Tagged: review

Living life in 4K: ASUS PB287Q hands-on review

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Over the years, we’ve seen a whole lot of innovation in computing. Faster processors, smaller form factors, touch-screen inputs and wireless data. All of these have had a profound impact on how and where we use technology. And as important as all of these advances have been, nothing has changed our fundamental relationship to these devices as much as improvements to their displays.

Displays are at the heart of how we perceive–and ultimately use—all of our computers, be it the biggest, most powerful desktop or the smallest of smartwatches. It’s the reason that new display technology always leaves me saying “wow.” That was my reaction when I saw my first high-res graphics monitor, when I saw my first colour LCD display and most recently, when I looked upon Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad. These technologies really enhance our use and enjoyment of computers.

So when I was offered the chance to try out ASUS’s PB287Q, one of the first reasonably priced 4K displays on the market, I jumped at the chance.

Continue reading the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Hands-on Review: Roku Streaming Stick

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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.

Read the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Review: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet

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Sony’s latest Android tablet is a worthy successor to the Xperia Z, with unique features, an incredibly thin and light design and a gorgeous screen. But battery life is not as good as it could be.

The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet ($529 16GB) is a remarkably thin and light device. At 426 grams, the Z2 is significantly lighter than the comparably equipped Apple iPad Air (469 grams) even though it has larger overall dimensions.

The chassis exterior is coated in a rubberized finish on the back and uses edge-to-edge scratch-resistant glass on the front. The sides (what little there are of them) is finished in a metal-look plastic material. Unlike the iPad, there is no metal shell.

Although this results in an amazingly light device, the problem with this design is that the Xperia Z2 gets all of its rigidity from the internal framework and the glass screen itself. Which it to say, you can actually flex the tablet without exerting much pressure at all. I suppose this isn’t necessarily an issue of quality – I wasn’t able to come even close to damaging it through normal use—but it doesn’t give you a tremendous feeling of confidence.

Keep reading the full review at Canadian Reviewer

One month with the Apple iPhone 5

I’ve never driven a Porsche 911 and I’ve certainly never reviewed one. But I imagine that getting your hands on the latest 911 is a little like getting your hands on a new iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone is their 911. It’s the one product the company makes that has wowed journalists and buyers alike for what seems like (at least in tech terms) forever. And just like Porsche, Apple has methodically rolled out changes with each new model that improve on the previous device while staying true to the core elements that have made the iPhone the most iconic device in consumer technology. The iPhone 5 – which is actually the 6th generation of the iPhone – does just that.

I’ve been using the iPhone 5 as my daily smartphone for one month, and everyone who has spotted me with the device has wanted to know what I think.

The answer is simple: It’s a great device.

But let’s put that assessment in context. Prior to getting the iPhone 5, I had been using an iPhone 4S for about a year, and the iPhone 4 before that. So for me, that sense of incremental improvement is particularly acute. The iPhone 5 is a great device, because it improves on a series of smartphones that were already great devices.

If you’ve owned an iPhone in the past, the latest version will feel completely familiar – almost eerily so. I can’t think of another player in the smartphone market, with the possible exception of RIM’s BlackBerry, which has stuck so strictly to  its original form factor and user experience. Even if you were to upgrade from the very first iPhone, you would be comfortable with the 5 within, well, 5 minutes.

That said, here’s a brief run-down of some of the iPhone 5’s most notable features:

The Screen

In Apple’s own way (which is to say somewhat grudgingly) they have acknowledged that there is a benefit to be had with a larger screen. But also, true to their vision, they only increased the height of the iPhone 5’s screen, not the width. This means you get one extra row of icons on every screen and apps have a slightly larger canvas on which they can get clever with interactivity. But in practice, you get used to this larger screen instantly – you don’t even realize the extra room is there. Perhaps that was the idea. And even though much fanfare was made about this change when Apple announced it, I don’t think it’s reason enough to buy the iPhone 5. The reason is that none of the benefits of the large-screen phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III or the HTC One X are present on the iPhone 5. Those other phones actually increased the relative size of objects on the screen, by making *both* dimensions of the screen larger. You get more room for web pages and the text is larger and therefore easier to read. Since Apple kept all of the proportions the same, but added a bit of extra scrolling room, nothing appears “bigger”.

The Body

If Apple can lay claim to one undisputed title, it would be for industrial design. There is nothing like the iPhone 5 on the market that approaches its simplicity and elegance. It’s a delight to hold. If thinner and lighter are qualities you appreciate, you’ll love this phone. But there is a natural ergonomic price to be paid when you go this thin. It gets a little harder to hold securely. With previous models, gripping the phone meant that your thumb naturally rested on the side unless you were using it to tap in a phone number or trying to text one-handed. But with the iPhone 5’s rail-thin design, there is a tendency even for someone with relatively small hands like myself, for the thumb to roll forward onto the front edge, rather than sit squarely on the side. Having less surface area in contact with your skin means poorer overall grip. I have a feeling that this iPhone will not only break sales records, but also set new records for the number of times it gets dropped.

But that might not result in the tragedy so often associated with dropping an iPhone 4 or 4S. Those models were clad in glass on the front and back, whereas the iPhone 5 uses mostly aluminium on the back panel. It may get scuffed, but it is far less likely to break, and of course shattering is highly unlikely. Only time will tell if the 5 proves more durable than its glass-jawed predecessors, but it seems like a good bet.

The Lightning Connector

What happens when a company changes a connection that has been standard on all of their devices for 10 years? You get a lot of frustrated users. There’s no kind way to say it: By adopting the new Lightning connector which graces all of Apple’s new products, they have made every existing accessory that depended on the older 30-pin connector, obsolete. Unless that is, you opt for the $35 Lightning-to-30-Pin Adapter, which as of the writing of this article, was still unavailable for testing. Even with the adapter, it’s unclear whether older accessories like alarm clocks with built-in docks will be as functional. I can only imagine the stress that your 30-pin dock will have to endure with the added leverage of the adapter plugged in and moved around daily.

That said, the Lightning connector is a *very* nice design. It’s small, sturdy, clicks into place with a decidedly satisfying popping sound and is reversible which means no more looking to see which way the plug is facing. Would everyone have preferred an existing standard like MicroUSB? Sure, but that’s not how Apple rolls.

The Software

Surprisingly, the most controversial feature of the new iPhone wasn’t a feature of the phone itself. Instead, it was what Apple had done to iOS6 – the latest version of iOS that runs all of Apple’s mobile products. With iOS 6 getting its debut alongside the iPhone 5, it was the first time consumers had a chance to play with the more than 200 new features Apple had introduced. But not all of the 200 changes were additions. Some were removals of features. The popular Maps app which had always been powered by Google’s excellent mapping data, got ditched in favour of Apple’s own proprietary mapping product – a move that resulted in one of the rarest events in the tech world: Apple’s CEO apologizing for the quality of their product and actually suggesting alternative apps in the short term. I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive study of the new Maps app – others have already done that. Suffice it to say there are good parts (fast rendering, free turn-by-turn navigation, 3D view of major urban areas) and bad parts (inaccurate driving directions, old data, no more Google Street View).

Maps wasn’t the only shocking change. Gone too was the native YouTube app. This was the more puzzling of the two Google-related changes. With Maps, you could see that Apple wanted to stop working with Google and start promoting their own product. But Apple doesn’t own and, as far as we know, has no plans to compete with Google’s video behemoth YouTube. So why Apple chose to remove the handy YouTube app remains a mystery. Functionally speaking, the change has been mostly mitigated by Google – the YouTube website which the Safari browser takes you to when you choose to watch a video – does an excellent job of creating a mobile-friendly interface. It’s still not quite as clean as the native app, but it’s surprisingly good all things considered. Plus, if you simply want to browse YouTube, Google has released their own standalone iOS app, which works well.

Of course iOS 6 brings lots of other great features such as panoramic photos, enhanced Siri capabilities, integrated sharing via Facebook and Twitter and Personal Photo Streams (to  name just a few). There’s certainly lots to like about this update.

4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution)

The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone that comes equipped with the latest standard in high-speed mobile data known as 4G/LTE. In theory, you should be able to get download speeds up to 75mbps and uploads of up to 25. In practice, it’s usually less, but it’s still amazingly fast – usually faster than the connection you have at home. But finding an LTE signal can be tricky. Coverage can be spotty, even in areas that show as being covered on your carrier’s map. But perhaps more importantly, is the toll that LTE takes on battery life. In my semi-scientific comparison, I found that using LTE reduced battery life by about 10%. That’s not awful, but if you’re the kind of person who finds they can barely get through a day on a single charge, you might want to leave LTE turned off until you absolutely need the extra speed for a specific task.

The EarPods

Yep, that’s the name that Apple has given its newly-redesigned ear-buds. They’re still white. They still have that handy in-line remote with microphone, but now they possess a distinctly bulbous look which lets them sit just a little more securely in your ear. They do not provide much in the way of sound isolation, and despite Apple’s claims that they have figured out a way to coax $100 sound out of $30 ear-buds, I found that I could barely detect a difference when I tested the new EarPods against the previous design. They sound a bit better, but I’m hesitant to even say they’re 10% better than the older design. It’s hardly a deal-breaker. After all, the old ear-buds weren’t shunned by users – I still see their hallmark white cables on tons of people every day. What is a bit odd is the carrying case that Apple thoughtfully included with the EarPods. Odd in the sense that it is not a very friendly piece of plastic. The combination of having to seat the EarPods just so in the case’s contours and needing to wrap the cables so that the in-line remote end up in its allotted groove, and well, it’s a bit frustrating.

In the end…

If you’re of the opinion that iPhones are just for the feeble-minded followers of the cult-o-Apple, the iPhone 5 isn’t going to change your mind. Quite the opposite. Because it embodies all of the attributes that have made the iPhone the enormous success that it is – and then some – you will not want this latest version either. For you, may I recommend the Samsung Galaxy S III.

But if you like the way Apple has carved out its approach to the mobile space, the ease-of-use that pervades all of the company’s products or just the envy-inducing  design of the iPhone 5, I can wholeheartedly say you won’t be disappointed.

(Image credit: Apple Inc.)

Hipstreet Equinox 2 10.1" Android tablet review

Now might just be the worst time in the year to be making a buying decision when it comes to tablets.

Not only do we have more choice than ever when it comes to these devices, but those choices seem to be expanding daily.

A few months ago Google launched its first tablet, the Nexus 7, a 7-inch model made by ASUS, for the extremely competitive price of $229 – less than half the price of an iPad. Yesterday, Microsoft revealed its pricing on the new line of Windows 8 RT devices known as “Surface.” At $499 it too is cheaper than the iPad, albeit not by much, but has a much larger screen and vastly expanded support for external peripherals and memory.

Plus, it’s a virtual guarantee that tomorrow, Apple will be launching its own line of smaller iPads, rumoured to be called the “iPad Mini” with price range between $250-$350.

All of this creates an environment where consumers will be able to choose not only three different mobile operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows 8) but several excellent choices when it comes to the hardware that these operating systems run on.

It’s into this incredibly packed and competitive market that Canadian company Hipstreet hopes to sell its 10.1″ Android tablet, the Equinox 2.

On paper, the Equinox 2 sounds like it hits all of the right notes:

  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • 5 point multi touch screen, 16×9 ratio, 1024×600 resolution
  • MicroSD card reader
  • WiFi b/g/n
  • 4GB capacity – expandable to 32 GB with Micro SD card (not included)
  • 1.2 GHZ processor with 1GB DDR3 RAM
  • Rechargable lithium polymer battery built-in
  • High speed direct mini USB 2.0 interface (x2) plus HDMI
  • Built in speakers
  • Built-in front facing 0.3MP camera
  • Multiple language format
  • MSRP: $229

Not a bad set of specifications. At first glance, with the exception of built-in memory, it appears to offer much more tablet for the buck than the similarly priced Google Nexus 7. But specs can be deceiving – especially when it comes to portable devices. Tablets, smartphones, portable gaming systems – even laptops – get handled a lot and our tactile experience with these products depends heavily on their use of materials and build quality. This is where the Equinox 2 hits a fairly significant snag.

You notice a couple of things right away after picking up the Equinox 2:

– The back panel is made of plastic. And not the kind of grippy plastic that you might find on the Nexus 7 or even a BlackBerry PlayBook.  Instead, it has a glossy black finish which is both smooth and oddly tacky to the touch. When you first look at it, it has a kind of high-end piano-like sheen to it, but within minutes of handling it, that sheen is replaced with a mess of finger prints, smudges and dust particles. The material acts like a Swiffer for dirt. So while many devices use plastic as all or part of their exteriors, not all plastics are equal.

– The Equinox 2’s edges are flat, but become bevelled where they meet the screen’s surface. At both the flat-to-bevel and bevel-to-screen transitions, there are hard ridges that  feel uncomfortable in the hand after a while – it’s a small thing, but given that HipStreet encourages Equinox 2 owners to use it as an e-reader, you would expect a device that feels great to hold for longer periods.

– The screen surface is also plastic. Unlike the back and sides of a tablet, which can be successfully designed with plastic, a touchscreen’s surface has to possess certain qualities: Effortless finger glides for the hundreds of taps and swipes you’ll be performing; an even surface so that distortion is kept to a minimum; static-free – even though finger smudges are unavoidable, extra dust and dirt particles are not. The Equinox 2 misses the mark on all fronts.

The surface itself is riddled with small undulations – mostly toward the edges but a few creep into the main viewing area. As a material, high-quality glass alleviates all of these concerns, whereas cheap plastic makes them worse. How much worse? The resistance I feel while dragging my fingers across the Equinox’s screen surface is significant. If you’d never tried a device like the iPad or PlayBook, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was normal for a touch-screen. It isn’t. Even the surface of my decidedly dusty computer desk proved to be smoother for finger-dragging. And when you combine the friction of the surface with the hit-and-miss nature of the screen’s responsiveness to taps, the effort of interacting with the Equinox 2 becomes truly annoying.

A very noticeable light leak appears in the lower-left corner of the Equinox 2.

Turn the Equinox 2 on, and further evidence of poor design and build quality present themselves.

With the tablet lying on its back on a smooth surface like a tabletop, even slight pressure against the device’s bezel caused the screen to distort in a roughly thumb-print sized area just above the middle of the screen. You could see this when tapping almost anywhere on tablet’s screen or even on the back panel.

The screen also exhibits moderate-to-bad light leakage on the lower left side of the screen, where the gap between the plastic touch panel and the LCD beneath it is particularly noticeable.

At 10.1″, the Equinox 2 offers plenty of size, but the low resolution of 1024×600 means the pixel density is very low, resulting in graphics and text that are rougher around the edges and harder to read than tablets with the same resolution but with smaller screen sizes. Despite the tablet’s ideal movie ratio of 16×9, the resolution isn’t sufficient to deliver all of the detail in a 720p HD video. If you want to see videos in their native format, you’ll have to use the HDMI port.

My gripes about the Equinox 2’s design and build quality aside, the tablet does have some strengths.

The inclusion of USB ports that support not only the connection of the tablet to a PC for content transfers, but also the other way around – to read and write data from accessories like thumb drives and portable hard drives, is a great feature often only found on tablets that cost twice as much as the Equinox. Likewise, having an HDMI port is handy for those who want to watch videos on the big screen. The ability to expand memory via MicroSD cards is also a plus, though frankly given the Equinox 2’s paltry 4GB of on-board storage, popping in an 8 or 16GB MicroSD card is practically a requirement to enjoy this device.

The Equinox 2 boasts more ports than the average tablet, including a USB Host port.

But these features are only of real benefit to the user if you have great apps and other content to run on the Equinox, which brings me to my next major reservation with HipStreet’s latest tablet.

It runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which in my opinion is the first version of Google’s OS that gives Apple’s iOS a serious run for the money. Apps open quickly, and transitions are managed smoothly. Switching between open apps is a snap, and the included Dolphin browser is serviceable if not super-speedy. The Equinox 2 runs ICS well enough, but there’s a catch.

Not all Android tablets and smartphones are the same. Well, they’re the same in principal – Google makes the base Android OS free to use by any company on any device – but if you want the full Android experience, you need to buy a device that has been certified by Google as “Compatible“. In other words, a device that has passed Google’s test to ensure that all 3rd party apps written for the Android OS will work, and one which is eligible to run Google’s own native apps such as Chrome, YouTube and Maps. Moreover, a device must be compatible if it is to provide access to the Google Play Store – which the primary source of downloadable apps for Android.

Hipstreet’s Equinox 2 appears to be amongst the group of Android devices that is *not* compatible, and that’s a big catch. The result is that not only are Google’s most popular apps missing from the Equinox 2, there’s no way to get them because the device doesn’t have access to the Play Store.

Instead, the tablet ships with a different app store, known as GetJar. GetJar is a universal app store of sorts in that it isn’t built for any one operating system. Instead it caters to them all. But GetJar is by no means a substitute for the Play Store. Only free apps are available from GetJar, and while the store attempts to ensure compatibility of the apps with your device, it’s not as reliable as the Play Store. Some popular apps can be found on GetJar. I downloaded and installed Skype, Angry Birds and the Kobo ereader apps which all work just fine on the Equinox. But there are no YouTube or Google Maps apps, and many popular free apps for compatible Android devices are missing like Amazon’s free Kindle app, or even Facebook.

When you combine the Equinox’s unfortunate build quality with its lack of decent native apps or the ability to access the Google Play Store, you end up with a tablet that simply can’t compete with other products in this category, despite its attractive price.

It pains me to reach such a negative conclusion on a Canadian product, but I wouldn’t be doing you the reader, or Hipstreet, any favours by candy-coating my impressions.

If you’re in the market for a tablet, you’re on a budget and want to shop Canadian, I highly recommend RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook. For $129, you can pick up a 16GB model which will blow away any 7″ tablet dollar-for-dollar and many larger ones too. And while the PlayBook still lacks the kind of app support you can find on either iOS or fully-compatible Android devices, the app store is still growing and may see an additional shot in the arm once RIM releases its BB 10 models in the new year.

If after reading this, you’re still interested in the Hipstreet Equinox 2, you can find it at The Source and Staples stores, where prices range between $179.99 and $229.

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.

The New iPad: Our review and everyone else's too

The new iPad is already on sale. In Australia, that is. And while the enthusiasm for the product was lessened by the fact that the Aussie’s 4G network isn’t quite ready to play with the iPad, people still lined up for the latest “magical and revolutionary” device from Apple.

Related: 10 Reasons You’re Going To Like The New iPad

In fact, if pre-order numbers are to be believed, this may well be the most successful iPad ever. But before you get all carried away by the hype, check out our own Marc Saltzman‘s video review of the new iPad. He’s had a week to play with it and here’s what he thinks…

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Now, if you’re still wondering if this device is worth the $519 entry price, we’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some of the web’s leading reviewers so you can take a survey of the various opinions (spoiler alert: it’s all about the display)

The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg)

It has the most spectacular display I have ever seen in a mobile device. The company squeezed four times the pixels into the same physical space as on the iPad 2 and claims the new iPad’s screen has a million more pixels than an HDTV. All I know is that text is much sharper, and photos look richer.

The Verge (Joshua Topolsky)

Yes, this display is outrageous. It’s stunning. It’s incredible. I’m not being hyperbolic or exaggerative when I say it is easily the most beautiful computer display I have ever looked at.

TechCrunch (MG Siegler)

What we have is a 9.7-inch slab of aluminum and glass that when illuminated, becomes an absolutely stunning display of light and color.

New York Times (David Pogue)

If you’re in the market for a tablet, here’s the bright side: For the same price as before, you can now get an updated iPad that’s still better-looking, better integrated and more consistently designed than any of its rivals.

CNET (Donald Bell)

The iPad’s new screen is a stunner. That’s really all you need to know about the new iPad

Apple's 5th generation iPod Nano: the perfect gift

iPod Nano photo courtesy of Lubyanka

iPod Nano photo courtesy of Lubyanka

It’s all too easy, quite frankly, to hop on the Apple bandwagon – especially these days. For the last 5 years or so, it seems the company can do no wrong. The ongoing success of its iPod family, which now includes the iPod Touch and iPhone, has done more for the Apple brand than any of its desktops or laptops ever have. Which is not to say those machines aren’t doing well – they are. Quite well in fact, with Apple enjoying one of the largest market shares in its history.

And perhaps it’s this run away success and the corresponding reviewer enthusiasm for Apple’s products that makes me want to take a much more critical look when I try out their latest offerings.

Naturally when I got my hands on the latest iPod Nano, I immediately began looking for the flaws. Trouble is, I found myself having a ridiculous amount of fun while I looked, so what began as skeptical review of just another portable media player, has now evolved into a hearty recommendation.

Here’s why.

Everything you know is the same

If you own the 4thgeneration of Nano, the 5thwill barely look like a new device when you’re holding it in your hand. In fact, there are only two physical changes to the device, which I’ll get to later. Absolutely every feature that was present in the previous model appears in this unit. That is one of the great hallmarks of Apple’s approach to the iPod: evolution instead of revolution.

But this is nothing like previous Nanos

Brand new in this generation is:

–          An FM Radio with pause and rewind functionality

–          Integrated pedometer with iPod Nike + compatibility

–          A voice recorder

–          An internal speaker

–          A larger display

–          A VGA camcorder

It’s these extras that put the new Nano in a class of its own. Media players that can handle audio, video and photo playback litter the landscape – it’s practically table stakes these days. Most of these devices also pack and FM radio and there are even a few that do voice recording or recording from the FM tuner.  But you won’t find a device at any price that merges these functions into one unit and then throws in video clip recording, games and a pedometer function as well.

A deeper look

FM Radio

It’s been a complaint of iPod owners for years: why isn’t there an FM radio on this thing? It’s a question that Apple has seemed intent on dodging for nearly a decade. Instead of addressing it head-on they’ve left it up to 3rdparty accessory companies such as Griffin, Belkin and others to satisfy the market demand for radio. Trouble is, as good as these add-ons may have been, they were still add-ons and as such they were at best a consolation prize – a way to get FM on an iPod, but not a very satisfying way to do it.

So finally the iPod has an FM tuner and in true Apple fashion, they’ve included a few tricks that make it much more than just a way to listen to FM. Firstly, they’ve tied the radio to the Nano’s internal memory which means you get a one-hour15 minute buffer of recording time while listening. You can use the Nano’sforward and reverse controls on the click-wheel to go back in time and re-listen to earlier portions of the broadcast. Similarly, you can pause the radio for up to an hour 15 minutes and resume “playback” whenever you wish. Anyone with a PVR will be familiar with this feature and are probably wondering why no one thought of this for radio before.

Here’s a tip for people who like to tune-in to their gym’s TV broadcasts: you need to turn the record function off when listening to the radio, because it adds a 1-2 second delay as it buffers the audio, throwing off the sync between what you’re seeing on the TV and what you’re hearing on the iPod.

Secondly, the FM radio is compatible with a feature known as iTunes tagging. Some radio stations – though unfortunately none in Canada at the moment – support this function which broadcasts the meta-data associated with each song that they play. The Nano can interpret this data and offer the listener the option of adding the current song a “buy later” list. When you next sync your iPod with your PC, this list of tagged songs will appear in a separate list, so that you can instantly order them from the iTunes store. It’s a nifty little feature that the Microsoft Zune has had for some time, though its version of this feature has also been handicapped in Canada due to the lack of a Zune Marketplace in this country. Ever get the feeling we live in a 3rd world country, technologically speaking?

Voice Recorder

There’s not much to say about this feature other than to acknowledge how handy it is to haveit on board a device that can go anywhere. Recording quality is good, but not great, however the mic is more than sensitive enough that if you placed the Nano on a table while you had a conversation with someone (say for an interview), you could easily listen to the recording later on and understand every word – though beware noisy environments!

Internal Speaker

One look at the incredibly thin profile of the Nano and you are stunned that Apple was able to fit a speaker of any kind inside. But somehow they managed it. But before you get your hopes up about being able to share your eclectic taste in music with friends without handing them the headphones, it’s only natural that a speaker wedged into a device this small isn’t going to be delivering much punch. Think of it more as a monitor – a way to check that your recorded what you thought you recorded – either with the voice recorder or the video camera, without needing to jam an earbud in your ear. The sound quality is predictably tinny.

VGA Camcorder

The addition of the ability to record video to the Nano was the big surprise when Apple announced the 5th generation earlier this year. Long a standard feature on cellphones, it has not found its way into many other portable devices. If you want to credit one company with demonstrating the value of having a small, basic camcorder that you can take anywhere that credit goes to the folks at Flip Video. Their introduction of the Flip camera a few years ago proved that people are okay with giving up some of the standard features associated with a video camera if they can have one that fits in their pockets and syncs seamlessly to their PC for easy editing and sharing.

This was clearly Apple’s inspiration for adding a video camera to the Nano. In doing so, they created a video camera that is even smaller and more pocketable than Flip’s standard definition cam.

Apple’s Flip-ization of the Nano is both brilliant and flawed. On the one hand, Apple had the vision to see that the inclusion of 15 video effect filters would dramatically increase the creative possibilities. Budding directors can play with Sepia, Black and White, X-Ray, Film Grain, Thermal, Security Cam, Cyborg, Bulge, Kaleido, Motion Blur, Mirror, Light Tunnel, Dent, Stretch, and Twirl filters. My favourites are Security Cam and Cyborg, the latter of which includes a picture-in-picture, voice-analysis graph and a type of targeting array that makes for a convincing Terminator-style look to the footage you shoot.

This ability to tweak the video you’re shooting definitely one-ups Flip Video in the fun department. However, things get decidedly worse when you go to transfer your footage from the Nano to your PC.

One of the strengths of the Flip is that it carries its syncing and editing software on-board so that you can use it on any PC to which you connect the camera. It includes basic editing features, and the option to upload your videos to YouTube or Flip’s own video-sharing service.

Apple on the other hand, leaves you out in the cold when it comes to doing anything with your clips. Though this may differ depending on whether you use a PC or a Mac.  On Apple’s website, they say:

Connect iPod nano to your Mac, and iPhoto opens and syncs all the video you shot on iPod nano to your computer. It’s just as easy on a PC when you use your favourite photo software. On a Mac, you can browse and edit your videos in iPhoto, too. The video file sizes are perfect for sharing on YouTube or emailing to friends.

Though Apple claims it’s just as easy on a PC, my experience was that absolutely nothing happened when I connected the iPod. If I wanted to do anything with the video clips, I had to open the iPod as a drive letter on my PC and go through the file structure to find the clips, copy them manually to my hard drive and then, well, frankly I got stuck. The Nano shoots H.264 video and saves them as .mov files.  These can be opened easily in QuickTime, which installs when you put iTunes on your PC, but as for editing or converting them to a format that is friendly to YouTube (FLV, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4) you’re out of luck.

I was a bit surprised by this lack of support on the PC side of the equation as Apple has always gone to great lengths to make the iPod a dual-platform device. But for now, it seems, the new Nano is better on a Mac.

Video quality is surprisingly good given the tiny size of the lens. It’s only VGA resolution which means standard-definition as opposed to high-definition, but given that it’s not intended as a full-blown camcorder, the trade-off is worth it.  Audio is quite good too, and is even recorded in stereo which is odd given the single microphone opening on the case beside the lens. By comparison, Flip Video’s Mino HD’s audio is recorded in mono.

Conclusion

The new Apple iPod Nano starts at $169 for the 8GB model and goes up to $199 for the 16GB edition. This is more expensive than the closest model from Sony – the S Series Walkman, which at $159 for the 16GB model offers nearly everything that the Nano does except for video recording, games and pedometer functions. The Walkman also sounds much better than any of the iPod family, in my opinion. But Apple has evolved the Nano into so much more than a media player, it becomes nearly impossible to compare to any other portable media player, at any price.

If you’re looking for the biggest entertainment bang for your buck this holiday season, look no further than the latest Nano. It’s a blast.

A Skater's Take on Tony Hawk Ride

Activision's new video game, Tony Hawk Ride, comes with a wireless skateboard controller

Activision's new video game, Tony Hawk Ride, comes with a wireless skateboard controller

Tony Hawk Ride is a ground-breaking game that seeks to bring the virtual a real worlds ever closer by introducing a special skateboard-deck controller into the gaming arsenal. So while traditional game reviewers can certainly weigh in on what they think of the game, someone needs to ask the question: What do real skaters think? So I asked. The answer came from my colleague, Matt Forsythe, editor over at Push.ca and no stranger to the asphalt-and-road-rash-real world of skateboarding. Better yet, Matt has clocked some serious hours with previous titles in the Tony Hawk game franchise. Here is his take on THRIDE for the Xbox 360…

Despite the Tony Hawk games turning into roller coaster simulations over the past few releases (boring, over-the-top, easily setup tricks [see chart]), I’ve got a soft spot for the series. Being the first game to do a decent job of representing skateboarding, I put more playtime into the demo of the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS) than I have into other full games, sticking with the series until Tony Hawk’s Underground. After losing ground to EA’s competing Skate franchise, the Tony Hawk team has gone for broke with a complete reboot of their series in Tony Hawk Ride. You won’t be able to miss the package in stores: the calling card of Ride is the included motion-sensing skateboard controller that’s a requirement. It seemed like as good a reason as any to give Tony another chance.

Like anyone who skates, first thing I wanted to know right out of the box is if you could actually get some pop on this thing. Thanks to a solid build and some weight, the board doesn’t feel like a cheap toy; you don’t want to shin yourself with this thing. Four visual sensors on the top of the board give it a serious “this thing is high-tech and I shouldn’t break it” feel. I passed on the ollie in case the safety warnings were true (and it wouldn’t be possible to review the game with a broken fake skateboard).

Some advice when getting started: make sure you’ve got a controller handy because if you’ve ever tried navigating a menu with a skateboard, it’s not easy. The inconsistencies of when you can and can’t use the board to get around make things worse. The board has full buttons and a d-pad, but if you’re reaching to the floor for that, you may as well grab your controller (or turn it into a sweet “multiplayer” game. I call menu guy, dibs!).

The basic mechanics of the game consist of balancing this mock skateboard to steer, while making different foot motions to pull off tricks while skating through different levels. There’s three options for how much work you’ll have to do: “Casual” keeps you on rails, leaving you to focus on tricks, “Confident” removes the rails, but supposedly stills helps (I did not get that feeling), and “Hardcore” moves when you move. The funny thing is that the “Hardcore” control setting seemed easier than the “Confident” setting, feeling more like the response of an actually skateboard (well, as close as you might get without trucks and wheels…and actually rolling).
Actually getting to the levels is the next trick. The load times are yawn-inducing, with the constant insistence of re-orienting your board (choosing regular or goofy, which should just be a menu option) adding insult to the wait when you think you’re finally ready to play.

When you get to the “skateboarding”, things get weird. Turns out, you’re going to need actual balance skills to make a real go at the game (which is odd, because real world skill and videogames rarely mix), and that’s just to keep you going in a straight line. Tricks, on the other hand, are a shot in the dark. Performing specific tricks is a crapshoot, devolving to strange ritual dance motions that translate to sick moves on screen. It’s supposed to help that there’s a small on-screen display mirroring your motions on the board, but putting your hand over one of four sensors to perform grabs gets old fast when you can see the display registering your movements, but not translating to tricks in the game.

Any hardcore THPS fan will be familiar with the repetitive stress injuries associated with “start, down, X”, the pause/menu combo used to restart a level while trying to complete one particular, stressful thing in early Tony Hawk games. Without having a controller in your hand, and dealing with vague controls, you have to suffer through chains of challenges with one incomplete piece, waiting for the end of a run to start over…again and again.

With so many points working against it, it was no surprise that I saw more kids at the skate park this weekend in below zero temperatures than were playing this game online.

At a $120 admission price, you’ve got to want to go fake skateboarding pretty badly to get on this Ride. And without anything to lose, I did try: you can actually get some pop on the board. It results in some possibly damaging noises, yet it’s still not as fun as the real thing.

— Thanks Matt!