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Hands-On with Griffin’s TuneBuds Mobile 01 December 2008 at 9:57 am by

Tunebuds1

Apple has been dragging its feet with the release of its new iPod Touch compatible, remote control headphones with mic. Neither the in-ear nor the regular earbuds have yet made it into the stores, which has given the third-party makers a head start. Grifin sent us a pair of its TuneBuds Mobile earbuds to try out. Here’s how they fared.

Tunebuds5

The TuneBuds are of the in-ear type, and will work with many new iPods. The iPhone gets to take advantage of all the features. The inline button will answer and hang up calls, pause, play and skip songs, both forward and back, and the microphone will also let you record sound.  The 2G iPod Touch gets all of this except the part pertaining to telephone calls, and the 4G iPod Nano will work with the mic, but not the remote controls, as will the 120GB Classic.

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So, how does the hardware shape up? There are three different sized rubber grommets which push onto the plastic inner section, so unless you are a ninety-year old man with big flapping lugs or a mewling babe, you should be able to get them to fit. One in, the buds stay put. This is their greatest advantage over normal earbuds, which require constant – and annoying – readjustment. The rubber doesn’t seal out external sound completely, but I like that — I listen to podcasts while riding a bike and I like to hear the traffic.

The headphone cords are particularly nice. They have a woven sleeve which feels tough and prevents tangles — you can throw these in your pocket and they won’t turn into a rats’ nest of knots. The switch, too seems solid yet still light. The switch and mic are both housed inside a small cylinder which sits inline with one of the two cords which go to your ear. This means that the mic is right by your mouth for phone calls.

The call quality is, I think, fine. I didn’t try them out with an iPhone, but the TuneBuds turn an iPod Touch into a VoIP phone. That’s right. Using VoIP software like Fring, you can make Skype calls direct from your iPod over WiFi. It works great, although the Fring call quality was a little shaky. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Can you hear me?

The Lady: Of course. You’re in the next room.

Me: Yes, but can you hear me on Skype?

The Lady: It works!

Recording voice notes also works great. I tried it with Griffin’s own iTalk, which is designed to, well, record your voice. Despite having a terrible cold, I sounded clear and free of background noise.

Next, music. The TuneBuds sound a lot better than the earbuds that ship with the iPod, but that’s not hard. In fact, when we first tried them out, the Lady and I both heard a dreadful hissing. This turned out to be on the MP3 track, and I hadn’t noticed it before with the Apple ‘buds. The Griffins won’t replace your high-end cans, though. While not tinny, there is a rather lot of shrill top-end to the music. Treble can sound harsh. A quick trip to the iPod’s EQ screen is in order. The "Treble Reducer" setting takes care of everything.

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The Remote control works fine. One click for play/pause; two clicks to skip forward and three to skip back. It’s simple and easy. But it brings us on to the fatal flaw with the review unit. If you jiggle the mini-jack in the socket, the iPod pauses. Or starts up. It’s completely repeatable, and renders the headphones unusable for anything other than listening at a desk, or while carefully cradling the rig in your hands. This could, however, be a fault with this particular unit.

How annoying is it? Aside from music cutting in and out at random, the worst part is that the iPod can switch itself on. This may kill the batteries, and it may also leave you a few minutes or a few hours ahead in podcasts or in audio books.

To be fair, I have only tested these properly with the 2G iPod Touch, so they may fare better with the iPhone or the new Nano. I have some suspicions as to the problem. Take a look at this closeup:

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Do you see it? Of course you do, you smart, observant reader. The iPod’s jack socket is rimmed with metal, and the shape of it doesn’t really hold a jack plug steady. I suspect that the plug is bending in my pocket and metal is touching metal, causing a short. That’s speculation, but it seems to fit the facts.

So, should you buy them? Aside from the weird bug, they’re fine. They sound better than the $30 Apple buds, and they’re certainly better put together (my Apple ‘buds usually only last a few months). Until Apple actually releases its new mic-equipped earbuds, we can’t compare. We can take a look at the prices, though. The TuneBuds are $40. The Apple in-ear cans will be $80. They also come with a neat little case, which I will probably have lost by the time I finish writing this review:

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To sum up. A good, cheap alternative to Apple’s own headphones. They also have the advantage of not being white. The TuneBuds are sadly crippled with the iPod Touch, though, due to the weird, and almost random, track skipping error. We’ll be looking into that. Until then, if you want remote control and a microphone for your iPod, you don’t have much choice.

Product page [Griffin]

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Waistband Stretcher Offers Alternative to Dieting, Excercise By 01 December 2008 at 7:55 am and have No Comments

Stretcher

Over at the estimable BoingBoing Gadgets, fellow expatriate Brit Rob Beschizza has found a solution to the ever growing waistline that is the inevitable result of the typical English diet of Fish’n'Chips, Full English Breakfasts and deep-fried Mars Bars.

The Waistband Stretcher, unsurprisingly found at the SkyMall, clamps onto your slacks and slowly strains the waistband to fit your blossoming belly. SkyMall says that you can expect an increase of up to five inches, depending on the fabric being stretched.

Alas, this is to late for Beschizza, who long ago switched to an elastic-waisted, thrift-store trouser for his day to day clothing needs. It really is rather sad to see the sartorial slide of a fellow countryman. I have heard rumors that he is planning to buy a fanny pack, but hopefully that’s just cruel internet speculation. $30.

Product page [SkyMall via BBG]

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MSI’s Second Wind: Hybrid Drive, Low-Powered CPU By 01 December 2008 at 7:38 am and have No Comments

Wind115

MSI’s Wind has proven, deservedly or not, to be one of the more popular netbooks. This might be down to a good combination of price, size, performance and looks. It might be because it is one of the easiest netbooks on which to install Mac OS X. Or it might be because, unlike Asus’ fractally burgeoning lineup of Eee PCs, MSI has so far offered only one model (in a variety of colors, of course).

This is about to change. The Wind’s first successor, the U120, was announced a short while ago. While that was essentially a Wind with a sharper looking case design and a 3.5G radio inside, two newly announced Winds will mix up the internals, too.

The new models are named the U110 and U115. The first surprise is the processor. Instead of the netbook favorite, the 1.6 GHz Atom N270, these new ‘books can be had with the Atom Z530. It has the same 1.6GHz clock speed, but supposedly sips less power.

Also new, and only in the U115, is a hybrid storage system. Winds come with HDDs, not solid state drives, but the U115 will offer a combination of both (paired thusly, in Gigabytes: 8/80, 16/120 and 32/160). This is, we imagine, another attempt at prolonging battery life by shifting virtual memory and other oft-used data onto the less power hungry SSD.

The result of this tweaking is, claims MSI, a ten-hour battery life. Hopefully this will be achieved with a more modestly sized six-cell battery rather than the cancerous growth that is the nine-cell, but we could even live with that if it meant true, all day independence from wall-warts.

MSI Announces Netbook: U110, U115 in addition to U120 [Netbook 3G via Laptop Mag]

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Germany Tries to Stop Body Scanners Seeing Nipples By 01 December 2008 at 7:08 am and have No Comments

Total_recall_skeleton

After dismissing airport-destined full-body scanners as nonsense last month, the German government has decided to have another crack at the latest device in the game known as "security theater".

The T-Ray scanner, which sees through clothes to detect such hidden dangers as nail clippers and perhaps a ripe, potentially explosive Mozzarella di Bufala (yes, Naples airport — I’m still sore about that), has been nicknamed the "Naked Scanner" by Germans. The device renders a blurred picture of the body underneath the clothes, raising issues of privacy.

Now, remember — this scanner is likely to do nothing other than inconvenience passengers and add extra Euros to EU airports’ budgets. But attempting to discount the device on privacy grounds seems a little prudish. Here’s what the German Interior Ministry (irony noted) is doing about it:

 

Germany will begin laboratory tests in the next few weeks on full-body airport screening devices to see if they can produce images that do not show passengers naked. (emphasis added)

This is especially ridiculous when you consider the usual German attitude to nudity. I have spent many afternoons in German parks, and seen the rather scary sight of a big-bellied father, naked but for a pair of sandals, cooking sausages on a barbecue. That’s something the politicians should be looking into.

Germany plans lab tests for airport "naked scans" [Reuters]

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Linux on the iPhone By 01 December 2008 at 6:28 am and have No Comments

From the department of "Because We Can" comes Linux on the iPhone. Don’t get too excited — you won’t be running Ubuntu or Google’s Android OS on your iPhone any time soon (even if you wanted to). Here it is in action:

 
 
 
 

Right now, as you can see, this is strictly a proof of concept — there’s no actual interaction with any of the iPhone’s input methods. No touch screen, no nothing. Instead, the iPhone runs a USB client which lets you type in commands from another computer via the dock connector.

Still, it’s a good start, and once somebody slaps a few hardware drivers and a graphic user interface on there, it could be fun to play with. We’re actually more interested with the keyboard side of this hack. Would it be possible to run the regular iPhone OS and hook a keyboard directly into the dock connector? That would be killer useful for getting some real work done on the iPhone. It would also destroy my excuse for not blogging when I’m traveling, so maybe it’s not such a good thing after all.

Linux on the iPhone! [Linuxoniphone via TUAW]

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Nikon Announces $8000, 24.5 Megapixel D3X By 01 December 2008 at 5:54 am and have 4 Comments

D3x

Nikon has announced the D3X, a new full frame DSLR with a whopping 24.5 megapixels. It is, more or less, a D3 with a bigger sensor and a bigger price tag. How big? $8000 big.

About that sensor. It will give images of up to 6048 x 4032 pixels, and runs from ISO 100 to a rather conservative ISO 1600, compared to the ISO 6400 available on the smaller 12MP D3. The images coming off that sensor range up to a huge 138 MB, making a 2GB CF card look like a 12 exposure 135 film.

Amazingly, Nikon says that the D3X can still shift up to five frames per second in full frame FX format, and up to seven fps if you shrink your images down to DX format.

So, why would you buy this, aside from a need to fill up an empty hard drive quickly? Nikon is pitching this at the studio photographers who need all the pixels they can get, along with fashion and landscape photogs. It makes sense. If you are under bright lights or have the camera sitting on a tripod, you don’t need the amazing low-light sensitivity of the original D3 (or D700). We actually like the fact that there is a choice here: you get the same body and functions with both the D3 and the D3X, but you can choose the sensor. It’s, you know, just like changing films used to be. Only a little more expensive.

Is $8000 too much? If you stack it up against the alternative – medium format cameras – then $8000 starts to look cheap. And we’d be very surprised indeed if Nikon didn’t follow this up in several months with a D700X.

Product page [Nikon]

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Thanksgiving Update: We Rank the Best Early Black Friday TV Deals By 27 November 2008 at 7:35 pm and have No Comments

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The biggest shopping day of the year is at hand and manufacturers are trying to spur TV sales by highlighting massive price markdowns online. In the last week, we’ve even seen some of the most discount-averse companies offer eye-opening sales of their best displays.

But with the economic recession on everyone’s mind, is anyone taking advantage of the discounts? Or are there deals out there that are just too good to pass up?

We’ve been watching the early Black Friday deals roll in and we can safely say that if you have the money to spend, you should definitely consider the top crop of displays. The bottom ones, well, not so much, even if it seems like a great deal to buy a massive 67-inch DLP TV for less than $2,000 (yes, we’ve changed our mind on that one).

These recommendations are based not only on the initial large price drops, but also with the understanding that when buying the TVs, you should make sure to get a 30-day price guarantee from the retailer, as we mentioned last week. Follow the (likely) continual price drops over the next month and you’ll be sure to get the best price without leaving your couch.

Check out a screenshot of our top TV deals below, and then check out our Google Docs spreadsheet with the larger list. We based our rankings on overall quality of the display, type (LCDs usally fare better than Plasmas in the near-term), and general savings. If you disagree with the rankings, let us know in the comments.

And if you find any new deals propping up on the net throughout the day (in between the gravy chugging), let us know and we’ll add it to the list.

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Panasonic Proposes 3D Storage, HDMI Standard For Blu-ray Discs By 26 November 2008 at 4:14 pm and have No Comments

Bluray_disc 

Panasonic is calling on the Blu-ray Disc Association to create an interface standard that will force manufacturers to store 3D images within the left- and right-eye two-channel mode on all HD content.

The company is also calling for a new HDMI standard that will make it easier to transfer the left- and right- single-frame data units (unique to 3D feeds) to TV displays that feature the option.

According to the giant Japanese manufacturer, the new standards will prevent patent conflict related to 3D imagery and allow the technology to grow exponentially over the next few years.

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Current 3D image encoding uses a two-channel function and that’s where Panasonic believes it should stay. The easier the new 3D-enabled TVs can identify image data, equipment and other elements through this standard, the easier it will be to sell the technology to consumers.

But Panasonic doesn’t want to enforce a standard for actual 3D displays – too many other companies are trying to outdo each other with different, intriguing techniques in that area.

Mitsubishi’s first laser TV uses a 3D IR wireless emitter, where the source device supports checkerboard display formats (a type of complicated calibration). Samsung offers 3D-ready TVs that vibrate the images at 120 frames per second, alternating back and forth at 60 fps in each eye (Panasonic is offering basically the same thing). And Philips is on the verge of releasing their Quad-Full Autostereoscopic real 3D display, which has such a high speed and resolution that it alternates between 46 views at once, pushing 3D into the real world and eliminating the need for silly glasses.

Add Hollywood’s (and the public’s) increased interest in 3D to the equation, and you have a technology that needs to be supported. Stunted growth due to patent battles and consumer confusion caused the similar battle between HD DVDs and Blu-ray disks to suffer the consequences this year with a less than bountiful bottom line.

After all, a consumer won’t buy a 3D Blu-ray movie if it can only be played in one type of television, or if takes two different media players.

Panasonic says that their standard request is built to be accepted easily by the rest of the companies. If it’s accepted by the Blu-ray association, expect to see a 3D storage standard within two years.

Photo: /pitzyper!/Flickr

Source: Tech-On 

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Finger-Painting iPhone App Is an Artistic Time Waster By 26 November 2008 at 3:50 pm and have 1 Comment

Oilcanvas
Oil Canvas, an iPhone app released Wednesday, is a neat piece of image-editing software that enables virtual finger painting.

The app allows users to choose a photo from their album to brush and paint with their fingers. You simply need to rub over the image, as the software automatically detects the colors from the base picture, treating it as a canvas.

Different brush sizes are available — from an extra small stroke to add finesse to an extra large one to smudge over the boring parts (e.g., solid backgrounds). After finishing your painting, you can share it with others in Oil Canvas’s PhotoShare community.

In its video demo, the software’s developer Big Canvas makes painting on the iPhone look extremely easy. Being a non-artist, I didn’t produce very good results; the photo to the right is the best I could do. But it’s a free app, so why not give it a dab?

Download Link [iTunes] (Thanks, Nate!)

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Actor Robot Takes Center Stage in Japan By 26 November 2008 at 3:36 pm and have No Comments

Wakamaru2
We have seen a robot play the flute, violin and other musical instruments. Now a Japanese play is using robots to act alongside human actors.

The play called Hataraku Watashi (I, Worker) premiered at Osaka University and is being considered as one of the few examples of robot-human interaction on stage.

The robots were programmed to speak their lines as they moved about on stage. The robot in the play is the ‘Wakamaru’ from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The Wakamaru was designed primarily to provide care for the disabled and elderly. It runs Linux operating system, has limited speech and speech recognition abilities.

The play itself has a very interesting premise. It’s about a young couple with two housekeeping robots. One of the robots complains about its "demeaning" work and that leads to a discussion about the role of robots in human lives.

It’s an interesting question and one that is likely to come up more often as use of homes robots become more widespread.

[via BBC]

Photo: The Wakamaru Robot

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