Author Archive: Iain Miller

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By October 25, 2009 Read More →

Acer Aspire Revo Review

As Matt said in his unboxing, the Acer Aspire Revo is an ultra small form factor PC. It’s a combination of the Intel N230 CPU and the NVidia 9400M GPU, offering high video performance in this small package.

 revo_1revo_2

You can see Matt’s unboxing here.

So let’s see what happen when we put this little box through it’s paces.

What’s in the box

The box that we received was an engineering sample so it’s not actually what is in the final product, but what we are told is in the box is…

Aspire Revo PC
Power cable
Keyboard
Mouse
Stand

No confirmation on cables yet, but I suspect a VGA cable would be included.

Acer Aspire Revo Specification:

  • Acer Aspire Revo Ultra Small Form Factor PC
  • Processor : Intel® AtomT 230 processor 1.66gHz
  • Hard Drive : 160GB Serial ATA ( Serial ATA-300 ) or 8GB SSD
  • Operating System : Linux or Windows Vista Home Premium
  • Chipset : NVIDIA® IONT chipset
  • Graphics : nVidia GeForce 9400 up to 896MB
  • System Memory : 1GB or 2GB / 4GB (Max)
  • 6 USB 2.0 ports
  • Four-in-one card reader
  • High definition headphone and microphone jacks
  • DC-in jack
  • Ethernet port
  • D-Sub VGA port
  • HDMI port
  • eSATA port
  • Network adapter – Ethernet, Fast Ethernet; Gigabit Ethernet
  • Wireless LAN 802.11 b/g/Draft-N
  • Dimensions (WxDxH) 18.0 x 3.0 x 18.0 cm

General

I’m not sure that there is strictly a ‘front’ on the Revo, so I’ll just go around the sides starting with what I think of as the front.

revo_6

Connections left to right – eSATA, Mic, Stereo out, Memory card reader. On the ‘right’ corner you can see the power button and a USB socket below it.

revo_4

and on the next side around there is another USB socket and some ventilation holes.

revo_3

Around the ‘back’ is where most of the connections are.

Left to right -  4 USB sockets, RJ45 network, HDMI, VGA, Power and finally the Kensington lock.

There’s nothing much to see on the bottom – just the slot for the base.

Review

Once you get your hands on it, the first thing that you notice about the Acer Aspire Revo is the fact that it’s not square – it’s tilted slightly. If you use the included stand then the case leans forwards, which is an odd choice as it makes the connections on the front slightly less comfortable to access. It’s not a huge lean, but it’s enough that you notice it – especially if you are wanting to frequently use the sockets on the front.

Another orientation, and one of the more common images that you’ll see on the web when you search for Acer Aspire Revo, is where the Revo is mounted on the back of a monitor. I’ve not actually seen the mounting kit, but it certainly offers an interesting location for the PC – depending how you then use the PC.

If you are going to be using it with a separate wireless keyboard and mouse and never need access to the connections or power button then mounting on the back of the monitor would be fine. If you actually want to use the enclosed wired keyboard and mouse, want regular use to the USB sockets or to attach an external drive, and want to be able to use the power button then it’s less desirable to mount on the back where you’d be forever ‘groping’ around the back of the screen. So I guess it depends on your planned use.

The last orientation is to place the Acer Aspire Revo flat on the surface – but then the labels next to the sockets are all upside down.

This suggests that the labels have been designed with the attachment to the back of a screen as the primary usage of the Revo.

Though this arrangement would seem to make the power less easily accessible.

So all in all I’m not entirely sure which way the box is designed to be used, nothing seems quite right for everything.

Anyway, after the inital look around the case I hooked the unit up to an HDTV using a standard HDMI cable.

The system we had to test had 2GB memory and the 160GB SATA drive and 32-bit Windows Vista Home Premium. Of this 2GB of memory it appears that 256MB is shared to the graphics card as the OS only shows 1.75GB of memory installed.

Booting the system from cold you are booted by a loud whirring, which I can only guess to be a fan – this stops after a couple of seconds, and whilst I never had it actually turn on whilst using the system, it does occur every start up for a few seconds.

So, first boot takes you into the Windows Vista setup screens where you enter your country, time and user information etc. All straight forward stuff, then it asked me if I wanted McAfee Internet Security. Happy to be offered the choice I said No – but it later turned out that it had installed it anyway :S

Then Windows went into a performance check, which took quite a while – the first warning sign of things to come. Then the system rebooted and despite detecting the HDTV as being 1920×1080 it set the desktop to 1024×768 – frustrating and odd, but no big thing to change later.

On getting to the desktop the system then did some additional installs of Acer applications, then does a clean up of the installation tools. All this takes about half an hour. Then the system reboots itself again.

So from out of the box to actually being able to use the PC is about an hour all told. Not exactly out of the box usable.

After all this I could finally change the screen resolution to the correct one and start to look at the system.

The 160GB hard drive is split into two 80GB partitions for reason, the first now has 36.3GB free after the OS and all the other applications, the second is completely blank.

A cold boot took 1 minute 40 seconds – twice as long as my old laptop running XP. Part of the reason for this boot time is the OS, but part of it is the hard drive as I would come to discover.

A quick look around the installed apps shows the same apps as I’ve seen previously on Acer machines including a backup tool that wants to take a DVD backup of your boot system – though I’m not sure exactly how you do that when the system has no optical drive.

Like so many PC’s these days, the Microsoft Office 60 Day Trial is installed – but because I’d not yet plugged the network cable in or setup the wireless network, I discovered something I’d not realised before. You actually need an internet connection to activate the demo. I’m not sure how many people don’t have internet connections these days, but it does seem odd that trial software would require it.

A quick run of the Windows Experience Index tool returned a score of 3.0, placing it right in the middle of the ratings system. Usually 4.0 is what is recommended for HD playback, but this is where graphics chipset in this little package comes into it’s own.

The NVidia 9400M is a very capable ‘mobile’ chipset – and it’s main selling point in the Revo it’s ability to push fullscreen 1080p video, and juding by on all the video I chucked at it that’s no overstatement. Fullscreen playback of full HD video ran without problem – definitely not something all these ‘low power consumption’ PC’s can claim.

What puzzles me with this push towards promoting the Revo as being 1080p capable is that no effort appears to have been made to make the sound output capabilities as tempting for videophiles. If you want to run HD video then surely you are going to be looking for 5.1 or optical output.

This leads me to suspect that the system is mainly aimed at people wanting to watch web video, not home theatre setups.

After having a wander around the system I decided to do the ‘right thing’ and get all the Windows Updates that the system required – getting the advised ones only this weighed in at 100MB, not huge if you have a decent internet connection so I started that running.

And here is where I found the thing that was going to turn me off this system.

Downloading the 100MB took less than 10 minutes – waiting for the system to install them took another hour. This lead me to look into what might be causing the slow performance and the obvious candidate was the hard drive (Hitachi HTS543216L9A).

A quick search on Google finds that the drive is a 5400rpm laptop drive with a quoted seek time of 12ms – though some test sites claim it’s more like 19ms.

Whichever the seek time number you choose from above, for a home PC I’m used to running with drive that are 7200rpm and around 8ms seek time, and the difference certainly explains the sluggishness that I mentioned above.

So whilst the GPU is very capable of throwing lots of video at the screen, the harddrive is less capable of moving data around.

The harddrive really is the achilles heel of the system as it stands – and running Vista is certainly not helping things either. It would certainly be interested in seeing if the system is any better running Windows 7.

Unfortunately I couldn’t test the keyboard and mouse that are in the final box product as they weren’t in our engineering sample.

Highlights

  • 1080p video playback
  • small form factor
  • low power consumption

Lowlights

  • poor hard drive speed
  • design quirks could be very annoying in daily use

Conclusion

I have to say that when Matt asked me to review this I was intrigued to see what the ‘new’ wave of Intel processors combined with the new graphics chip would be capable of.

The graphics chip did indeed deliver on it’s promise of 1080p performance, but elsewhere things aren’t quite so impressive. Out of the box you are looking at 2 hours of setup time to get the system full installed and patched up with the latest Windows updates, and getting on for 2 minutes of boot time each time you start the PC up.

The Acer Aspire Revo is a curious thing then. It’s the lower power chipsets, drives etc designed originally for laptop usage repurposed into a small factor desktop PC – then to boost it’s video performance over the first wave of such PC’s it’s had the NVidia 9400M GPU inserted, but no efforts to improve the sound output to match this video performance.

Connector labels oriented for what seems like the least likely usage of the PC, a fussy power button (possibly because our test unit was an engineering sample, but still), the strange forward lean in vertical orientation.

So whilst its video performance is better than the previous generation of low power desktops, everything else feels the same, if not a slight step back in some regards.

As a general desktop PC for doing lots of regular work on then the Acer Aspire Revo is possibly the wrong choice – if you just want to mount it on the back of a spare monitor for browsing the web then it’s probably fine, though definitely not the cheapest way to do this.

Review by: Iain

Posted in: Reviews
By October 2, 2009 Read More →

Hisense 1080p HD Media Player Review

The Hisense  HD Media Player is a simple proposition really, it lets you browse your media without needing a PC running in order to do so.

Hisense 1080p Media Player

Your media can be on USB keys/drives or on your network as this little box says it can handle them all – lets find out.

 

What’s in the box

  • Hisense Media Player
  • Remote control (with batteries)
  • Power cable
  • UK adapter
  • Composite AV cable
  • Component cable (according to manual, though not in our review box)

Specification

  • HOST: CPU MIPS 400Mhz CPU
  • Flash memory: 16MB
  • SDRAM: DDR2 128MB
  • Video codec:
    -MPEG1
    -MPEG-2 up to 1080P
    -MPEG-4 (720P/1080i/1080P) ,Xvid
    -H.264 up to 1080P
    -WMV9/VC-1 up to 1080P
    -RealNetworks(RM/RMVB)8/9/10 up to 1920*720(720P)
    -Flash Video
  • Audio codec:
    -MPEG-1 Layers I,II and III and MPEG-2
    -LPCM,ADPCM,FLAC,AAC,WAV,and OGG Vorbis
    -DTS HD Master Audio,LBR
    -Dolby digital Plus,TrueHD
    -RA1/RA-cook/RA-lossless WMA/WMA Pro
  • Photo: HD JPEG,BMP,TIFF,PNG,DNG
  • Video/Audio output:
    -Video YPBPR / HDMI out
    -Audio RCA stereo out(L/R)
    -S/PDIF
  • Network: RJ45 for Ethernet x 1
  • USB port: USB 2.0 x 2
  • Power supply: AC 100~240V / 50~60Hz, DC12V,2A
  • Dimension: 210 x 170 x 32mm
  • Weight: 315g

 

General

Tradition dictates that a quick tour around the outside is the first thing we should do.

Hisense 1080p Media Player front view 

Not much to report on the front view, just an led that lights up in the center. Red if the unit is off, green if the unit is on.

Hisense 1080p Media Player left view

On the left hand side we find two USB 2.0 ports. You can’t really tell from the picture above, but they are recessed slightly into the body of the casing. Not enough to make them completely inaccessible, more to make them ‘discrete’

Hisense-back

Around the back is where we will find all the connections. From left to right – Component RGB, audio left + right, S/PDIF audio out, HDMI, RJ45 Network and power in.

 

There is nothing on the right hand side so we’ll skip that and show you the remote.

Hisense-remote

We’ll be discussing this further in a minute.

 

Highlights

  • It happily handled most media that I threw at it
  • Up-scaling is very watchable

 

Lowlights

  • Remote
  • Interface

 

Review

The first thing that struck me about the Hisense HD Media Player as I took it out of the box was its weight. It’s as light as the proverbial feather. I suspect the connections on the rear are the only thing making the box the size it is – at this weight there can’t be an awful lot in there. Not to say that the resulting package is large, it’s not – it’s footprint being just slightly larger than a DVD box.

 

Setup couldn’t really be any simpler – just connect the power and your choice of output cable – I went with HDMI as it saves messing with audio and video separately.

Whilst mentioning the setup, I must just say that the UK power adapter included in the box is the ugliest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Most devices these days have ‘clip-in’ pieces for the basic power adapter ‘lump’, allowing you to select the one applicable to your region. The Hisense HD Media Player does not, it comes with a fixed two prong adapter which you then connect into a UK convertor plug – it’s very like a black moulded version of a travel adapter and not very pretty at all.

 

Anyway, back to the functionality.

On first ‘boot’ you are greeted with the Hisense logo and then the main menu screen – all in Chinese. A quick press of the setup button on the remote and a fairly obvious guess let me quickly change everything to English. (Curiously the button is marked ‘Setup’ on the remote, yet it’s called ‘Settings’ within the menu itself). The manual enclosed in our review box was also Chinese.

Once everything was in a language I could understand, the settings menus, though fairly basic, seem to offer most of the things that the average user is going to want to control.

‘Audio’ settings are a choice of RAW or LPCM output.

‘Video’ settings has some more options on hand. You can change aspect ratio (also changeable on the fly with the remote), the brightness and contrast (and yes I was surprised to see these being changeable within the unit itself instead of having to change the TV itself), Digital Noise Reduction on or off, and finally, the selection of resolution that you want to output at – ranging from basic NTSC or PAL all the way up to 1080p.

‘Network’ settings allow you to set the IP of the box by connecting to a DHCP or else you can give it a fixed IP, entering the IP, Subnet and Default Gateway yourself – which is the only reason for the remote having number keys as far as I can tell.

‘System’ settings allows you to change the menu language, text encoding, update the firmware or do a reset to default settings.

The final sub-menu is ‘Other’ which is primarily used to change the settings for automated slideshows of images – timing can be set from Off up to 2 minutes, transitions can be set to a single personal choice or set to random, background music can be on or off. There are additional settings in here for Resume Play, Movie Preview and Screen Saver.

 

So once you’ve finished fiddling with all the settings you can get on with actually looking at your media.

 

The browser interface for media selection is best described as ‘functional’. It’s not all bells and whistles, it just does the job. The presentation is really just a list of files and folders, which you can limit to be just photos, just movies, just audio or all media that it recognises. Alongside the list is a preview frame, and guess what, that’s a preview of the media file currently selected – if Movie Preview is set to On in the settings, then it will actually start to play a movie file in there, otherwise it’s only actually used for images and to tell you the file size and encoding of the media in question.

 

Once you choose your media it will ‘play’. Images will behave as a slideshow as per your settings, music will play within the browser and movies will play fullscreen.

Not really much else to say on images – it handles large JPG’s just fine and that’s likely to be it’s main use (it doesn’t like RGBA PNG’s, displaying the alpha as either on or off instead of 256 levels). You can zoom and pan around the current image, but everything else is really controlled by the slideshow settings.

Audio playback is very basic, there are no visualisers or anything fancy, it just plays the file. Don’t think this is going to be a common use tho, more of an easy thing for the engineers to add as all the MP3 decoding is already in place for the movies.

So, onto the primary use for the box – video playback.

I tried DivX, XVid, MPEG and MOV files that I had to hand, ranging from low resolution all the way up to full 1080p HD and the Hisense HD Media Player handled them all easily. I was outputting at 1080p 60Hz with Digital Noise Reduction turned on and I never saw a glitch, all the sound was in-sync – just exactly what you’d expect the player to do really.

When a video is playing you can fast forward and fast rewind up to 32 times normal speed – though there is no slow-mo functionality which surprised me a little. I imagine that it’s something they could add with a firmware patch, but out of the box it’s not there. You can also skip to the previous or next video in the current folder with a single button press.

You can change the video ‘zoom’ settings with a press of the remote whilst playing as well, so if your videos include 4:3 and 16:9 you can always find a setting that best shows the video in question.

You can also change the audio output settings on the fly as well – not something most people are going to use, but it’s nice that it’s there as an option.

The only other real option during playback is an information bar that you can call up to see some basic information about the movie you are playing – how many minutes into the file you are and the number of files in the current directory. It doesn’t tell you how many remaining minutes, which is frustrating if you are used to that sort of functionality from other media players (as I am).

So that’s a quick rundown of how everything works, what did I actually think of the player.

First off, I’d like to say that the hardware in the player itself seems to be very capable of the job that it’s asked to do. Apart from RGBA PNG’s, everything else I tried worked just fine – and I was very happy with the upscaling and DNR in general.

I was able to play videos off USB keys and over the network without any real problems. The only time I saw anything not working was when I connected to a Buffalo drive over the network. It didn’t seem to be able to retrieve the file information, so it couldn’t tell me the file size and encoding as it did with other sources – but it would play them just fine. On the same drive it didn’t like me selecting the Buffalo ‘filing system’ instead of the raw folder structure, it just hung, but once I went back to the raw folders things were fine.

The remote is the first thing that lets  the player down. It’s a very basic thing, on first look it reminded me of a remote control for ceiling fans or those really cheap VOIP ‘phones’. The keys themselves feel nasty as they are obviously just buttons directly onto ‘switches’, there is no softness in the tactile experience. On top of that sometimes a button press selects a different option, so you can be watching a video and press a button to fast forward and it will pause or completely stop the playback – it’s not a bug that happens every single time, but it happens enough to become very annoying very quickly. The shape is also very boxy, nothing at all to make it nice to hold.

In general the remote feels cheap and as that is a large part of the user experience it’s going to taint your thoughts on the player itself.

Another important part of the experience is the user interface, and again this was disappointingly basic.

The settings menus are fine, but the browser where you are going to spend the majority of your time is about as basic as it comes – it literally is just a file and folder list, there are no thumbnail previews within that folder for example, you only see a preview of the currently selected item. A little more effort here would make a huge difference to the user experience. To be fair, in general you can indeed get to all your media but to navigate up and down through folder structures feels a little laboured and is certainly not helped by the remote itself. The actual selection of a file can take a moment, as whilst it let’s you browse up and down the list as fast as you wish, it insists on checking the file information before it will let you select play – which leads to more frustration if you as you want to get to your files.

All this is a shame really as the actual player itself is very capable of doing the playback.

 

Conclusion

I’ve used the Hisense HD Media Player for about a week now and I think it’s a shame that the unit is let down by it’s user experience.

When it’s actually playing the media it does the job in fine fashion, but the second you actually want to do something the interface and remote really start to get on your nerves.

The problems I’ve described above could be fixed with a new remote and a better thought out interface, but as it stands the player is a little frustrating to use.

Posted in: Reviews
By September 8, 2009 Read More →

Sony Twilight – just how do you promote low light sensor

Sony have a new CMOS Sensor (the Exmor RTTM) which is apparently able to better capture detail and fast-moving action in low light filming conditions. So just how do you get people to hear about a new CMOS, with a viral video like this.

 

Because ordinary football/soccer is just too passé.

Posted in: Cameras
By July 27, 2009 Read More →

Acer Aspire 4810T Review

 

 acer_closedacer_angled_right 

When Matt asked me if I was interested in looking at the Acer Aspire 4810T I did what I usually do and asked if there was anything in particular I should be paying attention to. His answer surprised me to the point that I didn’t really believe him – "It’s got a 9 hour battery" he replied.

Needless to say this was something I was intrigued to test.

What’s in the box

Well as is sometimes the case when we are reviewing devices, we didn’t get a full retail box. The box just contained the laptop with it’s battery and 2 power cables. So there is not really much else I can say on that.

Acer Aspire 4810T Specification:

Operating system

Genuine Windows Vista®
Platform

. Intel® Centrino® 2 mobile processor technology,
featuring:
. Intel® CoreT2 Duo processor*
. Intel® CoreT2 Solo processor*
. Mobile Intel® GS45 Express Chipset
. Intel® Wireless WiFi Link 5100*
. Intel® Wireless WiFi Link 5150*
. Intel® Pentium® mobile processor*
. Intel® Celeron® mobile processor*
. Mobile Intel® GS45 Express Chipset
. Acer InviLinkT NplifyT 802.11b/g/Draft-N*

System memory

. Dual-Channel SDRAM support
. Up to 2 GB of DDR3 1066 MHz memory, upgradeable
to 4 GB using two soDIMM modules*
. Up to 4 GB of DDR3 1066 MHz memory, upgradeable
to 8 GB using two soDIMM modules*

Display

. 16:9 aspect ratio
. 14" HD 1366 x 768

Graphics . Mobile Intel® GS45 Express Chipset
Audio

. High-definition audio support
. S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) support for digital speakers
. MS-Sound compatible
. Built-in microphone

Storage
subsystem

. 2.5" hard disk drive* / solid state drive*
. DVD-Super Multi double-layer drive
. 5-in-1 card reader

Communication

. Integrated Acer Crystal Eye webcam
. Wi-Fi/WiMAX: Intel® Wireless WiFi Link 5150*
. WWAN:
. UMTS/HSPA at 900 MHz/2100 MHz and quadband
GSM/GPRS/EDGE
(850/900/1800/1900 MHz)*
. UMTS/HSPA at 850 MHz/900 MHz/1900 MHz/
2100 MHz and quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE
(850/900/1800/1900 MHz)*
. WLAN:
. Intel® Wireless WiFi Link 5100*
. Acer InviLinkT NplifyT 802.11b/g/Draft-N*
. WPAN: Bluetooth® 2.0+Enhanced Data Rate (EDR)*
. LAN: Gigabit Ethernet; Wake-on-LAN ready

Privacy control

. BIOS user, supervisor, HDD passwords
. Kensington lock slot

Dimensions
and weight

. 338.4 (W) x 240 (D) x 24/28.9 (H) mm
. 1.9 kg (4.2 lbs.) with 6-cell battery pack

Power
subsystem

. ACPI 3.0
. 62.16 W 5600 mAh*
. 62.64 W 5800 mAh*
. 3-pin 65 W AC adapter
. ENERGY STAR®*

Special keys
and controls

. 86-/87-/91-key keyboard
. Touchpad pointing device

I/O interface

. 5-in-1 card reader (SD/MMC/MS/MS PRO/xD)
. USB 2.0 port
. HDMIT port with HDCP support
. External display (VGA) port
. Headphones/speaker/line-out jack with S/PDIF
support
. Microphone-in jack
. Ethernet (RJ-45) port
. DC-in jack for AC adapter

   

General

Let’s do a quick tour around the Aspire 4810T.

acer_left On the left of the laptop is a USB port, VGA connector, HDMI connector, another USB port, and then 3.5mm sockets for microphone and headphones.

acer_right On the right you’ll find the CD/DVD drive, a USB port, an RJ45 network connector, the power socket and a Kensington lock slot.

Nothing much to see at the back apart from the battery, so let’s look at the front.

acer_front

If you look closely at the picture you’ll see that there is a slot in the middle front edge – this is a 5-in-1 card reader, and just above that (looking white in the photo) is a bar that glows amber to show the battery is charging and blue when the battery is fully charged.

acer_bottom

There’s not much to see from underneath, but the things worth noting are the 2 catches to release the battery, and single large removable cover for access to the hard drive and memory sockets.

Review

Before I get into the review I just want to point out again that we didn’t have a retail box, so some of the things mentioned here might be addressed in the full packages.

The first thing that happened to me on handling the 4810T was that I tried to open it up the wrong way – doh! For some reason the styling made my brain think that the battery area was actually the front – and this was something that I did several times whilst testing it. Don’t think that is something wrong with the design though, it’s more likely something wrong with me 😀

At just under 2kg the 4810T is certainly very portable, and certainly something I could carry with me all day.

The 14" screen is billed as an "HD Acer Cine Crystal LED LCD" – which is nice I guess. But to me it’s a gloss finish widescreen display with a native resolution of 1366×768.

acer_4810t

First off the bat, the 14" screen doesn’t feel at all small and being widescreen certainly helps that.

I do have a personal issue with the fact that the screen is gloss finish – and this is NOT unique to the 4810T, but to all screens – the reflections drive me mad. What was wrong with the matt finish we used to have on laptop displays? It was certainly more suitable for being outdoors with, and meant less fiddling with the screen to find an angle where things were visible. On some laptops this is further exacerbated by the fact that the LCD has poor viewing angles. Thankfully that is not the case here, the 4810T is viewable from a reasonable range of angles, so once you find a position where the reflections aren’t annoying then you are set.

The screen resolution of 1366×768 is another oddity for me -  I guess that’s "just how they come" but it doesn’t seem to be ‘standard’ resolution at all. Not that it affects the usage of the laptop, just seems odd to me.

acer_keyboard acer_keyboard2

The  next thing you notice with the Aspire 4810T is the keyboard. It reminds me of the one you get on some Mac laptops, with the keys being ‘plates’ instead of ‘chunks’. The keys are perfectly responsive, and though your fingers might find the sensation of the new surfaces slightly unusual at first, you will soon get used to them.

The new keys do cause something curious to happen though.

acer_angled_left2

When you open the laptop you will often find a dust pattern has formed on the screen. If you look closely at the image above you can see what I mean. This pattern appears to be caused by a build up of dust in the keyboard then when the laptop is moved around the dust falls between the keys and adheres to the screen. This just means that the first thing you do when opening your laptop is wipe the screen. Nothing earth shattering, but not something I’ve had happen on laptops with the more ‘traditional’ keys.

So onto actually using the laptop.

[ On the laptop we had for testing the activity lights above the keyboard weren’t working at all. I can only assume this was a glitch on the device we had rather than a more serious design problem. ]

This 48010T came with Windows Vista SP1 pre-installed and boots up fairly quickly. General testing of basic functions showed that the laptop was perfectly capable of performing the normal day to day tasks that you would ask of it with applications opening quickly.

Anyone looking that the CPU speed in the specifications need not worry unless they are running some heavy applications. The 4810T performs just fine with the normal things you’re likely to do on a laptop like office applications, web browsing etc. Obviously if you push your machines with more complex tasks then there is a point where it will slow down, but isn’t that the case on all PCs?

The 500GB hard drive is split into 2 partitions, one being a 10GB recovery partition, leaving 456GB formatted for the OS. So even with the OS on there, there is plenty of space for your files.

Like most PC’s the 4810T comes supplied with various software pre-installed.

The trial software includes McAfee Security Center and a 60 day trial of MS Office 2007. Other software installed include WinLocker, eSobi, Orion and Google desktop.

Acer have also included some of their own applications as well – Acer eRecovery Management, Acer Arcade Deluxe, Acer Backup Manager, Acer Crystal Eye Webcam, Acer GameZone and Acer GridVista.

I want to spend a moment going through the Acer software.

Acer GridVista is a tool for organising applications within a screen – it’s a bit like the Tile Horizontally/Vertically tool within windows itself. It allows you to place upto 3 apps in fixed positions on the screen in a preset grid, a bit like having multiple monitors. It seems to work nicely enough and I can see the benefit for some people.

Acer GameZone – a collection of 19 ‘casual’ games including things like Mahjong and Luxor. Added to the MS games that are part of Vista there is plenty to keep you distracted from your work.

Acer Crystal Eye Webcam is, as it’s name suggests, for the built in webcam.

Acer Backup Manager, again the name is fairly explanatory, for backing things up.

Arcade Deluxe – not more games as you’d think, but an app that is more like Media Center, with a video player, music player, photo viewer and web video browser all controlled from the same interface. I’m not sure who’d use this when all the functionality is already built into Windows, but it’s there if you want to use it.

Acer eRecovery Management is another backup tool, though it’s primary function is to allow the user to reset the laptop back to factory settings. Here is where I found some problems with the way the laptop was setup. In theory the recovery tool let’s you set the laptop back to factory conditions by rebooting from the recovery partition on the hard drive. In practise it doesn’t work, at least not on this laptop.

I clicked the button to recover the drive, agreed which drive I was recovering to and nothing happened. So I tried making sure the app was running as administrator and tried again, same thing. So I thought, I’ll go into Safe Mode and try from there, but the laptop wouldn’t boot into Safe Mode – it just crashes mid boot and restarts the laptop.

Depending on what is in the retail packaging this could be a major problem for the user.

If there is no Vista disk or other recovery disk included, then the user could find themselves with a machine that won’t boot and won’t let them into Safe Mode to fix the problem.

When you first start the 4810T it does encourage you to create a backup disc, but that’s not really an answer as the user that may not have writeable discs handy.

I could live without the recovery tool if the package contained a reinstall disk (though that does mean the 10GB recovery partition is not needed), but not being able to boot into Safe Mode could lead to big problems for the user and most users will only discover it when they need it most.

Certainly the first thing I’d be looking at if the laptop was mine was how to get Safe Mode working, just in case.

Another installation glitch I found was that a link to the ‘Acer Quickstart Guide’ actually pointed to a document that wasn’t installed. Not as serious obviously, and might even be a result of being a review device, but without being able to recover to factory settings I can’t tell.

Whilst I’m discussing things that irritated me, the network connector is arranged so that the ‘locking clip’ is on the underside as you are using the laptop. Which means that when you want to disconnect the cable you have to lift the laptop first – surely it would make more sense for the connector to be the other way up so that the user can release the cable without moving the laptop. You can see this is you look at the photo of the right hand side of the laptop above.

With the complaints over, let’s get onto the more positive aspects of the Aspire 4810T.

acer_ejectThe eject button for the CD/DVD drive is above the keyboard instead of being on the drive face itself. This is a great idea and saves it being nudged accidentally – though I did press it instead of the power button a couple of times 😀

acer_trackpad There is a button beside the trackpad that allows you to turn it on and off, and the button lights up when the trackpad is off. Normally this is a function key, but here Acer have opted for a separate physical button. So if you find you are touching the pad whilst typing you can just press the button to disable it. The light is a bit brighter than I think it needs to be though.

When playing back audio I was pleasantly surprised by the audio separation of the stereo. Sounds were very obviously left and right when watching movies, not something that all laptops can say.

And talking of movies we get to the test that I ran to see how good the battery really was – I played some DVD movies. Normally this is a bad idea on laptops as spinning the drive and doing the decoding really eats battery power.

After 2 full movies, totalling over four hours of playback, there was still battery to spare! I’m convinced – the battery life on the 4810T is stunning.

The 9 hours that has been talked about for the battery life on the 4810T obviously depends on what you are doing, but I can well believe that if you are just doing some text based work or web browsing that the 9 hour life is possible. In reality most people don’t need 9 full hours as they are likely to be able to put some charge in at some point in their day, but it certainly stops you having to worry about your battery.

It certainly takes a little getting used to the fact that when the battery life is at 25% it’s still saying 2 hours life left 😀

 

Highlights

– Without question, the battery life
– drive eject button being on the main keyboard area

Lowlights

It’s hard to be accurate on this not knowing the retail box contents

– software setup
– gloss screen (yes I know it’s a personal choice, but for me it’s a negative)
– network connector ‘upside down’

Conclusion

If you just want a laptop that runs all day then this is well worth looking at, the battery life will not disappoint.

For me though the battery life alone doesn’t justify the price. Laptops are getting ever cheaper, and if I was to purchase a similarly spec’d one elsewhere and bought a second battery to extend the usage time, then I’d still be saving money for the same sort of package.

But one thing is for certain, this battery technology will be used in other laptops before very long.

The glitches with the software setup are a real concern, the inability to get into Safe Mode in particular. Reading some forums they suggest that this can happen on PC’s where the hardware is causing the Safe Mode boot to fail, and if that’s the case here then that’s a deal breaker for me. I would certainly be trying a clean Vista install from scratch and seeing if that can get into Safe Mode. I don’t need Safe Mode that often, but when I need it, I really need it to work.

Review by: Iain

Posted in: Reviews
By May 16, 2009 Read More →

Traxdata USB player Review

The Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player is the latest addition to their family of multimedia players.

It’s primary function is to play video files from a USB drive / memory stick on your TV.

 

What’s in the box?

  • Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player
  • Remote control (with battery)
  • Mains power adapter
  • 3 pin component cable
  • 3 pin composite audio & video connector
  • Composite to SCART adapter
  • Manual
  • Quick start manual
  • CD – this is primarily a copy of the manual, but has a couple of applications on there as well

 

Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player Specifications

Interface
1 X HDMI
1 X USB 2.0 Type A
1 X Composite
1 X Component
1 X Coaxial SP DIF Output

Video Output
PAL/NTSC
Screen Ration 4:3 and 16:9
Component output   : 480i / 480P / 576i / 576P / 720P / 1080i
HDMI output              : 720P / 1080i
Hardware Upscaling to ultilize Optimal TV resolution

Media Support
Media Type         : MPEG-1, MPEG-2, XviD, MP3, WAV, JPEG
Media Files         : dat, mpg, mpe, mpeg, vob, m2p, avi, xvid, jpg, jpeg, mp3, wav

Subtitle file support
SRT, IDX/SUB, ASS, SSA, SMI, PSB, SUB Type II

Content Resolution
Video              : 720 x 576 pixels
JPEG ( Baseline)   : 5120 x 3840 pixels ( Baseline )
MP3                : 320 kbps


An external tour

Not really that complicated from the outside

Back
From left to right
SPDIF digital audio, composite audio & video, component video, HDMI, USB, power. Note that the Ethernet socket is blanked off on this model.

Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player back

 

Front
Blue power LED

Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player front 

and that’s your lot

Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player REMOTE

Highlights:

  • compact form factor
  • low power consumption
  • silent

Lowlights:

  • remote could be better laid out
  • would be nice if all the features worked as explained in the manual
  • usb connector is too close to the HDMI connector

Review

The main use of a device like the Traxdata HDMI USB Media Player is for playing back .avi files or possibly running image slideshows on your TVs.

As devices go, this is about the most literal example of plug and play you could ask for. Simply plug in the power, a USB drive or memory stick and your video connection of choice, and that’s it, job done.

It’s also a shame that there isn’t an HDMI cable as part of the package considering that they are so cheap these days, but still, that’s life.

The player understands NTFS and FAT32 drive file systems and can play back some of the more common file types, but not all by any means – so check that your primary file types are supported.

As you can see from the specifications the video output capabilities of the device mean that you can connect this player to pretty much any TV you might have – composite, SCART, component and HDMI are all properly supported.

So you make all the connections, switch the TV to the right input and tada, there is a list of your files. In general the file menu will only show folders and file types that it understands – it seems that the file type check is simply based on the extension and so it can list files that it may not be capable of playing.

When viewing the list of files you can either use a list view or a thumbnail view, and can switch between the two with just a single button press on the remote when in the menu. Navigation is primarily handled with the cursors, and the Play/Pause button acting as select.

Within the setup pages you can change the settings for audio, video, slideshow delay and the like – all have enough options that you should be able to tweak it to your preferred values.

So the real crux of the device is how capable it as handling the actual image/video scaling.

The scaling hardware is fine – it’s not going to make videos suddenly be like an HD source, but it’s very watchable. Personally I preferred the 720p output with my videos, but all the other modes work just fine as well. Even if you don’t want to use the HD resolutions, the advantage of being able to watch your movies from your couch makes the player a valid option on SD resolution TVs.

When in video playback you have slow motion modes down to 1/8th speed and fast search up to 16x normal.

Once a file has finished playing – be it video, image or audio – then the player automatically moves straight to the next file in the folder. So left unattended the player will step through every file in the current folder until it finishes the last one where it will then stop, unless you have repeat turned on.

On the CD, as well as PDF versions of the manual, there are two applications – one is for setting up playlists on your USB drive and the other is for marking folders as private so that the player can only access the files inside if you enter the right 4 digit PIN code. Not very exciting apps, but they seem to do the job – though they aren’t even mentioned in the manual.

And now the fly in the ointment.

The remote control (as is so often with non-large brand electronics) is a fairly generic one that is then custom mapped to the functions for the actual device. In this case it appears that the remote is one you’d get with a DVD player – which makes sense given the functionality of the device.

The result though is that the buttons aren’t the most intuitively laid out (personally I think that remotes should be laid out so that you almost instinctively know which button to press without looking at them). A prime example is the volume buttons having ‘Vol -‘ on the right of the ‘Vol +’ instead of the other way around. Another example is that when you pause a slideshow you’d expect the left and right buttons either side of the play/pause button to allow you to skip through the images – they don’t, you have to use the prev and next chapter buttons – which makes sense from the point of view of how the device thinks about files, but doesn’t make sense from the point of view of the user.

Beyond that, there are various inconsistencies in the interface that add to the frustration of the user. One example is that if you are in list view and go into a folder of images then it automatically starts a slideshow without listing the files first, enter the same folder when in thumbnail mode and it simply shows the thumbnails. And when you are in thumbnail mode then the Setup button doesn’t work, you have to switch back to list view again for it to work.

There are also some functions that are listed in the manual but don’t appear to actually work, despite my best efforts and trying under different modes with different files and different TV modes.

– image view mode zoom
– playback of music during slideshows

Along with the interface issues, one hardware wrinkle I came across is that the USB connector and the HDMI connector are too close together for some USB keys. I had to use a usb extension cable with a smaller connector in order to use some of my USB keys.

Conclusion

The device itself is very capable of handling the video scaling and outputting it to most TVs.

I wish it came with an HDMI cable, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker by any means.

The device is really let down by the user experience though, both with the remote and the interface that it controls.

If it were my money I’d go for an upscaling DVD player (with xVid/divX capabilities) that accepts memory cards and USB devices. That way you can also store files on discs (CD or DVD) and also upscale your existing DVD’s as well. I’d also look for one that had a better thought out remote.

If portability of the device is an important issue then it’s hard to imagine anything smaller than the Traxdata USB player.

 

Review by: Iain

Posted in: Reviews
By March 9, 2009 Read More →

Dell Inspiron Mini 9 review

The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is another in the current flood of ‘NetBooks’ that we have seen since the first Asus EeePC, so how does it fair in the current marketplace.

mini9_open

The Dell Inspiron Mini 9

 

What’s in the box?

Inspiron Mini 9
Charger
Recovery CD’s

Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Specification:

Processors Intel®  AtomTM  Processor (1.6GHz, 512KB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB)
Operating System Genuine Windows®  XP Home Edition SP3
Ubuntu Linux 8.04 with custom Dell interface
Memory 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Chipset Intel®  945PM / GS Express Chipset
Graphics Intel®  Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 950
LCD Display Glossy 8.9 inch LED display (1024X600)
Hard Drives Up to 16GB configured with a Solid State drive.
Optical Drives No optical drive available.
Ports USB 2.0 (3)
Integrated 10/100 LAN (RJ45)
15-pin VGA video connector
Audio jacks (1-line out, 1 mic-in)
3-in-1 Media Card Reader
AC adapter connector
Power 4-cell 32WHr Li-Ion Battery
Camera Integrated 1.3MP webcam
Wireless 802.11g mini-card
Bluetooth®  Internal (2.0) mini-card

Dimensions & Weight

Width: 9.13" (232mm)

Height: 1.07" (27.2mm) front / 1.25" (31.7mm) back

Depth: 6.77" (172mm)

Weight: Starting weight of 2.28 lbs. (1.035 kg)1(8.9" display, 4 cell battery). Weights will vary depending on configurations and manufacturing variability.

   

 

An External tour

Front
Nothing much to see apart from the status LED’s on the left – these are white LED’s and whilst I found them a little distracting, it wasn’t too bad.

 

Right Side
From left to right we have Headphone Jack, Microphone Jack, USB port, VGA out and Ethernet.

mini9_right

Back
Nothing to see here apart from the back of the battery

 

Left Side
From left to right we have Kensington locking point, power port, 2 USB ports and a 3-in-1 card reader.

mini9_left

Opened
A fairly standard looking though slightly compressed keyboard layout, touchpad with mouse buttons, and a main power button.
At the top of the screen is a webcam and mic for web conferencing.

mini9_keyboard

 

 

Highlights:
– Small and light
– This also applies to the power adapter
– Feels solid and well built

Lowlights:
– Default cover attracts fingerprints – can’t speak for other styles
– Glossy monitor
– Monitor view angle
– Desktop resize on every boot
– No F11 or F12
– Keyboard layout is going to take a little getting used to
– Gets a bit warm
– Collect and return warranty only

Review

As you unpack it, you realise that the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 is a petite thing, surprisingly so if you’ve never handled a NetBook before – it looks for all the world like a laptop that’s shrunk after being washed on too high a heat.

The top cover is offered in a number of styles and colours on the Dell website – this one is decked out in the default piano black (which attracts fingerprints like you wouldn’t believe).

The Mini 9 is offered in both Linux and Windows XP flavours, with a mixture of hard drive sizes – this particular one came with Windows XP SP3 pre-installed on it’s 8GB drive, with the faster option graphics card (the Intel 945 Express).

As I first opened it up, I was impressed by how solid the construction felt – it felt like it could take life on the road quite easily.

The first boot was fast enough (sorry I didn’t time it), but the fact that I didn’t get frustrated by it is praise enough 😀

As it loads up it’s default programs at startup one of them is for the built in webcam, and it flashes the built in white led ‘light’ for a moment as it tests the hardware. Personally I found this a little disconcerting for my level of paranoia, so that soon got disabled so it would only think about using the camera when I wanted to.

The Mini 9 has an 8.9" 1024×600 wide screen LED monitor, which like so many laptops coming out at the moment, has a Glossy finish. I know that they say it helps with colour reproduction and deeper blacks, but personally I always find them far too shiny, especially outdoors – and for a device that’s designed to be taken on the go I find this a little frustrating. I know there are some people however who prefer the gloss finish, so I get’s it’s a question of preference.

One quirk I found during bootup is that the current drivers (or maybe Windows itself) seems to think that the monitor is 800×600 until Windows is finished loading, at which point it corrects itself to 1024×600. Whilst this doesn’t seem like that big a deal it does mean that Windows reorganises the icons on your desktop every boot. I’m sure that this is something that can be fixed with future drivers, but for the moment it was frustrating to have to work out where you new icons had been placed every time you reboot the machine.

This Mini 9 shipped with anti-virus installed and was pretty up to date on the windows update side of things (at time of arrival), so out of the box you at least have a fighting chance of keeping your system safe.

As the primary use of a NetBook is browsing the web I thought I connect and see how the Mini 9 handled it. After connecting with the wifi I was soon browsing the web.

At this point I started to realise that 1024×600 is not a lot of real-estate for a monitor, you really want to be able to minimise toolbars and the like, and when web browsing on smaller monitors I usually prefer to go to full-screen mode by pressing F11.

Ah.

There’s no F11 on the keyboard.

At this point I’ll digress for a moment. Please bear with me.

The Mini 9 keyboard (and this is the UK keyboard I’m talking about) has a number of quirks, and one of them is that there is not F11 or F12. Another is that the F keys they do have (F1-F10) are placed over the middle rows of keys on the keyboard.

Additionally, the > and . key has been squashed horizontally, the backslash is now on the right hand side of the keyboard, as is the ` key.

What all this means is that you have to get used to the keyboard not only being more compact than normal, but also to the fact that some keys aren’t where you’d expect them to be and some are missing completely.

Fortunately the browser I was using (Firefox) has a menu option to allow me to go in and out of full-screen mode, not ideal, but at least the option is there. I’m not sure what people with apps that require F11 or F12 are supposed to do if there is no menu alternative.

Anyway back to the web browsing.

Once I’d gone into fullscreen mode the browsing experience was much more pleasant. Though still compact, at least now I could read long paragraphs in one screen and in general it was a lot more enjoyable – I can easily imagine people sitting out in a cafe in the summer checking news and blogging etc.

So now onto something slightly more processor intensive – music and video.

Every mp3 I threw at it was easily handled, nice smooth playback, so onto video.

I downloaded my preferred video player (MPlayerC) and some video codecs (ffdshow), stuck a copy of a converted DVD onto a memory stick (remember the Mini 9 has no optical drive), and started it up. Perfect playback first time, increased to full-screen and it continued to run smooth as butter. I could certainly see people using this to watch their converted DVD’s on the commute in the mornings.

One thing I’ve not mentioned up until now is the trackpad.

The trackpad is in it’s traditional place below the keyboard and it appears a though it’s sort of carved into the surface (there is no obvious edge between the two surfaces, just a slight bevel to recess the trackpad). It is very responsive, and whilst you have to get used to it’s petite size, it functions as you’d expect. When I was sitting down for a longer period with the Mini 9 I’d connect an external mouse for comfort, but the pad is perfectly functional, if a little small, for your on the go needs.

Having had web browsing, mp3 and video handling all pass with flying colours I thought I’d try something else that I’d likely use the Mini 9 for – image editing.

I installed my favourite art package and had a quick play with some existing images I had. And here we had the first real signs of the fact that we were dealing with a mobile processor. Things got slow and in some operations very slow. In the end I decided that whilst it was capable of getting there eventually, I couldn’t see myself using it at those speeds, so I dropped back out and crossed image editing of my list of things the Mini 9 can do easily.

I then started up an Office document (albeit I was using OpenOffice) and as long as I wasn’t trying to do anything too complex things were fine, though sometimes it took a moment or two to think about complex pages when moving around the document. Presentations where much the same story, simple stuff was fine, but if you got too complicated things started to slow down.

Like when web browsing, the other thing that was obvious in the other packages was that you had to be very selective about which toolbars you wanted on the screen all the time – the screen’s resolution meant that you’d want to have the bare minimum on the screen whilst you worked so that you could see more of your work space.

One thing that has to be said about the Atom chipset that these new NetBooks use is that that are very quiet – and I do mean very. If you are really making it work for long periods of time then the little fan will kick in to cool the CPU down a bit, but even when it’s on the fan is not that loud or annoying.

That said, after using the Mini 9 for a while, I was surprised by how warm the base was getting – warm enough that I’d place something between it and me when using it on my lap.

One other thing that I did come across when getting the review together is that the Dell warranty is Collect and Return only. Meaning that your Mini 9 has to go back to Dell if there is a problem, no on-site repairs. Again it’s a personal thing as to how much of a deal-breaker that is.

mini9_angled_closed

Conclusion

In general the term NetBook says it all really – these devices are intended, and best used, for browsing the web, playing music or watching videos.

Whilst the above review might come across as lots of negatives, they are mostly personal preferences not major problems. The only thing I’d say was a big annoyance was the lack of F11 and F12 keys. No matter the arrangement, they should be there somewhere.

If you can adapt to the compact nature (and layout) of the keyboard and full-screen your favourite web browser, then the Mini 9 is a solidly built device that I can see lots of people carrying around in the future.

 

Review by: Iain

Posted in: Reviews
By March 4, 2009 Read More →

Advent AIO100 review

What happens if you take the base components from an Atom based Netbook and blend it with an 18" monitor.

You get the Advent AIO100 – a low power consuming, all in one PC.

The Advent AIO100

The Advent AIO100

 

What’s in the box?

  • The main unit
  • Keyboard
  • Mouse
  • Power Cable

There is also apparently a manual in the production model of this, but it wasn’t present in this review unit.

Advent AIO100 Specification:

  • Intel® Atom processor
  • (1.6GHz, 533MHz FSB, 512KB Cache)
  • Genuine Windows XP® Home Edition
  • 1GB DDR2 memory
  • 160GB SATA hard drive
  • NVIDIA® GeForce 9200M graphics *
  • Dual Layer DVD Rewriter
  • Built-in wireless (802.11b/g/n)
  • Integrated 1.3 million pixel webcam
  • 5x USB ports
  • Media card reader

* Our test unit had the Intel 945 Express graphics card, this has apparently been changed to the Nvidia chipset in final hardware revisions.

General

Front – 2 LED’s, one for power, one for HDD activity
The buttons from left to right are :- Power, LCD brightness (there are 5 levels), Volume Up, Volume Down, Mute Speakers, LCD On/Off

Advent AIO100 front view

Advent AIO100 Front View

 

Right Side- Media card reader, Microphone, Headphone, 2xUSB, External VGA connector (behind the cover on the right hand side)

Advent AIO100 right side

Advent AIO100 right side view

 

Back – 3xUSB, Power, Network

Advent AIO100 rear connectors

Advent AIO100 back view

 

Left Side – DVD-RW Drive

Advent AIO100 left side

Advent AIO100 left side view

Review

When Matt sent me a picture of this and asked if I’d review it, my first thought (having recently reviewed the Dell Mini 9) was that it was a Photoshop blending the Mini 9 with a monitor.

Once I confirmed that it was a real product, I said yes, as I was curious as to what Advent had here.

I looked at the full specs of the Advent AIO100 online and was puzzled further – they seemed to confirm my original thoughts, with the hardware specs being almost identical to the Mini 9 – just the hard drive and the monitor being different.

So on to the actual device itself.

As I unboxed the AIO100 I realised that the monitors connection to the base isn’t exactly as I thought it would be. I had assumed there would some sort of plug together connection – of course if I’d thought it through a little bit I would have realised that approach would mean some fussiness with the cables connecting the monitor to the base.

The base is connected to the base unit and that connection is hinged at the monitor end, with the connecting cables being hidden inside the connecting arm.

One thing I would mention to people who might be unpacking one of these is to be careful as you remove polystyrene as there is some level of springiness in the arm between the monitor and the base. You wouldn’t want to drop your new PC.

The unit itself is covered in the ultra shiny plastic that so many monitor are nowadays – the sort of plastic that just attracts fingerprints, and this is obviously something Advent themselves are aware of as this unit actual included a cleaning cloth.

Also in the box are the USB keyboard and mouse, the power adapter and the CDs for reinstalling Windows and MS Works 9.0

The keyboard itself is one of the compact variety where all the extra surround has been removed and on top of that its one of the thinnest keyboards I’ve ever seen. Whilst that may sound as though its delicate and flimsy it works just fine and feels perfectly solid whilst typing on it.

The mouse is a standard optical mouse with 2 mouse buttons and a scroll wheel.

Setup is really simple – just connect the power, plug in the USB keyboard and mouse, and press the power button. You can’t really get much more simple than that.

There is a slight hiccup with the power connector.

It’s a right angled plug, which means that if you want the cable hidden along the back of the unit then the cable has to go either towards the USB sockets or towards the network connector – and it slightly blocks the socket you point it towards, not dreadfully, but enough that you question the usage of a right angled connector instead of a normal bullet one.

Once started though, it’s a standard Windows XP boot to the desktop.

One tool that is installed on the AIO100 by default is a ‘recovery’ tool made by ‘The TechGuys’.

It can either recover from a backup you’ve made previously or else you can choose to do what they call a Destructive Recovery – that basically wipes the hard drive and reinstalls the PC as it came shipped to you.

Very useful and certainly quicker than doing a Windows reinstallation from scratch yourself.

The other pre-installed programs are PowerDVD and Microsoft Works 9.0

One thing that is missing though is any form of anti-virus. Normally this is one of the many pieces of trial software that PC manufacturers install by default. It is certainly the very first thing that I’d recommend installing – ideally getting the download from web using another PC that is already protected.

The monitors default resolution is 1680×945 which is a resolution I’ve never come across, but on the 18.3" monitor it certainly gives the user a decent real estate. And built into the top of the monitor is a 1.3M pixel web cam.

The viewing angle on the monitor isn’t brilliant. If you are to the left and right of the ‘sweet spot’ things are fine, but if you are below that perfect position then things go darker with some of the colours reversing, and if you above this spot then things go light.
Now all LCD monitors suffer from this problem, but the ‘sweet spot’ is normally larger than this, with more forgiveness in the users position before the colours distort. And across a relatively large monitor like this it differs between slightly dark and slightly light across its height whilst you are sitting still.

On most LCDs you can work around this slightly by choosing to tilt the screen to get a light image with a more consistent colour across the whole screen, and then adjusting the monitor’s internal contrast and colour settings. Only this monitor doesn’t have those settings. You CAN adjust those with the graphics card software within Windows, but it’s quite not as flexible.

On the subject of the graphics card, this unit is a slight quirk according to the specs out there on the web. According to the specs I’ve found this PC is supposed to have an Nvidia 9200M graphics chipset on the motherboard. This one has an Intel 945 Express – exactly the same as the Dell Mini 9.

Whilst the graphics card is the same as on the smaller resolution NetBook it’s certainly capable for web browsing and fullscreen video playback. I don’t think I’ll be trying to play any recent 3D games on it mind.

One component that is a big step-up from the Mini 9 is the 160GB SATA hard drive of the AIO100. The drive felt faster to me, though I didn’t do any hard testing on it, just gut and experience.

By using an Atom N270 CPU the PC has very low power consumption, with quoted figures of 34W with the CPU going full bore. This also means that it runs pretty cool. When it does heat up the on board fans kick in, and whilst they are noticeable, they are pretty quiet – and certainly quieter than a normal PC tower.

When it comes to running programs the Advent AIO100 is fine for anything that doesn’t require real number crunching power. Web browsing, document editing and fullscreen video are all handled fine – providing you are not trying to do anything too complicated (tell your video player to do lots of affects to the picture then it will soon push past the CPU’s abilities and start to chug a little).

The built in DVD drive follows the rest of the device in being built with laptop type hardware, when you press eject it springs open then you manually open it all the way or close it. So no power driven open and close like on normal desktops, but

Built in WIFI and Gigabit Ethernet will let you connect the PC to your network whichever way you prefer.

An external VGA connector, 5 USB ports and a 4-in-1 media card reader round out the capabilities of this petite base unit.

Something else I should point out is that the unit can also be arranged with the base behind the monitor and then using the VESA connector into the bottom of the base unit. It’s an interesting thing to allow the user to choose between a ‘standard’ monitor type layout and a VESA connection which would clear the desk surface of anything but the keyboard and mouse.

Though under this arrangement the various buttons, ports and the DVD drive are less accessible than in the desktop arrangement.

advent_back

Advent AIO100 back view

 

 

Conclusion

So where does all this leave the Advent AIO100.

Well if you are in the market for an all-in-one PC, that doesn’t take up any more space than a monitor alone, then the AIO100 is worth looking at.

If you are only looking to browse the web, edit documents or even view DVDs, then the unit is certainly capable – and the ability to reconfigure the devices physical form to hang it from a VESA bracket would allow it to be used in a non-standard office location (though you’d likely want to get a wireless keyboard/mouse unit).

My main niggle with the AIO100 as a device is the viewing angle on the monitor. If you can live with that and the relatively low grunt of the CPU then it’s a neat little PC that won’t guzzle much power.

Of course if you want to run more powerful applications or games, then you’ll need a more tradition PC – and with current prices Dual Core PCs with a decent size monitor can be bought for about the same sort of money these days.

If I was getting a PC for my mum (who only really needs web browsing and email), with an eye on small form factor and low power consumption then I’d seriously consider a PC like this. Though the very first thing I’d do is install anti-virus software.

An alternate thought though is to get a NetBook and a large desktop monitor for about the same money – this would allow you to take your PC with you and just hook it up to the larger monitor (and keyboard and mouse if you choose) when you get home. Though I suspect that’s not the market that the Advent AIO100 is aimed at.

 

Review by: Iain

Posted in: Reviews
By December 27, 2008 Read More →

Sony BDP-S5000ES Blu-ray player review

The Sony BDP-S5000ES is a Blu-Ray player that sits at the upper end of the price range.

Touted as being their "top-of-the-line Blu-ray Disc player" – can it live up to that description ?

 

What’s in the box?

  • the player itself
  • remote control and batteries
  • composite AV cable
  • Sony USB memory card
  • power cable (the power cable in our test unit was a european 2 pin, but I’d fully expect the final product to have correct region specific plugs)

Personally I would have thought that a product like this would at least warrant an HDMI cable thrown in.

 

Sony BDP-S5000ES Specification:

  • Weights and Measurements
    – Dimensions (Approx.) : 17" x 4.92" x 14.37" (430 × 125 × 365mm)
    – Weight (Approx.) : 22lbs (10.0kg)
  • Video
    – Video Digital-to-Analog Converter : 1080i, 720p: 14 bit/296 MHz (HD); 480i, 480p; 14 bit/216 MHz (SD)
    – HD Reality Enhancer : Yes
    – Precision Cinema HD Upscale : Yes
    – Super Bit Mapping : Yes
  • Audio Features
    – Dolby® : Built in Decoder & Bit-Stream (via HDMI and Coaxial and Optical) output
    – Dolby® Digital plus Decoding : Built in Decoder & Bit-Stream (via HDMI) output
    – Dolby® TrueHD Decoding : Built in Decoder & Bit-Stream (via HDMI) output
    – dts® Decoding : Built in Decoder & Bit-Stream (via HDMI and Coaxial and Optical) output
    – dts®-HD Decoding : Built in Decoder & Bit-Stream (via HDMI) output
    – LPCM : 2ch & 6 Ch (192kHz/96kHz/48kHz); 8 ch (96kHz/48kHz) output; 2ch (96kHz/24bit) over Coaxial & Optical
    – Individual Speaker Setting : Large/Small; Existence or Nonexistence; Distance

 

General

As you look at the player you can see that Sony has gone for a fairly clean design – with just 5 buttons – Power, Eject, Play, Pause and Stop.

BDP-S5000ES_Front

There are indicator LED’s above the play and pause buttons, and 3 additional indicator LED’s to denote when certain modes are on (24P mode, HD Audio and SBM[super Bit Mapping]).

Plus the actual display itself of course 😀

BDP-S5000ES_03_ES-EC

Round the back you have more connections than you could shake a stick at. If you look at the full resolution image you can see them all clearly labelled. Pretty much every video and audio connector you would want. The only connection I could think of that wasn’t on there was SCART, but as that’s a European format that is not HD capable I didn’t see that as much of a loss.

DPP_0086 DPP_0088

The XMB (Cross Media Bar) in action

Highlights

  • very good picture and sound quality
  • remote illuminates at the touch of a button
  • ability to dim and even disable the illuminations on the front of the player
  • upgradable firmware

Lowlights

  • price
  • no HDMI cable supplied
  • slow loading

Review

The very first impression you have when you get the box is that it weighs more than you’d expect. As you can see in the specifications above, the BDP-S5000ES weighs in at 10kg – this along with its size means that it is going to need a bit of space on a reasonably sturdy shelf.

Initially I hooked the player up to a 28inch Sony Bravia.

Once everything is setup and you start the player you are walked through a quick-setup that will get you up and running – you can always tinker with any of the settings again later.

I just want to take a moment to mention a feature on the remote that I find useful – the backlight button. Dead useful when you’ve darkened the room to enjoy the movie and then want to find the pause button.

So now I was setup I had a quick wander around the player’s interface menu.

It’s very similar to the PS3’s XMB (cross media bar) – you select the main area, which offers dropdowns, which in turn can offer sub-options etc. All very nice though with the remote I had it would sometimes double-jump, taking a keypress twice instead of just the once, which lead to a little frustration (again this might just be the test unit we had, but I wanted to mention it).

As you look through all the options it becomes obvious that you can tweak just about anything you want to, there are options in there that I’ve never seen before.

My favourite option was the ability to dim or even disable the illuminations on the front of the player. What you may not realise from the photos above is that the slot for the Blu-ray is illuminated, so that along with the 5 coloured LED’s and the display on the front was very distracting to me in a dark room – a very nice option that I wish more companies would include on their electronics.

And whilst the player can easily handle photo-CD’s and audio CD’s, the main reason for the player is its Blu-Ray playback. So let’s take a look.

Initially I’d connected up with the supplied composite cables (well they included them) and I put in a Blu-ray.

And I have to say I was a little surprised, on first inserting the disc I was greeted with a message that told me that loading of the Blu-ray could take 2-3 minutes. Pardon? The video format of the future takes how long to load ?

This lead me to my second discovery about Blu-ray players – they have loader animations (similar to the hourglass in Windows) between ‘chapters’ – don’t worry this doesn’t happen mid movie, just as you move from one area of the disc to another, like from a menu to the movie or back.

In the end it didn’t take that long to load, but it was a noticeable period – and then I was into the trailers (on a side rant, why do movie companies insist on putting trailers at the front of the disc instead of just letting me get to the movie I’ve paid for? Put them in as additional content and I can watch them IF I want to). Several frustrated clicks of remote later I got to the main menu, started the film and was totally under whelmed by the picture.

Which is what I was expecting from a composite cable. I really don’t understand why it’s in the box, supplying a composite cable with a player of this quality seems like madness, especially when you consider that there’s no HDMI cable provided!

So then I powered down and connected up an HDMI cable I’d borrowed.

Powering back up I went into the settings and changed the video output to 1080i (the highest this particular TV could achieve).

And I started the Blu-ray again, after waiting and clicking and finally getting into the movie, I could now see the sharpness that was missing with composite cable. OK, cool – I can actually see what Blu-ray is offering a sharper picture on HD TV’s.

So now I tried a DVD of the same movie so that I could compare the sharpness between an upscaled DVD and a Blu-ray.

Once settled back on the sofa, Whilst I had a general feeling that the Blu-ray was sharper, I could definitely live with the upscaled DVD – and I could get an upscaling DVD player for a lot less than the Blu-ray player.

Unconvinced by Blu-ray I decided to try it on a friends larger TV.

This time it was connected up to a 50" Panasonic Plasma (very nice).

Again I was connecting up with the HDMI cable, but now I could switch the player into full 1080p mode. So now I was able to see the ‘full HD’ capabilities of Blu-ray. And there is no question that on a large screen in 1080p, Blu-ray is noticeably sharper than an upscaled DVD.

We took a couple of photos to show the difference (not quite the same exact video frame, but you’ll get the idea)

 

Combined

Upscaled DVD on the left, Blu-ray image on the right (click to enlarge)

 

So having agreed about the differences between upscaling and Blu-ray, and seeing the PS3 under the plasma, I was curious how the PS3 stacks up against the BDP-S5000ES.

The first thing to say is that as we’d been setting up the BDP-S5000ES I’d mentioned some of the things I’d observed on my TV and when I mentioned loader screens I was greeted by blank stares. After inserting the Blu-ray into the PS3 I understood why – it loads a LOT quicker than the BDP-S5000ES, to the point where the loader animations barely appeared before they were replaced by the video after.

So PS3 loads quicker. How does its picture compare?

Personally I preferred the PS3’s picture, banding seemed less noticeable and black and white footage didn’t seem to get colour tinged the way it was on the dedicated player.

I think that the picture on the BDP-S5000ES was slightly sharper, but that’s more of a feeling than anything we measured – we all agreed that both were very watchable.

 

Conclusion

So if you have a large enough TV that is capable of full 1080p HD playback then you will notice the difference between upscaled DVD’s and Blu-ray’s.

Coming back to Sony’s tagline of "top-of-the-line Blu-ray Disc player" – whilst I’m sure that video and audio philes everywhere will have flame wars about this one, if it were my money I’d get a PS3 and a whole load of movies and games with the change.

That said, it’s a personal choice and with the firmware being upgradable it might be that future improvements to the BDP-S5000ES would change my mind.

 

Review by: Iain

Posted in: TV & Home Cinema
By October 16, 2008 Read More →

Slingbox Classic Review

Ever find yourself with time to kill, wishing you could watch some TV? or even a program you’ve recorded on your Sky Plus?

Well that’s what the Slingbox does, it allows you to control your home TV whilst you are on the move. You can watch programs live, or if you have a Sky Plus type setup, you can watch recorded programs – basically everything you can do at home you can now do from anywhere in the world over an Internet connection.

http://uk.slingmedia.com/go/slingbox-classic-slingplayer

What’s in the box

  • Slingbox
  • Power adapter
  • 2 Audio/Video cables
  • Scart adapter
  • S-Video cable
  • IR Control Cable
  • Ethernet cable
  • RF Aerial cable
  • CD-Rom

General

The box itself is a fairly simple looking affair – all the connections at the back and just a couple of LED’s on the front to confirm it has power and an Internet connection.



The clean front of the Slingbox


Connections across the back of the box

Most users of the Slingbox, in the UK at least, are going to be using it for controlling their Sky box remotely so I’ll talk in those terms. [Though if you look at the SlingMedia site you’ll see that the Slingbox supports lots of other devices].

In general I would imagine that everyone would use the Scart Adaptor, that comes with the box, plugged into one of the Sky outputs. Then the 3 pin Combination Audio/Video cable plugs into that, and then the other end into the input of the Slingbox.

Then you hook up the ethernet cable to your router, plug the IR Cable into the Slingbox and route the cables so that the IR transmitters are pointing at the right part of the Sky Box.

Plug in the power and that’s the box setup done.

You then need to install the software on your PC/Mac to let you setup the box further.

Once the Software is installed it will find your Slingbox on the network and walk you through the setup, all very straightforward.

At the end of the setup process it offers to setup the remote access that will allow you to view your video from anywhere in the world (providing you have Internet access). If you are just planning on sharing the signal around you home network then you don’t need to set this up obviously.

The only other thing you need to setup is the software on the devices you plan on watching your programs with, be it a laptop or a mobile phone.

Computer Requirements

Minimum PC Requirements

  • Microsoft Windows Vista or Windows XP SP2
  • 1.3 GHz processor
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 150 MB available disk space for installation
  • 24-bit graphics
  • 16-bit sound
  • Network connectivity

Minimum Mac Requirements

  • PowerPC G4/G5 800 MHz or Intel processor
  • Mac OS X v.10.3.9 (or higher recommended)
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 150 MB available disk space for installation
  • Network connectivity

Minimum Network Requirements

  • Cable or DSL modem (for out-of-home viewing)
  • 256 Kbps upstream network speed recommended (higher upstream network speeds yield higher quality video)
  • Home network router – wired or wireless (UPnP compatibility highly recommended)

Audio and Video Sources

One aerial/coaxial antenna and one standard definition audio/video source such as:

  • DVB-T Freeview Set-top Box
  • Digital Cable Set-top Box
  • Aerial/Coaxial Antenna*
  • Digital Video Recorder (DVR) such as Sky, Virgin Media or one provided by your cable/satellite provider
  • DVD Player/Recorder
  • Satellite Receiver such as Sky
  • Video/Security Camera
  • Windows Media Center

*Includes built in Freeview DVB Tuner

Review

Windows or Mac based PC – check

High-speed Internet connection – check
Home network router – check
Want to watch Sky TV on the move – check

So assuming you also have the same checklist, then the Slingbox is an interesting device.

It literally gives you remote control of your Sky TV wherever you have a decent Internet connection. You can be sitting in an airport terminal or your local coffee shop using their WIFI access to watch the latest episode of your favourite soap on your mobile phone. Sitting on a long distance train journey and have time to kill? then watch the movie you recorded last night (assuming the train has WIFI access and isn’t the old rolling stock that so much of the UK still has).

All sounds great, certainly something that could change how people watch their TV.

Out of the box there are a plethora of cables to allow you to hookup your Slingbox – nothing is left to chance, I can’t actually think of a setup that the cables supplied don’t support [apart from HD, but that’s a different product].

Everything connects up really obviously, nothing complicated in that.

And then you reach for the CD to install the software that finishes setting up the device…

In my case, I’ve got a Windows XP system and after putting in the CD it pops up with a menu.

OK, click Install, wait what? That says ‘Download & Install’, surely that can’t be right, someone must have labelled the button wrong.

slingbox1

Nope, that’s right folks, out of the box you have a 40MB download to do before you can setup your box. The CD shipped is the equivalent of a web address. And the kicker? When you ask the software to check for updates, it again opens a webpage in the browser and tells you that you need to download an updated version, and yup it’s ANOTHER 40MB download 😮

Once you get the software down and run the installation it then opens up a wizard to setup the Slingbox. It’s all fairly straight forwards – which country is the Slingbox in, which input on the Slingbox are you using, What is your Television Source (Sky in my case), Brand of the Device you are wanting control, etc.

[Please bear in mind that all these screen caps are missing the actual video as my capture software doesn’t grab it correctly]

slingbox2 slingbox3 slingbox4

slingbox5 slingbox6 slingbox7

slingbox8 slingbox9 

Once that’s all set and you’ve tested the control of the device, then you just setup the box password and the box’s administrator password.

If you are wanting to control the box over the Internet instead of just your local network then first you register with SlingMedia. This will setup an account that keeps track of the IP address of your box on the Internet, which allows you to point your mobile devices to it over the Internet [in one version of the software I played with you could also set the box to use DynDNS.org to keep track of the IP address].

slingbox10

A couple more screens to auto-tune the video settings and away you go – it starts up the client program and you are watching and controlling your Sky box over your network.

slingbox13

The actual player

All the settings are reconfigurable from menus in the player, you can either let the player control the amount of network bandwidth the Slingbox uses or manually configure it, you can change your picture to widescreen, letterbox etc – in fact every setting I could think of wanting to play with was there, all very nice.

For viewing you can install clients on Windows XP, Mac OS X or some mobile phone OS’s (Windows Mobile, Symbian S60/UIQ or Palm).

These can connect to your Slingbox either over your local network or over the Internet from wherever you happen to be.

Although I was primarily testing this over my local network on desktop PC’s, I did try the Windows Mobile client (there’s a 30 day demo) and I was very pleasantly surprised – it just worked, what more could you ask 😀

[Obviously be aware that mobile connections to the Internet can be chargeable depending on your connection type and phone contract]

 

And once it’s all running there’s not a lot to do but kick back and enjoy it.

 

Picture quality on the desktop is OK, nothing special – but it’s never going to be DVD quality from the input source we are using, which is then compressed. That same picture quality on the mobile screen is far more palatable. [You can look at the new Slingbox HD for higher def solutions]

In both cases I could definitely imagine myself watching programs over the Internet – I’ll happily accept the slight dip in picture quality as a trade-off for being able to watch your own TV anywhere.

 

Highlights

  • good selection of cables to hook things up
  • seems to have a very good library for devices it can control

Lowlights

  • 40MB download before you can even start
  • Software downloaded from the CD Link is out of date, so another 40MB download is on the horizon if you want to get up to date

Conclusion

So after the surprising lack of inclusion of the software you need on the included CD the rest of my experience with the Slingbox was very very smooth.

The ability to sit potentially anywhere in the world and not just watch, but also control your TV is very cool in my opinion, and is an excellent addition to any Sky Plus setup to allow you total control over your TV viewing no matter where you are.

Just be sure to warn the people at home you are going to be remotely controlling the setup to avoid freaking them out 😀

Posted in: Reviews
By August 20, 2008 Read More →

ComputerWeekly.com IT Blog Awards 08

As some of you will have noticed over the last few weeks, tracyandmatt.co.uk was nominated for the ComputerWeekly.com IT Blog Awards 08.

And as you can see from the results HERE – got second place! Only beaten by a Microsoft guy. Well done Jason.

A huge thanks to all those who voted and all your support.

Posted in: News