Product Review–Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset

Introduction

I am reviewing the Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset which is a USB-connected gaming headset designed by SteelSeries on behalf of Dell.

This is a practice that a lot of manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the computing and consumer-electronics game have been involved in where they ask someone else to design and make the product to be sold under the client’s name. Infact, most of the Japanese consumer-electronics names had engaged in the practice themselves, either making “white-label” products for other companies to sell under their own labels or being the companies who called on others to design and build products.

One of the ways you would know that this headset was a SteelSeries design was the speaker cloth on the earcups had the label “Acoustics by SteelSeries” written on it. As well, I had a look through the product documentation and it required me to install the SteelSeries Engine software to be installed on my computer so I could gain more control over the headset.

Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset

Price

RRP: AUD$99 / US$49.99 / GBP£66.76

Shop Now – US / Australia / UK and Europe

Headset Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-ear
Driver Positioning Circum-aural (covers the ear completely)
Driver Enclosure applies to circum-aural or supra-aural designs
Closed back
Primary sound path Digital
Microphone position Microphone integrated in left earcup

Functionality

Pitched for Gaming
Active Noise Cancellation No
Remote Control Mic Mute

Connectivity

Connection for main operation Wired
Wired path USB Audio via Type-A
Supplementary adaptors None

The headset itself

Dell AE2 Performance USB HeadsetThe Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset is designed like most circum-aural headsets and implements the USB bus as its way of connecting to host devices. As to appeal to the gaming community, each earcup has a glowing white ring which illuminates when you have the headphones plugged in to your computer. But, as I have said later on in the review, you can determine whether this glowing occurs or not or what colour is used thanks to a configuration program called SteelSeries Engine.

I have done most of the reviewing of this headset without using the SteelSeries Engine control software, which would represent requirements where you can’t or don’t want to add extra software to your computer to gain more out of these headphones.

Connectivity and Functionality

Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset - USB plug

How the Dell AE2 headset connects to your computer

The Dell AE2 Performance Headset connects to USB-equipped computing devices using its USB Type-A connector and presents itself to them as a USB Audio input and output device. Windows 10 was able to even identify this headset as headphones and give this device priority over existing default audio devices like integrated speakers in a monitor or laptop. The headset has a maximum rated power draw of 150mA which means it shouldn’t place much demand on your laptop’s battery power as well as being able to work comfortably on a four-port bus-powered USB hub being used by input devices.

I had tried using this headset with my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Android smartphone by connecting it to the phone via a USB OTG cable. Here, it would work as a USB Audio device but I had found that this functionality didn’t extend to communications tasks like using the phone. Here, I would communicate with the caller via the smartphone’s speaker and microphone rather than through the Dell USB headset. The USB-based audio device as a mobile-phone accessory is becoming a reality thanks to USB Type-C connectivity and manufacturers doing away with the 3.5mm audio jack on their phones.

SteelSeries Engine 3 configuration screen for Dell AE3 Performance USB headset

SteelSeries Engine 3 configuration screen – graphic equaliser, DTS surround sound, etc

You can run the SteelSeries Engine 3 software on your Windows or Macintosh computer, which effectively allows you to gain more control over the headset. This program offers a DTS Headphone 7.1 surround decoder for headphone applications, a five-band graphic equaliser, a microphone-optimisation program along with the ability to control the lights on the earcups. You could even have the lighting change colour based on games events which works for some games thanks to API hooks that SteelSeries have published for game studios to use.

This program works properly as advertised and you don’t need to have it running all the time you use the headphones, which can be a boon for those of us who use laptops while on battery power.

Comfort

Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset - SteelSeries motif

SteelSeries design highlighted in earcups

These headphones are very comfortable to wear for a significant amount of time thanks to the circum-aural design and the fact that your ears are not touching anything hard. As well, they don’t feel sticky after that long time of use because of assuring some airflow around the foam surrounds.

Sound Quality

The Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset is able to handle music in a similar manner to most circum-aural headphones by being able to put up some good bass response. It was also able to work well with the vocals and other instruments but you may experience a bit of reduction of higher frequencies – it is not really something with hi-fi credentials for listening to detailed music.

Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset - glowing ring on earcups

Glowing ring on earcups

I have also tried these headphones with some video content in the form of watching an Inspector Morse episode (Sins Of The Fathers) from a DVD using my desktop computer. Here, the dialogue came across very clearly and I was able to hear the sound effects distinctly with the added bass response doing some justice to certain effects like the rumbling heard in the brewery that was part of the story. There were a few brewery scenes in that same show which represented a sound presentation not dissimilar from what would be expected from a lot of action-based computer games with people traipsing around the factory, the rumbling of machinery and the music score, with the Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset handling them very well.

I had placed a call using Skype to someone I know and they had noticed that I was able to come across very clearly with the headset while I was able to hear them very clearly. The Dell AE2 headset can earn its keep as a communications headset for VoIP softphones and similar online calling platforms, especially if they implement high-quality voice codecs.

Noise Reduction and handling of noisy environments

The Dell AE2 headset offers a significant amount of noise reduction which can be a boon for those of us who are commuting or working in a noisy office. It may not be as effective as active noise cancellation but can suit most of us in these environments.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

One of the problems that will need to be answered with these USB headsets is for all mobile operating systems to treat them as headsets when they are connected to mobile devices.

Another desirable feature would be to have a hardware switch on the headset that turns the lighting on and off so you can be able to reduce your laptop’s battery drain when you run them and avoid the need to run a configuration program to achieve this goal. As well, headsets of this kind could benefit from a volume control on the earcups that controls the host system’s volume using the standard USB protocols.

Similarly, Dell and SteelSeries could implement a USB Type-C detachable connection so that they can be provided with a detachable cable allowing them to last longer by allowing you to replace damaged cables. This would also cater towards the newer USB Type-C direction as more of the computers come with this connection.

Conclusion

Personally, I would position the Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset more as suitable as a general-purpose computer headset for applications where you want to hear your computer software’s audio privately but are not expecting to pay attention to how music comes across through them. This is rather than just as something for chatting during games or hearing games effects privately and intensely.

The Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset also represents a newer trend for headphone construction where there is emphasis on “digital to the earpiece”, which can open up many points of innovation like optimised sound or active noise cancellation. The USB connectivity allows for this to work for wired-headset setups including allowing the host device to actually power the headset.

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Passive Wi-Fi–a new trend for battery-operated Wi-Fi network devices

Articles

‘Passive Wi-Fi’ researchers promise to cut Wi-Fi power by 10,000x | PC World (IDG)

New “Passive Wi-Fi” Could Drastically Cut Power Needs For Connected Devices | Fortune

Passive WiFi – 10,000 times less power consumption than trad WiFi | Telecom TV

US engineers unveil Passive Wi-Fi, which consumes 10,000 times less power | Android Authority

Video (Click / Tap to play)

My Comments

A new direction that is being looked at for the Wi-Fi wireless-network ecosystem is the use of “passive Wi-Fi”. This is where Wi-Fi endpoints will not be needing the use of analogue RF amplification circuitry and can simply reflect these wireless signals back to access points or routers.

Traditional active Wi-Fi setups work analogously to a torch (flashlight) that is being used where it is actively putting out the light thanks to its batteries. But passive Wi-Fi works in a similar vein to a mirror that simply reflects the light without using any energy.

The advantage here with passive Wi-Fi is that devices implementing that technology don’t need to draw lots of current for them to operate on the network. This is so appealing towards mobile devices implementing it as a battery-saving measure.

But it also appeals towards how devices related to the smart home or Internet-Of-Things will be designed. This is because these devices can be designed to work for a long time on up to three AA or AAA Duracells or a coin battery, or could use energy-harvesting technologies like solar power or kinetic energy but work with a Wi-Fi network rather than the Bluetooth LE, Zigbee or Z-Wave networks that are optimised for low energy.

Here, it may be feasible to directly connect these devices to your home network and the Internet without the need to use bridge devices to achieve this goal. This is although it can be feasible to integrate Bluetooth LE, Zigbee and/or Z-Wave bridging functionality in to a Wi-Fi-capable router or access point, especially if there is a market expectation to have these devices also serve as “smart-home” or “IoT” hubs.

At the moment, passive Wi-Fi can work between 30-100 feet on a line-of-sight or through walls while passing a bandwidth of up to 11Mbps. The prototypes have been demonstrated with traditional Wi-Fi network equipment including a router and smartphone and this has proven that they can work in a standard Wi-Fi network. But there have been issues raised about requiring routers and access points to broadcast a “wake-up” call for these devices to report their presence and status.

A question that can be asked as this technology is designed is whether it could be feasible to design a Wi-FI front-end to switch between active and passive mode. Here, it could appeal to devices that enter passive mode simply to save energy but “go active” while in use with obvious use cases being mobile devices or Wi-Fi-based handheld controllers.

What it could lead to is that the goal to optimise all of the building-wide wireless-data technologies for low-power use has been nearly completed with the ability to have devices that exploit these technologies able to run for a long time on ordinary batteries.

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Your XBox One now has direct access to your Dropbox media pools

Article

XBox One games console press photo courtesy Microsoft

Now you can have access to the pictures and videos on your Dropbox account through this games console

Dropbox Debuts App for Xbox One | Windows Supersite

Dropbox Now Has An Xbox One App | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Dropbox

Blog Post

Download Link

Microsoft Store (Free)

My Comments

Some of you may be exploiting Dropbox as a media pool for the various special occasions in your family’s or friends’ life. This is because of the ability to share photos at best quality with those you want to share them with, including the ability for you to have people contribute photos and videos to the same Dropbox folder you have for that purpose.

In HomeNetworking01.info, I had outlined how you can integrate your Dropbox media-pool folders with your DLNA-capable NAS and Smart TV by copying them a folder on that same NAS. The use cases I was calling out regarding Dropbox media-pool folders include special occasions such as weddings or major birthdays, the children growing up including pictures of the new baby, or memorialising a loved one who had passed away including choosing the pictures to show at their funeral.

The Dropbox app for XBox One

XBox One connected to Dropbox concept diagram

This is how the XBox One can fit in to the Dropbox ecosystem

But you can have direct access to these media pools thanks to Dropbox’s first effort to target consumer-electronics devices. Here, they wrote up a native client program for the Microsoft XBox One games console. It has been achieved thanks to the ability provided by the Microsoft Universal Windows Platform to allow one to create a piece of software for a Windows 10 regular computer, a Windows 10 phone or an XBox with minimal effort to cater to that new device.

What you can do is that you can view the photos and videos and play audio files in all of the folders in your Dropbox account through your large-screen TV connected to the XBox One.

Here, you can operate its user interface using one of the XBox game controllers or the XBox Media Remote, presenting that kind of user interface expected for consumer-electronics devices such as heavy reliance on the D-pad buttons on the remote. As well, the visual interface is optimised for the 10-foot “lean-back” experience associated with the TV screen and software destined for that use case.

Ability to use USB storage devices with the Dropbox app on XBox One

You can also upload files from attached USB Mass-Storage devices to your Dropbox using this same client, which can come in handy when you want to deliver photos from your digital camera’s SD card to that media pool.

Similarly, you can download and copy the files from your Dropbox account to an attached USB Mass-Storage device. A use case for this function would be to copy choice photos from that Dropbox media pool to a USB thumbdrive that you hand over to a digital print shop like most of the office-supply stores or camera stores so you have snapshots to put in that album or show to others; or to show in an offline environment.

The ability to transfer files between your USB storage device and your Dropbox folders using the Dropbox app on the XBox One means that the largest screen in the house makes it easier to make a better call about what pictures and videos should be contributed or taken further. This is due to the fact that two or more people can see a larger image to make that better call.

Conclusion

What Dropbox is doing with their XBox application is to prove that they can write a native front-end program for their online storage service that is relevant to consumer-electronics devices and is presented with the 10-foot “lean-back” experience. Who knows if Dropbox will develop native client software for other smart-TV, set-top box and games-console platforms to allow users to gain direct access to this online service from the biggest screens in the house.

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Fiber Corp to offer competition to the NBN in Sydney

Articles

Yarra's Edge apartment blocks

A new provider starts to offer competitive Internet service to the apartment-block market

Fiber Corp looks to fill NBN gap | The Australian Business Review

​Fiber Corp rolling out NBN alternative | CIO

NBN rival Fiber Corp to offer alternative CVC model | Optical Solutions

Fibre optics firm plans to offer 10Gbps speeds | ITWire

From the horse’s mouth

Fiber Corp

Home Page

My Comments

Sydney Harbour Bridge

… this time up in Sydney

A highly-politicised National Broadband Network deployment in Australia, which has led to the slow rollout of its services across most of Australia’s urban areas has brought on the arrival of infrastructure-level competition.

This is where independent companies are rolling out fibre-optic or other infrastructure to deliver next-generation broadband Internet service to various neighbourhoods. It has been facilitated by recent liberalisation of the market where multiple retail-level ISPs can buy access to these networks. A similar situation has occurred in the United Kingdom to open up next-generation broadband in to various urban and rural areas thanks to independent operators laying down their infrastructure independent of BT Openreach – the UK’s British-Telecom-controlled equvalent of the National Broadband Network.

One of these that has started taking action is DGTek who had started to run their own fibre-optic infrastructure around Elwood and some of Melbourne’s inner-south-east bayside suburbs, while another of these is TPG who have installed their own infrastructure in a number of apartment complexes across Australia, putting the wind up NBN to cover those locations.

Fiber Corp, a Sydney-based fibre-optic infrastructure company backed by veteran food-industry business and turf identity Nicholas Moraitis who owned the 1997 Melbourne Cup winner “Might And Power”, has started to offer their own competing infrastructure to multiple-occupancy building developments in central Sydney and Mascot. Their infrastructure is based on fibre-to-the-premises implementing Gigabit PON and NG-PON technology capable of offering up to 10Gbps but is being deployed with a similar business attitude to TPG’s infrastructure efforts. Here it is about the “best bang for the buck” where you are thinking about a high-quality service at an affordable price.

It will take advantage of the recent liberalisation of the infrastructure market that allows multiple retail ISPs to compete on the same physical infrastructure, but will be architected to allow small-time and startup operators on to the infrastructure at a cheap price.

Although Fiber Corp is focusing on the larger multi-occupant developments, they have had attracted interest from some of the local councils who are frustrated with the rollout delays associated with the NBN service.

Joel Clarke, Fiber Corp’s CIO, is pushing for a better “NBN levy” scheme for financing rural broadband rollouts. Here, he wants to see that all of the compliant and participating infrastructure providers are seen as part of a larger logical NBN rather than just the infrastructure provided by NBN Co.  It will also require NBN Co to be aggregated to offset all additional costs to wholesalers, retail ISPs and consumers. Otherwise, this levy will simply be seen as a tax upon competing infrastructure providers, making it harder for them to do business.

It also includes the requirement to allow any retail ISP to connect to any infrastructure and offer their service to every customer endpoint. This would allow for customers to benefit from a wider choice of Internet service providers and permit the existence of boutique service providers on the infrastructure.

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Microsoft answers Amazon and Google without reinventing the wheel

Articles

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 with keyboard press image courtesy of Acer

These Windows 10 computers will be part of Microsoft’s smart-home vision

Microsoft takes aim at Amazon’s Echo with Windows 10 HomeHub feature | The Verge

Windows 10 “Home Hub” feature will take on Amazon Echo and more | ARS Technica

How and why Microsoft is stepping up its focus on ‘families’ with Windows 10 | ZDNet

Home Hub, la réponse de Microsoft à Amazon Echo et Google Home | Ere Numérique (French Language / Langue Française)

My Comments

Microsoft and Apple recently built their voice-driven personal assistants in to their regular-computer operating systems rather than confining this class of software to mobile devices. As well, Apple baked in the HomeKit smart-home framework in to the iOS mobile-device operating system to make it work with devices that represent the Internet Of Things or the smart home.

But Amazon and Google went ahead with voice-activated smart-home assistants being part of their network-connected wireless-speaker products. These would work with some of the smart-home devices and offer calendar and similar functionality for the home at your request.

Sony VAIO Tap 20 adaptive all-in-one computer as a desktop

These “adaptive all-in-one” computers like the Sony VAIO Tap 20 can be part of the “smart home”

Microsoft has decided to go another path for integrating the smart home and the voice-driven personal assistant concept by working on another function that will appear in an upcoming major functionality-driven Windows 10 update. This is to be called “Home Hub” which is destined for the “Redstone 3” Windows 10 functionality update, intended to appear after the “Creators Update”.

The software is intended to be able to work on a regular desktop or laptop computer that can run the Windows 10 operating system. Here, it could easily put new life in to the “all-in-one” computer design including those “Adaptive All-In-One” computers of the Sony VAIO Tap 20 ilk, pushing them as a computer that can exist on the kitchen bench. It can also put the midget computers known as the “NUC” (Next Unit Of Computing) devices to use by having them connected to that small flatscreen TV typically used to watch daytime TV content. Let’s not forget that they will earn their keep with all of the detachable and convertible “2-in-1” computers working as a tablet but can make more use out of existing desktop and laptop computers.

ASUS VivoStick press picture courtesy of ASUS

ASUS VivoStick – their answer to Intel’s Compute Stick – can repurpose that small flatscreen TV as a monitor for the central computer

Here, this functionality is centred around a common household account which appointments and other resources can be shared to. It effectively serves the same purpose as the fridge door which ends up as the household’s noticeboard. These events will appear on a lock-screen which shows a calendar, tasklist and other common information. There will be the ability for third-party application developers to develop apps that can share information to this “common display”, thanks to application-programming interfaces that Microsoft will offer as part of the equation.

Users can still log in to their own account using Windows Hello or their traditional login methods that the system supports to see a combined view of their personal information and the shared common information.

Let’s not forget that Microsoft wants to use the Cortana voice-driven personal assistant as part of this solution but the problem with these voice-driven assistants is that they are dows usually trained to one operator and may not handle multiple users.  In the home context, there is the issue of people’s voice changing as they get older, such as a young boy using the system initially, but facing problems with Cortana when his voice breaks as part of him being a teenager.

Like with Amazon’s and Google’s implementations, it could be feasible for you to direct the Cortana implementation to stream music from your favourite third-party music services. This, again would be facilitated with the music services’ apps having API hooks to Cortana and the other software that is part of Windows 10 Home Hub.

But there will be the ability to have the Windows 10 Home Hub also work as part of the smart home by being a control or display surface for compatible smart lights, thermostats and door locks. This will be facilitated through the use of open-frame industry standards for communication between devices and the Windows 10 Home Hub, I would suspect that one of the most common applications for this would be to see status notifications for various systems on the lock-screen or to have the ability to ask Cortana or operate a control on that lock-screen to do things like turn down the heating or close the garage door.

It has been one of Microsoft’s many efforts to provide family-focused home computing like offering some software as household-wide licenses or providing integral parental controls on the Windows platform.

But there are some questions to raise concerning Windows 10 and the Home Hub.

One of these is whether the professional, educational and enterprise variants of Windows 10 will be able toe be equipped with the Home Hub. This is more so for the “work-home” laptop scenario where people use the same computing device between their workplace or place of study and their home.

Similarly, this extends to existing Windows 10 deployments where there is the desire to use existing computers that run the operating system. It is because there will be at least a lot of households that will maintain a few Windows 10 computers in some form. One of the questions is how simple is it to integrate extant computers and user accounts including domain-linked workplace accounts in to a Home Hub setup, achieving the goal to benefit from the common calendar and lockscreen.

Apple could take a leaf out of Microsoft’s book and link Siri, HomeKit and the MacOS regular-computing platform to provide a similar “home-central” service for their platforms while avoiding the need to “reinvent the wheel”.

How Microsoft have approached the smart-home trend and answer Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home wireless speakers is to exploit their knowhow in Windows 10 and allow people to use existing computers and home networks to achieve this same goal.

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Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake ultraportable–check for software updates for best performance

Article

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook - press picture courtesy of Dell

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – keep this running at its best with the latest downloads from Dell’s Website

Dell XPS 13 (9360) with Kaby Lake gets a suite of new drivers and fixes | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

New XPS 13 Ultrabook

Product Page (Buy Here!) – currently AUD$2299

Support Page

My Comments

You may be pestering your boss about a new ultraportable computer for your work or perhaps your old laptop has been showing the dreaded doughnut for a bit too long and you have enough money set aside for one of the latest and greatest Ultrabooks. Dell has the latest XPS 13 Kaby Lake variant just released with a price of AUD$1899 (Intel Core i5 Kaby Lake CPU, 8Gb RAM, 128Gb SSD, Windows 10 Home) but keep an eye on the Dell website for specials where the machine may be offered cheaper.

This “portable-typewriter-size” Ultrabook will have the latest Intel processor and chipset, Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connectivity and other niceties with the ability to exploit 802.11ac Wi-Fi network segments with a strong reliable signal thanks to Rivet Killer Wireless technology. But are you sure you are getting the “best bang for the buck” once you order it from Dell?

Because this Ultrabook has just been released with drivers and firmware “just out the gate”, you may find that it may not cut the mustard as expected like with equipment that has just been released. But Dell have answered this reality by issuing the latest drivers and patches for this system that have been “tuned up” to bring out the best performance from this Ultrabook.

The article recommended that, as part of getting your new “toy” ready for its full-on use, you make sure it is running the latest drivers and support software for its hardware functionality. Most likely, you will spend time making sure it works with your home and/or business network and peripherals; installing the software that is important for your work and play activities; verifying you can get to your online hangouts from this new device, as well as enabling the features that are so important to you. But you would need to factor in spending time checking for newer drivers so the computer performs at its best.

They may not show up on the Dell Update utility software packaged with this system as “critical” but are more likely as “recommended” downloads. You may find it more reliable to hit up the support page and download the necessary updates here. Some of the drivers listed may be about assured stability with the “expansion-module” docks that Dell has available for this system. Here, you may not think of them as being relevant for you if you didn’t purchase any of those accessories from Dell, but they can be as relevant for any adaptors or “expansion-module” docks that appear under a different brand but use the same electronics as Dell’s accessories for one or more of their functions.

The same situation will also apply to whatever new computer you have purchased especially if it has just been released, whereupon you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility to pick out the drivers and support software for your system’s hardware. Similarly, you may have to visit the manufacturer’s support or downloads page to find the latest downloads for your computer such as to update the supplied software to newer and better standards.

A similar situation had crept up when I was doing some support work for a friend of mine who had problems with his laptop not associating with his home network since he upgraded it to Windows 10. Here, it required the installation of drivers and firmware from the manufacturer’s support Website in order for it to work properly under that newer operating system and take advantage of what it had to offer. Again, you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility or visit their support or downloads page after you perform a major update on the computer’s operating system.

The same thing can happen if your computer is equipped with a subsystem like a wireless-network chipset or audio chipset which implements software-defined behaviour. This is where the subsystem’s functionality is evolved under the command of driver and support software – newer software could improve the subsystem’s existing functionality, make the subsystem honour new standards and become more compatible, or add extra capabilities to that subsystem.

One of the issues that was raised in the article was whether Dell, like the rest of the computer manufacturers, will make these drivers available through the Windows Update mechanism that Microsoft provides or not rather than having to write and furnish an update utility of their own.

A reality that may be seen more is that the OEMs who supply the chipsets or other electronics that look after a particular function, such as Intel, Qualcomn or other wireless-network chipsets that are furnished with newer laptop computers, is that these OEMs may provide the updated drivers for the electronics concerned and you may find that these drivers haven’t been updated as far as the computer manufacturer is concerned. Here, if you know whom the OEM is for that chipset, something you can identify in Device Manager which will list the the extant software drivers installed on your system for its hardware. This same situation also faces desktop computers that you build or upgrade yourself or have built up by an independent computer store.

Similarly, for computers that implement a recovery image for the operating system and supplied applications, you may find that updated versions of the drivers and supplied software may not make it to the recovery image. This can be annoying if you have to “strip” your computer back to ground-zero and reinstall everything during situations like rectifying faults or preparing to hand the computer over to someone else. This could be improved with the ability to amalgamate newer versions of the same software in to the recovery image.

Paying attention to Windows Update, the software-update software delivered by your computer’s manufacturer or the computer manufacturer’s support / download pages can allow you to keep your computer like the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook to the expectations that its manufacturer placed on it.

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Mobile-device power-supply accessories always a valid Christmas gift idea

It is Christmas time and you want to buy some gifts for those people in your life.

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank - valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank – valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

One gift idea worth looking at for most people would be a power-supply accessory for their mobile devices. These come in the form of power-banks / external battery packs, multi-device chargers or charging devices that use other energy sources. They can also benefit mobile-device accessories like Bluetooth headsets or wireless game controllers that obtain their charging power from USB sockets.

The power banks or external battery packs have their own high-capacity battery but are charged from a USB-based power source like another USB battery charger. There are some of these battery packs that can work from four AA Duracells, which can allow you to charge up your phone from a set of batteries you buy at the local convenience store.

The USB external battery packs do come in a variety of styles from a small cylindrical style similar to a lipstick tube, through something as big as a small padlock, to a flat “candybar” style that doesn’t take up much room in your pants pocket while it powers your smartphone. But most of these units have differing battery capacities and power outputs and the units with a large battery capacity and 2.1A power output can earn their keep with the tablets or the high-end smartphones. As well, those battery packs with the high capacity can work well with situations where you make heavy use of your phone’s features like using the maps and navigation function, play music, use workout-tracking software or play games.

Similarly, these battery packs will earn their keep with those of us who spend a lot of time talking on our mobile phones because this can eat in to the phone’s battery’s runtime and the external battery will typically give you that extra battery power so you can talk longer. For example, I have used one of my USB battery packs to allow someone who was using their smartphone to counsel another person over the phone to talk longer with that person without fear of being cut off by a dead battery.

Another power-supply accessory worth considering are the multiple-outlet USB battery chargers, devices that I often refer to as “charging bars” but are also referred to as “charging stations”. These devices plug in to the AC power and can charge at least four USB-connected devices at once. What’s more is that they have a very high power budget with some of these devices even having the ability to give at least one of these sockets a dedicated supply of 2.4 amps. This can allow the device to comfortably charge one or two tablets and many smartphones concurrently, with the ability to provide the right amount of current to charge them quickly.

These “charging bars” avoid the need to plug multiple USB chargers in to a powerboard to charge or power many personal-electronics devices at the same location. One area where these devices earn their keep is the kitchen bench where a household will be “topping up” their mobile devices’ batteries for the day while they are having breakfast for example. Or, you may find that in an office a group of workers have their smartphones or tablets nearby and want to run these devices from external power to avoid compromising their devices’ battery runtime.

They also can be useful for charging up USB external battery packs and other accessories in such a way that you could charge your smartphone, a Bluetooth headset, an external battery pack and something else at the same time.

There are some other mobile-power-supply gifts out their that harvest energy from other sources like the sun or heat from a fire. A lot of these devices have been pitched as “novelty” devices and some of them won’t provide enough power to your smartphone or tablet from that energy source. Here, you need to be sure that the device can store a significant amount of power in an onboard battery because the energy source can easily fluctuate which is more so with solar panels or you have to hold it in a certain position to get the maximum power in to your mobile device.

As most of us use mobile devices “to the hilt” for multiple purposes, especially online, gaming or multimedia activity, we are going through our devices’ batteries very quickly. This is where devices like USB battery packs or multiple-USB-outlet “charging bars” are becoming very relevant as gift ideas.

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Samsung implements auto-focus on the Galaxy S8 to make it a selfie smartphone

Article

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge press image courtesy of Samsung

The front camera on the next premium smartphones could end up being equipped with auto-focus technology

The Galaxy S8 may provide better selfies thanks to autofocus implementation | Android Authority

Previous coverage on “selfie” smartphones

What Makes That Smartphone A “Selfie” Smartphone

My Comments

Increasingly smartphone manufacturers are paying attention to the kind of photos a smartphone’s or tablet’s front-facing camera takes. This has been driven by the phenomenon where young people are using these cameras to take “selfies” – pictures of themselves. Even venue owners and event hosts are catering to this trend by providing “selfie photobooths” with the appropriate decorations and props so they can take the funniest-looking selfie.

The way most of the manufacturers have approached this issue includes front-facing cameras with a resolution not dissimilar to the rear-facing camera, use of a wide-angle lens on the front-facing camera or even integrating software logic to remove blemishes from the photos that are taken.

But Samsung has gone further with their front-facing camera by implementing an auto-focus mechanism. Typically, a smartphone would be equipped with auto-focus on the rear-facing camera because this is the one used for general photography but the front-facing camera gets a fair bit of use for both videocalls and selfies. But implementing an auto-focus camera for both of the smartphone’s cameras would be costly and not worth it due to the close proximity of the subjects.

Here, they have implemented an auto-focus cameras on both the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera for their new Galaxy S8 Android smartphone. This will be seen as a way to differentiate their premium smartphones from the rest of the pack due to the ability to yield that sharp videocall image or selfie.

As the cost of auto-focus cameras for smartphones and tablets that yield acceptable resolution goes downhill, it could become a trend for front-facing cameras on the smartphones, tablets, laptops and similar devices to have this feature for the best Skype videocall or selfie.

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Keeping the download-to-own music market alive

A lot of Millenials are preferring to use Spotify or similar “online jukeboxes” as their main music source, having the music play out of a wireless speaker or a network-capable audio system that supports these services.

What are these online jukeboxes?

Spotify

Spotify – the preferred only music source for many Millenials but can be used as a music discovery tool

These “online-jukebox” music services all work work primarily on a subscription basis where you don’t effectively own your music library, rather you stream down the music from these services after you pay a nominal amount per month or year to use these services. Some of them offer a free ad-supported variant of their music service, usually as an on-ramp to the main subscription-funded service.

But some of us, like myself, use the above-mentioned “online jukeboxes” more as a music-discovery tool so we can identify musical content that can fit in to our library. Examples of this include playing playlists that convey particular musical styles or moods, or discovering and “trying out” artists, albums and tracks that pique our interests.It includes situations where a company may offer a branded playlist with songs that represent what they are about.

In my case, I showed some interest in one of the “yacht-rock” playlists on Spotify and there had been a few songs that piqued my interest, some of which would be hard to find on CD in Australia. What I had done was to visit one of the transactional download-to-own music stores that is run as part of a platform’s app store and subsequently bought these songs as audio files that I could download. This meant I could add them as part of a personal playlist that existed on a microSD card as well as on a NAS that is available on the home network.

How can the “download-to-own” music services fit in

iTunes Store

iTunes – still going strong as a download-to-own music store

The way some of us add this content to our libraries is through a transaction-based “download-to-own” service like iTunes or Amazon Music. Increasingly most of the app stores associated with particular regular-computing or mobile platforms like the Windows Store and the Google Play Store are adding “download-to-own” music as part of their offerings.

Such services allow us to buy songs or albums as common media files to download to our computers or NAS drives, with a similar experience to buying the physical media where we effectively own it, but in a digital form. There used to be many of these services before the subscription-based music-streaming services took over the online music marketplace.

Microsoft Store - Muisc

Microsoft Store -Microsoft’s latest entry in to the “download-to-own” scene, providing music as MP3 files

What used to be an advantage was for these services to sell most of the songs as single tracks rather than require the user to buy a complete album. This was very similar to the era of the 7” 45rpm single where people could buy these records for cheap if they are after a particular song. This appealed to people who were buying to build up playlists of particular songs typically to set a particular mood.

There is also the value that you are not dependent on whether the content you like is still available at the online streaming music service or whether you have burnt up your mobile download allowance by streaming your music while on the road. Some of the online music services provide for offline listening but the files that are stored are kept in a proprietary form that can’t be readily played with anything other than the software provided by the online service.

Viable niches that these services can answer

Some of these services still exist but could be taken further to support a range of viable niches whether in the form of content types or audio-reproduction standards.

Answering new and upcoming talent

The typical answer to this issue is to offer these services as an “on-ramp” for upcoming talent like new musicians, basement bands and DJs. Here, these artists who typically have a handful of content but aren’t discovered could be able to sell their content through these services. They offer a simplified “on-ramp” for this kind of talent and may even provide the promotion that it needs to be exposed.

You may find that some of these “download-to-own” music stores will have their “artist and repertoire” teams who “suss out” local gigs, buskers and community radio to hunt down the new talent whose material they can sell.

Supplying particular kinds of content

To the same extent, there are some suppliers who sell particular kinds of “download-to-own” music that suit particular tastes.

Beatport

Beatport – the dance-music download-to-own store

One of these is Beatport who sell electronic dance music to DJs and those of us who like that kind of music. This is similar to how some dance-music record stores like Central Station Records in Australia existed, catering to this user class and were pulling out the stops to hunt down the latest beats.

Sometimes some record labels that specialise in particular kinds of content may run their own shopfront instead of or alongside the traditional distribution channels. It may be seen as a way to bypass import controls that some distributors and retailers value highly for controlling what is available in certain markets. As well, this approach effectively provides direct access to the talent the labels represent.

High-quality file-based audio

Another way would be that file types that represent high-quality audio could be available either as a standard or premium option. This can appeal for those of us who value high-quality audio or regularly use a top-notch hi-fi system. As well, there could be the ability to obtain high-quality masterings of the recordings that are available, including the ability to obtain a version prepared with or without high dynamic range.

Here, such recordings can be seen as a premium option for those of us who want something that is more special than what the online streaming services offer. An example of this has been the PonoMusic store that Neil Young started out with but is undergoing some renovation.

How can they complement Spotify and co?

But to continue making sure that these services maintain popular appeal, “download-to-own” music stores that want to cover a large market base have to have access to the current and back catalogue offered by most, if not all, of the major labels across the world. This includes being able to sell these recordings in to other countries, which may raise concern with music labels who don’t like the concept of parallel-importing of content in to other markets.

Similarly, they could partner with the likes of Spotify to offer the recordings that these subscription-based “online jukeboxes” provide for playback as a premium download-to-own option. For example, a media-management program that works with a “download-to-own” store and one of the “online jukeboxes” could offer a “buy this playlist offline” function where you can effectively buy your own copy of a playlist. Here, it would check which of the songs are downloaded or “ripped” from your CDs, then allow you to buy the remainder of the playlist from the “download-to-own” stores.

Conclusion

What has to happen is that, like the way radio and packaged pre-recorded music complemented each other, the download-to-own music services and the “online jukeboxes” of the Spotify kind need to be positioned in a manner to complement each other in the file-based music world.

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Z-Wave to be the first standards group to mandate secure IoT

Article

Nest Learning Thermostat courtesy of Nest Labs

Z-Wave now requires a secure-by-design approach for Internet Of Things devices using its technology like these room thermostats

IoT gear will need better security to win a Z-Wave badge | PC World

Previous coverage on this topic

A Clear Reality Surfaces With The Internet Of Things

EU wants to establish a security baseline for Internet Of Things

August responds to its smart lock’s security weaknesses by patching its software

My Comments

The recent Mirai botnet denial-of-service cyber-attacks including an attack against a data-security journalist have raised serious questions regarding designing the software for dedicated-purpose devices like network-infrastructure devices and the “Internet Of Things”. Here, it raised concern regarding default or hard-coded passwords along with poorly-maintained software as being a few of the issues that lead to lax security proactices for the dedicated-purpose devices.

This led to the European Union wanting to call a baseline standard for device-software security, with a customer-facing indicator similar to energy-efficiency labels on appliances or nutrition-rating labels on foodstuffs. Here, the standard wanted to look at “default-for-security” setup routines along with the issue of software maintenance.

But Z-Wave who establish a short-range wireless-connectivity standard for home-automation devices have had to answer this issue by requiring that devices using this technology implement their Security 2 (S2) secure-operations framework before the device can wear the Z-Wave logo. It is similar to various standards logos like Dolby noise reduction, DLNA or HDMI where equipment has to be compliant to these standards before they can show these logos and customers can see that logo as an indicator of compatibility.

Here, the requirement includes the use of a human-readable PIN number and/or a machine-readable QR code for authenticating devices to a Z-Wave network. As well, Z-Wave setups must implement a strong secure key exchange along with implementation of a Transport Layer Security 1.1 data tunnel for IP setups. It is mandatory for the endpoint devices like light bulbs, light switches and thermostats along with “hub” and similar devices that connect Z-Wave devices to the home network and Internet.

A question that may be raised with certain device classes like smart locks or security systems is whether a PIN number that you set using the device’s control surface, especially an “administrator” or “master” PIN number, does constitute a PIN number for the Security 2 (S2) framework.

At the moment, what Z-Wave have done is to address the issue of “secure setup” for this class of device. They haven’t dealt with the issue of software maintenance which is still a thorn in the side for dedicated-function devices and this may be something that others in the industry may need to deal with.

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