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Remote IT Support and Computer & Technology Help in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh NC

2010: The year that changed computers and TV?

Halo TV iPadHappy New Year to all of our readers!! If you’re already in 2011, what’s it like on the other side? On behalf of those of us still in 2010, we’re jealous of the cool fireworks that have been going on.

2010 turned out to be a pretty surprising year. Coming out of a recession it looked like the year would be a damp squib, but in fact consumer electronics spending held strong as we became ever-more obsessed with gadgets.

There were some technologies failed to make an impression, like 3DTV. I’m sure that next week I’ll see a whole new round of excitement around this technology even though consumers don’t seem all that interested in owning it at home. Even some of this year’s 3D hollywood blockbusters disappointed; Tron Legacy springs to mind, which asked moviegoers to pay 3D prices even though much of the movie was presented in 2D. The 2D parts of the movie were too dark with glasses on and more enjoyable with them off…but what’s the point in swapping them in and out for 2D and 3D footage?

The BlackBerry platform surprised us for an unexpected reason. While RIM’s smartphone strategy failed to impress with the disappointing Torch, the company surprised everyone with its PlayBook QNX announcement. I’m not sure if that’s enough to save the company long term though. I still believe that once corporates move away from the BlackBerry platform in larger numbers, the consumer market will choose to sustain the Apple, Google and Microsoft mobile offerings at the expense of RIM’s.

For me the most surprising aspect of 2010 was that the iPad really did turn out to be revolutionary after all. It completely changed the way we look at tablet computers and introduced new people to the computing world, both young and old. For kids aged 6-12 years, their most wanted gadget this holiday season was an iPad. Not a Nintendo DS, or a PSP, or a cellphone. They wanted a tablet computer; that’s how profoundly the iPad impacted the market.

Competitors weren’t ready for this. Microsoft thought they could pre-empt it by showing off the HP slate at CES 2010, and that product didn’t get very far in the consumer realm. Samsung got snubbed by Google for releasing the Galaxy Tab with Android 2.2. Even so, the Tab did put in a decent showing in sales volumes, although I’ve only ever seen one unit in someone’s hands outside of a store, review or trade show.

Netbooks also fell prey to the iPad’s assault. As iPad sales continued to increase throughout 2010, netbook sales suffered. Now nobody really seems interested in the sector at all, but that’s also because low priced ultraportables with decent processors are now hitting the market at under $500.

2010 also turned out to be the year that the mass market got excited about streaming content to their living room TV. With easy to use, high quality services like Netflix gaining huge popularity, Roku and Apple sold good numbers of their tiny set top boxes. Google had a different experience with Google TV, releasing a product that clearly hadn’t gone through a full round of consultation with TV networks, who promptly blocked the devices from streaming their online shows. But the overriding theme is that consumers definitely want to pull content directly into their living room from the internet.

The iPad changed the way we perceive computers and family-friendly content streamers changed the way mainstream consumers want to watch TV. Not bad for a year that was setup to be a “Meh” year in consumer electronics. Bring on 2011!

Neil Berman

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Dec 31, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile, Rants | , , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life: Buying a GPS

TomTom and Garmin took a hit a while ago when Google released free turn-by-turn navigation on Android phones. The GPS market is still alive and well however as I found out recently.

I don’t use Android on my daily phone so I have a choice of subscribing to AT&T’s GPS navigation service on my BlackBerry, using a dedicated GPS unit or having an argument in the car. Since the arguments rarely end well for me and the AT&T service costs more than a low end GPS after a few months, I decided to look at a dedicated unit.

tomtom-xl-340s-gpsThere are really two major players in this market: TomTom and Garmin. Nipping at their heels Magellan, Mio and Motorola have a certain level of presence on the lower store shelves but they’ve never managed to get a strong foothold in the market.

So I chose to concentrate my search on TomTom and Garmin, on the basis that the market can’t be totally misguided. Guess what I found? This is one of the craziest sectors in consumer electronics.

In terms of street prices, the vast majority of GPS products are compressed between $100-250, but within that range there are probably a total of around 20 devices to choose from just from TomTom and Garmin alone. That’s epically confusing.

So what are the main differentiating factors between units? Free vs paid map and traffic updates, clever route guidance and output qualities (screen size, speaker volume). There are a few others like Bluetooth phone integration and FM transmission of routing instructions through a car radio, but by and large these features seem to be hit and miss in their execution. What I mean is, there are too many reports of Bluetooth GPS to phone hookups not quite working and FM transmissions being unreliable when the car is moving at speed to base purchasing confidence on these features. The first three however are known quantities and are the bread & butter of the industry.

Free vs paid map and traffic updates

When you buy an old style road map, AKA ‘a book’, you’re buying a static map that is perhaps a year or so old. If you drive to new places a lot, you might buy a new map book every year to be aware of new roads. You can do the same thing with a GPS; maps get updated a few times a year and you can normally buy a new map download for your device. Sounds simple, but the reality is an expensive proposition. Map updates can easily cost over $50, so you may well prefer to just buy a new device instead as both TomTom and Garmin GPS units typically come with a guarantee that you will have access to the latest map when you buy the device. Subsequent map updates are a pay option.

Both TomTom and Garmin sell GPS units that give lifetime map updates for free, which are a good deal if you plan to use the device for a number of years. The road network isn’t materially changing every day but it does change significantly over a period of years. Two way roads become one way, highway exits get opened/closed and, less frequently, new roads get built.

garmin-nuvi-760TomTom comes out on top here since it has plenty more affordable devices available with lifetime free map updates than Garmin. Plus TomTom has a community feature called MapShare, where owners can submit map updates which then cascade to other participants which is a great way to keep the device up to date. MapShare only works if the device’s current map is less than a year old, so it’s not a long term replacement for buying a new map.

Many TomTom and Garmin GPS units can also receive traffic information over FM and re-route you to avoid snarl-ups. Again both companies offer units that provide this service free for the life of the device. With traffic updates, both TomTom and Garmin have plenty of affordable devices that offer the service for free. The one differentiating factor is that many Garmin units have an FM receiver built into the unit whereas most TomTom get reception through an external antenna that is part of the car charger cable. Garmin FTW on traffic.

Clever routing

I’ll say upfront that this seems to be roughly a tie. TomTom has a clever system on most of its GPS units called ‘IQ Routes’ that calculates routes based on historical traffic patterns for the area and time of day that you are traveling. Garmin meanwhile has ‘trafficTrends’, which does a similar job, although few of its units have this feature.  Most of the research I’ve read indicates that on some occasions one system is better and on others, the competing system prevails.

Output qualities

Both TomTom and Garmin offer GPS units with regular 3.5″ and widescreen 4.3″ screens. TomTom also has some affordable 5″ devices. It seems that the Garmin devices are generally brighter than comparable TomTom units, although TomTom owners don’t seem to actively complain that they are unable to view the screen of their GPS.

It’s a different matter when it comes to speaker volume, where TomTom owners seem to praise the loudness of their devices which is important if you like to listen to the car radio at a decent volume. By comparison there is plenty of feedback out there from Garmin owners complaining that they have to keep an eye on their GPS in case its instructions are drowned out by the radio. Some of the TomTom units also have adaptive volume settings that output louder instructions on the highway.

Any recommendations?

Like I mentioned earlier, I mainly considered the three factors above. I was definitely interested in Bluetooth and FM transmitter features, the hands-free phone capability is appealing and makes all the more sense when coupled with anXL340TM FM transmitter for hearing callers over the car radio. I’ve had experience with in-car FM transmitters in the past and can certainly attest that reception can be hit and miss, so I decided to pass on the feature.

I decided that I wanted a widescreen GPS to make it easier to read all the info that gets crammed into the screen, and 4.3″ was big enough for my needs. It seemed to be a tie on routing but I liked the crowdsourcing idea of MapShare for getting up to date info from the community.  The price difference between devices with lifetime maps and traffic updates vs the same model without those features was close enough to make the lifetime updates seem like a good idea. Finally I wanted to be able to hear instructions clearly over whatever was piping through the car radio.

All of that guided me to the TomTom XL340S-TM. The XL bit means it has a 4.3″ widescreen, the S means it has some nice extras like spoken street names and lane guidance for funky highway exits and the TM means it has free lifetime traffic and map updates.  There are some pretty good deals available online for this unit.

I then proceeded to download the Eric Cartman voice, so the TomTom now curses at me even when I’m going the right way.  I feel that’s a regression from my passenger navigator who only cursed occasionally, but she tells me  it’s progress.

Neil Berman

Dec 25, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Sennheiser MM550 review

Sennheiser MM550 14We scored a hands-on, or perhaps that’s an ‘ears-on’, with the Sennheiser MM550 stereo Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones last month.   That quick listen got our eardrums all excited, and Sennheiser was kind enough to loan us an MM550 so that we could get better acquainted. For the specs and general info, check out our earlier hands-on with the MM550.  In this review we’ll dive into more detail on the physical, technical and sonic aspects of the MM550.

First impressions of the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 is marketed and priced as an ultra-premium headset, so we were expecting something special when opening the brown FedEx box that arrived at theONbutton HQ. We were greeted by a smart looking store-friendly retail package, which was easy to open without a knife (yay!). Hiding inside was the MM550 itself and a soft pouch containing Sennheiser MM550 5a USB cable, headphone cable and charger with several international adaptors; Sennheiser really is expecting some serious jetsetters to buy this headset. Given the pricing of the MM550 and it’s billing as a do-everything set of cans, it’s good to see that Sennheiser included a good range of travel accessories.

The MM550 feels good to hold; for a closed back set of headphones the MM550 is light but evidently well made. The fitting mechanism on the headband is smooth and the headband itself has a decent amount of flex, giving the impression that it will be easy to get the MM550 to sit comfortably on the head. The ear arms fold inwards to make the MM550 more portable. The ear pads have a very soft cushion that closes around the ear helping to reduce ambient noise and making the MM550 handy in the cold, windy New York winter climate. The closed back design of course also allows for larger drivers to be placed within the ear pads.

The right ear pad houses all of the MM550’s controls; power/play/pause, track skip, volume, noise canceling, Bluetooth and the SRS WOW HD enhancer are all controlled from here. On the left ear pad a Sennheiser logo takes pride of place, presumably enclosing the MM550’s rechargeable battery. The micro-USB charging port is also on this ear pad.

Using the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 paired without issue with the Samsung Epic 4G and BlackBerry Bold 9700.  Both of these smartphones support A2DP (stereo audio streaming over Bluetooth) and AVRCP (remote playback control over Bluetooth), so they were ideal candidates for testing the MM550.  In both cases, the MM550 technically functioned perfectly.  Playback and volume controls worked as expected, and I never needed to re-pair the MM550 during the testing period.

Sennheiser MM550 9Call quality on the MM550 was excellent, and the headset distinguished itself by being the only stereo Bluetooth headset I’ve used outdoors where callers say they can hear me clearly.  Due to the microphone’s placement all the way back at the ear, most stereo headsets have difficulty picking up spoken words.  The one issue I encountered outdoors however was that the microphone did pick up some street noises too prominently; callers still said they could hear me but that the street noises were also very audible in these cases.  Indoor call quality with the MM550 was excellent.  As you would expect, the MM550 interrupts music playback when an incoming call arrives and takes you back to the music when the call is over.

The noise-canceling features of the MM550 has been well thought through by Sennheiser’s engineers.  The MM550’s noise-canceling technology, called ‘NoiseGard 2.0’, does its business without introducing noticeable sound effects into the music.  That’s a bigger complement than it may appear, as many noise-canceling systems introduce hiss or significant coloration but this is not a problem with the MM550.  The MM550s however do not completely block out external sound, but they did a good job of significantly reducing ambient noise on the New York subway and made listening to quiet content such as podcasts much more pleasurable during a typically noisy journey.  The noise-canceling also allows you to hear content better without needing to cranking the music up to 11.

Sennheiser MM550 16One interesting feature of the MM550 is that when the noise-canceling button is pressed, the microphone activates and passes external sound through the headset instead of music playback.  Sennheiser calls this ‘TalkThrough’.  So if you’re listening to music in a store for example and then get to the register, by pressing this button you can have a normal conversation without needing to take off the headset.  The Plantronics BackBeat 903 has a similar feature, and it’s nice to see it being implemented on other headsets.

So how does the MM550 sound with music?  Listening to consumer headphones is often a subjective experience; increasingly people prefer a more bass heavy delivery and consumer headphones have been moving in that direction in recent years.  The MM550 is designed to give a balanced delivery of the music, with the SRS WOW HD enhancer

available to provide some extra sparkle if you want more excitement from your content.  I’m not a fan of adding enhancers to headphones or amplifiers, because from my experience good headphones and amps are able to give a good sound delivery without needing enhancement.  But consumers generally expect some kind of enhancer or bass boost, so these things exist as a result.

With the SRS WOW HD enhancer off, the MM550 does deliver a reasonably balanced sound with a slight accentuation of the upper vocal frequencies at the expense of some of the lower midrange.  The bass is punchy and there are plenty of highs, so this slight lack of lower midrange produces a very open sound that doesn’t suffer from any muddiness.  It also means that some vocals can tend towards thinness, even sounding a little harsh sometimes.  Pop, dance and Jazz Sennheiser MM550 12sounded great in my listening time with the MM550.  The bass in Mylo’s Drop the Pressure drove the track with energy and Uniting Nations’ Ai No Corrida bounced along with real verve.  It was with Country music that the MM550 tended to produce occasionally harsh female vocals and guitars.

Turning on the SRS WOW HD enhancer, the bass became really solid on the MM550.  Dance music powered through the ear pads in a superb way and without sounding muddy.  The enhancer adds significant amounts of midrange boost however, which can sound harsh on some music genres after extended listening.  So while the SRS WOW HD enhancer gives an instant “wow”, as I experienced during my initial hands-on, I tended to enjoy the MM550 for longer periods with it switched off.

The MM550 can also work as a regular set of cabled noise-canceling headphones.  In this mode the MM550 sound almost identical to when they’re connected over Bluetooth.  The sound is perhaps slightly clearly, but the difference is almost imperceptible.  The MM550 ship with a regular stereo cable rather than a three ring hands-free cable, so they can only be used as a hands-free cellphone headset when connected over Bluetooth.

The MM550 has one noise-canceling quirk, whereby the noise-canceling circuit momentarily disengages when switching from one music track when you’re listening to a playlist.  It’s not a big issue, but is just a little odd because the silence breaks for a split second while you’re in a break between tracks.

Sennheiser MM550 15Sennheiser quotes 8 hours of stereo Bluetooth music playback with noise-canceling for the MM550.  Although I did not track my exact listening time with the MM550, I only needed to charge the headset once during my testing and I listened to it extensively.  It felt like Sennheiser’s battery claim is ballpark accurate.  Various factors will impact battery life with wireless products, so it’s difficult to really assess claims.  For example a headset will have to work harder to maintain a connection if the device it’s talking to is at the limit of its reception range.  Also, switching a headset on and off uses proportionately more battery life because the headset has to expend significant energy searching for a connection.  When a stable connection is secured, the power usage reduces.

Can the Sennheiser MM550 justify its premium price?

Overall the Sennheiser MM550 is an excellent headset.  That does need to be put into the perspective of its extremely high MSRP of $649, which currently translates to around $499 on various online retailers.  If you can live with the MM550 as your only headset for noise-canceling, stereo Bluetooth streaming and cabled duties then you might be able to justify its premium over other closed back designs.  It does pretty much everything very well, but whether it does it hundreds of dollars better than the competition is a difficult call.

Neil Berman


Dec 12, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

   

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