Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bluetooth, headphones and getting the best portable sound possible

It seems like every two years or so I go through a search to find the best possible portable sound solution.  I keep expecting the technology to improve to the point where the perfect solution will finally exist.  I can report that it's getting better, but still far from perfect.

For the go-around this time I ordered seven different ear "devices" to test out.  There are four basic ear designs you can wear for personal listening.

1. Over The Ear headphones.  These fit completely over the ear, as described, and provide one of the best and easiest sonic isolation you can get.  They are by their very nature bulky and not nearly as portable as you would want, though, so for the purposes of my own explorations I did not try out any that fit this description.

2. On The Ear headphones.  These sit on the ear but do not completely surround it.  Because of this there is little, if any, noise isolation but the upside is they can be much smaller than the first type.  They can differ within the class by how they fit on the head -- some go over the head, some go behind the head (fitting around the ear like glasses).  The phones I tried in this category were the Sennheiser PX210, the NeoJdx Aktiv, and the Jabra Revo Wireless.

3. Earbuds.  These sit in the ear but do not seal it off.  The example most everyone is familiar with are the Apple supplied ones that come with their devices.  I tried the Bose Soundtrue and Bose SoundSport models (neither bluetooth although we'll get to that in a moment).

4. In The Ear earphones.  These are the most isolated and tightest fitting ones you can buy.  They fit in the ears like earplugs, and act in the same manner, shutting out all other sound.  I tried the Jaybird Bluebuds Xs and Sonix XFit.

There are three basic considerations for portable sound.  First, how comfortable is it to wear?  The best sounding phones in the world won't do you any good if you can't wear them, or wear them for long.  Second, the actual sound they produce.  Even something that's incredibly comfortable won't be worth using if it sounds like crap.  And the third is how easy it is to use and manage -- if it's difficult to use you won't, not matter how comfortable and good it sounds.

While everyone's mileage may vary, I found that In The Ear earphones were unacceptable to me in terms of comfort.  Getting a good seal requires a lot of things, including testing various ear pieces to find the right fit, but in my own experience even when I had the right size for my ears, and even when I was using what was rated the absolute best ear tip (you can buy different tips for your in the ear earphones) achieving a reliable seal was not easy, and never comfortable to me.

And using one of these types without a good seal degrades the sound considerably.  Even the top-rated Jaybirds sounded like crap without a good seal.  Which is too bad, because otherwise they were terrific, having great operating characteristics (the third criteria -- they had great battery life and the controls were easy to use) and fantastic sound when a good seal was made.  If you have the right type of ear, I could highly recommend them.

However -- you should be aware of this.  Even with a good seal I had issues with the Jaybirds because of cord noise.  You have to wear the cord either below the chin or behind the head, and in either position the cord moves when you move (naturally).  With headphones that don't isolate you as much this isn't an issue, because the noise they produce isn't at all off-putting.  But with a seal the noise is very loud and any movement of my head was pretty bad.  Even if I could have gotten a comfortable and easy to achieve seal I think this would have been a deal breaker.

The On the Ear headphones had different issues.  They were all comfortable, but each had a defect that kept it from being usable (at least to me).  The Sennheisers had terrible sound, even when used with an equalizer app (and more on this in a minute).  The Jabra had terrific sound, even without such an app (although it comes with one) but the operating characteristics were unacceptable (controls were difficult to manage and the weight and heft of the phones made them far less portable than they should have been).  The Aktiv with an app would have been good had it not been for the completely distracting blue flashing light on the ear piece (note that nearly all bluetooth devices have such a light which tells you when it's on and receiving data, but the better devices allow you to turn it off, or at least have it positioned so it isn't right in your face).

That left no bluetooth devices for me to use but on a whim I had also ordered the Bose Earbuds due to the comfort ratings that folks had posted on Amazon.  Bose has done an interesting thing with these -- they are sort of a cross between a regular earbud and the kind of in-ear earphone I can't wear.  But the result is truly amazing -- a comfortable in-ear device that doesn't block out all sound but will fit almost everyone and stays in place without effort.

The sound is also very, very good, and absolutely perfect when used with an equalizer app.  Which brings me to that aspect.  Other than the Jaybirds and Jabra, all of these phones have less than ideal sound.  But you can improve nearly any headphone with a decent equalizer app.  The iPhone has pretty crappy and limited EQ, but running an app that handles this makes all the difference in the world, and for iOS devices there is none better than Equalizer, which runs $3 and makes even cheap headphones sound like they cost hundreds (and expensive ones sound like they are worth millions).  I would highly recommend anyone looking for portable sound to consider this app, or something similar for Android.  It will change your view on what a headphone can do for you.

Of the two I liked the Bose SoundSport slightly better -- they are more expensive ($150 versus $130) but they are waterproof and fit my ear just a tiny bit easier (although they use the same earpiece each fits over the hardware just a bit differently).  The carrying case is also better -- it's round and easier to zip up than the rectangular one that comes with the SoundTrue.

But what about bluetooth?  Well, I could have just plugged the Bose into my phone but I did want bluetooth, so I bought the Abco Tech BlueTooth Receiver.  This is a tiny bluetooth receiver that allows you to turn any headphone with a 1/8" jack into a bluetooth one.  I simply wrap the excess cord up and clip it to my shirt and I'm good to go.

The controls are easy to use but the only drawback is battery life -- I rarely get more than two or three hours of use out of it.  However, it's so cheap I just bought two and have the ability to switch when one runs out.

Is it perfect?  No, the perfect solution, I think, would be the Bose with a built-in bluetooth receiver.  It would have to hang down below or behind the neck, though (I wouldn't want the BT receiver to be built-in to the buds, as it is with the Jaybirds, because that would weigh them down and ruin the perfect comfort they have).  This particular design isn't something anyone has, though, and so I doubt whether anyone will ever make it.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy the solution I have (and check again in two years to see if any advances have been made).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of Spark -- Beta be careful

Okay, so now I've been using Project Spark quite a few months since my last entry -- that entry (along with some participation on various social media places about Spark) gained me access to first, the alpha, and now the private beta (which is only "private" in that you actually have to ask for entry, which apparently is about the only criteria nowadays).

First some disclaimers -- I'm in love with it, although it's a love with wide open eyes in that I can still see her flaws and love her despite them.  I'm also fairly active in the amazing Spark community, which is at least a major reason that Spark is so wonderful.  That community, which is managed on the Microsoft end by Mike Lescault, not only gives you support and encouragement but provides a hotline into the further development of Spark.  Team Dakota (the actual Project Spark team within Microsoft) has shown they are more than willing to listen to their users -- they make user satisfaction a high priority.

Now that Spark is out in the wild, so to speak (although it's important to understand it STILL is in beta) folks are starting to react to it who are no longer under any NDA (no NDA in beta) and so we have things like this:

10 Things Microsoft Got Wrong

But the blogger himself got a lot of things wrong (and some right), so I prepared this response.  For those of you interested in Spark (and if you are reading this, you should be) here's what you should know (the bullet points are the above bloggers, and what follows are my take on them):

  1. Setup is difficult (requires Win 8.1)

Um, move to the 21st century? Complaining about needing the latest version of the world's most popular OS is like folks who played DOS games complaining about Windows when it came out. Yes, this is an MS product, it's going to run on the Xbox One (which uses Win 8) and it requires Win 8.1 (a free update to Win 8) to make it work. There will always be Luddites out there, and folks who are afraid of Windows 8 (almost always people who base their fear on reviews and have never actually tried it) probably aren't a good target audience for Spark anyway.

Windows 8 is the best Windows 7 there is. Get over it.

  1. Requires Windows 8.1

Hmmm – isn't this the same thing as the first one? Yep, it requires 8.1. Guess what – the Xbox One RUNS Windows 8. That's the OS it uses and it's not a function of Spark. Again, deal with it. If you don't like Windows 8, you won't like the Xbox and that has nothing to do with Spark. Either you are the sort of person who can handle new technology or you need to keep playing Pong. Swim or die.

  1. Bad UI

Yes, there are some definite issues here. It's also beta, and hopefully there will be some cleaning and pruning of unnecessary buttons and words. However, it IS right on to say the editing buttons and functionality are a mess. “Edit from Here” doesn't work – almost worthless (rather than actually editing the world as it is, it only edits from where a playable character is sitting – big deal). Loading your own level and only having the option to “Remix” it unless you first play it and THEN go to an edit mode is also clumsy and confusing (it also makes you a co-creator even if it's only you working on it). Hopefully this and other issues will get taken care of but they aren't show stoppers.

  1. Fonts bad

Um, not sure what the big deal is here, unless the reviewer's graphic card isn't up to snuff. Fonts are fine and not pixelated. Typography is a very personal thing, though – one man's ES is another's UglyQua. They are readable and they work. Do we need more fonts? Absolutely – and this is an area where I hope the devs are listening.

  1. Graphics

Unfortunately as it comes out of the box Spark doesn't have the best looking graphics in the world. They are not ugly, they aren't awful, but they aren't the best of what the game can do. The defaults, however, are just that.

Put some DOF and add in some beautiful FX and Spark can rival the best of any video game out there. I have to admit the first time I saw a game using some of these I sat up in my chair and went “Whoa!”. As folks get more and more comfortable with the game we will see better and better examples.

  1. Bad 3D Controls

Hard to get around this. Yep, they ARE bad, clumsy and difficult to use. A lot of times “Center on Player” just plain doesn't work but it's the tip of the iceberg. I'm not sure what the reason for the controls to be so awkward and unintuitive but they can use a lot of improvement. Again – this is beta and we would hope by the time of release they have fixed this.

  1. Not much free content

Yeah, another telling criticism. Indeed, if there is ONE major issue with Spark it's the lack of varying style and content. We have exactly one baddie – the goblin. We know there is one more coming but that's also about it. All the characters are basically clones of a young male. And while there are some content packs they are rather expensive considering what you get.

On the flipside you DO earn the ability to purchase all the content that is available, so unlike just about any other game out there you really don't have to spend a dime to play. If there is a lot more content available this could be an issue, of course, but it's still cheaper than most full-games out there. I don't think content in Spark is exactly expensive, just extremely limited.

This may be the issue that turns off more folks on Spark than anything. Nearly all the games, no matter how well designed (see below) are starting to look so familiar it is hard to imagine even 10x the content packs being released changing this. Will Spark ever be able to do a realistic game like Grand Theft Auto, or a Sci-fi game like Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic? Or even just anything that doesn't look like Fable?

We are told that no outside content creators will be allowed, and that it takes a LONG time to develop content for Spark. None of this bodes well for a diverse and rich universe of content to ever be available for it. Spark may end up being one of those niche products that folks will think fondly of when they think about game development just on this basis alone.

  1. Achievements are difficult

This has (mostly) been addressed with a new server side patch that added new, easier to attain, milestones. If an old man like me can reach the maximum level (50) in about a month of using the game, almost anyone else can. It isn't terribly difficult but it does require a commitment to using the game and that's really the whole point.

Folks who just want to dabble with Spark don't need to achieve any higher level, so this isn't really an issue.

  1. It isn't fun

This is a hard one to quantify. There are lots of fun games made by Spark, and there are lot of crappy ones. It's hard to uncover the really interesting ones due to all the crap, but this curation is being worked on by both Team Dakota as well as the Community and may eventually work itself out.

Also, truly longer form games will need some improvements that are planned. Level linking and multiplayer are in the works and if they haven't come out yet they are certainly high priority. They should make it possible to make games that are fun for nearly everyone.

There isn't, yet, a “killer game” or one that makes everyone sit up and say “this is something I really need.” That will come – it's still beta. Given the content issues (noted above) there is nothing other than level linking and multiplayer that holds Spark back from creating just about any game imaginable.
  1. Kode issues

Yep, another telling criticism. The implementation of Kode is fraught with issues and it's all the more troubling since this is the core of what makes games in Spark. So, yes, the fact that the tiles are so incredibly huge (so you can only see three or four lines at once on the screen) is pretty awful. So is the inability to print out your Kode (which would mitigate that issue), or import and export it (a very basic ability that should have been there from the get go). Unfortunately, Kode here betrays its' Kodu roots – except that Kodu was never designed to create games this complicated.

The idea that you can't see all the tiles (because they walk you through only ones that are available) is admirable but flawed, because a lot of times you can't even see HOW you can get to the tiles you need. Part of this can be fixed with examples (as it stands now about 80% is undocumented, which makes using it more of an arcane art that truly makes learning Spark a lot like playing a video game like World of Warcraft – as you watch the mage you will learn, young apprentice).

At the very least the resolution of Kodu has to be improved, NOW. We need to be able to see at least 10 or 12 lines at once on a screen (so the tiles should be halved, if not smaller). This would also help us get more than 8 or 9 tiles in the circle at once (again, an impediment to seeing what is available). But more than that, we HAVE to have external tools to manipulate it (and relying upon third party solutions like the terrible KodeShare is NOT an acceptable solution). There is really NO excuse for not being able to print it out, in English (not a screen shot) the Kode lines so we can read WHEN player DO move. And we need the ability to import such an English language construction as well. The development of Spark would be sped up, oh, maybe 10 or 12 fold if we had these sorts of things.

The Cure

Saying Unity is the cure to Spark is a bit like saying building a home with real bricks is a good alternative to using Legos. They are two completely different things which, while sharing a bit of similarity and common architecture, aren't even apples and oranges (but more like apples and paper clips). Unity is a professional software development engine that costs $$$ (the free version is VERY limiting and only really designed to whet your appetite) for developers who want to create games for sale. It takes months if not years to develop a game using Unity, and no one who isn't going to make a career (or at least a major commitment) is ever going to use it.

Spark, on the other hand, is for the aforementioned Legos type individual, who wants to have fun and dabble in game creation but doesn't plan on selling their games nor taking months to make them. It's the difference between someone making a YouTube video and someone having a film career. Spark could certainly be a springboard to someone who wants to get into game development, but Unity would never be something you could pick up for an hour or two over the weekend and creating something your family would enjoy checking out. There's no question Spark could be easier and better, but it's still a beta and as long as the developers have a plan in place for addressing the issues that currently face them it can have a long future as the most fun most people can have with a PC or their Xbox.