Wireless Headphones: The Best Type for You

The majority of devices today are designed to be mobile. You are constantly on the go, and your tech should be able to keep up with you. Smartphones and laptops are only getting smaller, lighter and more hands free. Headphones have also been following this trend in the past few years. You don’t see a cable connecting your laptop, smartphone and tablet together – your headphones should be no different.

There are many different wireless headphones options and many different applications for those headphones. This article takes into consideration when and where you’ll be using your headphones to help you make a decision on the best wireless headphones for your lifestyle.Wireless Headphones

Style

One of the first considerations in choosing wireless headphones is deciding which ones are most comfortable. There are a few different styles of Bluetooth headphones that rest differently on your head and ears. You want headphones that you can wear for long periods of time without your ears or head becoming fatigued.

Over The Ears
These headphones cover your entire ear. Generally larger than both on-ear and earbud-style headphones, these are some of the most comfortable headphones you will find. They are usually heavily cushioned around the ears and have cushioned headbands to keep your head and ears from hurting during prolonged use.

On Ear
This type of headphones rests over or against your ears and comes in a number of different styles and sizes. They are often convenient for travel, as many of them fold up into the headband, making them more portable than over-the-ear headphones. Since these headphones press against your ears, they can sometimes cause fatigue and become uncomfortable over long periods of use.

In Ear
Also known as wireless earbuds, these are much smaller than both on-ear and over-the-ear headphones. They fit right into your ear and generally don’t have a headband. This style is ultraportable but doesn’t have the speaker size to deliver the type of audio quality that over-the-ears and on-ear headphones provide.Wireless Headphones

Application

What you are doing and where you plan on using your headphones is an important factor in deciding on which pair is the best for you. In-ear, over-the-ear and on-ear headphones styles are all suited best in certain listening scenarios.

Best Wireless Headphones for Exercise
If you plan on using your wireless headphones mostly during exercise, then you want to go with a pair of wireless in-ear headphones. Using these headphones, you don’t have to worry about pulling out the cable while you run, nor do you have to deal with a sweaty headband or ear cushions as you workout. These wireless headphones stay comfortably placed in your ears, even during the most strenuous workouts.

Best for Travel
Over-the-ear headphones are the best Bluetooth headphones for travel. When you’re traveling, whether on a plane, bus, train or subway, there are many outside distractions. Over-the-ear headphones keep that noise from seeping into your ears by coving them and blocking external sounds. Many of these wireless headphones are also noise cancelling, meaning they produce a slight white noise the helps further block outside sounds.

Best for Office Settings
On-ear and over-the-ear headphones are both great choices for an office setting. Both have padded headbands and cushioned earphones to prevent fatigue from prolonged use. On-ear headphones aren’t as insulated or sound proof, so you remain aware of your surroundings, which can be helpful when coworkers are trying to get your attention. Over-the-ear headphones help to cancel out unwanted noise, so you can focus without distraction.

Critical Listening
Over-the-ear headphones are the top wireless headphones for critical listening. While on-ear headphones can also produce high-quality audio, the sound barrier that over-the-ear headphones create between you and the outside world is optimal for mixing music or watching movies. These headphones engulf your ears with quality audio and remove distractions.

Everybody’s ears are different and require different levels of comfort and care. Once you know which style is most comfortable for you and where you plan on using your headphones, you can make an educated decision on which wireless headphones are the right ones for you.

– See more at: http://www.toptenreviews.com/headphones/wireless-headphones-review/wireless-headphones-the-best-type-for-you.html#sthash.XZId0jhF.dpuf

Rear-View Cameras Review

HOW TO CHOOSE A REAR-VIEW CAMERA

The top performers in our review are the Rear View Safety 091406, the Gold Award winner; the TadiBrothers Wireless License Plate Camera, the Silver Award winner; and the Yada Digital Wireless Backup Camera, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.

Rear-view cameras are video cameras that mount on the rear of your vehicle and enable you to reverse more safely. They are built into many new vehicles, but older or less expensive cars might not have them. To learn more, check out ouradditional articles on rear-view cameras or keep reading.Cameras

Although you can buy cameras separately, all the ones we reviewed come with included monitors. The picture from the rear-view camera gets displayed on the monitor’s screen. In our review, we looked at systems with monitors 5 inches or smaller. The image is transmitted from the camera to the monitor in one of two ways: through a wireless transmitter and receiver, or through a cable that runs the length of the car, physically connecting the camera and the monitor.

Wired backup cameras require professional installation, which typically costs between $80 and $150, depending on your vehicle. This review focuses on wireless backup cameras, which you can install yourself with a drill, electrician’s tape, a screwdriver and a wire stripper.

Installing a Typical Wireless Rear-View Camera
Because the actual picture signal on a rear-view mirror camera is transmitted wirelessly, you won’t need to run a video cable under your car. However, you will need to provide a power source for the camera and transmitter at the rear of your car.

Below, we describe the installation process for a typical wireless rear-view camera. Before you follow any of these steps, you should consult the manual of the device you purchase. Also turn your vehicle off, disconnect the battery and consult the owner’s manual to make sure you won’t drill into any wires.

The camera mounts on the outside of your vehicle. It’s typically held in place by the screws at the top of your license plate. You’ll need to use a drill to bore a small hole behind your license plate into the trunk. You then run the included video cable from the camera to the transmitter, which stays in your trunk.

The transmitter needs power. To provide the power, you’ll need to tap into your car’s reverse light power cable by stripping that cable and attaching it to the power cable of the transmitter using electrician’s tape. This way, the monitor and camera will power on when you put your vehicle in reverse.

This installation process takes around an hour. It’s worth noting that a few rear-view cameras require even less installation. If you are unsure of the safety of your installation, consult with a professional mechanic.

REAR-VIEW CAMERAS: WHAT WE EVALUATED, WHAT WE FOUND

Field of View: Bigger is Better
When you’re reversing, you want the largest field of view possible. The units we reviewed varied in their horizontal field of view from 90 degrees to 180 degrees. To put that in perspective, your eyes have a field of view of about 130 degrees.

You should look for a camera with a field of view of about 100 degrees or more, to ensure you’re getting complete coverage of your back bumper. If you drive a large truck or SUV, you might want even more coverage. Several of the units we reviewed have 120-degree or wider fields of view, so you can find a camera that has enough coverage for your vehicle.

Night Vision: A Must-Have
You do much of your driving when it is dark outside. To combat this, the best backup cameras have infrared LEDs. Infrared LEDs glow red, and you’ll see a black-and-white picture on the monitor. Most of the cameras we reviewed have night vision, even some of the more affordable ones around $70.

Wireless Signal Strength and Quality
Interference can be an issue for some wireless backup cameras. They broadcast on the 2.4GHz frequency, which is also used by a variety of common electronics such as Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi networks. When there is interference in your signal, it leads to degradation of the quality of your picture, even to the point where it can be unusable at times.

Some of the best rear-view cameras have a digital signal, which combats interference. This ensures that you have the best possible picture quality, but it is pricey: The cheapest unit we reviewed with a digital signal is around $120.

Of course, another way that camera manufacturers overcome interference issues is with brute strength. A powerful analog signal is more resistant to interference than a weak analog signal. So, look for a backup camera that has a bigger wireless range than you’ll need. The stronger the signal, the less interference will be an issue. Several of the backup cameras in our top 10 have signals rated for over 50 feet.

THE VERDICT: OUR RECOMMENDATIONS

The Rear View Safety 091406, the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner, is the best rear-view camera on the market. It offers a wide, 130-degree field of view and a digital, interference-proof signal. Rear View Safety also has exceptional customer service, so you know you’ll get excellent support on the product.

The TadiBrothers Wireless License Plate Camera is our Silver Award winner and another excellent choice. At around $200, it’s about $50 cheaper than the Rear View Safety model. It has a 120-degree field of view and night vision. It lacks a digital wireless signal; however, its analog signal is rated for 65 feet, which means it has one of the strongest signals we’ve seen, so interference should not be a problem in a typical vehicle. Much like Rear View Safety, TadiBrothers has excellent customer service.

The Yada Digital Wireless Backup Camera is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner and the best value on the rear-view camera market. It’s about $110, and it has most of the features boasted by premium models, including night vision and a digital wireless signal. Its only real weakness is just-average customer support.

While it’s expensive at about $250, the QuickVu Backup Camera is the best option if you don’t feel comfortable installing a rear-view camera. The transmitter is built into the camera and runs on AA batteries, so all you have to do is mount the camera to the screws above your license plate and plug the monitor into your cigarette lighter. The QuickVu lacks night vision, but other than that, it’s one of the best cameras we reviewed.

Stepes Is A Bet That A Chat App Can Mobilize Crowdsourced Translation

Mobile messaging is eating the world. So it follows that mobile messaging interfaces will eat UI design. To wit: meet Stepes, a “chat-based translation app” created by veteran software localization company CSOFT. For “chat-based” read: it has a mobile messaging style UI. (For another recent example of messaging interface appropriate see also: Dojo-Labs.)

CSOFT is drawing on its 10 years+ of translation services expertise, including a crowdsourced glossary for industry/topic specific nomenclature, called TermWiki, which it launched around four years ago, and the circa 50,000 translators already on its books. So Stepes is not a typical startup, but rather a new venture by an old (in tech terms) translation software company drawing on some up-to-the-minute app interface trends to tackle a specific problem.

That problem? How to deliver translation services via smartphone — and thereby unlock a potentially massive market of bi/multilingual people to grow the number of translators available for on-demand translation work (and thereby grow the overall size of the translation pie).

Instead of Stepes just being targeted at the circa 250,000 professional translators it says are currently working in the field, CSOFT is eyeing up something like half the world’s population (aka the total number of bi/multilingual people) as potential users of its app. So yeah, pretty ambitious stuff.

Yet look at the hundreds of millions of users mobile messaging platforms like WhatsApp have managed to acquire and you can see the logic. Thinking being: you don’t have to be a pro translator to be able to apply language skills to translate a few snippets of text if you have a bit of downtime and your phone to hand. As many people surely do.

Making an app that’s easy enough for anyone who can speak more than one language to use to translate text on-demand is why they fixed on using a mobile messaging interface, says Carl Yao, Stepes’ VP of global strategy and development. The app also supports text to speech, so users do not necessary even need to be able to type to take a translation job on the platform.Mobilize Crowdsourced Translation

On the demand side, CSOFT’s rational is there are plenty of smaller businesses that would like to be able to localize their content — if only it didn’t cost so much time and money to do so. “Translation is still too expensive, and is too difficult to get… Because Stepes is making the whole translation process so much easier we think it’s going to unlock this whole pent-up demand for translation,” he argues.

CSOFT started work on Stepes around March this year, settling on using a mobile messaging interface several months in — after trying to figure out how to make the translation workflow viable on mobile devices. Translating large amounts of text on a small screen demands a bite-sized approach, reckons Yao, while making translation more accessible generally means simplifying the tools.

“All the previous translation software is mostly desktop-based, which means they’re not available on a mobile. Not only that, a lot of the software tools are becoming increasingly difficult to use because of the [html] tag manipulations [and other text formatting requirements]… It’s really making the translation process very difficult for just anybody,” he says.

“Stepes makes translation available on mobile for the first time and makes the whole translation task very easy — so that we think is a big, new advancement… [It] makes the translatable text just like what you normally see in a chat message — just the straightforward sentence, no tags to worry about.”

“It took a long time to figure it out,” he adds. “We were thinking that the fact that nobody type long emails on their mobile… Same thing nobody writes dissertations on their mobile. So that’s why a lot of these other translation software companies just don’t bother with mobile — they think it can’t be done. So we had to address that issue and come up with a viable solution to make sure that this whole translation experience is good and is efficient.”

CSOFT has filed multiple patents to try to defend its approach here, including for the app’s swipe gestures — that let users move between a messaging bubble showing the current sentence they’re translating to view that text within the context of the surrounding sentences in the document (swiping the other way to see the proximate sentences they’ve already translated) so the overall translation quality does not end up chopped into little pieces too.

“Mobile suddenly makes the whole translation process very intuitive,” argues Yao. “And very efficient.”

Stepes is launching today on Android, with an iOS app due shortly — it’s currently in review with Apple. A Windows version is also planned for the future.

As with existing translation business models, the pricing for translations is a per word model. Per word rates will vary depending on factors like the target language and subject field, with Yao saying they might range from 3c to 10c per word. They will also vary depending on how long a translator has been working via the platform, with better rates for people who clock more years translating via Stepes.

How will Stepes ensure quality translations, given it’s opening up its platform to anyone who claims to speak another language, not just to professional translators? As with other on-demand approaches there’s a built in review system — so translators are rated on every job they complete, helping to surface better translators on the platform.

“This is almost like crowdpolicing. If you don’t do a good job you will be ranked very low… Stepes linguists are going to really be paying attention to everything they submit because they know they are ranked, and the translation will have their identity connected to it. If they don’t do a good job they will be ranked low — whether there is translation accuracy or slow performance, not on time performance, so that itself we think it’s a very important driving factor for improved quality,” he says.

Yao also argues that opening up to non-professional translators who might be subject matter experts in certain other fields — they might be a professional engineer or doctor, for example — will also help raise quality of translations when having that specific expert knowledge might be helpful to a specific translation task.

“The users will understand the subject matter better than the professional translator,” he argues. (Although it remains to be seen how many doctors/engineers have time/incentive to do small-time translation jobs in their spare time — presumably as many as have time to be Uber drivers outside work hours…)

While CSOFT is hoping to push Stepes to the 50,000 professional translators it already has on its books, it will also be doing some pre-screening of new sign-ups — including a screen translation test — again with an eye on quality. The platform will also have ongoing “selective reviews”, where a translation can be automatically reviewed by a second translator in a “professional category”, says Yao.

Translators will be paid for completed translation jobs via an in-app wallet — with various transfer options such as the ability to withdraw to PayPal. While customers paying to have documents translated via Stepes will be able to log into a desktop version of the platform to see their translation happening in real time (if they’re curious).

Of course there are plenty of free online machine translation apps out there — such as Google Translate — but Yao says the company is not concerned about competition from algorithms, given that so much of translation requires cultural background for nuanced context, and also because there are so many languages where machine translation doesn’t even exist yet (he notes there are 26 languages just in India, for instance).

And Stepes’ target small business customer base won’t want to push poor quality translations at their customers. In other words, never ask a machine to translate your document when you can crowdsource a human to do it instead.

“I’m very confident [that machine translation will not get good enough to destroy a crowdsourced translation business]… One of the biggest challenge with machine translation is first of all you have to have enough data,” he says. “[But] having more data to a certain extent is not going to help you with the quality anymore. Because data gets contaminated. And machine translation’s number one enemy is the contamination. Because the machine translator doesn’t know whether this is right or wrong.

“So that’s why it’s next to impossible, at least for the immediate future, that a machine will ever be able to match human translation.”

Android Pay Now Works In Mobile Apps

Following its launch this fall, Google’s Apple Pay rival known as Android Pay is taking another notable step this morning: it’s now available to use within mobile applications. According to the company, Android Pay will initially be available as an alternative means of checking out and paying for goods and services in a number of apps in the U.S., including shopping apps like Jet, Spring, and Wish, as well as on-demand services like Lyft, Instacart, and Doordash, plus big names like Hotel Tonight and OpenTable, and more.

These are only the first of what Google says will soon be many applications that roll out support for the technology in their own apps over the course of the next few months – indicating that Google already has a pipeline built, even if not everyone was ready to support Android Pay on launch day.

In addition, the company is encouraging consumers to try Android Pay with discounts in select apps being used as an incentive. For example, you’ll be able to take $20 off on OpenTable dining, $10 off your first Lyft, $10 off DoorDash and 30% off Vinted.android-pay-apps

 

Other apps supporting the technology as of today include Fancy, Handy, Houzz, JackThreads, ParkWhiz, Printicular, SpotHero, and Vinted.

An earlier lineup Google published also mentioned apps like Eventbrite, Groupon, GrubHub, NewEgg, Priceline, Seamless, and Uber, among others, as being in the works.

Similar to Apple Pay, Android Pay in apps is designed to solve one of the larger challenges with shopping on mobile – having to enter your personal and payment data on your mobile device’s small screen. Instead of having to type in your name, address, and pulling out your credit card to check out, you can instead just tap the new “Android Pay” button in the app. After doing so, a screen will pop up where you can confirm your information, then tap “Continue” to complete your purchase.

In addition to the rollout of Android pay in apps, Google also announced that Android Pay iscoming to Australia in the first half of 2016 in partnership with several of the country’s major financial institutions, including ANZ, Westpac and others. MasterCard and Visa will both be supported and the service will work at a variety of locations, like 7-Eleven, McDonald’s and Telstra. When it launches there, it will also offer support for in-app purchases, Google tells us.

The company also briefly mentioned Android Pay’s traction since launch, noting that to date “millions” of people had set up Android Pay and the “vast majority” are now using tap-and-pay on their devices. It didn’t, however, offer any specific details on the number of transactions the platform has seen. There are also over 1 million U.S. locations that support this means of checkout at point-of-sale, says Google – referring to NFC technology, which is also used by Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.

Google did not provide an ETA for when the technology would arrive in other countries, either at point-of-sale or within applications beyond saying that it would add more countries “throughout 2016.”

The Best Antivirus for 2015

Even the most perfect antivirus utility can’t protect you against a real-world terror attack. Fortunately, you’re much more likely to encounter things your antivirus can defend your from, such as drive-by downloads, Trojanized apps, or malvertising attacks. Just be sure you keep your antivirus active and up to date: You wouldn’t want a zero-day attack to slip past your protection.

Notice I didn’t mention encountering an actualcomputer virus. That’s because these days other types of malware are more prevalent. Don’t worry: Despite the name, antivirus utilities handle Trojans, rootkits, adware, spyware, ransomware, and all kinds of malicious software. PCMag has reviewed over 30 different commercial antivirus utilities, and that’s not even counting the many free antivirus tools. Out of that extensive field, we’ve named four Editors’ Choice products. Eight more commercial antivirus utilities proved effective enough to earn an excellent four-star rating, and another eight earned 3.5 stars.

Almost all of these products are traditional, full-scale, antivirus tools, with the ability to scan files for malware on access, on demand, or on schedule. A couple are outliers, tools meant to enhance the protection of traditional antivirus. As for just relying on the antivirus built into Windows 8.x or Windows 10, that may not be the best idea. In the past, Windows Defender has performed poorly both in our tests and independent lab tests, though it did score a win in September andagain last month. Maybe Microsoft’s slump is ending?

Listen to the Labs
I take the results reported by independent antivirus testing labs very seriously. The simple fact that a particular vendor’s product shows up in the results is a vote of confidence, of sorts. It means the lab considered the product significant, and the vendor felt the cost of testing was worthwhile. Of course, getting good scores in the tests is also important.

I follow six labs that regularly release detailed reports: West Coast Labs, Virus Bulletin, ICSA Labs, Dennis Technology Labs, AV-Test Institute, and AV-Comparatives. Tests by the first three are based on simple threat-recognition, while the last three attempt to simulate real-world malware-attack scenarios. I’ve devised a system for aggregating results from the labs to yield a rating from 0 to 5.

Hands-On Antivirus Testing
I also subject every product to my own hands-on test of malware blocking, in part to get a feeling for how the product works. Depending on how thoroughly the product prevents malware installation, it can earn up to 10 points for malware blocking.

My malware-blocking test necessarily uses the same set of samples for months. To check a product’s handling of brand-new malware, I test each product using 100 extremely new malware-hosting URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas, noting what percentage of them it blocked. Products get equal credit for preventing all access to the malicious URL and for wiping out the malware during download.

Some products earn absolutely stellar ratings from the independent labs, yet don’t fare as well in my hands-on tests. In such cases, I defer to the labs, as they bring significantly greater resources to their testing.secureanywhere-antivirus-2015 secureanywhere-antivirus-2015 secureanywhere-antivirus-2015 secureanywhere-antivirus-2015 secureanywhere-antivirus-2015

Multi-Layered Antivirus Protection
Multi-Layered Antivirus Protection Antivirus products distinguish themselves by going beyond the basics of on-demand scanning and real-time protection. Some rate URLs that you visit or that show up in search results, using a red-yellow-green color coding system. Some actively block processes on your system from connecting with known malware-hosting URLs or with fraudulent (phishing) pages.

Software has flaws, and sometimes those flaws affect your security. Prudent users keep Windows and all programs patched, fixing those flaws as soon as possible. The vulnerability scan offered by some antivirus products can verify that all necessary patches are present, and even apply any that are missing. You expect an antivirus to identify and eliminate bad programs, and to leave good programs alone. What about unknowns, programs it can’t identify as good or bad? Behavior-based detection can, in theory, protect you against malware that’s so new researchers have never encountered it. However, this isn’t always an unmixed blessing. It’s not uncommon for behavioral detection systems to flag many innocuous behaviors performed by legitimate programs.

Whitelisting is another approach to the problem of unknown programs. A whitelist-based security system only allows known good programs to run. Unknowns are banned. This mode doesn’t suit all situations, but it can be useful. Sandboxing lets unknown programs run, but it isolates them from full access to your system, so they can’t do permanent harm. These various added layers serve to enhance your protection against malware.

Bonus Features
Firewall protection and spam filtering aren’t common antivirus features, but some of our top products include them as bonus features. In fact, some of these antivirus products are more feature-packed than certain products sold as security suites.

Among the other bonus features you’ll find are secure browsers for financial transactions, secure deletion of sensitive files, wiping traces of computer and browsing history, credit monitoring, virtual keyboard to foil keyloggers, cross-platform protection, and more. And of course I’ve already mentioned sandboxing, vulnerability scanning, and application whitelisting.

What’s Best?
Which antivirus should you choose? You have a wealth of options. Kaspersky Anti-Virus (2016) and Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2016 invariably rate at the top in independent lab tests. A single subscription for McAfee AntiVirus Plus (2016) lets you install protection on all of your Windows, Android, Mac OS, and iOS devices. And its unusual behavior-based detection technology means Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus (2015) is the tiniest antivirus around. We’ve named these four Editors’ Choice for commercial antivirus, but they’re not the only products worth consideration. Read the reviews of our top-rated products, and then make your own decision.

What is a Keyboard

A keyboard is the set of typewriter-like keys that enables you to enter data into a computer and other devices. Computer keyboards are similar to electric-typewriter keyboards but contain additional keys. The keys typically found on computer keyboards are often classified as follows:

  • Alphanumeric keys: The letters and numbers on the keyboard.
  • Punctuation keys: The comma, period, semicolon, and similiar keys.
  • Special keys: This includes the function keys, control keys, arrow keys, caps Lock key, and so on.
  • QWERTY, AZERTY, Dvorak and Other Keyboards

    The standard layout of letters, numbers, and punctuation is known as a QWERTY keyboard because the first six keys on the top row of letters spell QWERTY. The QWERTY keyboard was designed in the 1800s for mechanical typewriters and was actually designed to slow typists down to avoid jamming the keys.

    Keyboard diagram

    The AZERTY keyboard is the French version of the standard QWERTY keyboard. AZERTY keyboards differ slightly from the QWERTY keyboard.

    Another keyboard design, which has letters positioned for speed typing, is the Dvorak keyboard. Unlike the traditional QWERTY keyboard, the Dvorak keyboard is designed so that the middle row of keys includes the most common letters.

    Computer Keyboard Standards

    There is no standard computer keyboard, although many manufacturers imitate the keyboards of PCs. There are actually three different PC keyboards: the original PC keyboard, with 84 keys; the AT keyboard, also with 84 keys; and the enhanced keyboard, with 101 keys. The three differ somewhat in the placement of function keys, the Control key, the Return key, and the Shift keys.

    In addition to these keys, keyboards usually contain the following keys: Page Up, Page Down, Home, End, Insert,Pause, Num Lock, Scroll Lock, Break, Caps Lock, Print Screen.

    Apple Macintosh Keyboards

    There are several different types of keyboards for the Apple Macintosh. All of them are called ADB keyboardsbecause they connect to the Apple Desktop bus (ADB). The two main varieties of Macintosh keyboards are thestandard keyboard and the extended keyboard, which has 15 additional special-function keys.

    KALQ Keyboard for Touchscreen Devices

    Keeping with the times and the popularity of smartphones, tablets and other small computing devices, gesture-based keyboards are often the keyboard of choice for mobile computing. Also, a new keyboard layout, called KALQ has been designed by researchers from Max Planck Institute of Informatics, Montana Tech and University of St.Andrews. The KALQ design is optimized for rapid two thumb typing on touchscreen devices (view it on Google Play).

    KALQ keyboard

    HP Monitor DreamColor Z27x

    Design and Features



    The Z27x looks like a typical HP business display. It has a matte-black cabinet that is 2.5 inches thick and sports 0.8-inch black bezels with slightly rounded corners. The 14-pound cabinet has four VESA mounting holes and is supported by a sturdy matte-black stand with a sliding hinge that provides 14.7 inches of height and 25 degrees of tilt adjustability. It also lets you pivot the panel 90 degrees for Portrait-mode viewing, but the monitor does not automatically rotate the screen image like the NEC MultiSync PA242W$1,019.00 at Adorama does; you’ll have to use your graphics control panel to do that.hp-dreamcolor-z27x

    Connectivity ports are abundant. At the rear of the cabinet are two DisplayPort inputs, an HDMI port, a USB 3.0 upstream port, two USB 3.0 downstream ports, and two USB 2.0 ports. There’s also an analog audio output, a digital audio output, and an RJ-45 LAN jack. Two additional USB 3.0 ports are located on the left side of the cabinet. The LAN connector lets you connect the Z27x to a network for remote management. You can use a Web-based console similar to a router’s administrative console to update firmware, push custom settings to multiple monitors on the network, change color-space settings, and track asset-tag data, such as deployment date, physical location, and calibration status.

    There are five function buttons and a Power button on the right-hand bezel. The buttons can be illuminated with white or red lights and can be dimmed when working in low-light environments. Pressing any one of the function buttons launches an on-screen label for each button. The top button opens the Color Space menu, where you can choose one of seven factory-calibrated, color-space presets, including sRGB D65 (white point of 6,500K), sRGB D50 (white point of 5,000K), AdobeRGB (Adobe color space), BT.709 (HDTV), BT.2020 (UHDTV), DCI P3 (Digital Cinema Initiatives), and Native. The Luminance button allows you to adjust luminance levels, ranging from 48 cd/m2 to 250 cd/m2, and the Input Select button lets you choose an input source.hp-dreamcolor-z27x

    The Open Menu button brings you to many more settings. It allows you to adjust Picture-In-Picture (PIP) configurations, enable management options, and change image characteristics, such as aspect ratio. You’ll also find an Overscan The Frame option that enlarges the image by 5-percent for precise video editing, and a Blue Channel option that turns off red and green colors to allow for closer inspection of an image for compression errors.

    You get built-in calibration software that lets you recalibrate each of the six color-space presets and also lets you create a custom color profile using your own color, white point, gamma, and luminance settings. However, you’ll need to use a supported colorimeter or spectroradiometer, which is not included with the monitor. Supported hardware includes the HP DreamColor Calibration Solution, the Klein K-10A colorimeter, the Konica Minolta CA-210 colorimeter, and several Photo Research PR Series spectroradiometers.

    The monitor comes with a three-year warranty covering parts, labor, and backlighting. Included in the box are an HDMI cable, a DisplayPort cable, a DisplayPort mini cable, a USB upstream cable, a printed calibration report, and a resource disc containing drivers and a user guide.

    Performance
    Professional-grade monitors are all about performance, and the Z27x is certainly no exception. Out-of-the-box color accuracy is very good. As shown on the chromaticity chart below, our measured red, green, and blue coordinates, which are represented by the colored dots, are all nicely aligned with their ideal CIE coordinates, represented by the boxes. These measurements were taken using the sRGB D65 color space, and results were similar when measured using the AdobeRGB and BT.709 presets.hp-dreamcolor-z27x

    The panel aced the DisplayMate 64-Step Gray-Scale test, correctly displaying every shade of light and dark gray without any noticeable clipped whites or crushed blacks. Highlight detail was sharp in my test images, and dark scenes from The Matrix on Blu-ray showed very good shadow detail. The panel uses special backlighting and customized front polarizers to keep blacks looking dark and inky even when viewed from a side, top, or bottom angle. Colors also remain true from every angle.

    The 7-millisecond (gray-to-gray) pixel response provides relatively smooth fast-motion performance, with only a slight trace of blurring while playing Aliens vs. Predator. The Z27x turned in a time of 26.1 milliseconds when we tested for input lag (the time it takes for the monitor to react to commands from an input device) using a Leo Bodnar Lag Tester. That’s good, but not quite as speedy as the BenQ RL2460HT’s$247.64 at Amazon 10.1 milliseconds. That said, the BenQ RL2460HT is a dedicated gaming display, and the Z27x is not.

    See How We Test Monitors

    The Z27x consumed 58 watts of power during testing, which is a bit higher than what we’ve seen from other same-size monitors. For example, the Philips Brilliance MultiView (272P4QPJKEB), which uses a Plane-Line Switching (PLS) panel, consumed 42 watts of power, while the IPS-based Acer K272HUL$429.11 at WalMart used 38 watts. The Z27x doesn’t offer power-saving picture modes, but it does have an auto-sleep mode that will help conserve power.

    Conclusion
    Outstanding gray-scale reproduction and color accuracy are the hallmark of any professional-grade monitor, and the HP DreamColor Z27x delivers on both fronts. But it doesn’t stop there. With its 1.07-billion-color DreamColor engine, factory-calibrated color gamut presets, and embedded-calibration software, graphics professionals of all stripes can make the transition from one color space to another with the touch of a button and create their own custom calibrated profiles without the need for additional software. While its $1,499 list price may seem high, you get plenty of features for your money, including numerous USB ports, a highly ergonomic stand, and a LAN port for remote management. With its stellar performance and robust feature set, the HP DreamColor Z27x is our Editors’ Choice for big-screen, professional-grade monitors.

    Best Gaming Desktops

    Despite the proliferation of gaming consoles and handheld gaming devices, PC gaming is still alive and kicking. Enthusiasts know that nothing can beat the quality of gameplay that you would get with a gaming desktop. But what kind of PC will it take to run so-called “high-end 3D games?” If you have deep pockets, your answer could be a custom-built hot rod from elite boutique PC manufacturers such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Maingear, or MSI. If you’re not made of money, a couple of well-informed choices will go a long way toward helping you get the right gaming desktop, even if it’s from a standard PC manufacturer. We tell you what to consider when looking for a gaming desktop and give you the 10 of our top picks in the category.gaming desktop

    The most pivotal decision you’ll make when purchasing a gaming desktop is which 3D graphics subsystem to use. Integrated graphics are fine for casual games, but to really bring out the beast on AAA titles, you’ll want one or more discrete graphics cards.

    Today, dual-, triple-, and quad-graphics-card arrays from AMD and Nvidia reign supreme on the desktop. AMD’s CrossFireX solution consists of multiple Radeon HD processors, while Nvidia’s top draw is its two-,three-, or four-way SLI with up to four Nvidia GeForce GTX cards.

    396180-falcon-northwest-tiki-2015-front-viewA few words of warning, though: Equipping your system with these high-end GPUs will unavoidably boost your total bill by a couple thousand dollars. Still, multiple graphics cards not only add extra GPU power to your gaming experience, they can also enable multiple-monitor setups so you can run up to six displays in AMD’s Eyefinity or Nvidia’s 3D Surround setup.

    You can still get a rich gaming experience for thousands less by using a single but robust 2GB to 3GB video card, such as a midlevel AMD Radeon or the Nvidia GeForce GTX Series GPU. If you’re less concerned about turning up all the eye candy found on games anti-aliasing and esoteric lighting effects, for example, then last year’s cards and GPUs will still give you plenty of oomph for a lot less money.

    396175-falcon-northwest-tiki-2015-rear-ports

    The heart of any system, even a gaming rig, is its processor. At the moment, Intel’s eight-core CPUs in the Core i7 Extreme Edition family top the list in terms of raw processing power. AMD goes bang for the buck with its FX processors, with up to eight cores. Lesser, but still high-powered, CPUs, such as the AMD A10 and unlocked quad-core Intel Core i7 K series processors, can also provide the computing muscle needed for a rich gaming experience. Budget gamers should look to lower-priced (but still speedy) processors, such as the AMD A8 or the Intel Core i5, which will knock hundreds of dollars off the bottom line.

    When given the choice between paying for a higher-level GPU or a higher-level CPU, however, go with the graphics, every time. In other words, a system with a GeForce GTX GPU and a Core i5 processor is a much better choice for gaming than a system with a GeForce GT card and a Core i7 CPU.

    One thing that’s often overlooked is that a system’s memory is severely taxed by modern games. Try to outfit your PC with at least 8GB of RAM and budget for 32GB if you’re truly serious about freeing up this potential performance bottleneck. Faster memory (DDR3-2133/DDR4-2133 or better) also improves performance and lets you overclock your CPU with greater stability.

    Solid-state drives (SSDs) are definitely a hot commodity, since the prices have come down dramatically over the past few years. They speed up boot time, wake-from-sleep time, and the time it takes to launch a game and load a new level. A small (128GB) SSD with a large (500GB to 1TB) spinning hard drive is a good start for gamers who also download the occasional video from the Internet. Bigger SSDs are available (512GB or more capacity), but choosing one will dramatically increase the purchase price of your gaming rig.

    But don’t stop at internal components. A couple of extras can really do wonders for your gaming experience. We recommend that you trick out your machine with a solid gaming headset. Comfortable keyboards, mice, and specialized controllers round out your options.

    Falcon Northwest Tiki (2015)

    Design and Features
    The latest Tiki is almost identical to the 2014 model. The all-metal case is made of steel and aluminum, and has a more appealing design than boxier rivals like the Origin Chronos (X99)$1,633.00 at Origin PC and the Maingear Drift. Our review unit is customized with aqua-green, automotive-quality paint job, but an identically configured model without the paint can be had for $4,903. The chassis measures about 14 by 4 by 13.75 inches (HWD) with its weighted base attached. The base helps keep the system upright, and since the Tiki is only 4 inches wide,

    The top panel has a headset and microphone jack located next to the Power and reset buttons. You’ll also find a pair of USB 3.0 ports, along with a slot-loading DVD burner. Around back are two antenna connectors for the integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a set of surround-sound audio ports, a digital audio port, two Ethernet ports, an eSATA port, a PS/2 port for old keyboards or mice, two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, and two USB 3.1 ports. The USB 3.1 ports are Type-A instead of the compact Type-C ports you’ll find on the latest laptops. The GeForce GTX Titan X card has a DVI port, an HDMI port, and three DisplayPorts.

    396181-falcon-northwest-tiki-2015-graphics-card-ports

    A 400GB boot drive solid-state drive (SSD) is supplemented by a 6TB hard drive with a variable “Intellipower” rotational speed. In comparison, the Origin Chronos (X99) has a larger 1TB SSD boot drive, but half the space in its hard drive. The Tiki’s network-attached-storage-(NAS)-class hard drive is designed to last longer while being more active than typical desktop drives, which is a good thing if you’re a digital pack rat. Like most gaming desktops built by boutique PC manufacturers, the system is free of extraneous programs and bloatware.

    Internal expandability is limited to a single 2.5-inch drive bay. The Titan X graphics card fills the only PCIe slot on the motherboard, and both DIMM slots are taken up by the system’s 16GB of memory. You can remove the existing memory for future upgrades up to 64GB, which is a much better proposition than the $1,633.00 at Origin PC, our previous Editors’ Choice, which was limited to 16GB. The Tiki comes with a three-year warranty on parts and labor, with one year of overnight shipping included for returns. That’s triple the length of the parts warranty for the Origin Chronos (X99), though that system includes a lifetime warranty for labor.

    Performance
    The Tiki is equipped with an octo-core Intel Core i7-5960X processor, overclocked to 4.6GHz from its 3GHz base clock speed, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan X graphics card. Thanks to these components, the system was an excellent performer on the 3D and multimedia benchmark tests. It returned butter-smooth frame rates on the Heaven (105 frames per second) and Valley (112fps) game tests, both at Ultra-quality settings and 1,920-by-1,080 resolution. When we pumped the resolution up to 2,560 by 1,600 (the resolution of our 30-inch LCD), the system still ran at a smooth rate in the 50fps-to-60fps range.
    3DMark Cloud Gate (44,953 points) and 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme (8,200 points) test results were excellent. Other desktops with Nvidia Titan X graphics we’ve tested, like the Cyberpower Trinity Xtreme, the Maingear Drift, and the Origin Chronos (X99), scored between 8,000 and 9,000 points on the Fire Strike Extreme test, and the Tiki was second only to the Origin Chronos (X99) (47,574) on the Cloud Gate test.

    At 33 seconds on Handbrake, the Tiki was a single second behind the Chronos. The system scored 1,630 points on the CineBench R15 test (33 points lower than the Chronos), and eked out a slight win (2 minutes 25 seconds) over the Chronos (2:33) on the Adobe Photoshop CS6 test. The Tiki’s score of 3,593 points on PCMark 8 Work Conventional is good for the category, and certainly fast enough for everyday tasks.

    Conclusion
    The Falcon Northwest Tiki can compete, delivering smooth gameplay at 1080p and higher resolutions, with all the eye candy turned on. Its well-built compact design takes up about as much space as a gaming console, but it’s so much more powerful. If you’re a hardcore gamer with deep pockets, but don’t want a big, honking gaming PC, the Tiki should be your first choice.

    Samsung Gear VR

    You can finally buy a virtual reality headset and use it in your home. Right now — today — that is possible. It doesn’t cost $10,000 and it doesn’t come with caveats like, “This is made for developers.” Samsung is officially the first to market with an accessible, impressive virtual reality headset, all powered by software from Facebook’s recently acquired Oculus VR team. That alone is very exciting: We are standing at the precipice of a new medium, finally technologically possible. Wireless, consumer-grade virtual reality! In your home! Today!

    Samsung’s Gear VR is both an astounding feat and an illuminating vision into our near future; it’s the closest anyone’s come to making virtual reality into a palatable consumer experience, and a stark example of how far we still have to go before that dream is completely realized.

    Samsung Gear VR “Innovator Edition”

    PROS

    • Incredibly accessible
    • Light, comfortable, attractive
    • Extremely impressive visuals

    CONS

    • Limited functionality
    • Extremely limited software library
    • Requires a Note 4, making it very expensive
    SUMMARYOculus VR and Samsung’s Gear VR virtual reality headset is an enticing first taste of the potential future of a new medium. It’s light, comfortable and — most importantly — accessible. Gear VR is the most usable virtual reality headset we’ve ever tried, and the first to market after several years of hype. At the same time, an extremely limited selection of software and functionality makes Gear VR live up to its “Innovator Edition” alias: It’s a device intended for early adopters and virtual reality enthusiasts, not the mainstream. At least for now.

    If you’re looking for guidance on whether or not you should buy a $200 Gear VR headset to strap your $700 Galaxy Note 4 into, this isn’t the review for you. Frankly, it’s a lot to pay for the experience, and I don’t feel comfortable suggesting anyone shell out that kind of cash for Gear VR. And let’s be honest: The folks who would drop that kind of money for the promise of Gear VR are crazy people like me. They’ve already bought one.

    Samsung intentionally dubbed Gear VR’s first iteration the “Innovator Edition.” There’s good reason for that: It’s more tech demo than consumer product right now. Save for a few games, the app store consists of just over a dozen “experiences”; every other “game” is a demo at this point. To be clear up front, Gear VR is not intended as a mainstream consumer device; it’s a test balloon from one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers. Here’s what Nick DiCarlo, VP/GM of immersive products and VR at Samsung, told me last week about his company’s goal with Gear VR:

    “The gauge of success is about did people who bought it like it and did they not return 100 percent of them. It’s as simple as that. If someone bought it and liked it and told their friends about it and thought it was cool? Awesome! If we get it back and everyone’s like, ‘This doesn’t work well; I don’t like it; it’s horrible.’ Then we know we’ve got a lot more room to improve than we thought. We think that we’ve hit the formula, but the idea is that we’re able to move VR forward — ‘existence-proof,’ to steal a word from John Carmack. VR exists! Thank goodness it finally exists! We think people are gonna really, really like it, but we know that there’s a lot of room to continue to make it better and we will do that.”

    It’s not being sold at your local Best Buy, and for good reason.

    Samsung intentionally didn’t send out review units to press before Gear VR went on sale; the point wasn’t to bury reviews, but to discourage them altogether. The idea is that the people who buy this early will evangelize it to their friends, helping to build a virtual reality market that companies like Samsung can profit from. There are Gear VR setups in malls all over the world. It’s meant to be a demonstrative device. That it’s on sale is just the easiest way for Samsung to distribute it to evangelists. But it is on sale to the public.

    Green-wood Cemetery entrance with Gear VR

    With that in mind, I’m taking a dual approach to this review: one perspective for the VR enthusiast, and another for the average human being.

    Getting acquainted with virtual reality through Gear VR

    For the average human being

    First, you must own a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. Second, you must make sure it’s up to date with the latest firmware from your carrier. Third, you must insert the 16GB microSD card that comes with Gear VR into your phone. The phone both powers VR experiences and acts as the Gear VR’s screen. There’s no real “setup” required; after you’ve removed the miles of plastic protection stuck to various regions of the headset, you simply attach your Note 4 to the front of the shell. After removing the slightly darkened front plastic casing, you’ll see a docking area for the phone. On the left side of the front is a micro-USB plug where you carefully dock your Note 4, screen facing inward; on the right side, there’s a latch on a flexible-yet-sturdy rocker for securing the phone to the headset. It’s not perfectly slick, but it works significantly better than any other VR setup I’ve been through.

    Once docked, an audible jingle plays through the phone’s built-in speaker to let you know the headset is ready for use. After you’ve adjusted the headset to your liking, the first instructions are to remove the phone and go through the software install process. It’s thankfully quick: You’re downloading the basics, from the operating system (“Oculus Home”) to the video player (“Gear VR Video”). After that’s complete, you’re basically ready to go — slap the headset on your head with the phone attached and adjust the Velcro straps to your comfort. When you put it on your face, the sensor built into the headset’s interior detects that you’re close and starts loading into the main menu. That’s it! You’re in!

    Attaching the Note 4 to the Gear VR headset

    If you want to run through a quick tutorial of how to use the headset, Samsung has one ready for you. The long and short is this: Swiping on the touchpad (located on the right side of the headset, where your temple would be) advances forward to the next menu; tapping on the touchpad selects whatever you’re looking at (it’s used for pausing movies and in-game actions, among other things); a single “back” button (ridged for quick location) rests above the touchpad and can be pushed (to go back or to cancel) or held (to reach a sub-menu from within games/apps). There’s a volume rocker in front of that. Congratulations: You know the full scope of operating Gear VR. Seriously!

    Should you choose to pair a Bluetooth controller to your Note 4 (either before connecting the headset or during use), the main Oculus Home area can be navigated using the controller’s left analog stick. That said, it’s a lot more fun pointing your head at stuff and tapping the touchpad, like some sort of wizard.

    Does the setup process seem a bit convoluted as a result of having to attach and detach your phone to the headset a few times? Sure. Is it difficult or confusing? Nope! In fact, it’s far easier than setting up the Note 4 itself — far fewer menus to click through and less nonsense to deal with. Whether it was Oculus, Samsung or some mix of both that was responsible, Gear VR is thankfully streamlined from the start to get users acquainted with VR as soon as humanly possible. If it feels bare-bones, that’s assuredly intentional — the goal here is accessibility.

    For the VR enthusiast

    Samsung Gear VR without a Note 4 attached

    There’s never been an easier setup in the (very short) recent history of virtual reality headsets. Provided that your Note 4 firmware is up to date, it’s a matter of slapping the headset into the holder on the front and following instructions (detailed above). Gear VR is not a dev kit and you don’t have to spend a bunch of time updating firmware, calibrating cameras and testing resolution settings. In my experience — which included updating the firmware on the Note 4 — setup took around 15 minutes, including time to download/install firmware (which required a hardware restart) and also the headset’s software suite.

    Samsung Gear VR with headphones and Bluetooth gamepad connected

    Maybe you want to use a Bluetooth gamepad, which some games require? Just pair it with your Note 4 and you’re good to go. Perhaps you want to wear headphones while using Gear VR, for the Maximum Immersion Experience™ (seen above)? Just plug in your cans to the exposed one-eighth-inch audio jack. And yes, you can leave the translucent plastic cover off the front of your Gear VR pretty much permanently — it’s solely an aesthetic choice and, if anything, kinda gets in the way. It does make the headset prettier while in use, but are you really that concerned about your looks while wearing a VR headset? No one is immune to (what I’m calling) Headset Hair.

    Life in virtual reality

    For the average human being

    Like smartwatches, virtual reality headsets don’t have enough functionality to outright replace other electronics usage — especially your smartphone. You can’t answer a phone call, text message or email while wearing Gear VR, though you can see them pop up in your peripheral vision. It’s an incredible tease: A green phone icon appears, which expands with more information about the caller when you look at it. The only options as of now are to end the call with a tap on the touchpad or outright remove your phone from the headset to answer the call.

    The Gear VR touchpad

    I’d be incredibly impressed if you’re able to remove the phone in time to answer phone calls without accidentally hanging up on the caller in the process. It’s simply not a realistic option, and it’s the kind of rough edge that explains the “Innovator Edition” name. In this respect, Gear VR doesn’t necessarily slide right into your life. It’s still a device that requires dedicated use, like a game console or a camera; it’s not viable to use as a replacement device just yet.

    The foundations of that functionality are in place; that you can see rich information about phone calls, text messages and emails (“notifications”) is a great start. It’s a taste of a future where you casually pause whatever you’re doing in VR — from walking around virtual Rome to watching House of Cards in a virtual 4K movie theater — to take a phone call or watch a silly YouTube link your friend sent you. Software like VR Gallery and Oculus Cinema lay the groundwork for a future where your vacation photos exist in an ornate virtual gallery space, and where family movies are viewed in a theater setting. It’s impossible to convey how much joy it brought me to watch a silly 10-second video I shot of my cat with the Note 4 — I went from shooting a video with my phone to watching it in a massive virtual theater (pictured below) in less than one minute. Little touches like that offer an amuse-bouche to the feast of virtual reality experiences to come.

    The Oculus Cinema app

    I cannot be clear enough here: VR will live and die by its ability to integrate into normal life. It will remain a novelty if it is solely focused on immersion — the ever-marketable “presence” — rather than enabling new ways to interact with the things we all already know and love. Things like home movies and photos are a huge part of the reason for the explosion of the smartphone. VR is more than capable of taking that stuff a step further, and Gear VR is indeed a big push forward, but it’s not all there yet.

    In the short run, new experiences like Oculus 360 Photos and Oculus 360 Videos — especially the latter — are incredibly enticing. You might think that being able to look around a photo in every direction isn’t that exciting — I challenge you to try it and remain unimpressed. That impact is multiplied greatly when using the 360 video player: There’s a tour of Iceland from the foot of a helicopter that is both gorgeous and incredibly intense. Look in any direction, as if it was real life, and you’ve got an incredible view.

    The promise of virtual tourism is tremendous; the feeling of awe you experience when looking down from a cliff face or squaring up to a massive waterfall is truly extraordinary. You can almost taste the moisture in the air, feel the cold breeze as you fly below the clouds attached to a heli. It’s an overwhelming sensory experience. Samsung offers a taste of that experience when you first put on Gear VR, as seen below in the intro video.

    {C}{C}

    For some people, that experience might outright cause motion sickness. I was fine, but some colleagues I put into the headset — specifically with 360 video viewing — felt nauseous. “Your mileage may vary” is the cliché nonsense to say here, and it’s sadly accurate: Different people respond differently to virtual reality, and some folks are far more sensitive to the motion sickness effect. If you’re feeling sick while using Gear VR (or any VR headset), the solution is thankfully simple: Remove the headset and chill out for a second.

    For the VR enthusiast

    Good news, VR enthusiast: Everything is free on the Gear VR app store and downloading/installing/maintaining software is as easy as it is on your smartphone. There’s a paid store coming in “early 2015,” but for now, there are just over a dozen things to download for use with Gear VR. A handful are “experiences,” both interactive and not: a snippet from Cirque du Soleil, a Pacific Rim jaeger pilot demo and anAvengers… thing are all highlights. The other content is mostly game demos, with a few full games to offer a taste of the upcoming storefront (head below for more detail on individual games).

    Jumping in and out of software on Gear VR isn’t quite as easy as it is on your phone, or even your game console. If you start an app in Gear VR, you’re in it until you close it. There’s only a bare minimum of multitasking available, such as the aforementioned notification pop-ups. You’re not going to quickly jump from one app to another and then back again without starting each app from scratch each time. Thankfully, software opens quickly and I rarely found myself sitting around waiting for an app to load.

    This will assuredly become a bigger problem as virtual reality headsets do a better job of integrating into normal life — it’s gonna be a big problem if, say, Netflix has to be fully restarted each time you want to quickly look at Twitter. That’s a scenario we’re likely to see sooner than later, as even the first iteration of the Oculus Cinema app makes it clear that consuming media is going to be a major use case for VR headsets.

    Lying on my back, watching a movie in a virtual cinema is an incredible experience, and one that I’m confident other folks will also dig. It’s a dramatically better experience than watching video on your phone. Here’s famed movie director and Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch reminding us how good that experience is:

    And he’s right! I think Lynch would agree, though, that Oculus Cinema (to say nothing of 360 video viewing) is a dramatic improvement over watching video on a phone. Hell, it’s an improvement over watching video on your home TV — unless you’ve got a home cinema? Maybe you do, fancy pants! I don’t, and neither do most people. This functionality alone has me anxiously anticipating YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and other video apps.

    UI, battery life and passthrough

    Like most aspects of Gear VR, the operating system is relatively skeletal. There’s the “store,” which looks the same as the “library.” There’s the “home” screen, which is very similar looking to the other two. And that’s really it. Here’s a mockup of the Store screen from Oculus:

    In actuality, the Store screen isn’t on a slant; none of the games above are available; and there’s a lot less unused space. There’s no way to take screengrabs within Gear VR, and Oculus/Samsung aren’t providing images, so, uh, the best we’ve got is words and the mockup seen above. It’s not an ideal situation. Regardless, the general layout isn’t far off, and the option to switch between Samsung-curated and Oculus-curated apps is the only filter within the Store page.

    The Library is identical, except you can filter among installed apps, all available/purchased apps and an updates section. In both the Store and the Library, each app has its own page with options for more info, images of the app, potentially video of it in action and an updates section. It looks and acts a lot like any app page you’ve encountered on your phone or game console or wherever else, with one exception: There’s a “comfort” rating. It ranges from comfortable “for most” to comfortable “for few” — yet another nod to the early nature of Gear VR.

    Like a game console, the Home screen has your most recently used apps: Six applications are arranged in the center area, with links to the store on the left and your library of software on the right. Selecting anything is as simple as looking at it and tapping the touchpad.

    You can’t rearrange the locations of various apps, nor can you resize them or “pin” any to the home screen. There’s no way to change the background or really customize the UI in any way. I’m not citing this as a limitation, but to say that the UI is extremely lightweight and focused. Again, it’s clear that this is the base level for consumer-grade functionality.

    But wait, there’s a second UI. Scandalous! Okay, not so scandalous — it’s a sub-UI that can be accessed from within running software. This is where that back button comes into play once again: Holding down the button brings up the sub-UI, which offers a handful of toggles on the fly.

    Think of the sub-UI as a quick-access option for several important functions, so that you don’t have to dump all the way back to the Oculus Home OS every time you want to make minor tweaks to settings (or to access the passthrough camera, which is genuinely very useful).

    Maybe you’d like a sip of water? The sub-UI has a passthrough camera switch, which turns on the Note 4’s rear camera and pumps the stream into the headset. You essentially see “through” the headset you’ve got on, albeit slightly delayed due to video latency. It’s kind of like being Robocop? I’m not sure how else to describe that, as I’ve never seen the world through the eyes of a camera before.

    Or maybe the screen is too bright? This is where you can turn it down. There’s also an option to reorient the headset, and a “comfort mode” setting (which softens the screen colors).

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Let’s talk about that passthrough camera for a second: There is no way any VR headset ships to consumers without this feature going forward. If they do, they’re flawed out of the box. The passthrough camera is Gear VR’s greatest contribution to modern virtual reality — beyond wireless VR, beyond accessibility.

    Oculus VR CTO and Gear VR lead John Carmack called it his “Diet Pepsi button.” There’s good reason for that: The passthrough camera legitimately enables you to take a sip of a drink without having to remove your VR headset. It enables you to pet your dog, or answer your husband in the other room, or the myriad other actions you might want to do without having to take off your VR headset. It genuinely alters how you interact inactual reality while wearing a virtual reality headset. It’s hard to be hyperbolic here about the importance of the passthrough camera: It is precedent-setting.

    Games

    I’m not going to review every single game for Gear VR, mostly because the vast majority are demos. Moreover, literally everything is free on Gear VR’s “store” right now, so, ya know, why not just download everything? You certainly won’t run into file-size limitations. Seriously, you should do that. It’s less than 20 apps, and many are short experiences. Let’s start with the not-so-short:

    • Herobound: First Steps is the first game officially released by Oculus VR. It was developed in-house, and has players guiding a small hero character from room to room, taking on everything from skeletons to ghosts. It’s kind of like a prettied-up, dumbed-down, modern version of the original Legend of Zelda game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I’m being far too generous in that comparison, but I mean that to say it’s a “single screen” game; your view of the world is that of a giant, looking down into little rooms full of tiny characters. It’s a fine distraction, but does little to engage the VR headset you’re playing it on.
    • Ikarus is a much better example of what can be done, gaming-wise, in Gear VR. InIkarus (which is a demo), you’re once again viewing the world from the bird’s-eye view, and you’re using vision to guide a place marker where you’ll send your in-game avatar. The goal in Ikarus is to get from one side of a level to another without getting your defenseless character killed by robots. When you do complete an area, you’re rewarded with a first-person cutscene as your character is whisked from one area to the next. It’s beautiful and engaging and exactly the kind of unique experience I’m looking to have with mobile VR.
    • Dreadhalls is one of several demos that made its way from Oculus’ development kits (in the hands of indie devs) to Gear VR. It’s one of the few that requires a gamepad to play (I used a Moga Pro, which worked great), and it’s the only game available right now attempting to scare players. Even with muddy textures and rudimentary “monsters,” Dreadhalls is terrifying. As in “people rip the headset off while they’re playing it” kind of terrifying. When a floating orb with sharp teeth comes floating directly at your face, even though you know it’s not real, you react like it is. There are huge, glaring flaws with Dreadhalls: It makes people sick; it bucks the best practices of VR by assigning the headset’s view to a gamepad analog stick (read: You can “look” in game by turning your head and/or by pushing an analog stick); and it doesn’t work well, mechanically speaking. All of those flaws are dramatically superseded by Dreadhalls‘ ability to scare the crap out of you far more effectively than multimillion-dollar horror films.
    • Esper is my favorite game available for Gear VR. It’s a puzzle game that feels thematically similar to the humor in Portal, with unnamed scientists hilariously goading you through “tests” required of people with telekinesis. Apparently humans gained the ability recently and an agency was set up to familiarize people with their newfound powers. Sure, it’s a silly premise, but the humor is genuinely funny and the puzzles make great, unique use of the VR headset.
    • Proton Pulse is Breakout, but in 3D and your “paddle” is controlled by where you look. It’s not “like” Breakout — it’s the same game, updated for 3D and VR. That’s not to say it’s unoriginal and it’s certainly not to say that it’s not a fun game. On the contrary, Proton Pulse is excellent: a fun, fast-paced game that’s perfect for a few minutes of free time. It is unfortunately buggy at the moment (it’s the only game to hard crash my Note 4), but that’s easily fixed by updates.
    • Darknet is one of the few full games available, and it’s the evolution of the winning entry in Oculus’ VR Jam. It’s a hacking game that looks like the way hacking is depicted in film: hilariously visual and inaccurate, but a lot more fun to look at. It’s much easier to spend a lot of time in Darknet than many other games within Gear VR, mostly because it’s not a “world” as much as it is a UI as a game.

    There are, of course, several other games on Gear VR, none of which are outright terrible. There are no games that you shouldn’t bother checking out right now, mostly because there are so few games period. Rest assured we’ll have a more critical guide when the actual Gear VR store launches with paid apps in the coming months.

    Wrap-up

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    Gear VR is a device full of potential. It works! The screen resolution is almost good enough that you don’t constantly think about the headset you’re wearing! It’s light and easy to keep on for long periods! It’s not $10,000! The battery life is pretty okay (seriously, if you’re burning out your Note 4 from Gear VR use, you need to take more frequent breaks)!

    It’s also a device still full of limitations. When you’re in Gear VR, you’re in Gear VR — no answering phone calls or looking at the internet or anything else you do with your phone. The list of software — right now — is insanely short. It only works with a single phone, and that phone is incredibly expensive off-contract. And it’s not exactly tiny: Gear VR comes with its own carrying case that doesn’t fit into any normal-sized bags. The Back to the Future 2 glasses these are not.

    But should you buy it?

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    Whether or not you should buy Gear VR is difficult to answer at the moment. For those of us already drinking the Kool-Aid of virtual reality as a medium, it’s by far the most impressive consumer experience and every bit worth owning. I’d even venture as far as to say it’s worth owning a Note 4 so that VR enthusiasts can own Gear VR, which is saying a lot considering how much I don’t like the Note 4.

    But for the average consumer, Gear VR will feel half-done, or like a tech demo. It’s a great jumping-off point for VR nutcases like myself to easily evangelize and demonstrate the promise of virtual reality. But Gear VR is still several steps removed from the level of polish and functionality consumers expect.

    So, should you buy it? Like so many things, it depends on you. What I can say definitively is that Gear VR offers a unique, amazingly demonstrative experience of what virtual reality headsets can be. Whether or not you buy one doesn’t really matter — you must try one.

    [Image credits: Joseph Volpe (photos); Oculus VR/Samsung (screenshots/video)]

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    All You Wanted to Know About Subwoofers

    hen I was first getting interested in all things audio, home subwoofers were rather specialist devices that were only of interest to two groups of hi-fi enthusiasts: those who listened to large pipe organ recitals and those who enjoyed reggae! Things have moved on a great deal since those distant days, and today subwoofers are now considered — more for the ‘domestic acceptance’ factor than any potential sonic benefits — to be an almost standard part of modern hi-fi and studio monitoring systems

    It is therefore becoming increasingly common to have smaller ‘satellite’ left and right speakers, plus one or more subwoofers — a format often referred to as 2.1. The two refers to the main pair of stereo (left and right) speakers, while the ‘.1’ refers to the limited-bandwidth subwoofer. In the same way, a surround sound system is often denoted as 5.1, meaning five main channels plus a subwoofer to handle the low frequency effects channel (LFE).

    However, in the case of 5.1 home theatre and surround sound systems, a dedicated subwoofer is required specifically to handle the low frequency effects (LFE) channel. The fact that this sub usually also doubles up, through the use of bass management (explained later), to handle the bass content of all five main channels as well, is just a convenience that allows the use of smaller satellite speakers. Again, I’ll come back to this topic later, but I first want to consider 2.1 stereo monitoring arrangements.

    The Subwoofer Advantage

    When designed and used appropriately, subwoofers can be extremely effective and very convenient. Equally, though, it is very easy to destroy any chance of good monitoring quality with an inappropriate or badly set-up subwoofer — and it is worth stating that I have probably seen nine unsatisfactory installations for every good one!

    Poor subwoofer installations usually suffer from too much, or poorly defined, bass. Often there is an obvious ‘hole’ in the frequency spectrum in the crossover region between the satellite speakers and the subwoofer. It is the ‘integration’ through this crossover region that really makes or breaks the system as a whole.

    The worst kind of subwoofer system will only provide a boomy or monotonal ‘woomf’ of energy, regardless of the pitch or dynamics of the bass instrument, and the bass might thus appear to be slow or late relative to the main speakers. On the other hand, a well-designed and well-configured system will usually enable more accurate imaging, and have a clearer, more transparent mid-range (thanks to lower distortion and intermodulation levels) and higher overall output than could be achieved with the satellites alone.

    From a practical point of view, a satellite and subwoofer combination is much easier to site and to move around. The individual speaker cabinets are more compact and lighter than full-range speakers, and that is often an important consideration — especially in small home studios and for location-recording rigs.

    So the aim of this article is to try to explain the hows and whys of choosing and using a subwoofer, in the context of both stereo and surround sound applications.

    Concept

    The first thing to understand is the basic concept of a subwoofer system. What it is trying to do, and how does it work? Obviously, the fundamental idea is to reproduce low frequencies. In most cases, this is roughly the bottom two octaves, from 20Hz to 80Hz. However, here lies the first major issue we need to take onboard: having a special box that generates low frequencies doesn’t guarantee good bass in the listening room — in fact, far from it!

    subdiagram

    The diagram shows a bass-management system. Each of the five main channels goes through a high-pass filter to remove the low-frequency element of the signal, before being passed on to the appropriate amplifier and speaker.

    The room’s own acoustic properties are of paramount importance. If you put the world’s best subwoofer in an acoustically poor room, you’ll get very poor bass performance! I have frequently come across monitoring systems where the owner has added a subwoofer in the hope of curing a weak or lumpy bass response, only to discover the situation either doesn’t improve or actually gets worse!

    If the room has nasty standing-wave problems — and almost all home studios do — it’s vital that these acoustical problems are sorted out first, before you spend money or time on a subwoofer.

    Bass trapping to control and reduce room standing-waves is a subject that we’ve covered many times, and is also a popular topic for ongoing discussion and guidance on the Studio Design and Acoustics forum on the SOS web site. You can often improve a room’s acoustics dramatically for minimal cost with some basic DIY. And with a treated room you may well find that your existing speakers actually deliver much more and better bass than you thought!

    Another useful benefit of a subwoofer is the additional power handling accorded to the system as a whole. The acoustic energy in music is highest at low frequencies and tails off with increasing frequency. So employing a dedicated box to handle much of the power-hungry bass takes that burden from the satellites, with useful benefits in overall power handling and clarity.

    One Or Two?

    Most stereo systems have two main speakers, yet we have only one subwoofer. Why not two subwoofers as well? In some situations there can be advantages to having two (or more) subwoofers, but in general one is usually sufficient. The reason for this is connected to the fact that, for frequencies below about 700Hz, our sense of hearing measures the phase difference between a sound arriving at each ear, whereas above this frequency it uses mainly level differences. Out of doors, our ability to determine a sound’s direction remains quite accurate down to remarkably low frequencies, but this ability collapses when listening indoors. Sources generating low-frequency sounds (below about 100Hz) tend to do so more or less omnidirectionally (the sound wave travels from the source in all directions) because the wavelength of sound is usually larger than the object itself. When a low-frequency sound is generated within an enclosed space, the spherical sound waves created will reflect off the boundary surfaces of the room to arrive back at the ears with a multiplicity of phase variances, due to path-length differences. This confusion of signals makes it impossible for the ear and brain to extract a reliable phase difference, so normal directional acuity fails.

    So in theory, since you can’t tell where the low frequencies are coming from in a room, one subwoofer will be entirely sufficient. The harmonics of the bass notes will be reproduced by the satellite speakers — which typically start to take over above about 90Hz — and these will provide plenty of directional information through phase and level differences, in the usual way. So, although the bass itself is folded down to mono, the impression of stereo imaging is actually preserved perfectly satisfactorily.

    This theory is all well and good, but I often hear people comment that they can hear where a subwoofer is placed in the room. This isn’t because of some special acoustic ability on their part, though —rather, it is because of the poor performance of some subwoofers! Designs constructed at a low cost, employing inferior drivers, and those designed to favour efficiency above all else, tend to generate a lot of ‘out of band’ noise — lots of harmonic distortion and audible port noises, or other artifacts. These occupy the mid-frequency range, which not only makes their position easily detectable, but also obscures and masks the critical mid-range frequencies from the satellite speakers. So adding a cheap subwoofer to quality satellites will actually tend to make the system less rather than more accurate.

    A good subwoofer needs to have a very linear driver (which is expensive), an accurate and powerful amplifier (which is expensive), and a well designed and built cabinet (which is… expensive). But cutting corners on any of these aspects is a false economy. I’ve listened to and used a lot of different subwoofers, and the best are, for all the obvious reasons, produced by the same companies you associate with good monitor speakers. Blue Sky, ATC, Genelec and PMC all produce superb subwoofer systems that integrate extremely well with their intended partnering designs. They are all relatively easy to set up because of the inherent close matching and the appropriate electrical alignment facilities. In my own monitoring system I use the PMC TLE1 subwoofer (shown in the picture at the start of this article), both as part of a large 5.1 rig, and to extend the bottom end of the tiny DB1 or nearfield TB2 monitors. Whereas many subs are large cuboid boxes, the TLE1 has the form factor of a computer case, which I find both aesthetically and practically appealing.

    When buying a sub, the key is to try it in your own listening environment, with your own satellite speakers — particularly if the subwoofer is from a different manufacturer. Some combinations will integrate far better than others, and only a home audition will reveal the success or failure of a particular combination.

    Bass Management

    Bass management is the process of removing the bass element of the signal fed to each satellite speaker, and routing it instead to one or more subwoofers. In essence this is no different to a normal crossover — it’s just that the bass driver happens to be housed in a separate enclosure, and there needs to be some sort of mixing facility included to combine the low-frequency contributions from at least two channels.

    In the case of a simple 2.1 stereo system, this bass management or crossover filtering is usually built into the subwoofer, and may be active or passive (most systems are active these days). There are various approaches to wiring, but most route line-level signals from the controller or preamp to the subwoofer first, which filters the signals and outputs them for the satellites. Some systems work the other way around, connecting the signal to the satellite first, and then down to the subwoofer. Systems intended for domestic use often work with speaker-level signals.

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    subcontrols.s

    If there is a phase control on your subwoofer, as on the PMC TLE1 pictured here, you will find that small phase adjustments can often make surprisingly large differences to the smoothness of the crossover region, especially if the subwoofer and satellites are from different manufacturers.

    For 5.1 surround systems, the bass management is normally performed in the surround sound controller or monitoring controller, rather than in the subwoofer itself. The diagram on the previous page shows such a system. Each of the five main channels goes through a high-pass filter to remove the low-frequency element of the signal, before being passed on to the appropriate amplifier and speaker.

    All five channels are also summed and passed through a low-pass filter to remove the mid- and high-frequency content. This signal is then combined with the dedicated LFE signal (which is also low-pass-filtered and boosted in gain, according to the appropriate specifications), and routed to the subwoofer speaker. It is worth bearing in mind that, since each of the five channels in a 5.1 system is a full-bandwidth channel, the subwoofer has to be able to cope with the bass contribution of five full channels, plus whatever might be conveyed on the LFE channel — and that could be a lot of bass! So you shouldn’t really expect a very small box to be able to cope if you like listening at serious levels.

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    Of course, different systems implement bass management in slightly different ways. Some employ active filtering everywhere, whereas some only low-pass-filter the signal feeding the sub, relying on the satellite speakers’ natural roll-off for mechanical high-pass filtering. Some will allow the filter turnover frequencies and slopes to be adjusted. Professional units usually do this with meaningful technical parameters, while domestic controllers tend to have simpler ‘large’ or ‘small’ speaker descriptions.

    The better systems often include some sort of limiting or overload protection for the subwoofer, and some also include facilities for delaying the sound to each speaker, in order to compensate for less than ideal physical positions. Most domestic systems only apply bass management to digital surround inputs (Dolby Digital and DTS sound tracks) but not to discrete multi-channel analogue inputs, and this can present problems if you want to use a cheap domestic surround controller for your surround monitoring. Another common trap is that some DVD players have their own bass-management facilities built in, which means that you need to make sure you don’t end up duplicating the processing!