We’ve clearly hit a point in our technological evolution where we have begun to see the presence of wired connections (whether for data or for power) as an annoyance and not as a critical component of our gadgets.
We crave a life where all of our tech toys can talk to each other wirelessly and – dare we dream – charge themselves wirelessly too.
And while the wireless charging scenario is still a few years from becoming mainstream, wireless data is here and it is rapidly gaining a foothold amongst most of our devices.
Our smartphones, our tablets, our laptops and even the speakers we use to listen to music both at home and on-the-go are all equipped with Bluetooth and/or Wi-fi capability, so why not our hard drives?
Toshiba is tackling this question with their Canvio AeroMobile Wireless SSD ($179). It’s a 128 GB solid-state wireless hard drive that can accept up to 8 simultaneous client connections via Wi-Fi e.g. smartphones, tablets, laptops etc. But it also contains a built-in battery and an SD card reader, which makes the Canvio AeroMobile a nearly perfect wireless data companion.
Over the years, we’ve seen a whole lot of innovation in computing. Faster processors, smaller form factors, touch-screen inputs and wireless data. All of these have had a profound impact on how and where we use technology. And as important as all of these advances have been, nothing has changed our fundamental relationship to these devices as much as improvements to their displays.
Displays are at the heart of how we perceive–and ultimately use—all of our computers, be it the biggest, most powerful desktop or the smallest of smartwatches. It’s the reason that new display technology always leaves me saying “wow.” That was my reaction when I saw my first high-res graphics monitor, when I saw my first colour LCD display and most recently, when I looked upon Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad. These technologies really enhance our use and enjoyment of computers.
So when I was offered the chance to try out ASUS’s PB287Q, one of the first reasonably priced 4K displays on the market, I jumped at the chance.
If there’s one thing that nearly every smartphone and tablet has in common, it’s this: dreadful sound quality from the built-in speakers.
Yes, I know some possess stereo speakers, and there’s certainly a case to be made that when privately watching a video on an iPad in a quiet room, the sound is sufficient enough to be enjoyed.
But the bottom line for speakers is similar to the bottom line for car engines: there’s just no substitute for cubic inches (er, centimetres).
So it’s no wonder that in recent months a whole new category of products has emerged to help consumers with their tiny (and tinny) device speakers. We are now living in the age of Bluetooth Hi-Fi and there are several ways you can use this wireless technology to amp up the performance of your favourite media gadget.
The first is by using a Bluetooth gateway device like the BlackBerry Music Gateway – a diminutive black box that simply relays the audio signal from your phone or tablet to the system of your choice. It’s simple, cheap ($49) and effective. But it’s not portable (you’ll still need to plug it in) and it’s a one-trick pony. Streaming audio is all it does.
The second option is one of the large Bluetooth-capable speaker systems like the Parrot Zikmu. It’s gorgeous, and likely has sound that compares to many high end speakers, but again portability is not really a strength and they don’t come cheap – a pair will run you $1599.
Finally, there are the truly portable, battery powered units that are small enough to fit in nearly any travel bag, yet big enough to deliver much better sound than your built-in speakers.
The Braven 600 is one of these products, and at $149 it’s the perfect compromise between the trio of considerations: price/performance/portability.
The first thing the Braven 600 reminded me of (and I’m dating myself here) is the speaker in Bosley’s office that Charlie used to speak with his Angels in the hit 70s TV show, Charlie’s Angels. The Braven’s all-aluminum wrap-around body is perforated by small holes on both sides, much like the speaker Charlie Townsend’s voice emanated from.
The similarity might not be entirely in the mind of this writer – the Braven 600 is in fact a speaker phone as well as being a wireless stereo speaker. The elegant design lends itself just as well to a boardroom table as it does to a living room, or anywhere else for that matter.
Braven claims that the 600’s battery life is good for about 12 hours of streaming which should be more than enough for times when you’ll need it to be fully unplugged. The battery life is so good, the Braven can also be used as an auxiliary power source for your phone, or any other gadget that be recharged via conventional USB. The company suggests that an average smartphone could get back up to about 70% from empty. Not a bad trick.
As if that weren’t enough, the Braven has one more trick up its sleeve. Remember how the BlackBerry Music Gateway can let you stream music from your device to any piece of audio equipment you own? Surprise: the Braven 600 can do that too, thanks to its audio output jack – a feature that may well be unique in this category.
So how does it sounds? Well, I’m not gonna lie – it’s not going to replace your home theatre system. But it does sound very good for such a small speaker. My experience was that it favoured “brightness” and clarity over low-end bass, but not to a degree that it sounded flat or tinny. Interestingly, vocals seemed to be it’s strong suit, again perhaps not a surprise given its second life as a speaker phone.
But what good is listening to a speaker like the Braven 600 without a point of comparison? Sadly, I didn’t have the Braven’s closest competitor, the Jawbone JamBox to do a side-by-side comparison. So I did the next best thing and hit up YouTube. Sure enough, I found this video from Gear Diary which, while not the ideal way to audition speakers, at least gives one the rough idea. Clearly the Braven more than holds its own when put up against the more expensive and less fully-featured JamBox.
The Braven comes packaged in large, clear acrylic display case which is not recyclable (not cool Braven), but includes an AC-to-USB power block (which looks like a black version of the one that comes with iPhones) plus a USB cable and a short stereo audio cable for 3.5mm jacks. They even throw in a small cloth carrying case.
The Braven isn’t exactly a bargain; I know that for some folks the idea of spending $150 on a wireless speaker still seems like too much. Plus you could probably cobble together a decent sounding system using other components for less. But when you factor in all of the Braven’s capabilities, you’d be hard-pressed to find its equivalent at any price.
If you’re interested in a Braven speaker (they make two others in the series) you won’t be able to find them in any Canadian retailers yet, but you can buy them direct from Braven and they will ship to Canadian addresses.
When Apple debuted the iPhone 5 way back in September, it confirmed several rumours at once:
- The new iPhone was thinner, lighter and had a bigger screen than previous models
- It would be the first iPhone with 4G/LTE connectivity
- Google Maps would be replaced with Apple’s home-brew Maps App
- And, the 30-pin dock connector that had been the de-facto connection for nearly all of Apple’s portable devices for a decade, was no more. In it’s place, a new, smaller connector known as Lightning.
The Lightning connector was pitched as having two big up-sides for consumers:
1) It’s smaller, and though Apple never said so, it’s more durable
2) Because the connector is identical on both sides, you can’t insert it incorrectly.
Ironically, it was probably this last point that earned the Lightning it’s name, despite the obvious connotation of faster connection speeds. Just ask Marc Saltzman what he thinks of that little piece of labelling from Cupertino!
Needless to say, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing after the announcement: “What am I going to do with all of my existing dock accessories now?”
Apple’s reply was a calming reassurance that there would be Lightning-to-Dock adapters available soon after the iPhone’s launch, and that this would be an adequate solution.
So far, so good. Except that “soon” turned out to mean “well over a month” and as far as it being an adequate solution (my words, not Apple’s), the jury is still out.
To be clear, Apple doesn’t just make one Lightning adapter accessory; they make several. The Lightning-to-30-pin adapter comes in two flavours: A cable-based version ($45) that gives you some flexibility in placement of your Lightning-based iDevice, and a small, stubby “ultracompact” unit ($35) that is presumably intended for dock-wielding gadgets like charging stations, alarm clocks and speaker docks.
It’s the latter version that I finally got my hands on last Friday, in eager anticipation of being able to once again charge my iPhone without cables running all over my bedside table.
Alas, when I tried it out, I discovered that one of the Lightning connector’s strengths is now its greatest annoyance, for me at least.
The Lightning connector is actually amazingly well-engineered. The size, shape and design make it unique amongst the world’s growing digital connection universe. One the best parts is the way the male end is designed to snap-in to the female receptacle. It does so with authority, making it the Mercedes car door of the connector world. Once seated, it stays put, requiring a healthy – but not difficult – amount of force to dislodge it. Lightning manages to walk that remarkably thin line in consumer electronics between ease of use and sturdiness of design.
Aye, but there’s the rub: the new Lightning connector is so good, it overpowers the older 30-pin connection. In practice this means that seating the adapter in your dock, then sitting your iPhone 5 onto the adapter results in a stronger bond between the iPhone and the the adapter than between the adapter and the dock.
So now, every time I reach for my iPhone 5, I must yank the adapter free from the base of the iPhone, in order to re-seat it on the dock. Every. Single. Time.Could this scenario I have just described be unique to my particular dock-adapter-iPhone combination? I doubt it. As I said, it’s a by-product of how wonderfully sturdy the new Lightning connector is. Unfortunately, consumers won’t see this as an all-round positive until we’ve replaced our existing 30-pin dock accessories with Lightning-based ones.
And at the rate 3rd-party Lightning-based accessories are appearing on the market (hint: you can’t find any yet), we might be waiting a long time.
Related: Check out Wired Magazine’s feature on accessory makers that have had their product plans (nearly) sidelined by Apple’s Lightning.
You have to give Sony credit. Last year, the company debuted their first effort at creating a consumer tablet, hoping not so much to rival the iPad (something they sensibly realized wasn’t going to happen) but to establish themselves as the definitive #2 player in the space. To say they missed that target is an understatement.
While reviewers had kind things to say about the Tablet S’s physical design such as the innovative wedge shape that made it more comfortable to hold sideways, there was far more in the minus column, thanks mostly to some poorly executed and/or missing features.
The bottom line was that if you’re going to charge the same price as an iPad, you had better give users a compelling reason to pick your tablet. Apparently most consumers felt that had not happened and sales figures for the Tablet S barely registered on global tablet purchases.
That was then. Today, Sony comes back to the tablet table, this time with a new brand (their tablet is now part of the Xperia family of products which includes Sony’s Xperia smartphones) a new look (thinner, lighter) and has addressed at least some of the shortcomings of the Tablet S.
The Xperia Tablet S as the new model is called, comes in 16 and 32GB flavours, sells for $399 and $499 respectively and runs the more modern Android 4.0 operating system from Google.
The new form factor is mostly the same as the original. Screen size and resolution are unchanged at 9.4″ and 1280×800. But this time around Sony has reduced the “curled” portion of the tablet wedge to just the upper (or side) third of the case instead of the previous design’s nearly constant taper from one edge to the other. The overall effect is to make the new Tablet S appear thinner, though the official measurements seem to indicate this is mostly an optical illusion.
Sony has also made the Tablet S more robust. It now sports a splash-proof coating which Sony claims makes the tablet resistant to all kinds of splashes, from any direction, so long as the port covers remain securely in place. This is a very good idea given how many tablets end up in the kitchen as they serve the double-duty of internet appliance and digital cookbook.
Internally, the Xperia tablet gets a speed boost from the latest Quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, plus the cameras get a spec bump too going from 0.3 megapixels in the front and 5MP in the rear to 1MP up front and 8MP in the rear, which is pretty much standard on all smartphones, and much better than average for tablets.
The last of the (major) physical changes is the presence of a “multiport.” This replaces the micro-USB port from the first version and gives the Xperia Tablet S a critical feature: USB and HDMI-out via an adapter cable. The first Tablet S could only send video wirelessly to compatible displays like Sony TVs, lacking a physical way to do so. This is an improvement to be sure, but I’m not a fan of proprietary connections and accessories. Apple forces iPad owners down this road by only offering HDMI via a 30-pin cable and I’m really disappointed that Sony chose to follow them.
But on to better things!
One of the ways that Sony sought to differentiate their first tablet was the inclusion of an IR transmitter capable of controlling all of your living room devices via a bundled remote control app. It was a great idea, but for some unknown reason, Sony left out the ability to program “macros” – the powerful feature which gives a product like the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes their broad appeal. Without macros, you’re forced to jump between remote “modes” as you operate each device in your home theatre separately. It’s the tablet equivalent of having all of your physical remotes sitting on your coffee table in front of you. In other words, it doesn’t solve any of the problems associated with owning multiple devices.
The Xperia Tablet S finally addresses this gap by introducing programmable macros such as “Watch TV” which will then automatically send the necessary IR commands to your various pieces of equipment. How intuitive this macro feature is to use is unknown right now. Let’s hope Sony took a page from Logitech’s playbook.
Finally, the one feature which I think proves that Sony is finally “thinking different,” to borrow Apple’s now defunct slogan, is the ability to create a “Guest Mode” account on the Xperia Tablet S. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the BlackBerry PlayBook’s best features is something called BlackBerry Balance, which lets you create a virtual wall between your work-related activities and your personal ones. Sony’s Guest Mode does the same thing by creating profiles for different users, much like you can do on Windows and Mac computers. Using Guest Mode, you can set access permissions for apps, widgets and even desktop wallpapers, for each user account.
This is a tremendously useful innovation which Sony claims is exclusive to the Xperia Tablet S. I can easily see parents justifying the purchase of this product based solely on the strength of Guest Mode alone. I’ve long believed that tablets, unlike smartphones, are communal devices that end up being used by everyone in the household. With Guest Mode, there is finally a way to hand over the tablet without handing over control of personal and/or sensitive information.
Oh, one more thing.
Sony has spared no expense in creating a dedicated line-up of accessories for the Xperia Tablet S ranging from dedicated chargers, desktop stands and covers that include built-in keyboards.
Of course, we’ll really only know how good the Xperia Tablet S is once we get our hands on one, hopefully very soon.
The new tablet goes on sale September 7, but you can pre-order online today.
Even though my title here at Sympatico.ca is Tech Editor, I sometimes get these brutal reminders that my computing habits have not kept pace with the times.
Mostly it comes in the form of thinly-veiled contempt: “You still use an email client? Why not just use Gmail?” or “Of course I upload all of my photos to Facebook… why? Where do you put yours? … Flickr???”
My usual response is to sigh and hang my head a little lower while I perform a gesture with my arms that is half way between an admission of guilt and a defensive “How was I supposed to know?”
Today however, I was shocked to realize – as I wandered from one end of our offices to the other – that very few of my colleagues use mouse pads.
“Well, DUH” you might be thinking. Or, as I thought to myself, “Really? How is that possible? Can they really be satisfied using their regular working surface?”
I have always thought of a mouse pad as an essential item for comfy computing. Mind you, that’s an attitude I developed over 20 years ago when I rolled the mouse of my Macintosh II for the first time. You know, back when all mice used little balls and rollers that would need to be cleaned weekly with alcohol and Q-Tips. Back then, a mouse pad was the only way to ensure that the ball would have enough grip to roll reliably. Optical mice, which have all but forced their ball-encumbered brethren into extinction, aren’t nearly as fussy about what kind of surface you plant them on, so long as there is an absence of colour uniformity (optical mice need to be able to “see” where they are by comparing their current position to their prior positions – a calculation they can’t perform if the two positions look visibly identical).
And even though I haven’t used a ball-mouse in over 5 years, I can’t bring myself to part with my mouse pad (see above).
But my curiosity had been piqued so naturally it was time to conduct a scientific survey. Out went the poll to my co-workers (yes, via an email client): “Do you use a mouse pad?”
The verdict: Out of 24 respondents, only 6 people said yes. Or in other words, roughly 76% are not mouse pad users. Yup, once again, I seem to have fallen behind.
But is our little office microcosm representative of the internet world at large?
Glad you asked! Take our poll below to see which camp you belong to. Are you a devil-may-care pad-less mouser? Or a fastidious type who likes a clearly defined area for your cursor clicking?
Today we realized – somewhat belatedly – that we were missing several key ingredients required for making Easter eggs. Specifically: eggs and dye. And since most of the shops are closed, our local Shoppers Drug Mart became the beneficiary of our poor planning.
We found both eggs and a dyeing kit so catastrophe was averted. But as luck would have it, I also stumbled upon another Easter-themed item. There, amidst the $10 DVDs and the wall of i-device accessories, hung a rack of Maxell-branded “AromaDrives.”
Turns out innovation in the USB flash-drive space isn’t dead yet. Thanks to Maxell, you can now count smell, er, aroma amongst the many questionable attributes that manufacturers have added to these ubiquitous gadgets in the hopes of driving sales.
When I first realized what I was looking at, I hoped that the chocolate scent would be generated by plugging the drive into a USB socket. You know – like one of those Glade Plug-in capsules – so as it gradually heated up from the tiny 5 volt current, it would release increasing amounts of chocolatey goodness into the atmosphere. Sadly, it seems Maxell has simply impregnated the shell of the drive with the artificial chocolate scent and any increase in aroma you get after plugging it in is purely unintentional.
If this sounds like something that belongs in your Easter basket this weekend, hop on over to your nearest Shoppers and be prepared to shell out $24.99 + taxes for a 4GB model.
Tell them the Easter Bunny sent you.