Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless Earbuds Review


I have been reviewing Jabra products closely over the past years, so I have first hand experience on how their music products have evolved. As an audio lover, I find the earlier Jabra headsets are not that good for music enjoyment. This changed in 2012 when Jabra introduced the music-series headsets, bringing decades of experience of designing comfortable and reliable mono headsets into the new product lines.

I am excited to be one of the firsts in Singapore to receive and review the new Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless earbuds.

Pulse Monitor


With the popularity of wearable devices integrated with fitness and health monitoring functions, Jabra caught up with the trend in its own way. The Sport Pulse is the first music earbuds with built-in biometric heart rate monitor, tested to be up to 98% accurate against medical ECG machine. For music lovers working on a exercise regiment, this product eliminates the need for separate HRM equipment attached to your body.


To utilise the heart rate monitor feature, Jabra provides the free Sport Life app for Android and iOS. It displays the battery life, real-time heart rate, and lets you set your workout zone, training goal and offers real-time audio coaching. For instance, if you set running pace (e.g. 7 minutes per km) as your goal, the app will monitor and advise if you are too slow or too fast. If you set distance (e.g. 5km) as your goal, the app will announce the distance covered at intervals. You could also get on-demand voice updates by pressing the button on the left ear, or disable the voice updates if you find it distracting. The same button can also control the start-stop of the Sport Life monitoring.



The Sport Life app can give you an insight into your aerobic level with VO2 Max, resting heart rate, and help you balance the risk of overtraining with an Orthostatic heart rate test. The heart rate monitor module is currently certified to work with Endomondo, Runkeeper, Strava, MapMyFitness (according to website FAQ). I also tried with Runtastic and it recognises the Sport Pulse as HRM. For other apps, try to see if you can add the Pulse Smart as heart rate monitor. The Sport Life app only supports exporting of data but not import.


Apart from the heart rate monitor, I really like the Sport Pulse for the following reasons:
1. It does not look like a sports headset - great for use in any occasions.
2. It fits great, and the earwings don't drop off compared to Rox Wireless.
3. Good audio dynamics, with bass bias yet sufficient treble clarity and soundstaging.

Design and Fit

The Sport Pulse does not look like a sports headset, which means I could also use it for normal occasions.



The Sport Pulse design might look unusual, with an additional bulge below the speakers. This odd bulge actually sits comfortably against your ear walls and not noticeable when worn. On the left earbud, the bulge contains the heart rate monitor while the right earbud hides the micro USB connector. The silicone ear wings wrap the bulge, protecting the heart rate monitor and the USB connector.



The Sport Pulse is sweat-proof, storm-proof, and comes with various sizes for the ear wings and ear gels. They feel really comfortable and stay on my ears throughout my workout. Unlike the Rox Wireless, the Sport Pulse ear wings do not fall off as easily. Thumbs up for that!

Audio Quality

As a music lover, I have my demands for good audio reproduction across the audio spectrum. The Sport Pulse meets my demands. In fact, I love the audio enough to sell my Jabra Rox Wireless in favour of this new headset. Actually, the Rox produces more brilliant treble, while the Sport Pulse delivers better bass response. Though the treble is slightly veiled, it still retains the high-fidelity presented over a more spacious soundstage. Most importantly, the Sport Pulse wears more comfortably than Rox.

Multi-Device Pairing

Just like every Jabra premium audio product, the Sport Pulse supports pairing of up to 8 devices and supports 2 active connections at the same time where it auto switches between the devices when audio is detected. Like the Rox Wireless, it sometimes take a while to get the Bluetooth audio streamed from the smartphone.

Firmware Updates

I like that the official Jabra website displays important product updates prominently. A few weeks back, they advised on the Bluetooth settings display difference between iOS 7 and iOS 8. This round, they informed about new headset firmware available for download. Updating is easy: just plug the earphones via USB to the PC, run the downloaded software, and it will upload the new firmware within minutes. Current version: 3.8.0

Battery Life


The major drawback of this amazing headset is the battery life - just a humble 4.5 hours. But unless you really need to use the headset for 4.5 hours straight (for instance, during a marathon run, or a plane flight, or a coach ride), most of us urban dwellers should be able to find the next power source to charge before the battery goes flat. Having a shorter battery life means I can charge more frequently and get full charge in a shorter time. You can check the remaining battery life either on the Sport Life app or by pressing the volume button when the headset is idle.

When leaving it connected to the smartphone without music streaming, the headset can last for days, and will auto shut off if no devices are connected.

Conclusion: Jabra Gets Better


I wasn't expecting Jabra to pay much attention to the audio quality when they announced another sports-centric earbuds. I was so wrong. There is no more compromises between function and quality, and there is no need to buy multiple earphones for different purposes. The Sport Pulse is a fantastic headset for fitness and equally enjoyable for music listening. If you love to work out and has a ear for great audio feel, this headset will inspire you to work hard with adrenaline-pumping hi-fi sounds. If you don't really need the HRM feature, then I still recommend the Rox Wireless (which I have sold off in favour of Sport Pulse) for better audio and price value.

Specs


  • Wireless earbuds with Dolby sound enhancement
  • Biometric in-ear heart rate monitor (HRM)
  • Jabra Sport Life App for integrated training management
    • Rockport test: measures your VO2 max or aerobic capacity
    • Orthostatic heart rate test: assesses your training state to avert overtraining
    • Resting heart rate test: shows your fitness level and cardiovascular health
  • Control music and calls directly from inline
  • Driver: 6 mm
  • Sensitivity: 94 dB SPL with 1mW at 1KHz
  • Impedance: 16 Ohm
  • Frequency: 20 Hz to 20 kHz
  • IP55 Certified, drop, strength, dirt, temperature and humidity tested
  • NFC for easy pairing
  • Battery: Up to 4.5 hours talk/music time, and up to 10 days standby time
  • Accessories: 4 sets of eargels, 4 sets of earwings, USB cable, fitclips
  • Weight: 16g


The Jabra Sport Pulse is available at all good electronic stores (Challenger, Apple Resellers, Stereo Electronics, Harvey Norman, etc.) in Singapore and at Jabra online store. Recommended retail price: S$298.


Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4.4 of 5

Friday, October 24, 2014

#SCREAM14 - StarHub Community Advocates Event 2014



Last night, I was invited to the StarHub Community Reunion Event for Advocates and Members - SCREAM for short. The annual event was held this year at MINT (Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys) the Museum of Toys. The entire collection belongs to Mr Chang Yang Fa, a Singapore citizen.



There are so many items there, you could easily have spent the whole day just looking and appreciating them. The curator, Richard, mentioned that most of these toys are mint and untouched, and only represents less than 10% of the owner's entire collection!

To the new generation kids, the toys may look ugly and dull. But to the older generations, these toys bring out the best of our play imagination and the craftsmanship of the makers.



During the event, I met Grace Tan, an award-winning blogger who publishes a book "Blogging for a Living" and conducts blogging workshops. She is approachable and humble considering her achievements in Singapore blogosphere.



The evening was filled with activities and game prizes to be won. In addition, we were given an exclusive preview of the redesigned website, and had the opportunity to give our comments and suggestions.



Many members, including myself, received an unexpected award for our contributions to the Community. It feels great to be recognised for the efforts put in. But as Grace aptly described, we're all just having fun doing what we love to do!




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Buying A New Digital Piano: Yamaha P-255

Photo by Candy Sari
Last weekend, I was caught on camera (paparazzi!) testing digital pianos at a Yamaha showroom. Yes, I am replacing the Korg SP-500 which has been with me for a very long time. When I bought it back then for about S$2000, it was the top-line Korg digital piano, with loads of fanciful features including key touch adjustments, hundreds of instrument and drum patches, recording capability, auto accompaniment, and even touch screen.

But why sell? I am somehow "tired" of the Korg's weighted keys which felt somewhat heavy (perhaps due to build-up of dirt in the hammer mechanism?). Also, I thought an equipment refresh could bring me new ideas for my upcoming music projects. Still, it took me a long time to decide whether to sell it off because everything else was working perfectly. I put it on Carousell for sale and there were several enquires for over a month but the enquiries stopped before anything concrete occurred. Finally, someone responded and after days of persisted correspondence, she came over to my house, tested the piano, liked it, paid and carried it off.

And just like that, my SP-500 is no more. It has served me extremely well, for recording and publishing the bulk of my Piano Spa tracks. My other synthesizer, the Roland XP-30, still stands good, which I now use as MIDI controller and instrument patches.



Before the sale was inked, I was already looking out for the successor. Intially, I was eyeing on the Yamaha P-105 (about S$1,200) for its price and positive reviews, but when I eventually tried it, I wasn't satisfied. The weighted key response against the actual velocity is just not there. There are some things that cannot be explained, but your combined five senses will detect it. It's just like watching a video that is out of sync with the audio. You can feel it even though the difference is mere milliseconds. My brain tells me my fingers are playing the notes with varying weight but the velocity output sounded indifferent, in a slight degree. My brain detected a lack of dynamics which made me feel that I am playing a synthetic piano devoid of "true" response.

The P-255 was just located next to the P-105 demo set, so I thought why not just try it.

Within moments of trying, I understood why the P-255 costs double of P-105.

The weighted response is excellent, the velocity response feels closer to acoustic. I like the simulated hammer action and the tonal sensitivity as I played the notes. I feel more inspired when playing on the P-255, and this feeling is extremely important for the kind of compositions I do.

That kind of sealed my decision.

I also checked out CP-40, which is a stage piano. Unlike the P-series, the CP-series have a lot more instrument patches, buttons and controls for on-stage performance use, like pitchwheel, programming for tone layers. It does not have built-in speakers, and cost the same as P-255. It was better than P-105, but costed a little more than P-255, and I wonder if I really needed the additional features.

I also tried the DGX-650 with speakers, and I thought the keyboard feel was rather outstanding given the price point of about S$1600, there are so many buttons, on-board controls, and with a sizable LCD panel, you could program layers of sound and songs with it. The only problem: too big and heavy. Feature-wise, the DGX-650 beats the CP-40, so if you don't need portability, the DGX-650 is a better choice for home use.

To look for alternative opinions and prices, I headed to Luther Music at Excelsior Shopping Centre (next to Funan IT Mall, building entrance is opposite Old Fire Station). I have always recommended friends who were looking for a digital piano to get it from Luther Music. Now it's finally my turn to buy one. After loitering a while, a man attended to me and had a discussion on my choice and other alternatives. He turned out to be Luther himself, and gave me his best price for the P-255.



2 days after pondering, I decided to go for P-255. I needed the authentic piano response above everything else. When I went down again to place the order, Luther threw in a free keyboard cover which made me very pleased.

It's going to be a full month wait before Yamaha has stocks to deliver. Meanwhile, there will be a void in my study room.



Monday, October 20, 2014

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Review (+Bonus Material: My Purchase Saga!)

This review article is made possible by purchasing the phone. No review units were provided. So let me start by sharing my purchase drama before going into the review proper.


Prelude (Purchase Saga)


The purchase of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 has been an adventure itself. It all started well with a successful register of interest with StarHub, next came the actual booking which also took place without a hitch. But the challenge came when collecting the phone. I was informed at the shop concierge that the wait would be at least 1.5 hours, so the natural thing for me to do was to go for lunch. When I returned to the shop 30 minutes later, I was shocked that I have missed my queue number by a mile. I went to the concierge who offered a priority queue number. This time, I waited at the shop without moving my butt. Sadly, the queue refused to move and I had to rush back to office for meeting. As I was approaching the car park, I received noticed that the meeting was cancelled. I dashed back to the shop hoping that my number is not missed. Alas, I missed by ONE. I went to the counter and asked if I could be served next, but he told me to get another priority queue number. Well, well. I ain't gonna wait for another half an hour. I left the shop empty handed.

Under usual circumstances, I would not have rushed to buy a brand new phone, but I had to give wifey her belated birthday gift and our wedding anniversary. So I bit the bullet and on the following day, went to the Samsung Experience Corner at Challenger Funan to get it. Happy like a bird, I presented her the surprise in the evening. Mission accomplished.



When she finally transferred all her data to the new phone and started using it on the first day in office, she told me the phone was not working properly. She couldn't receive calls (other party got through with a ring tone but there was no incoming on the Note 4), nor could she make a voice call (the call got through but there was no sound, neither could other party hear her). I gave myself another day to monitor the situation, since I assume it could be some network issue. But the issue persisted, even when SIM cards were swapped. On Day 4, I told her to pass me the phone to try out myself. I too faced this intermittent problem.

Devastated, I knew there were only 2 outcomes: either go back to the shop and hope they accept an exchange, or head to Samsung Service Centre where they would neither have stocks to exchange nor have the skill set to perform any repair for at least a few weeks. I reached out to all my Samsung contacts and I was fortunate to hear that the Samsung Experience Corner at Funan Challenger would accept my case for an exchange. Positive customer experience!



But looking at the bright side, if not for this saga, I would not have the opportunity to test out the Note 4, since it would have been possessed by wifey (lol).

OK, end of rant.

The Review


It's been a long time since I reviewed a Samsung smartphone. My last review was the Note 3 a year back, and I did not review the Galaxy S4 or S5. Looking back, I have been closely following the evolution of the Galaxy Note series, from its first incarnation to its current fourth refresh.


So, what are the features on the new Samsung Galaxy Note 4 worth clamouring for, compared to the 13-month-old Note 3?


  • Design: Love it or hate it, the metal sides may feel literally edgy, but I love the positions of the power and volume buttons. They are right where my fingers should be when holding the Note 4. They have the right size and protusion for ease of access. At the back of the Note 4, you will notice a lot more subtle contours to give the phone some character.




  • 2.7GHz quad-core: it's the fastest processor in a smartphone - at least for now. Theoretically, it will power the Note 4 to be smoother when handling multi-windows.



  • 4G+: it's delivers fast 300Mbps data speed. I have to warn you, though, the network speed is so fast, that you could use up you whatever GB of free data within hours. Scary.



  • QHD display: LG G3 has it first, and Note 4 now has it in their signature Super AMOLED. I wouldn't notice any major difference though, I'm perfectly satisfied with FHD. Nevertheless, no harm getting a display with even smaller pixel density. I do notice that there is colour tone shift effect when viewing at different angles.


  • 16MP rear camera: I think it looks fabulous. Did a test shot of my desktop underneath my desk and I'm impressed with the details despite in a low light situation. On top of that, the camera has optical image stabilisation and it really helps in capturing images and videos that are less jerky.


Top: Full image. Bottom: 100% crop at top left corner.




  • 3.7MP front camera: Front cameras are getting a lot more attention these days, so it's great to have a higher MP front camera module. Samsung ups the ante with the ability to capture panorama selfies termed as "Wide Selfies". But the front camera quality pales in comparison with the rear camera, and I feel the HTC One (M8) front camera still beats the Note 4.

  • Fast charging: This is another smartphone feature that will catch on with the mobile industry. You can charge the Note 4 by 50% in 30 minutes. How's that for time saving.



  • Improved S Pen: The S Pen is the least used hardware to my wife and myself. Nevertheless, stylus lovers will go gaga over the Note 4. It now supports 2048 pressure levels, it works more like a mouse (supporting multi-selects), and lets you collect text and content easily. So, even if you are not interested in doodling, the S Pen offers improved navigation features that everyone should use more often. It certainly beats using your stubby finger for more accurate on-screen selects.

  • Improved S Health: The improved S Health is a lot more integrated into the Note 4, letting you track your health in the background. It reminds you to take a walk when it detects you have been idle, the heart rate monitor allows you to measure your heart rate easily. It even has a UV detector! The next Galaxy Note should incorporate a PSI detector, serious!



  • Fingerprint Sensor: First introduced in Galaxy S5, this feature lets you unlock your phone with a quick swipe off the home button. This is a lot more secure than the on-screen security method which is easily visible and remembered. The sensor can also be used for secured online transactions like PayPal.

  • Settings -> Quick Settings Icons: Pick your favourite settings to appear as large icons at the top of the settings page. Now I don't have to scroll through the entire settings list to access the items I frequently use.





  • Flipboard Briefing home screen: I'm not a fan of home screen embedded news feeds, but the Flipboard Briefing UI is just smooth and enticing.


The Note 4 may have loads of improvements, but one thing that they did not change is... their user interface! I have grown to dislike the interface so much so that I feel I am using a child's phone. The icons and text are just too big and bright for my liking, the screen is so big but Samsung still only allows 4x4 icons on their home screen.

The Note 4 is less rugged than Note 3, especially the metal side frames with matt white coat which is prone to scratches. Unlike the predecessor, protective case is a must to keep the Note 4 in great condition.



Conclusion

So, is the Note 4 a must-buy? It really depends on how much you desire the new features. For the level-headed folks, the Note 3 is still a good-spec device that is not to be written off for at least another 18 months.

As much as I disliked the UI, the Note 4 is still an amazing piece of technology, and is still the only smartphone with a professional-grade pen stylus. With so much features packed in it, there is bound to be something that you will like about it.

Specs (SM-N910G)


  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 Quad-core 2.7GHz
  • Operating System: Android Kit Kat 4.4.4
  • Network:
    • 2.5G (GSM/GPRS/EDGE) : 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
    • 3G (HSPA+ 42Mbps): 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
    • 4G (LTE Cat.4 150/50Mbps) or 4G (LTE Cat.6 300/50Mbps)
  • Memory: 3GB RAM + 32GB Internal
  • Display: 5.7" 1440x2560 (QHD) Super AMOLED
  • Sensor: Gesture, Accelerometer, Geo-magnetic, Gyroscope, RGB ambient light, Proximity, Barometer, Hall Sensor, Finger Scanner, UV, HRM
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2X2 MIMO), Download Booster, NFC, Bluetooth® v4.1 (BLE),ANT+, USB2.0, MHL 3.0, IR LED (Remote Control)
  • Cameras: 
    • Front Camera 3.7MP + F1.9/ Selfie (90º), Wide selfie mode (120º). 
    • Rear Camera 16M+ Smart OIS/ Fast AF, Live HDR(Rich Tone)
  • SIM Type: Micro-SIM
  • Battery: 3220mAh
  • Dimension: 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5 mm
  • Weight: 176g



Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Saturday, October 18, 2014

ASUS Padfone S LTE Review: Great Value

ASUS started its Padfone series back in 2012. As the name suggests, it's a 2-in-1 smartphone and tablet. The phone unit docks into the station for big-screen tablet interaction and extended battery life.



Since the inception, the Padfone series have focused on premium materials, flagship specs and large tablet form. Early this year, ASUS launched a little-brother variant, Padfone Mini, which transforms a 4-inch smartphone to a 7-inch tablet. I quite like the smaller form factor, powered with budget specs and at a low price for the entry market. But I didn't get a chance to review it as ASUS decided not to focus on this model in Singapore.



To my delight, ASUS remembered my interest in the Padfone Mini and sent the Padfone S to me one week before the official Singapore announcement so that I could prepare for this review.


Specs

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 Quad-core 2.3GHz
  • Operating System: Android Kit Kat 4.4.2 with ASUS ZenUI
  • Network: WCDMA 900/1900/2100, LTE 700/800/900/1800/1900/2100/2600
  • Display: Phone 5" 1080x1920 (FHD), Pad 9" 1920x1200 WUXGA
  • Dimension: Phone 143.93 x 72.46 x 9.98 mm, Pad 250.4 x 172.25 x 11.63 mm (WxDxH)
  • Weight: Phone 150g, Pad 514g
  • Battery: Phone 2300mAh, Pad 4990mAh
  • Memory: mDDR3 3GB RAM
  • Storage: eMMC 16GB, Micro SD Card Support (Up to 64GB), Lifetime 5GB ASUS WebStorage
  • Wireless: Integrated 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth V 4.0, NFC
  • GPS: Support GPS, A-GPS and GLONASS
  • SIM: Micro-SIM
  • Connectivity: Micro-USB 2.0, 3.5MM headphone, Mic-in
  • Cameras: Phone Front: 2MP PixelMaster; Rear: 13MP PixelMaster, F/2.0, 5-element lens; Pad Front: 1MP
  • Colours: Dark Ruby / Pure White
  • Retail Price: Phone - S$449 (special launch price S$399 till 2 Nov). Tablet Station - price to be announced



The Padfone series is the only solution in the market to achieve a converged phone+tablet experience. There is no need to sync your apps, files, chat history, media across multiple devices and waste your precious data counter. Use the phone on the go, and dock to the tablet station and continue working on the larger screen.



Unlike the earlier Padfones, the new Padfone S is priced for the masses. The phone unit has a removable back - but not removable battery - with similar matt coating as the Zenfone series. The companion Padfone Station is in 9-inch size with thick bezels, providing a comfortable grip and is more compact than earlier Padfone models, which are all 10-inch (except the 7-inch Padfone Mini). Both the phone and tablet are fitted with full-HD display panels so images and text look crisp.



As for the Padfone S functionality, there are no major surprises if you are familiar with the previous Padfones and the new ZenUI (as covered in the Zenfone 6 review).

  • Just like the previous Padfones, the Padfone S Station has built in battery to charge your phone and extend the battery life. Unlike earlier Padfone versions, the Padfone S has no option to select how both devices are inter-charged. Within the short review period, I was unable to determine the charging logic between the two. Sometimes, the phone unit would be charged, and other times, it would not. But whatever the scenario, the phone will not be drained in tablet mode. The Station battery gets depleted while maintaining the phone battery level. When used together, the Padfone S phone + tablet combo can last more than 2 days. With the phone alone, the 2300mAh lasted just a day for me, which is the norm for my kind of heavy usage.



  • Dynamic Display is the feature that lets you work on the same app as you switch between the phone and tablet modes. For apps that do not support Dynamic Display, the app will restart automatically within seconds, but it will not continue exactly where you left off. There is an option to force the app to continue between the modes without restarting, but this may cause display issues, since many of the apps are designed with different layouts and font sizes for phone and for tablet. So if you force-continue your app from phone to tablet, your fonts will look huge, and from tablet to phone, your fonts will look puny. There are also occasions where the tablet became unresponsive to touches, but the issue goes away if I re-insert the phone. In view of the Android constraints, I have to say that ASUS did a fabulous job in supporting seamless transition between the modes.


  • If you have removed the Padfone S rear cover, you would have noticed that the cover supports wireless charging, which is a nice add-on to provide a differentiated product offering.



  • The PixelMaster 13MP camera quality is above average, producing good colour capture, image contrast and clarity, albeit slightly oversharpened. Under low light, the aggressive noise reduction might make the images appear blotchy and lacks details, but without pixel-peeping, these images are good for social sharing. I enjoyed using the various shooting modes like HDR, GIF animation, Slow Motion, Time Lapse, Miniature video. It is queer that the camera can only shoot at maximum 5MP when docked onto the station. Below sample images are out of camera.







  • The phone screen appears to be on the warm side, which I feel may be more comfortable for the eyes. Fortunately, you can tweak the colour tones using the Splendid app which is available in most ASUS devices in recent releases.

  • The audio quality of the smartphone is one of the major weak points. I am not a fan of ASUS AudioWizard which generates over-compressed audio sound. When listening to music with varying volumes, for instance, classical genre, the compression effect results in fluctuating volume. The Station speakers fare better and delivers clearer audio thanks to front-facing design, but at high volumes, distortion is apparent.



  • There are sporadic lags when navigating in between apps. On the tablet, there are also occasional unresponsiveness when making on-screen selection, as the device seems to mistake the tap for swipe action. Despite the smoothness issues, there were no app crashes.


Conclusion

With the new Padfone S, ASUS continues their commitment to create transformable multi-mode devices. I like this new Padfone S because it comes in a smaller Station which translates to better portability. It would be awesome if ASUS creates multiple-sized Stations to cater for wider consumer needs.

The Padfone S, together with the Padfone Mini, is a good breakaway from the earlier Padfone releases that were sold at a premium price. If you like the idea of an integrated solution to access your phone contents through a large tablet, there is no other device but Padfone.

The new Padfone S may have a few performance hiccups, but at half the price of competitors' flagship models, I am willing to overlook these minor challenges for the unique experience. If you have been hesitating to get a Padfone for the longest time, wait no further. The Padfone S is the best bang for your buck.


Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: 4 of 5