Computer Accessories Archive

Major improvements expected to come to Bluetooth audio

Article

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar press picture courtesy of Creative Corporation

The Bluetooth connectivity that the Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar benefits from will be improved in an evolutionary way

The future of Bluetooth audio: Major changes coming later this year | Android Authority

My Comments

One of Bluetooth’s killer applications, especially for smartphones and tablets, is a wireless link between a headset, speaker or sound system to reproduce audio content held on the host computing device.

At the moment, the high-end for this use case is being fought strongly by some very determined companies. Firstly, Bose, Sony and Bang & Olufsen are competing with each other for the best active-noise-cancelling over-the-ear Bluetooth headset that you can use while travelling. This is while Apple and Sony are vying for top place when it comes to the “true-wireless” in-ear Bluetooth headset. It is showing that the Bluetooth wireless-audio feature is infact part of a desirable feature set for headphones intended to be used with smartphones, tablets or laptops.

Let’s not forget that recently-built cars and recently-made aftermarket car-stereo head units are equipped with Bluetooth for communications and multimedia audio content. This is part of assuring drivers can concentrate on the road while they are driving.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

.. just like headsets like this JBL one

But this technology is to evolve over the second half of 2019 with products based on the improved technology expected to appear realistically by mid 2020. Like with Bluetooth Low Energy and similar technologies, the host and accessory devices will be dual-mode devices that support current-generation and next-generation Bluetooth Audio. This will lead to backward compatibility and “best-case” operation for both classes of device.

There is an expectation that they will be offered at a price premium for early adopters but the provision of a single chipset for both modes could lead towards more affordable devices. A question that can easily be raised is whether the improvements offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio can be provided to current-generation Bluetooth hosts or accessory devices through a software upgrade especially where a software-defined architecture is in place.

What will it offer?

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

… like with the upcoming generation of smartphones

The first major feature to be offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio technology is a Bluetooth-designed high-quality audio codec to repackage the audio content for transmission between the host and accessory.

This is intended to replace the need for a smartphone or headset to implement third-party audio codecs like aptX or LDAC if the goal is to assure sound quality that is CD-grade or better. It means that the device designers don’t need to end up licensing these codecs from third parties which will lead to higher-quality products at affordable prices along with removing the balkanisation associated with implementing the different codecs at source and endpoint.

A question that will be raised is what will be the maximum audio quality standard available to the new codec – whether this will be CD-quality sound working up to 16-bit 48kHz sampling rate or master-quality sound working up to 24-bit 192kHz sampling rate. Similarly, could these technologies be implemented in communications audio especially where wide-bandwidth FM-grade audio is being added to voice and video communications technologies for better voice quality and intelligibility thanks to wider bandwidth being available for this purpose.

Another key improvement that will be expected is reduced latency to a point where it isn’t noticeable. This will appeal to the gaming headset market where latency is important because sound effects within games are very important as audio cues for what is happening in a game. It may also be of benefit if you are making or taking videocalls and use your Bluetooth headset to converse with the caller. Here, it will open up the market for Bluetooth-based wireless gaming headsets.

It will also open up Bluetooth audio towards the “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction applications where multiple endpoints like headsets or speakers receive the same audio stream from the same audio source. In these use cases, you can’t have any endpoint receiving the program material reproducing the material later than others receiving the same material.

A key application that will come about is to implement Bluetooth in a multiple-channel speaker setup including a surround-sound setup. This will be a very critical application due to the requirement to reproduce each channel of the audio content stream concurrently and in phase.

It will also legitimise Bluetooth as an alternative wireless link to Wi-Fi wireless networks for multiroom audio setups. As well, the support for “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction will appeal to headsets and hearing-aid applications where there is the desire to send content to many of these devices using a high-quality wireless digital approach rather than RF or induction-loop setups that may be limited in sound quality (in the case of induction-loop setups) or device compatibility (in the case of RF setups). There could even be the ability to support multiple audio-content channels in this setup such as supporting alternative languages or audio description. In some cases, it may open up a use case where transport announcements heard in an airport or rail station can “punch through” over music, video or game sound-effects heard over a Bluetooth headset in a similar way to European car radios can be set up to allow traffic bulletins to override other audio sources.

A question that can be raised with the “many-endpoint” approach that this next-generation Bluetooth-audio technology is to support is whether this can support different connection topologies. This includes “daisy-chaining” speakers so that they are paired to each other for, perhaps a multi-channel setup; using a “hub-and-spoke” approach with multiple headsets or speakers connected to the same source endpoint; or a combination of both topologies including exploiting mesh abilities being introduced to Bluetooth.

Conclusion

From next year, as the newer generations of smartphones, laptops, headsets and other Bluetooth-audio-capable equipment are released, there will be a gradual improvement in the quality and utility of these devices’ audio functions.

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Creative Labs introduces a desktop soundbar speaker as part of an entry-level soundbar range

Articles – From the horse’s mouth

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar press picture courtesy of Creative Corporation

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar

Creative Labs

Stage Air desktop soundbar (Product Page)

Stage soundbar (Product Page)

Press Release

My Comments

Creative Labs recently launched a small desktop soundbar that is being positioned as a viable single-piece alternative to the traditional computer speakers setup. If you did want a right-sized single-piece speaker setup for your computer, you would have used a small Bluetooth speaker or a boombox with a line input.

Here, it is being pitched towards desktop computer users who either are using an all-in-one desktop computer; or a traditional “three-piece” computer setup with the monitor, system unit and keyboard.

Creative Labs Stage soundbar press picture courtesy of Creative Corporation

Creative Labs Stage entry-level soundbar

This capitalises on Creative Labs pedigree in relationship to computer audio – who remembers themselves or a computer enthusiast they know installing a Sound Blaster sound card made by this firm in their computer through the years? It also includes their merger with Cambridge Soundworks who designed different “personal” speaker products advertised in American magazines through the 1990s.

This soundbar, known as the Stage Air, is a stereo device with a full-range speaker driver per channel along with a passive radiator to provide improved bass response. That speaker-arrangement technique had been used with some boomboxes made during the 1980s and 1990s as a way of improving their bass response in a power-efficient manner for portable applications. It is rated by Creative for 5 watts RMS per channel with a 20 watt peak output.

The Stage Air soundbar can fit underneath your computer monitor or all-in-one computer and connects to the host computer using a line-level connection with a 3.5mm stereo jack. But it has Bluetooth connectivity and a battery that can run for six hours on a charge allowing it to be a Bluetooth speaker for your laptop, tablet or smartphone. There is also the ability to connect a USB memory key to the Stage Air soundbar to have it play MP3 audio files held on that memory key.

There are controls on the speaker to regulate the volume so you don’t have to fuss around with your operating system’s sound icon to quickly adjust the sound. When it serves as your desktop speaker, you can have it normally powered by a USB power source like your computer or a USB charger.

From all of the material that I have read about this product, it is being pitched as something that can fill a small office or similar space with sound, something that would be akin to typical desktop computer speakers or a small boombox.

It is being offered as the junior brother to the Stage soundbar which has more power output and can fill a larger area with sound. Some press material even described this soundbar as being better than most low-priced entry-level soundbars. This unit uses a midrange speaker for each stereo channel and works alongside an external narrow-profile subwoofer for the bass.

This uses an infra-red remote control so you can select different frequency-response curves to adjust how it sounds. This has the Bluetooth and line-in connectivity but also has an optical input and HDMI-ARC TV connection, but it could also have an HDMI input so you can connect a video peripheral to it incase you displaced one that was connected to your TV’s ARC-enabled HDMI socket.

What I see of these products is that Creative Labs are filling in gaps for high-quality single-piece soundbar speakers that can answer your needs whether as something for your desktop or laptop computer or as an entry-level soundbar setup for your Smart TV.

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USB-C PD battery packs–are they worth it for your laptop?

Article

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

This Dell XPS 13 can be charged from a USB-C Power Delivery battery pack for long-haul use

The 10 Best Laptops You Can Charge With a Power Bank | MakeUseOf

List of USB-C Power Delivery chargable laptops | Wikipedia

My Comments

The USB-C connection and USB Power Delivery specification bas brought forward the idea of using a USB external battery pack a.k.a a USB powerbank for charging your laptop computer. This is in addition to using these battery packs for charging your smartphones or tablets.

For example, you could be using these battery packs to “stretch out” your laptop’s run-time while you are away from power, something you may be doing while playing a Civilization game on one of the new many-hour long-haul flights for example. Or you could simply charge up a laptop that has a battery that is depleted. It may also be of use where a battery inside the computer is nearing its end-of-life and is not likely to hold enough charge to permit use away from power.

Here, you have to look towards a USB-C PD-compliant battery pack which can put up at least 30 watts. For air travel, the battery pack would have to have the ideal battery capacity of 2600mAh because of air-transport limitations on lithium-ion batteries larger than 2700mAh for this class.

Features worth looking for include some USB-A connections for mobile phones and tablets along with another USB-C Power-Delivery-compliant connection. Having the two USB-C connections can allow you to charge the battery pack up while you are charging your laptop or running it from AC power – no need to carry extra chargers and travel adaptors with you.

This is mostly relevant to 13” laptops, 2-in-1s and similar devices. You may be able to get some more run-time out of larger-screen devices and other USB-C Power-Delivery devices if you don’t really expect to fully top up the battery in your computer.

The Dell XPS 13 in its clamshell and 2-in-1 forms as reviewed and covered extensively on this site can be charged from these battery packs. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon or Yoga variants can do this job as can the HP Spectre X2 detachable and the ASUS Zenbook 3. For gaming-grade performance, you can power the Razer Blade from one of these USB-C battery packs.

Mac users can rejoice with all of the USB-C-equipped Apple MacBook family able to he charged or powered from these external battery packs. Chrome OS users also can know that the Google Pixelbook and the Asus Chromebook Flip C302 can work from these same power sources.

The Wikipedia article will list more laptops that can work from a USB-C Power Delivery battery pack and there is a strong likelihood that newer iterations of the abovementioned computers will run from USB-C Power Delivery in this manner.

You may be able to work around the battery-power limit regarding these batteries if you take two or more USB-C PD battery packs that is within the limits but it is best to confirm these limits with your national government’s air-safety Website.

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Laptop screen protectors and privacy screens–are they worth their salt?

Article

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

A screen protector or privacy screen can be a valuable cost-effective accessory for that laptop

Do laptop screen protectors affect touchscreen sensitivity? | Windows Central

My Comment

An accessory that you could get for your own laptop computer or give to someone who owns one is a screen protector or privacy screen. These accessories are considered very affordable and you would be safe to give one as a gift for any occasion. It is not hard to come by these accessories, typically found in accessory departments of computer, consumer-electronics, office-supply or similar stores or available online through the likes of Amazon.

The screen protectors, typically made of plastic or tempered glass, protect the screen from scratches or dust. The plastic option is an economy option but it itself can be scratched and is not always likely to cover the whole of your screen as well as itself becoming a “dust magnet”. The glass option costs extra but is more damage resistant and will cover your screen fully. That is more important especially for tablets and 2-in-1s due to you interacting with the screen more frequently.

Privacy screens are a screen protector that uses a fresnel-lens approach thanks to polarisation to limit the viewing angle to directly in front of the screen. This is to prevent others who are sitting beside you from viewing what’s on your screen, but if a person is directly behind you, they can see what you are doing. It is good if you are using your computer to work on confidential material in a high-traffic area regularly like making use of that “second office” cafe or bar, or using it to do your work on public transport or while flying.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

This is more so with these 2-in-1 convertible laptops

You may expect to have reduced sensitivity from touchscreens or active-pen setups due to the extra material but this may be a slight effect. In some cases, a screen protector that has a textured surface may provide a better inking surface than using a glossy screen alone or a smooth-surfaced protector. This is more so if it has a paper-style texture.

When choosing a screen protector or privacy screen, pay attention to ease of installation and removal. This is important if you find that it doesn’t fit your computer properly or suit your needs or the screen becomes too dull as you use it. In some cases, you may find that particular screen protectors may fit a particular model of laptop rather than working for a particular generic screen size.

Something else you may may have to pay attention to is whether the screen protector does impact your computer’s screen brightness for comfortable use over its lifespan. This is more so if you have to increase the screen brightness which can have an impact on battery runtime. Let’s not forget how the automatic brightness functionality on some screens may be affected by the use of the screen protector and you may have to raise the brightness slightly.

Considering these points can allow you to choose the best value screen protector or privacy screen for your laptop or tablet so you can gain long-term use out of these accessories.

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USB-C Audio modes–something worth understanding for this new connector

Articles

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

There needs to be some work to make USB-C a worthwhile replacement for the 3.5mm audio jack on a smartphone

What you need to know about USB-C audio | Android Authority

My Comments

At the moment, the USB-C audio application case isn’t being implemented consistently across all mobile devices that rely solely on that connection form.

There are two operating modes – a “passive” accessory mode which creates inbound and outbound analogue audio paths as if it is a 3.5mm audio jack, and an “active” mode which uses USB Audio device classes and outboard digital-analogue audio circuitry to create the sound to be heard via the accessory.

Passive setups

The former passive setup is primarily exploited by USB-C jack adaptors and basic headset implementations, especially “earbud-style” headsets. Here, the host device which is typically the smartphone or tablet would use an onboard audio chipset to convert the sound between an analogue and digital representation.

If there is some form of remote control, a basic implementation may be in the form of a single button that starts and stops media or answers and ends calls. On the other hand, if the USB Human Interface Device specifications are implemented properly in mobile operating systems, it may allow for a device to support advanced multifunction remote control.

At the moment, it may be a case of trial-and-error to find out if a USB-C Audio passive-mode headset or adaptor will work across USB-C-equipped regular computers. So for, to my knowledge, recent iterations of the Apple MacBook lineup of laptops that use this connection will provide some support for this setup.

Active setups

The latter active setup would be targeted at premium or audiophile applications such as highly-strung USB digital-analogue adaptors, noise-cancelling headsets or headsets with highly-strung digital-analogue circuitry. In some cases, this setup may also support accessory devices that implement multiple-microphone arrays.

It may also apply to wired setups involving home or car audio equipment. In this case, one would be thinking of this kind of equipment providing digital-analogue interface, power to the host device and remote-control / accessory-display abilities.

Here, they have to fully implement the USB Audio Device Class 3 peripheral class as expected in the “textbook”. As well, iOS and Android need to provide a native class driver for this device class and implement its code as expected for a mobile device which will do communications and / or multimedia. This would mean that microphones have to be used as an audio endpoint for communications purposes including regular telephony as well as for multimedia purposes. It may be a non-issue with regular computers running the Windows or MacOS desktop operating systems where it is easier for the operating system or application software to “purpose” an audio endpoint.

USB Audio Device Class 3 provides inherent support for audio-processing so accessory manufacturers don’t need to reinvent the wheel by creating their own software to implement any sort of sound processing. As well, Android and iOS need to support the inclusion of audio-processing logic in the inbound or outbound audio-signal paths in a purpose-specific manner.

Power and connectivity

There will be power and connectivity issues raised for both implementations of the USB-C Audio application. Active devices will need to draw power from the host unless they have their own battery. But with proper implementation of USB-C Power Delivery, it could allow a USB-C Audio accessory with a very high capacity battery to provide power to the host smartphone.

The passive setup wouldn’t work properly with USB-C hubs or devices that have this function unless it is assured that the hub will assure a proper clean electrical connection between the host and the accessory.

Remote control and accessory display

Another issue yet to be raised is implementation of USB Human-Interface-Device Classes and Usage Tables when it comes to using a USB-C accessory as a control surface for the host. The key issue here is whether there is proper operating-system support especially in the mobile operating systems. In the same context, there will be a market requirement for the accessory device to be able to view host-device-held lists like call lists, message lists and track lists.

The functions considered relevant to this usage case would be sound volume and transport control (play / pause / next track / previous track / etc) for multimedia; and caller volume, microphone mute and call control for communications. Accessory-based display would also need to be factored in with USB-C audio adaptors and in-line remote-control modules which implement an LCD or OLED display.

There may be use cases where multiple remote control devices are used in the same setup, typically to offer complementary functionality. Examples of this may include a USB headset with elementary remote-control for volume and a single-button control for multimedia “start-stop” or call “answer-end” functionality; along with a display-equipped inline remote control which allows for track navigation or advanced call-control.

Broadcast-radio reception

There will also be an issue regarding use of the USB-C cable as an aerial (antenna) for broadcast-radio reception whether the tuner is built in to the smartphone or the accessory. It is because of a long-standing design factor for Walkman-type radios with separate headphones where the headphone cord served as the radio’s aerial. Similarly single-piece headphone-based personal radios implemented the headband as their aerial.

It also extends to the ability for mobile operating systems to control broadcast-radio tuners integrated within smartphones or accessories to the fullest extent possible. This would include preset-station management, “follow-this-station” operation for stations appearing at other broadcast locations, graphical identifiers amongst other things.

Conclusion

If the smartphone and audio-accessory industry wants us to think of using the USB-C connector as the point to connect all peripherals, they need iOS and Android to have full native USB Audio Device Class 3 support including support for advanced-audio modes. As well, the operating systems need to have USB Human Interface Device class support for remote-control and accessory display abilities. Similarly, there would have to be proper support for broadcast-radio operation with USB-C-based mobile-device setups.

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Product Review–Brother P-Touch PT-P710BT Bluetooth Label Printer

I am reviewing the Brother P-Touch PT-P710BT portable Bluetooth label printer which is designed to work alongside your smartphone or tablet as a label-printing solution. This is simply through the device talking with your smartphone or tablet via a Bluetooth link.

It can work with your regular computer like a laptop if you are using Brother’s labelling software and a Bluetooth connection, which would really come in handy for those of us who use a laptop computer.

Brother PT-P710BT portable Bluetooth label printer with smartphone

The label printer itself

I would describe the Brother PT-P701BT printer’s size as being compact – slightly larger than four cakes of soap stacked face-to-face. Here, it would be something that you could hold in the palm of your hand.

The label printer uses the TZ family of label tapes that are kept in special cassettes. This same family of label tapes is infact used across a large number of their label writers or Wi-Fi label printers in Brother’s stable. This can be of benefit when it comes to ordering supplies for these machines.

Setup

Bluetooth PT-P710BT Bluetooth label printer

The labels come out of this side

It runs on its own replaceable rechargeable battery. Here, this battery is charged by you connecting this printer to a USB charger using a Micro-USB cable like you would with most open-frame smartphones or Bluetooth accessories. Or you could use this same cable to connect the printer to a Windows or MacOS regular computer so you can use Brother’s P-Touch Editor software to create labels.

The setup process to make it work with your Bluetooth-equipped computer or mobile device is that you have to hold down the power button to make the printer discoverable. Then you use the host device’s operating system to find the printer as a new Bluetooth device, similar to what you would do with a Bluetooth headset. It didn’t take long for me to pair this device up with my Android smartphone.

Brother PT-P710BT portable Bluetooth label printer with TZE label tape in place

Brother PT-P710BT portable Bluetooth label printer with TZE label tape in place

When I use this printer with my Windows 10 computer, I found it easier to set the Brother PT-P710BT printer to work as a USB label printer rather than with Bluetooth. It would be achieved by connecting the printer to the host computer using a USB Type-A to USB Type-microB cable or USB Type-C to USB Type-microB cable depending on the connection the host computer has. This is because there wasn’t the software support to allow a proper Bluetooth connection between the host computer and the printer.

Use

I used this label printer to label the fuel tank of a small engine to remind its user of whether to use petrol or 2-stroke mix with this engine. Here, I used the iPrint&Label app on my Samsung Android smartphone and it didn’t take long to turn out that label although I would like to see that app have a quick opportunity to “clear the canvas” on any new setup. The resulting label then came out sharp and clear.

Limitations

Brother could take advantage of various enhanced Bluetooth-peripheral setup experiences such as NFC-based “tap-and-go” pairing for Android phones for Bluetooth label printers and similar peripherals. They could also support the Bluetooth “fast pairing” setup experience being put forward by Apple, Google and Microsoft including, where applicable, the ability to lead users to install the extra software needed to get the most out of the device. This would also include the ability for this printer to work properly with a MacOS or Windows regular computer that is connected to it by Bluetooth, something that would be valued by those of us who use highly-portable computers like laptops.

As well, I would like to have the ability for the Brother P-Touch PT-P710BT label printer be able to operate while connected to the USB power source rather than use that source just for battery charging even if the battery is being charged or at full capacity. This could allow for battery energy conservation while you are at home or in a vehicle, or cater towards using a USB power bank with more battery capacity for longer field projects. Such a state could be indicated with the battery charging LED glowing green while the unit is switched on and connected to a USB source to indicate operation from external power and glowing yellow to indicate that the battery is charging.

To avoid confusion, I would personally like to see the Power LED glow steady while the printer is on and connected to a host device whether by Bluetooth or USB. Then have it glow yellow to indicate that it is discoverable by a Bluetooth host and flash during the pairing-up phase. Having a light that flashes regularly on a device can be seen to be an indication of a fault or warning condition rather than normal operation.

Conclusion – Is it a tool or a toy?

I would position the Brother PT-P710BT Bluetooth label printer as a basic label printer for those of us who use highly-portable computing equipment especially smartphones and always want to use it while “on the go”. Here, I value the ability to provide wireless connectivity without the need to worry about Wi-Fi network issues. It may not work well for team-based work where multiple-host-device connectivity is essential such as for work teams.

It is easy to see this labeller as a toy but for most of us who want to use our “many-function” smartphones to the hilt, it could be seen as a highly-portable tool. This is more so if we are wanting something that is highly compact and ready to go.

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Brother offers to Europeans a full-colour thermal label printer

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Brother Europe

Brother VC-500W full-colour label printer press picture courtesy of Brother Europe

Brother VC-500W full-colour label printer

VC-500W Full-Colour Label Printer

Product Page (EU – English, UK)

My Comments

Brother is offering to the European market the VC-500W compact thermal label printer as a full-colour label printing solution. It is being pitched at applications like colour-coded labels, labels with multi-colour company logos or employee/visitor security badges that use full-colour photos. In the UK, Brother were even pitching the printer not just as a business tool but as part of home-based craftwork and hobbies – think of labelling those jars of marmalade, jam or other preserved fruits you make and give as gifts.

It is while some of the other printer brands are releasing at least one model of full-colour compact label printer using inkjet printing or some other compact full-colour printing technology. The question about full-colour small-form (label / receipt / ticket) printing is whether it is a real business tool or simply a toy, especially where the technologies will become initially expensive to buy and use.

This label printing system is based on the ZINK thermal printing system that Polaroid developed in the 1990s. But ZINK was mainly used for compact photo printers and digital cameras with integrated printers in order to share hard-copy prints of digital snapshots “there and then” like with Polaroid’s instant-camera legacy. Here, this used the direct-thermal printing process but uses the heat-pulse length and intensity to bring up particular colours.

A question that can be raised about the use of ZINK technology is how long the printed labels will keep their same colour before they deteriorate. It also includes whether how long unused rolls of the ZINK-based label tape for this printer can stay unused before they print below par or jam up in the label printer.

This printer uses the P-Touch software for regular Windows or MacOS computers or uses a special colour label-printing app for iOS and Android. It can link to the host computer device via USB or Wi-Fi whether directly or via an extent Wi-Fi network. It can work with a range of label widths up to 50mm and each label roll comes with 5m worth of full-colour label tape.

Brother could also take the ZINK technology further by implementing it in A4/Letter page sizes to create a highly compact mobile colour printer of the same ilk as the “PocketJet” mobile printers. Here, the issue of long-term archiveability for ZINK-based colour printouts would have to be tested for it to have business value. But it could be considered acceptable for applications where full colour is required in transactional printouts like work quotes.

As Brother slowly releases the VC-500W full-colour label printer around the world, it could be a chance to prove to home and business users real use case for full-colour small-form printing rather than it just being a toy.

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Midget stereo amplifiers–could they be today’s equivalent of those early low-power “general-purpose” amplifiers?

There has been a consistent range of affordable stereo amplifiers and receivers offered from the 1960s onwards that weren’t about high output levels or audiophile-level sound output quality. Here, they were about playing music from what was fed through them and yielding a decent-enough sound through a set of modestly-priced speakers.

Typically they were sold as something to have as the heart of your first multi-piece hi-fi system whether the system was with source equipment and speakers that you chose or as part of an affordable stereo-system package offered by the manufacturer. In some cases, the circuitry in some of these amplifiers has been integrated in one or more of the premium single-piece or three-piece stereo systems offered by that manufacturer.

Examples of these ranged from the Australian-built valve-based Cosmos stereo integrated amplifier that was sold through the Encel hi-fi store during the late 60s and early 70s, through affordably-priced Realistic stereo receivers sold by Tandy / Radio Shack through the 70s and 80s to the “micro” component systems that most of the Japanese hi-fi names launched through the early 1980s. This class of amplifier or receiver also represented the equipment that was offered at the lower end of a manufacturer’s product range.

In a lot of cases, these amplifiers and receivers were typically used as the heart of an elementary stereo system like one’s first hi-fi setup or a secondary hi-fi setup. Then the user’s needs would change towards using a better amplifier and these amplifiers ended up being used with a pair of cheap speakers to amplify sounds like game sound effects from a multimedia-capable computer.

But lately this practice has shown up again with the likes of Lepai, Topping and others who implement very small stereo integrated amplifiers that work effectively on a single chipset for both channels. Some of these amplifiers may have extra functionality like a phono stage, a digital-analogue converter, or a USB or Bluetooth interface as part of that same chipset or as another chipset that presents a line-level signal. But typically they are sold through different online stores as well as some specialist electronics outlets or hi-fi stores.

Here, these amplifiers are based on a TriPath “Class T” circuit design or a similar design which is based on the Class D switch-mode amplification approach that has allowed for highly-compact audio amplifiers. That is due to the ability to work with low current demands as well as not yielding excess waste heat.

Why are these amplifiers showing up again? Here, the low power output and the small circuit size has allowed for a very small footprint and one could easily connect them to low-powered speakers of which many are in circulation. One of the reasons this has This is brought about through affordable three-piece stereo systems that had given up the ghost and the speakers associated with these systems are seen as of value with a low-power amplifier.

There is also the fact that most, if not all, of the stereo speakers made before the 1970s were engineered for amplifiers which had low power outputs thanks to valve (tube) or early solid-state circuit designs that couldn’t achieve high output power. In this situation, these speakers including the floor-standing types were designed for maximum efficiency and an ideal tonal response while better amplifiers were designed for improved sound clarity.

A common application that these midget amplifiers are being put towards is to become an audio amplifier for your computer’s sound infrastructure. This is seen as being better than a lot of budget-priced active speakers pitched towards computer users which aren’t seen as offering high-quality sound.

Personally I would still value a stereo system based around these amplifiers as another direction towards a cost-effective music system where you don’t want memories of the gaudy 90s.

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Fingerprint scanning now available as a reasonably-priced add-on for your computer

Article

Fujitsu Lifebook S-Series SH771 trackpad and fingerprint reader

Fingerprint readers like what this Fujitsu laptop is equipped with are now available at a reasonable price for your existing computer

Best fingerprint scanners that let you use Windows Hello on older PCs | Windows Central

My Comments

I have reviewed a significant number of laptop computers, usually business-grade laptops, that have come with integrated fingerprint readers. This is a feature that is becoming common with premium and business-grade laptops but is also showing up on premium-grade smartphones and tablets.

Here, this allows you to scan your finger to log in to your device, with it able to be used as an additional authentication factor or as the only authentication factor. During my tenure with the various fingerprint-reader-equipped laptops, I set things up so that I log in to these computers using my fingerprint and this provided an effectively simplified but secure login experience to the system and online services like Facebook.

But you can have this with your existing Windows computer thanks to add-on fingerprint scanners that are reasonably priced. Similarly a fingerprint-reader attachment may be the answer if your have a computer with an integrated fingerprint reader but this has failed or has compatibility issues with Windows 10.

Previously, purchasing a fingerprint scanner for your desktop or existing laptop was about buying a piece of overpriced hardware pitched for larger enterprises who care about their security. As well, there was the risk of compatibility issues with these devices and the operating system.

Now these reasonably-priced devices called out in the Windows Central article are designed to work out of the box with Windows 10 especially with its class drivers and Hello simplified-login functionality. In most cases, these devices are a single-piece device that plugs in to the host computer’s USB port. This can work well for most laptop users and could work well with a desktop computer if you use a USB hub or a directly-connected peripheral that has USB hub functionality and at least one USB port flush with its outer surface.

The BIO-Key EcoID device exists on the end of a USB cable which would be a boon for desktop users but may be considered as something that gets in the way for laptop users. It also has the one-touch scan setup which is a similar user experience to what happens for smartphones or recent-issue laptops like the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook.

All of these USB fingerprint readers listed in the article are available through Amazon with most of them retailing for between AUD$30-AUD$45 per unit. At least it is a way to set up your existing Windows 10 computer for one-touch secure logon without needing to fork out for a business-grade laptop. You also then have that same level of security if you bought a business-grade laptop with this feature but you want to equip your desktop PC or gaming rig with this level of security.

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A portable adaptor now exists to allow you to use Bluetooth headphones wirelessly with any audio device

Article

AirFly connects your AirPods to anything with a headphone jack | Engadget

Twelve South Debuts New ‘AirFly’ Wireless Transmitter for Using AirPods With In-Flight Entertainment Systems | MacRumors

From the horse’s mouth

TwelveSouth

AirFly Product Page

Use-case video – click or tap to play

My Comments

A reality that can easily surface with Bluetooth headsets like the Apple AirPods range or the JBL E45BT that I just reviewed is that you may want to use them wirelessly with any audio device.

An example of this would include using a Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro with the in-flight entertainment system during your flight but without dealing with headset cables that become tangled with your seat’s lift-up armrest or your seatbelt.

Or you work out at a fitness centre that uses an audio-distribution setup to pass TV sound or a workout-music mix to headphone jacks installed in the treadmills and similar machines so you can hear this sound through a pair of connected headphones. Here, you may want to use the Apple AirPods or your favourite lightweight Bluetooth headset to hear the TV audio or workout-music mix without ruining your headphones due to pulling on the headphone cable during that vigorous workout.

Similarly, you want to watch some late-night TV but don’t want to disturb other people who are sleeping. Here, using Bluetooth headphones with your existing TV equipment may be the dream come true because you could relax as comfortably as possible without worrying about that headphone cable connected between your TV and your headphones.

As well, you may want to use a Walkman device that plays legacy media like cassettes or CDs or a file-based audio player like an iPod to listen to music but maintain the cable-free manner associated with Bluetooth headphones.

Here, Twelve South have introduced the “AirFly” which is a compact Bluetooth audio adaptor that connects to any audio source equipped with the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. This battery-operated device presents itself as a Bluetooth A2DP audio source device to stream the sound from the host device to your Bluetooth headphones.

The AirFly is being pitched as a companion accessory to Apple’s AirPod range of intra-aural Bluetooth headsets and is the same size as the charging case that comes with these headsets. But it can work with any Bluetooth headset or audio adaptor compliant to the Bluetooth A2DP target-device profile. As well, this size is catering to portable applications like travel, gyms and the like.

It uses an integrated rechargeable battery that is expected to run for eight hours and this was proven in the Engadget review when the reviewer used it with a pair of Apple AirPods on an eight-hour transatlantic flight.

The setup process is very simple through the use of push-button pairing. Here, you just have to press the setup button on the AirFly device for 10 seconds to make it discoverable. Then you put the headphones in to “pairing” mode as if to enrol them with a new device. After this procedure is complete, you are ready to connect the AirFly to the device you want to wirelessly hear through your Bluetooth headphones.

The AirFly can also be part of a multipoint setup if your Bluetooth headset supports multipoint operation which most recently-issued headsets do. This will mean that you can still monitor your smartphone for calls through your Bluetooth headphones while you are, for example, watching a TV program and listening to its sound through those same headphones.

A question that may come about with the AirFly Bluetooth audio adaptor is how it will perform with Walkman-type portable radios that rely on the headphone cable as their antenna when you use these radios as an audio source. Here, it may not be able to perform that antenna functionality properly thanks to the short cable that is supplied with it, therefore the Walkman-type radio may not pull in the radio stations properly.

But what is being shown up here is the idea of a highly-portable Bluetooth audio-source adaptor that can stream an audio source through any Bluetooth headset or audio device.

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