IntroductionIntroductionWelcome to TweakTown's first Gadget Guide. This is a regular feature in which we bring together some of the best, most interesting and most innovative computer-based peripherals on the market and put them through their paces.As you'll see from the reviews, we're interested in a wide range of products covering many aspects of computing - networking, storage, communications and entertainment. Our main criterion for selection is that the product should be a standalone unit, even if it does rely on a computer in some way, whether for power or for functionality.Each of the products seek to enhance your computing experience in some way, by either filling a large and unsatisfyingly empty niche, or by showing you something you never knew you could live without!So don't make the mistake of dismissing these products as gimmicks simply because we've bundled them together in a "Gadget Guide". They're all serious contenders for your business, and some impressive work and innovation has gone into their creation.Enjoy as we begin our first Gadget Guide!
Compro Videomate U3IntroductionThe boundary between computers and home theatres continues to blur. Now, TVs are coming with all the appropriate connectors for computers, and computer components are being shipped with home theatre systems in mind.
Compro Videomate U3 ContinuedTestingSeeing how the U3 is all about portability, we decided the best test was to use a laptop. We used a stock-standard Acer Travelmate 4050, which sports a Pentium M 1.73GHz CPU, 512MB RAM and an integrated Intel GPU - so it's an adequate platform but nothing likely to raise the roof in the number crunching or graphics stakes.We used the U3 with all the out-of-the-box equipment - the device plugged in to the USB extension cord and from there into the laptop, and the bundled terrestrial antenna into the U3. We didn't use the drivers or the ComproDVT 2 application included with the CD, but instead got the most up-to-date versions available from Compro's website.Installation was extremely quick and painless and didn't require a reboot, which was refreshing. On initial launch, ComproDVT ran through some basic setup questions in terms of audio/video hardware preferences and the TV region, and then prompted to commence channel scanning.This was where we encountered our first hitch. Using the bundled antenna, ComproDVT only picked up 12 channels out of a potential 37 (two main channels and their respective sub channels). This was surprising, because signal strength on the channels it did find was excellent, with no playback problems. We played around with the scanning options as much as possible, but nothing would get those extra channels up.So, we ended up plugging the cable straight into a hardwired antenna point and BANG - all channels with perfect signal strength. The whole process was a little strange as the tests were all carried out in the same room - ambient signal strength was pretty even across the board.However, with all the channels up and running, the results were quite impressive. Full screen HDTV was flawless, and some simple tests like dragging the viewing window around the screen, channel surfing, opening multiple TV screens or rapidly maximising/restoring the TV screen caused no stalling or jerkiness, as is so often witnessed by other HDTV applications.The onscreen controls are simple and logical - ComproDVT has as close to a flat learning curve as anything we've seen.The one thing we did notice was heat generation. The manual does state that "After using VideoMate U3 for a while, it is normal to feel warm to the body". Bit of an understatement. It should read "After using VideoMate U3 for a while, place on iceblock to avoid burning hole in desk". It gets VERY hot, very quickly - certainly uncomfortably so to touch. Not sure what the implications are for long-term usage. Luckily it only heats up when ComproDVT is active, and it cools down pretty quickly as well.Final ThoughtsOverall we were impressed by the U3. The quality and stability of HDTV playback was surprisingly high from such a small device, and the software was intuitive and easy to use.The problems encountered with picking up channels using the bundled antenna do raise questions as to its mobility. If you only get the best results from using a hardwired point, this could be slightly limiting. However, it's not an issue if you choose to use the U3 in a desktop with access to an antenna point (which given its overall quality is a definite possible use).- ProsExcellent SDTV and HDTV qualitySimple and intuitive softwareHighly portable- ConsPortable antenna gives variable receptionUnit generates large amounts of heat very quicklyRating - 8 out of 10
i-Rocks USB VOIP PhoneIntroductionIM (Instant Messaging) has been around for a loooong time now, or so it feels. When it first became available, the culture which it generated was in many ways limited by the supporting infrastructure - most home users had dial-up internet, so you didn't send big files to your buddies and assumed that an audio conversation, while cool, would never be practical.All this has changed now - broadband is prevalent, and people are realising more and more that you can squeeze a lot more out of your IM client. Real-time audio and video are eminently feasible options, and dedicated applications like Skype have opened up the doors to the prospect of free, internet-based communications with the human touch.Anyware, we plugged and tested away.SpecificationsThe IR-2500 supports PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone communications. Audio in/out are both handled through the USB connection, which is USB2.0-compliant. The keypad is a standard handset keypad, with six extra buttons above which are pre-mapped for use in Skype, and can be customised for use with any other Windows-based application, depending on the selected phone mode.
i-Rocks USB VOIP Phone ContinuedHow We TestedWorking on the premise that the best way to review a product is to actually use it, we loaded up Skype and MSN, plugged in the phone, installed the software and started contacting everyone we could think of.Firstly, the handset itself is surprisingly nice to use - lightweight and compact, with the key buttons located conveniently where you need them the most. The buttons are not particularly tactile but are easy to press and very responsive. It's surprising how many products go for ultra-modern style and forget all about the ergonomic requirements of regular use. The IR-2500 doesn't bother much with style (it wouldn't win many awards), but gets two thumbs up (flexible, healthy thumbs, not ones crippled by RSI) for ease of use.
Pegasus PC Notes TakerIntroductionComputing with the human touch. Or, computing for people who don't want to be dictated to 100% by the computer. Either way you look at it, there is a small but seemingly indestructible section of the IT community dedicated to making computers understand humans, rather than being forced to conform to the Way of the Keyboard. Applications like voice recognition software are a prime example - but they're still a long way from becoming viable solutions, simply because no two people are alike, and that's an extremely difficult market to cater for.Anyware, we fired it all up and tested what it could make of our illegible scrawl.SpecificationsThe PC Notes Taker comes in two parts - the USB base and the pen. The base is a standard USB device (USB2.0 requirement not specified) which draws all its power from the USB port. It works by clipping onto the top of a notepad, like the hold on a clipboard, and monitoring activity made by the pen within its range. It can cover up to A4, but can't monitor the small area to the immediate left and right of the page on either side of the base unit itself.It's pretty small and lightweight, measuring 100mm wide x 47mm deep x 27mm high and weighing in at 60g. Useful as this won't crumple the paper it's physically attached to. It detects and reproduces handwriting at 100dpi, which is more than adequate for on-screen viewing, internet images and printing.
Pegasus PC Notes Taker ContinuedHow We TestedWe tried each of the applications in their native environment to see how the results panned out, with the PC Notes Taker plugged into a laptop with Microsoft Office 2003 SP2 installed, and a standard sheet of notepaper attached to the base unit.The Note Manager is quite a basic application, but performs its function very well. Any movement on the notepad is instantly detected, onscreen quality is fairly smooth and any notes you create are very easy to manage. The ability to convert handwritten notes into onscreen sticky notes is great, as well being able to dump the handwriting as an image into any other application which supports it (almost everything).The Annotater function in Office is really quite cool. You can enter text in at any point on the screen, which is just perfect for marking forms and papers, writing into electronic documents or inserting handwritten comments - Very nice.The Pen2Text function worked slightly differently. It's very sensitive to handwriting styles, so you have to be ultra-careful how you write. My handwriting has been described to a "drunken spider dipped in ink staggering across the page", so I made a concerted effort to write in clear block letters. The phrase "The handwriting tool is very cool" came out as "Tine handwriting tool is very cod" and "The nano writing fool is very cool". Actually the second sounds better than the original - sort of The Matrix meets Monty Python. So, it didn't work that well.MyScript Notes was a bit more impressive. Perhaps it's that it doesn't rely on the Microsoft Engine to function properly, but it did a much better job of recognising and converting my handwriting, even when I slipped back into cursive.Final ThoughtsAlthough the PC Notes Taker is a nifty piece of hardware with an impressive suite of products, we're not entirely sure whether using it as a computer input would result in any sort of efficiency. The Note Manager was a good tool, and you could certainly streamline it to quickly send memos to people, but I can't see how that's any quicker or better than simply emailing them in the first place. Most enterprise messaging systems have facility for shooting off quick messages, so this isn't really facilitating anything new.The Annotation tool was great though. Being able to handwrite comments on electronic documents and forms is a very worthwhile ability. In these cases it's nothing to do with efficiency and everything to do with human communication.Pen2Text really wasn't very impressive. Ultimately, any computer system which attempts to interpret human inputs has to make some inspired guesses, and in this case the technology just isn't advanced enough. You couldn't make Pen2Text your default method of input - there are just too many mistakes.MyScript was a better alternative for recognition however. It did a better job and had many more options to work with.It's difficult to make a recommendation here. The PC Notes Taker is clearly a good product, but it doesn't really promote efficiency or business workflow in any way. If you're prepared to spend the time entering text into Word for the personal touch then sure, go for it. Otherwise we feel that most people would find it too distracting. Keyboards may be impersonal, but they're still the best input method we have.- ProsLightweight hardwareComprehensive software suiteUnit is responsive and accurate- ConsHandwriting conversion too prone to mistakesInefficient input methodRating - 6.5 out of 10
Plantronics 510SL Bluetooth HeadsetIntroductionBluetooth communications has been one of those areas which has only taken off in specialist circles. To date, you wouldn't expect to find a Bluetooth headset stuck in the ear of anyone other than a high-flying businessman, a courier or a receptionist. But now, as every device capable of communicating seems to feature a Bluetooth adaptor, from mobile phones to PDAs, the technology is taking a role as the ultimate go-between, bringing computer-based, mobile and fixed-desk communications closer together.Anyware, we took delivery and put it through its paces. Now we can't imagine life without it.SpecificationsThe Voyager 510SL sports a 6-hour talk time and 100-hour standby time on a full battery, which is Lithium Polymer. It supports the Bluetooth 1.2 standard, and is compatible with any other Bluetooth 1.2 device which supports headset and hands-free profiles.The headset can be carried to a maximum of 10 meters from the base station (either the deskphone adaptor or mobile device), and weighs approximately 0.5 of an ounce.
Plantronics Bluetooth Headset ContinuedHow we testedThe best way to test a device like this is to use it every day for a while. I replaced my existing wireless headset at work with the Voyager 510SL and got stuck in.My first impression was that the headset is amazingly comfortable. I've used BlueTooth headsets before, and while the small size and clarity of audio was impressive, I always felt that it was about to fly off my head. Not so with this unit - the battery and the majority of the controls are on the section which fits over the back of the ear, which gives it enough counterweight to the earpiece and the microphone boom. It's snug and very secure. Big thumbs up.The other problem I noticed using previous units was that on answering a call, the headset took too long to connect back to the base station, making answering calls increasingly frustrating. There is a slight lag with the Voyager - and this is a problem with all BlueTooth headsets - but it's pretty quick for it not to be annoying, and it plays a series of small blips in your ear to let you know when it's connecting, and then connected. Strangely, the wait is much less annoying when you're kept informed as to what's happening.
- ProsHeadset is sturdy and comfortableBlueTooth pairing is effortless and reliableAudio clarity is outstanding- ConsExpensive (but worth it!)Rating - 9.5 out of 10 and TweakTown's "MUST HAVE" Editor's Choice Award
Sunway SW1688 Smokeless AshtrayIntroductionThe "U" in USB has certainly proven to be accurate. Everything, and I mean everything, has some sort of USB compatibility. It enables you to hot plug pretty much anything into your computer from digital cameras to mini plasma balls (man those things are fun).The fact that USB devices can draw their power straight out of the port means that there is pretty much no limit to what can be made USB-compatible. Some devices have a genuine use, like a USB-powered TV capture card or even a penlight. Then at the other end of the scale are items like the Sunway SW1688 Smokeless Ashtray.Donated to TweakTown by Anyware, this unit is probably the ultimate example of USB gadgetry. You've heard of kitchenware? Well this is kitschware (a completely new IT phrase - you read it here first).Features and SpecificationsThe Smokeless Ashtray is essentially an ashtray with a lid suspended over the top, in which resides a filtering fan and a carbon filter box. The fan is powered by the USB port, but it's only activated when the lid is opened. The idea is that you rest your cigarette on one of the holding moulds, the smoke is then drawn straight into the fan before it can wander off, the worst of the fumes are absorbed by the carbon filter, and then fume-free and "harmless" smoke is pushed out through the exhaust at the top of the lid.
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