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Audiofly AF56W mk2 headphones

Audiofly’s AF56W is another take on the Bluetooth wireless headphone. Here I look at the updated mark II version. 

Now the 3.5 mm jack socket is an endangered species, Bluetooth wireless headphones are the way to go. At NZ$200, the Audiofly AF56W is an expensive option, but not at pricy as Apple’s AirPods 2 which cost another NZ$80.

The money buys a pair of in-ear headphones connected to each other by a Cordura fibre-braided cable. There’s a built-in microphone and a basic controller on the cable.

Elsewhere in the box is a selection of tips so you can get the headphones to better fit your ears. There’s also a magnetic charger on a micro-USB cable and zip case that Audiofly says is waterproof.

Interesting twist

Connecting the two headphones with a cable is an interesting twist. Audiofly says this makes it harder to lose the headphones. Maybe. There have been reports of people losing Apple AirPods, so it could be a useful feature.

However a funny thing happened when I was preparing to write this review. I temporarily lost the AF56W. So, the cord is not that helpful.

The cord is about 400mm. You can adjust the actual length with a clip device at the centre of the cord. At first I wore the headphones with the clip under my chin, which looks dorky. Then I figured it works better when the cord goes around the back of your neck.

Hard to lose the AF56W

While I didn’t have problem with the buds falling out of my ears, more about that in a moment, the cord means they won’t drop to the floor if that happens.

You’d have to be unlucky for both to be dislodged at the same time. This means the AF56W might be a better choice of headphones if you want to listen to music during a vigorous run or workout.

Audiofly’s choice of tips means you get a better fit. That’s important because the headphones don’t have noise cancelling. Instead you have to rely on a tight fit to reduce ambient noise.

The box says the batteries are good for eight hours. That’s pushing it a little. In testing I found seven hours was about all I could get.

Charging takes 90 minutes according to the information on the box. That squares with my experience. It’s nothing like as easy as the Apple AirPod charging arrangement.

Audiofly AF56W headphones magnetic charging

The magnetic charging pad on the cord snaps onto a connector that, in turn links to a 300mm micro-USB cable. The other end of the cable has a standard USB plug, so you might be able to charge the headset from your PC or laptop. I used a phone charger. But the 300mm cable means I had to leave everything on the floor next to a power socket.

That’s far from ideal. Although micro-USB is still fairly common, the move to USB-C means the AF56W could get left behind.

Sound quality

Enough of the details. How do the headphones sound? I found them to be surprisingly good. There’s clear blue water between the sound quality of the AF56W and the cheaper earbuds. That must be down to the 13mm neodymium driver — I read that from the blurb on the box.

Music comes across far better than the spoken word. There’s enough at the top and the bottom to fill out a wide range of music. After hours of listening I can’t tell you if the sound is better or worse than Apple’s AirPods. I can tell you they sound different.

One area where the AF56W lags AirPods is dropouts and glitches. I get almost none on the AirPods, quite a few on the Audiofly headphones even when I’m only a metre or so away from the phone, laptop or tablet.

Another oddity is the spoken voice used to tell you the phones are connected. It’s been recorded at a low bit-rate so it sounds glitchy, which is a bad advertisement for the actual sound quality.

Audiofly AF56W verdict

At NZ$200 the AF56W headphones are expensive. More so considering there is no noise cancellation. Mind you, the sound is noticeably better than you’d find on low cost Bluetooth headphones.

That said, the product and the experience feels cheaper and not as complete as Apple’s AirBuds. In terms of overall quality, ease of use and so on that extra NZ$80 for the Apple alternative starts to feel like a bargain.

In other words high-end audio, mid-range user experience at price somewhere between the mid-range and high-end.

Many recent phone launch presentations have been all about the camera. Most of the rest spend more time talking about their phone cameras than anything else. I can’t think of a single phone presentation I’ve seen in the last three years where the camera was relegated to a footnote.

Apple, Samsung and Huawei all want you to know their phone cameras are better than before. It is always true.

They’d also like you to think their cameras are better than their rivals. That’s a losing game. They are all excellent. But each excels in different ways.

You wouldn’t be disappointed with the camera in any premium phone. You might find one phone misses a camera feature you’d like, or is a touch weaker in some department. You might find one suits your style, works the same way you do or has a user interface that’s easier to understand. Either way, they are all good.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Phone cameras good, getting better

Indeed, phone cameras are now exceptionally good. So good that the stand alone camera market looks doomed for everyone except professionals and serious amateurs willing to part with lots of money.

Forget whinging about a NZ$2800 phone, the starting price for a full frame mirrorless camera from Sony, Nikon or Canon is about twice that. And then you buy extra lenses.

The low-end camera market is already dead. The mid-range is struggling. There is almost no casual stand-alone camera market these days.

It’s still worth buying a standalone camera if you want consistent great pictures

There are good reasons to buy a high-quality standalone camera if you want to take great pictures.

The physics of camera optics means that, in general, you get better images with a bigger and better lens along with a big sensor array. You also need some distance between the lens and the focal plane where light hits photosensors.

None of this is possible in a phone which is often less than 10mm thick. Phone cameras have small lenses. There is almost no distance between the lens and the sensor array. Sensor arrays are also small, usually smaller than a fingernail while a more traditional digital camera might have an array the size of a matchbox.

Phones have plastic lenses, which, on the whole, are not as good as the glass lenses in cameras. Plastic can distort images. Phone makers spend millions developing better materials and techniques to reduce this, but glass still beats plastic.

Phone cameras get around physical shortcoming with heavy duty computer processing. Upmarket phones have two or even three lenses. They combine their images to create better pictures. Most of the time this gets around the distortion.

Software does the heavy lifting

They do a hell of a lot of this in software. Which brings up an interesting philosophical point: Are they capturing reality or are they making it up?

You may wonder why phone makers keep putting faster and faster processors in their phones. After all, none of the last three or four generations of flagship phones have been slouches when it comes to handling most computing tasks.

The main reason for the extra grunt is to handle image processing. It’s a data-intensive task and phones have to do it in microseconds.

Phone makers love to tell you their models use artificial intelligence. Most of the time phones use the results of earlier AI work to inform their brute-force image processing. They don’t do on-the-fly artificial intelligence to process your pictures.

The results are impressive. When Apple gave me a demonstration of the iPhone XS Max, I was struck by how much like a digital SLR the results can be, in the right hands.

As much as I try, my iPhone or Huawei shots are never as good. I still get far better results from my ageing but trusty digital SLR. The pictures are often good enough to use in print.

Mirrorless

If I was to buy a new camera, I’d go for a modern mirrorless design. Until recently this would have meant a Sony Alpha, but Nikon and Canon now have tempting alternatives. I can’t put my finger on it, but to my eyes Canon images look better, so the Canon EOS R would be my probable choice.

Mirrorless means the camera doesn’t have a traditional optical viewfinder like an SLR or digital SLR. Instead you see the same image that the sensors see. This makes the cameras simpler, smaller and lighter.

For consumers stand alone cameras are on a path to becoming a retro-tech thing like vinyl records or analogue music synthesisers. Professionals will go on using standalone cameras. But the market is slowing.

I still take a camera along when I travel overseas or cover a conference as a journalist. The more traditional controls easier to use, even if I spend most of the time on automatic setttings. When I need to fiddle, it’s easy to tweak dials and press buttons than hunt for controls on a phone screen.

Having said that, often I find myself on a reporting job where the only camera to hand is my phone. If I take a little time, I can get good pictures with that too. I’ve already noticed I’m less likely to pack the standalone camera when heading out to cover a story. I no longer keep it handy, charged and ready to go. That’s not the case with my phone.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors

HP has a new twist on the desktop docking station. You can extend the modular HP Thunderbolt Dock with a Bang and Olufsen speaker. This optional extra is ideal for handling conference calls.

I tested the HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with Audio model. It has an optional speaker attached. You can buy a Dock without the speaker for NZ$400.

At the time of writing there wasn’t a local price for the Audio version. In the US HP adds US$50 to the non-Audio Dock price. So it’s likely the New Zealand version will sell for around NZ$500.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors and keyboard

Old school

Docks, often called docking stations, seem old school in 2018. They are enjoying a revival at the moment. In part this is because computer makers like HP now standardise on USB-C connectors. They also put fewer ports on modern laptops.

Today’s laptops are often ultra-thin. This leaves less room for ports. Some ports are deeper than the edge of many modern laptops. Think of an Ethernet port to get the picture.

This means offloading the connectivity options to a separate device makes sense.

Most people who work from home or in a small business will use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connections.

Big company IT departments sometimes prefer Ethernet. It means better connection speeds in busy workplaces. It also can be mean trouble for tech support.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 rear view

Connectivity

Docks are often the best way to connect a USB-C laptop to Ethernet. Although you could choose a dongle instead. Docks also allow users to add large screen displays, keyboards and mice. Most docks also act as rechargers.

HP’s Thunderbolt Dock comes with a hard-wired USB-C cable that connects to a laptop. The cable is about 700 mm long, which is enough if you keep the Dock on your desktop. On the right-hand side is a USB 3.0 port, a headphone jack and a Kensington lock connector.

There are a total of eight more sockets on the rear. One connects the Dock to a power brick. Another is an Ethernet port. There are two more USB-C ports, a Thunderbolt port, a power out port, there are also two Display Ports and a VGA port.

HP has chosen a big, heavy power brick. That’s necessary to supply enough power, but it adds a lot of heft to the Dock set-up. If you need to, with say two large screens, it can draw down 100W of power.

I thought I’d prefer to have the power unit built into the Dock. That would add weight and bulk. Another advantage of separate units is the desktop Dock doesn’t get hot.

You wouldn’t want to lug this from place to place, but then you don’t have to. That’s the point of a Dock.

In practice

The HP Notebook recognised the Dock immediately. When connected, it installed the right drivers and rebooted.

When you connect the HP Thunderbolt Dock to a laptop, I used the HP Elitebook x360, the top lights up to show a row of buttons.

These let you use the speaker for conference calls. It would work fine if you had one of these in a meeting room for a group of people to share.

There’s haptic feedback to let your fingers know when you use the buttons.

I managed to test the speaker with a Skype call. When it connected I had to crank the volume down, it was too loud for my quiet, small home office.

You will need the extra volume in a busy open plan office. The people at the other end could tell I was on a speakerphone. From my point of view, the call sounded clearer than usual and much better than listening on a handset.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 verdict

HP’s marketing material implies the company optimised the Thunderbolt Dock’s Bang and Olufsen speakers for phone calls. Despite this they do a fine job playing music and handling other audio. There’s plenty of top and bottom to the sound. It helps that the Dock is solid, so no vibrations.

It’s been a while since I last used a docking station. The fact that it was for my IBM ThinkPad and connected it to a CRT screen tells you how long ago. The newer HP design is far easier to use. It is more versatile and offers a lot more functionality for half the price of my earlier dock.

If you make a lot of conference calls and work hands free, it’s a must have. If you want to use a big screen, Ethernet or a full size keyboard it is well worth considering.

D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill Wi-Fi blackspots. I say attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time it misses.

The kit first arrived at Castle Bennett in May. I tried and failed to make it work at the time. This week I tried it again and got it to work. Yet, as we shall see, it disappointed.

In the last few days I’ve been busy revisiting and retesting all the routers and related kit that I have to hand.

Wi-Fi the bottleneck

Chorus installed my fibre this week. I’ve a gigabit line. So for the first time Wi-Fi is my speed bottle neck. There’s a slew of products which, on paper, promise Wi-Fi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. None of them come close.

More about that in another post. Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing it worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking.

If you were there you’ll know what I mean. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

D-Link Covr home wireless mesh network nodes

Covr is a mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading Wi-Fi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a kid’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor Wi-Fi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products on the market. Most seem to suffer from similar flaws. This suggests to me this is because the technology isn’t quite ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. One is the main unit. D-link calls them nodes.

Each node has a power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. I find this silly because even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work for me. Which meant I had to return to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In my case this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could my small iPad Pro or my other iPad Pro. I then tried to do this all over again with an Android phone. Once more, there was nothing. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work. Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I had to use a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a Wi-Fi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white. Let’s hope all your Wi-Fi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point I had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But I did have strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. I should point out that nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network. I spent an hour troubleshooting, but nothing I did changed things.

Eventually I decided to reboot everything and start once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Covr performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in Wi-Fi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same Wi-Fi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any Wi-Fi black spots.

PC shipments perked up in the second quarter of the year. While this is the first increase in six years, no-one is talking about a revival yet. It could be what people in the finance industry call a dead cat bounce.

Both Gartner and IDC published sales estimates showing a small increase in sales. Gartner put the increase at 1.4 percent. IDC has a more bullish 2.7 percent increase.

It’s worth noting here the two market research companies are not measuring quite the same thing.

Also, a shipment is not a sale. It is a computer that has moved from a factory to a retailer’s warehouse. But PC supply chains are tightly managed so, in general, shipments closely mirror actual sales.

PC Shipments joy not evenly spread

IDC’s more bullish estimate includes sales of PC-like devices such as Chromebooks, but doesn’t not include Windows tablets such as Microsoft’s Surface Go. Gartner counts a Windows tablet with an attached keyboard as a PC. Its number does not include other tablets nor does it include Chromebooks.

Both IDC and Gartner say that at least some of the increase is down to business computers running Windows 10.

Mikako Kitagawa, a principal analyst at Gartner says: “PC shipment growth in the second quarter of 2018 was driven by demand in the business market, which was offset by declining shipments in the consumer segment.

“In the consumer space, the fundamental market structure, due to changes on PC user behaviour, still remains, and continues to impact market growth. Consumers are using their smartphones for even more daily tasks, such as checking social media, calendaring, banking and shopping, which is reducing the need for a consumer PC.”

All of which has been true since 2012.

Recovery or dead cat bounce

Kitagawa expects business sales to weaken again when the Windows 10 replacement cycle ends.

IDC says the top five PC makers all saw sales growth and collectively they now account for a larger share of the market. This year they make up 78 percent of all sales.

Gartner and IDC can’t decide whether the top PC company is Lenovo or HP. Gartner has Lenovo a nose ahead shipping 12,000 more units than HP. IDC has HP in front by around a million machines. Remember the two companies are measuring different things.

Both put Dell, Apple and Acer in that order behind the leaders. IDC and Gartner also agree that Apple experienced the least growth during the quarter. New MacBook Pro models this week could change that.

Neither of the market research companies is prepared to say if the PC shipments uptick is the start of something new, a one-off before the slide resumes or an indication that shipments have bottomed out. The only certainty is that these top five PC brands are likely to strengthen their hands against the rest of the market. PC manufacturing is a game when volume matters.