July 12, 2019  9:40 AM

Sennheiser MB 360 UC: minimalist design, high-quality finish

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

People use headphones while they’re at work, get used to the facts.

Now then, some of those people are call centre workers, some of them are air traffic controllers, some of them are telesales people and some of them have a job that inherently demands that they don a pair of ‘cans’ over their ears — we’re not really talking about any of them.

We’re looking at the kinds of businesspeople who would typically want to use headphones for Skype or other VoIP-based services — and we’re also talking about the kinds of workers who want to be able to ‘drown out’ the rest of the office in order to get on with their own tasks.

This is the market  Sennheiser is targeting with its Sennheiser MB 360 UC Active Noise Canceling (ANC) headphones.

Coming in at £168 at the time of writing, the Sennheiser MB 360 is around £100 cheaper than its big brother/sister unit the Sennheiser MB 660.

Before we look at the unit itself, let’s consider what the company is saying about the way we work today and why this type of equipment might be de rigeur for a modern contemporary workplace.

The way we work

Sennheiser says that today, 70% of workspaces have transitioned to open plan, yet 63% of professionals claim loud colleagues are their greatest distraction.

“Our latest study shows that 29% of office workers use a headset when they need to concentrate”, said Theis Mork, vice president of product management for enterprise solutions at Sennheiser. The office space per person has declined over the past 20 years and open offices are on the rise, making it harder for us to concentrate without being interrupted by our co-workers. Sennheiser’s recent study shows that almost a third of office workers use a headset to concentrate without distraction.”


Sennheiser says the MB 360 UC Bluetooth headset itself is a double-sided headset with ANC that connects to a mobile device and is optimised for Unified Communication (hence the use of UC).

That UC element is the fact that users can use the same headset for entertainment and work-related audio application. They offer a talk time of up to 25 hours and have pretty nice soft ear pads.

The ANC itself works well, it comes on automatically as soon as you power up the device. Sennheiser has used the right headphone body unit to put the power button in place, next to that there’s a ‘function’ button and next to that there’s a volume button. 

The only complaint here is that we assumed users would need to hold the power button down to engage the Bluetooth connection (after all, the blue Bluetooth power light is next to the power button), but you need to in fact hold the volume button in to get Bluetooth docking to happen.

The function button performs different functions depending on which app you are using. For example, when using Spotify, the function slider takes you back to the start of a track or onto your next one. When using an online radio service such as Absolute Radio (which has around 10 stations playing different genres of music), the function button takes you between stations.

Smart ANC

The Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is smart, it constantly monitors the user’s background environment for noise using Sennheiser’s NoiseGard adaptive ANC technology to adjust the level of noise reduction in the headset.

There’s a variety of connection points on offer with this headset. We’ve already mentioned Bluetooth (which appears to ‘hold’ its connection well to a chosen device even if you turn the headphones on and off), but there’s also a Bluetooth USB dongle so that users can connect with PCs and laptops that may not have Bluetooth.

There’s also a 2.5mm (inserts into device) to 3.5mm (standard headphone jack) analogue cable, should users wish to go retro and cable themselves to their device.

There are two built-in microphones and the device works well on Skype and indeed when connected to a smartphone for calls.

Bluetooth bother

The only real gripe here is that switching between devices can be a little troublesome when doing so using Bluetooth. Moving from iPad to a Windows PC was easy enough, but getting the headset to be recognised again by the iPad afterwards (even with the PC powered down to ensure the Bluetooth radio was off) wasn’t quite as seamless.

As always with Sennheiser (full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of this company since the 1980s when I first got a pair of the old yellow foam headphones that used to be produced), the sound quality is rich and lustrous. This is the kind of quality that makes you want to sit with Spotify and play some of your favourite tracks to see how different they sound when you can hear instruments and parts of music or voice that you’d not picked up on before.

April 25, 2019  9:28 AM

BakkerElkhuizen UltraBoard 950 Wireless Compact Keyboard

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

The BakkerElkhuizen UltraBoard 950 Wireless Compact Keyboard is difficult to pronounce and requires a full lung-full of air to say in one go… but it’s a piece of kit that stands out for a number of reasons and this is the story of why.

Before telling you about some of the features and feel… let us (well, me) explain that I have two desks.

At desk number one I work with a Logitech K780, which is a great keyboard as it allows me to switch between 3-different Bluetooth sources at the touch of a button.

At desk number two I work with a wired version of the BakkerElkhuizen UltraBoard range. I like the ‘clack clack’ of the keys a lot, they’re almost reminiscent of the sound of a Commodore Pet back in the day, but without the harshness… and the keys have a nice ‘travel’ about them to let you know you’ve actually hit them.

The only shortcoming of BakkerElkhuizen UltraBoard in the wired version is that it is connected to the machine you are connected to, obviously.

Wireless Bluetooth freedom

Thankfully, BakkerElkhuizen has got around that problem with the BakkerElkhuizen UltraBoard and it’s gone one better (two better, in fact) than Logitech because it allows the user to connect up to five different Bluetooth devices at any one time.

Doing so is pretty simple: the user hits Function (highlighted in blue as Fn) and then hit the Bluetooth symbols on keys 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. It’s then a simple matter of pairing with each device you want to connect to using the Bluetooth CONNECT nipple on the underside of the keyboard. The user can then switch between devices very simply using Fn 1, 2 and so on.

In practice, this worked just fine between Windows and Mac OS/X and the keyboard was able to switch between the two in a matter of seconds. Mac OS/X shows a “connected” logo and “connection lost” logo on screen — Windows, on the other hand, shows nothing (unless you open up the Bluetooth devices menu to check that the keyboard is connected), but it works regardless and you can type between two machines fairly fluidly.

Specs & stuff

In terms of other specs for this device, the unit itself is specifically designed without a number pad (this is bad for ergonomics, apparently… and unless you’re an accountant you probably don’t really need one) and has an 81/82-key wireless keyboard with 4 hotkeys for fast and easy working with figures, Home, Mail, PrtScr (print screen) and NumLock to PC (Mac system does not support the 4 hotkeys).

As mentioned, it can register up to 5 Bluetooth hosts and power comes from 2 x AAA Ni-MH rechargeable batteries, charging via Micro USB cable.

If you’re hell-bent on living a wired life, there’s even support for USB with a cable to connect a PC via micro USB cable.

Cross-OS platform support by holding Fn key and “W” key for PC or “A” key for Mac, although most functionalities appeared to work fine without this switch.

A final note on the ergonomic factor, Microsoft research has suggested that an active computer user’s fingers can travel up to 32 kilometres per day.

As WhatMobile noted here, “The benefits of removing the numeric keypad leaves you with a compact keyboard. The major advantage of this design is that you can place your mouse closer to your body, which means you will not have to reach as far to use your mouse. Because you can keep your arms alongside your body, the discomfort you feel in your hands and wrists all the way up to your shoulders will decrease.“

Let’s see how true that is, we shall look for the benefits and hope to enjoy it.

BakkerElkhuizen UltraBoard 950 Wireless Compact Keyboard

April 19, 2019  8:47 AM

Going native on Google Chromebooks

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

Where’s my desktop gone? That’s the obvious immediate first reaction for any Google Chromebook user.

We road tested a Lenovo Chromebook 11 500e (Robo 360) and an HP Chromebook x360 11 G1 EE (Snappy) to ‘go native’ on the Chromebook experience and assess the upsides and downsides of life in the rather more virtualised world (when compared to Windows, Mac OS/X and Linux desktops) of life on Chrome OS.

Let’s dive straight into first impressions and key usability factors for users that have never been exposed to the degree of essentially online (although a lot of them work offline, as we will cover) tools and apps that exist on any Chromebook.

Initial look and feel

The ‘auto-on’ function that drives a fully powered-down machine to start-up once you open the clamshell cover seems to make a lot of sense. The Lenovo machine sports this function, the Dell one still requires a punch on the power button.

It’s important to play around with your settings A LOT to make sure everything is set up the way you want it. For example, you might want to disable WiFi when the machine is in sleep mode (why would you leave it on?) because it is default set to on and will drain your machine unnecessarily until you turn it off.

Offline is always going to be a leap with an essentially-online-connected machine, but so many of the core Google apps work really effectively when offline including Gmail, which (obviously) requires an Internet connection to sync again if you have performed any delete, send or file actions while offline.

A focus on Gmail

Remember, Gmail offline is going away and has now become part of the core Gmail app itself — the best way to set this up is to open Gmail offline and get redirected to the optional changes and settings you will need to accept and opt in or out for in Gmail itself.

So what about saving emails? How can you keep a record of important transactional communications? It’s a simple enough process achieved by clicking the ‘download message’ option from the three-dot drop down menu on an actual Gmail itself.

The file generated is an .eml format and this can be opened again by simply dragging it into your browser when running Gmail (if you’ve saved it on the desktop of a ‘traditional’ machine or a USB disk for example).

Saving a mail in and out of Google Drive isn’t quite as straightforward because Google Drive doesn’t appear to support the opening of .eml files without the use of a third party plugin. Google told us that it was happy with the EML, MHT Viewer with Drive tool, which you can add as an extension to Chrome or use from within Google Drive itself as shown in the image here (right).

Other impressions

We initially thought that the right click touchpad function on the device we tested was broken (probably the result of it having been tested by several sausage-fingered journalists before it got to us, right?)… but in fact, there is no right click option on the Chromebook.

This quick 52 second YouTube video will show you the three ways you can still perform a right click for additional ‘on screen’ menu (also sometimes called the ‘context menu’) options when using any Chromebook.

For the record, those three methods are:

  • A simple double finger tap on the Chromebook touchpad.
  • Hold down the ALT key while ‘left’ tapping (actually, tap anywhere, there isn’t any right click, remember).
  • Connect a mouse and use the mouse’s right click key, which is supported by Chrome OS on Chromebooks.

In term of other thoughts… Miniclip Pool appeared to play slower than on an Android smartphone or an iPad. Or was it really? The app is really targeted at smartphone users, so it may well not ‘stretch’ fully to an 11-inch screen usage.

Alongside the Lenovo unit, we also tested an HP Chromebook which has a prettier shinier case and practically the same functionality all-round. But, when both arrived… and we only had time to really set up and road test one unit, somehow the Lenovo machine seemed like the more appealing option. Could that be down to HP’s legacy as a Windows player harking back to the days of WinTelPaq (Windows, Intel, Compaq)… remembering that HP bought Compaq? That’s the only logical reason we can come up with.

Google for Education

Google had initially reached out to us for product tests as a result of its recent focus on the Google for Education initiative. Google is announcing new partnerships and features for Chromebooks to (hopefully) help educators and schools improve the learning experience.

What kinds of things has Google done to make learning easier then? The firm points to admin management, deployment options, accessibility features, input options and a number of quality apps that exist for educational purposes.

The new Chromebooks features include visual aids, stylus support, voice typing and audio support.

New partner features include Texthelp’s Read&Write: the literacy toolbar offers additional support for ENL learners, dyslexic students by reading out loud, researching assignments, and proofing written work.

Soundtrap is an app that can nurture student voice through music, podcasts, language, literacy training Plus, teachers can assign lessons through Google Classroom. Kami lets you annotate Docs and PDFs, making note taking using a stylus and the web much smoother.

More on Lenovo

Some extra feedback on the Lenovo unit as this was the one we concentrated on (sorry HP!). The classroom-resistant full-sized keyboard includes a sealed touchpad which claims to be able to resist liquid spills of up to 1.39 cups (330ml). We didn’t test that function, but we got the message… right then students, no beers larger than 330ml while working okay?

Lenovo also says its machine is drop-resistant up to 29.5″ (75cm) – roughly the height of a school desk. Again, no school desks were available to help validate this claim at the time of testing.

Both Chromebooks feature 360-degree hinges, two-way cameras and both offer options for on-screen writing. Battery life is similar on both at around 10 hours (ours wouldn’t quite pump out that time scale), which is supposed to be enough to cover an entire school, or indeed office, day.

No HDMI port was available on either machine, which seemed like a shame.

Overall, the move to always-online is somewhat inevitable, yet few people you meet in day-to-day life appear to be sporting a Chromebook from any manufacturer. It’s worth having a go and seeing how quickly you can get used to one of these devices because the overall experience is positive and you may soon forget the fact that you wondered where your desktop was… if you like your Android phone, then you’ll probably like a Chromebook.

Lenovo Chromebook 11 500e

HP Chromebook x360 11 G1 EE

April 12, 2019  9:15 AM

Online in the Smokey Mountains with Skyroam

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

It’s 4am and I’m a nice ‘conference-style’ hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.

The hotel has provided WiFi included with the room – of course it has, you wouldn’t expect anything else – but its 4am and I’m awake with jet lag and i can’t find the keycard with the password on it.

Come to think of it, I got in late and had been awake for hours… even if I could sign in to the hotel WiFi, I honestly don’t remember my room number (for the login credentials) and it’s not writen on the phone next to me.

Thankfully, I decided to accept an invitation to review a Skyroam.

This little orange hockey puck is a go-anywhere Internet device that powers up in just a few seconds. I had pre-loaded the password into my phone before I left London, so I powered up and was connected quickly. For someone who is self-employed, being able to connect while on the go is hugely important.

Testing the device further… my wife (hello Mrs B) had extended our trip to Nashvile for SUSECON 19 by booking three days in the Great Smokey Mountains in Dolly Parton’s hometown, a place called Pidgeon Forge.

WiFi hotspots on mountain trails are few and far between (actually, they don’t exist at all), but I was able to connect with the Skyroam and check on my football team’s win in the Championship over the weekend.

The Skyroam Solis device claims to be able to provide 4G LTE Internet connectivity in over 130 countries. Up to five devices can be connected simultaneously and the unit itself doubles up as a 6,000 mAh power bank.

It’s a contract-free service that offers three different subscription plans – 24 hour day passes, a monthly plan or pay per GB. The device itself can be purchased for £135 or rented at £9 per day. The device’s management app works on both iOS and Android. More UK and EU details are listed at

Virtual SIM: vSim technology

One of the more interesting aspects of the device is apparent once you open it up and look for the SIM card — and there isn’t one. Skyroam is actually built with vSim ‘virtual SIM’ technology.

According to Skyroam, “The vSIM sterm stands for Virtual SIM technology and is the proprietary cornerstone of the Skyroam brand. Our Founder, Jing Liu spent years engineering this technology to enable a virtual connection between any Skyroam product and local mobile data networks, without a traditional SIM card. This innovation breaks down traditional barriers for international travelers who have been forced to SIM swap across countries, accept roaming fees, or use pricey but limited options from domestic carriers.”

In terms of specifics, vSIM is a software replacement to the physical SIM cards that have been a core element in the mobile ecosystem for many years.

The log in experience is easy and – once home in the UK – it was easy to connect to the Skyroam and use the Solis app in my home office even with my Hyperoptic network running. From power up to log in it takes about a minute.

One key benefit (that the company doesn’t appear to have shouted about) is that the device could allow users to login to their online banking services securely when traveling in hotels.

If there is a criticism to be levied at the Solis Skyroam it is the fact that data will expire if you don’t use it, which is a great shame. How nice would it be to be able to load up 10 GB of data and know that you had a mobile office to run around the world with that much data to drink on. Change your subscription plans Skyroam and then you really would change our lives.

March 12, 2019  8:23 AM

Do we need an ‘app’ for mindfulness?

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

Software application developers will always be looking to create the next big thing (Twitter etc.) and come up with a killer app to forge their name in history.

So what’s trending next?

A recent BBC television documentary by Dr Chris and Dr Xand Van Tulleken investigated mental health and stress — currently linked here — and suggested that apps which promote mindfulness could help those of us who want to slow the world down… and perhaps even get off it altogether.

What is mindfulness?

Wikipedia defines mindfulness as the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training.

Mindfulness itself is thought to be derived from sati, a significant element of Buddhist traditions.

The UK NHS pages on this subject note comments made by Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, who says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.

“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,” said Williams.

Williams also notes that another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen, moment to moment.

An app, or device

So given this trend (albeit an ancient practice now presented as a trend), do we need an app (or perhaps even a device) to help us achieve mindfulness?

We downloaded ‘The Mindfulness App – meditate’ from the Apple app store for iPad in the hope that it might do what it says on the tin.

Despite its 4.6 out of 5 stars ***** rating, this is app is basically just a selection of intros to meditation speeches that appear to be almost entirely delivered by chilled out sounding probably 40-something American female ‘specialists’ who would all no doubt like you to buy their book.

The full speeches (or monologues) are only available with a premium membership, so we didn’t bother.

There is a neat timer function that allows you to start your mindfulness session and opt to listen to a looped soundtrack of the beach, forest, rain, stream, waves or nothing… and this is nice.

Breathy & deliberately monotone

Users can opt for the above with or without the breathy and seemingly deliberately monotone American lady telling you to ‘find your presence and notice the breath in your nostrils’ as needed.

As an additional comment on this story (and something of an experiment), we tried the mindfulness techniques using a set of Jabra Evolve 80 headphones with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology as reviewed here on Computer Weekly.

Switching on noise cancellation appears to be a good thing.

It cuts out the planes coming into Heathrow and allows the user to really focus on the relaxing sounds. In fact, simply turning them on with no sound is also a good idea as it helps to shut out the world and perhaps puts you one step closer to inner peace.

As Buddha said, “To conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.”

… and, no, sorry developers, he didn’t need an app for that.

January 22, 2019  4:35 PM

Adonit PhotoGrip for smartphones with tripod, Bluetooth shutter & remote

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

In the age of the selfie (and the accursed self-stick), what more could the average smartphone-toting photo addict really need?

Longer arms perhaps?

How  about an international language app to translate the word “cheese” into 200 langauges?

No, it’s none of these. What we really want is something that makes our smartphones look, act and feel more like an actual camera.

This appears to be much of the thinking behind Adonit Photogrip, a multiuse phone grip designed to transform a smartphone so it can be used just like a camera.

Nokia of course did something like this with the Nokia Lumia 1020 – image linked here – which did the phone a good surround, but was proprietary to that model alone and was expensive and heavy.

Camera not-so obscura

Adonit has previously been known for its stylus manufacturing. The company now comes forward with the UK launch of Photogrip, a means of wrapping a casing around any smartphone so that it can be converted into a mini tripod. It is accompanied by a Bluetooth shutter and (and this is the cool bit) a camera remote (so you can make the shutter close while you sit away from the device) to help create group shots.

According to the makers, the Adonit Photogrip allows users can comfortably hold their phone out in front of them with one hand to perfect that selfie with ease thanks to the grooved grip mark, avoiding any accidental slips and resulting cracked screen.

Photogrip can be positioned upright for self-standing portrait mode, allowing users to FaceTime, live stream on Instagram or perhaps and watch videos.

The detachable Bluetooth shutter remote can be used up to 10 metres from the phone whether it be on the Photogrip’s mini tripod or self-standing mode. There is no timer required, so users can just click the remote when they are ready.

There’s also a mini precision stylus included to help with photo editing.

Jasper Li, CTO for Adonit has said that the Photogrip has multiple uses and is one of the first offering a stand, everyday handgrip for peace of mind as well as the tools to take portrait shots and edit swiftly for ultimate shareability.

The Adonit Photogrip is compatible with iOS 5.0 and above and Android v4.3 and above.

The Bluetooth connection requires v3.0 and the device will work with any phone from a minimum size of 4.5″. In addition, the Photogrip includes a carry pouch, neck strap and features a charge capacity of up to 20 hours, with the allowance to snap up to 72,000 photos.

Inspect-a-Gadget opinion

Okay what did we think of this? Actually, it’s one of those ‘darn, I wish I’d had this ages ago’ type of gadgets… the remote Bluetooth ‘clicker’ being absolutely the coolest thing about it. Perhaps not just for getting group shots, but if you’re the kind of person that likes to climb up a mountain and sit perched with your other half on the edge of some remote escarpment, then how would you be able to get a snap of that kind of thing if nobody else was there?

Having spent an entire youth setting ‘auto-shutter’ self-timer and balancing cameras on top of rocks and such like and then running around the front, this is an electronic answer to that problem… and it comes with a tripod… and it comes with a casing unit to stop your phone getting damaged. The product is robust and feels tough, it fits all the Huawei phones we tried it on (several sizes) and it would appear to fit ‘any’ smartphone, although one imagines there must be some that it doesn’t especially if you already have your own casing around your device. You can also use the Adonit Photogrip to prop your smartphone up (portrait style) in self-standing mode on your desk. Say cheese please.

The Adonit Photogrip is available from Amazon and Adonit for £44.99

January 3, 2019  10:12 AM

Gemini PDA by Planet: because humans need a keyboard

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

I have a usability issue. My Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone is great, but I can’t write things on it… and, believe it or not, I am a writer.

Last year I attended a conference in Washington DC and saw a Chinese journalist filing copy on her smartphone using a small Bluetooth keyboard. I thought to myself… why aren’t those two devices connected at the hip? I assume you’re getting the picture here.

The Gemini PDA by Planet Computers was offered to me for review by a marketing man who said, “Right then, here’s a device that is about to change your life.” Could it really be true?

We’ve been here before, kind of

The Gemini (presumably named because it ‘twins’ a full travel keyboard with an Android smartphone) is reminiscent of the Nokia Communicator and Psion Series 5. Those devices didn’t stick around for as long as they might have and the trend for ‘on screen’ keyboards finally even made it to the Blackberry, so go figure.

But many of us (writers, journalists, bloggers, businesspeople) need something more than a touchscreen experience that takes up around a third of the display leaving very little screen real estate left inside which to (attempt to) be creative.

The Gemini comes as a mobile 4G + WiFi LTE version and a WiFi only version, both featuring a full QWERTY keyboard. It fits in a back pocket with room to spare, although it probably peaks out the top of your pocket more than a smartphone would — it sports a 5.99″ hi-res screen.

When open, the clamshell design also acts as a support for the device. You can just about use it on your knees, but it really needs to be on a hard surface to get the best out of it.

According to Planet Computers, the fully tactile keyboard is recognised as the world’s best yet smallest full-sized keyboard for finger touch typing. Touch typing at 50 words per minute is very achievable.

Smartphone trials, tribulations & taboos

Aside from being useful for people who write words for a living, there are a number of additional reasons why this might be a ‘life changing’ device in real terms.

Think about technical, medical or other niche staff jobs who need to write down long rarely used words, this has to be easier on a full keyboard than on a smartphone screen with autocorrect constantly trying to change your letters. Also… as of 2019, it is still considered somewhat rude to type notes on smartphones in meetings. This factor is arguably overcome with the Gemini.

At this point we should mention, the Gemini is also a smartphone and calls can be received with the clamshell shut and keyboard stowed. There’s no external screen though, so you’ll need to make calls from your ‘desktop’ if that’s how you want to use it.

Real world usage

In terms of real world usage (and these notes are written on the Gemini device itself), the typing functionality is really good.

The difference between this unit and a smartphone for someone (like a journalist or any other content creator) is that you `feel’ like you have a screen and keyboard (which of course you actually do) and so it provides the `creative space’ factor that is familiar.

You have the option to use the keyboard to cut paragraphs around, shorten and lengthen text… and basically edit in the same way that you would when using a desktop or laptop machine — however proficient you are with a smartphone on-screen keyboard, the difference should be dramatically apparent.

The arrow keys allow you to jump around your text and highlight areas that you might want to break out before then going back to insert sub-headlines and so on. And yes, we know that sounds silly to say out loud because that’s what any other full size keyboard does, but saying it out loud is the whole point here

No mouse is needed and you don’t need to think about using a pen stylus for the touchscreen, it’s easier to touch the screen with your fingers

Criticisms (or nitpicking)

In terms of criticisms, the device is still smaller than a pocket in your favourite pair of jeans, so they could have arguably made this thing 10% or 20% bigger and it would have still worked

The on board Notes app doesn’t always perform at enough speed for editing documents, but that’s fine because Google Docs is free and it works a treat.

Some reviews have been less than keen on the browser (Android is most usually used vertically in portrait mode rather than horizontally in landscape as is the case here), but we found the performance fine.

The stereo speakers are there, they’re okay, they’re not world beaters, there is a headphone jack.

The full stop mark is very close to the dot on the bottom of the question mark key, so if you’re just on the verge of needing glasses then it’s easy not to see it initially — but that’s nitpicking, period.

Additional info

Gemini PDA keyboard layouts are available in English UK, English US — plus also Arabic, Brazilian, Chinese, Czech, Croatian, Finnish, French, German/Austrian, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian/Danish, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, Thai and Dvorak… just in case you want to be picky.

The device itself is capable of a dual boot into both Debian Linux and Android although we did not try Debian as part of this review. The Gemini is also capable of running the Sailfish mobile operating system (OS) if the mood so takes you.

On board you’ll find 4GB of RAM, with 64GB internal storage capacity. Screen resolution is 2160×1080, 403 ppi — and there’s Bluetooth v 4.1, two USB 3 slots, a SIM slot, a micro SD card slot and the whole thing weighs in at 308 grams running on a Quad Core ARM Mali T880 MP4 CPU @ 875MHz.

Also included is an accelerometer, light sensor, gyroscope, magnetic-sensor and a dedicated voice assistant button. The device has a two-week stand-by battery life and around 10-hours standard use battery life.

The crucial matter is price then. The 4G version comes in at £599 and the WiFi only version is £499.

Was it life changing?

So then, was it a life changing experience after all?

The short answer is, yes, so far.

The litmus test being that half of this review was written on the device itself sat on a plane from Gatwick to Fuerteventura. The other litmus test (for me personally anyway) is whether I would place it on my desk next to my main machine and use it to (for example) answer email while working on a full size machine — and yes, that works well. Although MyMail works (for me at least) better than any version of Gmail itself.

The other litmus test is whether I would take the device with me as a standalone machine to work on and again the answer is yes, very much more so than a smartphone, where editing work is simply not really an option.

The Gemini PDA is just about a fully functioning mini computer small enough to fit in your pocket — and it’s a thing of beauty. Planet Computers’ next enhanced version of the device tested here will be The Cosmo and more information is linked here.

December 4, 2018  5:26 PM

The ruggedised reporter, part #1: Conker toughened tablets

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

The TSA once dropped my laptop and it made me nervous about the fact that a machine on the road is a delicate thing. To be clear, the fine people at the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) do a fabulous and invaluable job of keeping us safe and I appreciate them right down to their cotton socks.

But, one morning this March in Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the screening trays got so backed up that my laptop got literally squeezed out of position and was ejected onto the floor.

Now then, we’re lucky that HP makes its Spectre 360 laptop pretty darn well, because my machine did survive the fall and was easy enough to wipe clean. But the whole experience gave me cause for thought when a trip to Sri Lanka came up this year.

Running through airports, jumping on rickety Sri Lankan trains (some with no windows), traipsing over tea plantations and then trying to sit in cafes at night to write up tech stories and wider experiences… surely there was a better way of computing on the go?

I have always jealously eyed the ‘ruggedized’ (sorry, that should be ruggedised) laptops and tablets that our London gas engineers turn up with. Chunky sides, reinforced plates on the front and nifty ‘easy-grip’ handles. Shouldn’t I be using one of those types of machines on the go?

Time to play Conkers

Enter Conker… well, the Conker brand. This UK-built brand offers a variety of Windows and Android tablets. We chose to play with the Conker NS10 and actually take it on the road to Sri Lanka.

This is a 10″ display rugged Windows tablet with optional barcode scanner. It ships with Windows 10 Pro and it has an optional Intel Core m3 processor. It comes with 4GB of memory and 128GB of storage. There’s a 5.0 megapixel rear camera and a 3.0 megapixel front camera.

The screen is multi-touch sensitive and built is Gorilla Glass for toughness. The drop test rating lists the machine at 1.2 metres. We didn’t drop it, but it’s a whole lot less worrying to slap in down into airport x-ray scanners than a traditional laptop.

The Conker NS10 has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but also sports 1 USB port and 1 micro-USB port. We teamed it with a Microsoft wireless mouth and (paradoxically) an Apple wireless keyboard, both worked perfectly with very fast ‘pick up’ i.e. Bluetooth connectivity from a state of rest.

There’s a waterproof built in speaker and microphone, but these are not the machine’s outstanding features. The Conker NS10 weighs in at 1.1kg, but there’s a nice carrying strap on the top.

Usage experience

Okay so how was it? The overall feeling with this machine is that everything ‘just works’ and we mean everything.

Wi-Fi connectivity is strong, connections to external devices are strong, battery life (around 8-10 hours) is good, full-blown Windows functionality in something 10-inches wide is just fine, installation of VPNs and firewalls to enable secure work in remote international locations is perfect… and the rugged factor is there all round in a nice tuff-grip style casing that slid down the side of a backpack very neatly.

NOTE: Exact battery life details state that, ”The NS10 has a 5000 mAh battery and in testing completed 7 hours and 25 minutes of continuous HD video playback at 50% brightness.”

The Conker Windows line comes in 12, 10, 8 and 6-inch screen sizes, but we deliberately chose the 10-inch form factor because it was smaller than a laptop but bigger than a phablet or smartphone size. Writing reports on tiny tables in train stations, airports and cheap hotels worked perfectly.

Official documentation also states that, “These super-tough devices are drop-tested to 1.2m and are waterproof to 1.5m for 30 minutes. They are also completely dust proof and feature toughened screens as standard.”

If there are any criticisms, the product could probably do with a built-in stand for those who want to use it as a rugged PC for most of the time and as a tablet when really on the move. To be fair, Conker does offer mounting stations.

We ended up using an external Anker Portable Multi-Angle Stand, which did the job just fine.

Tough nut to crack?

According to Conker CEO James Summers, the company’s name is inspired by the tough conker nut that comes from the horse chestnut tree and is much beloved of schoolchildren in the playground. 

“Like the conker, our business rugged tablet, screen and mobile systems have durable external shells and internal components,” said Summers.

CEO Summers explains that his firm is also focused on UK device engineering that goes some way beyond product features.

“Unlike many of our direct rugged, device-engineering led competitors, Conker is oriented on the effective delivery of business rugged systems to achieve business results. The Conker approach is different, as we are consultative, personal, responsive and flexible — and we always seek to deliver measurable business value,” said Summers.

He further states that Conker is a British producer of business rugged tablet, screen and mobile systems that offers a collaborative approach for mobile workers to improve productivity and make their lives easier by automating the mundane & streamlining business processes.

As a slightly different kind of computing option for a traveller — or a more standard option for a mobile engineering field worker, this Conker device is a really nice piece of kit.

For additional storage, we teamed the Conker device with a Lacie Rugged Secure 2 Terabyte that comes with rain, drop and crush resistance — upon which we installed around 100 movies (you could fit around 500 movies on a disk this size), lots of music and backed up all our photos and files.

Apparently you can drive a car over the Lacie products and they still work.

So for all that lumping and jumping around in Sri Lankan tuk-tuk auto-rickshaws, final departure from Colombo airport saw the security scanners leave all our IT equipment (and liquids) in our bags… but anyway, we still felt rugged.

Amsterdam airport – image: Adrian Bridgwater

Kandy Sri Lanka, computing on the go: image: Adrian Bridgwater

Conker in a rucksack – image: Adrian Bridgwater

October 17, 2018  11:25 AM

Dialling into the Huawei Mate20

Adrian Bridgwater Adrian Bridgwater Profile: Adrian Bridgwater

Whether you can pronounce the company’s name or not, it’s for sure that Huawei (say: wah-way) has become a significant presence in the smartphone market today.

Now with corporate ambitions to become known for its cloud business and wider development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the chipset and software level, the firm has one of those stands at Mobile World Congress that you can’t just walk onto without a meeting booked.

This is a smartphones + ecosystem play, for sure.

The latest ‘shiny shiny’ from the Chinese telecoms giant is the Mate P20 series, a device group that now ranks as the firm’s flagship — please note that this overview focuses on the Mate20 Pro.

“This is not a smartphone, this is a smart AI-enabled computer,” ran the big production video intro to the launch of the P10 Pro, this line’s predecessor — a presentation we saw played out in a strange underground bunker of a conference centre in Munich last autumn.

A good dose of the same ‘it’s more than just a phone’ rhetoric is slapped across much of the Huawei Mate20 series messaging and, in fairness, the device’s camera probably outstrips the ageing Nikon in your drawer that you’re not really using any more… and it’s ability to hook up to a full monitor and effectively be used as a PC is also good.

This year’s Mate20 event was staged in London’s ‘glittering’ big E, little x, big C, little e, big L ExCeL centre, presumably because it’s roomy… and everybody loves a ride on London’s DLR Docklands Light Railway, right?

Specs for spec fans

If you’re one of those specifications (specs) list fans, you’ll want to know that the Mate20 Pro is 7.8mm thick (or thin) and weighs in at 180 grams with a 2244×1080 RGBW resolution screen creating what is an 82 percent screen-to-body ratio.

The display is actually curved at both edges with higher colour saturation than delivered in any of the firm’s previous devices.

In terms of engine room power, the Mate20 Pro ships with Huawei’s own Kirin 970 octa-core chipset processor with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage — as a whole, the Mate20 series are available in in 6.53-inch, 6.39-inch and 7.2-inch sizes.

The SoC at the core of smartphones has a determining factor in a device’s performance and efficiency. Manufactured with 7nm technology process, the SoC fits 6.9 billion transistors within a die the size of a fingernail.

“Smartphones are an important entrance to the digital world. The Huawei Mate 20 Series is designed to be the best ‘mate’ of consumers, accompanying and empowering them to enjoy a richer, more fulfilled life with their higher intelligence, unparalleled battery lives and powerful camera performance,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Consumer BG.

Huawei’s Richard Yu spoke at the launch event to enthuse about the device’s 4200mAh battery and it’s AI power, “With an AI processor, we can bring forward more and more AI services to the applications running on our smartphones,” said Yu. “

Camera power

The device has what Yu called a ‘four point design’ in its rear Leica camera lens sent up. This is a wide angle lens, plus an ultra wide angle lens and a telephoto lens… all of which are served by a larger light sensor which allows the camera to perform in very low light conditions without flash.

We can also note that in camera functionality, slow-motion video is also included for the first time… and, perhaps most fun of all, the camera’s so-called ‘Hollywood-style’ effect allows you to take a video with a foreground subject in colour and the background in black and white — examples (not taken using this device, but just for explanation) are shown here and here.

“The Mate 20 Series can isolate human subjects and desaturate the colours around them to dramatically highlight the person,” reads the official line.

The much loved Bokeh effect has also been extended and can now be made to produce a soft focus background that is now whooshed with a swirl effect rather than just a soft blurred focus.

Huawei has upgraded the water and dust proofing of this device. It has also used what it calls a ‘hyper optical pattern’ on the glass etching of the screen — and this is supposed to reduce the amount of fingerprints that the user will leave after uses.

Neural power

CPU, GPU and NPU (neural processing unit) power all upped in terms of performance and power efficiency. All of which are meant to produce a more ‘responsive feel’ for the user.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro houses a large, high-density 4200mAh battery — and supports 40W Huawei SuperCharge, which gives a [dead] device 70 percent charge in 30 minutes. The safety of the technology is certified by TÜV Rheinland.

The company says that the Mate 20 Series comes with EMUI 9.0, a smart operating system based on Android P. Through AI self-learning algorithms, an integrated and granular resource allocation system, and a highly optimised Android environment, EMUI 9 delivers an ‘evergreen’ experience.

This device also heralds the first options for wireless charging via a 15 W connection, which also allows you to charge other wireless charge devices and so share a portion of the power that the device has on board.

Summary thoughts

There’s a lot to like here — but then, there’s a lot (of apps and extended functions) here in general.

Naysayers might suggest that a) some of the apps are extraneous to most users’ needs and so, for some, will be considered bloatware and that b) with so many functionality enhancements being shipped that Huawei is almost testing out emerging use case functions live upon its users.

Did you need 3D modelling calorie counting calculation functions to take photos of food and have the ingredients recognised by AI-powered analytics in order to tell you how many calories there are in your meal? Well you’re getting it.

“It’s all very convenient, we aim to make your life easier,” repeats Huawei’s Yu throughout his high-energy presentations.

The good news (for those worried about digital dependency) is this product is built as one of the first phones to ship with Android 9 Pie… which does actually come with ‘digital wellbeing’ features that have been developed by Google, because it’s important to know what device functions do actually make your life better and also help users to know when to switch off.

More product info is available on the Huawei website pages for this product.

August 6, 2018  3:54 PM

Fitbit suffers from period pains

Clare McDonald Profile: Clare McDonald
"women in IT", ai, Artificial intelligence, FItbit

A backlash against a Fitbit feature which allows women to track their period has highlighted the need for more diverse technology teams.

In the summer of 2018 Fitbit added “female health tracking” to its application in a bid to help women the world over understand how their menstrual cycle correlates with other data collected by the wearable such as activity and sleep.

But the fitness brand only allows users to log a period for up to 10 days and no more.

Unsurprisingly, female users who wanted to track their period for more than 10 days were not impressed, and although the “average” length of a period is said to be between two and eight days, women with conditions such as endometriosis can bleed for longer.

Surely it would also be useful for those who have conditions which cause their period to last longer to be able to interpret how that impacts all of the other data that Fitbit collects?

The irony is not lost on us – a feature that is meant to help us better understand our health does not cater to those who may need it the most.

In the US the feature is only available for women who are 13 and over, and although it is stated that age restrictions may vary between countries this is yet another barrier which means the feature only caters to the “average” female population.

Symptoms that come along with a woman’s period such as pain, acne or nausea can also be tracked, but women have been objecting to the limited number of options given to describe any discomfort they may be feeling during their time of the month.

Just as an example, when I wrote the above sentence I wrote “bloating” as one of the common symptoms for a period, only to find out this isn’t one of the five “conditions” you can log at the moment.

Go figure.

More conditions are set to be added in the future, according to the Fitbit community boards, and there’s now a discussion on Fitbit’s suggestion board which is urging the brand to extend the number of days the menstrual cycle can be logged, with many women saying the feature is “useless” to them without being able to track their whole period.

This would be my mindset too – surely if your period lasts for longer than 10 days but you can’t log that in the app any predictions the feature has about when your next period would start would be based on false data, and therefore not be accurate?

But this isn’t just about accurately tracking menstrual cycles; as head of diversity and inclusion for the IET Jo Foster suggested to the BBC, this is indicative of wider problems in the technology industry.

There is a lack of diversity in technology teams, despite the effort many are putting in to change this, and it means that the technology being developed both for women and for the general population is not fit for purpose for all of its users.

When seatbelts were first invented many women and children died because they were only tested with male crash test dummies, then Apple invented Apple Health to allow people to keep track of everything health-related and initially didn’t include menstrual cycle tracking at all.

As technology has moved on, more of these problems have surfaced.

Many in the industry are concerned about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) as there is already a trend towards artificially intelligent assistants being characterised as female.

Facial recognition is another example – it is increasingly used in everyday life, now it is even used as a biometric identifier for some phones, but the error rate for facial recognition is much higher for women of colour than it is for white men.

Biases present in society will only be replicated in AI and other future technologies unless the teams developing these technologies changes.

The ability to track your menstrual cycle was one of Fitbit’s most requested features, and since it was launched more than 2.4m users have added it to their Fitbit app.

There may well have been a woman on the development team for Fitbit’s new female health tracking feature, but one woman isn’t enough and much like other bodily functions, not every woman is the same.

Moderators in Fitbit’s discussion page on the topic have called the suggestion “interesting” with one saying: “Let’s see what other members of the Forums have to say about this.”

Discussion is great, and it is opening a lot of people’s eyes to the potential problems of developing tech that doesn’t suit everyone, but as one forum user said: “It can’t be that hard to modify the coding, can it?”

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