Read An eBook Day

Read an ebook dayJust in case you were going to miss it, Thursday is “Read an a eBook Day“, a celebration of modern storytelling. Surprisingly, it’s not sponsored by Amazon on behalf of the Kindle but rather OverDrive whose apps let you borrow library books for free. Yes, for free.

It’s probably one of the best keep secrets in the whole tablet and ereader business. Contrary to what Amazon would  have you believe, you don’t have to buy ebooks from them as there are plenty of up-to-date novels available from your local library. The downside is that transferring books isn’t that slick and you need an ereader that’s not tied in to the Amazon ecosystem. I have a Nook, but ereaders from Sony and Kobo are supported as well, and you need to load the books via a PC rather than downloading across the Net.

If you have tablet, it’s much easier as the OverDrive app is available for iOS, Android, Kindle and Windows Phone, as well as for Windows and Mac desktop platforms. Check the appropriate app store or else try OverDrive‘s web site. Once you have the app, all that’s needed is a membership of a library and you can download directly from your library to your tablet.

Instead of “Read an eBook Day”, Thursday should be “Read a Free eBook from your Local Library Day”.

Long Term Hulu Plus Thoughts

hulu_plusI have been using Hulu Plus for several months, and I have a few additional comments about the service.

I tend to watch lots of science documentaries. Over time, I’ve seemed to nearly exhaust the documentaries available on Netflix and Amazon videos. One of the things I really like about the Hulu Plus is that it includes shows from the BBC, Canada and Australia. This opens up a new world of high quality documentary material that isn’t available to me otherwise.

From a technical streaming point of view, the service always seems to stream well. I have encountered no server issues streaming either via DSL or mobile data connections.

The various Hulu Plus apps themselves do have a few issues. I regularly use the iOS, Android and Roku versions of the Hulu Plus apps. The interfaces seem mostly straightforward, though there are a few quirks and differences from one app to the next.

The biggest problem I’ve encountered is the service being able to remember where I’m stopped at in an individual video as well as a series of videos. For example, let’s say I’m in the 5th episode of a season. The service may or may not remember that I’ve already watched the previous 4 episodes.

Additionally, if I pause in the middle of a video, there’s at least a 50% chance that if I come back to the series later, instead of starting me out exactly where I was in the paused video, the service will kick me to the next episode even though I haven’t finished watching the prior episode.

These synching problems seem to be consistent across all of Hulu Plus’ apps. I can use only one app, say on my iPad Air, and will likely encounter the synching issue the next time I open the app to try to get back to where I left off. Moving to a different device entirely I will still encounter the same synching problem.

These synching issues are areas where Netflix and Amazon really seem to have this nailed down and leave Hulu Plus lagging behind.

Even with the synching issues, I really like Hulu Plus and make extensive use of it. In my view it is well worth the $8 monthly charge.

Optoma ML1500 DLP Projector Review

Optoma LogoThe Optoma ML1500 DLP Projector is a stylish ultra mobile LED projector which pretty much does it all in a very neat little package with a good complement of ports, connections and fun tricks. Let’s take a look.

Optoma Front

Measuring just 27 x 17 x 4.5 cm and weighing only 1.4 kg, the ML1500 is very portable and comes with a neoprene carrying case. As you’ll see from the photos, the projector is attractively styled, with the ports on the back and a touchpad on the top. The touchpad can be used to operate the built-in menus to control the ML1500 and there is also a supplied remote control for when changes need to be made from afar. On the bottom, a third leg can be screwed in and out to adjust the angle, and a standard photo mount allows the projector to be hung from above. Finally, a lever on the side controls the focus.

Optoma ML1500 Rear

Round the back there is a plethora of connections, with composite video, HDMI and VGA connectors, 3.5mm jacks for audio and microUSB, USB and SD card slots. Connect up the ML1500 to a PC or laptop and it appears as an Optoma WXGA (1280×800) monitor and with suitable OS, you can do the usual tricks of either reproducing the current desktop or extending the desktop to the ML1500’s display. Locking onto the VGA signal took a second or two, but nothing out of the ordinary. The small size of the projector meant that I could keep it on my desk and if I needed to have an impromptu team meeting that needed something shown, I could quickly turn the ML1500 onto a nearby wall, rather than everyone huddle round a monitor.

Optoma ML1500 Remote ControlOn the fun side, the ML1500 makes a good partner to mini media streamers like the Roku Streaming Stick or Chromecast. The stick can be plugged into the ML1500’s HDMI sockets and power pulled from an adjacent USB socket. All set and good to watch Netflix or other streaming service with minimum of fuss.

The ML1500 does a few other tricks up its sleeve (or USB port as the case may be). First of all, the projector has a built-in media player and office document viewer that will show films, play music and display Word, Excel, Powerpoint and PDF files directly from either an SD card or USB memory stick. I didn’t deliberately try to break the viewer but the ML1500 managed to cope with all the Office documents that I threw at it. It’s relatively easy to navigate round the documents and zoom in or out with the remote control. The on-screen menus are easy to navigate with large friendly icons showing the way.

Playing movies is cool too, with the ML1500 handling mp4, avi and mov format files (though I didn’t confirm the codecs inside each). The presentation is good with the projector keeping up with the action and the picture is fine in unlit room – it doesn’t need to be darkened. Obviously you can have a pretty big screen if you want – I watched a couple of films and really got into the cinematic feel of things. Colours were good and sound is ok – it’s not hifi but you can connect up via a 3.5 mm jack if you want more oomph.

Optoma WiFi DongleNext on the list of clever things is the USB wifi dongle which plugs into the ML1500. Once connected to the “Optoma Display” wireless network, you can use an app on your smartphone or tablet to play presentations and display media. I used WiFi-Doc on Android and the app is available for iPhone and iPad too. It’s easy to use – select what you want to show and it’ll be shown by the ML1500. You can zoom in and out of photos and documents, and about a second later, the projector will update to show the change. Here’s the app showing a photo of the house that Mel Gibson used while filming Braveheart. The app wasn’t quite as good as the built-in player when it came showing office files as a couple of pdfs had missing images.WiFi-Doc App

A final nifty feature was auto-keystone correction, where the ML1500 automatically adjusts the projection to account for the angle of the projector, which means that the picture on the screen is always rectangular and not fatter at the top than the bottom.

One minor niggle is that adjusting the focus has to be done manually and it can’t be corrected using the remote control. Not a big deal in most circumstances but could be an issue if the projector was mounted high up.

Although I’m not a projector expert, I enjoyed putting the ML1500 through its paces. Its comprehensive ports and built-in media player make it a good choice for both business and pleasure, and for those on the move, the low weight and PC-free capabilities, are attractive. I think it’s priced about right too at under £700.

Thanks to Optoma for the review unit.

Grovemade Adds a Touch of Grain to your iOS Devices

Grovemade iPhone CaseGrovemade is a company that makes handcrafted goods in their workshop. This includes iPhone cases and MacBook and iPad sleeves that include real wood. Their products are 100% made in Portland, Oregon.

The Grovemade iPhone Case is made from renewable bamboo, walnut, or maple hardwoods. These woods were selected for their durability. The cases are precision milled from a solid block of wood. Each case is hand-sanded and oiled for a craftsman-like quality. You can choose the wood you like best and select a plain surface, a solid surface, or a surface with a tree engraving. You can choose from a black or white bezel to match your iPhone. These cases are compatible for the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S.

Grovemade also makes premium wood veneer sleeves that protect MacBooks and iPads. The sleeves feature geometric contouring that is created from laser cut Eastern Hardrock Maple or Oregon Walnut, and are hand-sanded and oiled for a craftsman-like quality. Each sleeve is lined with premium German wool (to prevent scratches and scuffs).

It includes a brass and leather strap that enables you to effortlessly remove MacBooks and iPads in one swift motion. These sleeves are compatible with the iPad Mini, the iPad Mini with Retina Display, the iPad Air, and the 13 inch MacBook Air.

iPadlock

iPadlockiPad Air Frustrations

My current iPad Air is a frustrating device. It has so much obvious potential, but its functionality is deliberately being hamstrung by Apple itself.

There are certain tasks I’d like to accomplish with the aid of my iPad Air in conjunction with my other devices that seem difficult or impossible because of Apple-imposed restrictions. Most of the time, I would like to be able to easily move my files to and from the iPad for processing.

Apple seems to still be trying to position the iPad primarily as an iTunes storefront complete with DRM, thus hobbling the iPad’s potential as a real-world productivity device.

Unless I want to jailbreak it so I can do what I want to with it, I’m ending up using it mostly as a very expensive streaming video player. Jailbreaking really isn’t a good answer either. Software apps are continually being updated, which ultimately will interfere with the jailbreak.

The restrictive, claustrophobic nature of iOS is becoming ever more apparent, especially since having moved to a Galaxy Note 3. I am finding that I’m doing ever-more real-world work with the phone that I’d like to be able to do on the iPad Air’s larger screen.

Why does Apple have to be so frustrating? My first years with Apple computers and moving away from Windows was a very positive experience. Apple computers seemed worth the premium price because everything just worked with minimal frustrations.

At this point it seems like I’m constantly running into locked doors.

ReSound LiNX Hearing Aid at The Gadget Show

Danish firm ReSound launched their iPhone-connected hearing aid, LiNX, at the Gadget Show. The world’s first “Made for iPhone” hearing aid uses both the technology and usability features of the Apple iPhone to bring hearing aids to a generation of users who expect more from their technology than the current generation of aids.

The hearing aid itself is discrete and fits neatly over the ear and pairs with the iPhone much like any other Bluetooth headset.

ReSound LiNXReSound LiNX In-Ear

Once this is done, the benefits of having a smartphone-connected hearing aid become apparent. Starting with the obvious, phone calls can be re-directed from the phone to hearing aid, again just like a Bluetooth headset. Similarly, audio from music and video apps will play through the hearing aid, giving the wearing a much better experience than they’re used to.

Moving on, an iPhone (or iPad) app lets the amplification level be adjusted from the iPhone without fiddling around the ear. Who thinks anything of anyone using their smartphone in a public place now? The frequency response can be adjusted too, suiting both the wearer and the environment that they find themselves in, whether at in the quiet at home or a noisy restaurant. Background noise can be filtered out and speech enhanced.

ReSound LiNX

This is where it starts to get really clever. By using GPS and geo-fencing to locate the user, previously saved settings can be automatically selected based on location. For example, if the wearer frequently goes to a local bar, the GPS location and hearing aid settings are saved so that the next time the wearer goes to the bar, the settings are reused.

ReSound LiNX app

David from GN ReSound takes me through the features of the ReSound LiNX in more detail. After the interview I had an “ears-on” trial of the LiNX and it was impressive with a well-designed app. I’m not hearing-impaired so can’t comment on the audio enhancing features, but I could hear the effects of the different frequency responses.

Payleven Mobile Payments at The Gadget Show

Payleven Chip and PINOne of the common problems facing start-ups and small businesses are the costs associated with taking credit card payments. The transaction costs can be high for small turnovers and point-of-sale machines are expensive with a monthly rental fee. To counter this problem, Payleven offers a low-cost mobile payment solution for European businesses using a Chip’n’PIN card reader that uses Bluetooth to communicate with both Apple, Android and Amazon smartphones and tablets. The Chip’n’PIN unit costs only GB£60 (ex-VAT) with a transaction charge of 2.75%. Payleven have partnered with GoTab to offer a complete solution for around £250 including a tablet and the card reader.

The approach is similar to US-based Square, but as Chip’n’PIN is only beginning to be required across the pond, Square’s reader unit is a simpler card-swipe device that plugs straight into the smartphone. Having a full Chip’n’PIN card reader in Europe is a necessity but the independent unit makes the transaction look much more professional anyway.

Simon from Payleven tells me about their solution and takes me through some of the features.

Libratone Speakers at The Gadget Show

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.

Safe Games for Kids by Toca Boca at The Gadget Show

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

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….