, most notably models at the top-end of most manufacturers’ ranges, have Internet radio and network media playback as an extra “source” or “function”. This is usually to add extra value to these units, especially at this end of the market.

Some manufacturers may also integrate Internet-radio function in to “music-server” or “music jukebox” components. These are components which have an integrated hard disk where music “ripped” from CDs played in an integrated CD player or recorded from line-level inputs is held and can be played through the connected amplifier or, in some cases, provided over the network.

Network Connection

The tabletop and portable units and some Internet-radio tuners will typically have integrated 802.11g WiFi connectivity to a home network’s wireless segment. This connectivity will work properly with wireless networks that use standard WEP, WPA-PSK or WPA2-Personal methods for their security, and usually require the passphrase or WEP key to be entered using a “pick’n’select” method. They also work well if the network has a visible SSID and most of them won’t support WPS or Windows Connect Now “quick-setup” routines or WiFi networks secured to corporate methods. As well, these sets won’t self-connect to hotspots that use common “browser-based” authentication setups.

Some of the tabletop and portable radios and all of the Internet-radio tuners and music systems / home-theatre receivers have a regular Ethernet jack for connection. This connection also works well with HomePlug powerline segments if you connect a HomePlug-Ethernet bridge appropriate to the class of HomePlug segment that you are operating to the Ethernet jack on the set.

Internet station directories

These sets, which are based on one of four platforms (RadioTime, Reciva, Frontier or vTuner), typically work with an integrated directory of Internet streams and podcasts that is able to be updated over the Internet. This can be done automatically or manually with the user pressing an “update” key. They also work with a Web portal which allows you to have a list of “online favourites” alongside the favourite streams associated with the set’s preset buttons.

The Web portals also exist for uploading a user-specified streaming-audio URL to the radio, which can be good for adding new Internet radio streams to your set.

Choosing the right Internet radio for your application

This is similar to choosing a regular radio, especially a premium radio set or music system / component, but you will have to factor in what kind of Internet connectivity you are running. If the site is capable of operating an 802.11g WiFi network or 2.4GHz 802.11n WiFi network operated in “compatibility mode” and secured with WPA-PSK or WPA2-Personal, you can use any set that works with WiFi networks such as all of the tabletops and portables. On the other hand, you may have to prefer a set with an Ethernet connection and, in some cases, use a pair of “homeplugs” to locate the set where you want to have it.

As far as bringing Internet radio to the hi-fi or home-theatre system is concerned, an Internet-radio tuner may be what you need if you are happy with your current  system or have just bought a new receiver or music/AV system. As well, some of the tabletop and portable radios have a line-level output which can be another way of bringing Internet radio to your music system. You would have to make sure your existing equipment has a vacant line-level input such as an AUX, TAPE, CD or TUNER input. On the other hand, it may be worth factoring in Internet radio and network media playback as a feature to look for when upgrading or replacing your receiver or system.

Other things to know

Once you own one of these sets, it may be worth reading the DLNA Media Network series of feature articles in this blog, especially “Getting Started With DLNA Media Sharing” to understand the UPnP AV media player functionality that these sets offer. This can help you “liberate” your music collection held on your computer’s hard disk through your newly-purchased Internet radio,

Some of the Internet radios, most notably the Tivoli Networks and the Pure Evoke Flow are designed along the classic two-piece stereo principles that used to be practiced with some consumer-electronics equipment during the 1950s to 1970s, and commonly practiced with cheaper computer speakers. This is where the radio has one integrated speaker that yields mono sound but, whenever it is connected to a matching accessory speaker, it can yield stereo sound. Most of these sets that work that way have the accessory speaker supplied as an extra-cost option.

Conclusion

Once you know what is involved in purchasing an Internet radio, you can enjoy the fun of overseas, out-of-town and offbeat radio without needing to be near your computer.

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Devices not associating with your Draytek router? Check for “compatibility modes”

I have tried to connect my Nokia N85 mobile phone and a Kogan Internet radio (which is on loan for an upcoming review) with a 2007-era Draytek VPN-endpoint router used as our household’s Internet “edge”. But what would happen is that I would supply the correct WPA-PSK passphrase and it would not admit the device. It would admit Apple MacOS X and iPhone equipment as well as Windows computers without a hitch. The problem was that the router was on a WEP-WPA compatibility mode which you may have set up for when not many embedded WiFi network clients supported WPA out-of-the-box.

A good idea would be to make sure your router operates in WPA security mode. This is to make sure all your WPA clients associate properly and quickly when you give them the WPA-PSK passphrase and your network is also secure to the full extent of the WPA standard.

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Product Review – Nokia N85 3G Multimedia Phone (Symbian S60 version 3)

Introduction

Nokia N85 smartphone I am reviewing the Nokia N85 3G Multimedia Phone, which is part of Nokia’s high-end “N-series” multimedia phones. It has been positioned as a second-tier model in their lineup and is one that can be easily missed in the crowded multipurpose mobile phone market, especially where this market is dominated by the Apple iPhone for personal use and the Blackberry phones for business use.

Software availability

This phone is part of the Symbian S60 Version 3 platform which has a wide availability of software from different places. This means that additional functions can be added “off the Web” by visiting Handango, software providers’ Web sites and S60-themed Web sites as well as the Ovi application store. This puts it as a decent alternative to the Apple iTunes App Store model that is being implemented by the “King Of Cool” with the iPhone.

As a multimedia phone terminal

High-contrast OLED 2

The N85's high-contrast OLED display

The display is based on OLED technology rather than the usual LCD technology which makes it easier to read in all light. The display is very bright and can be seen at extreme angles. Infact, I consider this display the “vacuum-fluorescent display for battery-operated devices” because it has the same brightness and consistency as the vacuum-fluorescent displays used on most home-installed consumer-electronics devices, especially Panasonic or Sony equipment. A disadvantage that this display may have is that this may lead to some pictures, especially some photographs, appearing too saturated and with a bit too much contrast but it may be how the OLED display reproduces the pictures. It may be a boon with text or diagrams such as the Ovi Maps.

The phone’s battery life is very good even when used as a music player as well as a phone. If you use 3G or WiFi data connectivity or the integrated navigation functionality for a significant amount of time, you can compromise the battery life. You can get around this problem while getting the most out of the phone while you are out and about but cannot readily use the supplied charger by investing in an external battery pack such as one of those “AA-battery”-powered mobile phone chargers. The phone’s MicroUSB socket is its power socket, which means that USB=based power devices used along with a micro-USB flylead can become the phone’s external power supply. The only problem with this is that some USB hubs may not be logically seen by the phone as a charger.

The phone as a GPS unit

The phone has integrated GPS but I am using this function with Ovi-based Maps 3.0 with City Guide subscription. For people who do a lot of walking, the subscription is very good value. One thing that I would like to see in the maps data is public paths for use by low-speed traffic like pedestrians, cyclists or horseback riders; but this is an issue with Navteq and the data they provide to Nokia. The GPS function can be used by other S60 3rd Edition location-driven applications like Nokia’s Sport Tracker GPS pedometer / workout diary or Google’s S60 siftware.

The phone as a Walkman

This phone beats the iPhone when it comes to personal-stereo functionality. This is demonstrable in the FM radio and the integrated music player, especially in how you can add music to the phone.

The phone has an integrated RDS FM radio which works only with wired headsets because the headset’s wire also is the radio’s aerial. There are a few discrepancies when it comes to working with RDS-enabled FM stations. If you preset an RDS radio station, the callsign details that are supplied through RDS aren’t used as a default station reference name. Instead, you have to manually copy the station’s name in to the station’s preset details. The phone doesn’t work with the so-called “dynamic RDS” features like TA/TP/EON traffic-information priority – a feature which can be a boon to public-transport users; PTY program-type functionality (including news priority) or RadioText dynamic text display. It does work with Visual Radio, which is an interactive radio service with 3G or WiFi as data backhaul.

The built-in music player is definitely flexible when it comes to handling music content because it works from music held on the microSDHC cards up to 16Gb / card in capacity. These can be exchanged at will in a similar manner to the classic cassette or MiniDisc formats. Similarly, you can enlarge the storage capacity by upgrading the memory card to a higher capacity. It is compatible with the SlotMusic “musicassette” idea that Sandisk put forward; and the MicroSDHC cards can be loaded with music through a “drag-drop” method via the file system and Nokia PC Suite or directly on to the microSDHC card in an SDHC card reader with the use of an SD card adaptor; or the phone can be synced through Nokia PC Suite or Windows Media Player.

As well, you can download content from a DLNA music server that you are connected to via the WiFi network. This yields a lot more flexibility than the Apple iPod / iPhone system when it comes to adding newer music to your portable collection  As far as codecs are concerned, the phone works with MP3, WMA and AAC codecs and can work with WMA up to 192kbps and MP3 up to 320kbps. The music player is operated in a manner similar to most MP3 players and if you make or take a call, the music pauses and resumes from where it left off. There is even the nice touch of the music fading up gracefully when you finish the call.

The integrated camera

The integrated camera is capable of high-resolution pictures and works well as an auxiliary camera if your main digital camera is out of action. It also works very well for video photography and will use the available memory on the microSD card for the footage rather a particular time limit.

One main problem with it is that if you intend to take pictures to send as MMS messages, it will prefer to send the high-resolution pictures which may not work with most mobile phones. To send an MMS, you would have to set the camera to work at a lower resolution before you take the picture. The picture you save would be a low-resolution picture. A point of improvement that could exist would be to have downscaling for MMS images when an image is sent as an MMS message.This is where a downscaled copy of the image is sent out as an MMS image.

Other than that, pictures and video that you take with the built-in camera can be transferred or printed out using PTP, Picthridge or Bluetooth or a PC can import pictures using Nokia PC Suite and any of the picture import functions that are part of Windows.

There is also a low-resolution camera on the front of the phone which comes in handy if you make a 3G videocall, but you can select to use the main camera during the videocall if you intend to show the other caller something rather than yourself.

Connectivity

As far as regular mobile-phone connectivity goes, this phone offers whatever is expected from a high-end mobile phone or smartphone.

The phone has a MicroUSB data and power socket and a 3.5” 4-conductor jack for headphones / AV lineout and headset / audio adaptor use. I use the phone with a Nokia-supplied headset audio adaptor with built-in microphone that is connected to a set of premium headphones so as to gain good-quality sound. The phone can connect to cassette adaptors for use with car cassette players or classic ghetto blasters; either directly or through an audio adaptor.

The main problem I have had with the audio adaptors is their flimsy tie-clips anchored to these adaptors that break under typical use. If this happens to you, I would suggest using either a metal “bobby-pin” or tie-clip; or a regular plastic clothes-peg from the laundry, attached to the audio adaptor with a rubber band. The only problem is that it may look a bit ugly especially in conjunction with formal wear or good headphones; and, for women, may be uncomfortable against the cleavage. To do this, wrap the rubber band around the audio adaptor making sure it isn’t pressing any of the buttons. Then open the clothes-peg, tie-clip or “bobby-pin” and pass one of the jaws of the clip through the rubber band. You then are able to clip the audio adaptor to your collar, lapel or tie with the tie clip, clothes peg or “bobby pin”.

The phone has a built-in PLL-controlled FM transmitter which you can use alongside an FM radio for music playback. If it was able to use this FM-based link for handsfree calling, I wouldn’t use that functionality at all because of having to set up the radio to handle the call every time a call comes in – one step too many.

The Bluetooth functionality is equally comprehensive in that is supports the Headset and Handsfree profiles for handsfree calling; A2DP / AVRCP audio playback profiles for music streaming functionality; and SIM Card Profile and Phone Book Profile for the increasing number of advanced in-car handsfree devices available with newer premium vehicles or on the aftermarket. This certainly means that the phone can partner with all of the good Bluetooth headsets and helmets as well as all of the good in-car handsfree setups.

Existence in the small network

WiFi Networks

The phone’s main method of connection to a small home or business network is through the built-in WiFi transceiver.

This transceiver works with 802.11g WPA networks that work purely to the WPA or WPA2 modes as well as to insecure WEP networks. This avoids routers or access points that are set up for WEP/WPA compatibility modes. For business and other high-security networks, the phone can work with most EAP-based enterprise security network setups; including SIM-based security. The phone can be programmed to work with wireless networks that have their SSID hidden, with use of a “hidden” option when you create an access point. The WiFi radio is very sensitive, which can come in handy whenever you use wireless hotspots.

The main gap the the phone has concerning WiFi-network connectivity is the lack of ability to support the WPS easy-enrolment setup that is becoming the norm for currently-issued wireless routers.

UPnP / DLNA Functionality

The phone works “out of the box” as a media player to the phone’s display and speakers or as a UPnP AV Control Point for pushing content held locally or on anther DLNA media server to another UPnP AV / DLNA Media Renderer device. It can also share content held on its memory card to a DLNA Media Network. Playlist management – can it push the contents of a container to a device?

Mail terminal

The built-in Symbian mail client supports IMAP4 and POP3/SMTP e-mail systems and uses a similar auto-setup routine to Windows Live Mail, where you just supply your fully-qualified e-mail address and password and the phone just works it out. The client is a similar standard to what is integrated in most smartphones but due to 12-key data entry, may be best used for reading e-mail and sending short replies or notes.

Web browsing

The web-browsing experience is similar to most other smartphones and is limited by the small screen. It can be viewed horizontally by selecting a mode to “view horizontal”. Password entry for social-networking and similar pages can be difficult due to the 12-key text-entry method primarily used in this class of phone.

Internet Radio

There is an integrated Internet Radio receiver function that can work with WiFi networks or 3G networks. If you want to use this function with a 3G network, it will need to work on an “all-you-can-eat” data plan if you want to do a lot of Internet-radio listening. The station directory is similar to that offered by Reciva or vTuner; which means having the stations sorted by country or genre. The phone can also “pipe” the Internet radio sound through the Bluetooth A2DP audio stream which allows you to play Internet radio broadcasts through Bluetooth speakers and similar audio accessories.

Conclusion, including the phone’s “cool factor”

This phone will appeal to the mature users who want a fully-functional yet flexible multimedia mobile phone but don’t intend to do a lot of text entry on it. As well, the phone “sets the cat amongst the pigeons” with the OLED display which is different from the LCD-display norm, thus can appeal to those who don’t have good eyesight.

What Nokia needs to do is to offer phones equipped with this OLED display and Symbian S60 to cut in to established smartphone markets like the QWERTY-keypad business phone (whether Blackberry-style or lengthways) or the touchscreen phone.

I have bought this phone on a published 24-month Telstra 3G “cap” contract under the regular terms and conditions for all customers who sign up to the contract. Therefore I am not writing this out of fear or favour.

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Nokia sues Apple over iPhone • The Register

Nokia sues Apple over iPhone • The Register

Nokia’s press release

My comments on this lawsuit

I personally reckon that this lawsuit is similar to one filed in 2006 by Creative Labs against the same defendant in relation to the music-selection user interface on the iPod being similar to that which is being employed on Creative’s  “Nomad Jukebox Zen” hard-disk-based portable audio players. Apple settled the case through a cash payout to Creative Labs and access to their “Made for iPod” accessory-certification program.

The current Nokia lawsuit may be based on differing facts but the Creative “Nomad Jukebox Zen” litigation may be cited by the Apple legal team to justify their implementation of the mobile-phone technologies in the iPhone. Similarly, Apple would be in a strong financial position to defend the lawsuit due to their popularity of the iPhone and iPod platforms.

So definitely this hasn’t been the first time Apple has run afoul of other companies regarding intellectual property.

NOTICE REGARDING COMMENTS ON CURRENT AND PENDING LITIGATION

This post is a comment on information concerning a current or pending court case and is only referring to material that is based upon facts that are of prior public knowledge. The comments in this post are solely based on the author’s observations and are not intended to influence persons who are currently or potentially involved in the litigation.

As well, the comments facility in this blog is not to be used for posting material that could affect the right of the parties to a fair trial.

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Product Review – TwonkyBeam (beta version)

TwonkyMedia have capitalised on their UPnP AV / DLNA expertise and developed a browser helper object that can play user-selected music, pictures and video from a Web site that you are browsing on to a DLNA-enabled media renderer device “there and then”.

What is TwonkyBeam

TwonkyBeam is a browser helper object which allows you to “push” media found on a Web page to your UPnP AV-enabled media device(s). This can come in handy with YouTube videos, Facebook or Flickr photos, last.fm music or similar sites where you may want to have the media on devices other than your PC’s screen or your laptop’s tinny speakers.

At the moment, the program has been written to work with Windows and Internet Explorer, but will be ported to other desktop Web-viewing environments.

How does it work

Once the software is installed, there is a window that lists all compatible media on the Website and you select which media you want to use. As you select the different media, the media file’s URL is highlighted in the main Web page. In that same window, there is a list of UPnP AV-enabled media players on your network that accept “push” content.

The user identifies the media player that they want to push the media to and selects the media to be viewed in the media list. Then, to show the image, they press the “play” button in that window above the media player list.

On the other hand, the user can right-click on the link and select “TwonkyBeam to” as a way of putting the media on to the DLNA device.

Limitations with certain Websites

At the moment, the current version that is available is a “rough diamond” beta version. In some ways, the program doesn’t provide full access to photo albums that are broken in to groups of, say, 20. This may limit its usefulness with large Facebook photo albums or Flickr photostreams, which is what I have often used the program with when testing it against the “TwonkyMedia Manage UPnP AV Media Renderer”. Nor does it provide access to embedded media clips like most of YouTube’s pages or video clips that are set up in news articles, blogs and social-networking sites. These are the ones where there are playback controls integrated in to the site’s user interface and you can typically see the video in the Web page.

Web developers may have to provide an “all images” view as an option for photo albums or write a “link” URL for video clips that are ordinarily embedded to work around the limitation. The “link” URL could be part of the article’s copy or as a separate link under the embedded video.

Development ideas

One way of improving this program would be for Websites to support media XML files that describe the primary media assets. This would include collections that are broken up in to paginated groups like most Web photo albums.

Similarly, there could be support for handling Flash-embedded videos that are common to YouTube sites and most Web sites that include video material. This could be looked at through the development of applets that “click on” to TwonkyBeam and similar programs and expose the video clips to these programs.

Conclusion

This program can work as a “quick and easy” way to get media that is in a Web site up on to the large screen or better speakers of a DLNA-connected TV or stereo system. It could, in some ways, legitimise the need for one of the Sony or Samsung DLNA-enabled flatscreen TVs in the office or conference room.

The review will be updated whenever the beta version of this program is “polished up” and ready for full release.

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Serious about music with DLNA

I have been observing the situation with UPnP AV / DLNA as a standard for network-based music distribution and have noticed something which may be considered unusual in the world of “serious hi-fi”.  A few boutique hi-fi manufacturers, Arcam, Linn, Naim, T+A and Revox, have spent a lot of time in technical research in to achieving the best sound with good music provided via FM radio, records, tapes and CD, have taken their expertise towards music distributed via the home network.

Their solutions have been based around the UPnP AV / DLNA media-delivery protocol over common IP networks and using common codecs like MP3, FLAC, AAC and, in some cases Ogg Vorbis and WMA. Because they don’t need to develop client and server software and that the DLNA media server is available in standalone devices like NAS boxes, therefore, it has become easier for the manufacturers to concentrate on high-quality decoding, digital-analogue conversion and reproduction of the music through their equipment. A lot of these units support the DLNA standard to full expectations such as support for “three-box” operation as mentioned in this feature article.

Some manufacturers have built the functionality in to a receiver(Arcam FMJ AVR600) or music system supplied with or without speakers (Naim Uniti, T+A Caruso, T+A Music Player) or have supplied it as a component (Linn Akurate, Klimax or Majik DS) or retrofit kit for existing equipment (Revox Module Multimedia for M10 or M51 receiver).

Other manufacturers in this league haven’t yet supported UPnP AV / DLNA because of investment in a multi-room audio distribution system or network audio technology they have invested in; haven’t yet developed such equipment or simply that they want to stay away from the field of network audio.

I have written up an article about integrating classical music in to your network music collection and have made suggestions regarding optimum codec setups for your digital-audio files. This is worth reading if you intend to use any of these products with your home network and want to get the best value out of them.

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Gateway back in Australia

From the late 80s through to now, Gateway 2000 Computers, one of the early “PC clone” manufacturers had existed alongside Dell as a mail-order “reseller” outfit. They had a major stronghold in this early market primarily by selling “build-to-order” computers in a similar vein to Dell, and had used the “cow” theme in most of their advertising. They even took out “themed” multi-page advertisements in the computer press, with such themes as 1950s USA, Wild West, soap operas and the like. Since 2000, they renamed themselves simply as Gateway Computers, but still maintained the “cow” theme.

They had sold some of their products to markets like Australia, both through direct order and, later on, through “bricks and mortar” shops. But economic conditions such as the bursting of the “dotcom bubble” had taken a toll on the company and they pulled out of overseas markets and moved towards just being an Acer-controlled computer wholesaler who sells through major online and “bricks-and-mortar” shops.

Now, they have reappeared in Australia through “Geek Central” who is a small computer dealer with two shops, one of which is in the CBD (downtown) area, and an online-order business. Here, they are focusing more on notebook computers “across the board”, including netbooks.

I had noticed this today when Geek Central had a display of Gateway notebooks with a sign that “Gateway’s back” at the Digital Lifestyle Expo in Melbourne. It certainly shows that some brands may live on in other forms.

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Windows 7 – Welcome to the new operating system

windows7bootAfter Microsoft had the PR fiasco with Windows Vista, they decided to re-engineer the Windows platform and released the new Windows 7 operating system. One main benefit is that the operating system has been stable even during the public beta and release-candidate versions.

Packages

Each package in Windows 7 is a superset of the package below it. So a Professional package doesn’t omit the multimedia features that are part of Home Premium. This is unlike Windows Vista where you lost the multimedia features and advanced games if you got the Business package, which goes against the reality of small-business users who use the multimedia functionality to while away long plane trips or play casual games to while away long processes such as being put on hold in a phone call. The three main packages that I will be covering and recommending are listed below; and I would recommend that users factor in having their Windows 7 operating system be one of these packages when they have the operating system pre-installed on their new computer.

Home Premium

This one is perfect for a regular home desktop or laptop user because of integrating functions that are part of home computing life.

Professional

This package is suitable for tertiary students, SOHO users and small businesses who want proper functionality for their business or study life. Most of the functionality that this package has is to do with connectivity, especially with college / university networks in the case of students and business networks, whether managed by IT staff or a business IT-support contractor; or managed by yourself.

Ultimate

This package, which is the “Fairmont Ghia” of the Windows 7 lineup, is what I would recommend if you work in a high-risk environment with highly-valuable highly-sensitive customer data. This would cover medical professionals, lawyers, accountancy-related professionals, people who deal with highly-valuable merchandise like those in the arts and antiques trade, and those who are working on highly-valuable content. This is because of the built-in security functionality offered through the BitLocker and BitLocker To Go volume-encrypting functionality.

Simple yet secure

One of the main complaints with Windows Vista, especially from home and small-business users was the way the User Account Control system worked. This included tasks that typically wouldn’t affect the stability or security of the system, such as setting the DPI of the screen or adding some peripherals requiring the user to complete the User Account Control process as part of the task.

The idea initially was for the operating system to work on “least privilege” with the system invoking higher privilege levels as required. Now Microsoft have improved the way that this protection works by having certain tasks like DPI setup and peripheral installation being in the scope of all privilege levels. As well, the level of User Account Control interaction can be varied by the user or system administrator to suit their needs.

Improved hardware installation and utilisation

Most device drivers for any computer peripherals will be loaded and kept up-to-date through the Windows Update function that is part of the operating system. In some cases, the hardware will primarily work with “class drivers” that pertain to the kind of device being installed. This of course is supported through USB, Bluetooth, UPnP / DLNA and similar standards that exist for types of devices that use particular physical or logical connection methods. In a few cases, mostly with legacy devices, you may have to supply the manufacturer-supplied files to the computer, either by downloading the file from the manufacturer’s Web site or loading an “install” program from a CD-ROM supplied with the device.

As well, printers, scanners, multimedia hardware, portable peripherals (digital cameras, mobile phones, portable media players, etc) and other selected hardware classes will appear on a visual “inventory” window called the Devices And Printers Folder. When you click on a device icon, which will be a photorealistic representation of the physical device, you will open up the Device Stage window. In this window, you will have a photographic representation of the device and a list of tasks appropriate to that particular device model like a printer’s desktop “ink monitor” application or "Sync media files” for a media player. You will also have links to the device manufacturer’s homepage and the particular device page managed by your device’s manufacturer for that device. This can help with such things as knowing where to find new firmware for your device. Devices that are the backbone of the system like the motherboard’s chipsets and the CPU will be hidden from this window. Multi-function devices like the printer/scanner combos will typically have their functions grouped together for that same physical device, rather than each function being a separate device.

This will make you want to use the value-added functions of your peripheral devices more frequently rather than underutilising the devices.

As far as router setup goes, Windows 7, like Windows Vista SP2, supports the quick and easy setup of wireless network segments using WPS. This includes support for “push-push” WPS installations where you only need to push the WPS button on the router.

Improved User Interface

This operating system has major improvements over the way the desktop works. This includes use of “Aero Shake”, which lets you hide all the programs other than the one you want to focus on just by dragging and shaking the program’s window with the mouse, drag-to-edge window “tiling”, amongst other functions that make it easier to see what is on the desktop especially if you have many programs running.

As well, programs that are in the Quick Launch bar on the Taskbar now can support “Jump Lists” which are like Start Menu shortcuts and Recent Items lists implemented for that program. You will still have the regular Start Menu which will be similar to what you have experienced with Windows Vista.

Logical file collections

A file collection or “library”, like “Documents”, “Pictures” or “Music” can be considered as a logical file collection which encompasses user-defined folders on any volume available to the system. This can cater for people who have files held on different partitions, other hard drives such as the second internal hard disk in many power-users’ desktops or external hard disks, or network-accessible locations.

The practice of adding or removing folders in a logical collection is very similar to moving or copying folders using Windows Explorer.

Improved support for alternate input methods

Windows 7 has inherent support for touchscreens, including multi-touch touchscreens. This can allow for “touch me” operation of the Windows 7 user interface and allow for programs to support touch-driven user interface. It can lead to the computer having an “iPhone” user interface for common tasks. Infact companies who are making premium “all-in-one” desktop computers are implementing the touchscreen user interface in these computers as a “luxury statement”.

The tablet-based user interface has been improved for people who own tablet-compliant laptops such as the “swivel-head” laptops that can work as a tablet computer or a conventional laptop computer. There have been improvements in handwriting recognition and now you can use the tablet interface to write “sums” or other maths equations through the use of a “Math Input Panel”. Even the on-screen keyboard has been improved with predictable text input similar to most of the new mobile phones.

Next article

I will be talking about Windows 7 more in the next instalment, where it will touch on how it will improve the home media network.

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Possible improvement ideas for the new microUSB-based external-power standard for mobile phones

Introduction

As part of the “green ethos”, there has been a rethink concerning powering portable battery-operated devices from external power supplies. One issue that was raised was running a device continuously from a battery charger when the battery was charged. Similarly, every time someone bought a new portable device or upgraded their existing portable device, they would receive an AC adaptor or battery charger as part of the delivery. If they replaced the previous device, they wouldn’t be able to use the external power supply devices that was used with the previous device on the new device unless it was made by the same manufacturer or, in some cases, part of a particular series of devices.

This has led to the idea of powering or charging personal devices via a standard “microUSB” connection that would be use also for wireline-based data transfer. This allowed for a “one-size-fits-all” connection so that the user keeps one external power solution (AC-powered charger, car charger, etc) for their device even if they upgrade the device to a newer model. This avoids the need to junk AC adaptors and car chargers during a phone upgrade, although most of these power supplies are often stored in drawers around the home.

It has also led to devices using “pronounced” visual and audible alerts to let their users know that the battery is fully charged from an external power supply. This is with a view to encourage users to disconnect the device from the external power supply once the battery is full.

External-power-supply operation mode

There are other reasons why we may keep a device plugged in to an external power supply beyond the time required for battery charging. One common reason is part of a practice that has been commonly practiced since the 1960s primarily with portable radios, portable tape recorders, pocket calculators and other electronic devices that were commonly used with disposable dry cells. This is to run the device and use its primary functions from the external power supply, thus conserving battery runtime and allowing the user to use those functions that would compromise the battery runtime, like using the device’s lighting or fast-winding tapes in a portable tape recorder. In some cases, people connect their portable devices to car adaptors that plug in to a vehicle’s cigar-lighter socket so that the device can work from the vehicle’s electrical system while they are under way in the vehicle.

If a phone or other device that is being charged is meant to signal when the battery is full, the device should also have a user-selectable option to simply run from the external power supply rather than the battery when the battery is full and “fall over” to the fully-charged battery when the external power supply is turned off or disconnected. This mode could allow a user to run the phone from the external power as a way of conserving battery runtime and would be more relevant to smartphones and phones that can work as media players, GPS navigation units or handheld games consoles like my Nokia N85 or the Apple iPhone. The message could say “Battery full, Running on external power” as an alternative to a “please disconnect external power” message. As well, the device could show an “external power” icon like a “plug icon” that indicates it is running on the external power. It can also lead to "power-source-dependent” operating modes like the display being brighter and always on when connected to external power.

There could be an extension to the new micro-USB power-supply standard to cover external battery packs that supply power to devices either from common “AA, C or D” batteries or high-capacity rechargeable battery packs. These could signal to the device that they are an external battery pack and the device works as if on its own batteries when they are connected. This would lead to regular battery-mode operation like the display lighting up on demand; and could allow for “power-only, no charging” behaviour if the internal battery is full. It can also allow for the battery-level gauge to show a battery-level reading for either the internal battery or the external battery pack or a “combined” battery-level reading for both battery packs.

Self-powered multi-port USB hubs

I have tried using some self-powered multi-port USB hubs as battery chargers for my Nokia N85 mobile phone but sometimes the phone will treat the USB hub simply as a data uplink rather than a battery charger. I have also seen similar “hit and miss” behaviour with the Apple iPhone or recent-issue Apple iPods.

What needs to happen is that these hubs need to support “battery charger” / “power supply” mode when nothing is connected to the upstream (computer) port and the only thing connected to them is their AC adaptor. They would then need to provide the full power requirement for each of the ports and behave as if they are a power supply. They could switch off power to ports that don’t have anything connected to them so as to conserve energy. The AC adaptor would also have to be rated to provide the full power to each of the ports.

This is because a 7-port self-powered USB hub can appeal to being used as a “charging bar” for multiple personal-electronics devices, thus avoiding the need to use a powerboard to power many mobile-phone chargers.

Similarly, this idea can lead to the development of integrated “power-only” USB hubs that can be built in to various objects, including furniture and vehicles.

Speaking of vehicles, I may have mentioned this before, but there needs to be a reference design for a USB 2.0 or 3.0 self-powered multi-port hub that can work in an automotive environment. This involves support for a reference 5V 2.3A DC power supply circuit that can work from either a 12V or 24V DC power supply like what is found in a vehicle. The reference design should support power regulation so it can handle a “rough” power environment such as power “sags” and “surges” that occur when the engine is started. As well, it could support the concept of “ignition-switch control” where devices could be put in to low-power mode or turned off when the driver removes the key from the ignition switch.

Conclusion

Once these factors are looked at, they can allow us to provide better use of the new standards for operating our smartphones and similar devices in an optimum manner.

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Using your AppleTalk or LocalTalk printer with Snow Leopard

The problem

When Apple launched the “Snow Leopard” version of MacOS X, they dropped software support for the legacy AppleTalk direct-connect printing protocol and its LocalTalk network printing protocol. This is part of Apple moving towards the use of common application protocols in the Macintosh operating system,

Some Macintosh users use classic printers that they consider as being “worth their salt” and also notice that there is plenty of mileage left in these machines. They are usually less likely to upgrade any of these machines for newer equipment and want to keep them going. A lot of these printers have often been set up to work with the AppleTalk or LocalTalk protocols and most of their users will be wondering how to get them going again.

Use of alternative connections

You may have to use alternative connections for connecting your printer to your Snow Leopard Macintosh or home network.

One method would be to connect the printer to your Mac using a USB cable or, in the case of older printers that use a parallel port, a USB-parallel adaptor cable. These can be obtained from most computer stores or computer markets for a very low price.

Another method would be to connect the printer to the network if it has an Ethernet port and have it print using LPR/LPD or IPP network-printing protocols. This also applies to those printers that use LocalTalk as a network printing protocol. Usually this involves using the printer’s user interface to set the printer to use a fixed IP address on your network and enabling support for LPR/LPD, SMB/CIFS (Windows) or IPP protocols.

Use of a print server device

You may be able to share the printer through a print server, whether as a dedicated device or an older not-so-powerful computer running an older version of the Macintosh operating system or another operating system like Windows or Linux, as an LPR/LPD, SMB/CIFS or IPP printer. Infact, some routers and network-attached storage devices made by various third-party manufacturers have a USB connection and are capable of working as LPR/LPD or IPP print servers.

If you use a computer to share a printer, the printer-sharing software will have to be set up to share the printer on the LPR/LPD, SMB/CIFS (Windows) or IPP protocols.

When you set up your Snow Leopard client machine, you will have to set the “Print Using” option to point to the driver that matches your printer. In some cases, you may have to track down a newer driver that can work on either Tiger, Leopard or Snow Leopard.

Other Resources

How To Resurrect Your AppleTalk Printer In Snow Leopard – The Apple Blog

AppleTalk & Snow Leopard – Apple Support Discussions

Determining the IP Address in your HP LaserJet – Hewlett Packard Support

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