Booq Taipan Shock Backpack Review

booq LogoThe Booq Taipan Shock is a lightweight laptop backpack for devices with screens up to 16″, designed to store the laptop safely in a padded section, placing all the accoutrements of mobile life in other pockets and compartments. As can be seen in the photos, it’s a relatively big backpack at 46 × 33 × 21 cm giving it a large internal volume for plenty of gear. The outer material is 1680D triweave water-repellent polyester closed with YKK zips and all the stitching is neatly finished and taped over on the inside. The specs say it weighs just under a kilo.

Booq Taipan Shock back

Booq Taipan Shock strap sideThe dedicated laptop section is closest to the back side of the Shock and has padding on all sides with a flash of red material. The Shock easily took a chunky HP ProBook with a 15.6″ screen and a more svelte 13″ Lenovo Yoga looked almost lost inside the padded laptop pocket.

Booq Taipan Shock laptop pocket

In the main section, there’s a selection of zipped pockets, netted areas, pen-holders and slots for paper pads. There’s plenty of room for books and lunchboxes too.

Inside the Taipan Shock

Booq Taipan Shock Removable KeyringThe Taipan Shock has loads of neat features. To start with all the zips are YKK’s water-repellent versions, so once closed up the bag will keep gear dry in a rain shower. As the zips are covered with a layer of material, they look neat and tidy, with none of the zip teeth showing. For convenience, one of the side pockets has a detachable keyring, and while the arm straps can be adjusted for fit, any extra webbing can be neatly wrapped and retain with velcro to stop it flapping around. Finally on the rear of the backpack, there’s a pocket that’s just the right size for an ereader or 7″ tablet, which is handy for easy access.

Booq TagsThe Taipan Shock looks very smart in grey but for a bit of brightness a few coloured leather pull-tabs are included which can be swapped in. It’s a neat touch.

Finally, the Booq Taipan Shock comes with Terralinq, a service designed to reunite lost bags with owners. By pairing a serial number on the backpack with the purchaser, the Shock can be returned should it be found.

Overall, the Booq Taipan Shock is a well-made backpack that has plenty of pockets and space for safely toting larger laptops. The Taipan Shock is vailable from Amazon.co.uk with an RRP of £80.

Thanks to Booq for the loan of the Taipan Shock.

Divoom Airbeat-10 Bluetooth Speaker Review

Divoom LogoIt’s rare that products sent for review offer any great surprises: usually gadgets arriving on my desk meet my expectations in terms of build, functionality and price. However, occasionally a device delivers more than expected and I’m pleased to say that this is one such occasion. The Divoom Airbeat-10 punches well above its weight with loudness and clarity that belies its diminutive size. Sorry if this ruined the review but let’s take a look anyway.

The Divoom Airbeat-10 is portable Bluetooth speaker with speakerphone. It’s splashproof and comes with a suction cup and bike mount, though Airboot is just as happy to sit on the table or hang from a hook. A USB to micro-USB cable is included for charging and a 3.5 mm stereo lead comes in the box for devices without Bluetooth.

Airbeat-10 Contents

The Airbeat-10 is about 9 cm along the sides and around 4.5 cm tall. Covered in a soft touch rubber, it’s available in four colours; black, white, red and blue. An LED on the top lights up to show Bluetooth and charging activity, on the side there are four buttons for power, phone functions and volume up/down, along with a covered port for USB charging and 3.5 mm aux in. On the back of the Airbeat is a standard camera screw mount which is used for the suction cup and bike attachment but can be used with other camera accessories such as a GorillaPod. The Airbeat 10 weighs in at 155 g, meaning that it’s not hollow plastic.

Airbeat-10 Buttons

Pairing is straightforward. Turn the Airbeat-10 on, search from the Bluetooth settings on the phone or tablet and pair up. Easy-peasy and time to make some noise.

And this is where the Airbeat-10 delivered well beyond my expectation – it produced rich and surprisingly loud sound for such a small device. Certainly it’s not audiophile hi-fi and it’s not stereo but for a pocket-sized portable device the Airbeat-10 is very good indeed. Music comes across well through the range with little of the tinniness normally associated with small lightweight devices and good amount of lower end bass.

Airbeat Speaker with SuckerI had the Airbeat on my desk for the review period and it was great to have it handy for a quick listen for both music and podcasts. It’s portability and wireless connectivity meant that I could move it round my desk as I needed space. Battery life is a claimed six hours and that seems about right – I found that I needed to charge the Airbeat-10 once or twice a week depending on usage.

The Airbeat-10 is splashproof as well and with the suction mount, it’s ideal for use in the shower. I whacked it onto the tiles with the sucker, started the radio app before stepping in and listened to the morning news in the shower without getting my smartphone wet. Excellent.

There are three minor issues that I found with the Airbeat. First, when using it as a speakerphone, the microphone on the side needed to be pointing at the speaker otherwise the caller on the other end of the line didn’t hear too well. The second was that sometimes “silence detection” seemed to be overly aggressive and between music tracks or between people talking in podcasts, the Airbeat would go silent (presumably to save power) but then there would be a small pop as the sound restarted and the first half-second of speech or music would be lost. Adjusting the volume upwards on the smartphone or tablet usually helped. Finally, the soft touch rubber coating was a bit of a fluff magnet!

These niggles aside, I was impressed by the Divoom Airbeat-10. Although small, the quality of the sound and volume is better than anything I’ve heard at this size, and the portability and wireless connectivity make it the perfect casual speaker whether in the office, in the shower or out-and-about. At this time of year, I’d recommend it to the music Festival crowd and later in the year I’d be suggesting it as a great stocking-filler.

The Divoom Airbeat-10 is available from retailers worldwide with an RRP of £29.99 in the UK.

Thanks to Divoom for the Airbeat-10 for review.

App Review: aTimeLogger 2 for iOS

aTimeLogger2 logoAs a freelancer, time tracking is essential to the work I do. I’m always looking for ways to improve that tracking, so I’ve been trying out different apps lately to help with the task. One of this apps is called aTimeLogger 2. There are some previous versions of aTimeLogger for other platforms. But aTimeLogger 2 is only currently available for iOS and I’ve used it exclusively on my iPad Mini. The app sells for $2.99 in the App Store but I was able to pick it up for free during a special promotional period.

aTimeLogger 2 is pretty straight forward when adding a task. The app opens with a screen that allows you to select from different task categories. aTimeLogger 2 is designed to keep track of EVERYTHING you might do in the course of a day; working, eating, exercising, sleeping, etc. I’m only interested in using the app for work projects, so I selected the Work option from the menu below.

aTimeLogger2 screen

This automatically added a new task at the top of the screen with a new timer that had already started rolling.

aTimeLogger2 screen

 

Tapping the task takes me to a screen that allows me to add some details to the task. The “Type” section was already set to Work, as I selected that on the previous screen. If I wanted to change it to something else, I could do that here. The “My plan” feature has something to do with combining different tasks into a plan. This feature seemed confusing and since I really didn’t need it, I didn’t try to figure it out. I did however use the “Comment” field as a way to give my tasks unique names that made them easier to identify.

aTimeLogger2 screen

This screen also keeps track of any time I’ve added to the task so far and it also has a delete button for removing the task completely from the app.

Tapping the Save button in the upper right-hand corner took me back to the main aTimeLogger 2 screen. I added an additional task just to show that the app allows you to keep track of multiple projects at the same time.

aTimeLogger2 screen

Note: While you can keep track of multiple tasks as shown above, aTimeLogger 2 can only one run timer at a time. I think this is by design, since the app breaks everything down into task categories and the assumption is you probably won’t be doing more than one task at a time.

From here, you can pause tasks and restart them again as needed. This is crucial for the type of work I do, as projects are not always done in a single block of time or on a single day. This is really all I used the app for, and for the most part, it did this well. However, I did notice sometimes that the timer would jump ahead in time when adding details to the Comment fields of tasks. It was easy enough to fix this when it was caught right away. But it was confusing at first, as I noticed some tasks had already logged more minutes (sometimes even hours) than I could’ve possibly used since adding the task to aTimeLogger 2. Once I figured out it was doing this, I just had to tap on the timer and reset it with the “Now” button. Fortunately, this problem only seemed to appear when initially setting up a task. This problem never arose when adding more time to an existing task.

At the end of a tracking period, aTimeLogger 2 will allow you to export all of your tracking data to a CSV or HTML file. Again, all I wanted the app to do was track my time in the Work category. But because it’s designed to track all of your time, there’s no way to remove that pesky “Other” category from the export results.

aTimeLogger2 screen

aTimeLogger 2 has settings and feature beyond what I used it for. For example, you can connect it to Twitter if you’d like the app to tweet when you’ve started/completed a task. You can also change the theme of the app if you’d like it to look different from the default layout (which was perfectly fine for me).

I used aTimeLogger 2 for one month’s worth of task tracking. And while the app is OK, I have trouble recommending it, mainly due to the timer issue I mentioned above. But, if you don’t mind a little babysitting when you first add tasks to the app, or if you’re super interested in timing EVERYTHING you do in the course of a day, aTimeLogger 2 might work well for you.

Archos Connected Scale Review

Archos LogoOver the past few years, we’ve all seen the rise of the fitness tracker and their transformation into wearables. While the goal of encouraging greater fitness is laudable and essential for the future health of the nation, to some extent the tracker is the gamification of fitness. For evidence of weight loss, reduction in BMI and reduced body fat, you need scales (and hard work)….which brings us neatly to the Archos Connected Scale.


Connected Scale

The Archos Connected Scale is a set of stylish bathroom scales which measures weight and body fat transmitting the recordings via Bluetooth to a complementary app on the smartphone. I think these would look good in any bathroom or home gym.

Archos Connected Scale ReadingIn the box, there’s the scales, four AAA batteries plus a couple of guides. Getting going is simply a case of installing the batteries and once they’re in, the Archos scales will measure weight like any other bathroom scales. The display is backlight and lights up with a cool blue.

Of course, the real benefit with these scales is that the readings can be sent to the owner’s smartphone and recorded in the Archos Connected Self app, available for both Android and Apple iOS devices. The app stores information from three different sources to record data on weight, blood pressure and distance from Archos devices the Connected Scale, Blood Pressure Monitor and Activity Tracker.

To get the readings from the scales via Bluetooth, the Connected Scale need to be paired with the smartphone and that’s straightforward: press and hold the Unit button on the rear and then pair as normal.

Archos App User Scale Binding

On the Connected Self app, the first step is to set up a user account and the second is to attach the Connected Scale to the user. With all that done, every time you step on the scale, weight and body fat percentage are transmitted to the app. It’s that easy. As recordings build up, the app can show graphs on weekly, monthly and annual basis. It can also show the data in a tabular form.

Graph Values

If needed, weight measurements can be added manually and some additional information can be added too including blood pressure and heart rate.

In use, the Archos Connected Scale worked well, sending the weight readings to the smartphone. I did have one glitch which was only resolved by re-pairing the scale, but in my experience of Bluetooth devices, this isn’t unusual. One tip for potential users – don’t bother taking your smartphone into the bathroom every day. The Connected Scale will remember several week’s worth of readings and upload them when there is a connection to the phone.

The only downside is that as with all of these wearables and health devices, they don’t talk to each other and each supplier is trying to build their own ecosystem. Simply I can’t load Archos Connected Scales information into my Fitbit app or I can’t load my Fitbit steps into the Archos app. Very frustrating.

With an RRP of £49.99, the Archos Connected Scale is about twice the price of a similarly stylish but unconnected set of bathroom scales. Having said that, the Connected Scale can be found on-line for a little less (£35-ish), which I think makes it a fairly good buy even if you are only looking for stylish bathroom scales.

Thanks to Archos for the loan of the Connected Scale.

Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Amplifier Review

Creative Logo

Creative products always induce a little nostalgia with me as the Creative Sound Blaster Pro was the first ever upgrade that I bought for my PC. Looking back from today and the state of digital audio, it’s hard to imagine that most PCs only went “beep” back in the late 1980s and early 90s. Once I’d installed the SB Pro, I had glorious multichannel stereo sound, and incredibly, Wing Commander II had speech. Look it up kids.

Creative E1 Box

Returning to the 21st century, on review here is the Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier, a battery-powered amplifier supporting high impedance headphones, combined with a USB DAC sound card. In other words the E1 lets you used studio-quality 600 ohm headphones with smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops. Pretty much anything with a 3.5 mm socket or a USB port and it works fine with lower impedance headphones, so let’s take a look.

What’s in the box? Simply, everything that you need to get going in the scenarios outlined above. There’s the E1 amplifier itself plus two bright red cables; a 4 pole (TRRS) 3.5 mm jack audio lead and a USB to micro-USB cable. The first cable is needed for tablets and smartphone listening and the second when using the E1 as a sound card (DAC). Bring your own headphones though.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

There’s a hint of red detailing on the E1 too but you have to look pretty hard to see it. Of course, there’s assorted instructions, warranty and disposal leaflets too.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Glancing over the amplifier itself, the E1 is a lightweight plastic unit with a clothing or belt clip on the back. One end takes the music audio inputs, either digital via micro-USB or analogue through a 3.5 mm audio socket. The other end has the two 3.5 mm audio sockets, one for a set of headphones and one for a microphone or second set of ‘phones. On the side, there’s a power switch, a volume slider, a multi-function button and a small LED.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Enough of what it looks like….what does it sound like? Pretty good actually. I used the E1 in both configurations, first taking an input from a smartphone or tablet and in this instance I was using a Nexus 9 tablet and a OnePlus One smartphone, both with high bit rate mp3s and Spotify. I’m not a total audio geek, so I don’t actually have any high impedance headphones so the testing was done using Sennheiser earbuds and recent edition 414 headphones (the ones with the yellow earpads).

Listening to the E1, there’s no dramatic difference from the source but it does tend to ameliorate the worst aspects of compressed digital audio, reducing the high frequency tinniness and giving it a slightly warmer feel. It particularly worked well with Spotify and other low-bit music sources, smoothing out the treble.

If worn conveniently, the E1 has a built-in microphone to enable hands-free calling. Call comes in, press the multi-function button, take the call. Callers reported that they could hear me well as long as the E1 was close. Clipped to my shirt was fine.

Using the E1 as a sound card is simply a case of plugging in the E1 to a spare USB port via the red cable. I tested with a Windows 8.1 Toshiba laptop, an 8.1 HP tablet via a dock and a Samsung Chromebook, and in all cases it worked out of the box. In this configuration, the presentation of the sound was good and generally superior to the audio provided by the laptop or tablet, especially when listening to Spotify.

Generally, background hiss was kept to a minimum and was only noticeable in the earbuds when I went looking for it, e.g. by putting the source volume down low and increasing the volume on the E1. With the source volume at a normal level there’s no problem and is unlikely to be noticeable with on-ear headphones.

In case anyone is wondering, it’s not possible to use the E1 as a mixer with two sources. Plugging in a 3.5 mm audio jack disconnects the micro-USB input. Sorry.

The E1 works well out of the box, but where it delivers in spades is with the full driver and app package which is downloaded from Creative’s web site. Once installed the software gives tons of extra controls over the E1, in particular allowing the audio response to be customised.

SB Studio

One of the best features is the equaliser which adjusts the frequency response. There are a bunch of presets with the usual suspects from classical to pop and rock, and its also customisable to personal preference. I liked this.

SB Studio

Overall, the E1 portable amplifier does what sets out to do, making compressed audio sound better, whether from an analogue 3.5 mm source or a digital USB connection. The extensive range of features from hands-free calling to audio equalisation is impressive and for those people who live in their headphones, it’s worth considering. The RRP is £39.95 in the UK or $49.99 in the USA.

Thanks to Creative for the loan of the review unit.

Amazon Fire HD 7 Review

fire_hd7

Back in February 2014, I reviewed the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and I was impressed with Amazon’s top-of-the range tablet. Amazon has continued to push their Fire tablet range and the fourth generation of the Fire tablets came out in September 2014. Not only did Amazon bump the spec with the refresh, they bumped the Kindle moniker too, reserving that for the ereaders. On review here, is the Fire HD 7 tablet, Amazon’s offering in the 7″ market. Let’s take a look.

HD Fire 7

In the box there’s the tablet, a travel charger and a USB charging cable. This review unit (courtesy of Amazon) came with a US charger but I imagine that chargers will be supplied according to local requirements.

From the very start the Fire HD 7 is a little bit different from the average tablet with a choice of five different colours – black, white, cobalt, magenta and citron – and obviously this is the white version. I think it would be fair to call the Fire HD 7 as chunky – it’s a little over a 1 cm thick and weighs in at 337g, which specs it very closely to the Nexus 7 2012 but it looks a bit bigger – there’s a bit of trickery going on in that Google devices have narrow chrome bands with curved backs which make them look thinner than they are. Setting the figures to one side, the HD7 feels….fun.

Fire HD 7

Giving the HD 7 a once over, there’s not much to poke at. The front has the main screen and a front-facing camera, on the top side there’s the power button, micro-USB port and the headphone port, and on the left there’s a volume rocker. Round the back, there’s the rear camera and stereo speakers. The rear camera is 2 MP and the front camera is VGA, which seems a bit under-specced for a 2014 tablet but it does record HD video. There’s also a large Amazon logo emblazoned in the middle of the back and not everyone will like the plastic back, though it’s largely a matter of personal taste. Even though the back cover does have a matte texture, it’s not that grippy, so I’d be investing in some kind of case.

Fire HD 7 back

Geek Bench 3Performance-wise, the Fire HD 7 has a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor, with two 1.5 GHz cores and two 1.2 GHz cores. As a result, it scores 766 in single core and 1483 for multicore in Geek Bench 3, putting its performance close to the 2013 Nexus 7 (and much better than the 2012 one). Regardless of what the benchmarks say, the HD 7’s performance in the hand was great.

On powering up, Fire OS looks as good as ever, even on the 7″ display. The screen is 1280 x 800 pixels, giving 216 ppi, which might not be as detailed as some, but the display is good and bright with rich colours that aren’t over-saturated. The carousel style interface works well with apps and media all mixed in together. As before, there are some great touches to the interface with the soft buttons moved to the right-hand side, conveniently under the hand in landscape view but still at the bottom when held in portrait. It’s tempting to review Fire OS but given this is the fourth generation of the tablet, it’s probably unnecessary.

FIre OS Screenshot

However, it’s still all about the apps though, and it’s good to see that the range of apps available in the Amazon Store has increased in the year since I reviewed the HDX. For example, Zinio is now available (though it didn’t want to load on the HD 7) and Mailbox has been released as well, so there’s a great email client too. For the average user, it’s hard to see app availability as an issue.

More than apps, Amazon is about content and as with all Amazon devices, the Fire delivers well. Signing into the Fire HD 7 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 – so managing storage is less of an issue, even on 8 MB devices. Audio playback is good and background noise is minimal, even when listening with earbuds in quiet environments. The rear speakers are one of the highlights of the Fire HD 7, giving surprisingly good sound and add to the atmosphere when watching video.

Amazon Music

For films and TV on demand, Amazon offers its Instant Video – playback of movies is as smooth as you’d expect. I reviewed much of GNC’s CES coverage on the HD 7 and it handled all the video I threw at it.

Amazon Instant Video

As with other Fire tablets, Amazon offers FreeTime, 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 Amazon Fire tablets to families.

Turning to price, the base cost is GB £119 for the 8 GB wi-fi version with “Special Offers” aka adverts. Taking the memory to 16 GB ups the cost to £139. Removing the adverts costs an additional £10 in both configurations.

I’ve been using the Fire HD 7 for over a month now and I like it a great deal. It’s fun, robust, inexpensive and with the parental controls, makes a good choice for a family tablet. The screen might not have the highest resolution but if I hadn’t read the spec sheet, I wouldn’t know or care as it looks great. I enjoyed having the HD 7 around and there were plenty of times when I picked up the HD 7 in preference to my Nexus 9. If you are into the Amazon ecosystem, this would appear to be a no-brainer buy…….

….but the Fire HDX 7 is currently reduced by £50 to £149 for the 16 GB versions albeit with ads. This has a 2.2 GHz CPU and 1920 x 1200 (323 ppi) screen, so personally, I think this is the one to get. Tell you what, buy the HDX for yourself and the HD for the kids. Perfect.

Thanks to Amazon for the loan of the Fire HD 7 tablet.

Devolo dLAN 1200+ WiFi ac Starter Kit Review

Devolo Logo

I’m a big fan of powerline networking and Devolo in particular because it helped me double the speed of my internet connection. It was simple; using one of their adaptors I was able to put my broadband router by my telephone master socket rather than at the end of a long extension lead. In one go, my download speed jumped from around 4 Mb/s to over 8 Mb/s. Result.

Obviously these speeds are trivial in comparison with data transfer rates achieved by gigabit networking and the limiting factor is the internet connection, but where a media enthusiast has set up a DLNA server in a house with multiple playback devices – smartphones, tablets, media streamers, smart TVs, games consoles – significantly higher data rates are needed and this is where the Devolo dLAN 1200+ WiFi ac Starter kit is likely to come in handy. Let’s take a look…

Devolo 1200+

For those who haven’t come across powerline networking before, it’s a way of using a home’s electricity sockets as a network infrastructure. A minimum of two network adaptors are required; plug one into a power socket near the router and connect with a network cable. Plug the other into a power socket near, say, your smart TV, and again connect via network cable. The two adaptors then communicate across the electrical network, connecting the smart TV to the router. It’s that easy.

Opening the box (courtesy of Devolo), there are two network adaptors, two network cables and a getting started guide. As can be seen from the picture, the adaptors aren’t small, but they do have power pass-thru, so there’s no loss of a power socket. Somewhat oddly the bulk of the adaptor points upwards, whereas the older adaptors tend to point downwards and were more discreet. These units are for the UK market, with different plug configurations available for other countries.

Devolo dLAN 1200

Devolo Hard to ReachBoth of the adaptors come with gigabit ethernet ports; there’s one on the smaller unit and two on the larger. The larger network adaptor takes the usefulness of powerline networking a step further with the incorporation of a wifi access point. It’s not just any old wifi either. It’s an 802.11ac implementation meaning that it broadcasts on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, supporting data rates of up to 1200 Mb/s, which is broadly “state of the art” as it stands.

On the box, Devolo helpfully points out some of the areas where ordinary wifi coverage may be less than ideal, including the smallest room. It gave me a chuckle.

Devolo 1200+ Network Ports

Devolo Adaptor AddGetting going with the Devolo dLAN 1200+ is easy. As these adaptors come pre-paired out of the box, all that needs to be done is plug them in and connect up. The LED “house” light on the larger unit will flash red until connection is made and then go solid white – perhaps taking 20 seconds. Introducing the adaptors into an existing network is straightforward as Devolo has great software that helps with this too.

Devolo provides three ways of interacting with the dLAN adaptors. First, there’s a desktop version of their Cockpit software for Windows, Mac and Ubuntu Linux.

Devolo Cockpit PC

Second, there’s an app for iOS and Android. There are currently two apps for Android, Cockpit and My Devolo, both of which do much the same in terms of the dLAN adaptors, but My Devolo appears to be the newer. The screen shots are from Cockpit.

Devolo Cockpit Devolo Cockpit Devolo Cockpit

Finally, there’s a web interface.

Devolo Cockpit Web

The impressive part about the dLAN1200+ WiFi adaptor is that it isn’t just a wifi extender: it’s effectively a fully featured router with DHCP, access control, parental control and guest setup, along with everything else needed to configure the wifi. If the non-wifi dLAN 1200+ adaptor was connected to a pure cable or broadband modem, there would be no need for any other equipment. Very neat.

Devolo Web

Performance-wise, the Devolo dLAN 1200+ seemed both fast and solid. For over a month, I used the dLAN 1200+ WiFi supplied network services for most of the devices in my house, including smartphones, tablets, ereaders, laptops, a Chromebook, Sky+ TV on-demand, and two Roku media streamers. No problems to report with connectivity or stability. In terms of speed, I was able to stream three different HD movies to three tablets at the same time without any glitching or stuttering.

In closing, there are two features of Devolo’s products that I think set it apart from the cheaper end of the market. First, there’s great backwards compatibility with older products; I was able to use three generations of Devolo products in the one network. Second, their comprehensive management software which is available as an app, application and web service.

Overall, the Devolo 1200+ WiFi ac Starter Kit is excellent. The devices themselves are well-made, though perhaps on the large side but it’s a great setup for those where the the living room is far away from the main router. There are two gigabit sockets on the adaptor for any equipment that doesn’t have wireless, plus fast WiFi for those devices that do. With the option of using the 5 GHz frequency for congested areas or to spread the load, the wireless performance is great.

The Devolo 1200+ WiFi ac Starter Kit is available online at around £160, which isn’t cheap but considering what comes in the box, plus the performance and the benefit of getting wifi where you need it, I think it’s value for money.

Thanks to Devolo for the review unit.

Motorola Moto X (2014) Review

Motorola M LogoThe latest iteration of Motorola‘s Moto X has appeared on many end of year lists as the best of phone of 2014. Much as I dislike “best of” lists, I have to agree they’re probably right as the Moto X is an excellent phone. So much so, I’m tempted to simply say that the 2014 Moto X is “the 2013 Moto X – only better”. However, I guess I’d better be a little more rigorous. Let’s take a look.

Motorola Moto X 2014

I’ve spent a little around a month with the Moto X courtesy of Motorola and as an upgrade from my previous workhorse, the LG Nexus 4, it’s a significant jump which is emphasised by the coincidental arrival of Android 5. The Moto X arrived with KitKat out of the box, but upgraded to Lollipop within minutes.

Checking out the specs, it’s a 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 full HD AMOLED screen powered by a Qualcomm 2.5 MHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor supported by an Adreno 330 GPU. There’s 2 GB RAM and 16 GB of storage and a 2300 mAh battery keeps the Moto X going, with Motorola reckoning on around 24 hours use. It’s a GSM phone with 4G LTE on the 1, 3, 7, 8 and 20 bands. Dimensions are 72 x 141 x 9.9 mm (3.8 mm at the narrowest point) and weighs in at 144 g. Broadly, it’s faster, bigger and heavier than the previous generation.

Using Geekbench 3, the latest Moto X clocks in at 1001 single core and 2801 for multi-core with the previous generation Moto X scoring 666 / 1258. The bump in clock speed (1.75 to 2.5 GHz) and cores (2 to 4) are responsible for the big jump in multi-core performance.

Motorola Moto X PowerThe Moto X looks good, and this particular phone is nearly all black with the on/off and volume rocker in a dark grey metal. There are speaker highlights at the top and bottom of the phone too. Using MotoMaker there’s wide range of colour combinations for both the metal frame and the back of the phone, which also comes in a few different materials including leather. Nice.

Motorola Moto X BottomMoving round the phone, the right-hand side has the ribbed on/off button and similar volume rocker. There’s a micro-USB socket at the bottom and 3.5 mm audio jack at the top. I like the left-side clear so it’s easy to rest the phone on the edge and there’s no fiddling around for the volume controls. The back has the rear-facing camera with flash ring and there’s the signature dimple in the back which might have been a fingerprint scanner. Powering the phone up reveals two things….first the screen is even better than last time and second Motorola has still kept it near to stock Android. The full HD screen gives a high pixel density of 423 ppi and everything looks good. True to AMOLED displays, colours are strong and vibrant, though some people may find it oversaturated.

Returning to the user interface, anyone familiar with a Nexus device will be totally at home. It’s all fairly standard and what Motorola has done is to tweak some of the standard apps and include a few value-adding apps which you can use or not use, as you wish. They’re Moto X Motoall pretty good and several have been updated with new names and extra functionality. Both Help and Migrate are much as before and Connect now supports newer devices such as the Moto 360 smartwatch or Keylink tracker.

Moto has replaced the earlier Assist as a personal assistant-type app that sets up rules for when the phone needs to be quiet, based on driving, meetings or sleeping. The new version adds extra features to set up rules for reacting to motion, responding to voice and displaying notifications on the screen. Active Display is still cool – go up to the phone and notifications will fade into view. It’s one of the best Moto features by far. The new Moto X now has Attentive Display too which keeps the screen on when the owner is looking at the phone but turns it off to save power when the owner looks away. Neat.

Camera-wise, some other reviewers gripe that the 13 megapixel camera lets the phone down. I’m not so sure: while it’s not a necessarily a great camera, my photos seemed to me to be an improvement on those taken by the previous generation of smartphone camera. I was able to zoom in further without loss of detail and colour reproduction was good. Frankly, if you want great photos, use a DSLR.

To round off the review, here are a couple of family photos with the 2014 Moto X next to the original and a Nexus 4 snuck in the middle. The new one is bigger but it’s not crazy big like the Nexus 6 or the OnePlus One. I think it’s a good size.

 

Motorola Moto X and Nexus 4

Motorola Moto X and Nexus 4

Reiterating, the Moto X is an excellent phone which is competitively priced, starting at £419 here in the UK, though there are occasional offers that drop the price by good chunk. It feels great in the hand, has a lovely screen and sticks to stock Android while adding value through apps rather than eye candy. I’m seriously considering buying one for myself to replace the ageing Nexus 4, so consider that a recommendation.

Thanks again to Motorola for providing the Moto X for review.

Amazon Fire TV Review

Amazon Fire TVAmazon has been building the Fire brand over the past few years, starting with tablets, moving to media players and streaming sticks, before most recently producing a smartphone. The Fire TV media player has been on-sale in the US for some time, but only came to the UK back in October. I’ve been playing with Fire…..TV for the past couple of weeks. Let’s take a look.

Amazon FireTV Top

The Fire TV unit is an exercise in minimalism, not straying far from the sharp black box look, apart from the Amazon logo on the top and a white LED on the front fascia. Round the back there are five ports for power, HDMI, optical audio, ethernet and USB. Only the PSU is supplied in the box with the Fire TV and an HDMI cable will need to be bought if needed. Although not needing a port, the Fire TV has built-in 802.11n wireless to connect up when ethernet isn’t available.

Amazon Fire TV Rear

To control the Fire TV there is a stick-style remote control in the box along with batteries. The minimalist aesthetic continues with an Apple-esque control wheel and a small number of buttons, all in black with white labels. The picture makes the remote look longer than it is, which is only 5″ or 12.5 cm. The remote uses Bluetooth to connect to the FireTV and comes pre-paired.

Amazon Fire TV remote

Getting going is straightforward – connect the Fire TV to the HDTV via (not supplied) HDMI, insert power, turn on and follow the prompts. To make it as easy as possible, the Fire TV is preprogrammed with the Amazon account of the purchaser but if connected wirelessly, the main setup step is to choose the wifi SSID and enter the password. There’s a short introductory slideshow which introduces the features of the Fire TV include the voice search, which will be covered later.

There’s no easy way of taking screenshots on the Fire TV, so I’m afraid that the pictures below are taken from the TV itself. Sorry.

The overall view is of key areas listed down the left with content on the right. Home, Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Music Library, Games, Apps, Photos and so on. On the whole it’s easy to navigate; select the main content area from the left and then move down through subsections on the right until the desired content or app is visible. The interface is lovely and smooth, especially when scrolling and I never saw any stuttering or glitches. I guess that’s the quad-core processor earning its keep.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the content is heavily Amazon-media centric focussing on Amazon Prime and Instant Video, though it’s not a closed shop, with Netflix and Spotify available for other subscription services, and catch up TV is provided by UK-centric apps for iPlayer and Demand 5, though 4oD and ITV Player are noticeable in their absence. Strangely, STV Player is available which caters for the Scottish part of ITV, so with a Scottish post code much of ITV’s most popular programming can be viewed. There’s a Flixster app for those with UltraViolet DVDs and Blurays.

Home Screen

Video playback was good and clear, especially in HD, whether from Amazon or other apps, such as Netflix or iPlayer. However, the Fire TV does have a trick up its sleeve where it starts to download the video stream in anticipation of playback so the programme starts much faster with far less initial buffering. It only works with Amazon Prime and Instant Video but it’s a neat feature and makes the Fire TV experience more like switching channels on a TV.

Music-wise, the Fire TV offers all the albums and tracks purchased via Amazon, sorted by artist, album, genre etc. The album art is visually attractive and the optical audio out can be used to keep the sound quality as high as possible when connecting to an audio amplifier.

Disappointingly, the Spotify app only offers Spotify Connect functionality which means that a tablet or smartphone is needed to choose what music is to be played. Opinions may differ but I think that’s a bit rubbish and I’d rather see a proper Spotify player which works with the Fire TV on its own.

I tried plugging in a USB stick with some MP3s but I couldn’t figure out how play them so I’ve no idea if it’s possible to play from physical media. There is a Plex client available for those wanting to stream from a PC or NAS, though I didn’t try it out as I don’t have a Plex server.

Fire TV Albums

For folk who upload pictures and photos to Amazon’s Cloud Drive service, naturally the Fire TV can show the snaps on the HDTV and it can also handle personal videos. There’s a nice screensaver that kicks in when the FireTV isn’t in busy and it’s easy to set the screensaver to show photos from the collection.

So far the Fire TV ticks all the boxes for a streaming media player. Movies – check, music – check, photos – check. Where the Fire TV goes to the next level is with apps and games, especially games. The Fire TV can download apps as if it was a smartphone or tablet, but the apps have to be specially prepared by the author for the Fire TV as the user interface is different without a touchscreen. At time of writing, there are over 850 apps for the Fire TV and these can be reviewed on Amazon. There’s approx 8 GB of storage available for apps, though some is already used up by the Fire OS.

Apps and Games

For games, the Fire TV has its own Fire Game Controller for serious gaming action which is purchased separately for a penny under £35. It’s comparably priced to wireless controllers for the PS4 or Xbox but it feels a little overpriced: something closer to £25 would be more in-line with expectations. Purchasers do get a free game, Sev Zero, which is worth £4.99 to sweeten the deal.

Fire TV Games Controller

The Fire Game Controller has the expected collection of analogue sticks, D-pads and shoulder buttons in the standard configuration, with a few extra Fire TV specific buttons. The controller needs to be paired with the Fire TV on first use but after that the game controller can be used alongside the normal remote to control the Fire TV user interface as well as games.

The games selection includes thinking games such as Quell and Machinarium, arcade games like Asphalt 8: Airborne and Sonic the Hedgehog and first person action games like GTA and flagship title Sev Zero, which is given free to purchasers of the game controller. Here’s a long-term favourite, Quell, and this can be played with the standard FireTV remote.

Quell

For arcade racers, there’s Asphalt 8: Airborne. It’s fun but the Fire Game Controller is required.

Asphalt 8

Finally, the Fire TV has one innovation that isn’t usually seen on on media players and that’s Voice Search. Simply press the microphone button on the remote, say what you are looking for, confirm the recognition and the Fire TV will look for content. Here I look for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Kids, ask your parents.

Voice Search

It’s both brilliant yet flawed. It’s brilliant because the voice recognition works surprisingly well but it’s flawed because the search only indexes Amazon’s content. Press the Voice Search button and say, “Despicable Me” and it’ll show me all the variants of the film – the original, the sequel, theatrical shorts – all available on Amazon Prime and Instant Video. But what it won’t show me is the Ultraviolet copy I have in Flixster. It would be truly brilliant if all loaded apps could contribute into the search, even the catchup TV services like iPlayer and Demand 5.

That’s it. Overall the Amazon Fire TV compares well with the competition and if you are into Amazon’s ecosystem, then the Fire TV is a no-brainer buy at the current price of £64 giving easy access to familiar photos, music, movies and games. Even if you aren’t a fully paid-up member of the Amazon fan club, there’s still plenty to recommend with the current selection of apps and games which will undoubtedly grow over time as more broadcasters and app developers get on-board.

Thanks to Amazon for the review Fire TV and Game Controller.

Fitbit Flex Review

Fitbit LogoOver the past year, I’ve noticed more and more people wearing activity tracking devices and here in Northern Ireland I tend to see Fitbits rather than anything else.  Fitbit has been advertising on TV lately too with “It’s All Fit” and I’m sure that there will be a good number of Zips, Flexes and Charges under the Christmas tree come 25th December. I’ve worn a Zip for nearly two years as part of my efforts to keep my weight down and on review today I have the next model up, the Fitbit Flex. Let’s take a look.

FItbit Flex Package

The Fitbit Flex comes in a neat transparent package that shows off the coloured wristband and opening the packaging reveals the fitness tracker itself, large and small wrist bands, a USB sync dongle and a USB charging dock.

Fitbit Flex Contents

The fitness tracker itself is the small black rectangular unit and it’s slipped inside a small pocket in the wristband to be worn both during the day and asleep at night. The wristbands are made of a soft plastic and are available in ten different colours with additional coloured bands on sale from Fitbit’s online store. The large size fitted me well and the smaller one will suit women and children. It’s not obvious in the pictures, but the Flex uses a push-through buckle to keep the band on. It’s a little tricky to get clicked in sometimes, but it keeps the wristband on and in the two weeks of testing I’ve not had any problems with the Flex falling off accidentally. The Flex is supposed to be water resistant to 10m (30ft) and while I didn’t go that deep, it did survive 1000m of surface swimming.

The tracker has a set of LEDs which show through the transparent plastic window on the wrist band. The user interface is simple with five round LEDs used to communicate with the owner and at a basic level, each dot represents a fifth of the way towards the daily target. For example, if the target is 10,000 steps, one LED is worth 2,000 steps. The picture below shows the tracker has measured 6,000 steps, give or take. Normally none of the lights are on but tap on the band at the tracker and the lights come on.

Fitbit Flex

The Flex has an internal rechargeable battery which lasts about 5 days between charges. To charge the Flex up, the tracker unit is taken out of the wristband and placed in the USB charging cradle which in turn is plugged into any available USB port. Charging is relatively quick, typically taking less than an hour.

Getting the activity data off the Flex is easy too, with syncing available between the Flex and both PCs and smartphones. Fitbit is agnostic with clients available for Windows, Macs, Android and iOS, though check compatibility to be sure as the phone or tablet has to support the Low Energy (LE) version of Bluetooth. Syncing with a desktop or laptop is a case of downloading and installing the app, sticking the USB dongle in and getting going. The dongle and Flex are pre-paired so there’s nothing to worry about there. Sync to a phone is similar – download the app from the relevant store and run it. The app will automatically search for the Flex and connect up. A Fitbit login is needed from fitbit.com and signing up for that is free. There’s a full lifestyle portal online which gives access to fitness stats from any web browser.

Personally I used my Flex almost exclusively with my Android phone (Nexus 4) and tablet (Nexus 9). The app shows daily activity, sleep patterns and can record exercise, weight, food and water if the information is added in conscientiously.

Flex Summary  Flex Summar

Different views of the data can be shown – on the left below is a weekly view. Contrary to indications, I didn’t spend Saturday lounging in front of the TV, but forgot to put the Flex on! The Flex can also track sleep patterns, though it can’t automatically detect sleep and needs the wearer to indicate the approximate time of going to bed and getting up.

Weekly Flex Summary  Flex Sleep Tracking

The Flex unit can vibrate too and vibration is used to give feedback to the wearer on attaining goals. It can be used as an alarm as well and although I wasn’t really keen on wearing the Flex in bed, the wake-up alarm worked well for me, prodding me to stir when I’d turned my other alarm off. I don’t normally wear a watch in bed so I did find wearing the Flex at night a little odd but that’s very much a personal feeling.

In the two weeks I used the Flex, I didn’t come across any other problems bar one time that the unit needed reset. I’m not sure what happened: I think I might have tried to sync with the Flex from both phone and the tablet at the same time but resetting the Flex was simple using the normal paperclip-in-reset-hole and no activity data was lost.

I came to this review as a Fitbit Zip wearer and to start with, I did think that the Flex was a little bit of a backward step as I couldn’t see the number of paces that I’d taken – the Zip shows this information on a small LCD screen.  However, over the course of the trial, I’ve got used to it and if I really want to know, I can do a quick sync with my phone to get the data. The Flex is much better than the Zip when it comes to wearing during activity and doesn’t get accidentally pulled off or left in the locker on trousers. The water resistance of the Flex is a bonus too. One downside is that the Flex doesn’t tell the time, so it can’t replace a wristwatch. For many people this isn’t an issue as they don’t wear a watch but for those who do, the Fitbit Charge is perhaps the answer.

The Fitbit Flex is priced at £79.99 RRP but can be found a little cheaper on-line.

Thanks to Fitbit for providing the Flex for review.