Samsung first out of blocks with 3D Blu-ray

Unless you’ve been living underground for the past month, you’ve probably heard or read about Avatar, James Cameron’s 3D epic that’s been wowing audiences and breaking box office records around the globe. This visual masterpiece is the latest in a number of fully immersive offerings as Hollywood seeks to up the entertainment stakes. With the increasing popularity of 3D on the silver screen the race has been on for manufacturers to bring the technology to our living rooms.

Currently leading the field is Samsung. The manufacturer was the first to introduce the technology in 2007 with the launch of the world’s first 3D capable plasma television, and over the past two years has been investing heavily in 3D image processing. Now, entertainment enthusiasts can enjoy the fruits of this labour in the BD-C6900, one of five new Blu-ray players launched by the manufacturer in Las Vegas last week and winner of the 2010 CES Best of Innovations Award.

With Blu-ray players now starting to become old hat, 3D Blu-ray is the next big thing in home entertainment and Samsung’s new player will be the first to feature built-in 3D playback. The player is compatible with Samsung’s new 3D HDTVs and upcoming 3D Blu-ray disks, but as you’d expect from a top of the range model it’s also a big step up from current 2D players and promises unrivalled picture quality and faster loading times. It even looks the part and alongside its sleek and stylish design it’s even got a transparent cover that allows you to see the disk spin as it plays. Like the manufacturer’s new TVs the player also shows off the latest incarnation of the Internet@TV platform which provides viewers with a gateway to a multitude of entertainment ranging from Video, Music, Social Networking, News and Games.

It’s the first out of the blocks as far as 3D Blu-ray goes and the finer details and price are still to be announced but the BD-C900 certainly offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future of home entertainment.

Popcorn Hour C-200, a media tank?

I, like many others, have a lot of media stored on my computer – photos, films, music etc. However the small cramped bedroom where my computer resides is a less than perfect space to show off high resolution still images, to appreciated complex cinematography or even to dance to my Party Mixes. That is what my (modest) home cinema setup was for.  But how to connect one to the other?

For a long time, the solution to my problems was the Xbox Media Centre (XBMC). Lovingly built by open source nerds, XBMC was a modification of the original Xbox software that enabled the playback of virtually any file you could throw at it.  Not for the faint hearted, installing XBMC involved modding xboxs, ftp connections, command line instruction, setting up network shares and wading in grey legal waters. However the end results were more than worth it and to this day XBMC remains one of the best media centres I have ever worked with and the standard all media players that follow are judged by. Rather than simply focus on playback, the team behind XBMC harnessed the power of online tools such as IMDB to provide contextual information – cover art, episode summaries, casting information. I ended up converting most of the box sets I owned to XBMC as it was a much more enjoyable way to experience video.

However the relentless march of technology gradually overcame my 8-year-old Xbox. It chocked on 720p video and 1080p was out of the question. A new media workhorse was needed to take on the high definition era.

The media centre landscape has changed significantly over the last 10 years. The hobby project of some highly skill enthusiasts had paved the way for a number of similar devices. Apple released the AppleTv, which I foolishly ran out and purchased.  A competent media device for a heavy iTunes store user, the AppleTv lacked the polish and flexibility of XBMC. It is possible to modify the AppleTv to run XBMC (or its social network orientated cousin Boxee) but this not only involves patch sticks, ftps, and legal worries but also requires a fresh installation anytime Apple update the software. 1080p playback is also unreliable.

One could also just buy an actual desktop computer with a DVI or HDMI out and hook that up to a TV but this has always seemed like a waste of processing power to me, and I am keen to desktop boot times and system crashes.

At this point I thought I’d take a look at the PopCornHour – billed as “the world’s most advanced Networked Media Tank.” I liked it already. A friend who owned the device – the C200, invited me around to put the system through its paces.

The PopCornHour is dedicated network and local media playback device. Connecting to network shares was ridiculously easy and from opening the box to watching Blade Runner took less than 15 minutes. For context I spent a day getting Boxee on my AppleTv and a weekend went into the XBMC.

The PopCornHour outputs in full HD and played 1080p content with ease. The USB port allows you to connect external hard drives the C200 has a spare bay for an optional Blu Ray drive, making it a complete unit. The WN-100 wifi adapter allows wireless streaming, which is fine for SD content but for HD I would stick to a wired connection.

With my XBMC I got into the habit of ripping my DVD collection using Handbrake on my Mac.  The C200 allows you to do the same directly from the device. Quite amazingly it also comes fitted with BitTorrent and Usenet clients and links to a number of online video portals, making the unit incredibly capable and self-contained.   Shoutcast radio and podcast support is also included.

The Operating system YAMJ is decent, and pulls online information from sources such as IMDB. However it lacks the polish of XBMC offshoots such as Plex or Boxee.

Overall I was very impressed with the unit, and would definitely purchase one (RPP US$299) over a simple Blu Ray player. However with a dedicated media player from the people at Boxee around the corner (with a scheduled 2010 launch) I’m delaying a purchase until I can do a direct comparison.

Movies go mobile: Aiptek D10 DVD projector

This nifty new gadget is definitely sure to be a hit with the kids and due to its recent release only this month, I anticipate it may be a firm favourite on the 2010 Christmas lists. The gadget in question is the Aiptek MobileCinema D10 DVD Projector which is basically a portable, fun and easy way to play films anywhere.

Watching films is probably the most popular form of entertainment and is a great way to get friends and family together in one place to share the experience. Whilst some people prefer to enjoy their film viewing on a state of the art plasma television in HD, many are happy with a basic visual and sound quality for the sake of quick and easy entertainment and that is exactly what you get with this new gizmo. It isn’t high tech and the quality certainly isn’t comparable to that of the somewhat higher end multimedia systems available but it is a creative way of watching films, aesthetically a fun looking device and very simple to use.

What also makes the Aiptek MobileCinema D10 unique is that whilst many portable video players can only provide you with limited amount of display, this can deliver up to 50 –inch of projected display output on a surface and also has a built-in DVD player and stereo speakers for audio which means that if you want to transfer it from place to place, the whole thing comes in one portable package for easy mobility. To watch a film, all you do is slot in a DVD on the unit and you’re ready to go – the device is easy to operate with uncomplicated functions and features and a control panel which includes the basic controls such as play/pause, stop, rewind, subtitles, fast forward and audio language. This means that kids can easily enjoy the experience without the need of assistance from adults to get it working! There is also a microphone jack for karaoke if you have the desire to blast out a few vocals and again, this is great if you want to take it along to parties with minimal hassle. The projector also features LED technology which is designed to conserve power and makes the unit last a great deal longer with a lifetime over 10,000 hours once fully charged up.

The Aiptek MobileCinema D10 is definitely a good option if you are looking for a quick, mobile and simple-to-use means of film watching that predominantly the kids will use and enjoy. The quality and durability of the device is not amazingly high but it is certainly good value entertainment that basically does what it says on the tin!

The Aiptek Mobile Cinema DVD is currently available to buy in the UK for £159.99 from Amazon.

Toshiba Freeview HD Blu-ray recorder?

Though it’s somewhat late to the Blu-ray party after nursing the HD-DVD hangover, Toshiba is ready to lead the pack when it comes to Freeview HD. The company has revealed that it plans to launch a Blu-ray recorder with twin DVB-T2 tuners and a hard drive to cover all your free HD recording needs in 2010.

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Keen AV gadget-watchers will probably notice that this set up will make it a kind of spiritual brother to Panasonic’s DMR-BS850. Yes, that’s right, Panasonic really did have the temerity to release a £1000 TV recorder with the letters ‘BS’ in the name, no doubt echoing the thoughts of most Curry’s patrons when it’s suggested to them.

Toshiba’s confirmation of support for Freeview HD comes as perennial early adopter Humax announces its first DVB-T2 receiver. The earliest version will have no PVR, but you’ll be able to record to a hard drive attached over the USB port. 3view just about bested Humax though, with a twin-tuner receiver including 320GB of storage and an Opera web browser.

Freeview HD broadcasts began in earnest in London and Manchester on December 3rd, but it seems those in the right area will need to be patient for some time longer. It is expected that over 50% of the UK will be able to receive the HD broadcasts by the time the World Cup begins, if you’re willing to upgrade your equipment.

Initially, Freeview HD’s offering will be limited to BBC HD, Channel 4 HD (or S4C HD for you Welsh types) and ITV HD, with Channel 5 expected to join them later. Not all programs will be in HD, but the broadcasters are beginning to take advantage of the technology for those shows that would benefit from the boost. At the BBC alone, several studios have been upgraded and 2009’s Children in Need was the first ever available in HD. Other shows to get a video bump are Strictly Come Dancing (fair enough; it’s pretty glamorous), Ready Steady Cook (well, it’ll make the food look nicer I suppose) and Eggheads (wait, what?).

Look, it doesn’t matter that Eggheads is pointless in HD. Keep your eyes on the real prize: The World Cup. In free high definition. And England have got a fairly easy group. I’m experiencing the highs already. Does this mean a horrendous low in 10 days’ time? Damn.

ViewSonic’s all-in-one MovieBook VPD400 media player

An entertainment gadget that does everything. Who wouldn’t want that? With music, films, books and even HD to its name, the ViewSonic MovieBook VPD400 is an all-in-one standalone portable media player (PMP) that launched last month, promising to encase every entertainment possibility in a pocket-sized device.

To start with, the VPD400 is less expensive than its contemporaries, currently retailing at £105. For that you get a slick, light, compact, easy to use gadget that allows you to watch films, listen to music, view photo albums, read e-books or even record a voice memo – should you so wish.

viewsonic-moviebook-vpd400The 4.3” LCD display with 800 x 480 pixel resolution is the main feature of this 4.4” x 3” x 0.5” device. With its 8GB built-in flash memory plus microSD card slot, which expands storage space to 16GB, it’s sort of like a big memory stick with an HD screen.

Don’t be disappointed by the quality of the gadget’s demo, though. Tested out on both a Mac and PC, its potential was fully realised with a HD film playing on the device within minutes of plugging it in for the first time. It’s reassuringly simple to upload files; with no software to download, you just plug-in, drag and drop – and play. It then stores files in folders, which can be navigated using up / down and enter / back buttons on the side.

The VPD400 is compatible with Windows® 98/2000/SE/ME/XP/Vista and supports multiple audio and video formats (including subtitles): MP3, WMA, FLAL, OGG, AVI, MP4, MPG, H.264, H.263, FLV as well as image files: JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, RM/RMVB and can either be hooked up to a TV via the AV-out port or watched with stereo sound using earphones (which are also provided along with a USB, AV and component cables).

Battery life isn’t bad either, providing 12 hours of audio playback and four hours of video playback (3.5 for HD-quality, 720p, video playback). In addition to all that, it has built-in microphone, voice recorder and USB 2.0 port and even ships with a dinky remote control.

Ok, it doesn’t have WiFi or Bluetooth; something that other PMPs often boast. And it also lacks touchscreen abilities. But in the attempt to have it all, the unassuming ViewSonic MovieBook VPD400 has ticked off affordability, simplicity and functionality. And you can’t argue with that.

The Gristleism, bring the noise

The Gristleism (or Buddha Machine 3.0) is a nifty little gadget for fans of alternative electronic music. This sonic mutant was created by FM3’s Christiaan Virant in partnership with the cult industrial (electro music featuring acoustic and rock instrumentation…FYI) act Throbbing Gristle and manufactured by Industrial Records Ltd. Basically though, it’s the infinitely wacky and wonderful offspring of FM3’s original Buddha Machine concept but it packs almost twice the frequency range and a few more loops than any of the original models.

This tiny beast (that sort of resembles a cheap transistor radio) will fit into the palm of your hand and features a variety of vibrant sounds that will blow your mind. While this might seem like a gadget geared solely to appeal to fans of TG, there are elements to this portable monster that make it instantly appealing and accessible to all types of music fans.

gristleism-music

The Gristleism is simple to operate – there are three easy to use buttons including volume control pitch control and loop selection so that you can effortlessly pick through and change the sounds after deciding whether you fancy something soothing or just downright trippy.

All of the 13 loops available for you to choose from were created by Throbbing Gristle and each one is original and very fun to mess around with. Note the imaginative titles as well – ‘Hamburger Lady’ and ‘Twenty Jazz Funk Greats’ rank as some of my personal favourites. The unique sounds that you can experiment with range from pure electronic music, to classical via experimental noise. The latter option sounds pretty cool being belted out of the built-in 50mm speaker – though it’s compact it’ll definitely give you a decent smack in the ear leaving you as delightfully red as the most colourful model.

So, if you’d like to create experimental music but can’t be arsed to buy an expensive program to make your own, or if you just like the sound of creatively pulverising another artist’s tunes using a box that you can buy for under £20, then this is the gadget for you.

Gristleism is powered by two AA batteries and available at £21.99. It’s now available via amazon.co.uk (search ‘Gristleism’). Find out more by checking out www.gristleism.com.

Eigenharp Alpha: Re-inventing the Squeal

Its always been somewhat difficult for electronic musicians to maintain an edge whilst performing live. Twiddling little knobs every which way while doing the cursory head-bob only goes so far to entertain. Rock n roll it most certainly is not. Until now.

The Eigenharp looks set to revolutionize the realm of synth-heavy music genres with a truly breath-taking new approach to interfacing with computers on stage or in the studio. The instrument appears to have been stolen from the set of Star Wars and tinkered with until one can do practically anything with it, save from taking a discreet pee into it on-stage without foiling a note. Consisting of 120 ridiculously sensitive keys on the neck arranged similarly to a guitar’s fretboard, 12 more robust percussion keys, 2 strip controllers, a breath pipe and multiple assignable pedal inputs, this monolithic machine suits any musical application.

eigenharp-alpha

The Eigenharp instrument connects to a Base Station module that in turn hooks up to one’s computer. This is pretty much its only limitation considering that the developers have decided to launch the instrument as only Mac compatible. Beyond that, one can really let fly with it – play, record and loop beats and musical phrases, create complex arrangements, real-time pitch-shifting, alter tempo, change key, scale and transpose compositions. All this is possible without going near a mouse or having to hunch over and double-click anything.

The real kicker is that the Eigenharp is going to allow unprecedented control over a huge array of aural possibilities. Synthesized music has been confined to keyboards until now and their inherent limitations meant real-time manipulation often came at the expense of real improvisation. With the Eigenharp, the playing field opens up in dramatic ways and once the initial reception to the bizarre aesthetic of the instrument wears off, it looks certain to find a comfortable, if not truly innovative space in the music industry alongside the more traditional sights on the performance circuit.

Intel Reader brings text to life

The issue of dyslexia has come to the forefront of people’s thoughts increasingly over the last decade and now a gadget has been devised to help sufferers be able to enjoy books and newspapers without any fuss.

Intel has launched its mobile handheld device called the Intel Reader, which has been developed to help people with reading-based disabilities including those with dyslexia, low-vision or vision-impairment – which is around 55 million people in the US alone.

intel-reader

The gadget is only the size of a regular paperback book, weighs just over a pound and is able to quickly convert printed text to a digital version, which it reads aloud to the user.

According to the developers, it is a simple process of pointing and shooting to capture any printed text. It is gathered using a high-resolution camera built into the gadget’s design and powered by an Atom processor that gives the Intel Reader all the power of a PC and scanner in the palm of your hand.

For bulkier jobs, the Intel Reader can be used in combination with the firm’s portable capture station to scan in books or newspaper. Using the devices, the user is able to store large amounts of text, including full chapters or even an entire book, to be enjoyed at a later date.

Users are offered various options for playback of the converted text, as the data can be converted into MP3 or WAV files which can be played on the majority of common computers or personal music players. Data is transferred from gadget to PC using a simple USB connection.

The Intel Reader has a 4.3-inch LCD display with simple and easy-to-locate buttons, complete with a 4GB SSD hard drive which can hold up to 600 pages of processed text and images or 500,000 of text-only pages.

Its rechargeable six-cell lithium battery is expected to offer around 4 hours playback of text-to-speech MP3 audio and also capture of around 85 images of text when fully charged.

Intel appear to be very confident with their new device and company chief Paul Otellini has gone as far as to issue a challenge to famous dyslexic Richard Branson, that if the multi-millionaire businessman is not impressed by the Intel Reader that he will wash a Virgin plane.

Otellini has stipulated that this deal stands until January 1st 2010, but he must hold some degree of confidence that he will not be getting his hands dirty as the Intel Reader has been endorsed by the International Dyslexia Association.

Louis Burns, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s digital health group, said upon revealing the produce: “We are proud to offer the Intel Reader as a tool for people who have trouble reading standard print so they can more easily access the information many of us take for granted every day, such as reading a job offer letter or even the menu at a restaurant.”

The Intel Reader looks a very promising device that could offer vital help to people who are reading-impaired. Its specifications stand out on paper as more than capable of providing a huge helping hand to those who would benefit from such a device and its official backing gives it a huge boost upon entry into the market.