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.

Kingston Wi-Drive Review

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

Wi-Drive in Box

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

WiDrive

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

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

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

Wi-Drive browser Thumbnails

Music Player Wi-Drive Web Interface

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Kingston for all the review units.

Kingston MobileLite Wireless Review

Kingston Technology LogoLast week I reviewed Kingston’s microDuo which is a great solution if your smartphone or tablet supports OTG. Unfortunately, many devices don’t and if yours falls into this category, Kingston can still help you with both the MobileLite Wireless and the Wi-Drive. In this review, I’ll be checking out the MobileLite Wireless and will follow up with the Wi-Drive later in the week.

Kingston MobileLite Wireless Box

The Kingston MobileLite Wireless  is described as “Reader – Media Streamer – Charger” and combines a USB reader, SD card reader, media streamer and USB charger all in one. Sounds impressive, so let’s take a look.

Kingston MobileLite Wireless Left Side

As you’ll see from the picture, the MobileLite is a small rectangular unit, around 12.5 x 6 x 1.6 cm. It weighs 98g and it feels a little lighter than it should. On one end is the SD card slot and on the other two USB sockets; one USB2 and the other microUSB. There’s a power button on the side and couple of indicator LEDs on the top. As well as the instructions, a USB-to-microUSB cable and a microSD-to-SD card adaptor is included in the box.

Kingston MobileLite Wireless Right Side

Taking each of the MobileLite Wireless features in turn and starting with “Reader”, the MobileLite can act as an SD card and USB reader. Simply connect the supplied cable from your PC’s USB port to the microUSB port on the device and two new drive letters or storage locations will appear on the desktop. Drag’n’drop, view photos, play movies, all the usual activities, no problem. Obviously it’s only USB2 but right now, that’s no big deal.

Moving to the “Charger” feature, swap over the cable so that the USB connector is plugged into the MobileLite Wireless and the other end into your smartphone or other power-sapping device. The battery is only 1800 mAh, so there’s really only one full charge of a smartphone in there.

Finally, it’s time for the “Media Streamer” feature, which lets up to three devices stream movies and other content from the MobileLite Wireless over WiFi. Which it does. Here’s Todd and the GNC show on three devices, all streaming from the one MobileLite Wireless.

Streaming To Three Devices

The tablets and smartphones have to load a Kingston app to access the media, but the app is available from Apple’s App Store, Google Play and Amazon’s Appstore.  The inclusion of Amazon is great as it means I can use the MobileLite Wireless with the Kindle Fire HDX – it’s the middle tablet in the shot above. However, the app is fairly basic and largely limited to navigating the folder hierarchy, selecting different content types, viewing and playing content plus operations such as email, copy and delete. It’s designed for smartphones rather than tablets so doesn’t take advantage of the larger screen real estate. Definitely room for improvement here. The app does have a couple of introductory pages to operative the MobileLite Wireless which have a cool hand-drawn feel to them.

App FIle Manager

The MobileLite Wireless also presents a web interface which can be used by PCs and Chromebooks to access the same files, though I didn’t seem to be able to upload content. The web interface has additional tools to adjust the wireless settings for greater security. One cool feature is that you can add the MobileLite Wireless to your main WiFi network and once connected up will pass on any requests onto the Internet, so you can browse the internet at the same time as listening to music coming from the MobileLite Wireless.

Wireless Settings

Battery life is “up to 5 hours of continuous use” and I managed a little under four hours playing a film continuously. Your mileage may vary but it’s enough to watch a couple of films.

In summing up, the MobileLite Wireless is a handy little device that I feel will appeal to those who frequently use SD cards and other removable storage. Obviously it would be great for photographers who want to review material on a larger screen but it’s also handy if you need to transfer material to a smartphone or tablet from a USB memory stick as outside of the Windows ecosystem, few tablets have full size USB ports. It certainly works well for streaming video and music too, but Kingston’s Wi-Drive might be a better solution for those who simply don’t have much space on their smartphone or tablet. The negatives are that the app could do with a refresh and a bigger battery would make the charger more effective, but other than that, there’s little to complain about.

The MobileLite Wireless is available on-line for around £35.

Thanks to Kingston for the review unit.

 

TP-Link 3G Mobile WiFi and Power Bank Review

TP-LInk LogoThe TP-Link 3G Mobile WiFi and 5200 mAh Power Bank (M5360) combines two of the handiest portable accessories – a 3G wireless hotspot and a USB battery pack – into a single unit. Sounds good on paper, but convergence doesn’t always work out. Let’s take a look.

3G Wireless and Power Bank

The M5360 comes neatly packaged in a slide-out box. Included with the 3G Mobile WiFi are instructions, a charger, USB-to-microUSB cable and some SIM adaptors which hold the smaller SIM sizes. The 3G Mobile WiFi itself is larger than the average mobile hotspot but this hardly unexpected given that there’s an additional 5200 mAh battery stashed in there. Overall, it’s 44 x 29 x 100 mm and while the weight isn’t officially given, my kitchen scales say 150g.

TP-Link 3G Mobile WiFi

As you’ll see, the 3G Mobile WiFi is white with a clear plastic cover over the OLED screen. Moving round the unit, at the top there is a microUSB socket to charge up the Power Bank. On the right side, a power button turns the unit on, off and toggles between charging only and simultaneous 3G sharing and charging. There’s a reset button (that I never had to use) and covered slots for the SIM and micro SD cards. Finally on the bottom is USB socket that can be used for charging other devices. It’s only rated at 1A, so it’s more suited to charging smartphones and media players than 10″ tablets.

Getting going is simple – slip a SIM in and power the 3G Mobile WiFi up. As the unit is not network-locked you can use whatever SIM you choose, and helpfully on the rear of the device is all the information necessary for connecting to the WiFi network, including SSID and password. The 3G Mobile WiFi generally self-configures, but if you need to change anything, you can log on to the unit via a web browser and make changes.

Profile Management

With a 3 SIM everything went smoothly but I also tried the unit with a SIM from MVNO Giffgaff, which actually uses the O2 network. In this instance, I had to log on to the 3G Mobile WiFi and make some changes to the profile. To be perfectly clear, this reconfiguration is needed because of the MVNO nature of Giffgaff and illustrates the flexibility of the 3G Power Bank.

The small screen gives the usual information about the 3G Mobile WiFi side of things, including signal strength, connectivity, client number, battery and SMS messages. The download rate, upload rate and data volume are shown too. The unit supports the usual GSM protocols up to HSPA+ so in theory the max download rate is 21.6 Mb/s with 5.76 Mb/s upload, but local conditions are likely to significantly reduce this. With respect to WiFi, it’s 11b/g/n and up to 10 clients can connect at once.

TP-Link 3G Mobile WiFi Screen

Now for the best bit….using the internal battery, the M5360 will run for over two (working days) without recharging. TP-Link quote 16-17 hours under heavy use by a single person and up to 26 hours will lighter use. I’m inclined to agree with TP-Link as I was able to use the 3G Power Bank for two and a half working days of relatively light use before recharging. Sweet.

In addition to powering the 3G Mobile WiFi, the battery can be used to charge another device as well. There are two options, wireless sharing and charging, and charging only; a quick double press of the power button toggles between the two modes. The 5200 mAh battery is roughly double the size of a smartphone battery, so expect to fully recharge your phone twice from the Power Bank.

Any problems? No, not really. My only feedback is the the positioning of the charging USB port on the top seems a bit odd as it simply looks funny when the 3G Power Bank is standing on its end. I would have preferred the socket on the side towards the bottom, or even on the bottom with an optional charging dock. Minor points, I know.

Overall, the TP-Link 3G Mobile WiFi and 5200 mAh Power Bank is a useful combination of the two. The ability to run the hotspot for a full working day (and then some) with several connected clients is attractive. The only downside is that the M5360 is heavier than a normal WiFi hotspot but that’s the price you pay for a bigger battery, but if it’s sitting on a desk, there’s no issue anyway.

Speaking of price, expect to pay somewhere around GB£70 for the M5360.

Thanks to TP-Link for supplying the review unit.

HTC One Max Smartphone Review

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

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

HTC One Max Front

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

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

HTC One Max Back  Naked HTC One Max

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

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

HTC One Max, Nexus 4 and iPhone 5

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

BlinkFeed  Recently Run

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

Zoodles Kids Geek Bench 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo LS-421 Diskless NAS Review

Buffalo LogoThe Buffalo LinkStation LS-421 Diskless NAS represents a small departure from the norm for Buffalo in that this is the first consumer-oriented unit to be offered as an enclosure without drives. While replacing drives in the previous generation of LinkStations was easy, it’s good to see this being offered as an option from the start. GNC has reviewed several Buffalo units in the past and many have been no slouch in the speed department. The LS-421 features the new generation Marvell ARMADA 370, 1.2GHz ARMv7 CPU core and DDR3 512MB RAM so let’s see if it stands up to the claims of “up to 80 MB/s” .

Buffalo LS-420 Box

From the outside, the LS-421 hasn’t significantly changed since the previous version with a slightly front rounded surface. The previous iteration of the product had blue LEDs on a black fascia; this time it’s white LEDs on silvery-grey which looks good when they’re flickering away. Overall, it’s not going to win any design awards, but it’s not going to offend either. There are two USB ports, a USB 3 one on the front and a USB 2 on the rear. These can be used for additional storage or printers.

Buffalo LS-420 NAS

 

Buffalo LS-421 rear

Installing the disks is straightforward, needing only a screwdriver to screen the hard drives into plastic frames which then guide the drives into place in the NAS. The front of the unit simply pops on and off. Once the two drives are in place, the network cable can be connected and the power plugged in. For those interested, it’s an external PSU.

Buffalo LS-421 with disks

On power-up for the first time, there’s about ten minutes of activity while the LS-421 sorts itself out. While that’s happening, the supplied Buffalo NAS Navigator 2 software can be installed on the PC or laptop. It’s much improved over the previous version, but it’s not essential software as the NAS is largely configured via a web client. However, it is useful for troubleshooting and finding the IP address of the LS-421 for the first time.

Linkstations

Those used to the old tabbed style of web interface will discover that Buffalo has gone all Metro with a tile-based UI, albeit without the Microsoft colours. All the usual configuration features are present and correct – disk format, share administration, users, groups, RAID 0 / 1 and so on. Buffalo also gets brownie points for prompting to change the administrator password whenever the web client starts.

Buffalo LS-421 Tile Interface

The LS-421 isn’t only a network NAS, as it has Bittorrent and DLNA services built-in. Having a NAS-based Bittorrent client is useful as you don’t need to leave your PC on for large downloads and once downloaded, the server with contribute back to others downloading the same file. The DLNA server worked fine too, letting me play mp3s via the Roku.

Apps are available for iOS and Android to access files on smartphones and tablets, and it’s possible to configure access to the NAS across the Internet so that you can upload and download files while out and about. Obviously the speed is going to be limited by the network or broadband connection but it’s a useful to have the facility in case you need it.

With all of that out the way, how fast is it? I tested using Totusoft’s LAN Speed Test from a fairly old laptop running Windows 8.1 and also with dd and bonnie++ from a newer SuSE 12.1 Linux desktop. All tests were run at least three times and both computers were connected into the same gigabit switch that the LS-421 was connected into.

From the laptop, LAN Speed Test gave an average over a couple of a runs around 33 MB/s for writes and 22.5 MB/s.
On the desktop, dd gave a write speed of 63 MB/s, and bonnie++ wrote at 45 MB/s and read at 68 MB/s. Remember these figures reflect the performance of the LS-421 in my environment and YMMV as they say. Certainly, the bonnie++ read of 68 MB/s isn’t very far away from Buffalo’s claims of 80 MB/s.

Overall, the LS-421 is a tidy NAS unit and with an online price of GB£85 (without drives), it’s definitely one of the cheaper NAS enclosures. It’s nippy and with a total capacity potential of 8 TB, it can grow as your needs require.

Thanks to Buffalo for the loan of the review unit.

Motorola Moto G Smartphone Review

In the last few months, Motorola has returned to the smartphone spotlight with the Moto X and the Moto G. While the X currently isn’t available in the UK (though there’s a hotly-tipped press event in London this week), the Moto G follows the underrated Razr, Razr Maxx and variants that have been released since 2011, eschewing the Droid slider in favour of the candybar handset while stepping away from the carbon-fibre of the Razrs. In short, there’s a new design style in town.

Not content with a new look, Motorola are pricing the Moto G very aggressively, coming in at around GB£135 on the street, unlocked and off-contract. The Nexus line has always been competitively priced and it might be Motorola is following suit at the entry-level. I hesitate to say budget, because you’ll see that the Moto G is anything but.

Motorola lent GNC one of the pre-production handsets to GNC for review and as you’ll see from the photos, there are a few markings on the face of the phone that won’t be present on the retail versions, but otherwise, it’s what will be shipped. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks so let’s take a look at the Motorola Moto G.

Specwise, it’s a 4.5” 1280 by 720 HD screen powered by a Qualcomm 1.2 MHz quad-core A7 processor supported by an Adreno GPU, There’s 1 GB RAM and a choice of 8 GB or 16 GB of storage. Comes with Android 4.3 out of the box with a guaranteed upgrade to KitKat (4.4) that according to some websites is already being pushed out. A 2070 mAh battery keeps the Moto G going. It’s a world-wide phone, with CDMA and  GSM variants, but no LTE. Dimensions are 66 x 130 x 11.6 mm (6.0 mm at the narrowest point) and weighs in at 143g.

Moto G

The Moto G looks good, black with chrome accents, Gorilla Glass screen and a curved replaceable back. It fits nicely into the hand and the curved back reminds me a little of the Palm Pre and its pebble design cue. The back pops off and replacement coloured backs (shells) are available for around GB£10 for those wishing to customise and there’s a flip door cover version for around GB£20 – they’re all bright and funky.

Shells

There’s definitely a bit of weight to the phone but it feels reassuring rather than heavy. The right-hand side has the 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.

Moto G Lockscreen

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 4.5″ 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. There’s definitely nothing to worry about here: it’s one of the best screens on a phone. No budget screen here.

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.

Assist – this is a personal assistant-type app that sets up rules for when the phone needs to be quiet, based on driving, meetings or sleeping. Similar apps are available in the store but the Motorola version is clean and simple. Nice touches include exceptions so that although you might be sleeping and the phone quiet, if a call comes in from your wife or child, the rule is overruled and the call comes through.

Assist

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 – AT first glance, this looks like a mundane help and FAQ app, but it’s considerably more, providing useful suggestions and live chat with a Motorola rep should you need it.

FM Radio – The Moto G has an FM radio built-in and there’s an app for that as well. I haven’t used an FM radio in years but if it’s something you need, the Moto G has it. As with many similar devices, the headphones act as the FM antenna so you need to have them plugged in for the radio to work. That’s a bit of a problem if you normally use Bluetooth headphones…

Moving on to the camera, I found that the camera had both pros and cons. The camera was good when the scene was well-lit and the colours came out strongly. In these circumstances I thought the camera was better than the Nexus 4. Here’s an outside shot of a nearby building plus a screenshot of a zoomed-in area.

City Hospital

Zoom City Hospital

As much as the camera worked well in good light conditions, the Moto G was almost unusable in low light conditions. The autofocus struggled to lock on and nearly all the low light shots I took were blurry. A little disappointing but perhaps something that can be fixed via an app update.

Returning to the fundamental function of a mobile phone, i.e. the ability to make and receive phone calls, there are no problems here. Call quality was excellent and both participants could hear each other well, even in areas of relatively low signal strength.

Using Geekbench 3, the Moto G clocks in at 1152 on the multicore test and the LG Nexus 4 scores 1630. In real world use, Moto G is quick when running an app: I had no problems playing Ingress, Cut The Rope, Where’s My Water?, Plants v Zombies, etc. The 1 GB (v 2 GB in the Nexus 4) meant that switching to a previously-run app sometimes necessitated the full relaunch of the app. I notice it because I’m used to the Nexus but I suspect many owners will never even realise.

Overall, this is a great entry level phone and is excellent value for money. It’s an all round solid performer that easily outclasses the lower end of the market, especially the Samsung Galaxy phones, such as the Ace and the Y. The only quibble is with the low-light abilities of the camera and regardless, you’d be an idiot to buy any other off-contract phone unless you really need the bigger screen of a Nexus 5 or an HTC One. Motorola have set a new standard and the Moto G deserves to succeed.

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