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.

Archos Helium 50 4G Smartphone Review

Archos LogoFrench firm Archos has been in the smartphone business since 2013 with a range of over 10 models but the phones are still relatively rare outside of their home country. At this year’s CES, Archos announced the Helium 45 and 50, affordable 4G smartphones with 4.5″ and 5″ screens respectively and Archos have kindly sent me a Helium 50 for review. Let’s take a look.

The Helium 50 doesn’t stray far from the classic smartphone form factor: it’s a rectangle with curved corners and there’s nothing really to make it stand out from the crowd – let’s say it could do with a bit more Gallic flair. Dimensions are 145 x 7.5 x 9 mm (5.7” x 2.8” x 0.35”) and weighs in at 160g. The build quality feels good and the rear shell clips on firmly.

Front View

No major surprises – head phone socket on top, volume rocker on left, power on the right and microUSB on the bottom right for charging. Oddly for a new smartphone model, the buttons at the bottom are fixed – they’re not the expected soft buttons – and one of them is a menu button too, which I believe is deprecated on the newer versions of Android.

Rear View

Although a slim phone regardless, the camera isn’t quite flush with the back.

Archos 50 Camera

Perhaps slightly of note is that when you peek inside, between the microSD card slot and the SIM slot, there’s an empty slot that could potentially take a second SIM.

Inside

On paper, the Archos 50 is running Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) on a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm ARM processor, partnered with an Adreno GPU driving a 5” 1280 x 720 (HD) screen with IPS. There’s 1 GB RAM, 8GB storage plus a microSD slot under the back cover. Not cutting edge specs by any means. Running Geekbench 3, the Helium 50 scores 341 in the Single-Core and 1156 in the Multi-Core test (cf 502 and 1499 for the Nexus 4). Disappointingly, although advertised as an 8 GB phone only 4 GB seems to be available to the user. Clearly a microSD should be an early purchase for new owners.

Archos 50 Specs Benchmarks

Initially, the smartphone’s performance seems good. Nova Launcher animations are smooth and games like Shardlands and Iron Man 3 look detailed and fluid with the Adreno GPU earning its keep. Unfortunately after using the phone for a time the lack of RAM becomes noticeable: while running apps work fine, returning to a previous app often requires the app to restart rather than smoothly switching back.

Shardlands

While talking about games, Ingress shows up the Helium’s GPS. While it’s accurate enough once settled, the GPS can be slow to update and sometimes stalls in one place for 20-odd seconds. It’s probably not so much of an issue with less demanding uses but in Ingress, fast and accurate GPS is critical to hacking and taking a portal.

On the plus side, Android seems to be mostly stock Jelly Bean with a few minor tweaks and some custom Archos apps for music, videos, FM radio and file management. The apps are good and in their favour is that they have built-in access to SMB shares and UPnP servers, which is a definite “thumbs up” from me. If interested, the Video Player is available from Google Play to try out on other phones.

Media Menu Media Player

Moving on to the camera, it has the most comprehensive range of settings that I’ve seen on any camera app – there are no less than three separate settings menus with several options that I didn’t have a clue about – “Max longshot NUM” anyone?! Despite the plethora of settings photographs were a little disappointing with the default settings. Even on “Super fine”, photos were a little grainy.

LionZoom In

Finally, in terms of connectivity, 4G is nippy and watching films via Netflix or BBC’s iPlayer is feasible over 4G (but beware the volume caps!) There’s no doubt that this is the future and I can see that this will appeal to commuters on public transport who want to take advantage of the spare time. Obviously speed and 4G availability will be dependent on your mobile operator but I was pleased with EE’s performance when I was able to get a 4G signal.

In conclusion, I used the Archos Helium 50 4G as my daily phone for about a month and it works: it works fine. All the apps run, it has a big screen, it plays music and it’s well-built, but there’s no doubt that the uninspiring design and low RAM drop it down the leaderboard in comparison with other Android smartphones. On the flip side, the Helium 50 is a 4G smartphone with a 5″ screen, priced at only £199 off-contract which is attractive, especially when compared to other 4G phones at twice the price.

Thanks to Archos for the loan of the Helium 50.

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.

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.

Optoma Pico-Projector at The Gadget Show

Optoma specialise in digital projectors with a range going from personal pico-projectors all the way up to professional stacking projectors for large-scale installations. Here at The Gadget Show, Optoma were showing off their  ML750, an ultra-compact LED projector about 12 cm square and 4 cm deep. The picture below doesn’t get over how small the unit is.

Optoma ML-750 Projector

James from Optoma runs through the features of the ML750, which with the addition of a small wireless dongle (the little white object in the top left of the photo) allows presentation and streaming directly from the tablets and smartphones over wi-fi to the projector. The feature works with both Apple and Android devices using a downloadable app.

The native resolution is 1280×800 but will show 720p and 1080i video sources. It’ll even do 3D with additional active shutter glasses, though I’m not sure anyone is interested anymore. Still, the feature’s there.

I’m not a big projector expert, but at the event the ML750 was showing a series of film clips and it was very watchable. Obviously nothing like an HD monitor but for a portable device showing a 32″ display, it was impressive.

Available online for GB£400.

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.

Sony Xperia Z2 at The Gadget Show

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

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….

Kingston Wi-Drive Review

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.