Product Review–Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar

Introduction

When Creative Labs launched the Stage Air desktop soundbar, they were positioning it as a single-piece soundbar to exist on your desktop under your computer monitor. This is in the same vein as those soundbars or TV speaker bases that are connected to larger TV sets to improve their sound. This unit isn’t just a desktop soundbar but able to work as a portable Bluetooth speaker thanks to it having its own battery power.

I then organised to review one of these desktop soundbars to find out how they perform as a desktop computer speaker system or portable Bluetooth speaker and am now reviewing one of these units.

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar speaker

Price

The Unit Itself

Recommended Retail Price: AUD$79.95

Form Factor

Single Piece soundbar

Connections

Input Count as for a device
Analogue Inputs 1 x 3.5mm stereo line input
Digital Inputs Bluetooth 4.2 A2DP wireless connection
Network
Bluetooth A2DP with AVRCP

Speakers

Output Power 5W per channel Stereo
Speaker Layout 2 speakers in one cabinet 2 x full-range speakers
Enclosure Audio Qualities Use of one passive radiator

The unit itself

Setup and Connection

Creative Labs Stage Air connection Options: 3.5mm stereo line-in jack, USB Micro-B charging port, USB Type-A port for MP3 playback from USB Mass-Storage Devices

Connection Options: 3.5mm stereo line-in jack, USB Micro-B charging port, USB Type-A port for MP3 playback from USB Mass-Storage Devices

The Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar sits just under my monitor properly and would be able to fit under most of the monitors or all-in-one computers easily. The connections are in a recessed space on the back of the speaker with a 3.5mm stereo jack for your computer, a USB Micro-B power connection and a USB Type-A connection for use with a memory key full of MP3 audio files.

The controls are located on the right-had-side of the speaker with the power / source button located on the right near you. Here, you press this button until the lamp on the front turns green to use the line input connection for your computer sound.

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar controls on right side - Power, Up, Down, Bluetooth pairing

Controls on right side – Power, Up, Down, Bluetooth pairing

To use it as a Bluetooth speaker, you would press this source button until the lamp turns blue. If no device is paired to this unit, the light will flash and the speaker will announce an invitation to put your Bluetooth host device in to pairing mode to complete the setup.

To have the speaker work with a new Bluetooth device. you would need to hold down the  Bluetooth-icon button to start the pairing process. This may be a procedure you need to do whenever you want to have it work with a new Bluetooth device and there is no knowledge of whether the Creative Stage Air soundbar can work in a multipoint fashion supporting multiple Bluetooth devices.

Useability

It is easy to tell which input source you are using by the colour of the front light – blue for Bluetooth and green for line-in. As well, the voice prompts for the Bluetooth setup process make it easy for new users to enrol a new device with the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar.

Initially adjusting the volume may be confusing with the + button located towards you and the – button located away from you where you may be used to setups that have buttons in the reverse order. But you can still feel the controls to identify which ones they are when adjusting the volume from the speaker.

Network Performance

While I was using the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar with my smartphone as a Bluetooth speaker, I noticed that it didn’t take long to pair up with the smartphone. As well, there wasn’t any jitter in the sound while I was playing music using the Bluetooth connection.

Sound Quality

What really shows up with a speaker system is its sound quality including whether it is too bassy or too brittle in the sound.

Firstly, I had run some audio content from my smartphone and from the computer with it coming across with a tonal quality that has a rich bass sound and a treble sound that is bright enough. It can cope with bass-heavy electronic dance music and yield the appropriate amount of “punch” in that music.

I have played some video content through my desktop PC and have found that the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar does treat the audio mix properly. This is to assess how a speaker or headphone setup can handle speech, sound effects and music with it affecting its prowess for viewing video content, playing games, engaging in videocalls or similar activities.

The speech comes across clearly with male voices having a deep rich sound. The sound effects come across with some authenticity, something I had noticed while watching an episode Julie Zemiro’s Home Delivery on ABC iView with the sound of the car engine whenever they went anywhere. It is while the music in the video content contains the right balance of clarity and depth. I also watched an episode of a police drama and found that some effects like the gunshots had that bit of punch in them, something that would be of importance when playing a lot of first-person shooter games.

Achieving the right amount of bass response for a small area is facilitated using a passive radiator which is like a speaker driver but not driven by the amplifier circuitry. This was used in some “ghetto-blaster” designs to increase the bass response in a power-efficient manner and is commonly used on many Bluetooth speakers for the same purpose.

As part of testing speaker setups, I take the volume setting up to as high as it will go before I notice any clipping or distortion in the sound. This is to identify how powerful the amplifier circuitry really is and I could take it up all the way without it distorting.

The sound output would really be loud enough for close-up listening at your computer desk or to fill a small area while there is still a rich tone.

Other issues

The unit can run on its own battery for what would be expected for a portable Bluetooth speaker but if you are using it regularly with a computer, I would have it work with a USB power supply.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

One design improvement I would like to see is the implementation of USB Audio as an audio pathway for this device. This is rather than just using the USB Micro-B port for providing power to the speaker. It would then mean that one cable can be used to provide sound and power from the host computer to the speaker rather than using another connection method like Bluetooth or line-level analogue for that purpose.

Similarly, Creative Labs could move towards using USB-C for power and audio connections especially where more computers are being equipped with this connection. It can also lead to them evolving the Stage Air desktop soundbar towards an elementary USB hub function especially where laptops and small-form desktop computers are being equipped with fewer USB connections.

Other alternative connections that can be looked at include the use of an HDMI or DisplayPort input and output connection so that the speaker can be connected between a host computer and a monitor that uses one of these connections and you want to use the “display audio” function that is part of the host’s graphics infrastructure.

The side controls could be made easier to identify by touch so you can know which one is which quickly without looking at them. This could be through raised O, + and – symbols for the power / source and volume buttons or through other means. It is because most of us may he simply used to using the speaker’s volume controls to quickly raise and lower the volume of our computers.

If Creative wants to support playback of file-based audio content from a USB Mass Storage device, they could have the Stage Air also work with other file codecs, especially FLAC and AAC. This is more so as these codecs, especially the FLAC codec, gain traction as higher-quality alternatives to the MP3 audio codec.

As well, if the Stage Air desktop soundbar is to live under that monitor or all-in-one’s screen most of its working life, I would recommend the use of a headphone jack or Bluetooth headphone support. This would avoid the need to swap out the speaker cable for your headphones when you want to connect them to your computer.

Conclusion

I would position the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar as something that can serve as a portable Bluetooth speaker or as a single-piece alternative to a modest two-piece desktop computer speaker setup. It can also include improving your DAB+ or Internet radio’s sound output, something you may want to do with a small unit that has a headphone connection on it.

But you may find that its sound output is more so for use in the office or at home where you aren’t placing value on a heavy bass response.  The idea that the Stage Air is battery powered may come into its own when you are travelling and want something powerful enough to fill a small room like your average hotel room with music from your laptop, smartphone or a portable audio device. This is while it doesn’t take up much room in your luggage.

On the other hand, if you place value on stronger bass response, most of the three-piece desktop computer speaker setups with a dedicated active subwoofer may answer your needs.

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Using a TV as a computer monitor

A regular TV may not serve well as the only computer monitor for your computing and video-entertainment needs

An issue that will crop up with home computing nowadays is whether to use a TV as the only display device for your computer as well as providing video entertainment.

This is an idea that tends to appeal to those of us who are living in small areas like college dorms or small apartments or simply have this kind of space as our own personal living space in a shared environment.

In this context, I am assuming that you are using the screen as part of a desktop computing setup whether by using a traditional desktop computer or by connecting your laptop computer to the display and having it serve as the primary display. I am not talking about running the display you want to use as part of a multiple-screen setup or for occasional group-viewing use.

There will be issues that will preclude this kind of use for a TV serving this role for your computer.

Pixel Density

An issue you will need to pay attention to is the pixel density your display device offers especially if you are intending to use it as your only display device for your computing and entertainment needs.

A 15” Full HD laptop would offer a pixel density of 141.2 pixels per inch while a 32” Full HD TV would work at 68.84 pixels per inch. Apple’s iPhones that implement the Retina screen would work at 326ppi while their MacBook Pro Retina screen would work at 227ppi.

Here. the display that works at something like 141.2 pixels per inch or more would make text or graphics look sharp and clear especially if you are working close to the screen. It may not matter if you are playing video games or viewing multimedia content at a “lean-back” distance.

Here, if you are buying a TV or monitor with a screen size of 27” or less, make sure you are looking for a model that uses Full HD (1080p) resolution. Larger screen sizes can be served through the use of a value-priced 32”-55” 4K UHDTV device.

Your computer’s display infrastructure needs to have an HDMI 2.0 output, preferably HDMI 2.0a for HDR10-capable displays. This may be fulfilled by most recent discrete GPUs and some recent Intel integrated graphics setups may also support this specification. If your computer or external graphics module uses a DisplayPort video output, you may need to use a DisplayPort to HDMI adaptor. Beware some of these devices may require the use of an active DisplayPort to HDMI adaptor.

Input Lag and Display Responsiveness

This is an issue that will affect gameplay where you are expected to respond quickly to the situation that is taking place in a game you are playing. It is more of concern when you are playing any fast-paced game.

The input lag problem is the time between when you do something with your game controller, keyboard or mouse and when the effect of that is painted on the screen. Then there will be issues where the screen doesn’t appear with the latest activity or isn’t quick enough to represent all of the activity including what your opponents are up to.

This is brought about due to most domestic TVs being equipped with a lot of video-processing circuity logic that deals with the incoming signal before it is painted on the screen. The time it takes may be just enough for dealing with video content but not interactive gaming content.

Some sets will offer a “gaming mode” to minimise lag times and this typically reduces the use of video-processing circuitry or optimises it for fast response.

In a lot of cases, most TVs wouldn’t work well as a sole display device, with this applying more towards small cheap HDTVs. But they can work well as a secondary screen or for large-screen group-viewing use.

What about purposing a computer monitor for TV use

Lenovo ThinkVision X1 4K monitor

You could purpose a computer monitor with built-in speakers as a TV by adding a set-top box or similar peripheral

Another approach would be to use a suitably-sized monitor as your TV set, especially if it is equipped with integrated speakers. In most cases, the monitor won’t have a remote control for “lean-back” viewing because you intend to use it with your computer.

You may come across a “TV monitor” which is a computer monitor that has an integrated TV tuner and is pitched for desktop use. These are available in countries with strong support for free-to-air TV like UK, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Typically they will have a Full HD screen with a size of 32” or smaller but have display electronics optimised for computer use.

On the other hand, your computer monitor would need to be equipped with a spare HDMI input that has HDCP support. Here, you use a set-top box or PVR that has an HDMI output to receive TV broadcasts.

If you subscribe to traditional pay TV, your pay-TV provider will lease you a set-top box or PVR as part of the service and this can work well if free-to-air TV is provided via the pay-TV platform. On the other hand, your local consumer-electronics store will have set-top boxes or PVRs that work with free-to-air TV and these units will display high-definition channels at their proper resolution.

A broadcast-LAN setup like SAT>IP can work with your computer if it is running the appropriate client software. As well some platforms like SAT>IP are supported by set-top boxes that connect to your monitor’s HDMI input. You may also find that some Internet-based set-top-box platforms will offer access to real-time video streaming through the broadcasters’ video-on-demand platforms or a similar application.

You may find that some games consoles like the XBox One will have a TV-tuner module supplied as an option. Similarly, you may be able to use a USB-based TV-tuner module or a TV-tuner card as a way to purpose your computer for TV-viewing.

On the other hand, if you are just content with Netflix and similar online services, you can just get by with using the service’s Website and viewing the video content on the monitor in a full-screen arrangement. As well, AirPlay (facilitated with Apple TV) or Chromecast can work when it comes to “throwing” the video content from your smartphone or tablet to the monitor.

Conclusion

You will find that using one display for your computing and video entertainment needs may cut it for some applications but not for others like full-on gaming.

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Google to make USB Power Delivery mandatory for newer USB-C Android devices

Article

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

Newer Android smartphones and tablets with USB-C ports will need to be compliant with USB Power Delivery

Google now requires Digital Wellbeing and USB-C PD charging standard for new Android phones | The Verge

Google will require ALL Android devices with USB-C to support USB-PD | AusDroid

Google requires new Android devices with Type-C ports to not break USB-PD compatibility | XDA Developers

What Is USB-PD And Why Is Google Enforcing It? | Gizmodo

USB Power Delivery explained | Android Authority

My Comments

A feature that is asked for with smartphones and tablets is to support fast battery charging as well as the ability to operate the mobile device on external power while it charges.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook - USB-C power

… to have the same kind of USB-C power-supply connectivity as this Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook

Typically this was satisfied by USB battery chargers working up to 5V 2.4A and feeding the device from a USB Type-A socket to a USB Micro-B, USB-C or Apple Lightning (MFi) port. As well, chipset manufacturers like Qualcomm introduced proprietary fast-charge solutions that different phone manufacturers implemented. These required the use of chargers that had the corresponding chipset circuitry and often they were offered by the phone’s manufacturer as a supplied or “official” accessory.

But Google are now requiring that Android devices that have a USB-C connection are to fully support USB Power Delivery. This was initially a recommended feature but from September 2019 it will be a mandatory feature for new Android smartphones to gain full software support like Google Play Services and the Google Play Store.

USB Power Delivery is already implemented as the power source for laptops like recent iterations of the Dell XPS 13 or Apple MacBook Air or as a power-source option for USB-C-equipped laptops like the Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 convertible laptop. This is augmented with the availability of power-supply devices working to this standard such as battery packs or USB-C monitors.

Here, Google wants to implement the USB-PD standard for the Android platform for a number of reasons. Here USB-PD implements a standard voltage-and-current ladder to supply power to the device according to what the power-supply device can offer and what the device can take. Therefore an Android device manufacturer can design a device to take the right power level to, perhaps, facilitate fast-charging or high-performance operation while connected to a USB-PD power source.

As well, the standard is a known common standard that is managed by USB Implementers Forum rather than a device or chipset vendor for the benefit of the industry. This puts less pressure on power-supply vendors to cater to different proprietary fast-charging requirements.

This standard will also accelerate the availability of USB-PD-compliant power-supply designs for every sort of application and at price points that appeal to everyone. It can also encourage innovation when it comes to power-supply design whether this is for one or more devices or to work from an internal battery, 100-250V AC mains power or 12-24V DC vehicle/marine/aircraft power.

Householders won’t even have to worry about the number of USB chargers available that will charge their mobile device quickly. As well, the environment will benefit because of the reduced number of useable chargers going to landfill but the reality with these chargers is that they are still kept available as “spare” or “convenience” chargers until they fail to function.

USB Power Delivery can also allow for a mobile device to be a power source for a peripheral like a portable hard disk or a USB digital noise-cancelling headset. This may require the mobile device to be equipped with two USB-C sockets if it is to be of use with people who need to be able to run their devices from external power.

Personally, I could see this happening that someone will engineer a cost-effective way to have a USB-PD-compliant power supply to simply be a general-purpose power supply. This will end up with this technology being used simply to power all sorts of lighting, novelties and other devices, like what is happening with the current USB specification.

Google’s approach with mandating the use of USB Power Delivery for all Android mobile devices equipped with USB-C connectors will keep up Android’s fame as the mobile platform built on common open standards.

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Indie games like Untitled Goose Game appeal to people outside the usual game demographics

Articles

Honk if you’ve got a hit: Melbourne-made “horrible goose” game goes global | The Age

Everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Blink-182 is freaking out about a ‘goose game’ — one look at the bizarre new game explains why | Business Insider

Untitled Goose Game Melbourne-based creators stunned after topping Nintendo charts | ABC News Australia

From the horse’s mouth

Untitled Goose Game (product page)

Video – Click or tap to play

Previous coverage on indie games

How about encouraging computer and video games development in Europe, Oceania and other areas

Alaskan fables now celebrated as video games

Two ways to put indie games on the map

My Comments

What is being realised now is that independently-developed electronic games are appealing to a larger audience than most of those developed by the mainstream games studios.

A case to point that has appeared very recently is Untitled Goose Game. This game; available for Windows or MacOS regular computers via the Epic Games Store, and the Nintendo Switch handheld games console via its app store, is about you controlling a naughty goose as you have it wreak havoc around an English rural village.

Here, it uses cartoon imagery and slapstick-style comic approach of the kind associated with Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy in the early days of cinema to provide amusement that appeals across the board. It also underscores concepts that aren’t readily explored in the video games mainstream.

This game was developed by a small North Fitzroy game studio called House House and had been underpinned by funds from the state government’s culture ministry (Film Victoria) before it was published by an independent games publisher called Panic.

A close friend of mine who is a 70-something-year-old woman was having a conversation with me yesterday about this game and we remarked on it being outside the norm for video games as far as themes go. I also noticed that her interest in this game underscored its reach beyond the usual video-game audience where it would appeal to women and mature-to-older-age adults, with her considering it as a possible guilty pleasure once I mentioned where it’s available on.

With Untitled Goose Game being successful on the Nintendo Switch handheld games console, it could be a chance for Panic or House House to see the game being ported to mobile platforms. This is more for benefit to those of us who are more likely to use an iPad or Android tablet to play “guilty-pleasure” games. This is in addition to optimising the game’s user interface for the Windows variant to also work with touchscreens so it can be played on 2-in-1 laptops.

What is happening is that there is an effort amongst indie games developers and publishers to make their games appeal to a wide audience including those of us who don’t regularly play video games.

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Make VPN, VLAN and VoIP applications easy to set up in your network

Draytek Vigor 2860N VDSL2 business VPN-endpoint router press image courtesy of Draytek UK

Routers like the Draytek Vigor 2600N which support VPN endpoint and IP-PBX functionality could benefit from simplified configuration processes for these functions

Increasingly, the virtual private network, virtual local-area network and IP-based voice and video telephony setups are becoming more common as part of ordinary computing.

The VPN is being seen as a tool to protect our personal privacy or to avoid content-blocking regimes imposed by nations or other entities. Some people even use this as a way to gain access to video content available in other territories that wouldn’t be normally available in their home territory. But VPNs are also seen by business users and advanced computer users as a way to achieve a tie-line between two or more networks.

The VLAN is becoming of interest to householders as they sign up to multiple-play Internet services with at least TV, telephony and Internet service. Some of the telcos and ISPs are using the VLAN as a way to assure end-users of high quality-of-service for voice or video-based calls and TV content made available through these services.

AVM FRITZ!Box 3490 - Press photo courtesy AVM

… as could the AVM Fritz!Box routers with DECT base station functionality

It may also have some appeal with some multiple-premises developments as a tool to provide the premises occupiers access to development-wide network resources through the occupiers’ own networks. It will also appeal to public-access-network applications which share the same physical infrastructure as private networks such as FON-type community networks including what Telstra and BT are running.

VoIP and similar IP-based telecommunications technologies will become very common for home and small-business applications. This is driven by incumbent and competing telecommunications providers moving towards IP-based setups thanks to factors like IP-driven infrastructure or a very low cost-of-entry. It also includes the desire to integrate entryphone systems that are part of multi-premises buildings in to IP-based telecommunications setups including the voice-driven home assistants or IP-PBX business-telephony setups.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

A device like the Amazon Echo could be made in to a VoIP telephone through an easy-to-configure Alexa Skill

In the same context, an operating-system or other software developer may want to design a “softphone” for IP-based telephony in order to have it run on a common computing platform.

What is frustrating these technologies?

One key point that makes these technologies awkward to implement is the configuration interface associated with the various devices that benefit from these technologies like VPN endpoint routers or IP-based telephony equipment. The same situation also applies if you intend to implement the setup with multiple devices especially where different platforms or user interfaces are involved.

This kind of configuration also increases the chance of user error taking place during the process which then leads to the setup failing with the user wasting time on troubleshooting procedures to get it to work. It also makes the setup process very daunting for people who don’t have much in the way of IT skills.

For example, you have to complete many steps to enrol the typical VPN endpoint router with a consumer-facing privacy-focused VPN in order to assure network-wide access to these VPNs. This involves transcribing configuration details for one of these VPNs to the router’s Web-based management interface. The same thing also applies if you want to create a VPN-based data tie-line between networks installed at two different premises.

Similarly, IP-based telephony is very difficult to configure with customers opting for pre-configured IP telephone equipment. Then it frustrates the idea of allowing a customer to purchase equipment or software from different resellers thanks to the difficult configuration process. Even small businesses face this same difficult whether it is to add, move or remove extensions, create inter-premises tie-lines or add extra trunk lines to increase call capacity or provide “local-number” access.

This limits various forms of innovation in this space such as integrating a building’s entryphone system into one’s own telephone setup or allowing Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Viber to permit a business to have a virtual telephone link to their IP-telephony platforms.

It also limits the wide availability to consumers and small businesses of “open” network hardware that can answer these functions. This is more so with VPN-endpoint routers or routers that have IP-based telecommunications functionality which would benefit from this kind of simplified configuration process.

What can be done?

A core requirement to enable simplified provisioning of these technologies is to make use of an XML-based standard configuration file that contains all of the necessary configuration information.

It can be transferred through a download from a known URL link or a file that is uploaded from your computing device’s local file system. The latter approach can also apply to using removable storage to transfer the file between devices if they have an SD-card slot or USB port.

Where security is important or the application depends on encryption for its operation, the necessary binary public-key files and certificates could be in a standard form with the ability to have them available through a URL link or local file transfer. It also extends to using technologies based around these public keys to protect and authenticate the configuration data in transit or apply a digital signature or watermark on the configuration files to assert their provenance.

I would also see as being important that this XML-based configuration file approach work with polished provisioning interfaces. These graphically-rich user interfaces, typically associated with consumer-facing service providers, implement subscription and provisioning through the one workflow and are designed to he user-friendly. It also applies to achieving a “plug-and-play” onboarding routine for new devices where there is a requirement for very little user interaction during the configuration and provisioning phase.

This can be facilitated through the use of device-discovery and management protocols like UPnP or WSD with the ability to facilitate the upload of configuration files to the correct devices. Or it could allow the creation and storage of the necessary XML files on the user’s computer’s local storage for the user to upload to the devices they want to configure.

Another factor is to identify how a device should react under certain situations like a VPN endpoint router being configured for two or more VPNs that are expected to run concurrently. It also includes allowing a device to support special functions, something common in the IP-based telecommunications space where it is desirable to map particular buttons, keypad shortcodes or voice commands to dial particular numbers or activate particular functions like door-release or emergency hotline access.

Similarly, the use of “friendly” naming as part of the setup process for VLANs, VPNs and devices or lines in an IP-telephony system could make the setup and configuration easier. This is important when it comes to revising a configuration to suit newer needs or simply understanding the setup you are implementing.

Conclusion

Using XML-based standard provisioning files and common data-transfer procedures for setup of VLAN, VPN and IP-based-telecommunications setups can allow for a simplified setup and onboarding experience. It can also allow users to easily maintain their setups such as to bring new equipment on board or factor in changes to their service.

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Amazon starts Voice Interoperability Initiative for voice-driven assistant technology

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Devices like Amazon Echo could support multiple voice assistants

Amazon Creates A Huge Alliance To Demand Voice Assistant Compatibility | The Verge

Amazon launches Voice Interoperability Initiative — without Google, Apple or Samsung | ZDNet

Amazon enlists 30 companies to improve how voice assistants work together | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Voice Interoperability Initiative (Product Page)

Amazon and Leading Technology Companies Announce the Voice Interoperability Initiative (Press Release)

My Comments

Amazon have instigated the Voice Interoperability Initiative which, at the moment, allows a hardware or software device to work with multiple compatible voice-driven AI assistants. It also includes the ability for someone to develop a voice-driven assistant platform that can serve a niche yet have it run on commonly-available smart-speaker hardware alongside a broad-based voice-driven assistant platform.

Freebox Delta press photo courtesy of Iliad (Free.fr)

Freebox Delta as an example of a European voice-driven home assistant that could support multiple voice assistant platforms

An example they called out was to run the Salesforce Einstein voice-driven assistant that works with Salesforce’s customer-relationship-management software on the Amazon Echo smart speaker alongside the Alexa voice assistant. Similarly, a person who lives in France and is taking advantage of the highly-competitive telecommunications and Internet landscape there by buying the Freebox Delta smart speaker / router and have it use Free.fr’s voice assistant platform or Amazon Alexa on that same device.

Microsoft, BMW, Free.fr, Baidu, Bose, Harman and Sony are behind this initiative while Google, Apple and Samsung are definitely absent. This is most likely because Google, Apple and Samsung have their own broad-based voice-driven assistant platforms that are part of their hardware or operating-system platforms with Apple placing more emphasis on vertically-integrating some of their products. It is although Samsung’s Android phones are set up to be able to work with their Bixby voice assistant or Google’s Assistant service.

Intel and Qualcomm are also behind this effort by offering silicon that provides the power to effectively understand the different wake words and direct a session’s focus towards a particular voice assistant.

The same hardware device or software gateway can recognise assistant-specific wake words and react to them on a session-specific basis. There will be the ability to assure customer privacy through measures like encrypted tunnelling for each assistant session along with an effort to be power-efficient which is important for battery-operated devices.

Personally I see this as an ability for companies to place emphasis on niche voice-assistant platforms like what Salesforce is doing with their Einstein product or Microsoft with its refocused Cortana product.  It can even make the concept of these voice assistants more relevant to the enterprise market and business customers.

Similarly, telcos and ISPs could create their own voice-driven assistants for use by their customers, typically with functionality that answers what they want out of the telco’s offerings. It can also extend to the hotel and allied sectors that wants to use voice-driven assistants for providing access to functions of benefit to hotel guests like room service, facility booking and knowledge about the local area. Let’s not forget vehicle builders who implement voice-driven assistants as part of their infotainment technology so that the drive has both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

This kind of offering can open up a market for the creation of “white-label” voice-assistant platforms that can be “branded” by their customers. As well, some of these assistants can be developed with a focus towards a local market’s needs like high proficiency in a local language and support for local values.

For hardware, the Amazon Voice Interoperability Initiative can open up paths for innovative devices. This can lead towards ideas like automotive applications, smart TVs, build-in use cases like intercom / entryphone or thermostat setups, software-only assistant gateways that work with computers or telephone systems amongst other things.

With the Amazon Voice Interoperability Alliance, there will be increased room for innovation in the voice-driven assistant sector.

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Wi-Fi 6 is here for certain

Articles

TP-Link Archer AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 broadband router product picture courtesy of TP-Link USA

TP-Link Archer AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 broadband router – an example of a Wi-Fi 6 router

Wi-Fi 6: Better, faster internet is coming — here’s what you need to know | CNet

Should You Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6? | PC Mag

Previous Coverage

New nonenclature for Wi-Fi wireless networks

What will 802.11ax Wi-Fi wireless networking be about?

From the horse’s mouth

Wi-Fi Alliance

Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6™ delivers new Wi-Fi® era (Prress Release)

Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6™ delivers new Wi-Fi® era {Product Page)

My Comments

The Wi-Fi Alliance have started this week to certify devices as to whether they are compliant to the new Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) wireless-network standard. This effectively means that this technology will be ready for prime time.

But what will it offer?

NETGEAR Orbi with Wi-Fi 6 press picture courtesy of NETGEAR

NETGEAR Orbi Wi-Fi 6 – the first distributed Wi-Fi setup with Wi-Fi 6 technology

Wi-Fi 6 will offer a theoretical data throughput of 10Gbps which is 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5 setups. There will also be the ability for one access point or route to support many Wi-Fi client devices at once thus preventing that device from being “oversubscribed” and underperforming when many devices come on board. It answers a common situation where a small network that is typically served by one Wi-Fi router ends up having to support multiple Wi-Fi client devices like laptops, smartphones, smart speakers of the Amazon Echo kind, and set-top devices for streaming video. It is facilitated through the use of a higher-capacity MU-MIMO technology.

In addition, the Wi-Fi 6 routers and access points implement OFDMA technology to share channels and use them efficiently. It will mean that multiple Wi-Fi 6 networks can coexist without underperforming which will be of benefit for apartment dwellers or trade shows and conferences where multiple Wi-Fi networks are expected to coexist.

There is also the targeted wake time feature to “schedule” use of a Wi-Fi 6 network by battery-operated devices. This will allow them to know when to send data updates to the network especially if they don’t change status often, which will benefit “Internet-of-Things” devices where there is the desire to run them for a long time on commodity batteries.

A requirement that will be placed on Wi-Fi 6 devices is to support WPA3 security for their network security standard. It is to improve the expectation upon these devices for a secure Wi-Fi network.

At the moment, routers and access points based on Wi-Fi 6 will be positioned at the premium end of the market and be typically targeted towards “be first with the latest” early adopters. But over the next year or two, the market will settle out with devices at more affordable price points.

Premium smartphones, tablets and laptops that are being redesigned from the ground up with new silicon will end up with Wi-Fi 6 network interface chipsets. This will apply to the Samsung Galaxy S10 family, computers based on Intel Ice Lake CPUs and the Apple iPhone 11 family. As well, some network-hardware vendors are offering add-on Wi-Fi 6 network adaptors that plug in to your laptop computer’s USB port to enable it for the new technology.

At the moment, if you are running a network with a Wi-Fi 5 access point or router that is serving devices based on Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) technology, you don’t need to upgrade the access point or router yet.

But if you have to replace that device due to the existing unit dying or you intend to set up a new Wi-Fi network, it may be worth investigating the purchase of network infrastructure equipment based on Wi-Fi 6.

You will also find that each device will be provided with “best case” performance based on its technology. This means that if you install a Wi-Fi 6 access point or router on your network then subsequently sign a subsidised-equipment post-paid service contract for a smartphone with Wi-Fi 6 technology built in, the smartphone will work to Wi-Fi 6 levels while your laptop that supports Wi-Fi 5 technology works to that prior technology without impeding your smartphone’s Wi-Fi 6 functionality.

If you bought one of the earlier Wi-Fi 6 routers or distributed Wi-Fi setups which works to pre-certification standards, check your manufacturer’s site for any new firmware that will have the device working to the current specifications and upload it to your device.

Wi-Fi 6 wireless networks will become a major boon for evolving local-area networks towards higher capacity and faster throughput on wireless segments.

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WindowsCentral has identified a handful of portable external graphics modules for your Thunderbolt 3 laptop

Article

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module press picture courtesy of Sonnet Systems

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables

Best Portable eGPUs in 2019 | WindowsCentral

From the horse’s mouth

Akitio

Node Pro (Product Page)

Gigabyte

Aorus Gaming Box (Product Page)

PowerColor

PowerColor Mini (Product Page)

Sonnet

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck (Product Page)

My Comments

More of the Thunderbolt-3 external graphics modules are appearing on the scene but most of these units are primarily heavy units with plenty of connectivity on them. This is good if you wish to have this external graphics module as part of your main workspace / gaming space rather than something you will be likely to take with you as you travel with that Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook or MacBook Pro.

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook – an example of an ultraportable computer that can benefit from one of the portable external graphics modules

Windows Central have called out a selection of these units that are particularly portable in design to allow for ease of transport. This will appeal to gamers and the like who have access to a large-screen TV in another room that they can plug video peripherals in to such as university students living in campus accommodation or a sharehouse. It can also appeal to those of us who want to use the laptop’s screen with a dedicated graphics processor such as to edit and render video footage they have captured or play a game with best video performance.

Most of the portable external graphics modules will be embedded with a particular graphics chipset and a known amount of display memory. In most cases this will be a high-end mobile GPU which may be considered low-spec by desktop (gaming-rig) standards. There will also be reduced connectivity options especially with the smaller units but they will have enough power output to power most Thunderbolt-3-equipped Ultrabooks.

An exception that the article called out was the Akitio Node Pro which is a “card cage” that is similar in size to one of the new low-profile desktop computers. This unit also has a handle and a Thunderbolt-3 downstream connection for other peripherals based on this standard. It would need an active DisplayPort-HDMI adaptor or a display card equipped with at least one HDMI port to connect to the typical large-screen TV set.

Most of the very small units or units positioned at the cheap end of the market would excel at 1080p (Full HD) graphics work. This would be realistic for most flatscreen TVs that are in use as secondary TVs or to use the laptop’s own screen if you stick the the advice to specify Full HD (1080p) as a way to conserve battery power on your laptop.

The exception in this roundup of portable external graphics modules was the AORUS Gaming Box which is kitted out with the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 graphics chipset. This would be consided a high-performance unit.

Here, these portable external graphics modules are being identified as being something of use where you are likely to take them between locations but don’t mind compromising when it comes to functionality or capability.

It can also appeal to first-time buyers who don’t want to spend much on their first external graphics module to put a bit of “pep” in to their suitably-equipped laptop’s or all-in-one’s graphics performance. Then if you are thinking of using a better external graphics module, perhaps a “card-cage” variety that can work with high-performance “gaming-rig” or “desktop-workstation” cards, you can then keep one of these external graphics modules as something to use on the road for example.

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Ambient Computing–a new trend

Article

Smart speakers like the Google Home are the baseline for the new concept of ambient computing

Lenovo see smart displays as a foundation for ambient computing | PC World

My Comments

A trend that is appearing in our online life is “ambient computing” or “ubiquitous computing”. This is where the use of computing technology is effective part of our daily lives without us having to do something specific about it.

One driver that is facilitating it is the use of voice-driven assistant technology like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant or Microsoft’s Cortana. It has manifested initially in mobile operating systems like Android or iOS but has come about more so with smart speakers of the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod kind along with Microsoft and Apple putting this functionality in to desktop operating systems like MacOS and Windows.

Lenovo Smart Display press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

as are smart displays of the Lenovo Smart Display kind

As well, Amazon and Google have licensed out front-end software for their voice-driven home assistants so that third-party equipment manufacturers can integrate this functionality in their consumer-electronics products. It also includes the availability of devices that connect to larger-screen TVs or higher-quality sound systems to use them as display or audio surfaces for these voice-driven assistants, even simply just to play audio or video content pulled up at the command of the user.

Lenovo underscored this with their current Smart Display products and the up-and-coming Smart Display products including a Lenovo Yoga Smart Tab which was premiered at IFA 2019 in Berlin. These are based on the Google Home platform and they were underscoring the role of these displays in ambient computing.

Another key driving factor is the Internet of Things which may be seen in the home context as lights, appliances and other devices connected to the home network and Internet. It doesn’t matter whether they connect to the IP-based home network directly or via a “home hub” device. These work with the various voice-driven home-assistant platforms as sensors or controlled devices or, in some cases, alternate control surfaces.

It extends beyond the home through interaction with various building-wide or city-wide services that relate to energy use, transport, personal security amongst other things.

The other key driver that is highlighted is the use of distributed computing or “the cloud” where the data is processed or presented in a manner that is made available via the Internet on any device. It can also include online services that present information or content at your fingertips from anywhere in the world. In some cases, there is the use of data aggregation to create a wider picture of what is going on.

What this all adds up to is the concept of an “information butler” that responds with information or content as you need it. This is underscored with ambient or ubiquitous computing that is not just a Silicon Valley buzzword but a real concept.

What does the concept of ambient or ubiquitous computing underscore?

Here it is the use of information technology in a manner that blends in with your lifestyle rather than being a separate activity. You interact with one or more of the endpoints while you undertake a regular daily task and this can be about showing up information you need or setting up the environment for that activity. It relies less on active participation by the end-user.

Ambient computing is adaptive in that it fits in and adapts to your changing needs. It is also anticipatory because it can anticipate future needs like, for example, changing the heating setting to cope with a change in the weather. It also demonstrates context awareness by recognising users and the context of their activity.

But ambient computing still has its issues. One key issue that is called out frequently is end-user privacy including protection of minor children when users interact with these systems. An article published by Intel underscores this in the context of simplifying the management of our privacy wishes with the various devices and online services through the use of “agent” software.

This also relates to data security for the infrastructure along with data sovereignty (which country the data resides in) due to issues like information theft and use of information by foreign governments.

Similarly, allowing ambient-computing environments to determine activities like what content you enjoy can be of concern. This is more important because you may choose particular content based on your values and what others who have similar tastes and values recommend. It can also lead to avoiding addiction to content that can be socially harmful or enforcing the consumption of a particular kind of content upon people at the expense of other content.

Another factor that can creep up if common data-interchange standards aren’t implemented is the existence of data “silos”. This is where an ambient computing environment is limited to hardware and software provided by particular vendors. It can limit competition in the provision of these services which can restrict the ability to innovate when it comes to developing these systems further.

But what is now being seen as important for our online life is the trend towards ubiquitous ambient computing that simply is part of our lives.

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Product Review–Brother VC-500W Colour Label Printer

I am reviewing the  Brother VC-500W colour thermal label printer which is the first label printer to implement colour direct-thermal printing. This was a machine I had previously covered when it was launched in to Europe due to its use of a direct-thermal colour printing process to turn out labels.

This is based on ZINK colour direct-thermal printing which was an R&D project within Polaroid to combine what their legendary SX-70 instant-camera platform was about with digital photography. But this effort was spun off as a separate entity which licensed it to different product manufacturers who primarily made pocket photo printers and similar devices. Polaroid even used this technology recently to create a digital instant camera that conveyed what their best-selling instant cameras were  about in to the digital world.

Brother VC-500W direct-thermal colour label printer

Connectivity

Touch control on Brother VC-500W colour direct-thermal label printer

Touch control on Brother VC-500W direct-thermal colour label printer.
Left touch panel glows blue for connection to a Wi-Fi network or white when it is its own access point.
Moving your finger in the ridge at the front while it is lit up cuts off the label

The Brother VC-500W colour label printer uses Wi-Fi for network connectivity. This is in addition to it using USB connectivity for regular computers. This can be as its own access point or as part of an extant Wi-Fi network. You can switch between these two modes by pressing the Wi-Fi button on the top left of the unit. If this button glows white, you are using it as its own access point which has the ESSID (network identifier) which starts with VC-500W. If the button glows blue, you have successfully connected it to an existing Wi-Fi network. As well, if the button is dark, the Wi-Fi functionality is disabled. This arrangement avoids situations where you don’t know if your printer switched to own-access-point mode or infrastructure mode on its own accord.

If you are not using Wi-Fi, you connect the Brother VC-500W colour label printer to a regular computer’s USB port using a supplied Type-A to Type-Micro-B cable. This will work with most regular computers as long as you download and install the Brother driver software from their Website.

This unit requires you to set it up as its own access point then log in to its own home page in order to configure it to work with an existing Wi-Fi network. Here, you press the Wi-Fi button until it turns white. Then you connect your regular computer or mobile device to this label printer by Wi-Fi to the ESSID that starts with VC-500W and has the last four digits of the unit’s serial number written on its underside. Then you point your Web browser to 192.168.0.1 and work through the online wizard to enrol it with the Wi-Fi network of choice.

Brother ZINK label roll installed in VC-500W direct thermal colour label printer

ZINK-based colour label roll installed in the printer

The existing-network Wi-Fi functionality is limited to the basic level of Wi-Fi network setup. Here, you can only connect it to a Wi-Fi network that is typically set up for home or small-business use with the WPA2-Personal (common Wi-Fi password) configuration. You can’t operate it on advanced enterprise networks or properly-configured public-access Wi-Fi. As well, this printer doesn’t support WPS push-button setup. As well, if you intend to take your printer between home and work and use it with the existing networks in both locations, you have to configure the printer to each network every time you start using it in that location.

From my experience, I had found that the software download and installation on both my Windows-based desktop computer and my Android phone worked according to plan.

Use

Colour label printed out of Brother VC-500W direct-thermal colour label printer

Colour label printed out by this label printer

I was using the Brother Color Label Editor which is available for iOS or Android on my Android-based smartphone to test the Brother VC-500W colour label printer out. Here, I found that like most newly-released devices, the printer needed to be brought up-to-date with the latest firmware.

The only form of driver-free app-free printing that this printer supports is for the Apple AirPrint platform and this only works with handling image files and PDF files.

The Brother P-Touch Editor and Color Label Editor software does take some time to get used to and both these applications that are supplied for use with this printer  The software is primarily pitched towards home users who create gift tags and the like where beauty is more important.

As well, it is as though the bar-code functionality on P-Touch Editor has been disabled for this printer which is a shame especially for small businesses who may want to create colour labels or ID tags that have machine-readable barcodes or want to use the QR code for something like Wi-Fi network details or Weblinks to be read by a smartphone’s QR-code reader. Here, you would have to use another program or Website to create the barcode then paste the image in to P-Touch Editor.

The colour output is mostly highly saturated and vivid which would suit most applications. Here, I am not thinking of high-quality photo reproduction but something of use to an ordinary household or small business who just wants colour labels.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

The Brother VC-500W colour label printer could implement WPS-PBC, Wi-Fi Easy Connect or similar technologies to permit a simplified Wi-Fi setup experience. As well, it could benefit from a mobile-platform app-based setup experience especially if intend to use it primarily with mobile devices. Support for Wi-Fi enterprise connectivity could go a long way towards having this machine appeal to the business community.

The fact that the Brother VC-500W is a very compact label printer which encourages us to take it between places could incite Brother to allow this printer to remember the configuration of preferably four or five Wi-Fi networks. This could encourage the ability for users to take it between places.

As for driver-free printing, Brother could add support for the Mopria standard in order to allow it to work with Android or Windows devices in that way.

Brother could see the use of ZINK technology come in to its own for direct-thermal colour transactional printing. If they were able to work with ZINK, they could share the knowledge that they built up with their PocketJet direct-thermal printers and making this medium more stable then lead towards improving the stability and longevity of ZINK-based documents. It can also extend to the idea of creating ZINK-based receipt/coupon printers for business applications where full-colour printing comes in to its own.

A wider-framed version of the Brother VC-500W that can take wider ZINK rolls could allow it to compete with the HP Sprocket and other ZINK-based photo printers. It can also open up increased use cases for colour labelling like personnel ID tags, cleanskin wine-bottle labelling amongst other applications.

The printer’s P-Touch software should be able to expose the business-focused printing abilities as well as the craft-focused printing abilities rather than limiting it to the craft-focused functionality. This can be important for people who value full-colour label and tag printing within the office especially if it is also about data-driven or barcode printing.

A question that also needs to be raised about the ZINK-based printing technology that this printer uses is the shelf life for consumables based on this technology. Here it may be about how long the rolls can exist whether within or out of their wrapping before they either print below par or jam up inside the printer. This is because of a reality where we would buy multiple sizes of the label tape to suit different printing needs and use each different one according to need.

Conclusion

I would see the Brother VC-500W Colour Label Printer satisfy most colour-labelling needs especially for householders who are using this kind of labelling for their personal crafts.

For example, I would see it come in to its own with people who are doing their own preserving and bottling and want to use personalised jar or bottle labels for those jars of jam, marmalade or something similar they are giving to their friends and family. In this case, the printer can be used with the CZ2005 50mm-wide roll of tape because they have a larger area for their graphics or photos.

It may also earn its keep in the education and allied sectors for creating unique and distinctive IDs for managing staff, students and other people who visit the premises.

In this case, I don’t really see the Brother VC-500W as being a “toy”. It also is a chance for Brother to exploit the ZINK technology for direct-thermal colour transactional printing applications.

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