Category Archives: Kit and gadgets

Reviews and reports of exceptional computer, tablet, photographic and music equipment, with associated accessories and peripherals

LG 34UM95 monitor USB hub draws too much power; use Thunderbolt

Simple, robust and bloody fast:  Apple Thunderbolt cable
Simple, robust and bloody fast: Apple Thunderbolt cable

When I started using my LG 34UM95 monitor it was effectively a secondary display, my principal one being an Apple Thunderbolt 27”.  I have been sufficiently pleased with the LG to promote it to a primary role to make use of all that glorious screen real estate.  I used the supplied HDMI cable to connect monitor and computer.

The LG provides three USB ports (one 3.0, two 2.0) and I not unreasonably wanted to connect my keyboard (why Apple doesn’t offer a wireless keyboard with numeric keypad is beyond me) and Apple DVD drive using the LG’s ports.  That’s when the problem started.

I connected one of the Mac Pro’s USB ports to the LG’s USB up port, but my keyboard just would not work through the LG and after a short while I observed a dialogue advising me that a USB device was drawing too much power.

The answer was simple, though.  I dived off to my friendly Apple supplier and got a Thunderbolt cable.  I connected up and bingo, USB ports all working, monitor and Thunderbolt connection recognised and automatically configured.

Mind you, I thought thirty-five quid for a 2 m cable was a bit steep, but Thunderbolt cables are not exactly ubiquitous.  Imagine my surprise when I saw on the Apple Store an optical Thunderbolt cable at the bargain price of just a quid short of a grand.

A grand's worth of optic fibre:  Corning Thunderbolt cable
A grand’s worth of optic fibre: Corning Thunderbolt cable

That’s right, £999.  It is 60 m of the finest optical connection, to be fair, but I would love to know how many of those get sold each week.

LG 34UM95 34″ 21:9 Ultrawide monitor user review

LG’s 34UM95 34″ monitor is perhaps the first affordable ultra-wide screen monitor that provides sufficient display space to be a realistic single display alternative for users that until now have had to use two screens.  This non-technical review and comparison with Apple’s Thunderbolt display is based on six weeks’ general use with a Mac Pro.

When I finally took delivery of my new Mac Pro in June 2014 I naturally wanted to exploit its capabilities to the full.  When it came to monitors that pointed me towards a 4K monitor, but even my capacious wallet hesitated at the three grand (£3,000 for those unfamiliar with the vernacular) a Sharp 4K monitor would set me back.

So an Apple Thunderbolt display it was, and a wait for the monitor market to develop.  I was pretty happy with the Apple display.  The quality is superb, resolution is 2,560 x 1,440 and it’s a delight to use.

When the LG 34UM95 34″ 21:9 Ultrawide monitor was announced I was intrigued.  It promised the same vertical resolution but an additional 34% of horizontal real estate, giving 3,440 x 1,440 resolution (hence the 21:9 ratio).  So when it became available here in Europe I ordered one, sight unseen.

LG 34UM95 v Apple Thunderbolt display screen size comparison - in reality the LG feels even bigger
LG 34UM95 v Apple Thunderbolt display screen size comparison – in reality the LG feels even bigger

Setting it up

A piece of cake.  It took fifteen minutes.  The instructions stress not squeezing the screen and taking care when attaching the stand.  The monitor ships with an HDMI cable so I used that to connect it to the Mac Pro (a Displayport cable was also supplied).  I would prefer Thunderbolt and when I get round to buying such a cable I will probably change.  The power supply is a moderately large external lump.  I fired up the Mac Pro and away we went.  Plug-and-play, just like Apple kit.

Settings are controlled by an inconspicuous joystick underneath the middle of the screen.  It’s simple to use.

For such a large item and box the monitor is remarkably light.  Because of its width the box could do with a handle on the top, rather than the two handles in the end faces, but I got the monitor back home by public transport with no problem or inconvenience.

Appearance

LG 34UM95 Ultrawide monitor showing Excel spreadsheet - big enough for the dullest of bean counters
LG 34UM95 Ultrawide monitor showing Excel spreadsheet – big enough for the dullest of bean counters

Its size makes the monitor an impressive piece of equipment, but next to the Apple display (or a 27” iMac) it lacks a certain quality.  The bezel is about half the width of the Thunderbolt display (the latter is now quite an old design, appearing first in 2011), which is nice.  The stand is fine and helps to give the impression that the screen floats in mid-air, but it is plastic compared with the Apple display’s metal stand.  The front is edged with a thin silver surround, but it is chrome-effect plastic, not metal.  Mind you, since it costs about the same as the Apple yet is much bigger, these are small compromises, provided performance is good.

Performance

I’m not using the display for print-quality image manipulation and others give detailed technical analysis of colour calibration and the like.  I use it for monster spreadsheets and to have multiple windows open without overlapping.  The highest praise I can give is that the quality matches that of the Apple monitor.  I am unable to distinguish between them and I run them side-by-side.

The split screen software does what you would expect; it splits the display into multiple screens (up to four).  Having installed it I don’t find any compelling need to use it with just my Mac Pro.  You can even connect two different sources (a Mac and a Blu-ray player, for example) which is cool.

The screen’s height (the vertical visible display dimension) matches that of the Apple monitor.  Using both together, next to each other, is an excellent experience.  The mouse cursor moves effortlessly between the two screens.

Connectivity

The monitor has more inputs and outputs than you can shake a stick at:  two HDMI, one Displayport, two Thunderbolt, one USB up, three USB in, Headphones out.

From left
More connectivity than you can shake a stick at; power cable on the left, HDMI to its right
Extract from LG 34UM95 manual showing ports
Extract from LG 34UM95 manual showing ports

Conclusion

The LG 34UM95 is a first-class monitor with a display of a quality similar to that of Apple’s Thunderbolt display, yet provides 34% more screen space at identical resolution at a similar price.  For users that need or are contemplating a two-monitor solution it’s a compelling answer.  It makes Apple’s display look even more overpriced than before.

Magnetic Charging Dock DK39 For Xperia™ Z2 Tablet review

I have mentioned elsewhere what I perceive to be the fragility of the port covers on the excellent Sony Experia Z2 tablet.  Consequently I was keen to get hold of the Sony charging dock that utilises the specialised dock connector; that doesn’t require any delicate covers to be opened.

Sony Xperia Z2 tablet on DK39 Magnetic Charging Dock
Sony Xperia Z2 tablet on DK39 Magnetic Charging Dock

So when the dock (Magnetic Charging Dock DK39) became available (it wasn’t available at the tablet’s launch) I was straight in.  Getting hold of it in Europe was a pain (I was living in a country not served by the Sony online shop and they wouldn’t ship from the UK) but eventually I got one sent over from London.

It is shown at the time of writing at £39.99 in the Sony online shop.  To say I was underwhelmed is an understatement.  The dock is neat and the magnetic alignment works well but for the thick end of £40 I expected a pretty substantial piece of kit.  It didn’t even come with a cable, let alone a power supply.  Yes, I know, read the specifications.

Forty quid's worth of plastic from Sony
Forty quid’s worth of plastic from Sony

The dock works very well, but forty quid for two pieces of plastic and a little socketry that needs my micro-USB cable and charger is having a laugh.

Verdict:  Neat and functional, but at this price a rip-off.

The Importance of design to value

Having a good product or service just isn’t enough.  If you want to be chosen before a competitor, or command a premium, the whole package has to be right.

I am lucky enough to have a 2014 Mac Pro.  Lovely piece of kit.  When I got it the only Thunderbolt display on the market was from Apple, I was not prepared to move to a resolution lower than that of my iMac and I balked at the crazy price (three grand) for a 4K Sharp display.  Apple Thunderbolt display it was, then.

Fortunately the LG 34UM95 34″ 21:9 Ultrawide monitor has arrived and it’s great.  It has the same vertical resolution as the Apple display (1,440 pixels) but it’s much wider (3,440 v 2,560).  It’s a lovely piece of kit, with good connectivity (it’s the only Thunderbolt display other than the Apple and has HDMI) and display quality that is the match of the Apple’s.  And that width means the display can be used as two split screens.

So the LG is a new model, 34% bigger real estate and better connectivity, yet it sells for about the same price as what is now quite an old Apple model.  There are a number of reasons Apple kit commands a premium, but I’d like to look at something simple; packaging.

Apple’s Jobs-inspired design focus is legendary and that even extends to packaging.  Take a look at these two photos:

Apple Thunderbolt display box
Apple Thunderbolt display box
LG 34UM95 monitor box
LG 34UM95 monitor box

A greater contrast in styles is difficult to imagine.  The Apple box is practical (see the neat carrying handle) but relies on nothing more than a picture of the monitor.

The LG box by contrast is brash and packed full of features but just lacks class.  It does give Advanced Viewing Pleasure, but I’m not sure I need it shouted at me from the packaging.

It would be crazy for LG to try to out-Apple Apple, but that difference in design is an important element in the brands’ identities and that translates into pounds and pence.

iTec USB 3.0 Card Reader review

iTec USB 3.0 card reader
iTec USB 3.0 card reader

Memory cards are now so cheap and their capacity so high that they offer a viable and flexible backup option.  This card reader is a cheap and simple way to give a computer additional storage and data exchange options.

My new Mac Pro is a fantastic piece of kit and has more input and output ports than you can shake a stick at, but one option that I sadly miss from my iMac is an SD-card slot.  I do a lot of photography and for me the easiest way of getting images onto the Mac is simply to take the card out of the camera, bung it in the computer and copy the files across.

On top of that the cost of memory cards is now so low, and their capacity so high, that they provide a super way to back data up and get it off site (how many people keep their backup with their main computer. so that in the event of theft or fire the backup is lost with the original?).

A quick trawl of the web showed a number of options and I plumped for the i-Tec USB 3.0 Card Reader.  It does exactly what it says on the tin, as they say.  It supports the following formats:

MS, MS PRO, MS PRO Duo, SD, SDHC, SDXC, Mini SD *, Mini SDHC *, Micro SD/T-Flash, Micro SDHC, MMC, MMC Plus, RS-MMC *, MMC Mobile *, CF typ I

*with appropriate adapter (not included)

Other characteristics:SDHC and SDXC compatible

  • Data transfer rate up to 5 Gbps
  • No installation needed
  • LED indicator
  • Low power consumption
  • Draw Power directly from USB port

Operating systems:

  • Windows ME, XP, Vista, 7 32/64bit, 8 32/64bit
  • Mac OS X and higher

I wanted USB 3.0 for speed and for value for money (it cost me just the equivalent of £10.50) this is difficult to beat.  One thing to remember when you see the adverts though.  They will show the reader unencumbered by cable or cards as shown above.  The reality is a little more cumbersome:

iTec USB 3.0 card reader with USB cable and SD card
iTec USB 3.0 card reader with USB cable and SD card

It’s not a big deal, but so often nice pieces of kit are shown in elegant isolation, ignoring the spaghetti-like mess of wires behind the facade of elegant simplicity.

Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet three-month user review

 

Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet
Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet

Background

I bought my first Mac (128k RAM. single 400k floppy disk drive) in 1985 (yes, I’m that old) because the user experience and interface felt a million years ahead of anything else available, especially what was then called the IBM PC.

That design advantage has, to my mind, been maintained even to today.  Before any Windows or Linux advocates get uptight I fully acknowledge that those operating systems (I use Windows at work and Linux just for the experience) are much better then they were and if you’re happy using them, fine.  But we all have different tastes and preferences; otherwise we would all drive the same car and wear the same clothes.  A Subaru Impreza Turbo driver can justifiably question the Aston Martin Vantage V8 driver over his choice.   The Subaru will be cheaper, quicker, seat four and actually have a usable boot.

Nonetheless the Aston Martin owner’s choice is as valid as that of the Subaru driver.  The former sees exclusivity and quality.  Too often we see alternatives as right or wrong when in fact they are just different.  Embrace difference.

So over the years I have spent many thousands of pounds on Mac computers with capability way beyond what I will need during the computers’ lifetimes, software I don’t need and will use once and obscure peripherals (Microtek SCSI scanner, anyone?) just for the sake of it.

Lately one of my principal reasons for buying Apple has been eroded: Apple products (especially iPhones and iPads) are ubiquitous.  They’re no longer exclusive.  I can’t find a product to match my iPod Touch, but any Tom, Dick or Harry has an iPad.  ‘Think Different’ (to use Apple’s grammatically incorrect 1997 advert) and buy an iPad?  I don’t think so.  So when the time came for me to look at upgrading my first-generation iPad I turned not to the guys from Cupertino but at an Android tablet.  I still want my choice to be select and a premium product.  Samsung is too common, so I turned to a brand I have grown up with and trust:  Sony (makers of that 400k drive in my first Mac, Trinitron TVs, the Walkman, the badly underrated MiniDisc and my favourite short-wave radio).

The tablet

When you share an operating system with almost other tablet manufacturers (bar Apple) and that system isn’t under your control you have to work hard to differentiate your kit from others.  Sony has achieved this by making a tablet which is:

When I took the tablet out of is box first impressions were very good; the tablet, despite its light weight and thin profile, felt solid and very well-built. with high-quality materials used.

The protection from water and dust comes in part from the ports for connection and charging (micro-USB, reasonably enough) and memory (micro-SD) being covered.  Clearly the covers need to be closed to protect the ports but in reality when they’re not in place they dangle in a very fragile manner.  My other concern is with opening the covers.  They are necessarily a tight fit and the only way I could open them was using my fingernail to prise them open.  This isn’t very elegant and on the first tablet I had the cover became slightly damaged within 12 hours.  That might be my fault but it’s also not great design.  Consequently I try to charge the tablet using a dock (not included) that charges through a robust connector on the bottom face of the tablet.  I also try whenever possible to connect to my Mac by Bluetooth so that I don’t run the risk of damaging the covers.

Those port covers do look delicate
Those port covers do look delicate

On firing up the screen is clear and attractive.  Response to touch is fine, comparable to the iPad.  Two speakers have been described elsewhere as giving good stereo separation; that’s overstating it a little.

I chose the version with 32GB of memory, to which I added a 32GB micro-SD card (which John Lewis included free) for all the music and videos I want.

Moving from iOS to Android

To a long-term user of iOS Android feels very different right from start-up.  Not better or worse, but different.  On boot-up the user is presented with a desktop of five pages.  These are customisable with any applications that you wish to have there.  The second thing I noticed was the number of applications, shown on two pages accessed from the home screen.  Android is of course a Google system so the default browser is Chrome, there is a link to the Google Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, Google+ and YouTube.  Imposing its personality Sony includes a Walkman application for music, Xperia Lounge (for all sorts of experiences in which I have no interest) and Xperia Link, PlayStation and PlayStation Mobile, Sony Select and What’s New apps.  On top of that lot there’s all the apps you would expect: email, contacts. alarm, clock, calendar, camera, photos and the like, and a neat weather widget that uses your location.

Included applications for which there is not (as far as I know) an equivalent included in iOS are:

  • FM radio (uses headphone cable as an aerial) which is surprisingly good
  • OfficeSuite pro, an office suite with very good functionality and surprisingly usable on the Z2’s 10.1” screen
  •  File Commander, which enable one to browse the filesystem, which I miss in iOS, which keeps that detail from the user
  • Sketch, a simple drawing program

As far as I can tell, iOS has a compass, Siri and fingerprint recognition.  Apple also has FaceTime, of course; you’ll have to download Skype for the Sony.

Using the Xperia Z2

Let’s face it, most tablet use is for web browsing, email, downloaded media (music and video mainly) and on-line media such as YouTube.  It’s difficult to fault the Z2 for any of this, although scrolling on-line video isn’t perhaps as smooth as on an iPad.

My other use is for BBC iPlayer and on the Sony and Android it’s a nice piece of software, as it is in iOS.  I also have an aversion to Chrome, so I downloaded Firefox, which works with no problems.

Battery life?  Difficult to judge from specifications; a tablet might have a larger battery but negate that by consuming more power.  Camera?  Seems pretty good but if I want to take pictures I tend to use my Olympus.

One area where the Z2 is better than either my iPad or iPod Touch is Wi-Fi connectivity.  I travel a lot and there are Wi-Fi spots to which my iOS kit either will not connect or gets an IP address such as 169.x.x.x which does not give internet access.  No such problems with the Sony.

Integration with a Mac

This is not surprisingly the Z2’s Achilles’ heel.  Apple’s control over both hardware and software makes their integration between devices and platforms comparatively seamless (although I personally have a bugbear with recent iTunes implementations which, for me, have lead to a less intuitive interface).  Sony has made a creditable attempt at  synchronisation between a Mac and the Z2 with its Sony Bridge for Mac software.

Sony's Bridge for Mac software
Sony’s Bridge for Mac software

This enables you to drag any iTunes media to a connected Xperia device and it works well.  The problem for me is my desire not to open the port covers any more than I need to, because disappointingly the Bridge for Mac software does not work over a wireless connection.  My solution is to do one big initial migration of stuff using the Sony software via USB, and then make incremental changes by sending files over Bluetooth from the Mac to the Z2.  Not ideal, but workable.  Sony really need to get this Bridge working over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth sharpish.

Conclusion

I’m very pleased with the Xperia Z2 tablet.  It is a high-quality and impressive piece of kit.  Its low weight is remarkable and its protection from water and dust is unique, even if its usefulness might be a little debatable.  Performance is good and the included range of software covers almost all requirements well.

My only complaints are about the robustness of the port covers and the inability of the Sony Bridge for Mac software to work wirelessly.

Would I buy it again?  Definitely yes.