Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens for Samsung Galaxy Review

Olloclip LogoFor the “point’n’shoot” photographer, smartphones and their built-in cameras have almost completely replaced the compact camera which has seen a huge drop in sales over the past few years. Despite the handiness of the smartphone camera and the myriad of post-processing effects beloved by Instagram, there are times where the problem is getting the right image in the first place. Smartphones with macro or wide-angle lenses aren’t common.

This is where Olloclip saw a gap in the market and via a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011, developed a selection of clip-on lenses for the iPhone and iPad, including macro, fisheye and wide-angle lenses. These have become fairly well-known and I’ve even seen a few people using Olloclips on their iPhone in real life. Not content with Apple owners having all the fun, Olloclip have launched a version of the 4-in-1 lens for the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5. Let’s take a look.

The 4-in-1 lens system for the Galaxy S4 consists of a mounting bracket that holds two macro lenses and two additional feature lenses that screw in on top of the macro lenses. One of the lenses is a fisheye and the other wide-angle. The bracket is well-made, with metal inserts to hold the screw-in lenses and the lenses are glass; by using different threads on the bracket, it’s not possible screw in the wrong lens. The bracket can be attached from the left or the right to get the correct lens in front of the phones camera. Take a look at the pictures of the Olloclip below to see how it all works.

Olloclip with Lenses

Olloclip with Lenses Removed

Samsung with Olloclip

In use, the Olloclip is straightforward – clip on the bracket with the lens you want to use in front of the camera and then start taking pictures using your favourite camera app. Simples!

To test out the Olloclip 4-in-1, I used a Samsung Galaxy S4 borrowed from a colleague and got snapping. Here are a few macro pictures that I took of a coin and the detail is impressive.

Olloclip Macro

Olloclip Macro

Olloclip Macro

And here are a few photos of a local landmark using the normal S4 camera, the wide-angle lens and the fisheye lens. I’m no Ansel Adams, that’s for sure.

Native S4 Camera

Olloclip Wide-Angle

Olloclip Fisheye

I was impressed with the Olloclip and with more interesting subject matter, I could have a lot of fun. I particularly liked the macro capabilities and the fisheye was fun too; I was quite surprised at the width of the field of view. Overall, the 4-in-1 was easy to use, clipping on and off in seconds, and significantly increased the photographic possibilities of the Galaxy S4. . On the downside, you do have to remember to bring the Olloclip with you, and the on/off and volume buttons are obstructed by the bracket when in use. The other problem can be with Samsung cases, which often replace the smartphone’s back. If you have one of these cases, you’ll find that the Olloclip won’t clip on and you’ll need to revert to the original case.

The Olloclip 4-in-1 for the Samsung Galaxy S4 or S5 is available direct from the website or through other on-line retailers. Priced at a penny under US$70 or GB£60, it’s more than an impulse purchase but if you are photographer or want to get more from your camera, it’s worth forking out for. Hopefully enough Galaxy owners will purchase to persuade Olloclip to look at other popular Android smartphones as well.

Thanks to Olloclip for the review 4-in-1 lens and to Jacinta for the loan of the Galaxy S4.

Leuchtturm1917 v Moleskine Notebooks

For all today’s gadgets, there’s a great deal still to be said for pen and paper. It’s cheap, reliable and you don’t need to worry about the battery life. Setting those practicalities aside, I find great pleasure in a beautiful notebook and a fine fountain pen, though my handwriting still leaves much to be desired. I’m not a alone in this pleasure with a resurgence in paper notebooks and the legendary Moleskine has pushed to the fore. Is it the best? Here we have two lined notebooks, one from Leuchtturm1917  and the other from Moleskine – let’s take a look and find out.

Leuchtturm1917 and Moleskine Notebooks

Both Moleskine and Leuchtturm draw on their heritage. Moleskine’s dates back into the early 20th Century name-checking Picasso, van Gogh and Hemingway. Although originally French, it died out in the 1980s, only to be resurrected in the late 90s by an Italian publisher. On the other hand, Leuchtturm goes back to 1917 (hence Leuchtturm1917) with roots in Hamburg, Germany and a reputation for stamp collecting albums, which continues today. These stories are laid out by both companies in small cream folded inserts that accompany each book. The message is clear; you aren’t buying only a notebook, you are continuing the traditions of culture, history and travel.

Physically both notebooks are very similar but there are subtle and useful differences. I’d call them medium or A5-sized notebooks though strictly the Moleskine isn’t wide enough for A5. Both are 21 cm tall with hardcovers but the Moleskine is only 13 cm compared with the the Leuchtturm‘s 14.5 cm. Each has an elastic enclosure band, page marker and an expandable pocket inside the back cover. They also come in wide range of colours and pair well with 7″ tablets, such as the Nexus 7.

Leuchtturm1917 Moleskine

Opening the notebooks shows that both have lined pages with the same line spacing, but with the Moleskine, that’s about it. Although both have an Owner page at the front, the Leuchtturm goes further with three Contents pages and each page is numbered for easy reference. In addition, there are eight perforated pages towards the back that can be removed, along with some stickers to assist with archiving once the notebook is full. The Leuchtturm1917 is for those who want to be organised! “Datum / Date” is printed at the top of each page too, which may put people off but suits me fine.

Ink BleedBoth notebooks have lovely paper which is a joy to write on with pencil and ballpoint. However, the Moleskine has a problem with pen ink bleeding from one side to the other, particularly with black ink, which makes the Leuchtturm a better choice for fountain pen writers.

Overall, both the Moleskine and the Leuchtturm are stylish notebooks with a great feel both in the hand and under the pen. For me as a fountain pen owner, the Leuchtterm wins out by default, but the contents pages and page numbering make it my choice for those reasons too. Pencil owners and people looking for something a little neater may prefer the Moleskine. Whichever you choose, you’ll never go back.

Available from all good stationery retailers, the Leuchtturm1917 retails for around GB£13 with the Moleskine for a few pounds less.

Archos Smart Home Review

Archos LogoThese days it’s either i-this or smart-that with new gadgets measuring and changing our personal environment. From Fitbit to Philips Hue, the internet of things is steadily growing and into this increasingly connected world, French firm Archos have stepped in. Their Smart Home tablet wirelessly connects sensors to a central hub that monitors and initiates actions based on conditions. Archos kindly lent me a Smart Home to raise the IQ of my house. Let’s take a look.

Archos Smart Home Box

In the box there’s the Smart Home tablet, plus six connected objects; two mini-cams, two movement tags and two weather tags. The tablet itself looks much like a digital photo frame but it’s actually a small 7″ device running Android 4.2.

Archos Smart Home Front View

Archos Smart Home Rear View

In the looks department, the Smart Home tablet fits the bill with styling that wouldn’t look out of place in a living room. It is all plastic, including the screen which seems to be acrylic rather than glass, but perhaps will better withstand being knocked. Some thought has been given to the design as the screen’s viewing angle appears to be have been adjusted slightly so that screen looks good when someone looks down at it, rather than straight on. There’s only about 2.5 GB of free memory on-board but there is a microSD card slot to boost the Smart Home’s capacity. Performance-wise, it’s no speed demon with a 1.2 GHz ARM processor, but as most of the time the Smart Home just sits there receiving data, it’s a not a big deal. A camera and a thermometer are built into the tablet too and these can be used to take pictures and measure the temperatureas well as the connected objects.

The connected objects are shown below with the mini-cam, weather tag and movement tag from left to right. All have sticky pads which allow adhesion to flat surfaces round the house. The mini-cam ball is held in the foot by magnets and it means the ball can oriented in almost any direction. The weather tag measures temperature and humidity, and the movement tag can measure both motion and door opening / closing.

Archos Smart Home Sensors

Getting setup is easy and straightforward. Running the Archos Smart Home software initially asks for the different rooms where devices are located.

Smart Home Rooms

Once the rooms are setup, the connected objects can be added into the relevant room. The objects use Bluetooth rather than Zigbee and pairing is simply a case of holding down a button on the connected object for 5 seconds. It worked flawlessly. The pairing screen shows all the objects available, not only the ones in the box.

Accessories

Once all setup, the Smart Home tablet presents a view with the room and all the objects in the room.

Hall

In the Hall, I had two mini-cams, a weather tag and a movement tag. Tapping on any device in the app then gives more data or information – here’s the weather tag showing data over the past week for both temperature and humidity.

Temperature and Humidity

Great but how do we get from monitoring the weather to doing something smart? Archos have the answer by building simple “if this, do that” programs. For example, if temperature falls below two degrees Celsius, email to me “It might be slippy.” Or more usefully, if the door opens, take a picture and send an email – like this.

Program

Sure enough, when the front door is opened, I get an email (my personal email is address is obscured by the black box).

Mail

 

The mini-cam also takes a picture (or a short video) but they won’t show a live feed, presumably because Bluetooth can’t transfer the data very quickly. You’ll notice one of the slight problems….the Smart Home doesn’t really take pictures fast enough as in many of the photos the person who opened the door has already moved out of shot. These are all real life photos, nothing was staged. A mini-cam positioned further down the hall generally did better at getting people entering the property.

Minicam Pictures

Out of the box, there’s a fairly limited range of actions such as send email, turn on plug and so on, but Smart Home can use the Tasker app to do more. Tasker supports a wide range of actions, including starting other apps, which makes it quite a powerful solution. However, even this simple email-me-on-the-front-door-opening is useful when wanting to know if someone has arrived home safely (or a thief has broken into your house!)

Other nifty features are that the Smart Home can be accessed from other tablets or smartphones. After a straightforward authorisation process, the system can be viewed from other devices both inside and outside the house. Here’s what it looks like on my smartphone.

Smartphone View

Overall, the Smart Home worked well, mostly sitting on the table doing its job. I did find that I mostly used my ordinary tablet (a Nexus 7)  to work with the Smart Home rather than picking up the unit itself. I set the Smart Home tablet up as a digital photo frame using the standard Android Daydream screensaver to fit into the room.

There were a couple of problems, the first being the range and penetration of Bluetooth. I live in a modest house with brick walls which meant that the weather tag at the rear of the property couldn’t be picked up if the Smart Home tablet was in the front room. Secondly, battery life – the mini-cams seemed get through a set of batteries in about a fortnight and each one took three CR2450 button cells. The movement and weather tags weren’t quite so bad – perhaps a month and only one battery. As an aside there’s no way of muting the low battery warnings that appear in orange on the screen. A connected object could be disconnected but that deleted the historical date at the same time.

Bizarrely, the other problem was how I felt about spying on my family, which is not anything to do with the Archos Smart Home, so I’ll save that for another post. I can see the Smart Home working for families with children that come home when the parents are still at work and the email notifications would give any parent a measure of comfort that their son or daughter is home safe.

The Smart Home costs GB£199 from Archos’ online store. Other additional connected objects are “coming soon”, including an HD weatherproof camera and a siren tag. In summary, the Smart Home is a well integrated system that has room for expansion with more types of connected objects but watch out for the limitations of Bluetooth range and battery life.

Thanks to Archos for the loan of the Smart Home.

 

Motorola Moto X (2013) Smartphone Review

Motorola M LogoMotorola’s been busy since I reviewed the Moto G back in January, with the Moto X, Moto E and a 4G version of the Moto G filling out their range of smartphones. With IFA on, a refresh of the Moto X is expected very soon and rumours swirl regarding the next Nexus smartphone, the Nexus X (which neatly sidesteps any legal issues around the Nexus 6 name).

Back in reality, Motorola kindly lent me the Moto X for a long-term test, so I’ve been using the Moto X for over three months instead of my Nexus 4. Let’s take a look.

Given that the Moto X is over a year old in the US and over six months in the UK, the specs aren’t important, but for the record it’s a 4.7” 1280 by 720 Super AMOLED screen powered by a Qualcomm 1.7 MHz dual-core S4 Pro processor supported by an Adreno 320 GPU. There’s 2 GB RAM and 16 GB of storage and comes with Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box. A 2200 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 800/1800/2600MHz (B20/B3/B7) bands. Dimensions are 65 x 129 x 10.4 mm (5.7 mm at the narrowest point) and weighs in at 130g.

Moto X Front View

Using Geekbench 3, the Moto X clocks in at 666 single core and 1258 for multi-core with the LG Nexus 4 scoring 501 / 1664. This bears out the specs with the Moto X having a higherclock speed (1.75 v 1.5 GHz) but fewer cores, (2 v 4). In real world use, there’s nothing between them.

The Moto X looks good, and is nearly all black with only the on/off  and volume rocker in chrome. As with the Moto G, it fits well in the hand and the curved back still reminds me of the Palm Pre and its pebble design cue. Unlike our transatlantic cousins, the fantastic range of Moto X backs isn’t available to us Brits, so we’re stuck with only black and white variants of the phone.

Moving round the phones, the right-hand side has the chrome on/off button and a volume rocker. There’s a micro-USB socket at the bottom and 3.5 mm audio jack at the top. The back has the rear-facing camera with flash and there’s an interesting little dimple in the back. It’s all very similar to the Moto G but thinner and lighter. Powering the phone up reveals two things….first the screen is tremendous and second that Motorola haven’t strayed too far from the stock Android experience. Although not a full 1080 HD screen, the 720 in 4.7″ gives a high pixel density and apps look good. Colours are strong and vibrant, and slightly richer than on the LG Nexus 4. Blacks are black and contrast is good. I like it.

Moto X Back

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 actually pretty good and I covered them in my review of the Moto G.

Windy DayAssist – a personal assistant-type app that sets up rules for when the phone needs to be quiet, based on driving, meetings or sleeping. Motorola Migrate – this app helps transfer information from an older phone to the Moto G. It covers text messages, call history, SIM contacts, media and volume settings. Innovatively uses wifi and QR codes. Moto Care seems to have been replaced with the a more mundane Help, though it seems to be broadly the same app. The Moto X doesn’t have an FM radio, so there’s no app for that.

New since I reviewed the Moto G is Alert, a personal security and emergency response app that notifies friends and family in the event of trouble. Connect is a cloud-based management app for Motorola devices which also lets the phone interact with the your PC or laptop. New too is Spotlight, a player for interactive three dimensional animations. It’s quirky and cool with two animations, Windy Day and Buggy Night. The former was created by Jan Pinkava of Geri’s Game and Ratatouille fame.

Where the Moto X really steps away from the Moto G and most other Android phones is that it’s always listening. Simply say “Ok Google Now” and the Moto X responds, switching over to voice recognition. From this point you can search, dial phone numbers, set reminders and otherwise control the phone. The touchless control is really cool and works well (though it doesn’t play very nice with PIN locks).

Touchless Control Set Reminders

There’s also Active Display which automagically shows notifications when you are nearby. No idea how it works, but it works well – you walk over to the phone and it comes alive showing that you’ve waiting emails or texts.

Active Display ActiveDisplay

Using the Moto X on a daily basis I’ve come to appreciate what Motorola have done with the Moto X. The general trend is for top-end phones to come with fast processors and big screens. But rather than focus on specs, Motorola have brought the innovative features of Touchless control and Active Display to a phone that would be defined as mid-range. The result is a phone that works hard towards putting the smart into smartphone.

The Moto X is available online for around GB£280 which puts it on a par with the Nexus 5. It’s a tough call as to which is the better but let’s see what Motorola has to offer shortly.

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

Tens Sunglasses Review

Tens LogoThis summer I’ve been feeling uber-cool with my Tens “Real Life Photo Filter” sunglasses. In a classic style, the Tens sunglasses are tinted to give a “an extra burst of colour to your summer” and that they do, with everything coloured that little bit brighter. Everything’s richer and more vivid – I love them.

Originally, an Indiegogo campaign, I took a chance on these shades, partly because I needed new sunglasses but partly because it was good to see a campaign from the British side of the Atlantic. The team’s actually based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Overall, I’ve been very pleased with the Tens sunglasses. The frames seem solid, with sturdy hinges and the lenses are clear and distortion free. I find them comfortable to wear too. Here are some photos to show you what they’re like.

Tens Sunglasses

Tens Sunglasses Hinge

The Tens sunglasses come with a neat little drawstring bag to keep them free from scratches when not in use.

Tens Sunglasses Bag

I was lucky enough to get in on the Indigogo campaign and paid only GB£44. Available in a choice of four frame colours (black, navy, deep red and teal), if you want your own pair of Tens glasses, they’ll currently set you back £64. I’ll probably buy a second pair once they start doing prescription versions.

Fingers crossed for a few more days of sunshine before summer comes to an end!

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.

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear Headphones Review

Sennheiser LogoI was watching an ABBA retrospective on BBC4 last night and to my surprise, there was Benny and Bjorn wearing Sennheiser HD414s in the recording studio. Lest anyone think that I’m a complete Sennheiser nerd, the HD414s have bright yellow earpads and are very recognisable. With the trip down memory lane complete, let’s take a look and a listen to an entirely more modern set of headphones, the Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear.

Momentum On-Ear

Extending Sennheiser’s Momentum range, the On-Ear is is more compact version of the original over-ear Momentum, and is aimed squarely at the fashion-conscious, iPhone-toting music lover. Although lighter and small, the On-Ear retains much of the luxury and audio quality of its bigger brother but with smaller cups that rest on the ears rather than enclosing them completely.

It’s the attention to detail on the headphones that really stands out – the adjustment, the fixings, the stitching, the soft Alacantara material on the headband and ear cups. The Momentums are a pleasure to handle, hold and wear. I found them comfortable but the trick to extended listening was to keep the cups slightly forward. Too far back and my ears started to get sore.

Ear AdjustmentScrewsStitchingEar Cups

Audio-wise, the Momentum On-Ears are everything that you’d expect from headphones in this price range. Excellent definition and clarity, with musical subtleties coming through beautifully. As might be expected, on lower bit-rate MP3s the On-Ears easily showed up the limitations of the format, while with higher bit-rates, the sound filled out nicely revealing the detail. Plugged into an amp (a Yamaha DSP-AX763) with a CD player source (a Technics SL-PG580A) , the music was incredibly good. I could really listen to the tracks rather than just hear them. It’s hard to get over the audio experience in words, but let’s just say I’m impressed.

ConnectorIncluded in the box with the headphones is a semi-rigid case, a soft carrying bag and two leads. One has a standard 3.5″mm stereo jack for connecting into digital music players or amps, but the other lead has an in-line iRemote for use with Apple products such as the iPhone. The leads have a neat little moulding on the headphone-end that secures the connector into the headset so it doesn’t come out unintentionally.

The Momentum On-Ears come in a range of seven colours – high-gloss black, classic brown, red, ivory, blue, green and pink. There’s a new Samba edition to tie in with World Cup in Brazil this summer which has yellow cups, bringing us back to the original 414s.

Priced at £169.99, these aren’t pocket money, but they are lovely headphones. As with all things hi-fi, there will always be better and more expensive headphones but the Momentum On-Ears seem to occupy a good spot, balancing cost and audio quality. Try them out for yourself.

Thanks to Sennheiser for the loan of the Momentum On-Ears.

Libratone Zipp Wireless Speaker Review

I first came across Libratone at the The Gadget Show earlier in the year where their colourful hi-fi speakers with interchangeable covers stood out against the more run-of-the-mill Bluetooth speakers. On the back of my interview, Libratone kindly sent me a Zipp, a portable wireless AirPlay speaker, to further my education in their products. Let’s take a look and a listen.

Libratone Zipp Box

The Libratone Zipp is very much fashioned in iStyle but takes a welcome break from monochrome with interchangeable coloured covers. The Zipp comes with three covers in the box from three collections and the supplied Zipp came with the “Funky collection” – pepper black, plum purple and pineapple yellow. Additional covers are £39 which may seem expensive but the covers aren’t felt or fleece, they’re Italian wool. Here’s the Zipp in its different clothes.

Libratone Zipp Magenta

Libratone Zipp Mustard Strap

Changing a cover is easy – just unzip the cover, carefully remove it, fit the the new cover and zip it back up. There’s a small frame which fits around the control panel but it clips in firmly and helps get everything lined up. The panel’s neatly hidden behind the leather carry strap.

Libratone Zipp Mustard Strap Up

As a wireless speaker, the Zipp uses wifi rather than Bluetooth to stream music and until relatively recently, you would have needed Apple products to use AirPlay. Android users can now join the party as the Zipp now provides a DLNA interface which several music apps now support including Robin Davies’ 2player, which I used for this review. Sadly, many don’t, including Spotify, which is a shame.

The speaker can work in two modes, DirectPlay and WiFi Play. In the first, the speaker creates its own little wifi hotspot and the smartphone or tablet connects to the hotspot. This mode is used both for initial configuration and for playing music away from home, say, at a friend’s BBQ. With the WiFi Play mode, the Zipp connects to the same wifi network as the music-playing device, which is the way you’d use the Zipp at home.

Setting up the Zipp is a little fiddly but otherwise straightforward and only needs to be done once. Libratone’s free app helps with this but the steps are broadly turn on the Zipp, connect to the Zipp’s wifi hotspot, enter the main wifi key and restart the Zipp. It’ll then connect up to the main wifi network and the speaker will be available for music output.

Libratone App 2player Erasure

Obviously the Zipp is only a single unit, although it has an amazing capacity to fill a room. Libratone have developed a set of acoustic tricks called “FullRoom” which let the Zipp’s tweeters and drivers expand the sound, but you need to tell the Zipp where it is in the room to take full advantage. The Libratone app helps with that too. You can hear the impact of some of the changes if you fiddle with the settings while music is playing but much of the change is subtle.

Voicing Position

In addition to setting the spatial characteristics, the type of music can be enhanced through preset equalisations such as “Easy Listening” and “Rock the House”.

Aside from the interchangeable covers, the other cool feature is that the Zipp is portable and has a built-in battery which Libratone says will last about 4 hours playing music over wifi and twice as long using a cable. I didn’t try running the Zipp very long from a lead but the time seems about right for wifi. The Libratone app helpfully shows the battery level so you know when to recharge. There’s a small bag included in the box but Libratone could do with a dedicated Zipp carrying bag as it’s heavy to lug around – it’s portable but it’s not a travel accessory.  I liked the liberty that this gave as I moved the Zipp between rooms and was able to have music in rooms that didn’t normally have sound without using headphones.

Libratone Zipp Panel Libratone Zipp Top Control

The pictures above show the panel on the side and the top-mounted controller. The USB port on the side-panel can be used to power the music player (and for configuration when using Apple devices) when using the 3.5mm jack for the audio feed.

Generally the Zipp worked well. I did have the occasional problem with the Zipp not being recognised either as an output option in the 2player app or by the Libratone app when trying to change the FullRoom config. Usually a restart of either the app or the Zipp itself would sort it out but it’s a bit irritating when the dropout occurs halfway through an album. To be fair, the issue could lie with my wifi network or with the music app itself and I’ve no experience with other AirPlay devices for comparison. For now, it’s something to be aware of.

As a reminder, Android users needs to confirm that the apps that they want to use with the Zipp are AirPlay or DLNA-compatible. Unlike Bluetooth speakers, where the driver is at lower level and makes almost any app capable of outputting sound to a wireless speaker, the apps needs to be DLNA-aware to use the Zipp wirelessly. Searching the Play Store reveals several good apps that can be checked for full compatibility.

So….does the Zipp sound good? In short, it’s very impressive with music retaining clarity and detail even at higher volumes and the Zipp has a surprising amount of volume for such a small unit. Obviously any single speaker unit is going to be lacking in comparison with hi-fi separates but the Zipp knocks into a cocked hat any of the speaker docks that I’ve heard. Finally, it’s absolutely, definitely the best portable speaker that I’ve ever listened to. At GB£369, it’s not cheap but if you have a bijou pad that needs filled with sound, you should give the Zipp a listen. It looks great too.

Thanks to Libratone for the loan of the Zipp.

Roku Streaming Stick Review

This is Gonna Be FunRoku‘s streaming media boxes have been around since 2008, arguably taking the #2 spot behind the Apple TV. This is an impressive achievement considering the absence of a major brand behind the product line. Here in the UK, set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV have a relatively low-profile: the BBC’s iPlayer catchup service is massively popular, but as the app is widely available on satellite decoders, cable boxes, games consoles and laptops, there is little demand for an additional streaming device. The latest generation of low cost, plug-in streamers from Roku and Google may well change this. Let’s take a look.

Roku Box

What I have here is the UK edition of Roku’s Streaming Stick, a thumb-sized streaming device that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI port, bringing Roku’s wide range of content and 450+ channels to a British audience. We’re used to a high quality TV service from the likes of the BBC, so the content has to be there, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get it out of the box first.

Roku in Box

The Streaming Stick is presented in Roku’s trademark purple with neat packaging that promotes “This is going to be fun”. In the box is the Streaming Stick itself, a remote control (including decent batteries) and the power supply, which is actually a USB charger, connecting to the Streaming Stick via microUSB.

Streaming Stick and Controller

The remote control is slightly different to the previous generation – there are no game buttons, motion controller or headphone jack, and it uses WiFi Direct rather than Bluetooth to communicate with the Streaming Stick. Admittedly of little consequence unless you are an existing Roku owner expecting those features.

Getting started is easy – plug the Stick into the TV’s HDMI port, power it up with the microUSB cable and put the batteries into the remote control. Switching over to the HDMI channel, the Roku Streaming Stick initially asks for the password to a local wifi network. Once connected to the wider internet, existing Roku owners can can login with their credentials or new owners can sign up for a user name and password. Apart from having to use the remote control rather than a keyboard to do the finger work, it’s painless.

Roku uses the metaphor of channels to deliver media and content. For the smartphone generation, these are more easily thought of as apps which mostly deliver video content. In addition to programmes, there are games, weather forecasts and picture viewers. From the hundreds of channels available, you add favourites to your account to build up your collection. Some channels / apps cost a few pounds, but the vast majority are free.

My Roku Channels

From a UK perspective most of the major players are on-board with apps for BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Store. ITV player is noticeable in its absence. There are apps too for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Flickr and the Roku Media Player which does what it says, playing locally available pictures, music and video. There are lots of other apps and channels to choose from, categorised by type to help you find what you want.

Channel Categories

Many of the channels are US-centric and there’s a ton of faith-based programming, mostly Christian with a smaller number of other faiths. Local US TV stations are also present, which can be fun if you are going to be visiting an area on holiday or business.

US Local News on Roku

Of course, there are plenty of independent content producers as well. GNC is right at home on the Roku….

Geek News on Roku

To complement the content, there’s also an app for smartphones, which lets your device replace the remote control, both at a simple button pushing level and for more advanced features such as choosing new channels.

Roku App Remote Control Roku App

But the real trick is the “Play on Roku” feature which pushes content from your smartphone to the Roku, including music, photos and videos. All you do is select the content on your phone and, bang, it’s up on the big screen in glorious HD. It’s a great feature and a fantastic way to review photos and short videos on a larger screen, especially after a holiday. If you take a lots of photos with your smartphone, it’s almost worth getting a Roku for this feature alone.

One final thing…as I mentioned, the Roku Streaming Stick is powered by microUSB via a provided USB charger. I found that the Streaming Stick wasn’t terribly fussy about the power source and that you can easily run the Stick from other sources, such as a USB battery pack or even the TV itself, if equipped with a USB port. Could be handy to know if you are travelling or simply want a tidier entertainment unit.

MicroUSB Roku

Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great little gadget that provides loads of extra content for UK viewers. It might be a more expensive at £50 than the Google Chromecast at £30, but there’s more content and the Roku has a remote control, which I think is a plus point. It’s handy too for a second TV that perhaps doesn’t have a satellite or cable connection, and can now use iPlayer or Netflix. It’s a neat, plug’n’play solution that is about as simple as it can be.

Thanks to Roku for the review unit.

TP-Link AV600 Powerline Review

TP-LInk LogoTP-Link have been releasing steadily HomePlug Powerline products based on the AV600 standard which offers increased capacity for multiple HD streams. TP-Link have kindly sent through some of their new AV600 Powerline gear for a bit of hands-on testing. Regular readers will recall that I’d previously looked at the WiFi Powerline Extender back in December so it will be interesting to compare the faster gear. Let’s take a look.

TP-Link AV600 Box

First, for those who aren’t familiar with HomePlug Powerline, it’s a technology that uses the mains electricity circuits to transmit network signals and as most homes have power sockets in every room, it’s ideal for spreading the network round the house. This AV600 Gigabit Powerline Adaptor Starter Kit (TL-PA6010KIT) has two adaptors, one of which usually connects up to the broadband router or data switch and the other goes into the otherwise network-free room. The box also has two ethernet cables, software CD and a Getting Started guide.

Powerline AV600 Units

As you’ll see from the plugs, these are UK spec units but variants for other countries will be available. The cases are plastic but the seem well-built enough and should resist the normal bumps and knocks that can be encountered round the home. A couple of LEDs indicate the status of the network and transfer activity.

As the adaptors come pre-paired, no configuration is required and getting started is simply a case of plugging them in and attaching network cables. If the adaptors are to be introduced into an existing HomePlug network, there is a small pairing button on the bottom of each unit. Alternatively, a bundled software application can be used to manage the network and add additional adaptors.

These newer 300 and 600 Mbps adaptors use techniques borrowed from wi-fi standards to increase the throughput and to cope with noise and errors but the real-world data transfer rate will never be anywhere close to the rated speed. The overhead of encryption takes its toll on the transfer rate too, but as with wireless it’s very much a necessity to keep data away from prying eyes.

The adaptors in this starter kit come with a single gigabit ethernet port which can either connect to one device or connect into a switch or hub to share the connection. Alternatively, TP-Link have a newer 3 port AV600 version (TL-PA6030) which will keep the back of the entertainment unit a little bit tidier where there’s a smart TV, a game console and a media streamer.

Performance-wise, I did some testing using Totusoft‘s Lan Speed Test. Bear in mind that no two homes will be configured the same, so while the Mbit/s figures are of interest, it’s the relative performance that matters. With that in mind, I tested the data transfer speeds between a Buffalo NAS and a Toshiba laptop using 10 GB files.

  • Wired connection via TP-Link AV600 Powerline – 91 Mb/s
  • Wired connection via TP-Link AV500 Powerline – 72 Mb/s
  • Wired connection via ethernet – 298 Mb/s

These figures tell us two things. First, there’s a measurable performance boost between the older AV500 and the newer AV600 of around 25%. Second, there’s capacity for multiple HD data streams. A 1080p mp4 video stream needs somewhere around 22 Mb/s so at a true 91 Mb/s transfer rate, there’s plenty of capacity for several HD streams. For comparison, a Blu-ray video can output up to 48 Mb/s.

(Again for those people who get all concerned as to why I didn’t get speed “X” Mb/s, it’s the wiring in the building, combined with the features or restrictions of my laptop, data switch and NAS.)

The network management software on the enclosed CD didn’t like my Windows 8.1 and refused to install but an updated version was available from TP-Link’s website. The software lets you monitor the actual speed of the network, add additional adaptors, carry out firmware upgrades and set basic QoS. Some of it was beyond me too!

Local adaptor

TP-Link QoS

The software is nowhere near as good as Devolo’s Cockpit but it does the job most of the time. On a few occasions I found that the app wouldn’t start properly, putting an icon into the System Tray but failing to display a window: usually a reboot resolved the problem. Many people will never need the software as they’ll only plug the Powerline adaptors in and leave them alone. However, for those who want to tinker or setup a larger network, it’s there…if you can get it to work.

Out of interest, I tried moving the receiving end around my house and there were variations in the data transfer rate – broadly, the further apart the adaptors were, the slower the rate. However the drop-off was far less than would be expected on wi-fi with very acceptable data rates throughout the building. If you are tempted to upgrade your HomePlug Powerline network, don’t forget that all the adaptors need to be of the same class (AV600) to boost the network speed.

In summary, the TP-Link AV600 Gigabit Powerline Adaptor Starter Kit improves on the previous product generations and provides fast networking via power outlets. The supporting software needs improvement but with on-line prices a little under £60, the kit is still good value.

Thanks to TP-Link for supplying the review units.