Category: Peripherals

Scientists make battery breakthrough

lithium-ion batteryA group of researchers at Stanford University claim to have invented an aluminium battery that will spell the end of lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries are made of a mix of graphite and aluminium and the Stanford scientists said that commercial production of the new style batteries could charge a smartphone in less than a minite.

Lithium-ion batteries have the tendency to catch fire, but the Stanford scientists claim the prototype they’ve built won’t do this.

And the aluminium prototype has shown in tests that it will charge much longer than comparable lithium-ion batteries.

The findings of the science are produced in the current edition of Nature. An aluminium ion battery has a negatively charged anode made of the metal.

Aluminium is also much cheaper than lithium so costs will be lower. The team said it still needs to make improvements for the battery to compete with the current technology.

PaloAlto's Cubik speakers reviewed

Here we have PaloAlto’s new laptop speakers which are arguably aimed at the Apple crowd. Compatible with both PC and Mac, PaloAlto says the Cubik speakers are a high end system that offers sound which is unmatched by other speakers in its class. 

The first thing you’ll probably notice about Palo Alto’s speakers is the design – a cube but at a weird angle – which makes fitting them on your desk kind of a pain if you live among clutter. I do.

But once you’ve figured out how to screw the base on (not hard) and plugged the things in, they complement a stylish laptop but look very out of place with a desktop. That was the idea. PaloAlto says that the way they are designed means you can place them anywhere in a room and get the same quality of sound – which you do. 

Unfortunately they are not particularly portable, so one assumes they are intended for the user with a desktop replacement laptop. Fortunately for Palo Alto there are a lot of those out there, and they’re available to buy on the Apple store, which shouldn’t hurt revenues. Again, the portability is testing for someone who moves around a lot but doesn’t like the  generally tinny sounds that come out of, say, a netbook. Headphones are still the best bet on that front. Especially because you’re going to need a power supply – these aren’t some flouncey USB powered speakers, they need proper juice.

Impressively, they handled Skream’s dub island and you could still hear the beats over the top. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eWnp_RwKCU It struggled about half-way through, but a worn out or elderly sub can give you the kind of wobble you don’t want to hear. The Cubiks have long-vent advanced enclosure, which is the technology that enables the rich sound and bass from a small system. 

A problem was the controls. They’re on the speaker itself, which is fine, but the way the individual speaker is designed and sits on your desk means you’ve got to reach around to turn the volume up or down. The buttons were not particularly clearly marked, so if you’re a forever alone basement dweller they will be no good for 2am bouts of Starcraft with the lights off. 

You can tell why when you switch them on. The design is incredibly clever. It manages to deliver a respectable amount of bass without totally muddying the music. Of course, it won’t compare to a real sub-woofer or high end gear, but in a touch, they’re an OK buy for what they can do. 

PaloAlto claims that the Cubiks are of a comparable quality to BOSE PC speakers and for half the price, at £179.49. Admittedly, there are similar options in the same class that cost a lot more – but we would still recommend a full set up for sound buffs regardless. Those are upgradeable. I have to say that my six year old Creative I-Trigue speakers, which have been used an awful, awful lot, still deliver clearer clarity and overall sound quality, with a fuller experience. Personally, the price tag seems a little high for the product you get. Although it is undoubtedly a smart design with impressive quality for what they are, music buffs will still probably prefer a more serious, fuller option.

We had a dubstep DJ and music producer give the speakers a run through. He was impressed with the punch they pack for the size and set-up, but ultimately, said in a pinch they wouldn’t do for basic sound engineering or, in his opinion, listening. But he still liked them, because they are a likeable product.

3DS tickles TechEye's memory circuits

TechEye got a Nintendo 3DS sample unit to play with last week, over half a year after first manhandling it at the Gamescom show in Cologne. It has to be said, playing with Nintendogs and brawling through Streetfighter managed to make us feel 13 again.

Alas, Pilotwings Resort failed to tickle the tastebuds as flying games simply aren’t this reviewer’s cup of tea – apart from if you can blow the bejeezus out of little pixel soldiers. Does anyone here remember Wings of Fury for the Amiga?

Anyway, the 3DS came in a nice fancy box including the console, power cable, ear phones, a docking bay, six AR cards and a 2GB Toshiba SD card. Oh yes, a manual was naturally included, too. Charging the 3DS requires placing it in the docking bay, which is hooked up to the wall socket. You know you’re all set to go when the charger LED stops glowing.

Hey ho, and off we go. We shove a game card into the correct hole on the 3DS’ rear end, also home to a small place for the touch pen. An L and R button are also placed on its backside, firmly entrenching the game slot and pen hole. On the front there are no surprises, two pads on the left and the obligatory XYAB buttons on the right. Select, home and start buttons are positioned below the touchscreen.

3DS backside

First time turning it on, the unit asked us to calibrate the 3D effect to a setting which wouldn’t hurt the eyes, our give us an epileptic fit. After that, the unit asks its owner to set the country, date and asks if parental controls are desired, or not.

3D photos can also be shot using the rear lense, although the quality isn’t all that great as can be seen below in this photo of my sock. Nonetheless, pics do look rather good in full 3D on the console’s panel. Using the slider, the overlaying images can be shoved apart resulting in a schizo fix.

One right sock shot with internal rear camera

Right sock tape slip

But what about the games? 

Well, TechEye received three launch titles as above. All three were rather good.

There was a slight naming mishap in Nintendogs, where we accidentally named a puppy “Guttenberg”, after Germany’s former defense minister who had to resign last week, instead of “Gutenberg” as in Johannes Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press. Isn’t he sweet?

Guttenberg the mutt

Nonetheless, Guttenberg was lovingly petted, taken for walkies and played with for a good hour until he went to bed.

Face Raiders was the first game TechEye had a go on, a preinstalled augmented reality (AR) game requiring the player to make a snapshot of him- or herself using the internal camera on the front.

The mugshot is saved and then featured on round flying balls, which float around the room displayed by the 3D camera module on the rear panel. Users may find it fun to hit themselves in the face, less stable sorts may experience terrifying bouts of paranoia. 

Hitting myself, the endboss

Nintendo’s 3DS comes with further AR games preinstalled, requiring users to place an AR card on a table to act as an anchor in reality for the unit. This hack found himself having to move around his desk to hit targets popping up from his desk right around the card.

On the hardware side of things, controlling and playing games is a wonderful affair, as can be expected from Nintendo.

One problem was that the hinge for the upper screen appeared to be a bit weak, as it flopped one step back while TechEye tryed to navigate a plane through hoops in Pilotwings Resort.

The major question is: will the very good autosteroscopic 3D screen be enough to top the ranks of consumers wish lists? It will certainly score high for younger age groups, but this year will also see smartphones with autostereoscopic displays sporting higher resolutions and better graphics. Wealthy adults may dismiss the 3DS as a gimmick, though we’d disagree.

Actually, Nintendo’s newest offspring is a ton of fun.

Apart from the touch-screen controls, the two main selling points for the 3DS are that it is the only unit out there on the market that currently features an autostereoscopic screen – and the games. Games sell consoles, not the flashiest graphics, as Sony and Microsoft had to learn bitterly last time around.

Sony may be releasing the PSP2, but Nintendo is bound to thrash it in terms of sales, despite again having the lower spec hardware.

3D adds a lot to the immersive quality of games, especially when they are addictive titles such as Zelda, Super Mario, or Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid. It will also be interesting to see how and if other games will make use of AR, as this offers an even higher degree of immersion.

Console makers will face an up-hill battle in the short to middle term. Handset makers will too, despite not fully sharing the demographic. In the short to mid term, we can expect the 3DS to find its place in the rucksacks of many kids, next to an iPhone or Android handset.

Long term predictions are hard to make. Nintendo has a great brand and broad legacy, but the market is charging full steam ahead and will be entirely different in years to come due to the convergence of various devices into one handset. Nintendo is already cleverly adapting, being first to market with a handheld console featuring full autostereoscopic 3D.

In future, Nintendo will probably develop AR features and games more deeply and integrate it into upcoming systems, if not even base them entirely around AR.

One thing is certain – the 3DS is set to be another success story for Nintendo and unit sales will make the company’s shareholders very happy, at least for the time being.

Streetfighter on the dock

“Universal” charger puts an end to multiple bricks

In September we found ourselves in an interesting situation. There was a press trip to GlobalFoundries (glofo) in Satan Clara – just a short trip. Then there was a return trip to Blighty and a trip to the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco, and then the minute we got back from visiting the Great Satan of Chips (Intel), we found ourselves having to fly to Sitges, near Barcelona, for the White Bull Conference.

Imagine. Two standards and three cultures. Sitges, actually, is more like being in San Francisco than in the barren wasteland that is Satan Klaara, however close you are to the big chip players.  September is always a busy time for me. At least this time I didn’t have to fly round the globe with my Sony Viao, of which more later.

Luckily, I had with me as my rusty companion my Sony Viao – of which more later – and my Alpha Plus International 90 watt Universal Notebook Charger.

This kit – it costs £50 from Argos – has a plethora of options for charging phones, notebooks, MP3 devices, and so many sockets that will connect that it would tax my feeble little brain to list them all. “Due to the wide variety in brands and models and the frequent release of new laptop models, it is very likely that this power supply will work with your laptop, but please check if the plug type and power rating fits your laptop’s requirement,” says the blurb on the back.

box shot

So what happens when you open the box – and believe you me, we will talk about the Sony Vaio in a paragraph or two. Inside are the most important AC socket types known to humankind.  And now I digress. I have never been to South Africa but have travelled to India many a time – both jurisdictions use a three round pin plug based on the safest plug in the world, the UK fused plug.

Included, as you can see, are numerous heads that will plug into your laptop – they cover nearly all of the big names. And, let’s face it, four Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) in Taiwan create around 94 percent of all the notebooks, qua laptops, in the world.

I am reliably assured that Argos UK sells between 50,000 and 100,000 of these kits every week and this particular kit can be used in your car, in fright – sorry flight, and will work in 150 countries in the world. Perhaps the manufacturers, sorry vendors, will work on a universal standard but the universal standard is the universal solder, sorry solider.

And so to the Sony Vaio story. I’ve only had the VGN Z11N for about three years, and it’s been a solid performer. Unfortunately, at Intel’s jamboree, the Sony went on strike and refused to respond to my cries for help. I was forced to go across the road and buy a new Asus notebook, that uses the i3 chip, and within a few hours the guy over there had managed to sell me a new machine that worked well in both San Francisco and Sitges.

There was a problem however. He said the power brick supplied with the Asus new notebook wasn’t that brilliant, and I had better have a standby in case it failed.

I had, and have.  The Universal Notebook Charger may well not work in Alpha Centauri, nor in the triple Sun system that appears to be what happens near Sirius. But it works very well practically everywhere else in the cosmos.  It works with digital cameras, portable games consoles and rest. It minimises carrying in your bag a multitude of wires and bricks so you can make all your devices work with each other.

In short, it’s recommended, and our score is 8.5 out of 10.  And as to the Sony Vaio? Its only problem was that something inside had got disconnected while the poor little thing made its way round the world twice.  And the UNC works fine with it too. Goodbye to multiple bricks! One brick rules all.

Security troubles? The COMPRO IP55 Camera could put your mind at rest.

The UK has over 4.2 million cameras tracking our every move, and not wanting to buck the trend we’ve got our hands on the Compro IP55. Aimed squarely at the home and small business market, this little camera is an interesting entry into the low-end security market.

The IP55 is a network camera, so once attached to a router you can connect to the video stream over the network or the web. In the box there‘s the camera, mounting kit, network cable, power adapter, installation CD and instructions. You can also connect the camera to a network through the addition of a USB wireless dongle, which is not included.

The camera itself might look a bit like R2D2’s ugly younger brother but this gawky look is probably down to the amount they have crammed in. For your money you get a 1.3 Megapixel camera that can feed dual MJPEG and MPEG-4 video streams, two-way audio (so you can shout at the people stealing your stuff in real time), Micro SD card support for capture of still images, Windows software and web firmware that can be accessed by logging into the camera in your browser.

IP55 Back

Set up was straightforward; we used the included network cable instead of an additional wifi dongle – not just because we’re cheap (although mostly so). The Compro setup wizard configured the camera and the IDDNS.org account based on a few selected options. The free IDDNS service lets you connect to the camera via a web address rather than an IP with the format http://<your choice>.IDDNS.org. We did encounter one problem during setup; our router was giving the camera multiple IP addresses. We assigned the camera a static address and this sorted it out.

IP55 Desktop Software

 

The desktop software looks serious, letting you configure 32 of these cameras and monitor 16 of them at a time.  We can’t imagine this will be used much and since we only have one camera it’s wasted on us. The single camera view is still packed with features giving you the option to set up record and alert events based on movement, noise, changes in objects and scene. We only tried noise and movement, as these are probably the most useful.  They’re nice features and worked well. You can stream in multiple resolutions from 320×240 to 1280×1024, although there is a frame rate drop when you select higher resolutions. If you don’t want to use events you can record nonstop to a local drive. The software had a number of features that didn’t work with this model, although this didn’t cause any problems.

Compro IP55 web view
The web software suite included in the camera’s firmware can be connected to through the free IDDNS.org account or directly by IP. This worked first time and gives you the option to setup two different accounts, viewer and admin. Within the admin account you can mess around with most of the features available to the windows software. The clean design of the web interface was preferable to the slightly cluttered windows software. The camera also lets you set up multiple feeds, one MPEG-4 and another MJEPG.  The latter is primarily for viewing on mobile devices. We tested the second stream on an HTC hero and although the frame-rate was low, you could see what was going on as the picture was updated in real time.

In addition to the existing features of the camera and software, Compro are updating on a regular basis with two firmware releases while we were writing this review. One of these added the option to record to the optional MicroSD instead of just capturing still images, so if you are willing to keep up we would expect more to come.

The Compro I55 is a cheap solution to your security needs. It might not have all the features of more expensive cameras, but if you don’t mind a fixed viewpoint, this offers excellent value for money. The windows software is mature and was clearly developed for a more expensive model. In addition to this, the web firmware is where the Compro IP55 really comes into its own; their free IDDNS service gives you a named gateway to access your security cam wherever you are. We particularly enjoyed the mobile phone feed.  We’re not sure when it would actually be useful but it’s good entertainment, anyway. The Compro IP55 delivers everything promised, and if you are security minded or own a small business we would definitely recommend.

We take a dekko at Blue's fancy USB microphone

These past few days we’ve had the pleasure of putting the new Snowball USB microphone from Blue Microphones through its paces. We say pleasure, because it is without doubt a high quality piece of kit, but nothing less should be expected from a company that made its name manufacturing world renowned studio mics. 

The Snowball itself looks like something out of Spaceballs with a touch of vintage chic thrown in for good measure. The bold company logo in gleaming chrome mounted on the grille is clearly a seal of quality and a statement of pride from Blue – and rightfully so – the Snowball sounds fantastic. 

Admittedly, we didn’t have high hopes for a USB microphone at first: “It can’t be that great, it’s not going though a preamp or a mixer, it’ll probably sound dull and lifeless” we reasoned, but we were wrong.

The Snowball captured some fantastic midrange detail both with vocals and acoustic guitar. The sound was rich and full and vibrant and we never once struggled for more headroom or volume.

Being geeky knob-twiddlers here at TechEye, we thought we’d try out some compression and EQ on the recorded audio but there was very little room for improvement. The Snowball seems to naturally add a slight compression to the sound it captures anyway, but this is certainly to its advantage as a good multi-purpose microphone.

Speaking of which, what IS the Snowball for? Or, more specifically: who? The uncertainty arises because we can’t imagine many serious amateur musicians or producers turning to a USB mic, less so one with a fixed sample rate (44.1kHz/16 bit). Despite the quality of the Snowball, a recording interface with XLR sockets will always offer greater flexibility and room for expansion. We imagine the vast majority of music tech people that are in the market for a new microphone already own a mixer or a sound card and are looking exclusively at XLR mics anyway – of which Blue makes many excellent examples. 

So who else might the Snowball be pitched at? Well, Blue suggests using the Snowball for podcasting, video voiceover, instant messaging, interviews and conferences. These seem more likely applications for a quick, simple plug’n’play device like the Snowball, although Blue also suggests live music and environmental recordings as possible applications. 

If it’s a more practical purchase for budding podcasters and Skypers, then it’s a rather large investment at £89.95 (RRP) and $99.95 at The Apple Store, considering some of the other products aimed at that market. It would make a fantastic portable recording device – BUT being a sphere slightly larger than an average man’s fist means it won’t easily fit into most laptop bags.

Perhaps the Snowball doesn’t fit squarely into any established market because it’s aimed at people whose needs fall somewhere between the pc desktop mic and the home studio market. Video bloggers, hobbyist musicians, or animators perhaps?

As far as high quality recording goes, using the Snowball is about as easy as it gets. It comes with a simple desktop tripod stand (although it can be mounted on any standard-thread mic stand) and there are no settings to adjust, no complicated inputs and outputs, or dials to turn. 

It just has a simple USB cable and a switch on the back to flick between cardioid, cardioid with -10db pad, and omnidirectional pickup patterns. Unfortunately the omnidirectional setting on our review model captures sound sources directly in front of the mic noticeably louder than it captures sources the same distance behind it, so we’re afraid Blue’s claim in the Snowball press-release that, “Omnidirectional hears everything at equal volume from all angles” was simply untrue in this case. Nevertheless, the omnidirectional setting does provide a wide, open, natural sounding recording which is well suited to capturing a whole room and would certainly come in handy for recording meetings or jam sessions.

We rather suspect people are going to buy the Snowball on the basis of its looks and its heritage, but that’s no bad thing – it lives up to both name and image. If you’re looking to make great recordings without any hassle and fancy treating yourself, the Snowball could be exactly what you’re looking for.

Logitech Anywhere Mouse MX works on every surface

Logitech has kindly posted us an Anywhere Mouse MX, a wireless little number that boasts it can be used on pretty much any surface. Does it work, and is it any good? Let’s take a look:

It looks like a hand grenade straight out of Star Wars which is cool. It’s tiny and fits easily into your hand with all the buttons placed where they should be. The Anywhere MX is really light to hold too, making it useful for gaming. We trialled it with Left 4 Dead 2 and it proved helpful in swivelling around and chopping off a zombie’s face with relative ease.

There are six buttons in total on the mouse, your standard left and right buttons, two thumb ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons on the left hand side and a button to open your tabbed windows easily plonked right underneath the clickable scroll wheel. The wheel really lets the rest of the device down, feeling quite alien on the finger. If you’ve got big farmers hands like a certain TechEye reviewer, your fat finger bounces off the bottom of the scroll wheel every time you use it. It feels like being poked by a tiny pin each time.

The Anywhere MX runs on two standard AA batteries and promises to run for a while. When the mouse isn’t in use it goes to sleep, not to mention there’s a power slide on its underbelly to switch off when you’re not mousing around.

When installing your mouse you’ll see that the MX is shipped with Logitech’s unifying technology, which means you can use other wireless kit with the mouse should you want to – there’s space for up to 6.

The mouse’s main appeal, though, is that it works on most surfaces. Logitech has called the laser tracking tech onboard Darkfield, fitting nicely with the slightly sinister appearance of the device. We were skeptical before having a go, but it seems the claim is true to a point. While it struggled with sandpaper and simply refused to work at all at the bottom of a full sink, it managed glass surfaces which other mouses often find tricky. We even had a go on a bit of carpet and it worked fine.

Overall it’s a highly portable and stylish little thing, let down slightly by an uncomfortable scroll wheel. But that’s nitpicking. In the end, the technology is cool, it’s a nice mouse and it does work on all sorts – but it is hard to justify lightening your wallet by way of seventy quid.

Update: it’s retailing at the moment for up to £50.00 on Amazon.co.uk.

Triple Halo launches iFag for smartarse smokers

Smoking is pretty cool and it sucks that it can give you cancer and a load of other nasty stuff too. Triple Halo is trying to minimise the risk from smoke damage with the launch of a new electronic cigarette that was kindly sent to this 30-a-day smoker for trial.

The Halo e-haler still delivers you that all important nicotine fix, and thankfully, doesn’t look like as much of a toy as competitors. If you ignore the blue light at the front that lights up with every drag, anyway. Instead of the carcinogen-heavy smoke from a regular fag, the fake cig creates smoke with water vapour. It’s nice, it feels like  you’re actually getting a hit, and there’s plenty of smoke to breathe out.

It’s a bit rich of Triple Halo to suggest that “unlike the real thing” these iCigs “don’t kill you” considering the toxicology of nicotine and the links to pwning your heart. “A perfectly healthy water vapour and nicotine mix” is ridiculously misleading.

However, the overall experience is pretty pleasant. You can get a couple different flavours – mint, tobacco, apple and strawberry, making smoking one a tad like having a portable shisha pipe. The cigarettes themselves are rechargeable. All you have to do is stick the bottom half of the fag to your computer via a supplied USB cable and you’re okay to go in an hour.

Triple Halo brags that because it’s not a real cigarette it can “legally be enjoyed anywhere,” such as pubs, clubs, bars and even on aeroplanes. I tried it on the tube and no one stopped me, but you do look a twat. If I had the opportunity to try one out on a plane, I don’t think I’d have the gall, and I can only imagine someone lacking certain social skills would dare to bother being “that guy.”

I would give the Triple Halo e-haler 3 cancerous lungs out of 5. Why? Although an improvement on other electronic cigs on the market, it still looks kind of like a goofy toy. For someone genuinely trying to quit, but can’t stand cold turkey, I imagine they would be more likely to go for a more discrete option like Nicorette’s inhalers. As a replacement to cigarettes, it’s no good. However, if you like Shisha and smoking it’s a fun device every now and then. And tasty.