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Sphero 2: Not just a toy

I saw my first Sphero at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in 2013. Sphero wasn’t new at the time, but after seeing it in action I just had to have one. Who wouldn’t want a silly robotic ball that you can control with your smartphone?

Image via Time.com

Fast-forward 12 months and the revised Sphero 2 is on my desk. It’s faster, brighter and apparently more agile than the original. The 10 year-old and I had a blast putting the new Sphero through its paces, bumping down the hallway and occasionally hitting the ramps. Yup – it’s still pretty hard to get Sphero heading in the direction you want, but it sure is fun while you try.

Out of the box (which includes two jump ramps), Sphero 2 is quite a bit more fun than the original. A new career mode has been added to the basic smartphone app, encouraging users to play with Sphero to unlock new tricks and develop their control skills. There are of course a bunch of other apps to play with too.

But to me, just playing with Sphero using the provided apps is only the start.

Programming Sphero

Orbotix have obviously had a lot of feedback from people like me: coders and parents of curious 10 year olds. Their Sphero MacroLab and more advanced orbBasic apps provide a great way for kids (and adults) to experiment with basic programming techniques. I’m not sure how many institutes have taken up Orbotix’s education discount, but it looks like a great idea.

For those with more experience in coding, Orbotix provides a full Sphero SDK for most platforms, and a bunch of documentation and information via their official developer portal. Orbotix’s GitHub profile is a quick way to to see some of the available samples.

Perhaps one of the more zany things about Sphero is that you can use its location and orientation sensors as input devices, rather than just telling the robot where to go. There are a few examples of Sphero as an input device for gaming and 3D input, but perhaps the coolest one is using Sphero to control a drone:

The demo above uses the AR-Drone Sphero SDK. Perhaps you could take it to the next level by using the spheroSMS package to control the AR-Drone via Sphero via SMS?

In conclusion, Sphero is totally nuts, both as a simple toy and as a tool for education and software development. It’s just plain fun, and I can’t wait to play with the new Ollie, which promises to be like Sphero on steroids.

Double Review: Samsung DA-E750 and Logitech UE Boombox

I can’t think of the last time I used a stereo of any form. For the last few years at least, all of the music in our household has come from smartphones, so it’s not wonder that audio docks are evolving fast. In this review I take a look at a couple of offerings from Samsung and Logitech.

samsung e750The Samsung DA-E750 is a beast, which ever way you look at it. It’s 450mm wide and weighs almost 10kgs. I’m not sure if this heft comes from the heavy wooden case, the 100W faux vacuum tube amp, or the woven-glass speaker system. Any way you look at it, this thing is the very definition of super-premium – right down to the retail price: $899 (although JB HiFi will sell you one for $650).

Thankfully the sound generated from the Samsung is super-premium too. It packs a serious punch for something that’s not a full-blown stereo system. Plenty enough power for partying, my only complaint being that it’s a touch too bass-heavy when the volume is low.

Connectivity abounds with the DA-E750. You can connect it to your network via wireless or wired ethernet, and it will turn up as an Apple AirPlay and/or DLNA receiver. Otherwise just use Bluetooth to connect to the dock, or plug your iPhone in directly via the nifty pop-out plug dock. That same dock also has a standard micro USB charging plug, so any phone with a plug on the bottom should fit. My Nokia Lumia 920 sat there happily.

Logitech-UE-BoomboxSomewhat down the other end of the scale sits the Logitech UE Boombox. Weighing in at a svelte 2kg and priced at $349, the UE Boombox supports Bluetooth as a single connection option, and doesn’t have any form of physical dock.

The Logitech is designed to be portable, sporting a 6-hour battery and the ability to pair to 8 different devices and connect to 3 simultaneously. In practice it seems that the last device to play gets priority, so it can result in a bit of a war over audio if multiple phones are trying to play at the same time.

The sound from the Logitech is never going to compete with the Samsung, but it does a wonderful job for what it is. I can imagine it would be a winner with the kids on the beach.

These devices are definitely aimed at different markets and uses, but for me personally (not being a Lotto winner), the Logitech would be my choice if I was forced to select between the two. It’s easily portable, simple to use, and I kinda like the retro-cool styling.

However, if I did have a library with walnut shelving, deep-button leather couch, and a cigar humidor, the Samsung would absolutely take pride of place.

Logitech UE9000 Headphones

My first impression: monsters. Big, heavy monsters. In reality they’re not much heavier than my BlackBox M14 ANC headphones that I use for flying, but compared to lightweight in-ear monitors that I normally wear, they’re huge. So, what do you get in this big package?Custom_format_UE9000_BTY1 MED

  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR support
  • Active noise cancellation
  • Optional wired connection with mic and remote
  • Built-in lithium batteries and micro-USB charging
  • Talk-through support when in wireless mode
  • Logitech UE “sound signature”

Basically, the UE9000’s are stacked with every feature you might want from headphones. Run them as premium wired headphones and they sound fantastic. Turn on the built-in amp and they sound even better. Sound reproduction is great, with punchy lows and crystal-clear high notes. But with the NZ$599 price you would expect nothing less.

If you prefer to run without wires, unplug the (extremely well engineered and sturdy) blue cable, and pair them with your Bluetooth device. Again sound seems fine (Bluetooth is never going to be as good as a wired connection), but the cool thing is these headphones also work perfectly as a Bluetooth headset. It’s strange because there’s no nerdy boom mic, but my voice came through loud and clear.

The Active Noise Cancelling is up there with the best – blocking out what little background noise leaks through the comfy ear pads. Given how effective even passive noise protection is on these ‘phones, one cool addition is “Talk-Through”: if you’re using the headphones in wireless mode, you can tap a button on top of the left headphone to reduce the music volume and activate the built-in microphones so you can hear external noises. This way you can chat to people without having to take the headphones off.

Battery life is excellent. I’ve tried to run them flat listening to music for an entire work day on Bluetooth, but was unable to drain the battery. Even if  you could do so, there’s nothing stopping you leaving the micro-USB charge cable attached while you listen.

Pros

  • Fantastic sound quality
  • Great wireless performance
  • Talk-through
  • Excellent Logitech / UE build quality

Cons

  • Fairly heavy
  • Expensive (but not really compared to other high-end noise cancelling headphones)

 

 

New Vonage Calling App for iPhone and Android

[box type=”info” border=”full”]This post is paid for by Vonage[/box]

The app landscape is not short of free calling and messaging apps. Skype and Whatsapp stand at the top of the list. However, Vonage is trying to crack the market with a new iPhone and Android calling app.

Despite them paying me to talk about the app, I’m actually genuinely impressed. It lacks the existing network that Skype and other apps come with, but the app itself is very nicely executed. It feels more like an iOS first-party app than something that has been ported from desktop. It’s very quick to navigate around, and uses your existing address book (let’s hope they don’t upload it like Path did) to make calls and send messages.

If the person you are calling is a Vonage user, the call is 100% free (excluding data charges). To coax your friends onto the service, the Vonage Mobile multi-invite function lets you invite anyone (or everyone) from your contact list with one simple text. Skype requires you to search for users and invite each person one at a time.

Vonage Mobile doesn’t limit calls to people with the app, or even to people who have a smartphone. You can call direct from Vonage Mobile to virtually any phone number on the planet. You can dial internationally without needing to activate special services with your mobile carrier. And most importantly, you can do this with the address book on your phone and your existing mobile number.

There is a cost associated with calling phones directly, but according to Vonage, the app offers international calling with per-minute rates that average 70 percent less than major mobile carriers and 30 percent less than Skype. This savings estimate is based on per-minute rates to the top 50 countries called. Billing is also more convenient, with payment integrated directly into your iTunes or Android Market account, instead of maintaining billing in a separate login.

To see a demo of the app, go check out the “Magic of Vonage Mobile” video on YouTube at the following link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaRcnY1xZxM

For those of you playing along at home, here is a quick feature recap:

  • Free domestic and international calls and texts to anyone with the Vonage Mobile app.
  • When calling a landline or phone directly, you get international calling with per-minute rates averaging 70% less than major mobile carriers and 30% less than Skype.
  • In-app credit purchases are tied directly to your iTunes or Android Market account.
  • Inviting multiple people right from your address book via SMS or email is easy.
  • Vonage Mobile automatically identifies contacts who already have the app.
  • Your mobile number double as your caller ID (so your friends won’t be surprised by an unfamiliar app-assigned number)
  • Works on Wi-Fi and 3G/4G worldwide.

If better call quality to any of your existing contacts isn’t enough to make you try out Vonage Mobile, there’s just one more thing you should know. Vonage is currently offering free calls from virtually anywhere in the world to the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico. There are a few circumstances where free calling may not work, like business calls, premium and special service numbers, and satellite phones, but for the most part, free really means free. You also need to stay under 3000 minutes per month, but who talks that much anyway?

Download Vonage Mobile now and check it out on your iPhone or Android phone. Invite your family and friends so you have someone to text or call, then let us know what you think.

Review: Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees

While I wasn’t overly keen to review an Android tablet, I have been impressed by the Huawei devices I’ve used to date, so I was happy to give the new 7 inch Huawei MediaPad from 2degrees a blast.

Bottom line: It’s an good device. It’s around half the price of a 3G iPad ($549 bundled with 2GB of data from 2degrees), with most of he same features apart from the screen size. If you’ve never used an iPad you’d be quite happy with it. You can watch movies, browse the internet, play famous games like Angry Birds, and read e-books using the Amazon Kindle app.

It runs Android 3.2, which is a thoroughly modern and pretty interface for tablets. There’s heaps of screen space to lay out your multiple home screens just as you like, making this device a great option for info-warriors. You could have Facebook, Twitter, calendar, email,weather, etc. all as widgets on your home screens, providing everything you need to see at a glance.

The Android Marketplace is packed with apps that are built for Android 2.x phones. Most of these will run fine on the MediaPad. It is less easy to find apps dedicated to the 3.x tablet version of Android, but they do exist. There’s no word on whether the MediaPad will be upgradeable to later versions of Android (including the new 4.0 version).

The hardware is robust. It looks very similar to a miniature iPad, with the same glossy black bezel and aluminium rear enclosure. The SIM card and MicroSD slots are hidden behind a plastic panel on the back of the case. The one weird thing I found with the hardware was that the micro-USB plug does not charge the device. There’s a separate charge port. This is a bit annoying given the number of micro-USB chargers that most people have floating around.

Here’s the technical details:

  • Screen: 7 inch IPS, 1280×800 pixel
  • CPU: Dual core 1.2GHz
  • Camera: 5MP autofocus
  • Storage: 8GB internal + MicroSD slot
  • WiFi: 802.1 b/g/n
  • 3G: HSPA+
  • Locations: GPS/AGPS
  • Other: Accelerometer, 4100mAh battery
  • Ports: Micro USB, Micro HDMI, Charging plug

There are a huge number of Android tablets attempting to encroach on the market that the iPad created. To be honest, they’re not doing well at all. I don’t see 2degrees’ new entry into the market changing this, but it’s still a good device for the niche. If you want something a bit smaller, a lot cheaper, but almost as capable as an iPad, definitely take a look at it.

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