This article originally appeared on CTVNews.ca
Yesterday, at an exclusive event in downtown Toronto, members of the press were invited to the official launch of two new robotic products from Parrot S.A., the French company responsible for popularizing so-called “drones” – remote controlled quad-rotor flying platforms that contain a pair of cameras capable of recording high-definition video.
The company has had enormous success with their AR.Drone (now in its second generation), having sold over 700,000 of the $350 devices since 2010. And though there has been an explosion of growth in the drone market, both in the high-end commercial segment and the budget-friendly toy segment, Parrot has maintained a decisive lead by combining high-quality components and engineering with easy-to-master controls thanks to its use of Wi-Fi equipped smartphones and tablets as the “remote.”
Parrot’s two new products, part of a line they call “MiniDrones,” follow in the footsteps of the AR.Drone. The Rolling Spider is a $119 miniature quad-rotor flying vehicle that fits in the palm of your hand. Equipped with detachable wheels that give the Spider an angry-bee-trapped-in-a-hamster-wheel appearance, it can roll along floors, up walls and along ceilings without any danger of the tiny propellers coming in contact with nearby objects. Thanks to a plethora of on-board sensors and gyros, The Rolling Spider is simple enough for a child to operate. It even has a high-res, downward-facing camera that can snap still images during flights. The rechargeable and replaceable battery is good for about 8 minutes of continuous flight. You can fly the Rolling Spider indoors or outside, but because it’s connected via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet, the operational range is limited to about 66 feet.
In practice, the Rolling Spider is a hoot to fly. Amazingly stable yet highly responsive, it emits a high-pitched whine that makes comparisons to bees, wasps or even mosquitoes more apt than to a spider. Horizontal flight is buttery-smooth while vertical lifts and drops happen incredibly fast. Irritated by a pilot who decides to fly it too close to your head? Go ahead and swat the Spider out of your way – it will right itself and continue on its flight path as though nothing had happened. We can only assume it doesn’t take such acts of aggression personally.
Parrot uses the same flight control scheme from the AR.Drone with the Rolling Spider and it is truly easy enough to learn that you can fly the Spider confidently after a few minutes of experimentation. Getting the Spider to execute an aerobatic 360 degree flip in mid-air requires nothing more than a double-tap on the smartphone’s screen.
Finally, if you can bare to separate yourself long enough from the Rolling Spider to let your kid play with it, they’ll be delighted to find that Parrot has included a set of stickers that can be used to customize the Spider’s appearance. Most of them make the Rolling Spider look like something that’s about to bite you.
Their second product in the MiniDrone line is the $179 Jumping Sumo. A quirky blend of remote-controlled car, mobile camera platform and, well, grasshopper, this two-wheeled vehicle has more in common with a Segway scooter than a garden-variety RC car. Equipped with a wide-angle front-facing camera, the Sumo can stream live video of everything it sees back to the smartphone, giving its driver a first-person perspective. The diminutive vehicle can be driven manually, using the on-screen controls and can perform impressive maneuvers such as 90 or 180-degree turns in an instant, or you can pre-program a specific route which can then be executed at the tap of the screen.
But the Jumping Sumo’s most impressive trick is, as its name suggests, the ability to jump up to three feet into the air, with a level of precision that allows experienced drivers to land it on a surface not much larger than the Sumo’s own footprint. The jumps are accomplished via a powerful, spring-loaded piston that can be primed and released in less than two seconds. Flip the Jumping Sumo “upside down” (a hard position to identify when dealing with a robot that doesn’t seem to care which way is up) and it can use the same mechanism to launch itself away from fixed objects, or “kick” loose objects out of its path. In an impressive demonstration of strength, I watched as a Parrot employee put a sizeable dent in an empty pop can using this technique.
As frightening as it sounds, Parrot has even equipped the Jumping Sumo with a “personality.” With a Furby-like set of responses, the Sumo will emit different sounds under different conditions. Perhaps most disturbing is the language Parrot uses to describe these interactions in its marketing material: “Pet its head, pat its body and it reacts to make you understand its affection for you.” Hmm. “Make you understand”… is this merely an awkward translation from French, Parrot’s native tongue, or is it a sign that we are no longer the ones who are in control? If you still have any doubts, consider this: When the Jumping Sumo finds itself in an “uncomfortable” situation, its “eyes” turn from placid green to a menacing red. Stanley Kubrick tried to warn us about artificial intelligence with red eyes…
While it’s clear that these two MiniDrones—which go on sale in August—are very much designed to be toys (parents get ready for the holiday wish-list onslaught), make no mistake, these are highly sophisticated pieces of technology that have more in common with commercial and even military drone applications than their size and price would indicate. With the exception of their operating distances, battery life and perhaps durability, these two “toys” represent cutting-edge technology.
If you’ve ever spent time wondering what your kids will be equipped to do when they enter the job market, perhaps it’s time to introduce them to a MiniDrone. It could set them up for an upwardly mobile career path in our increasingly robotic world.
See the Rolling Spider in action:
See the Jumping Sumo in action:
Tons of features, good performance and an unbeatable price make the Roku Streaming Stick by far the best value in the increasingly busy Smart-TV add-on category.
If you already own a Smart TV—a WiFi-connected, app-enabled HDTV—you really don’t need to read this. That’s because the Roku family of devices (to which the Roku Streaming Stick is the latest addition) is for all of us poor shmoes stuck with TVs that have no way of talking to the internet and thus no way to access content providers like Netflix, Crackle, CrunchyRoll or YouTube unless we stretch a very long and trip-hazard-creating HDMI cable from our PC/laptop to our TV sets. Don’t laugh. People do that. For real.
There is obviously a better way. It took a few years for electronics companies to figure it out, but simple WiFi add-ons are finally here.
Roku’s Streaming Stick takes the best part of Roku’s earlier efforts, namely the amazing collection of hundreds of “channels” that give the Roku its ability to deliver streaming content, and pairs them up with a dead-simple receiver and an included remote control, all for the rock-bottom price of $59 CDN.
Despite creating a beautiful, feature-rich and well thought-out wireless speaker, Sony’s SRS-X9 fails to deliver consistently high quality sound over its wireless and wired inputs.
The wireless audio phenomenon in consumer tech is huge and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. It’s into this already crowded category that Sony is throwing three new contenders for your wireless speaker dollars. The biggest and baddest of the three is the SRS-X9, a sophisticated-looking all-in-one affair that straddles the line between bookshelf speaker and home theatre sound-bar.
The SRS-X9, which retails for $699 CDN, is priced at the high end of the wireless speaker market, placing it in competition with the Sonos Play:5 ($499) or possibly the Sonos Playbar ($749) as well as offerings from Pioneer,Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Polk Audio and Marantz.
Set-up and Connectivity
As you would expect from such a device, it offers a wealth of connectivity including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, line-in (via mini-jack), Ethernet and USB. It’s also DLNA and AirPlay compatible.
You 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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!)
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On first blush, when I read the rumour that the next iPhone would be dropping the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector, the skeptic in me cried “No way!”
Apple has been a rarity in the consumer electronics industry in the sense that they alone have created a multi-billion dollar market for accessories designed exclusively for use with Apple products. Obviously, the sheer number of products that Apple has sold is a big reason why companies big and small have gotten into the i-accessory game, but there’s a subtler, more powerful reason: consistency.
Ever since the advent of the third-generation iPod, Apple has employed the same 30-pin Dock Connector on every single i-device with the exception of the iPod Shuffle. There are hundreds of millions of i-gadgets in use all around the world, and while their technical capabilities vary depending on the model, that same 30-pin connector is on all of them.
How many other product categories in consumer tech or elsewhere can offer that level of compatibility?
So you can see why any suggestion that Apple might be ready to step away from such an overwhelmingly entrenched standard – one that they have the exclusive rights to – would be greeted with a fair degree of dubious eye-brow raising.
But the notion isn’t completely laughable. In fact, it might make sense.
First, let’s consider the fact that Apple has prided itself on being able to predict the demise of a technology often well before consumers are willing to relinquish it. The first iMac famously debuted with no floppy drive. It was the first mainstream machine to do so. The optical drive was read-only and the only way to get data out of the iMac was to transmit it using the Internet or via an attached USB-device (keep in mind, super-cheap USB thumb drives were essentially non-existent back then). It wasn’t long before other PC makers were stripping out the floppy from their designs, never to be seen again.
Apple’s next big ditch: you guessed it – the optical drive itself which they made an optional accessory on the stunningly thin and light MacBook Air. Again, much like with the iMac, Apple proved prescient and the MacBook Air has become the laptop after which the “Ultrabook” line of Windows machines has been modelled.
Second, let’s take a look at what that 30-pin connector actually does for i-Devices:
- Sync data
- Pass through audio and/or video content (which is simply a specific form of data syncing)
All of these functions are handy, yet none require the 30-pin connector per-se. USB connectors, be they mini-USB or the now-standard micro-USB are just as capable of handling these duties and do so on the myriad smartphones that Apple does not make. Micro-USB can even handle high-definition 1080p output via a newer technology known as MHL (Mobile High-Defintion Link). And thanks to iCloud, you never need to physically connect an i-Device to a Mac or PC in order to sync data. Even iOS updates are now done “over-the-air.” There is virtually no reason, other than to maintain consistency of design, why Apple *needs* to keep the dock connector.
If Apple chose to abandon the 30-pin dock for the the industry-standard Micro-USB (which is unlikely – they will probably create a smaller dock connector), they would certainly please a segment of their customers who would prefer to carry a single, cheap and easily replaced power cord – but what about that massive eco-system of accessories like speaker docks and alarms clocks whose numbers are now to great to count? Would they have to issue all-new designs just for the iPhone 5 (or “The New iPhone” as I suspect Apple will call it)? Yes and no.
In the past two years, Apple has been making a bit of a fuss over a wireless audio and video standard they call “AirPlay.” AirPlay lets you effortlessly stream audio or video from your Mac or PC’s iTunes software to any AirPlay-equipped gadget on your home Wi-Fi or wired network. Apple TV is a great example of this. Not only can you stream hi-def movies from iTunes to your TV via AirPlay, you can stream any music or video from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch in the same way, so long as the app you’re using has been AirPlay-enabled.
AirPlay has seen a lot of support amongst the top brands in the electronics space. Pioneer, Denon, Sonos, JBL, B&W, iHome and Klipsch – just to name a few – have all introduced AirPlay-compatible products and that number is guaranteed to grow. Why? Because AirPlay is the new, wireless dock-connector at least as far as bullet number three from the list above is concerned. It’s a new standard and is already supported by nearly every Wi-Fi equipped product Apple sells.
I know – that’s all well and good for new products – they obviously don’t need a dock connector for audio and video, but what about those older products? The ones that are still carrying around a seemingly obsolete dock? Well here’s where we take an even longer drive down the speculative highway…
I think Apple could easily create an AirPlay Dock Adapter, which would snap into any speaker dock and give it AirPlay connectivity. Assuming that the adapter could draw power from from the dock in the same way that an iPod or iPhone could draw power for recharging, nothing else would be needed. Given how inexpensive Wi-Fi radios have become, I’m guessing that Apple could sell these for $50, turn a very handsome profit, and give millions of older speakers etc., a new lease on life.
I’m not the first one to think this is a good idea – at least one enterprising fellow is trying to get some movement on this notion – assuming Apple doesn’t beat him to the punch!
So readers, what do you make of these prognostications? Would you freak out if Apple dropped the dock from the new iPhone?
So what do you do when you want to come up with the next version of one of the world’s most popular phones?
You start by not messing with a proven formula. Samsung’s Galaxy S III, unveiled today at a London, England event, is evolutionary not revolutionary and that’s just fine with us.
They’ve kept the large-but-not-too-large 4.8″ screen, they’ve used a variety of materials including metal to give the phone a more sophisticated look and up-market feel (Samsung says this is the first of their phones to be built from a designer’s perspective, not an engineer’s) but most of what sets the GS III apart from other Galaxy phones and indeed other Android smartphones in general, are the software enhancements.
But before we get to that, let’s talk about the screen. As mentioned, it’s 4.8″ in size and has 720 x 1280 HD resolution. It’s the same Super AMOLED HD technology found in previous Galaxy devices, but they’ve managed to give the display better readability without sacrificing the vibrance that AMOLED screens are known for.
This isn’t a small thing. Some people have noted that while they love the incredible richness and saturation combined with deep blacks that Super AMOLED offers, this same brilliance can make it harder to read when compared to the IPS-LCD technology found in the current generation of iPhones and iPads. And while we didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the GS III, I think Samsung has found the right balance.
The rest of the hardware specs are almost exactly what you’d expect: 8MP camera with 1080p video, 4G LTE (with HSPA support), MicroSD, WiFi N, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and MHL. What’s new here is the 1.4GHz Exynos 4 Cortex-A9 quad-core chip that’s powering the whole experience. When you hold the GS III in your hand and compare it to the current GS II HD LTE, they feel very similar. The GS III might weigh ever so slightly more, but that serves to make it feel more substantial (Galaxy phones have always felt a tad light in the hand for my liking). The back plate now has a smooth finish instead of the texture panel on the GS II. Again, you might like this more or less, but I found it pleasant enough.
The GS III is the first Galaxy smartphone to ship with Samsung’s interpretation of Android 4.0 (the Galaxy Nexus which Samsung makes, is Android unadulterated, as it comes directly from Google), and this is where you find most of the differentiating features.
Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, which has only soft buttons, that take up screen real-estate and are embedded into the OS, the GS III uses hardware buttons – 2 soft-touch buttons and one central home button which is physical, slightly rubberized and has a pleasing soft-click action. Samsung indicated that this was done not only to increase the amount of available screen real-estate for actual content, but also because users like having physical buttons – we agree.
On a deeper level, Samsung has added their own touches to the Ice Cream Sandwich experience. Some are subtle – like the camera’s ability to automatically suggest the best picture from a series of rapid-fire shots. Others could end up being game-changers: a contextual calling feature lets you call the person you’re texting with by simply pressing a finger to the screen and then raising the phone to your ear – the GS III immediately places the call.
Physical gestures such as this are part of Samsung’s effort to re-make the smartphone interface into a more human and intuitive experience. Another great example of this is the option to have the GS III “read” your face when you’re using it: using the front-facing camera, the GS III can tell if you’re watching video, or reading a web page and automatically prevent the screen from slipping into power-saving mode.
Speaking of video – you know the picture-in-picture feature that most modern HDTV’s have? Well the GS III has it too. You can now keep a video window open on the phone, regardless what other task you’re involved with. This works for both local and streamed videos and you can reposition the window anywhere you want.
Whether you find these engineering tricks to be your cup of tea or not, Samsung is clearly hoping that they will help set the GS III apart from an increasingly crowded Android field where their current leadership is anything but assured. They might also be harbouring some hope that these extras will appeal to those who are contemplating leaving Apple’s juggernaut on their next phone refresh.
Obviously, Samsung wasn’t quite ready to let us spend some serious time with the Galaxy S III, but rest assured we will be doing so in the very near future, and will have all the details regarding price, carrier availability and Canadian launch dates – stay tuned!
May 29 is the European launch date, with the Canadian release slated for this summer.
Here’s the full list of specs for the GS III:
|2.5G (GSM/ GPRS/ EDGE): 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 MHz
3G (HSPA+ 21Mbps): 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100 MHz
4G (Dependent on market)
|4.8 inch HD Super AMOLED (1280×720) display|
|Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)|
|Main(Rear): 8 Mega pixel Auto Focus camera with Flash & Zero Shutter Lag, BIS
Sub (Front): 1.9 Mega pixel camera, HD recording @30fps with Zero Shutter Lag, BIS
|Codec: MPEG4, H.264, H.263, DivX, DivX3.11, VC-1, VP8, WMV7/8, Sorenson Spark
Recording & Playback: Full HD (1080p)
|Codec: MP3, AMR-NB/WB, AAC/AAC+/eAAC+, WMA, OGG, FLAC, AC-3, apt-X|
|S Beam, Buddy photo share, Share shot|
|AllShare Play, AllShare Cast|
|Smart stay, Social tag, Group tag, Face zoom, Face slide show|
|Direct call, Smart alert, Tap to top, Camera quick access|
|Pop up play|
|Burst shot & Best photo, Recording snapshot, HDR|
Google™ Mobile Services
|Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Latitude
Google Play Store, Google Play Books, Google Play Movies
Google Plus, YouTube, Google Talk,
Google Places, Google Navigation, Google Downloads
|WiFi a/b/g/n, WiFi HT40
|Accelerometer, RGB light, Digital compass, Proximity, Gyro, Barometer|
|16/ 32GB User memory (64GB available soon) + microSD slot (up to 64GB)|
|136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm, 133g|
Have I shared with you my enthusiasm for remote-controlled helis and their quad-rotor brethren?
No? Well I love ’em.
I’m 42-years-old and there’s just something about these little indoor choppers that fulfils a boyhood dream which I’ve apparently been harbouring for a long time.
Whatever the reason, I think these things are awesome so I was delighted to learn that the coolest remote-controlled toy on the planet, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 will be up for pre-order at The Source starting March 9th. General release for the device is May of this year.
What’s this? You’ve never heard of the AR.Drone? Allow me to introduce you: The Parrot AR.Drone is remote-controlled quadrocopter (4 rotors instead of the usual 1) that can be controlled via your iOS or Android device of choice over Wi-Fi and comes equipped with 2 on-board cameras – one that looks forward, the other looks straight down.
The latest version (2.0) of the AR.Drone lets you watch the feed from the forward-facing cam on your controlling device in real-time to give you a “pilot’s eye-view” of the action, but you can also record this video feed for acquiring the bragging rights to an especially impressive flight. These videos can be recorded to your smartphone/tablet’s memory or saved via the built-in USB port on the AR.Drone.
We got a chance to see the AR.Drone 2.0 in action at CES 2012 this year and their demo was impressive.
Of course, the original intent behind the cameras was to enable AR gaming (thus the AR or Augmented Reality in the AR.Drone’s name) is still very much the focus of this craft, and with the optional game downloads you can engage in air-to-air combat with other AR.Drone pilots.
Just like the original AR.Drone, version 2.0 comes with a removable set of indoor “hulls” – basically styrofoam bumpers that surround the blades of each of the four rotors. You can keep these on when flying outdoors for greater crash protection, but the vehicle will be much less stable in windy conditions.
Until now, the only Canadian retailer who carried the AR.Drone was BestBuy, but it seems Parrot has established a slightly larger distribution network for the 2.0 release of the product by partnering with The Source. This move makes tons of sense. Not only are there way more The Source locations in Canada (over 700) but The Source is already the go-to shop for RC enthusiasts. I doubt there is another bricks and mortar retailer with a greater selection of RC toys and the AR.Drone is the perfect complement to that collection. The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 will be $329 when it goes on sale later this year.
Cellphones. I have a love/hate relationship with them.
I love the functionality they offer. I love the way I can reach into my pocket and have the entire internet at my finger tips wherever I happen to be. I love the freedom of being able to share the details of my life with those who matter to me be it on Facebook, Twitter or a simple text message.
But I gotta tell you, I’ve never been happy with the nature of voice calling on these things. There’s just something about the majority of cellphone calls – especially when you’re *not* the one on the cellphone. The compression of sounds, the occasional latency, that sensation that the other person is a the end of a very long and narrow tube through which you both must shout to be heard. It doesn’t matter which handset you own or whose network you’re on. It’s so commonplace these days that I think many of us have just learned to put up with it.
So when I heard that Bell is about roll out an upgrade to their voice network that will dramatically improve the quality of these voice calls, I was all ears.
The new feature is called HD Voice, and Bell is going to be the first national network operator in Canada to offer it. The system has already been introduced in Europe from Orange.
Effectively, HD Voice doubles the amount of network bandwidth allocated to voice calls. More bandwidth means less compression and thus better quality. It’s a little bit like the difference between an audio CD that has been converted into an MP3 file at 64kbps vs. one that has been encoded at 128kbps. As any MP3 aficionado will tell you, the 128kbps version sounds a lot closer to the original CD. HD Voice also improves the amount of noise cancellation on calls, so if you’re calling from an especially busy place like a mall or a street corner, those background sounds should be greatly reduced.
Curious to know just how much better HD Voice will sound? So was I. Bell doesn’t have any sample audio clips to share with us at the moment and I haven’t been able to test the system myself, but I was able to find the following video from the U.K. thanks to the gang at MobileSyrup, and if Bell’s version of HD Voice is anywhere as good as this, I’ll be a much happier camper.
Alright, now that we’re all sold on the whole HD Voice promise, let’s talk about how you actually get this feature.
First the good news: Bell will be making HD Voice an automatic and free upgrade for all of their mobility subscribers.
Now the caveats: HD Voice only works on specific handsets for now. Specifically: HTC Sensation, HTC Incredible S, Nokia C6-00 and Nokia C6-01. According to Bell, these handsets are currently the only ones they carry that have the necessary software to enable HD Voice. It’s expected that many more handsets currently on the market will be given a software upgrade to make them HD Voice capable, but no details have emerged just yet.
And, more importantly, you’ll only benefit from HD Voice if you and the person you’re speaking with are both using compatible handsets and you’re both on the Bell (or Virgin) HSPA+ network. Unfortunately, this means that landline parties or those on a different mobile network will still hear the lower quality call, even if you’re using an HD Voice handset.
Bell notes on their site that there are still a few areas of the country that won’t be able to support the service, and none of the coverage areas that are outside of the HSPA+ 4G footprint will be able to handle it
(Image credit: Photodisc/Winston Davidian/Getty Images)
Disclosure: Sync.ca and Sync-blog.com are owned and operated by Bell Media, a wholly owned subsidiary of BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada.