Geek News: Latest Technology, Product Reviews, Gadgets and Tech Podcast News for Geeks


Libratone Speakers at The Gadget Show

Posted by Andrew at 1:45 AM on April 21, 2014

Danish audio specialists Libratone are relative new kids on the block, being established in 2009/10, but they’re making a strong impression with their colour co-ordinated hi-fi wireless speakers. I took the opportunity to learn more about Libratone’s range from Tom at The Gadget Show.

Libratone Speakers

Libratone ZippLibratone works with both Apple and Android devices supporting a range of protocols, including AirPlay, Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA, Libratone has four models in the range;
- the Lounge, a soundbar to go below a flatscreen TV
- the Zipp, a cylindrical speaker which is both AC and battery powered
- the Loop, a freestanding or wall-mounting round speaker
- the Live, a freestanding three-sided dipole speaker

All the speakers have removable covers that can be changed to suit the decor, either fitting in discreetly or standing out as a feature. Although it’s difficult to assess the audio quality in an exhibition hall, the demo I heard was suitably impressive and if you are in the market for this kind of product, I would definitely give them a listen.

Sony Xperia Z2 at The Gadget Show

Posted by Andrew at 3:45 PM on April 20, 2014

Xperia Z2The Android smartphone market leaders have all been refreshing their top-end ‘phones, with Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and HTC’s One (M8) already available. Sony’s previously announced Xperia Z2 will be available in the UK very shortly and I chat to Laura about what we can expect in the latest offering from Sony.

At The Gadget Show, I had a chance to play with the Z2 and its 5.2″ full HD (1920×1080) “Live Colour LED” screen looked really good. The handset was responsive, animations were smooth – everything that you’d expected from a top-of-the-line phone. There’s a 20 megapixel rear camera which ought to produce the some excellent photos too given that the Z2′s predecessor had one of the best Android cameras. The Xperia Z2 also has a big battery at 3200 mAh, which is larger than both the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. But the “pièce de résistance” is that the Xperia Z2 is waterproof to 1.5 m for 30 minutes (IP55/58). If you don’t believe me, here’s a scuba diver with a Z2 in a tank.

Xperia Z2 Underwater

Hopefully, I’ll be getting a review smartphone to give the Z2 a more thorough examination.

Safe Games for Kids by Toca Boca at The Gadget Show

Posted by Andrew at 12:45 AM on April 16, 2014

Toca BocaAs a a parent with a tablet-loving daughter, I’m always worried that she’s either playing inappropriate games or else building up whopping a credit card bill via in-app purchases. Being tech-savvy, I can easily rectify the latter by controlling the password to my account, but this doesn’t always negate pester-power. The former is still a concern and I’m not alone as these two issues are relevant to parents everywhere.

To help mums and dads, Swedish outfit Toca Boca, “a play studio that makes digital toys for kids” have created a range of open-ended, non-competitive games that appeal to children where the initial purchase cost is the only time you need to flex the credit card. There are over 20 apps available for Apple, Android and Amazon devices, and include games for young hairdressers, chefs, doctors, vets, chemists, scientists and drivers. The themes are very similar to some of the popular “free” games that are out there; the Toca Boca versions usually cost US$2.99 but there are no subsequent in-app purchases.

I chat to Sonia about the Toca Boca apps and how parents can be more confident in what their children playing on their tablets without the worry of an enlarged credit card bill.

DesignMi Stands at The Gadget Show

Posted by Andrew at 4:25 PM on April 14, 2014

Over the years, I’ve seen lots of innovative ways to hold tablets and smartphones at just the right angle for viewing movies or reading tweets and DesignMi continues that tradition with a great range of stands for all tablets and smartphones, plus a couple of models only for the iPhone. I chat with Bhupesh about these solid UK-made stands.

DesignMi Tablet and Smartphone stands

Machined from aluminium, the stands use microsuction pads to both keep the stand stuck to the table and to hold the tablet on the stand. The larger MiStand has a magnetic ball joint that allows the tablet to be positioned at almost any angle and orientation. There’s a range of colours and the Gadget Show stand had exclusive gold- and platinum-plated versions. POA, as they say.

Platinum MiStand

For iPhone 5 owners, the MiDock is incorporates the Lightning connector so the phone can be charged and synced while in the dock. The stands are currently on pre-order for shipping in May 2014. The larger MiStand is £55 and the smaller MiStand Mini is £18. I’m tempted….

Kingston Wi-Drive Review

Posted by Andrew at 1:20 AM on April 8, 2014

Kingston Technology LogoIn the final review of this series on Kingston storage solutions for smartphones and tablets, I’ll be putting the Wi-Drive portable wireless storage through its paces. We’ve already seen the DataTraveler microDuo and the MobileLite Wireless so what’s the Wi-Drive’s niche? It’s definitely the most stylish; let’s take a look.

Wi-Drive in Box

The Wi-Drive is a slim shiny unit that’s very similar to some of the 2.5″ external hard drives that are on the market. It’s very pocketable at around 12 x 6 x 1 cm and it feels just right in the hand – not too heavy, not too light. At the bottom centre, there’s a miniUSB (not microUSB) port for connecting the Wi-Drive to a PC and for charging. On the side, there’s an on/off button that lights up green when on, turns to orange when the battery is getting low, before going red when it’s just about to die. Finally, on the top surface are two blue LEDs that display WiFi and Internet connectivity status. It’s all very sleek.

WiDrive

Connecting the Wi-Drive to a PC is the easiest way to load the drive with media and as usual, it’s simple drag’n’drop once attached with the supplied USB2 to miniUSB cable. It’s only USB2, which probably isn’t a serious handicap – I think most people will upload movies and music occasionally for more frequent wireless use.

The Wi-Drive works very similarly to the MobileLite Wireless. Turn it on, and the Wi-Drive becomes a wireless access point. Connect to the wireless network with your tablet or smartphone and then use the Wi-Drive app to access files and media on the Wi-Drive.  As with the MobileLite Wireless, the Wi-Drive can itself then connect to another wireless network so that connectivity to the Internet is maintained. However, unlike the MobileLite Wireless, I did have a problems connecting to other wireless networks – I couldn’t get a successful bridge connection to either a Sagemcom F@ST2504n or a Netgear WNR2200 router. I did successfully connect through to a Huawei E586.

The Wi-Drive app is available for Apple, Amazon and Android devices and I tested it on a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ tablet, a Nexus 10 tablet and a Nexus 4 smartphone. Frankly, the Wi-Drive app is disappointing – it’s like an early beta of the version that was finally deployed with the MobileLite Wireless. While app broadly works and is stable, the user interface is dated, the photo thumbnails are miniscule, the music player is clunky and there’s no use of a tablet’s larger screen. Here are a few screenshots to illustrate my point.

Wi-Drive browser Thumbnails

Music Player Wi-Drive Web Interface

Handily, there is also a web interface for both configuration and for accessing the media, which is great for PCs and Chromebooks; you can see this in the bottom right screenshot. The IP address is always 192.168.200.254 so it’s easily bookmarked.

On the positive side, video playback is smooth and glitch-free, and looked great on the tablets and as with the MobileLite Wireless  you can stream to three devices simultaneously. In terms of video playback, I felt that the Wi-Drive had the edge over the MobileLite Wireless as the latter occasionally stuttered. Battery life was also good: Kingston’s specs for the Wi-Drive say four hours but I was able to get about 10 minutes more with continuous video playback before the Wi-Drive died.

That covers the main areas of the Wi-Drive and to summarise, the Wi-Drive is good-looking and convenient device which is let down in a couple of areas, particularly by the Wi-Drive app. To me, it’s still a beta product that needs the last few bugs ironed out. The 32GB version is available for a little over GB £40 and expect to pay around £70 for the 64GB one.

Looking at all three Kingston storage devices, what are the pros and cons? For a single user with an Android smartphone or tablet that supports OTG, the microDuo is hard to beat as you get lots of storage for not very much money, though it’s going to stick out the side. The MobileLite Wireless will suit those who use SD cards or USB memory sticks as it’s a useful all-round tool for removable storage and although I wasn’t able to test with Apple devices I imagine this might be particularly handy for those owners. Finally, the Wi-Drive is the most stylish and a better choice where children are involved as there’s nothing small to lose or forget. Just get it fixed, Kingston, as it could be great.

Thanks to Kingston for all the review units.

Dropcam Cloud-based Wi-Fi Video Monitoring

Posted by Andrew at 10:17 PM on March 23, 2014

Dropcam LogoDropcam has been a sponsor here at GNC for several months but if you haven’t clicked through on any of the links, this is your opportunity to see a Dropcam in action. Don Baine chats to Elizabeth from Dropcam about this cloud-connected webcam.

The Dropcam is a wireless 720p webcam that connects easily to your home network but can be accessed across the internet, letting you check up on what’s happening while you aren’t there with your smartphone – both Android and iOS devices are supported. Motion-activated notifications can alert you to unexpected activity and a subscription-based video recording facility gives the ability to rewind and see what happened earlier. Overall it’s a complete solution that goes beyond an internet-connected webcam.

The Dropcam comes in two models, the standard Dropcam and the Dropcam Pro, priced at $149 and $199 respectively.

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor for the TechPodcast Network.

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Kingston DataTraveler microDuo Review

Posted by Andrew at 3:30 AM on March 18, 2014

Kingston Technology LogoThe Kingston DataTraveler microDuo is a solution to the problem many smartphone and tablet owners face when you have a pile of important files on your USB flash drive that really need to be on your device: your flash drive has a normal USB plug and your Android tablet has microUSB socket. Big into small isn’t going to go, and the USB to microUSB cable you have isn’t going to work as it’s plug to plug.

Kingston DataTraveler microDuo

Into this niche steps the Kingston DT microDuo. It’s a flash drive that has a USB plug on one end and a microUSB plug on the other. If you are using it with your PC, use the normal USB end; if you want to use it with your smartphone or tablet, flip the cap off and plug it in. It’s simple and brilliant.

Kingston DataTraveler microDuo Closed

As you’ll see from the pictures, the microDuo is pretty small – it’s under 3 cm long and isn’t much wider than the USB plug itself. A small lanyard is supplier to attach the microDuo to a keyring.

The other benefit is that it’s much faster than using wireless file transfers. Dropping a couple of GB of movies or music onto a tablet via 11n still takes minutes but copying over from the memory stick only takes seconds. Of course, you can play the media directly from the flash drive which is handy if your tablet is short on memory too.

In practice, the microDuo works as advertised – I was able to copy files onto the flash drive from my PC and then either copy or use directly from the microDuo to my tablet. What more can I say?

Kingston DataTraveler microDuo OpenHowever, there is a caveat with this solution and that’s the smartphone or tablet must support OTG (On The Go) where the port can act as a USB embedded host. Many recent devices support OTG, including the HTC One Max, Nexus 10 and Nexus 5, and even then sometimes additional software is required. There’s a list of OTG-supporting devices here and an online search will usually reveal other people’s experiences with your device.

The DT microDuo comes in a range of capacities (and RRP prices).

  • 8GB - £3.85
  • 16GB - £6.22
  • 32GB - £11.65
  • 64GB – £TBC

Those prices are competitive against standard flash drives – there’s only a pound or two in it – so if you are looking for a new flash drive and you have an Android device with OTG, it’s a “no brainer”, as they say.

Thanks to Kingston for the Data Traveler microDuo flash drive provided for review.

HTC One Max Smartphone Review

Posted by Andrew at 6:19 AM on March 14, 2014

HTC LogoHTC are expected to announced a new iteration of their One smartphone in a few weeks, but here today I have the current version of the HTC One Max on my desk. And it’s definitely on my desk, because this is not a small phone, no. With a whopping 5.9″ screen this easily the largest phone I’ve ever handled, verging into phablet territory. But is it too big? Let’s take a look.

As you’ll see from the pictures, the One Max looks broadly the same as the standard One, with the top and bottom speakers. Although it’s not obvious in the photograph, the curved aluminium back raises the phone off the desk, making it easy to pick up off a smooth surface. The build quality seems good, although I’m not a big fan of the hard plastic bevel round the edge.

HTC One Max Front

Using the One Max, it’s clear this isn’t a phone for one handed use. With a bit of effort, I can use my Nexus 4 single-handedly, but there’s no way I can do this with the HTC. You also know that you’re holding it, as the One Max is a relatively heavy phone at 217 g. It’s not really a surprise – more glass, more metal, more battery – it’s going to weigh more.

Looking round the back, the cover pops off using a small release mechanism making it one of the easiest phones to get into. Inside there’s the slot for the micro SIM and a microSD card (top right). Re-attaching the rear cover is a straightforward and during the review period, I didn’t have any problems with the back coming off accidently.

HTC One Max Back  Naked HTC One Max

Observant readers will have spotted the strange black square underneath the camera; that’s the fingerprint reader to which we will return. Round the edges, there’s an IR port and headset socket along the top; volume rocker and on/off down the right, micro USB connector on the bottom and back release up the left. USB OTG is supported via the micro USB so files and media can be transferred with the appropriate adaptor. I did find that the positioning of the on/off button close to the volume rocker led to a bit of fumbling at times – a bit more space between the two wouldn’t have hurt.

It’s difficult to get an idea of the size of the One Max but here’s a picture with the HTC alongside an LG Nexus 4 and an Apple iPhone 5. Yup, it’s big, but it is a lovely screen with a full HD display at 1,920 x 1,080.

HTC One Max, Nexus 4 and iPhone 5

Moving on from the physical size, the One Max runs Android 4.3 with HTC’s Sense UI. Whether you like Sense UI or prefer vanilla Android is entirely a personal preference but there are some nice touches. If you are big into your social networks, the phone’s home screen is taken over with BlinkFeed which pulls information from your networks and displays it in a magazine style. It’s nicely done. I did find it a little frustrating to have to double tap the “home” icon to get to the list of recently run apps, but I’m sure you’d get used to that if the One Max was your daily phone.

BlinkFeed  Recently Run

There are a few extra apps included too, including a remote control app that uses the IR port to control TVs and other AV devices. If you have children, the most significant is the Zoodles Kid Mode app which creates a safe environment for children to play with the Max and keeps them away from your vital data.

Zoodles Kids Geek Bench 3

Play is definitely something the One Max is good at. Processor-wise, the One Max is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor 1.7 GHz quad-core CPU, scoring 640 / 1977 in Geekbench 3 (cf 500 / 1344 for the LG Nexus 4). In practice, the phone is quick, and plays games and movies smoothly. I’ve been having a blast with Zombie Gunship recently, but music and video is where the Max excels. The bigger screen is good but what really sets the phone apart are the stereo speakers which deliver superior sound for the size of device.

Battery life was impressive. Ok, so it has 3300 mAh battery, which is at leat 50% more than the average smartphone but it was great to get throught the working day with plenty of juice to spare. Combined with the large screen, it’s the perfect Ingress phone!

The camera is good too, with a much improved camera app that adds both Instagram-style filters and several cool editing effects including removing unwanted objects, such as people, from photos. You can also create action shots that combine images into a single shot – my efforts to do this were a bit rubbish so I’m not going to share them with you but the camera and apps are definitely one highlights of the One Max as the larger screen really helps with the editing process.

Finally returning to the fingerprint sensor, this is a neat but slightly flawed feature. Simply, the One Max can use your fingerprint to unlock the phone instead of a PIN or similar. Setting it up is straightforward and it works as advertised. Swipe your finger across the pad, and hey presto, phone unlocks. The two problems I had were these: first the fingerprint sensor is very close to the camera and many times I found myself swiping the camera lens, not the fingerprint sensor, and the lens gets grubby. Second, over time I found that the accuracy of the sensor seemed to fall, presumably because of subtle changes in my finger. Re-registering the fingerprint would solve the problem for the next few days, but eventually it would begin to take a a couple of swipes to get in, rather than just one. When it works, the fingerprint sensor is very convenient for unlocking the phone and despite much trying, I never managed to get the phone to unlock using the wrong finger or someone else’s finger.

To sum up, the HTC One Max is a powerful smartphone with a big screen. It’s great for games and entertainment, and the camera is one of the best I’ve used…..but I don’t think I’d buy one. It was useful to have around during the review period but overall it’s too big and heavy to be my daily phone. As a secondary device, it’s great and in many instances, could replace a 7″ tablet, but then again it’s more expensive, so it’s difficult to see the Max’s niche. However, if you are thinking of a phablet-style device for whatever reason, do give the One Max your consideration as I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Thanks very much to HTC for the loan of the One Max.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ Review

Posted by Andrew at 11:37 AM on February 13, 2014

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9Any seasoned tech watcher will have noticed that Amazon is quietly building a third mobile ecosystem, competing against Apple’s iTunes and Google’s Play. Starting with the original Kindle ereader, the environment has grown into tablets and currently the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ tablet sits at the top of the food chain. And very tasty it is too. Let’s take a look.

Kindle Fire HDX Front

On first inspection, the HDX is black and angular. It’s kind of like a stealth tablet, with radar-reflecting angles on the back and the sides. It’s very different from say, the curves of the Nexus 10, but it’s a refreshing changing and Amazon further plays on the theme with the Origami case. Giving the HDX a once over, there’s not much to poke at. The front has the main screen and a front-facing camera, on the sides there’s the micro-USB port and the headphone port, and on the back there’s the power button, volume rocker, rear camera with flash and stereo speakers. The rear camera will do 1080 and the front, 720p HD. There’s also a large Amazon logo emblazoned in the middle of the back.

HDX Rear

Taking hold of the HDX, it feels good in the hand weighing in at 374g, which is light enough to hold in one hand but heavy enough that it doesn’t feel cheap. The rubberised back is grippy too and  the buttons on the back of the HDX for power and volume come nicely to the hand – a good touch which makes the tablet feel designed for use rather than style. Not everyone will like the plastic back, but it’s largely a matter of personal taste.

On powering up, the HDX and Fire OS come into their own. The screen is absolutely stunning at 2560 x 1600 pixels, which is equivalent to 339 ppi. (The Nexus 10 has the same resolution but in a larger physical screen). Amazon’s Fire OS takes full advantage of the screen with a gloriously smooth “flow”-based interface. There are some great touches to the interface with the soft buttons moved to the right-hand side, conveniently under the hand, instead of at the bottom.

Flow

It’s all about the apps though, and at first I was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be the same range of apps available in the Amazon Store as would be in Google Play. In terms of sheer numbers, there are far fewer apps than in Google but if you are a mainstream user who rarely veers from the path of popularity, you are going to find all your apps here. I went through my commonly used apps and mostly they were there. Office Suite Pro – check; Feedly Reader – check; Netflix – check; Facebook – check; Guardian newspaper – check; Fitbit – check. Where an app was missing, it tended to be one from a competitor, so no Google+, no Zinio, no YouTube. Of course, you can still access these services via the web browser but it tends not to be an optimal experience.

Apps

Some of native apps are better than the equivalent Google versions. Calendar in particular is functionally better than the Google equivalent, and both Contacts and Email are a whole lot more attractive, although the later doesn’t haven’t the deep Gmail integration. Pure Android persists with a largely flat UI, whereas Fire OS has subtle shading and hinting that gives a lovely 3D effect without being distracting.

The 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor has plenty of power, and action games benefit from this. There are lots of good games, but action apps like Iron Man 3 or Asphalt 8 show off the HDX’s capabilities to best effect.

Iron Man 3

More than apps, Amazon is about content and here the Kindle Fire delivers in spades. Signing into the Kindle Fire with your Amazon credentials instantly accesses all your books, music and video content. It’s easy to switch between content that’s on the device and content that’s still in the cloud – there’s a simple toggle on the top right. Audio playback is good and background noise is minimal, even when listening with earbuds in quiet environments.

Cover Art

For films and TV on demand, Amazon offers LoveFilm in the UK and there’s a 30-day free trial for all HDX owners. Playback of movies is as smooth as you’d expect, but the coolest feature is X-Ray, a link with IMDb which offers movie and actor information based on the film or programme being watched. It’s pretty slick and I think we can expect more of this kind of experience-enhancing app in the future.

The HDX has some other nice touches too. Kindle FreeTime is a parental controls app that lets Mum and Dad add apps and content to a child’s profile. Access to the web browser and social networking apps is restricted and the amount of play time can be controlled as well. It’s well done and increases the appeal of the HDX to families.

Turning to price, this is not a budget tablet nor is it intended to be. This is a high-end device and the price reflects this: the base cost is GB £329 for the 16 GB wi-fi version with “Special Offers” aka adverts. The top-of-the range 64 GB 4G HDX without ads will set you back £489. For comparison, the larger 16 GB Nexus 10 is available widely for around £250 and the squarer iPad Air is £399.

I’ve been using the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ for a bit over a month now and I like it a great deal. Sometimes I’m frustrated by the non-Android way of doing things or the lack of a particular app, but other times I’m in love with it – Fire OS is very well presented. The animations are smooth, the touch-screen highly responsive and the layout of the soft buttons on the right is great design. If you are looking for something between the frontier that is Android and the closed confines of Apple, it’s a perfect match and if I was recommending a higher-end tablet to a non-geek friend or relative, the HDX would come high up the try-out list. And Google, you need to up your game.

Thanks to Amazon for the loan of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″.

Vivitar Camelio Tablets

Posted by Andrew at 4:38 PM on January 31, 2014

Vivitar LogoJill Larson from Vivitar shows off their family-friendly 7″ Android tablet to Don and Todd, explaining what makes Vivitar’s offering compelling in an otherwise crowded market.

The 7″ Android tablet has been a massive success with almost every tech company getting in on the action. Vivitar’s Camelio is aimed squarely at families and its unique selling point is “personality packs” which are based on cartoon characters and other favourites, such as Hello Kitty, Monster High, Hot Wheels and WWE. The pack includes a themed bumper case as well as customised wallpapers, widgets and lock screens. Spec-wise, the 2014 Camelio seems to be middle of the road with Kit-Kat, dual-core processor and 8 GB RAM. As the MSRP is only $99.99, much of this is forgiven. An even smaller screened version is on its way as well, the Camelio Mini, with a 4.3″ screen and it will interesting to see how well that succeeds. Both versions are expected in July: keep your eye on www.cameliotablet.com.

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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