Welcome 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 U3
The 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.
Until fairly recently, desktops remained the only feasible option for capturing TV on a computing system, but this is no longer the case. There are quite a few analog and digital TV solutions for travelling users, and one such device is the Compro Videomate U3, offering high-definition digital TV for those who just can't miss their favourite programmes when they're on the road!
The VideoMate U3 is pretty much the smallest digital TV tuner available at the moment, at just 9cm long by 2.6cm wide x 1.1cm deep and weighing in at a mere 40g.
The audio/video system is the Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial (DVB-T) standard, utilising MPEG-2 A/V streams and capable of displaying both standard definition and high-definition TV up to 1080i resolution. It also picks up EPG and Teletext.
The U3 is a USB2.0 device, and in fact it won't work properly on USB1.1, so don't even try! To watch digital TV, it needs a minimum of 866MHz CPU, 128MB RAM and either Windows XP SP1 or Windows 2000 SP4. For HDTV the requirements are the same, but it requires a 2.4GHz CPU. Recording TV to the local disk requires around 3GB of hard drive space per hour of footage recorded.
The U3 bundle includes the U3 device itself (obviously!), a short USB extension cable, an adaptor to plug a video cable into the U3 cable input, a digital terrestrial TV antenna, Start Up Guide, and a CD containing the U3 drivers, ComproDTV 2, ComproDVD 2, Ulead PhotoExplorer 8.5 SE and documentation.
Compro Videomate U3 Continued
Seeing 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.
Overall 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).
Excellent SDTV and HDTV quality
Simple and intuitive software
Portable antenna gives variable reception
Unit generates large amounts of heat very quickly
Rating - 8 out of 10
i-Rocks USB VOIP Phone
IM (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.
Devices like the i-Rocks IR-2500 blur the line between computing and telephony. Kindly donated to by our friends at Anyware, we plugged and tested away.
The 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.
There are also volume controls (up, down and mute) and one-button voice recording.
The phone plugs into pretty much any computer with a USB port, but does require either Windows 2000 or XP for the software to function properly.
The handset itself is essentially just that - a handset. The real feature set lies in the supporting software, which allows the phone to act as either a simple USB audio/recording device which any application can leverage from, using the Windows Sounds and Audio Devices configuration. The extra buttons above the numeric keypad can be configured within the i-Rocks software to map to any keyboard function - this helps to improve usage within other voice-capable IM clients like MSN Messenger.
Using the mode switch button on the phone lets you move between standard Windows functionality and full Skype functionality. In Skype mode, the extra buttons allow you switch between Skype tabs, browse options and Contacts and use the Call button to either call an online contact or dial a landline. Incoming Skype calls are routed straight to the phone and can be answered and dealt with like normal phone calls.
i-Rocks USB VOIP Phone Continued
How We Tested
Working 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.
The software has a very low footprint and is ridiculously easy to set up. Configuring it is also very straightforward, although it's rather easy to shut down the application when you think you're just applying some changes. That can get a bit annoying
In Skype mode, everything works as advertised, and makes life MUCH easier. Being able to delegate complete control over an application to a single device actually makes using that app much more enjoyable, and in this function the IR-2500 does a sterling job. Audio clarity is excellent, but it's good to remember that Skype communication has plenty of points at which audio degredation can occur. It's reassuring to know that the phone isn't one of them, however.
The Windows-based functionality is also pretty good, but you can't use the phone completely in other IM clients - there's still some manual computer interaction required.
The i-Rocks IR-2500 is a very neat piece of hardware, but it really isn't worthwhile unless you're a Skype user. It's main design and feature set is geared around Skype, in which it does a phenomenal job. The fact that it's compatible with other voice-capable IM clients and can map buttons for ease of use isn't actually a selling point - it's more an additional nice-to-have feature in addition to the main Skype functions.
So, if you're a Skype user, we absolutely recommend this. If you're not...meh.
Tactile and ergonomic
Very easy to install/set up
Excellent Skype functionality
Only major benefit is for Skype users
Software could be more robust
Rating - 8 out of 10
Pegasus PC Notes Taker
Computing 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.
Much closer to the mark is handwriting recognition. Working on the assumption that perhaps the computer doesn't need to understand what you mean, but simply faithfully reproduce what you input and leave the comprehension side of things to the human being at the other end, handwriting recognition is an area which advanced sufficiently to offer real alternatives to traditional computing inputs.
The Pegasus PC Notes Taker offers a hardware and software solution to get your school-taught cursive script flowing down the USB cord. Supplied to us by Anyware, we fired it all up and tested what it could make of our illegible scrawl.
The 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.
The pen is 136mm long, 13.7mm round and weighs in at 16g, and it's powered by three SR41 batteries.
The software package is standalone, but for use with Microsoft Office you need Office 2000/XP or 2003, and the Pen2Text feature only works with XP/2003. You also need the Handwriting Recognition Engine installed (installed as part of Office 2003), which is only available with the English US language set.
Recommended requirements for the entire suite are Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP, 128MB RAM, IE5.0+ and 800x600x32 resolution - none of these will pose any sort of problem for machines on the current market.
The main features of the PC Notes Taker lies in the software suite which makes everything possible. There are two main applications - NoteTaker and Pen2Text. There's also Annotater which is a plug-in for Microsoft Office. As a standalone application, NoteTaker sits in the system tray and monitors activity from the base unit. Any notes written outside of Microsoft Office are recorded in Note Manager.
Notes created this way can be sent to recipients over the network (who have NoteTaker installed on their machines) or stored as personal reminders, stuck on the screen as sticky notes or pasted into any other application as an image. The capture window can be configured as full A4 or just a small notepad - very useful for phone messages.
Pen2Text works with in conjunction with the Microsoft Office Handwriting Recognition Engine to convert whatever you're writing into text on the page. For those people who don't use Office, MyScript Notes is available, which also converts handwriting into text which can then be inserted into any application. It can be made to recognise different writing styles (cursive, capitals etc) and a number of different languages - useful for writing with accents and umlauts!
The base unit has six "virtual buttons" at the top which are activated by the pen. These give you in-app functions like copy, confirm or clear. These are useful in that you don't have to keep going back to the computer to do something with whatever you just typed out.
Pegasus PC Notes Taker Continued
How We Tested
We 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.
Although 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.
Comprehensive software suite
Unit is responsive and accurate
Handwriting conversion too prone to mistakes
Inefficient input method
Rating - 6.5 out of 10
Plantronics 510SL Bluetooth Headset
Bluetooth 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.
The Voyager 510SL from Plantronics is one such device. Kindly donated from our friends at Anyware, we took delivery and put it through its paces. Now we can't imagine life without it.
The 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.
The deskphone adaptor can be used with either analogue or digital phones, and supports AFH (Adaptive Frequency Hopping) to minimise interference from any existing Wi-Fi/WLAN infrastructure (which operates on the same 2.4GHz spectrum as Bluetooth).
The microphone on the headset features noise-cancelling technology and as well as something called WindSmart, designed to reduce the ambient noise caused by wind whistling past the speaker. There's a single button on the side for one-button call pickup (which only works with the deskphone adaptor, not a paired BlueTooth device).
BlueTooth pairing means that you can connect the headset to two units simultaneously, like the deskphone and a BlueTooth-enabled mobile phone.
The handset lifter fits most standard desk phones, and simply raises the handset when the headset is engaged. A small microphone plugs into the back of the lifter and is positioned over the deskphone speaker - this allows you to hear incoming rings through the headset.
In addition to the call answer button control, the headset also has mute and volume buttons, and supports voice-activated dialling (which also has to be supported by the handset).
Plantronics Bluetooth Headset Continued
How we tested
The 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.
To get the full test, I also paired it with my Nokia mobile. Pairing the two devices was effortless and worked immediately. When the mobile rings, the ringtone is played in the headset. You have to use the mobile keypad to answer the call, but then the audio is routed through the earpiece. When you're on the mobile and the deskphone rings, the incoming call is heard over the top of the mobile conversation, but if you press the call answer button it will cut off the caller on the mobile.
Range from the deskphone worked as advertised - 10 meters and no more. My office is in an area with 2.4GHz WiFi coverage, but the APs cause no noticeable interference. Physical obstructions like walls DO cause interference resulting in reduced range and audio clarity, but that's a problem with all wireless communication.
By the way, I gave my old wireless headset away. I'm sticking with the Voyager from here on in...
In short, LOVE IT. The Voyager 510SL is a sturdy and robust piece of hardware, and does precisely what you'd expect from a work tool. It works as advertised and it doesn't distract you with any shortcomings. It's more than just a trendy accessory; it's an invaluable asset to your working life.
Headset is sturdy and comfortable
BlueTooth pairing is effortless and reliable
Audio clarity is outstanding
Expensive (but worth it!)
Rating - 9.5 out of 10 and TweakTown's "MUST HAVE" Editor's Choice Award
Sunway SW1688 Smokeless Ashtray
The "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 Specifications
The 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.
The unit itself resembles some strange fusion between 1950s California pop art and cheap plasticky tack - sort of like the love child of Herbie the Wonder Bug and a Quarter Pounder. There are little red "headlights" which light up when the lid is opened. Which is good, because otherwise I wouldn't know it was operating, what with the lid being open and all. And the high-pitched screech which the fan makes.
That was irony by the way.
How We Tested
OK, this was kind of difficult as I'm a non-smoker. So I used a stick of incense. It easily generates as much smoke as a cigarette, as well as an equivalent amount of odour (I used an incense type which I don't like, just to make the experiment as real as possible).
As previously mentioned, the fan is clearly a cheap piece of rubbish as it gave a gravely, high-pitched whine when active. I can't imagine that any smoker would put up with that for more than five minutes.
To its credit and to my not inconsiderable surprise, none of the incense smoke escaped the immediate vicinity of the ashtray. However, I gave a good sniff at the air coming out of the exhaust and it was nasty, nasty, nasty. I'm not sure what the carbon filter actually does but its producing odours which were worse than the original smell.
With the lid shut, the unit itself and especially the exhaust vents still smell strongly, so clearly its supposed benefits to the immediate environment are not that effective.
Look, in spite of my anti-smoking position I really did try to objective and remain open-minded. But this device is just woeful - I couldn't take it seriously. Yes, it caught all the smoke and so from that perspective (and that perspective alone) it is indeed a Smokeless Ashtray. However it doesn't help in the least to neutralise odours and the assertion on the packaging that "the harmful smoke from cigarette be filtered out by active carbon filter" is dubious to say the least. It's so noisy that smokers will probably head back outside if only to escape the noise.
This is a tacky cheap piece of kitsch. If you think this has all been the rantings of a non-smoker then please head out and get yourself one. But it's still a tacky cheap piece of kitsch.
Active fan prevents smoke from escaping
Minimal power draw - power is not drawn when lid is shut
Fan is incredibly noisy
nit does nothing to absorb/prevent odour
As aesthetic as long nose hair
Purports to be an environmentally friendly device when it's clearly anything but
Rating - 1 out of 10
PRICING: You can find products similar to this one for sale below.
United States: Find other tech and computer products like this over at Amazon.com
United Kingdom: Find other tech and computer products like this over at Amazon.co.uk
Australia: Find other tech and computer products like this over at Amazon.com.au
Canada: Find other tech and computer products like this over at Amazon.ca
Deutschland: Finde andere Technik- und Computerprodukte wie dieses auf Amazon.de