Tag Archives: review

Matter Box

A couple of weeks ago I saw a Twitter from one of my contacts (I honestly forget who it was) that led me to discover the Matter Box. The idea is apparently that if you sign up on the website, every now and then you will get a box of marketing-type goodies. Not just any old leaflets, either – this is nice stuff.

The first box was delivered to subscribers this morning. There are already unboxing photos on Flickr, including a set from my friend Dale, who has also written about it. No photos from me, though – I did a quick video showing what is inside, instead. No prize for counting the number of times I say “cool”, either.

(the video is also on YouTube)

Quite fun. Neatly and tightly packed. My favourite item is probably the Wii armband, although considering I don’t yet own a Wii, it’s a little bit pointless so far 🙂

Update: there’s a description of the contents and some background on the Matter blog.

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Review: disgo Video Plus

A new video device

Video PlusA couple of weeks ago I saw a short news item on Tech Digest, which mentioned a new handheld USB camcorder called the disgo Video Plus (also mentioned on Shiny Shiny and Slashgear). Something similar has been available in the US since last year – the Pure Digital Flip Video – but that product is not available in the UK. The disgo camera has a flip-out screen which the Flip Video does not have, but in other respects they seem very similar.

I’ve been experimenting a little bit recently with video. This device seemed neat – it plugs in directly via USB and is aimed at YouTube-quality, quick video capture. The only thing I was concerned about was that according to the specifications, it didn’t support the Mac… unlike the Flip Video, which has full Mac and Windows support, the disgo product is only listed as compatible with Windows. I contacted disgo’s support team and had an excellent conversation via email where we established that it should just be a USB Mass Storage device, and I might have to do some fiddling to get the AVIs to play on the Mac, but I was willing to give that a try.

Impressions of the Video Plus itself

The camera is extremely neat. It takes 2 x AA batteries (a pair are supplied), comes with a soft carry case, and apart from that… it’s ready to go. The height is less than the size of my hand from the base of the palm to my fingertips, and it is about the same width as a classic iPod. It’s light, too.

ScreenThere’s a 1.5 inch screen (which, incidentally, is really nice and clear) that flips out sideways to enable you to see yourself if the camera is pointing at you – it doesn’t rotate on the axis, though. On the back there are a few buttons: on/off; play/pause; delete (which enables individual clips to be deleted on the device itself); a four way next/zoom/volume button; and a big red button to start or stop a recording. And that’s about it – this is simple stuff.

On one side there is the battery compartment, an SD/MMC card slot which will take up to a 2Gb SD card, and a slider which when pressed causes the USB connector to slide out of the top of the camera to the right of the lens. On the other side there’s a switch to choose between high quality or long play recording, and an A/V connector for hooking up to a TV. There’s a tripod screw connector on the base, and a mystery port on the top with a rubber cover, that I’ve not identified just yet.

It was dead simple to get going – switch on, hit record, and start making video clips. The onboard memory will store 30 minutes of video at high quality, or 60 minutes at lower quality; beyond that, you can obviously add an SD card to expand the capacity.

Using the disgo Video Plus with OS X

There was no CD in the box, and I’ve not plugged the camera into a Windows PC. When I plugged it into my MacBook, it appeared as a USB drive called ‘disgo’ on the desktop.

disgoVideo-1.jpg

Interestingly, although the disgo website does not say that the device is supported on OS X, the ReadMe.txt file included on the disgo’s internal memory does give information about how to access the video files (i.e. you can get them from the DCIM/100VIDEO folder you can see in the screenshot). It is not clear whether files on an SD card plugged into the camera will be able to be read in the same manner – I suspect possibly not, and that I might have to use an external SD card reader, but I’ve yet to try it.

The AVI files played without problems in Quicktime on Leopard. Thinking about it, I did have all kinds of codecs installed already – the camera appears to record an XVID video track at 640×480 resolution, with an mpga audio track – so I may just have been lucky, and it might be necessary to find the right codecs before this will work for anyone else. The files would not, of course, load into iMovie, since that application does not recognise AVI files.

The solution is very simple – transcode to a more Mac-friendly format like a .MOV file or MPEG. The free option for doing this is ffmpegX, but you can also use VisualHub, which I’d previously bought for other purposes and is rather more user-friendly than ffmpegX. Once I’d done that, I was able to use iMovie ’08 to quickly edit together a movie. iMovie ’08 is quirky, and possibly less functional than the previous version, but actually it was ideal for this kind of rapid editing.

Availability

The disgo Video Plus is available via Currys in the UK or direct from disgo.

More photos on Flickr.

Final thoughts

There’s only one way to do this, really…

(I’ve also put this on YouTube)

Update: rebranding, and Windows software

My friend Heidi notes in the comments below that the camera is available in the US as the RCA Small Wonder EZ201. According to this ZDNet review, the original Small Wonder was based on the same technology as the Flip Video, but now RCA have tried to differentiate more (which they seem to have done, in adding the flip screen etc.). However, as we established above, although the ZDNet article claims that this is not Mac-compatible, and the manufacturer doesn’t supply software for the Mac, it seems to work.

The Windows software is on the device itself (remember, I said there was no CD in the box). Inserting the camera into the USB slot on an XP machine, it appeared in My Computer as a USB device called disgo, and when I right-clicked there was an option “Manage your videos” which started the software. It has a few simple features – a grid or list view to access the AVIs and play them; the ability to grab a single frame as a .bmp or .jpg; a section for “editing” i.e. using just part of a clip, or splicing clips together; and a section to email your video to a friend. I’ve added a screenshot on Flickr.

Update: SD card support and UK retailers

I’ve now tried plugging an SD card in. This is treated as an additional device. When you first plug the SD card in the camera copies its software to the card and creates a directory structure. When you then plug the camera into the computer, it continues to see the internal USB flash memory as the storage device, but if you then press the red button while it is connected to the computer the device vanishes (nasty unsafe device removal message), and then the SD card gets mounted instead. So it does work with OS X, but not entirely seamlessly.

Oh, and it looks like Amazon UK have the same device, but branded a Busbi BUSVP0010R Video Plus (and looking at the Busbi site, it looks like they and disgo are the same company since they are both handled by cleverstuff.ie).

Update: other reviews

Paul Knight has done a very detailed video review including a comparison with other cameras including DV tape, and an excellent screencast of how to get the disgo working with a Mac. Shiny Shiny have a short review on YouTube, too.

Review: Shure SE210 earphones

Ever since reading Nik Fletcher’s review of the Shure E2C earphones last year I’ve had Shure kit on my mental “would really like some of those” wishlist. I now have a lovely set of Shure SE210 earphones.

SE210 what's in the boxI use my iPod nano a lot, but it is well-known that the Apple earbuds are not the best. I’ve previously thought about some good noise-cancelling headphones, but in most cases those aren’t especially portable as they cover the ears and require batteries to power the noise cancellation. When I read Nik’s review I thought the sound-isolation seemed like an interesting idea, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work

Well, I was able to try out a set of the Shure SE210s (the successors to the E2Cs) at MacLive Expo in London back in November, but I resisted getting them at the time. Now I’ve finally succumbed.

The sound-isolation is achieved by the earbuds having foam or rubber sleeves that act like earplugs and block out the external noise. By default the SE210s come fitted with foam sleeves (picture here), which should be rolled between the fingers before you put them into the ears, where they expand to a neat fit. If the foam ones don’t suit, the box contains four alternative sets of sleeves which may fit better, and a cleaning tool for hooking out any dirt from inside the canal of the earphone sleeve. It’s quite an odd experience at first, since it does feel like you are wearing earplugs and yet able to hear the music… but the sound-isolation is great – people working in the same room as me will attest that it is now harder to catch my attention aurally! Another side effect is that I’m actually using a much, much lower volume setting on my iPod than I used to… I barely have to have any volume at all. As I type this I’m listening to iTunes on the MacBook and the volume is on the lowest possible setting, but it’s entirely comfortable and I can’t hear the click of the keys as I type. The only downside is that it can be a bit fiddly to put them on, especially since Shure recommend having the earphones curled around the ear.

The quality of the audio from the earphones themselves is excellent. With the Apple iPod earbuds it was frequently a little tinny and lacking in depth. The SE210s deliver a lot richer sound with clear bass (although I tend to select the Bass Booster EQ setting on the iPod). Select a multi-layered track like Coldplay’s Speed of Sound – which I also note tends to be be loaded on the iPods in Apple stores, which usually have high-end Bose noise-cancelling headphones attached – and I can hear a lot of texture and detail, and pick out the individual tracks in the mix. As Nik says, there’s a danger of becoming an audio snob with these.

The SE210s also come with an extension cable (the earphones themselves are on a foot-long “stub” of a cable so it’s lucky that the extension cable is in the box), and a carry case. All in all, quite a nice package. Worth a look if you want to upgrade your sound but continue to have portable earphones. Oh, I’d avoid getting them from the Apple store, since they seem to only be available at list price… the price is more reasonable (although still expensive as in-ear headphones got, but these are good quality) elsewhere such as Amazon.

Review: SOA Approach to Integration

Disclosure: I was offered a copy of this book to review by the publisher. I should also re-iterate the statement the sidebar of my blog – opinions stated here are entirely my own and do not reflect my employer’s positions or opinions.

Although I’ve been working in the SOA space for quite a few years already, I don’t read too many books about it. I guess my education in this space has been largely driven by practical experiences over a number of years with technologies like DCE, MQ and web services. I did briefly write about Sandy Carter’s book earlier in the year, but that was the last book I read on the subject.

SOA Approach to Integration from Packt Publishing is billed as “XML, Web services, ESB, and BPEL in real-world SOA projects”. There are several authors, with differing backgrounds but with experience heavily weighted towards the Java world and (looking at their bios) with a somewhat academic / research-oriented slant, although they clearly do have real-world experience too. Given the range of organisations they have worked with, I picked up the book looking forward to getting a non-IBM view of the SOA world!

The book is divided into 6 chapters. Sadly, there is an inconsistent level of approach – evident from the preface. Chapter 1 covers integration challenges, so is doing the standard scene-setting. Chapter 2 is a discussion of what SOA is, and some of the foundation technologies. However, Chapter 3 then goes on to talk about “various design anomalies that may arise while designing XML schemas”, which is a significant change of pace!

Chapters 1 and 2 are actually interesting… I was happy to read about some of the history of SOA and the way in which technology has evolved over the past 20 years. I first started out in the industry after leaving university dealing with technologies like DCE and TP monitors (discussed on page 40), so this was familiar territory for me. As a foundational discussion these are useful essays… but sadly they do feel a little like essays, rather than a book that builds a coherent message from beginning to end. A little superficial.

There are a couple of sections of the book which deserve mention. At one point the authors refer to an organisational integration architecture as being like a “city plan”, which made me smile as this was an analogy I first heard used by my colleague and good friend Richard Whyte on a project we first worked on about 5 years ago!

The XML chapter I mentioned just before is pretty advanced stuff, and really jars after the first couple of more high-level chapters. That isn’t to say that this is bad… actually I thought that the topics covered, for example the need to define a data dictionary, and some of the practical advice offered such as the suggestion of validating XML at the edge of the ESB if at all, is extremely valuable. It just felt as though it didn’t quite fit at this point in this book! It really scratches the surface – the author admits that the advice given is “meant for consideration only when you already know your system very well”, and given that the first 2 chapters provided a tentative approach to the whole SOA space, this isn’t where I’d expect the reader to be at this point!

Chapters 4 goes backwards a little to an SOA overview, and goes on to describe the IBM patterns for e-business. It also talks about interoperable WSDL, and suggests creating web service clients in multiple technologies to validate and test interoperability, which is a useful idea. Sadly, the code samples do not appear to be available on the publisher’s website, despite the statement in the book that they would be. This is a particular issue in chapter 5, where the authors take their vendor-independence so seriously that they resort to writing BPEL by hand… the chapter is filled with chunks of XML which the reader is expected to be able to read without any kind of overview diagram, when in reality most vendors provide tools to build this stuff for you.

The book talks in detail about web services and the WS-* standards. These discussions are useful, but there is no reference to other forms of interaction, notably REST (for example; NB I talked about IBM’s evolving views on REST and WOA back in April last year).

Interestingly, Nick Hortovanyi’s predictions for 2008 (recently pinged to me by a contact on del.icio.us) suggest that WS-* may be on the wane in terms of SOA usage:

Adoption of the SOA Architecture Style within enterprises will increase. However, unless machine generated, WS-* style service adoption will decrease.

I certainly believe that REST is becoming more interesting in an enterprise context. WS-* is fairly complicated to get one’s head around when you look at them from an XML level, so machine-generated documents are clearly on the increase. Nick also at least references SCA and SDO in his predictions; this book entirely fails to mention either of these important SOA concepts.

From a technology perspective, the book does cover both the JEE and .NET worlds, but is far more heavily weighted towards the former, including a detailed discussion of emerging ideas like JBI. It did discuss a bunch of ideas that were “foreign” (to me) such as itineraries, Process Oriented Architecture (POA), and others that IBM doesn’t talk about… but overall these concepts were covered in a patchwork manner that left me somewhat confused.

My final issue is that I had to submit around 20 errata to the publisher. These ranged from typos (“interactiond”, “TrasformationService”, “isdone”, “buzz-world”) to product name inaccuracies and inconsistencies, to back references that didn’t exist, to the fact that the sample code is not available. Very disappointing. Furthermore, I’m yet to receive any confirmation or acknowledgement that the errata submissions were received.

Overall, I would say that the book is aimed at architects and senior developers and is useful in a few parts… but as a whole it doesn’t hang together. It reads more like a series of extended and disconnected essays at differing levels of detail and which repeat one another. More seriously, for the cover price I would have expected slightly more effort in the proofreading and production 😦