Category: Reviews

Review: Sony Xperia Tablet S

Update Friday, October 5: Sony has halted sales on the new Xperia Tablet S due to concerns around the device’s ability to deal with liquid spills. According to Reuters, the company has discovered small gaps between the frame an the screen, which can let liquid in, thus compromising the tablet’s seal.

A year ago, Sony launched its first tablet effort, the Tablet S. It was 9.4” touchscreen device running what was then Google’s only version of Android for tablets – Honeycomb.

It had a unique design with its wedgy, folded-edge body, a good screen, and a built-in IR transmitter that could turn the Tablet S into a remote control for your home theatre equipment.

But it was pricey, the remote control feature lacked macros, and thanks to Honeycomb, the user experience wasn’t especially snappy or compelling. You couldn’t even use the included SD card support for anything but transfering your media files to the device’s internal memory. And there was no HDMI out – a feature that surprised many given that the tablet was supposed to (among other things) play nicely with Sony’s line of Bravia TVs.

While many reviewers praised Sony’s industrial design, the high price and poorly executed feature set kept the Tablet S from earning wide support amongst reviewers or consumers.

The Xperia Tablet S

Fast forward barely a year and Sony is back, on a mission to show that they can take constructive criticism and respond with a better product.

And that’s exactly what the new Xperia Tablet S is – a better tablet in every way.

Design

The new Xperia Tablet S preserves some of the folded-magazine design from the first version

Those of us who tried the original Tablet S gave Sony high marks for being willing to take some risks with the physical shape of the product. Its asymmetrical design meant that the top edge was thicker than the bottom. Or if you held it sideways in portrait mode, the right or left side was thicker. This not only gave the Tablet S a slight incline when using the device on a flat surface, making typing a little more comfortable, but also made holding the device while using it to read or surf the web one-handed a much better experience too.

And while the new Xperia Tablet S has toned down the wedge-shape, the folded-edge profile remains and still delivers a great reading and surfing experience thanks to the textured finish on the tablet’s backside.

Gone is the all-plastic case, replaced with a combination of plastic and aluminum which give the Xperia Tablet S a higher-end feel and puts it on the same level as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab in terms of materials. The tablet feels surprisingly light in the hand considering its overall dimensions are similar to other, heavier tablets. Sony claims battery life is about 12 hours for watching video and 10 while wirelessly surfing the web. These are excellent numbers however I wasn’t able to fully verify them. My guess is that real-world use will prove to be slightly less.

Dual stereo speakers sit near the bottom edge, concealed behind slits covered in a fine mesh. The sound quality is great for a tablet, and more than ample for watching YouTube videos or listening to the occasional song, but you’re still better off with dedicated external speakers for any serious listening activities.

The new Multi-Port comes with a removable cover that needs to be kept in place if you want your Tablet S to remain splash and spill-proof

Around the left side, you’ll find a covered panel containing the SD card slot and immediately above that is the headphone jack, while on the bottom edge, protected by a removable cover is the new Multi-port. The Multi-port works much the same way as Apple’s dock connector. It handles charging and data transfer via the included USB cable, and with the help of an optional $39 adapter, it can be used as an HDMI-out jack for sending HD video to your HDTV.

Perhaps the best part of the Tablet S’s new physique is the one you can’t see: Sony has equipped this baby with an invisible hydrophobic coating that makes it spill-proof. You won’t be able to immerse the tablet in liquid, but as long as you keep the protective covers for the side and bottom ports in-place, the Tablet S should be able to handle most of the common mishaps that can befall a device that is left on a kitchen counter.

The screen is still not on par with Apple’s industry-leading Retina display, but it nonetheless delivers crisp, rich images and video. Unless you’re holding the two displays side-by-side it’s unlikely you’ll feel cheated by the Tablet S’s lower pixel density.

Under The Hood

Inside, the new NVIDIA Tegra 3 Quad-Core CPU does a great job at keeping the Tablet S quick and responsive, while delivering enough graphics performance to easily handle the many 3D games available for the Android platform, plus Sony’s own PlayStation Mobile offering which will headed to tablets including the Tablet S in October.

That quick new processor is part of what makes the Tablet S a joy to use, but the larger part is Google’s Android 4.0 OS, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich.

If you’ve never used an ICS device, you don’t know just how good Android has become as an operating system.

Android 4.0

Gestures are recognized instantly, while transitions are handled without stutter and apps execute without hesitation. Scrolling is buttery smooth, which in itself is a big improvement over the previous Honeycomb OS. Android on tablets is now a lot of fun.

As good as ICS is, there’s always room for improvement. Normally when manufacturers try to layer their own software on top of the stock Android experience, results can be mixed, which is really to say, not good. The previous Tablet S was an example of Android-meddling yielding no real benefits.

This time around, however, Sony has left the core ICS experience virtually untouched, adding only enough functionality to help the Tablet S stand out from the crowd – in a good way.

Universal Remote

The Tablet S's Universal Remote Control app has a minimized view that can float over your other open apps for always-on access

The first exclusive feature is the media remote capability that Sony preserved from the first Tablet S. Unlike the first version, which was little more than a graphical display of your existing remotes and thus not very helpful, the revamped app brings the missing piece of the puzzle: Macros.

Macros are, for the uninitiated, user-customizable “groups” of commands that can combine any amount of “key presses” from your standard remote controls. It’s macros that give a product like the Logitech Harmony Remote its popularity. Being able to hit a single button labelled “Watch TV” and then sit back while the remote turns on every device in your home theatre and sets all of the right inputs is the holy grail.

Sony’s Universal IR Remote Control can do that. And unlike the Harmony, if you’re not happy with the way a given macro works, you can edit the sequence of commands right on the screen – no cables or syncing with a PC required.

You’re still left dealing with the fact that a smooth-surfaced tablet screen isn’t as intuitive to use as a physical remote, but that is the only drawback.

The second, and arguably the best of the exclusive features, is the Tablet S’s Guest Mode.

Guest Mode

Guest Mode lets you create separate user profiles for everyone in your home

Finally, you can now hand over your tablet to a friend, child, co-worker or spouse and not have to worry that they might accidentally delete an important email or pull up a webpage that you were on which (ahem) you’d rather they not see.

All of this because Guest Mode creates the equivalent of user accounts on a PC or Mac. As the tablet’s administrator, you can assign different accounts, each with its own name and permissions. You could for instance, create a “Kids” account and set it so that it only has access to specific games, and perhaps the YouTube app. Or you could create a profile for your spouse that gives access to everything, but keeps your email and web surfing separate. Passwords can also be assigned to keep those folks where they belong!

Given that our tablets are quickly becoming the most used appliances in our homes, and everyone feels a certain ownership, Guest Mode is a feature whose time has come. Every tablet should have it.

More…

I’m not going to spend much time on the other apps that Sony has included such as Walkman, Movies, Music Unlimited etc. These are all decent media playback or store apps but, with the exception of the Walkman app – which includes all of the features found on Sony’s excellent line of portable media players such as the SenseMe auto-playlist function, these apps are mostly on par with the stock Android equivalents.

It is worth noting however, that these native Sony media apps all have the ability to “throw” audio and video (depending on the app) to DLNA-compatible devices on your network e.g. a Sony PlayStation 3 or a set of DLNA-equipped Wi-Fi speakers. This means that content playing on your tablet can play wirelessly on your HDTV or other devices. Think of it as similar to Apple’s AirPlay feature, but not quite as universally executed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out how aggressively Sony is supporting the Xperia Tablet S with a slew of accessories.

From covers, to keyboard cases, to stands that dock, charge and let you rotate the tablet into various positions, what Sony doesn’t have in 3rd-party support for the Tablet S, they are making up for themselves with some genuinely innovative and well-designed accessories.

Finally, let’s cover price. The Xperia Tablet S starts at $399 for the 16GB model, while the 32GB model will run you $499. That’s it – no other memory capacities and no 3G/4G cellular options (at least, not in Canada). Those prices aren’t exactly a bargain compared to other Android tablets, which you can find for up to a $100 less, depending on the brand and model, but it’s also a $100 less than what Sony was charging for the 16GB model of the first Tablet S.

Notably, it’s also $120 less than a comparably equipped iPad.

Factor in Sony’s superb build quality, splash/spill-proof coating, Guest Mode and IR remote control and there’s a strong argument to be made that the Xperia Tablet S is actually the value leader in the 9-10” tablet category.

Conclusion

While Sony’s first tablet effort left us wanting more – much more, the new Xperia Tablet S delivers the missing pieces, throws in a few welcome surprises, and carries a price tag that while not a bargain, is certainly not a show-stopper.

If you have been holding off on buying a tablet, the Xperia Tablet S would make an excellent first purchase. It’s beautifully designed, it runs Google’s superb Android Ice Cream Sandwich and it has been built to handle nearly everything a household will expect from it, or throw at it.

Far from throwing in the towel on tablets, Sony is back, and better than ever.

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Cisco Linksys EA4500 is a networking powerhouse

Cisco Linksys EA4500 Wi-Fi RouterYou do not need to spend $169 on a home router. There are plenty of great Wi-Fi routers out there that can handle the basic job of connecting your home to the internet and giving all of your wired and wireless devices the access they need. Find a refurbished model on sale and you might be able to spend as little as $20.

But, if you want to supercharge your home networking experience with a previously unavailable number of features, Cisco’s Linksys EA4500 is about as good as it gets.

The slender, black and silver device has all of the usual features you’d expect in a high-end home router: Dual-band Wi-Fi N (with backwards compatibility for b/g flavours), guest access, printer sharing and even gigabit LAN networking via the router’s 4 built-in ports.

Where the EA4500 really stands apart however, are the extras.

The Cisco Connect Cloud interface lets you see all of the EA4500's critical functions at a glance. Click for larger image.

The EA4500 is one of the first Cisco routers to support the company’s Connect Cloud interface. Connect Cloud does several things to make managing a home router easier and more powerful.

  1. Streamlined interface: Out of the box, a Cisco Linksys router already has one of the easiest control interfaces on the market. Using the included Cisco Connect software, you get a straightforward, panel-based view of your router’s basic functions. Once you complete the free, firmware-based upgrade to the Connect Cloud control panel, this view becomes even more informative, showing you at-a-glance info like network health, how many devices are connected to your router, whether guest access is turned on or off, plus several other handy data points.
  2. The ease-of-use continues on the left side of the Connect Cloud interface with icons that give you one-click access to security settings, parental controls and every major area of router configuration.
  3. Being able to connect a USB storage device to the EA4500 is simple way to share files across your network and access them from the road. Click for larger image.

    Shared storage via the USB port. Plenty of routers will let you share a printer via the on-board USB port, but the EA4500 goes one better by letting you connect any kind of USB 2.0 storage device which becomes accessible over your network to all of your other devices. Given that you can pay hundreds for a NAS (network attached storage) drive, this one feature alone might be worth the price of admission. Once attached, you can set folder permissions (open to everyone, or go user by user for each folder on the drive), turn on FTP (File Transfer Protocol) which lets you access the drive from the internet, and turn on the Media Server which configures the drive as a DLNA/UPnP accessible volume – translation: you can access the contents of the drive from any tablet, smartphone, game console or media extender that supports either the DLNA or UPnP protocols.

  4. Online access to your router. Unlike non-Connect Cloud routers, the EA4500 can be accessed anytime from any internet-connected computer. This might seem like overkill, but if you’ve ever been away from home only to have your kids call to complain that Netflix keeps stalling, you’ll appreciate the ability to log in to your router from the office, hotel etc., perform a re-boot of the device and never once needing to tell someone at home to go and power-cycle the router physically (something that scares me when I have to send an 8 year-old to do the job!)

    The Cisco Connect Cloud app for iOS gives you access to all of the same features from your iPhone and works anywhere you have an internet connection.

  5. Support for 3rd party apps. Yes, I know, apps are everywhere these days and now home routers are no exception. While the usefulness of Connect Cloud apps is limited at the moment (Cisco’s own Connect Cloud app for iOS and Android merely reproduces the features discussed in points 1 & 2 above, on your smartphone, there is a lot of potential in opening up the Connect Cloud environment to developers.

Lest we forget, in addition to these handy new features, the EA4500 also sports some of the longest-ranges in terms of indoor and outdoor connectivity you’ll find on a home router, thanks to its 6 internal antennas.

So if all of this sounds pretty good, but still not quite enough to justify the price, hopefully the best is yet to come. If developers jump on the Connect Cloud  bandwagon, we could start seeing some seriously cool apps that would extend the EA4500’s capabilities even further.

Devs, if you’re out there, here’s my wishlist:

  • Real-time device monitoring. Sometimes, when I walk by my home office and glance at the DSL modem, I see the activity lights flickering away like crazy. Something is consuming a lot of bandwidth, but I can’t figure out what it is. In our house, with as many as 10-15 Wi-Fi devices on the go at any time, it would be super helpful to be able to pull up that list of device and see in real-time which ones are consuming data and how much. This would not only help assuage my paranoia when I think someone has managed to crack my Wi-Fi security, but could be handy in figuring out of the kids are secretly watching YouTube when they’re supposed to be reading or sleeping!
  • Remote media playback console. If you’ve ever used Plex or XBMC, you know just how much fun it is to be able to access all of your media through a thoughtful and intuitive user interface. But both of these tools require that your run server software on your Mac or PC. I’d like to see a Connect Cloud app that provides this same functionality for accessing all of the media attached to the EA4500’s USB storage port. FTP is nice, but it ain’t pretty.

Battle of the wireless audio players: Pioneer XW-SMA1/3 vs. Sonos PLAY:3

If you’re a music junkie, now is a great time to be alive. Not only is it easier than ever to find and buy new music, it’s completely portable. Through devices like iPods, iPhones and other digital media players, your tunes can go wherever you go.

There has been one tricky exception to this digital revolution, and that’s in-home audio.

Yes, you can buy some great docks that let you plug in your i-device or other gadget and get the tunes going in at least one room. But if you’ve got your entire library on your computer, it seems silly to rely on your portable player’s limited memory, plus docks attached to the sounds systems in each room. Thankfully there are two great alternatives if you want to have whole-home control over your music without having to resort to ridiculously expensive professionally installed systems.

When it comes to wireless home audio, the two names you need to know are AirPlay and Sonos. Here’s a quick recap in case you aren’t familiar with these words:

AirPlay

A little while ago, Apple started experimenting with transmitting music around Wi-Fi and wired networks from their iTunes software. They called it “AirTunes.” As the name implies, with just iTunes running on your computer, and a compatible AirTunes device like Apple’s AirPort Express, you could be listening to your iTunes collection anywhere you could plug in an ethernet cable or be in range of your Wi-Fi network.

Over time, Apple renamed the feature to “AirPlay” since it became capable of images and videos as well as audio. AirPlay is now an ecosystem unto itself, and many manufacturers are creating audio systems with AirPlay technology baked right in, so no additional hardware like the AirPort Express is needed. The AirPlay component is automatically detected by iTunes.

Currently the limitations on AirPlay are: You can’t stream more than one song to multiple AirPlay speakers from iTunes (they must all play the same song or none at all) and, iTunes itself is the only source of AirPlay audio from your Mac or PC. To access your iTunes library, your computer must remain on, with iTunes running the whole time. You can however, use an i-device like an iPhone or iPad to create a second stream of audio to your AirPlay speakers, but only one. Multiple speakers can only be accessed from iTunes on a computer.

Finally, because AirPlay runs over regular Wi-Fi, if you have other devices that are fighting for Wi-Fi bandwidth, you could experience some interruptions to your music streaming.

Sonos

Long before Apple started its AirTunes/AirPlay ecosystem, a small company called Sonos was busy creating their own proprietary standard for wireless home audio. They call that standard “SonosNet” and it is effectively a separate WiFi network that runs parallel to your home’s existing network, but because all of the bandwidth is dedicated to streaming Sonos audio, interruptions are avoided. Plus, every Sonos component you add, effectively extends the size of this network, making it more robust.

The Sonos system is made up of two types of components: The software controller (which can run as an App on your smartphone, iPod Touch or tablet) and the hardware player (there are three different kinds of players: All-in-one speakers, amplified players and non-amplified players). You may also need a Sonos bridge device if your home router is located too far from any of the hardware players and running an ethernet cord to the nearest one isn’t practical.

Other than the dedicated wireless network, benefits include: No need to leave your computer turned on if you store your music on a networked-hard drive. Sonos doesn’t need the iTunes software, but it can still access and play all of your iTunes music, as long as the songs are DRM-free. Sonos can play more than one song to more than hardware player. The software controller gives you the ability to group and ungroup players as you see fit. Want one song in every room simultaneously? No problem. Want a different song in each room? It can do that too. The system can also be configured to split a stereo signal between two different hardware players, so that one acts as the left speaker while the other acts as the right.

Limitations on Sonos at the moment are: Sonos is purely for audio. There are no hardware players that connect to your TV or other display devices for showing movies and images. Sonos doesn’t play nicely with AirPlay, unless you buy an AirPort Express and mate it to one of your hardware players, but this is a bit tricky and not every hardware player supports it. There is no way to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet to a Sonos player, however you can buy special docks that let you use your iPhone or other device as a source of music for the whole SonosNet network. The disadvantage being that if you use that same device to control your Sonos system, you won’t be able to walk around the house with it. Sonos makes two different all-in-one speaker hardware players: the PLAY:3 ($329) and the PLAY:5 ($449).

Sonos PLAY:3

One of the simplest ways to enjoy a Sonos system is to buy their Sonos PLAY:3 all-in-one speaker system ($329). Using the PLAY:3 wirelessly means you’ll also need the Sonos Bridge ($59). The PLAY:3 is a small, self-contained stereo speaker cabinet which comes in two colours: black and white. Other than an ethernet port on the back, and some small volume buttons on the top surface, the PLAY:3 is as minimalist as it gets. Even the power transformer is contained inside the PLAY:3’s cabinet, leaving only the power cord exposed.

Many people have noted that Sonos takes their design inspirations from Apple and that is very clear in the PLAY:3’s overall look and feel. You can rest the speaker flat, in a landscape orientation, or you stand it on one end to fit into narrower locations. The cabinet has small rubber feet for both options. The speaker’s volume can be controlled either from the software controller, or the physical buttons on the cabinet.

Set-up of the PLAY:3 couldn’t be easier: Simply install the Sonos software on your computer, power on the bridge and the PLAY:3 and follow the on-screen instructions.

As Sonos’s entry hardware player, the PLAY:3 lacks some of the options found in the rest of the Sonos line-up, specifically: there is no auxiliary audio jack and indeed no jacks of any kind other than ethernet. This means that they PLAY:3 is strictly for playing Sonos audio sources and can’t be used as an AirPlay speaker nor can it send its audio to a secondary device like a sub-woofer. There is also no way to power the PLAY:3 down when not in use – it is always on. A somewhat hidden but handy feature is that you can plug any ethernet device into the back of the PLAY:3 and get internet connectivity through the SonosNet wireless network.

Pioneer XW-SMA1/3

One of the earliest companies to join the Apple AirPlay bandwagon is Pioneer. The Japanese company with a long history of making consumer audio products, has embraced AirPlay in almost its whole range of home theatre receivers, and this summer they are debuting their first stand-alone all-in-one AirPlay speaker systems.

There are three models  to choose from: the XW-SMA1 ($329), A3 ($429) and A4 ($429) – available in the coming weeks. The A1 and A3 are acoustically identical, the only difference being that the A3 has a built-in rechargeable battery and is somewhat splash-proof for outdoor use. The A4 is a higher-end unit which is more comparable to the Sonos PLAY:5.

For my comparison, I tested an A3.

The SMA1/3’s cabinet (only available in black) is sleek and glossy, without any physical buttons. Along the bottom of the unit are several LED indicators to signal power, network and input status while on the other side are touch-sensitive buttons areas for power, input and volume up/down.

Around the back, you’ll find ethernet, USB, AC in and an auxiliary mini-jack. There is also a small button for activating the speaker’s network set-up functions and a stubby antenna near the top which can be raised and lowered on a rotating cuff to improve Wi-Fi reception.

The SMA1/3 is taller but shallower than the PLAY:3, and it weighs 2 lbs more than the Sonos. Unlike the PLAY:3, the SMA1/3’s power supply is an ugly brick which you’ll need to tuck away so it can’t be seen.

In terms of music streaming options, the SMA1/3 is a virtual Swiss Army knife. Much like the PLAY:3, it can be connected to your network via ethernet or Wi-Fi. Once on the network it will recognized as an AirPlay speaker by iTunes and any iOS device you have. But beyond that, the SMA1/3 is also recognized as a DLNA 1.5 compatible player, which means you can stream music to it from other devices such as your PC, even when not using iTunes.

The SMA1/3 also boasts the ability to handle direct-streaming from certain devices. If you have an i-Device, you can set-up the speaker with Wi-Fi Direct, bypassing the need for a full Wi-Fi network. While this is similar to Bluetooth streaming, it is much more flexible – the Wi-Fi range is much farther than Bluetooth. Similarly, if you have an HTC One smartphone, you can use HTC Connect to establish a direct stream from your phone to the SMA1/3.

Finally, you have two wired options. The first is via the USB port. Connect your iPhone or iPod/iPod Touch using your existing dock cable and you can play music directly. As a bonus, the SMA1/3 will also charge your device. Alternatively, you can use any other portable media player (even an analogue one like a Sony Walkman Cassette player!) via the AUX in mini-jack port.

The SMA1/3 also comes with a dedicated credit-card sized infrared remote to control power, volume, play/pause, next/prev track and input mode from across the room, though in practice this isn’t needed if you’re using AirPlay to control the action via an i-Device.

If you opt for the SMA 3, you get a 5-hour battery and a degree of weather protection for outdoor use.

Each of the networking options offered by the Pioneer unit worked well, and I was especially impressed by the unit’s ability to pull my home Wi-Fi setting from my iPhone when I connected it via USB – that’s a neat trick which I haven’t seen before and it dramatically reduces the hassle of networking a device like this.

So, How Do They Sound?

When it comes right down to it, regardless of the features, you’re buying a speaker system so it had better sound good.

Before I proceed, let me point out that I am not a professional audio reviewer. I have, however tried the SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 side-by-side using identical tracks and sources as well as some differing material.

The Pioneer and the Sonos are designed to provide what is, in the opinion of their engineers, the best sound characteristics at all volume levels. Some tweaking can be had using the Sonos’s adjustable treble, bass and loudness controls. Strangely, even though the Pioneer lists “Sound Effect (EQ, DRC, Loudness)” on its feature sheet, I was unable to find any way to control these settings. Update: Pioneer has confirmed that while these features are part of the SMA’s audio design, they are turned “on” by default and cannot be adjusted by end-users.

The good news is, they both sound great. The SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 go for clarity over power with the SMA1/3 excelling at delivering crisp, bright highs. But there is a definite winner in this contest and that title goes to the Sonos PLAY:3. I suspect the reason is the PLAY:3’s speaker profile. Sonos has employed 3 separate Class D amplifiers, one for each of the speaker’s three drivers (1 tweeter, 2-mid-range). It also employs a bass radiator – a passive system for reproducing low-end sounds. The result is a fuller, richer sound than the Pioneer unit offers. It can be heard across all genres of music, but I was especially aware of it when playing jazz – the PLAY:3 let me feel more of bass thrumming than the SMA1/3.

Though Pioneer doesn’t get as specific as Sonos as to the design of their speaker, on the surface at least, they seem close enough: 2 Mid-range, 1 Tweeter and a Bass Reflex Port. Perhaps Sonos’s use of dedicated amps, plus their choice of the bass radiator over the bass reflex is enough to make the difference.

Conclusion

There’s no question that Pioneer targeted the Sonos PLAY:3 in designing the SMA1/3. The size, shape and functionality all closely mirror what Sonos has done. For the most part, this approach is a success, particularly where the Pioneer fills in the feature gaps left by the Sonos. In terms of versatility, you get a bigger bang for your buck with the Pioneer. But Sonos has the edge when it comes to overall sound quality. So which to choose?

To figure this out, you need to determine your priorities. If you want to buy a single unit that will complement your existing sound set-up at home and you’re not looking to build out a dedicated network of audio components, or if you’re a student or someone who lives in a small 1 or two bedroom apartment, the Pioneer SMA1/3 is a great choice. You get plenty of versatility and compatibility and while it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Sonos, you might well feel the extras offset this difference. And I should reiterate – the Pioneer does sound very good. We’re not talking about night and day here. If I hadn’t played the two units side by side, I would have no reason to criticize.

If, on the other hand, you want a dedicated and expandable wireless home audio system that can grow as you grow, the Sonos is the preferred choice. It lacks the Pioneers multiple source options, but its fuller sound works better in big rooms.

Whichever you go with, you’ll be enjoying the leading edge of wireless audio – easily the best thing to happen to music since the first CD was ripped to a PC.

BlackBerry 4G LTE PlayBook: Same tablet, crazy price.

The new 4G LTE PlayBook launched by RIM yesterday, with all three major carriers, is essentially the same PlayBook the company released a little over a year ago. To say this is a “new” PlayBook would be overstating things. Other than the 4G/LTE cellular data connection option indicated in the model’s name, the only difference is the processor, which received a modest speed bump from 1 GHZ to 1.5 GHZ.

Literally everything else about the 7″ tablet remains the same. Even the box it ships in.

So you’d think that this slightly updated PlayBook would be priced in-line with the non-LTE versions you can find on store shelves today i.e. $229 for a 32GB model. Nope, not even close.

Turns out the 4G/LTE PlayBook, which only comes in the 32GB capacity so far, retails at most carriers for the astonishing price of $549 without a contract.

Let that sink in for a moment…

If you want a PlayBook with 4G/LTE connectivity and a slightly faster processor, you’ll be shelling out an additional $320, or put another way, 139% more.

Just to be clear, this is not an indictment of the tablet itself. The PlayBook, while still under-appreciated by much of the tech media, and certainly not a fan-favourite with consumers, in nonetheless a very good tablet. To see how well it has aged, check out Marc Saltzman’s comparison between the PlayBook and the brand-new Google Nexus 7. The addition of 4G/LTE is a really great option – much like other 4G/LTE devices, it absolutely blazes along. In downtown Toronto at mid-day (peak network usage time) I was able to get speeds of 35Mbps download and 5Mbps upload. Not too shabby.

But poor sales numbers forced RIM to heavily discount all models of the PlayBook, thus changing the landscape dramatically. No longer were we to compare the PlayBook to its larger and more expensive competitor – the iPad. Instead, especially here in Canada where the Kindle Fire isn’t on sale, we now see the PlayBook as a great alternative for people who don’t want an ereader and a tablet – the PlayBook is small enough and inexpensive enough to be both (precisely the territory Google is hoping to exploit with the $209 Nexus 7).

All of which means, unfortunately for RIM, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

There is no world now, in which a 32GB PlayBook with 4G/LTE is worth $549.

The very most RIM can expect to people to pay for this mobile speed premium is $130 – the same price difference that Apple slaps on all 4G/LTE versions of the iPad – which means a new 4G/LTE PlayBook should actually cost $359. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) that is exactly $10 more than the 3-year term subsidized price of the new PlayBook: $349.

Now, I know there are folks out there who will point out that even at $549, the 4G/LTE PlayBook is still $100 cheaper than a comparably equipped 16GB iPad which only has half the storage. That’s absolutely correct. But don’t forget, Apple’s latest iPad is a technological tour-de-force with a screen resolution unmatched by any tablet. And even if comparisons to the iPad were meaningful (they aren’t at this point in time), it can’t change the fact that RIM’s own discounting of the original PlayBook has created this unfavourable situation.

RIM, expecting the backlash from the 4G/LTE pricing, has decided to throw the carriers under the bus. “RIM works closely with its carrier partners on its product launches. Pricing, plans and contracts are determined by the carrier,” according to RIM’s agency, Brodeur Partners of New York.

This seemingly out-of-touch-with-reality pricing  might be, in some twisted way, RIM’s way of getting you to buy a BlackBerry. I know, sounds wacky, but hear me out:

For $99 on a 3-year contract, you can get RIM’s range-topping Bold 9900 4G. It may not have LTE speeds, but it’s still a great device for productivity. And because the PlayBook’s biggest draw for BlackBerry owners is the ability to tether the two devices seamlessly, sharing one data connection, you could pick up a 32GB non-4G/LTE PlayBook for $229. Since you’ll already be paying for the monthly carrier charges on the Bold, there’s no need to pay again just to provide the PlayBook with its own data connection.

If RIM still has a surplus of PlayBooks it’s trying to get rid of, which the current pricing seems to confirm, this strategy might make sense: in giving people lots of incentive to buy BlackBerrys and PlayBooks together instead of just PlayBooks on their own, the company addresses two problems at once – getting rid of their soon-to-be-obsolete BlackBerrys and surplus PlayBooks.

It’s a long-shot, to be sure, but these days – sadly – everything about RIM is looking like a long-shot.

I like the PlayBook. Especially at its current $200 price point for 16GB. Everyone I’ve spoken to who owns one still enjoys using it and has no regrets. But I can’t get behind a $320 premium for 4G/LTE connectivity, the value simply isn’t there.

Review: The Nest learning thermostat

Earlier this year, a new company known simply as “Nest” announced their first product: the Nest Learning Thermostat. Now available in Canada, its distinctive round shape is a design throwback to the non-programmable thermostats of a few decades ago.

That simple, elegant exterior which immediately drew praise for the way it complemented nearly every decor masked a highly sophisticated internal design that is more smartphone than thermostat. The Nest’s central selling feature (other than a design which sets it apart from every other thermostat on the market) is simplicity. It is designed to be a thermostat that never needs to be programmed because it has the ability to “learn” your needs and then program itself accordingly thus saving you time and hopefully, money too.

How much money? Up to 20% savings on your energy bill according to the company’s claims.

Nest achieves this savings by doing something automatically that people, it seems, don’t do by themselves: actually program a programmable thermostat. The company quotes a study which claims that 90% of programmable thermostats are rarely or never programmed.

How does it work?

After installing the Nest in place of your existing thermostat (see video below) and walking through a simple set-up procedure, you simply rotate the Nest’s outer ring to the desired temperature and walk away. The Nest will keep your home at that temperature until you change it – which is something you should do as often as possible during the first week. This is the Nest’s break-in period in which it learns your needs but also your habits. Thanks to a collection of on-board sensors, the Nest can determine when you are at home, when you are sleeping and when you are away. It uses this information combined with the temperatures that you physically set to come up with its own set of program parameters.

At any time you can view this self-programmed schedule (for an entire week) and make adjustments if you feel the Nest hasn’t chosen optimal settings.

In theory, this whole process should be very straightforward and not at all time-consuming – after all, this is supposed to be far easier than programming a regular thermostat. In practice however, I found that it wasn’t so simple.

What is the temperature?

One of the big differences between a standard thermostat and the Nest, is the way temperature is determined. You might think that 20 degrees is a standard measurement of temperature but the Nest has a different opinion. Nest has a range of sensors that measure temperature, humidity, and ambient light levels so when the Nest tells you it’s 20 degrees indoors, it can often feel colder, when compared to what 20 degrees felt like when your older thermostat said it was that temperature. As an explanation for this discrepancy, the company says, “Not all thermostats are created equal.  Different manufacturers use different sensors and different methods of calculating the ambient temperature. The thermostats can sometimes arrive at different ambient temperature measurements as a result.”

Control freaks, beware

In addition to the Nest's Auto-learning feature, you can program your own settings and modify any the Nest has programmed itself.

The Nest’s fully-automated setting, known as Auto-Schedule learning, is the feature that will have the greatest effect on your energy costs if you’ve never bothered to program your thermostat. It does this by combining the temperature settings you provide via the outer ring, with what it can detect of your at-home vs. away behaviour. After a few days, if you take a look at the schedule screen, you can see the results of this process. It may surprise you. I found that the Nest had decided on several temperature settings throughout the 24-hour cycle that seemed counter-intuitive. On Mondays, for instance, it included several temperature points that we colder than any temperatures we had ever input manually.

Upon closer inspection I found many of these seemingly random settings thrown in throughout the week (the Nest lets you program as many temperature settings over the course of a 7-day cycle as you wish) and became frustrated by the system’s decisions.

Again, if you never program your thermostat, the Nest’s Auto-Schedule is bound to save you money. But for someone like myself, who has always been very picky about programming the hell out of my thermostat, it seemed to be kicking on the air conditioner more than I would like.

Why it needs Wi-Fi

The Nest is truly a thermostat for the internet era. Its on-board Wi-Fi connects to your home network (no wired option exists) so that you can leverage some of the Nest’s features from the road. Using a PC with a web browser or the free Nest app for iOS and Android, you can set the temperature directly or access and change the schedule. This is handy for those situations where you depart from your normally schedule comings and goings, and want to get the house warmed up or cooled down before you come back. I’d like to see Nest add another feature to this app: send you an alert if it is taking an unusually long time to reach your set temperature – something that could indicate a serious problem with your air conditioner or furnace. N.B.: The Nest takes its power from your furnace/AC’s existing wiring. There is enough voltage to keep the Nest operational. However, it may not be quite enough to keep the Wi-Fi portion of the Nest’s functionality going all of the time. In my installation, I’ve noticed that if I keep the Nest’s display lit for longer than about five minutes, the battery depletes to the point where it can’t maintain the Wi-Fi connection. Typically, it regains the charge necessary to re-connect within a few hours. The company does mention in the install manual that this can happen, and if it becomes a constant problem, you can have a professional installer do some extra work to provide the Nest with the voltage it needs to be fully charged all of the time. For me, it hasn’t been worth going this extra step.

Home or Away?

We mentioned before that the Nest can tell if you’re around or not. Those on-board sensors can detect movement up to 20 feet away. When it thinks you’re not home, it enters into an “Auto Away” mode, where it suspends all heating and cooling functions in order to save energy. But it does so within parameters that you set. These so-called “safe temperatures” are the minimum and maximum temperatures that you are comfortable with when away from home. I set mine at 65F minimum, 80F maximum (yeah, I know those are Fahrenheit, but for some reason I’m incapable of thinking in Celsius when it comes to indoor temperatures. Weird, right?) which seemed prudent given that we have cats. If the house was truly empty when we’re not there, I might have set these even farther apart.

See the savings

The Nest can tell you whether you saved energy on a given day and what condition(s) caused the energy savings.

The Nest has two ways of showing you how much energy you’ve saved, should you care to look. On the Nest itself, you can enter the Energy option to view your energy history, day by day and get a sense both visually and via text of your energy usage. There’s no dollar value attached to the number, simply an indication of how long your AC (or furnace) was actively cooling or heating your home.

But if you really want to do a deep dive on your energy consumption, the iOS or Android app is the way to go – especially on a tablet. The Nest app’s detailed breakdown of energy use by day not only shows you precisely when and for how long you heated or cooled your home, it also shows you why any particular day was above or below average. Sometimes weather is the cause. Other times your own intervention will be the reason. Or the Nest will have saved you energy via AutoAway – all of these explanations are displayed on the energy tab.

 

Does it actually save money?

It depends. If you never bother to program your thermostat, the Nest will save you money for sure. Even if you don’t bother to try teaching the Nest, its Auto Away feature will at least keep unnecessary heating/cooling while you’re away to a minimum. If you opt for manual programming and essentially use the Nest the same way you would a conventional programmable thermostat, it can still save you a bit of cash – mostly in the summer. The Nest has a feature called AirWave, which takes advantage of the fact that when your air conditioner’s compressor turns off, the cooling elements that reside inside your furnace tend to stay cold for several minutes. During that time, the Nest keeps the fan going. Because the compressor is the part of the AC system that uses most of the electricity, the Nest can keep cooling your home at a much reduced expense – at least for a few minutes. It’s a neat trick that few if any other thermostats can do.

But to really see the financial benefit of the Nest, you need to a) have never programmed a thermostat before and b) be diligent in training the Nest during that key 1-2 week break-in period. Even though I have had the Nest installed for a month, it’s still too early to tell just how much money it may have saved me. Only a detailed analysis of my utility bills from the same period a year ago will reveal any useful numbers, and even then, with the incredibly hot summer Ontario has had this year, a meaningful comparison may be impossible.

Conclusion

Can the average homeowner justify a $250 thermostat? If you’re genuinely too intimidated by your existing programmable thermostat to actually program it, or your thermostat is so old it can’t be programmed, then yes, the Nest – even at $250 will likely pay for itself within a year, maybe two at the outside. After that, you’ll be saving money. Though the initial set-up may seem a bit daunting, the Nest, in day to day use is as straightforward as you could ask.

For the folks like myself who have always paid close attention to their heating and cooling settings, the savings may be harder to achieve. But even if it takes several years for the Nest to help your bottom line, the product does have other features which may help you justify the steep price of admission.

Being able to remotely control your home’s heating and cooling from anywhere in the world is pretty awesome. Add to that a detailed overview of your energy usage and the ability to program a nearly unlimited number of temperature control points on a 7-day schedule, and you might just find $250 a small price to pay for that level of control and information.

Finally, if you’re really looking for a reason to buy a Nest, there’s always the cool factor (and I don’t mean AC) – the Nest will look better on your wall than any other thermostat I can think of, and I guarantee it will be a conversation piece for the foreseeable future!

Review: HP Wireless Audio

We’ve covered wireless audio solutions before here on Sync, and by golly we will continue to cover them – wireless audio is one of those technologies that can change the way you experience media. Well executed, it can bring a goofy smile to your face as you try to contemplate how you ever lived without it. Poorly executed and it leaves you wondering what all the hype is about.

Unfortunately HP’s Wireless Audio falls into the latter category.

Before we get into why, let’s review some of the basics.

The primary goal of any wireless audio system is to let you experience the digital music that you have stored on your computer, smartphone or other device on a set of speakers that are better suited to the task and often located in a different room than the device with the music.

Sometimes the speakers belong to a high-end home theatre system, sometimes they’re just a small tabletop radio with an auxiliary input. But they aren’t the tinny things that come stock with most laptops or PCs which means your music is going to sound a lot better.

There are three wireless technologies that companies have used for this. First is Wi-Fi (or a proprietary version thereof). Its strengths are distance – it can usually cover your whole home and sometimes more – built-in networking (you can do more than just stream music over it) and flexibility (there’s virtually no limit to how many devices can share a Wi-Fi network, and you don’t need extra hardware). It’s drawbacks are mostly related to reliability. Because only a few Wi-Fi routers can help to prioritize one type of network traffic over another, streaming music can sometimes cut-out or fall out of sync with a video source.

Second is Bluetooth. It’s a piece of cake to set up, almost all modern laptops and smartphones support it, audio quality is good and lag is rarely if ever an issue, but it caps out at about 30m of distance and so far, Bluetooth connections can’t be multi-device (I can only stream my music to one Bluetooth speaker at a time).

Third is fully proprietary wireless signal. This is used by HP’s Wireless Audio. Proprietary wireless’s main strength is that the devices which use it share a dedicated, highly reliable signal which can be used to deliver a wide range of audio including 5.1 surround sound. The down side is that you have to use a dedicated wireless dongle with limited transmission strength. Depending on the frequency(ies) and power used by the system it may or may not be successful in penetrating walls and other structures.

Thus is the weakness of HP’s Wireless Audio solution. In testing out the review unit, I found I wasn’t able to maintain a connection between the receiver unit and my laptop which had the USB dongle, unless I stayed within about a 15-20 feet “safe zone.” The orientation of the laptop (and thus the dongle) also made a big difference at the edge of the safe zone. This is in stark contrast to HP’s claim of “30m bi-directional range,” using a tri-band combination of 2.4, 5.2 and 5.8Ghz frequencies. If you’re hoping to get your music from one end of the house to the other, the HP Wireless Audio system isn’t going to deliver.

I was also disappointed that HP hadn’t created a free app that I could download to an iOS or Android device so that I could control the audio remotely. That feature exists for both Apple’s AirPort Express as well as Sonos’s wireless solution.

So without the ability to effectively stream music from more than one room away and with no built-in way to control the audio on the computer, I found myself wondering exactly who the system was meant for. Which application had HP envisioned when they created the Wireless Audio?

Then it hit me: The scenario that was made for HP’s strengths without being affected by its weaknesses. For folks who have all of their movies on their computer and want to watch them on their computer’s display but want the audio to run over their home-theatre speakers, the HP Wireless Audio works perfectly.

Distance is no longer a factor because your receiver and computer are in the same room. There’s no need for remote control because the computer is sitting right there in front of you, or at least within arm’s reach. The ability to stream 5.1 surround is big benefit and not running cords from your PC to your receiver is obviously another. Finally, the Wireless Audio’s dedicated signal and resulting no-lag is perfectly suited to movie soundtracks: no one likes watching an actor’s lips start moving a half-second or more before the words start coming out.

But for all its strengths in this scenario, I just can’t see someone dropping $99 for this capability. It’s hard for me to imaging that someone who has a great 5.1 set-up doesn’t have an equally great widescreen TV to match and if that’s the case, a single HDMI cable kills two birds with one stone: you get great audio *and* video.

However, if you were thinking “hey that’s my set-up exactly” when you were reading my computer+speakers scenario, you’ll be pleased to know that set-up of the Wireless Audio was painless. HP provides a dedicated control panel for Windows that lets you sync your receivers (yep, you can have up to 4) to your computer. There are few options and after the install you’ll mostly manage the audio levels for your Wireless Audio from your Windows sound properties.

The receiver itself, while generous with connectivity options (it has RCA jacks, a mini-jack/TOSLINK combo and an RCA-style S/PDIF connector) and uses a nearly universal mini-USB port for power, is nonetheless cheap-feeling with plastic case that is so light weight, one can’t help but wonder why it needs to be so big.

Oh by the way, in case you’re a Mac user, sorry – you’ll have to stick with Apple’s Airport Express or other solution – HP’s Wireless Audio is only compatible with Windows PCs.

Overall, I’d have to say that if you’re looking to build a wireless home audio system on a budget and you don’t mind the occasional lag, Apple’s Wi-Fi and Airplay-based AirPort Express is a much more versatile gadget for the same price.

Sonos SUB: First impressions

I’ll admit it: when I read the press release for Sonos’s new sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB, I was skeptical. Why would anyone need a wireless sub?

When I think “sub-woofer” I picture home theatre set ups- you know the kind- 5, 6 or even 7.1 surround systems with that “.1” referring to the sub woofer which, more often than not, is tucked into a corner, hidden under a plant or sometimes concealed behind a wall panel. What these configurations all have in common is permanence. Your average home theatre buff will spend a fair amount of time figuring out optimal speaker placement and once wired in to their locations, never moves them again.

Why would Sonos seek to market a wireless sub to this group of buyers? Yes, the Sonos sub enables placement options that wired subs can only dream of, but when I tell you that Sonos’s sub is incompatible with every amplified home theatre system on earth, you’re probably going to start scratching your head. I sure did.

Before I explain this bizarre limitation, let me clarify who the Sonos sub is actually aimed at: people who already own, or intend to buy one of Sonos’s all-in-one speakers, the Play:3 or Play:5 or their Connect:Amp powered receiver for bookshelf speakers.

Now, about that strange incompatibility. Let’s do a quick refresher on the nature of sub woofers. Subs are designed to do one thing and do it well: provide the low-end bass reproduction that standard speakers simply can’t deliver. In home theatres, they are loved for that couch-shaking rumble on movie soundtracks. Audiophiles use them to fill in the lows that their dedicated stereo speakers can’t reproduce. But regardless why you use a sub, your receiver/amplifier plays a critical role. Every system that includes a sub needs a setting known as “cross-over.”  Cross-over is the frequency at which the sounds you are playing are divided into signals. All sounds above the cross-over frequency get sent to the regular speakers. All sounds below that frequency get sent to the sub-woofer. Sometimes, as with inexpensive HTIBs (Home Theatre In A Box) systems, that cross-over frequency is set at the factory and can’t be changed while receivers/amps used in component systems will typically have an adjustable cross-over frequency so you can get the perfect calibration for your specific speaker/sub-woofer combination.

So what does that have to do with the Sonos SUB? Well, just like every other sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB needs to have a cross-over frequency established. On Sonos systems, that cross-over setting is managed in the software and is dynamically set based on the particular combination of Sonos speakers in your room(s). But because the software uses its knowledge of volume levels and amplification of ALL the speakers in your system, it can’t make the necessary adjustments if your system included components that the software isn’t aware of from an amplification point of view. This includes any externally-amplified speakers you are running through one of Sonos’s Connect devices. These devices only pass music signal, not amplification to a set of speakers. Conversely, all Play:5, Play:3 and Connect:AMP components will work with the SUB.

One of the benefits of the Sonos software-controlled cross-over system is that the cross-over frequency can change. Not only can it change based on which speakers you’re using with the SUB but it can also change as you adjust your volume levels which means you’re always getting the optimal amount of low-end for any moment in time. If the engineers at Sonos ever feel the blend needs to be adjusted, they can do so via a software update. The down-side to this arrangement is you can’t tweak the cross-over frequency if you aren’t happy with how the software is dealing with it.

If you haven’t already guessed from the details so far, the Sonos SUB is intended to enhance the enjoyment of music within an existing Sonos set-up. This is not a sub for home theatres. As an acknowledgement of this fact, Sonos took a little more care with the design and materials in their SUB. After all, if your sub-woofer is wireless and can be placed anywhere, why not show it off a little? The SUB’s piano-black gloss finish and striking shape makes for a great conversation piece. But look a little closer and you’ll see that Sonos’s engineers found an intriguing solution to a design challenge.

Their research told them that traditional down or side-firing sub-woofers limit placement options for consumers. Their boxy shapes can be hard to hide and they certainly don’t slide under couches very well. At the same time, rectangular subs, while easier to stow under furniture, aren’t much to look at if you do need to leave them visible. To make a sub that was both elegant when seen and slim enough to be hidden, Sonos employed a “ying-and-yang” arrangement: two speaker cones and ports which fire from opposite sides, but both facing the inside of the cabinet – the donut hole in the centre of the SUB. The benefits of this design are two-fold: because there are no externally facing speakers, you can position the SUB with any of its five available surfaces facing down and sound quality is never compromised (the “bottom” should probably never be used on “top” for balance reasons). Plus, overall vibration on the SUB’s cabinet is reduced to negligible levels thanks to balanced output of the two drivers. It’s the sub-woofer equivalent of a boxer engine.

It’s also worth mentioning that Sonos’s built-in wireless system creates a level of flexibility that wired sub-woofers simply can’t match. If you use Sonos gear in a multi-room configuration, but decide that you don’t need sub-woofer power in each of those rooms all of the time, simply unplug the SUB, carry it to the other room, plug it in, and then associate it with the new room from within the Sonos app on your smartphone or tablet. The software does the rest, including a recalibration step that ensures you get the right balance between the SUB and the speakers in your second (or third or fourth etc..) room.

But how does it sound?

I auditioned the SUB in a small listening room at Toronto’s The Spoke club. Sonos Product Manager Craig Wisneski had two Play:3 speakers set up at either side of the room, configured to run in stereo mode (each Play:3 speaker reproducing just one channel respectively). We sampled several tracks including some reggae standards which are perfect for checking out low-end sound thanks to their bass-heavy rhythms. Without the Sonos SUB, the sound produced by the stereo Play:3’s was already (to my untrained ears) full, rich and satisfying. Adding the SUB to the mix did exactly what you would expect – it filled out the low end that you hadn’t even noticed was missing.

It very much reinforced for me that the SUB has been designed for music – not movies. The effect of turning on the SUB was immediate and noticeable while retaining a subtlety I don’t usually associate with sub-woofers. It many ways, it does what all good audio gear should do. It gives you the impression that you weren’t hearing the full range of music before you added it to your set-up.

Price

Here’s the part that might give you pause when considering if the Sonos SUB is right for you: the price. At $749 the Sonos SUB is more expensive than two Play:3 speakers plus the Sonos Bridge all put together. It’s a big expense for a product that many consider a nice, but optional extra to their music system. And while Sonos has plans to release a slightly cheaper $649 matte-black version of the SUB later this year or possibly early in 2013, that’s still twice what it costs to buy a decent powered sub-woofer for component systems. But therein lies the catch – if you want that deep bass sound to accompany your existing Sonos wireless speaker set-up, there is – for now – only one game in town. Is the SUB $749 worth of sub-woofer? Probably not. But if you value stunning industrial design, the convenience of place-anywhere-wireless convenience and a speaker that has been designed to provide optimal low-end sound for your existing Sonos gear, then it might very well be worth the asking price.

In any event, you’ve got a few weeks to decide/save up – the Sonos SUB starts shipping July 30th if you order online. But if you’ve already made up your mind, you can pick one up right now at selected retailers and installers such as Best Buy, Future Shop but call first as stocks are limited at this point.