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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What is infrastructure-level competition and why have it?

Fibre optic cable trench in village lane - press picture courtesy of Gigaclear

Gigaclear underscores the value of infrastructure-level competition

An issue that will be worth raising regarding the quality of service for newer high-speed fixed-line broadband services is the existence of infrastructure-level competition.

When we talk of infrastructure for a fixed-line Internet service, we are talking of copper and/or fibre-optic cabling used to take this service around a neighbourhood to each of the customers’ premises.

Then each premises has a modem of some sort, that in a lot of cases is integrated in the router, which converts the data to a form that makes it available across its network. A significant number of these infrastructure providers will supply the modem especially if they cannot provide a “wires-only” or “bring your own modem” service due to the technology they are implementing and, in a lot of these cases, will legally own the modem.

In Europe, Australia and some other countries, this broadband infrastructure is provided by an incumbent telco or an infrastructure provider and multiple retail-level telecommunications and Internet providers lease capacity on this infrastructure to provide their services to the end-user. This is compared to North America where an infrastructure provider exclusively provides their own retail-level telecommunications and Internet services to end users via their infrastructure.

In a lot of cases where multiple retail telecommunications and Internet providers use the same infrastructure, the incumbent telco may be required to divest themselves of their fixed-line infrastructure to a separate privately-owned or government-owned corporation in order to satisfy a competitive-service requirement. This means that they cannot provide a retail Internet or telecommunications service over that infrastructure at a cost advantage over competitors offering the same service over the same infrastructure. Examples of this include Openreach in the UK, NBN in Australia and Chorus in New Zealand.

A problem with having a dominant infrastructure provider is that there is a strong risk of this provider  offering to retail telecommunications providers and their end-users poor value for money when it comes to telecommunications and Internet services. It also can include this provider engaging in “redlining” which is the practice of providing substandard infrastructure or refusing to provide any infrastructure to neighbourhoods that they don’t perceive as being profitable like those that are rural or disadvantaged.

Some markets like the UK and France implement or encourage infrastructure-level competition where one or more other entities can lay their own infrastructure within urban or rural neighbourhoods. Then they can either run their own telecommunications and Internet services or lease the bandwidth to other companies who want to provide their own services.

Infrastructure-level competition

Where infrastructure-level competition exists, there are at least two different providers who provide street-based infrastructure for telecommunications and Internet service. The providers may run their own end-user telecommunications and Internet services using this infrastructure and/or they simply lease the bandwidth provided via this infrastructure to other retail Internet providers to provide these services to their customers.

Some competitors buy and use whatever “dark fibre” that exists from other previous fibre-optic installations to provide this service. Or they provide an enterprise communications infrastructure for government or big business in a neighbourhood but use dark fibre or underutilised fibre capacity from this job for offering infrastructure-level competition in that area.

As well, larger infrastructure operators who pass many premises in a market may be required to open up their infrastructure to telcos and Internet service providers that compete with their retail offering. This is something that ends up as a requirement for a highly-competitive telecommunications environment.

This kind of competition allows a retail-level telco or ISP to choose infrastructure for their service that offers them best value for money. This is more important for those retail-level ISPs and telcos who offer telecommunications and Internet to households and small businesses. As well, whenever a geographic area like a rural neighbourhood or new development is being prepared for high-speed broadband Internet, it means that the competing infrastructure providers are able to offer improved-value contracts for the provision of this service in that area.

Infrastructure-level competition also allows for the retail-level providers to innovate in providing their services without needing to risk much money in their provision. It can allow for niche providers such as high-performance gaming-focused ISPs or telcos that offer triple-play services to particular communities.

There is also an incentive amongst infrastructure providers to improve their customer service and serve neighbourhoods that wouldn’t otherwise be served. It is thanks to the risk of retail ISPs or their customers jumping to competitors if the infrastructure provider doesn’t “cut the mustard” in this field. As well, public spending on broadband access provision benefits due to the competition for infrastructure tenders for these projects.

What needs to happen

Build-over conditions

An issue commonly raised by independent infrastructure providers who are the first to wire-up a neighbourhood is the time they have exclusive access to that market. It is raised primarily in the UK by those independent infrastructure providers like Gigaclear or community infrastructure co-operatives like B4RN who have engaged in wiring up a rural community with next-generation fibre-optic broadband whether out of their pocket or with financial assistance from local government or local chambers of commerce.

This is more so where an established high-profile infrastructure provider that has big-name retail Internet providers on its books hasn’t wired-up that neighbourhood yet or is providing a service of lower capability compared to the independent provider who appeared first. For these independent operators, it is about making sure that they have a strong profile in that neighbourhood during their period of exclusivity.

Then, when the established infrastructure provider offers an Internet service of similar or better standard to the independent provider, the situation is described as a “build-over” condition. It then leads to the independent provider becoming a infrastructure-level competitor against the established provider which may impinge on cost recovery as far as the independent’s infrastructure is concerned. Questions that will come up include whether the independent operator should be compensated for loss of exclusivity in the neighbourhood, or allowing a retail ISP or telco who used the independent’s infrastructure to offer their service on the newcomer’s infrastructure.

Pits, Poles and Pipes

Another issue that will be raised is the matter of the physical infrastructure that houses the cable or fibre-optic wiring i.e. the pits, poles and pipes. These may be installed and owned by the telecommunications infrastructure provider for their own infrastructure or they may be installed and owned by a third-party operator like a utility or local council.

The first issue that can be raised is whether an infrastructure provider has exclusive access to particular physical infrastructure and whether they have to release the access to this infrastructure to competing providers. It doesn’t matter whether the infrastructure provider has their own physical infrastructure or gains access rights to physical infrastructure provided by someone else like a local government or utility company.

The second issue that also can crop up is access to public thoroughfares and private property to install and maintain infrastructure. This relates to legal access powers that government departments in charge of the jurisdiction’s regulated thoroughfares like roads and rails may provide to the infrastructure provider; or the wayleaves and easements negotiated between property owners and the infrastructure provider. In the context of competitive service, this may be about whether or not an easement, for example, is exclusive to a particular infrastructure provider.

Sustainable competition

Then there is the issue of sustainable competition within the area. This is where the competitors and the incumbent operator can make money by providing infrastructure-level Internet service yet the end-users have the benefits of a highly-competitive market. A market with too much competition can easily end up with premature consolidation where various retail or infrastructure providers cease to exist or end up merging.

Typically the number of operators that can sustainably compete may he assessed on the neighbourhood’s adult population count or the number of households and businesses within the neighbourhood. Also it can be assessed on the number of households and businesses that are actually taking up the broadband services or likely to do so in that neighbourhood.

Retail providers having access to multiple infrastructure providers

An issue that will affect retail-level telcos and ISPs is whether they have access to only one infrastructure operator or can benefit from access to multiple operators. This may be an issue where the infrastructure operators differ in attributes like maximum bandwidth or footprint and a major retail-level operator want to benefit from these different attributes.

In one of these situations, a retail-level broadband provider who wants to touch as many markets as possible may use one infrastructure provider for areas served by that provider. Then they use other providers that serve other areas that their preferred infrastructure provider doesn’t touch yet. This may also apply if they want to offer service plans with a particular specification offered by an infrastructure provider answering that specification but competing with the infrastructure provider they normally use.

Multiple-premises developments

Then there is the issue of multiple-premises buildings and developments where there is a desire to provide this level of service competition for the occupants but offer it in a cost-effective manner.

This may be answered by each infrastructure provider running their own wiring through the building but this approach leads to multiple wires and points installed at each premises. On the other hand, an infrastructure cable of a particular kind could be wired through the building and linked using switching / virtual-network technology to different street-side infrastructures. This could be based on cable technology like VDSL, Ethernet or fibre-optic so that infrastructure providers who use a particular technology for in-building provision use the infrastructure relating to that technology.

Estate-type developments with multiple buildings may have questions raised about them. Here, it may be about whether the infrastructure is to be provided and managed on a building-level basis or a development-wide basis. This can be more so where the multiple-building development is to be managed during its lifetime as though it is one entity comprising of many buildings.

Then there is the issue of whether the governing body of a multiple-premises development should be required to prevent infrastructure-provider exclusivity. This can crop up where an infrastructure provider or ISP pays the building manager or governing body of one of these developments to maintain infrastructure exclusivity perhaps by satisfying the governing body’s Internet needs for free for example.

In all of these cases, it would be about making sure that each premises in a multiple-premises development is able to gain access to the benefits of infrastructure-level competition.

Conclusion

The idea of infrastructure-level competition for broadband Internet is to be considered of importance as a way to hold dominant infrastructure providers to account. Similarly, it can be seen as a way to push proper broadband Internet service in to underserved areas whether with or without public money.

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Germany to instigate the creation of a European public cloud service

Article

Map of Europe By User:mjchael by using preliminary work of maix¿? [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Europe to have one or more public cloud services that respect European sovereignty and values

Germany to Unveil European Cloud to Rival Amazon, Alibaba | ITPro Today

France, Germany want more homegrown clouds to pick from | ITNews (Premium)

My Comments

Germany is instigating a European-wide project to create a public cloud-computing service.  As well, France is registering intent in this same idea but of creating another of these services.

Both countries’ intention is to rival what USA and Asia are offering regarding public-cloud data-processing solutions. But, as I have said before, it is about having public data infrastructure that is sovereign to European laws and values. This also includes the management and dissemination of such data in a broad and secure manner.

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

… which could also facilitate European software and data services like what is offered through the Freebox Delta

The issue of data sovereignty has become of concern in Europe due to the USA and China pushing legislation to enable their governments to gain access to data held by data service providers that are based in those countries. This is even if the data is held on behalf of a third-party company or hosted on servers that are installed in other countries. The situation has been underscored by a variety of geopolitical tensions involving especially those countries such as the recent USA-China trade spat.

It is also driven by some European countries being dissatisfied with Silicon Valley’s dominance in the world of “as-a-service” computing. This is more so with France where there are goals to detach from and tax “GAFA” (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) due to their inordinate influence in consumer and business computing worlds.

or BMW’s voice-driven assistant for in-car infotainment

Let’s not forget that Qarnot in France has designed computers that put their waste heat to use for heating rooms or creating hot water in buildings. This will appeal to a widely-distributed data-processing setup that could be part of public cloud-computing efforts.

Questions that will crop up with the Brexit agenda when Europe establishes this public cloud service will include British data sovereignty if data is held on the European public cloud or whether Britain will have any access or input into this public cloud.

Airbus A380 superjumbo jet wet-leased by HiFly at Paris Air Show press picture courtesy of Airbus

… just like this Airbus A380 superjumbo jet shows European prowess in aerospace

Personally I could see this as facilitating the wider creation of online services by European companies especially with the view to respecting European personal and business values. It could encompass ideas like voice-driven assistant services, search engines, mapping and similar services for consumers or to encourage European IT development.

Could this effort that Germany and France put forward be the Airbus or Arianespace of public-cloud data services?

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PAX 2019–Indie games gaining a strong appeal

Previous Coverage about the indie gaming segment

Untitled Goose Game on Alienware stand at PAX 2019

Untitled Goose Game ends up as one of the feature games to demo computer gaming hardware at PAX 2019

Alaskan fables now celebrated as video games

Two ways to put indie games on the map

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

My Comments

When I visited the PAX 2019 gaming exhibition in Melbourne, I had noticed a distinct interest and appeal towards the indie game sector as distinct from the mainstream AAA+ games sector. This became of interest thanks to Untitled Goose Game becoming the talk of the town as a strong example. As well, the Victorian Government was using this show to showcase games that are developed locally as part of using public arts funding to support this kind of game development.

Here I had noticed a significant number of approaches to how these games worked. One game I had noticed was what would be called a Web game or browser game that can play within a Web browser. This method was a common approach for online games sites like Miniclip or games offered by Facebook and co as part of their platform.

I had talked to some of the games developers in this class of game and they noticed that the games exhibited modest performance requirements. It was true of the games that were written to be native to the host device’s operating system. This would mean that they could be played on a business laptop or home computer that has an integrated graphics infrastructure and baseline RAM.

But most of the laptops that were being used to play these games were connected to AC power rather than working on battery power. Here, I raised the issue with one of the game developers about their games’ power-requirements and optimising them to run efficiently especially if the laptop is to be run on battery power, and they concurred. One use case regarding power efficiency for games I was thinking of are overseas travellers who want to while away a long flight playing one of these games.

Similarly, these games are able to be played casually. That is to be able to provide enjoyable gameplay over short or long sessions whereas a significant number of popular AAA+ games tend to require long intense playing sessions. As well, a lot of the indie games appeal to a wide audience including those that are easily pushed out of video gaming like women or older people.

The indie games also don’t convey aggressive or highly-competitive ideals which do increase their appeal to parents and others who are concerned about what is conveyed in most of the popular video games on the market. This factor is becoming very important due to an increasing awareness about social values and how popular culture respects them with it impacting on how we consume media.

A situation that a lot of these developers do face when writing their games for the console platforms or porting an existing title that way is the tight requirements. Here, they have to make sure that the game handles all error conditions including if a controller is disconnected mid-play. There is also the requirement for the game to be playable with a handheld controller that uses one or two D-pads, a joystick and mapped buttons.

These points are highlighting the key differences that the indie game scene is about where a distinctly different vibe exists compared to the AAA+ video games offered by the mainstream game publishers. This is very similar to what is seen with film where the art-house and independent movies carry a different vibe to what the Hollywood blockbuster movies offer.

Keeping the indie gaming scene continuously alive and maintaining the existence of standalone independent games studios around the world can then allow for a diverse range of games that appeal to a wide range of tastes.

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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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