Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

Archive for February 2009

Portalbe iPhone Speaker Systems

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LiveSpeakR and Logitech Pure HiFi Anywhere 2: size comparison

LiveSpeakR and Logitech Pure HiFi Anywhere 2: size comparison

My only, and do mean my only, disappointment after switching from a G1 iPod Touch to a G3 iPhone, was that all my various speaker systems, potable and in home, would not work with the iPhone unless I put it on airplane mode. I mean, its a phone. If you have to shut off the phone part to use speakers with the iPod app, what’t the point? And the GSM buzz whenever the phone communicates with the cell tower is not something you can ignore. It gets under your teeth.

I can live with having the phone shut off when I am using my Audio
Technica noise reduction headset, which also buzzes. I only use it on airplanes anyway, and they make you put the iPhone on airplane mode on airplanes anyway. Go figure.

But at home, or in my hotel room on any of the 170 nights per year that I am in one, I want to plug in and listen to my tunes, and I don’t want to miss a call while listening. That is the beauty of the iPhone.

At home I have iPod speaker connections in both the livingroom and bedroom/office: a Klipsch modular system in the livingroom (not to mention a jack to the back of the main surround sound system), and an excellent 85 watt Phillips compact system made for computers in the bedroom/office.

On the road I have carried, at various times, portable speakers from Creative, Altec Lansing, Logictech (the original mm50s), and most recently, Phillips.

All worthless with the iPhone. Disappointment personified.

So when I picked up a piece on Egadget about the LiveSpeakR for iPhone, I had to take a look. Shielded against cell buzz. Compact. Very clever design. They were running an introductory special and I ordered one. It came. I tried it.

Which lead me, indirectly, to more extensive research on shielded portable speakers for the iPhone. I will get to the reasons why as we progress here, but this afternoon, while out running errands, I picked up a Logitech Pure Hi Fi Anywhere 2 speaker system for the iPhone.

lsr1

The LiveSpeakR package: unit, tension plate for Touch, wall charger, USB cable

Interestingly enough both the LiveSpeakR and the PHFA2 sell for exactly the same price. $129.95 That, however, is where any similarity stops. (Oh, there is one more: neither unit is perfectly shielded from cell radio noise. Both, when idle (no music playing) can be head to cackle softly when the phone talks to the tower. Neither is objectionable, and neither can be heard while music is playing.)

The LiveSpeakR sprang from the mind of a young California inventor. You can see some of his story on the LiveSpeakR website. It is an interesting story, and it is an interesting product. Which is why I ordered one.

It has a lot to recommend it. It is shielded for iPhone use, though it will work with the iPod Touch and Classic as well. It is ultra compact. When folded for storage it practically fits behind the iPhone. Yet when expanded, which takes a simple transformers like twist of the wrist and the cradle that holds

Vertical Mode

Vertical Mode

the iPhone, a pair of fair sized ported speakers emerge. Another half twist and the cradle reclines to horizontal and the speakers magically expand so that you can view movies on the iPhone/Touch in comfort.

in Horizontal Mode

in Horizontal Mode

All of this is supported by a clever little foot, which slides down on the back of the unit and folds out. Stabilizer feet swing down to prop the system at a variety of angles for your listening and viewing pleasure.

The stand (foot): Note the stabilizers which adjust the angle

The stand (foot): Note the stabilizers which adjust the angle

And the speakers are pretty good. For their size they are actually pretty amazing. There is enough bass there to let you know what you are missing (so to speak), or, maybe better, to let your imagination fill in what is missing. Vocals, on first impression, are smooth and natural, and there is enough ring in the treble for cymbals and bells. Not bad at all, especially if you do not compare the sound directly to larger systems. Volume, which is totally controlled by the volume on the iPhone (or other device, no volume controls on the LiveSpeakR itself), is certainly adequate for a hotel room.

Power is provided by a lithium-ion battery, which is charged with an interesting USB charging device with the charge indicator built into the plug unit, instead of the LiveSpeakR itself.

LiveSpeakR carry bag

LiveSpeakR carry bag

Not bad. But now we come to the things that sent me back to the internet looking for alternatives.

Overall the most disappointing thing about the LiveSpeakR is is build quality. It is clever, but it is simply not very well made. The attachment to the iPhone is a simple little cable and phone-jack that plugs into the headphone hole on the Phone or Touch  (see the pic of Vertical positon above). The cable is delicate looking and feeling, and the routing (which can be changed depending on which device you are using) leaves it exposed to what looks to me to be too sharp an edge. Makes me nervous for its longevity. There are maybe good reasons (expense among them) not to use a dock connector and the associated Apple compatibility chip, but other, far less expensive, units do. No dock connector also means the the LiveSpeakR will not charge your iPhone or other Device while you are playing it…even if you have the charger plugged into the speaker.

lsrsw

The bothersome switch, and note the cable routing tunnel.

Then there are little annoyances. The on/off switch is cheesy, and so deeply recessed into the unit that turning it on and off is a chore…a fingernail breaking chore. And the clever little foot? There is no positive lock in the down position so that the foot creeps back up the body of the speaker until the cradle is resting on the table (or whatever you have the whole thing sitting on). The little stabilizer feet (which look very like mouse trap wire) rest in small notches in the main foot and do the work of propping the speaker at your chosen angle. They work, but it is far from an elegant solution and you have a very limited choice of angles.

I have communicated these concerns to the folks at LiveSpeakr, who assure me that the device is still a work in progress and improvements are planned. I would have been happy to beta test it for them, but I am a little bothered to have paid as much as I did to do it. To their credit, they plan a “substantial” upgrade credit for an improved version sometime down the road, when they get the kinks out…but…still…I would a lot rather the device lived up to its promise out of the gate.

So. Googling “portable iPhone speakers” turned up a few other models. Surprising few, considering the popularity of the phone, but among them was the old familiar Logitech mm50, now twice reincarnated, first as the Pure HiFi Anywhere, and now as the Pure HiFi Anywhere 2 for iPhone.

Logitech Pure HiFi Anywhere 2 for iPhone

Logitech Pure HiFi Anywhere 2 for iPhone

If you have followed iPod speaker reviews over the past few years, you will already have seen favorable mention of these speakers. They are bit bigger than most portable systems, but always get high marks for excellent sound at an affordable price. In the PHFA2 incarnation, as mentioned above, they are actually exactly the same price as the LiveSpeakR.

And, as a third generation product, they show a degree of refinement that is unlikely in a first generation of anything. As I said, I own the mm50s, and the PHFA2 are a substantial improvement on those excellent speakers: not in sound, which is very similar, but in all the little creature comforts: starting with high-grade, audio equipment style, touch control buttons; continuing on through the widest set of dock adapters of any competing product; to a genuine full function remote (including menu control and selection); a 10 hour lithium-ion battery pack; and ending with a clever power adapter which spools up the cord and folds in on itself to fit snuggly inside the padded nylon carrying case with the speakers and the remote! Refinement. Ahhhh.

Touch (firm touch) button controls (note the XL button)

Touch (firm touch) button controls (note the XL button)

And, of course, if you have not heard the Logitech speakers in any of their incarnations, let me just say that they are the most listenable and satisfying portable speaker set I have ever heard. Bass is substantial. Voice is natural and unstrained, with none of the nasal quality generally associated with small speakers (and immediately apparent in the LiveSpeakR by comparison). Highs are restrained but still shimmery enough so you don’t feel like you are listening through a pillow. The XL feature, which is designed to provide an expanded soundstage from the small footprint of the PHFA2, actually works, adding dimension to the sound without distortion. And the volume is big enough to have the folks in the hotel room next door pounding on the walls if you are not careful.

padded carry case, holds everything

padded carry case, holds everything

Yes, the PHFA2 is a bit bigger than I really wanted to pack, but at the price it can not be equaled for sound or build quality, and certainly not for features. In fact, I would put it up against units costing well over twice as much, and taking up twice as much room in the luggage.

So, if this were a contest, the Logitech Pure Hi Fi Anywhere 2 for iPhone would win hands down, on all counts but compactness.

But it is not really a contest. I have high hopes for the folks at LiveSpeakr. I would not be at all surprised to see a generation 3 product to equal both the sound and value of the PHFA2. They are nothing if not clever. And I believe in their will to succeed.

As a practical matter though, I will be packing the PHFA2s on my foreseeable trips, and enjoying satisfying tune listening with my iPhone in hotel rooms all across America. Just don’t book a room next to me!

Written by singraham

February 28, 2009 at 9:02 am

iBird Explorer Updated! How to Improve on a Great Program!

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iBird from the Mitch Waite Group

iBird from the Mitch Waite Group

Everything good I said about the iBird Explorer family of bird guides for iPhone and iPod Touch is still true. If you have not read that review you should start there, but read it with the knowledge that there is now a new version out which addresses the few shortcomings I found, and extends the program in interesting and useful ways. iBird Explorer is now, in my opinion, the most complete, and best designed, portable bird guide ever created, in any format, print or electronic. For a serious birder, it totally justifies the cost of at least an iPod Touch (and you know you were just looking for a good excuse to buy one), and it is a must have for any self-respecting iPhone toting birder! Read the original review here. iBird Explorer.

I could list the new features, but the iBird Explorer folks have already done that for me. Take a look. New Features. You can flip back here for my comentary and illustrations on how they work.

I will follow my own order, based simply on my personal impressions of the importance of the change.

Browse by Family

Browse by Family

First in my mind is the reworking of the Family browsing page. This is my default browser, since I still think of the birds by family, in field guide order, when trying to find a new bird. 

In place of the long list of species grouped by family, we now have a list of families, each with its own icon. You can quickly scroll down the family you are after…which was a chore in the previous version if the family was far down the list. Much better.

Note too the additional buttons along the bottom of the browse screen. I will put screen captures of these features at the end of this post.

Help links to specially formatted web pages with general help, new features, and a reference section. Since these reside on the web and are called down as needed you can only use them when you are connected, but it also means that they can be updated and upgraded without issuing a new version of the program.

Glossary is just what it says: a list of terms used in the descriptions with their definitions as used.

The More button is where you will find the Twitter page (posts from iBird Explorer to the micro blogging site Twitter, mostly chatter on new features, beta testing, etc. If you have a Twitter account you can follow and reply to tweets from iBirdExplorer there.) The About feature includes not only info on the Mitch Waite group and the program, but a bit about the whole team of programers, writers, illustrators, and photographers who have contributed. Photographers are linked to their own web pages. (And yes, I am listed. This is a volenteer effort, I have no financial stake in the success of iBird Explorer.)

Species Page

Species Page

Then, if you will remember from the first review, I totally missed the fact that many of the birds have second, and even third, illustrations. More have been added in this version (13) but just as important, there is now an numerical indicator in the Birds button at the bottom of the species page if there are additional illustrations, and they have added the message “scroll down for more variations” at the bottom of the illustrations where needed.  See below. There are similar numerical indicators in the Photos button when more than one photo exists of any given speices. Over 1600 photos have been added to this version, vastly improving its usefulness in the field, filling in gaps in the illustrations quite nicely, and just providing alternative views which are instructional in themselves. In fact, the number of added photos would justify making this a completely different product than the original iBird series. It goes way beyond your usual upgrade.

One significant change is hidden behind the Birdapedia button. Birdapedia now opens in-line, without closing iBird. It even has a slick rotating in thing when you activate it. This makes the Birdapedia a useful feature for the first time!

Multiple Illustrations

Multiple Illustrations

Multiple Photos

Multiple Photos

Again, the addition of suplimental illustrations and the wealth of photographs makes this version of iBird Explorer one of the best illustrated guides on the market. IMHO.

In the Search function a couple of really useful new criteria have been added. You can now search by both Primary and Secondary Color, and you can specify whether you are searching for Any or All of the colors you select under each. Sheen (iridescencemore properly) has also been added as a Color criteria under Primary color. Finally, you can choose to set a Location that iBird will remember, so you can preserve the set of birds you use most often.

The audio play has also been refined. You have a pause button while they are playing. 

As an aside, between reviews here, I switched from a generation 1G iPod Touch, to a 3G iPhone. The built in speaker on the 2G iPod Touch and the 3G iPhone, while kind of thin for music playback, is adaquate for playing bird sounds in the field. That means you do not have to carry an external amplified speaker unless you really want loud! This I like. The iPhone fits in my pocket. I have yet to see amplified speakers that are not a lot bulkier than the iDevice itself.

The More screens

The More screens

I should point out that while this review is based on the full Plus version of iBird Explorer (891 species: $19.99), all these features are available in all special and regional versions: Backyard ($4.99), North, South, West, Midwest, and Canada ($9.99 each).

In summary I will just repeat what I said above. With these new revisions and additions, iBird Explorer, especially the full Plus version, becomes the most complete, best designed, portable birding reference ever concieved. For the depth of illustrations, and especially informational text, no printed guide can touch it. iBird goes way beyond being a field guide. It is a complete reference set to the speices of North America, the equivalent of a whole shelf of books. In my opinion, for any birder, the existance of iBird Explorer in the app store fully justifies the price of an iPod Touch or iPhone. I seriously doubt I will be carrying a traditional field guide anytime soon again.

Short version: buy this program!

Written by singraham

February 18, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Posted in app, iPhone, iPod Touch, review

Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds

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Peterson's iPhone Guide

Peterson's iPhone Guide

Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America started an industry. His art, and his writing, defined birdwatching for several generations in America, and his name is recognized in birding circles world-wide. He invented the field mark, a system of arrows in his illustrations pointing to significant details that are off use in identifying birds in the field, most often elaborated in the accomping text. Many of us grew up as birders depending on field marks for our ids.

For that reason, one approaches the Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds with a certain justifiable expectation. Peterson’s heirs and publisher gurad his reputation well. Any product that carries the Peterson name must reach a certain standard of excellence.

In this the iPhone Backyard Birds, by WildTones, does not disappoint.

Detialed Illustrations and Range Maps

Detialed Illustrations and Range Maps

The illustrations are of highest quality, directly from the most recent Peterson’s guides, and with the bird sounds and songs, make up the strong suit of the app. Where necessary both sexes are shown. For many birds, where regional variation comes into play, they are illustrated. Many feature both adult and immature plumages. And all feature clear bold field mark arrows.

The range maps, also direct from the Peterson’s printed guides, are also of high quality, and quite easy to read. Both illustrations and maps can be expanded by the traditional iPhone pinch motion on the touchscreen, though both run out of resolution fairly quickly. Still it is useful if you want to see a particular field mark more closely or check a boundary on the map.

The song recordings, provided by Lang Elliott, who just might be the Peterson of bird recording, are exceptional. A wide range of vocalizations are provided where needed and the recordings are clear and loud enough so that playback on the internal speaker of the iPhone 3G and iPod Touch 2G is completely practical.

The browse screen (taxonomic order) and Species text

The browse screen (taxonomic order) and Species text

The text provided for each species does a good job of reinforcing the field mark arrows, elaborating as needed to make the point. Basic habitat and range information is embedded in the text, without being highlighted in any way. This is a drawback, imho, as it makes some of the most essential information for beginning birders harder than it needs to be to find. Information is also given on what kinds of feeder foods the birds like, to help beginners tailor their backyard feeding stations.

In fact, the text is the first disappointing feature of the guide. Most descriptions are no longer than you would find in a really basic printed guide, where space limitations are much more stringent than in any electronic format. Most of the text pages have a lot of empty space that might have been filled with other useful information about the species, or more elaborate descriptions.

And of course, as guide intended for backyard birders, the text is kept to what one might call an introductory level.

The illustrations and maps, however, are of such high quality that this guide will leave any avid birder hungry for a complete North American version with expanded text resources.

Audio and Visual ID quizes

Audio and Visual ID quizes

As a guide meant for beginning birders, the app also includes some interactive id games, both visual and sound, to help the birder become better at id.

You can also sort the included birds by the first two digits of zip codes. A two digit zip map of the country by region is provide to help. For many states this results in a single state list. For states with multiple zips, it can generate several separate lists. The feature is not, imho, all that useful however, as the zip boundaries are in no way related to regional distinctions within states. In fact, I am not sure there is any kind of natural logic to how the boundaries were drawn beyond human population patterns.

Finally, there is a simple check list feature. A check button on each species page allows you to add it to your list, and a check list button on the home page allows you to call up the list of species to view it. Not very sophisticated but certainly as good as ticking off the species you have seen in the index of your first field guide, or making marks next to the drawings on the pages. (The two most common ways for birders to begin their life-lists.)

Of course, we have to compare this app to the similarly named iBird Explorer Backyard edition for the iPhone. I am tempted to say they are so different that no comparison is really meaningful. Certainly no best/worst, or even “better/worser” distinction can be made.

iBird Explorer presents its illustrations completely differently. Recent revisions, just now reaching the app store, have expanded the range of illustrations, both drawings and photos, of each species dramatically, but there is nothing like the all-variations-on-one-page illustrations the Peterson guide provides. While there is definitely more visual information contained in the iBird approach, it can be more difficult for the beginning birder to sort out. Also, there is nothing in iBird that corresponds to the field mark arrows Peterson provides.

Sound recordings in iBird are excellent. For a few species, sound recordings in Peterson are, to my ear, just slightly better (louder, more complete). Either is an amazing resource in the field and for learning.

Where the two really begin to differ however is in the search facilities. Peterson has only the zip code search. iBird has an amazingly sophisticated set of search criteria that, once mastered, allows you to generate highly specific lists: lists limited pretty much only by your own imagination and your skill in using the feature.

Compared to the brief descriptions in the Peterson guide, the shear amount of textural information provided in iBird has to be seen to be appreciated. There are pages and pages of it for each species, all of it in great detail, and all of it highly and clearly organized. The iBird text will provide any birder, no matter how advanced, with enough reading and study material to occupy the mind for years to come. iBird, in that sense, is way beyond a field guide. Even the Backyard edition is a complete reference to the birds it covers, the equivalent of a whole bookshelf of books.

Both are Backyard editions, but it is too simple to say the Peterson, with its simple text and quiz system, is geared more for the beginner than iBird. Beginners will reach the limits of what is in the Peterson much quicker than they will reach the limits of what is in iBird, but they will learn a lot from either program.

If you are birder of any stamp, you already know that this exercise of comparison is pretty pointless. Any beginning birder with an iPhone or iPod Touch is going to end up owning, and enjoying both of these excellent guides. Neither, by print standards, is expensive (in fact both are bargains). Each will be enjoyed for its merits, and using and studying both will only make the backyard birder grow in his or her skill faster, and have more fun doing it!

In fact, I suspect that both these applications will stay on any iPhone or Touch they are insalled on for the life of the device! And both will be used regularly for backyard observations. That is a testimony to the unique strengths of each, and to the quality of both. Such wealth! Two backyard field guides for the iPhone toting birder. Life is good.

(One added note: iBird Explorer Backyard serves as an entry to the whole iBird and WhatBird.com search system. Search and id skills learned on the backyard edition transfer seamlessly to the Plus, full North American, or the regional iBird editions. We can hope that WildTones will expand the range of their offerings in a similar way.)

The Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds is available at the iTunes app store for $2.99. The WildTones web site is here. Check out About Us at the bottom of the page.

Peterson’s iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds. Can you resist? I certainly couldn’t.

Written by singraham

February 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm

N’tbook Dependance: No strain at all.

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Workstation for the Week

Workstation for the Week

For the past week I have been totally dependent on my Acer Aspire One. Through a series of unfortunate events, my work laptop got left in California and is wending its slow way back to Maine via UPS. (Ever try to set up a remote pick-up of something in CA while in ME? Without labels? Not easy.)

During that week I have had to create a major Powerpoint presentation for work, with Excel charts and graphs, knock out two other PPTs, keep up with my blogs (4), Twitter and Facebook, and all my personal and work email (had to redirect and forward all work email from by Blackberry, which is still, thank God, connected to the Blackberry enterprise server and picks up my work email).

I have edited photos in Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, uploaded to both Flickr and Smugmug, downloaded a huge app and one album in iTunes (and synced to the iPhone). For a blog entry, I took 20 screen shots on the iPhone, and downloaded them to the computer via USB.

In creating the PPT for work, I had two portable drives and 2 flash drives connected to the One at the same time (used a hub), looking for backups of files that are on my work laptop.

I have printed wirelessly to my networked HP printer.

In other works, I did a pretty complete week’s business on my n’tbook.

And it was no strain at all. Everything worked. Everything got done.

So when you read the industry disclaimers that N’tbooks are fine for light internet related stuff, but not for serious business, you can pretty much laugh them off. Unless you do 3D graphics or video rendering for a living, a n’tbook is all you need. No strain. You can get the job done.

Clearly, given the price of n’tbooks these days, and the price of real serious laptops (like for real business and work), this is a fact that the industry would like to downplay…would like to keep secret…would like to bury under lots of fine sounding disclaimers. If a n’tbook can really replace a full sized laptop for most business work, then who is going to pay for all those business laptops?

Not me. In the next round of laptop appropriations at work, I am going to request a n’tbook (now that Dell makes one…our IT will only buy Dell???). I travel 170 days a year. Why would I carry anything else?

And, if my work laptop had been a n’tbook, it would not have gotten left in California due to that series of unfortunate events I mentioned earlier. And I would not be writing this. Go figure.

Written by singraham

February 14, 2009 at 6:44 am

Posted in computers, netbooks