Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mini-review: Tronsmart Dual Quick Charge 3.0 36W wall charger

The idea was originally to review this for AAWP (see link, right), but having examined and tried this neat little Tronsmart gadget, it seems too Quick Charge 3.0-centric for the world of Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile, where 'fast charging' refers to the USB Type C 'Power Delivery' system, i.e. 5V at high current (up to 4A in some cases, but more usually 3A max).

It's true that this Tronsmart Dual Quick Charge 3.0 36W wall charger also outputs up to 2.4A at 5V, so that it's technically compatible with Microsoft Lumias, Google Pixels, Apple iPads, and so on, the majority of the world which doesn't use Quick Charge 2.0 or 3.0. But it's not optimised as such, so the USP here wouldn't be appreciated by users of any of these devices - plus their original 3A chargers would give a faster charge.

However, many of us have multiple device these days, certainly around a family, so a mix of 2015/2016 phones with both 'Power Delivery' and Quick Charge requirements. In which case this gadget is perfect - just plug in any USB cable and let the wall charger work out what voltage to supply and at what current.

The gadget is black, solid and unobtrusive - both ports have the trademark Quick Charge coloured blades and both can supply the same voltage/current combinations - at the same time, hence the overall 36W rating.

There's a green status LED on the top, which lights to let you know that power is being delivered. This is the UK variant, though two pin mains versions are available for other markets.

My only worry is that the charger sticks out quite a way, so you might want to make sure it's not easily knocked or tripped over! And I'd bet that this applies even more to those International two pin variants. Then again, there's a lot of clever circuitry to pack in, and safely too, given the power rating!

At £16 currently, on offer on Amazon UK, this is good value for a trusted charger brand and it's made it's way into my go-everywhere overnight bag.

PS. Here's the original product page on Tronsmart's web site.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Renovating an old, classic Macbook!

At first sight, what I'm doing makes no sense, the 'late 2009' Macbook is now seven years old and should be nigh on unusable, even with the efficiencies of Mac OS.

Yet Apple's design decisions in the Macbook arena as we moved into 2015 and then into 2016 don't really appeal to me at all. I like the Magsafe connector, I like having a charging indicator, I like having an optical drive, I like having a full ethernet port, I like having USB-A ports, I like having a proper keyboard, I even like having a glowing Apple logo on the back.

Money being no object, I guess a 2014-era Macbook Pro would give me all of the above with faster performance, but we're still looking at £1000 or so, which got me thinking...

How could I breathe new life into my much beloved, but ageing, Macbook?

Here's what I did:
  • Had the peeling rubber bottom replaced by Apple (free of charge, it was a design defect)
  • Had the battery replaced by Apple (£80 or so, a year ago)
  • Upgraded the RAM to the maximum of 6GB with an extra 4GB stick, albeit running at the speed of the original 2GB, which has to stay in place for architecture reasons. 6GB seems to be fine, even with the latest Mac OS Sierra though.
  • Put in a new optical SuperDrive last year - this wasn't trivial, but also only took an hour all-in. Cost was about £25. The old SuperDrive had been getting more and more unreliable, possibly due to some orange juice damage early in the Macbook's life (on loan to my daughter!) And yes, I still use DVDs - and I write DVDs and CDs, mainly for my wife and father. Plus occasional offline backups.
  • As just mentioned, the Macbook now runs the very latest Sierra build, so it's bang up to date. I guess my original Snow Leopard install DVD is now a museum piece?(!)
  • Swapped out the 250GB hard disk - this still worked but the Macbook had been getting so slow lately, despite numerous 'First Aid'/permissions repairs and anything else I can think of. Maybe wiping the disk and starting from scratch would help a bit, but it did seem sensible to take the next evolutionary step and move to a Solid State Disk (SSD). I bought this 250GB replacement from Amazon UK after recommendations from others to go with a Samsung disk. The swap was pretty trivial - I used SuperDuper! to copy everything from the old disk to the new one, temporarily plugged in via USB using this cable. Then it was just a case of taking the Macbook's back off (8 screws) and swapping the disks (the SATA connectors and screw-in locators are standard). 

In addition to all this, there are some software tweaks, of course. Nothing drastic, but all aimed at giving me a larger screen than the 13" Macbook initially shipped with. Setting my Mac OS app dock at the side of the screen rather than on the bottom, instantly gaining me some screen real estate for most applications. And, along the same lines, using the little known (and fairly new?) 'System Preferences/General/Automatically hide and show the menu bar' - this gives another centimetre of useable screen height a lot of the time. And finally, yet again improving screen real estate, using the provided 'full screen' option in most applications (e.g. Chrome or Safari), which makes damn sure that all those screen edges are filled with the app's UI. Add these tweaks together and it's astonishing how much more spacious the old screen looks!

Of course, I can't do anything about screen resolution, but then I also can't do anything about my eyesight, which at typical laptop reading distances (about 45cm) can't really tell the 800p screen here from the 'retina' resolutions on the flagships. In which case there's little point in paying for the latter.
Am I being a little perverse in trying to prolong the life of a laptop which should long ago have been gracefully retired? Probably, but it's the sort of tech challenge I relish. I also have a 2006 Windows laptop - so ten years old. This was maxed out when it was bought by a friend (4GB RAM, twin hard disks, etc.) and is now only barely sufficient, but it keeps going well, even on Windows 10.
Happy tech days, eh?

Thursday, October 06, 2016

7 reasons why the two year old Nexus 6 is superior to the brand new Google Pixel XL

Yes, the title is slightly misleading, in that the new XL has higher spec internals and upgraded software and hardware features, of course. But the point I wanted to make here is that it isn't all one way - and it hasn't been for two years, with last year's Nexus 6P also disappointing.

Here's the check list then. Follow along with me!

  1. Screen size. Look at the montage above, you'd think that the one on the left was the newest because the bezels were smaller and the screen larger. But no, the left phone is from two years ago! The Nexus 6 screen is stunning, at the same QHD AMOLED and at a full 6", unlike the 5.5" in the new Pixel XL (review coming soon).
  2. Durability. The Nexus 6 is built by Motorola and is as tough as old bricks. You can't bend it, you'd have to smash the screen to really damage it in some way. In contrast the 6P was horribly fragile. In fairness, I haven't handled the Pixel XL yet, hopefully it's as tough as the '6'.
  3. Waterproofing. Linked to no. 2 above, the Nexus 6 is 100% waterproof. Drop it in the toilet or bath and leave it there for a few minutes. Fish it out and it'll be fine, thanks to nano-coating of all the internal components. The 6P wasn't claimed to have the same and real world tests have been varied, but I'd trust Motorola's nano-coating over Huawei's anyday - Moto has been at it for years. Meanwhile the new Pixel XL is only claimed to be 'splash resistant'. 
  4. Qi charging. The Nexus 6 has Qi wireless charging, just rest it on a charging pad and it's charging away, while the newer Google devices have to be plugged in.
  5. Optically stabilised camera. The Nexus 6's camera is almost as high specced as the newer handset's units, but has OIS, meaning that you can shoot long exposures in low light, up to a second or so if you have steady hands. The newer Google devices rely on software tricks (multi-exposures) to get close to the same effect.
  6. Front mounted stereo speakers. These are fabulous on the Nexus 6 for media watching. In fairness, the 6P had the same units, but the new Pixel XL has just bottom firing speakers, which won't be anywhere near as immersive when watching YouTube or Netflix etc.
  7. Price. You can pick up the Nexus 6 these days for as little as £200 in clearance or £130 second hand, while the Pixel XL is brand new and STARTS at £719 in the UK. Gulp.
Obviously I'm slightly tongue in cheek with all this, since the newer devices will be faster in terms of UI, but you can't help but give props to the old, now classic Nexus 6.

Is it just me?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Scam? Forbury Retail Park parking and Suicidal Retailers

It's a fair cop. As I parked in the Forbury Retail Park and strolled outside to take some photos in the nearby gardens, I had to walk past a sign that said, in very small writing (underneath larger writing promising 'Maximum Stay 3 Hours'), "Walking off-site will result in a charge of £100".

I then returned to the park to McDonalds and bought my lunch. Strolling back to my car I saw the dreaded Penalty Charge Notice on the windscreen.

I've now paid this after researching the whole topic for a week, it's simply more hassle than I can take to go through the various rounds of appeals and court cases etc. I suspect most other people do the same.

I guess it's private land (the retailers lease the shop space) and the landowner can put whatever strict rules they want for the privilege of parking there. But it seems crazy and totally lacking in common sense.

The idea of stopping people parking there all day while they work in Reading is fair enough - that's what the maximum stay number is for. But the idea of letting people park there, run an errand in Reading centre and then return (say) an hour later, to also shop in Home Sense, Staples, Argos or whatever and generally spend a lot of money seems the right way forwards.

Last time I went to Staples I spent £400. And, on the same visit to the car park, bought £70 of bits from Home Sense.

I'm not sure I want to give this retail park my business to the same degree anymore. And, judging from the emptiness of the car park (I did wonder) it seems that a lot of others are voting with their feet, or at least wheels.

There is NO REASON WHATSOEVER why the car park can't have a conventional max stay system (via number plate cameras?) or even a pay and display system, refundable in the shops with a minimum purchase. This would be a 'win' for both consumers and retailers.

The current UKCPS system is more like 'Nobody wins'. There's precisely zero chance now that anyone would visit these shops unless they had a very specific need and an awareness that they couldn't venture from the car park without physically driving their car out.

For example, McDonalds is apparently considered a separate car park by the idiots at UKCPS, so if you park in the main Forbury Retail Park and then walk 30 metres to McDonalds, you're classed as 'Walking off-site' and the UKCPS people leap up on your car and apply the £100 fine.

The lasting effect of this for me is that I've resolved to drive into Reading as little as possible and use the bus. Which means that I'll only be shopping in the main town centre... and not spending my money in Forbury Retail Park.

UKCPS probably don't mind, they've still got a stream of unaware drivers to fine £100 a time. That's their main income. But THE RETAILERS SHOULD CARE. They're the ones who are suffering and they'll go out of business (cough Comet, a few years ago). They need to complain to the landlord to get the car park system changed.

Because the current one really isn't working. For anyone other than bean counters at UKCPS. And I've no desire to ever ben involved with that business ever again.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: Lumsing Bluetooth Car Kit with FM transmitter

Bluetooth car kits are all very well, but a lot of them involve either some DIY to your car's dashboard or the right sockets (even just 3.5mm aux in) on your car stereo.

Which is why I was interested in grabbing this Lumsing gadget which claims to effectively turn any car into a Bluetooth-capable media monster instantly and cheaply, thanks to the 'magic' of FM transmission.

Now, FM transmitters are in themselves not new, they've been around for years, but you normally have to plug these into your smartphone with a 3.5mm jack - the secret sauce here (other than being sleek, small and stylish) is that the audio connection to your smartphone for music, podcasts and call handling, is all done wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

The usual caveats apply in terms of finding a frequency that works well for you - in the UK, I usually swear by 88.4MHz, but a lot will depend on where you live. The power output from this Lumsing unit seems pretty good though and I rarely got hit by interference from nearby FM stations. One omission here is that there's no 'auto-scan-for-blank-frequency' function, something which you sometimes find in other transmitters.

The unit is small and light, and mounts onto a magnetic back, which you can stick (using the supplied pad) to any surface should you not have a magnetic surface in your car already. One nice touch is that the transmitter rotates on its base, so as to relieve strain on the power cable/antenna and also to let you tidy the cable away more easily.

In my car, the circular Lumsing transmitter matched the other circular controls perfectly, so it was natural to stick it onto the dashboard plastic, where it has been secure.

In terms of controls, you get frequency adjustment, track forwards and back, plus play/pause, with a tidy LCD display to confirm the frequency currently being transmitted at. The Bluetooth connection to my test smartphones was trivial and you connect just as with any other Bluetooth audio device, there's no pairing code needed.

Although this doesn't support the Apt-X Bluetooth codec, the standard A2DP profile was fine and our family has been enjoying trips with high quality music, streamed from iPhones and Windows Phones. And when it comes to taking a call, pressing the top right button answers and there's then built-in noise cancellation to keep the audio tidy.

The instruction manual talks about long pressing the top right button to launch Siri on the iPhone, which is fair enough but it does nothing for Android users, so this may be of limited use. Best to still use the controls on the phone itself for most people.

There's a dual port (1A/2A) 12V car adapter in the box, which is very welcome indeed. For most people, plugging the FM/Bluetooth gadget into the lower power USB port then gives you a high current port with which to charge your smartphone quickly. it's neat and... just works.

At £18 (currently) in the UK on Amazon, this is priced about right. Possibly not an outright bargain, but certainly not too expensive - in our car it replaced an old wired FM transmitter adapter and is half the size, weight, is far more elegant... and comes in cheaper as well. Love it!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Review: Hansmare Leather Skin for Apple iPhone 6/6S

Another in my occasional series of iPhone 6/6S case reviews - I'm all for leather when used tastefully and you can't fault the finish here, which is heavily textured leather laid on a plastic substrate - there are no rough edges (despite the relatively low price) and there's a definite premium feel:

It's a typical in-situ design, of course, with the aim here to both look good and also aid protection and grip. It achieves the latter to some degree with the texture, though the 'genuine leather' was coated with something that made it slightly more slippery that it should have been.

Moreover, the Hansmare case makes a song and dance in its promotional material about the edges being raised up enough to protect the iPhone in the event of a fall face down - but I'm sorry, this isn't what's found in real life - the sides barely made it flush with the glass surface and there's really very little protection:

Sorry Hansmare, back to the drawing board - higher quality leather, please, no extra coatings and sides that rise another millimetre and curve around the phone slightly.

You can grab this iPhone 6/6S case for about £14 from Mobile Fun UK. It's not a bad accessory and would certainly make a change for some owners - though it's only available in black and 'mint' and a red or blue version might be even more striking.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Don't need that fourth pole? Clarito are the headphones you want...

This is an interesting sideline from one of my favourite manufacturers of smartphone headsets. ROCKJAW have produced the stunning Arcana v2 and Alfa Genus headsets in the past, with a forth pole on the 3.5mm jack, for microphone and media control of course. Audio quality from each of these is exemplary and there's really no need to spend more than a few tens of pounds for other in-ear headsets - the Arcana v2 have been my go-to reference headset across all smartphones now for almost a couple of years.

Now, the Arcana v2 have been discontinued, but the Hydra v2 are very similar and only a few pounds more.

Now, what's this? Clarito is a cheaper budget version of the old Hydra/Arcana v2 design, but with standard 3-pole jack, i.e. there's no microphone and thus are aimed at wider headphone use. (Yes, you can use them with a smartphone, but you'll have no pause control or way of picking up a call.)

There doesn't seem to be a compromise in audio quality though - the Clarito drivers are every bit as high quality as the previous ROCKJAW designs, with crisp treble (think hi-hats and cymbals) and very decent bass. The latter if you take the time to pick the silicone seals that fit your ears and then insert them sufficiently to make a good seal*

* so many people give up on in-ears because they're afraid of them - in my experience, get the seal right and then you can really hear the quality in both the source audio material and the headphone drivers.

You get four different sizes of seal/bud in the package and they're all of high quality and distinctive, with an inner red core, as shown above.

The aluminium Clarito ear drivers are clearly marked with 'left' and 'right', something which many headsets omit - you've got to get these details right in order to appreciate stereo music with the sound stage that the artist intended, especially for live albums.

90% of my music is from smartphones, since they're the devices that are always with me, and I therefore need the facility to take calls, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this 3-pole Clarito headset for more generic headphone duties (e.g. iPod, iPad, radio, CD players).

At £24 including worldwide shipping these are a bit of a bargain. If, as I say, you don't need that fourth pole!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: the Motomo Ino Slimline for the Apple iPhone 6/6s

I know, I know, it's in rose gold. But in this case, my daughter was doing the road testing - a fortnight of real world rough and tumble, in and out of pockets and bags. And the Ino design proved hard wearing and quite superb. Yes, there are a thousand similar clip-on cases from your local high street shop at a few pounds less, but this Motomo-branded case is premium from start to finish.

The Ino case comes in deluxe packaging, with the case wrapped around a dummy iPhone cutout mounted on shaped foam. Now that's attention to detail!

The Ino Slimline design is plastic, but its beautifully finished in mock 'brushed metal', here in rose-gold that would match the iPhone it's designed to protect (though our iPhone was the original gold - not that the two clash!) and with a grippy inner lining designed to help hold the iPhone in place:

Not that the iPhone 6 or 6s would slide out, because it's held too well by the edges and corners, but in the event of a fall, the more shock protection and stability the better!

The Ino Slimline is clipped on in the usual way:

In use, the iPhone is only a millimetre or two thicker, while being protected from at least casual knocks and falls. More to the point, the case looks good too and it's a simple way to also change one's iPhone to rose gold in a few seconds(!):

The finish is stunning - and if you didn't know it was plastic you'd swear it really was rose gold brushed aluminium. The fit and finish around the phone's buttons is an area where many cases fall down, but there's sufficient clearance here and nice rounded edges, making for a very pleasant in-situ experience:

In addition to corner grip, there's extra bracing at top and bottom as well - I wasn't going to tempt fate with a drop test, but I'd guess that the typical metre drop onto tarmac would be no problem - the initial shock would be taken by the case - at worst, the case might pop off, but thereby absorbing much of the impact in the process and leaving the iPhone hopefully unscathed.

My daughter is quite picky about iPhone cases but this Motomo Ino Slimline has become a favourite. Yes, it was sent in for review, but if it hadn't been then we'd be picking up anyway. This case can be found here at Mobile Fun in their iPhone 6/6s accessories pages. I think £12.99 for this is very reasonable indeed.

Turns out it's quite easy to forget to blog...

Well, there we go. With me writing for an increasing number of sites, including Android Beat, iPhoneHacks and All About Windows Phone, and then doing the Phones Show and PSC on top, I kind of forgot to blog. For about 9 months. Ahem.

Or maybe there just hasn't been as much to 'rant' or 'rave' about in recent times?

No.... that can't be it, the world's going quietly potty and quite bizarre. Donald Trump is running for president in the USA and the whole of the UK has to vote on an issue that only 1% of people really understand.

Anyway, let's try and kick start this blog again. I have some accessory bits and pieces that can go up shortly, aimed at keeping my family happy, tech-wise....(!)