Mobile technology should not be about cramming the office into your pocket but a way to enjoy your everyday life.

Rikomagic MK902 - Quad Core Android Set-top-box


Rikomagic MK902

The Rikomagic MK902 is a quad core Android set top box for any HDMI equipped TV. The only thing it does is allow you to run Android applications on your TV - but with about a million applications available, that is no small thing.

Rikomagic (they also go by the name RKM) is a Chinese company that made the popular and much copied "Android on a stick" MK802 back in 2012 - a device that helped start the Android set-top-box market.

They have made several improved models since then and the MK902 is the latest and greatest of those models. Previous models looked like large USB memory-sticks and where designed to be inserted directly in the HDMI port of your TV, but the MK902 comes in a small desktop case similar to the Apple TV. Unfortunately, it does not come with a built in power supply like the Apple TV and instead requires an external power supply of the wall-wart type. The included European power supply (2-round-pin) seems to be of good quality and supplies 2,5A of power. The power cord is only 110 cm long and that caused some placement problems for me.

The heart of the device is a Rockchips made quad core Coretex-A9 CPU (RK3188) running at up to 1,4 GHz. The GPU is an Mali-400 MP (quad core as well I believe).
AnTuTU Benchmark gave it an overall score of 16 084, placing it just behind the Google Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S3 and that is not bad.
The device came with Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) and is Google Play compatible so installing applications is a simple as it can be. Hopefully there will be upgrades to even newer Android versions in the future.
And yes, it's rooted out of the box so thumbs up to Rikomagic for that.


Rikomagic MK902

The bigger set-top-box design of the MK902 offers some obvious advantages compared to smaller android on a stick -designs: There are four USB ports, there is an Ethernet port for wired connections, optical out for audio enthusiasts and a proper WiFi antenna that offers great reception. One really special feature is the built in camera in the front panel of the device and this is good if you want to use it for Skype or something similar. It also has Bluetooth and a Micro-SD slot.

The device does not come with any remote control of any kind in the box but it works great with any normal mouse. It is often sold bundled with some kind of "flymouse" and this is also the kind of input device that I use as it is a convenient solution for the living room. The flymouse is a motion sensitive remote control similar to a Wii -controller that you wave in the air to move the pointer on the screen. Pressing a button clicks on the screen just like tapping on that spot with your finger and it intuitively allows you to swipe by holding the button and moving the controller just as if you where swiping a touch screen with your finger.

The MK902 replaced my previous singel-core Android set-top-box that was running Android 4.0. The previous box worked great in most situations, like playing videos located on my NAS server using the "BS Play" media player application and running video streaming applications such as Netflix. It did have some problems with not running some applications (like Flickr), not displaying the video in some Flash based browser players and being too slow to play games such as Riptide.

The MK902 has no such problems. In fact, it does not have any obvious problems. The device is stable. After several days of intensive usage it has not crashed a single time, it does not get hot or any other of those small but annoying things that some Android-on-a-stick devices seem to suffer from. Video playback with BS player works with hardware decoding out-of-the-box and full-HD playback of MPEG4 files works without a hitch.

And Riptide GP2 looks good. The Mali 400 GPU is certainly not cutting edge anymore and perhaps the weakest point of the device, but for casual gamers like me that does not expect Playstation 4 graphics, it's quite alright. I actually bought a Logitech F701 wireless gamepad to use the MK902 as a simple gaming console since I anyway have it connected to the TV and the games are so cheap compared to actual console games. While Riptide GP2 works great with the controller, there are not that many others that do. This is a shame and hopefully it will change as more people are playing Android games with devices that do not have touch screens.

I am personally not a fan of XBMC as I think it suffers from "too much UI" but I realize many like it and are considering Android set-top-boxes specifically for running XBMC. Interestingly enough, the MK902 comes in a box with an XBMC logo, suggesting the MK902 is a suitable device for such use. I tried XBMC v12.3 "Frodo" as it was the latest stable release downloaded from the official XMBC.org site. It works, but it does not seem to make use of hardware acceleration for video decoding as full HD playback "stutters". I also tried a nightly build of version 13 "Gotham" (20140119) and it worked with some HD files but not with all. There are other XBMC ports out there specifically tweaked to use hardware decoding on different Android set-top-boxes but I have not tried any of those.

For the time being I'm sticking with BS Player as it makes use of hardware decoding and has played everything I have thrown at it without any problem.

Got Pebble!

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It is not the most stylish watch out there - far from it. But beyond that, it's actually a pretty good smart watch. The real question is how long it will take before it becomes outdated by something better. The grayscale display and the wide bezel will eventually look as '70s as the general shape of the watch already does. But for the time being, this is almost certainly the best smart watch there is.

The e-paper display really works. It's easy to read in everything from bright sunlight to dim indoor settings. And just flick your wrist to turn on the backlight if you are in a very dark environment - a simple but ingenious feature. The watch itself is light and comfortable to wear and it's all easy to set up and get working, at least with an iPhone.

There is not that much functionality yet. There are a few different watch faces but none of the analog alternatives look very nice. The text version is my favorite with a nice typography and clever animations. The music integration is simple but works well, allowing you to see basic information about what is playing and to control the music with the buttons on the watch. Caller ID is also nice, especially now in the winter time when I can easily see who's calling without having to completely take of my gloves and start digging the phone out from underneath layers of clothing. Similarly, it can display notifications about SMS and e-mail messages.

I am actually a bit excited to see what future software updates and additional add-on applications will bring - and disappointed that the SDK is still missing and few software improvements have been released. The Runkeeper integration, for example, was demonstrated some time ago but is still missing.

This is my first Kickstarter experience and despite the delay, it has been a positive and insightful experience to follow the Pebble as it went from an idea to an actual watch on my wrist.

And how could you resist a watch that not only shows the time but also its own uptime.

Budget Android brain for your dumb TV

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The "A-Link SmartTV" box is one of many low price Android devices on the market now intended to be connected to your TV. Some are even shaped like USB memory sticks but instead of a USB connector at the end they have a HDMI connector, allowing you to just attache your Android device to the back of your TV.

These devices uses an unmodified, generic version of Android. The A-Link uses Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and it still has all the "Flight Mode" and "Ring Tone" options under settings. Although the user interface has not been modified in any way for use on a large screen TV, it works surprisingly well. The main challenge concerns controlling the device as it lacks a touch screen but there are several Chinese "Air Mouse" devices on the market that works a bit like a Wii controller using a built in gyroscope. Typically, these controllers also include a tiny qwerty keyboard.

The A-Link looks like a traditional set-top-device and comes with an 850 MHz Cortex A9 single core CPU and a Mali 400MP single core GPU. It also has 4GB of flash memory for storage. It is Google Play compatible so installing applications is very simple. Software such as Angry Birds, Google Maps and Chrome works very well. Other applications that are supposed to be compatible don't even start, such as Youtube and Flickr.

I have personally used different set-top-boxes as media players in the living room, showing media files from a NAS Samba/Cifs mount. So how does this cheap Android box stack up agains for example the Xtreamer Sidewinder 2 that I have most recently used?

Quite well. The Xtreamer is a dedicated media player and does what it does very well - but it is plagued by OS bugs that crashes the whole device all to frequently and makes using it a slow and "nerdy" experience. Since the A-Link uses Android, the OS is feature rich, polished and quite user friendly - making for a far more pleasant experience.

The A-Link's capability as a media player depends entirely on the media player software you chose. The BSplayer is a capable and easy to use player that can play movies from remote Samba mounts. Unfortunately the BSplayer can not make use of hardware accelerated video decoding when playing files over Samba mounts, only when playing files from local storage such as an SD card. Since the A-Link is "rooted", it is possible to use the application CifsManager to create a Samba mount to the NAS on the operating system level and then use BSplayer or any other player to open the remote files as if they where local. This is not a good or user friendly solution, but it works very well and the device is capable of playing full HD h264 compressed video. Without hardware acceleration or video decoding, the CPU struggles to play back even the simplest h264 encoded SD video and drops quite a lot of frames.

Eye-Fi cards' write speed comparison

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I have never paid much attention to SD cards' write speeds as they have always been fast enough for me. Today, however, I tried recording HD video with my new Canon S100 and my old Eye-Fi Explorer card and the camera shut down the recording after 40 seconds. The camera buffer had filled up and the card was not writing the data fast enough.

I know the newest "Pro X2" is advertised as a "Class 6" card and both the "Pro" and "Pro X2" are handling HD video without problems in two other cameras, but I had no idea how much faster the "Pro X2" is compared to the old cards. With four cameras in the house and four Eye-Fi cards I did not want to buy a fifth card without having some hard facts to base my purchasing decision on.

Well, that might not be entirely true, but since I could get some hard evidence before buying, I decided to do a test.

Write speeds for the different Eye-Fi cards:

Classic: 1.8 MB/s
Explorer: 1.8 MB/s
Pro: 4.2 MB/s
Pro X2: 12.2 MB/s

The test was done with the OSX application "Blackmagic Disk Speed Test" on an iMac using the built in SD card reader. I used a 1GB test file as that is the smallest file this application can use for testing.

Read speeds are not as important and the results where all over the chart:

Read speeds for the different Eye-Fi cards:

Classic: 14.0 MB/s
Explorer: 12.5 MB/s
Pro: 18.7 MB/s
Pro X2: 15.5 MB/s

All in all, the original Eye-Fi cards are slow and the old Pro card is not very fast either. Looks like I am going to have to get myself one more Pro X2 card after all.

The modern camera

Sony NEX-5N

It is like a digital SLR camera but tiny. You'we got the same big 24x16mm sensor that catches a lot of light and can create photos with a short depth-of-field. And you'we got the interchangeable lenses. But you don't have the bulk.

My first SLR was a Nikon F90 (N90 for those of you who haven't gone metric yet) and I'we bought a fair amount of lenses and stuff over the years. I was about to upgrade my Nikon DSLR - an aging D70s - when I realized most of my stuff was outdated. I have always felt locked in by my original choice and now I had a great opportunity to switch.

After some research I came to the conclusion that a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses made sens. And since I wanted the biggest sensor size possible, the brand new Sony NEX-5N looked like the best option.

It does everything a big, black DSLR does - except draw attention. But it does fit in the pocket of your jacket. It's great.

But I do kind of miss the "attention" part.

Simply Apple

Apple vs Others

Two media players' remotes; on the left for an Apple TV and on the right for an Xtreamer SideWinder 2.

Although both players do very much the same thing, the difference in usability is enormous and well illustrated by the difference between the two remote controls.

In all fairness, the Xtreamer has more features but some are simply needed to make up for other shortcomings such as dedicated buttons for adjusting subtitles that are out of sync.

When comparing Apple and Xtreamer - two extremes when it comes to usability - it becomes very clear that Apple's "secret" is simplicity and nothing else.

I have sometimes heard claims that Apple's products are popular because they have nice graphics and eye candy. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny. The Xtreamer GUI is stuffed with eye candy - probably in a failed attempt at improving the user experience - and in comparison the Apple TV looks very spartan and the lack of eye candy is striking.

The Apple TV is simply uncomplicated.

Saving Nokia


Nokia 3510

Nokia should drop both Symbian and MeeGo and instead adopt Windows Phone and Android. But with a twist.

Symbian has been outdated for years and MeeGo is going to be like trying to mix two operating systems together: a huge mess. Nokia should have bought Palm before HP did and used WebOS but they missed that boat. I am sure Nokia has tried hard to write a new, purpose built operating system from scratch but obviously they have failed.

Some 20 years ago Apple tried very hard to update their MacOS operating system when it was outdated and they failed again and again. Only at the verge of bankruptcy did they decide to buy an existing operating system from an outside company and use that. They bought NeXT and that is now know as OS X and iOS. Not a bad move. Taking a ready made OS eliminates so many risks related to software projects like not knowing when it will be ready, how expensive it will be and will it even work.

There are only two alternatives for Nokia: Android and Windows Phone.

Nokia can not and should not simply move to Android like their competitors. Nokia has avoided Android because they would loose control of the important part: the ecosystem surrounding the phones. Nokia would simply be a maker of cheap hardware and forced to sell at razor thin margins to compete with all the other companies also selling phones with the same Android OS. HTC, Samsung and the other Android makers are selling a lot of phones but at such thin margins that it almost makes no sense.

And that is exactly why Nokia should adopt Android - but only for a few handsets and under a different brand. Nokia could bring out their old brand Mobira and start manufacturing a few phone models under the Mobira brand with Android. They should make it clear that Mobira is part of Nokia (Mobira by Nokia) but still keep enough distance between the brands not to make Nokia Actual seem like an Android company.

Nokia should use their current position as the worlds largets handset maker to mass produce these Mobira Android phones as prices that would eat away those already thin margins of other Android makers. Nokia would make Android handsets simply to keep up their own volumes and ruin the party for all other Android makers. This would force HTC, Samsung and all other Android makers to lose market shares.

Nokia Actual should make an exclusive deal with Microsoft to use Windows Phone 7 in Nokia's phones. An exclusive deal should be possible because Microsoft must be desperate with such a small market share and teaming up with Nokia would easily tenfold Windows Phone's market share. This way, Nokia would have their own OS and ecosystem that no other handset maker would share and Nokia could keep far higher profit margins than any Android phone manufacturer.

There is one problem, however: Windows Phone 7 only runs on high-end phones and Nokia sells a lot of cheaper phones that do not meet the hardware requirements for WP7. Microsoft could make a "light" version for Nokias low-end phones and sell 75 million such phones in a year making it worth the trouble. Alternatively Nokia could simply drop the low-end market that brings in little profit and focus on the high-end market only.

The New iOS Apple TV


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So far, the only difference between the old and the new Apple TV is size and price. The new Apple TV is really tiny and still has a built in power supply (!) and at 99 USD it is a very affordable device.

For now, it is only for sale in the US. Does it work in Europe? Yes, it works well with 220V and 50Hz and a European flatscreen TV.
Is there any point in using it in Europe? No, not really.

If you live in the US and have a US iTunes account or a Netflix account, then you can use the Apple TV to rent movies and TV shows. It's quick, easy and fairly cheap and the image quality is good.

If you don't live in the US and you have, say, a Finnish iTunes account, then there are no movies or any tv-shows available for rental. And in this case it is quite pointless to have an Apple TV. You may be able to circumvent the regional restrictions with a fake US iTunes account but it is cumbersome and if you are caught you might be cut off.

You can use Apples "home sharing" to stream audio and video from your own computer's iTunes library to your Apple TV but the device is just as picky as before about video formats with only certain variations of the MPEG4 video format supported.

Eventually Apple will secure the rights to distribute tv-series and movies in more and more countries but it will take years.

More interestingly and in a more immediate future, is the possibility that Apple will start making applications (apps) available for the Apple TV. It's built around the same hardware as an iPhone/iPod touch but without the touchscreen. With low price and free games and utilities the Apple TV would become a really interesting home entertainment system. Perhaps the Magic Trackpad that Apple recently started selling paired with an Apple TV would be the perfect way to to turn your TV into a giant iPad on your living room wall.

Auto HDR will revolutionize the photo industry


Automatic cellphone HDR test photo

The photo above is a freehand snapshot of the evening sky taken with my cellphone camera - it's unedited, straight out of the cellphone.

Well, I did use an application called "Pro HDR" that I bought a few days ago to take the snapshot and it did some heavy lifting inside the phone to get this end result. But from my point of view, I just snapped the photo casually with a single click.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. All cameras, film and digital, suffer from a limited dynamic range. Ever tried taking a photo of a person posing in front of a window with a great view, of persons where some stand in the shade and some in direct sunlight or a scenery photo with dramatic clouds in the sky?

It probably did not turn out so well. Todays cameras simply can not take photos like that correctly.

If someone poses in front of a window you either get a photo with the persons face looking ok and the window completely white with nothing of the great view outside - or you get a photo with the great view looking good and the person standing in front of the window being a black silhouette. Cameras can not capture shades of both very dark areas and very bright areas. In this example the camera has to adjust either to the lighting condition inside to capture the face correctly or the much brighter conditions outside to capture the view outside. This is also the reason why those dramatic clouds in the sky in your scenery photos end up looking plain bright with the clouds hardly visible at all.

The "workaround" is to take at least two photos, one where the dark shades come out correctly and one where the light shades come out correctly and then you combine those two images into one. This technique is referred to as HDR. It used to be difficult, but now there are plenty of programs available for desktop computers to automate this process. In fact, now there are even programs, or apps, available for some cell phones to automate the process inside your camera phone at the very beginning of the process when you snap the photo. The result is a dramatic HDR photo coming out of the camera without you having to do anything more than just pressing the button once. The software will take the two photos in quick succession and automatically combine them into one.

All of this will be standard and mainstream in the cellphone starting September 8th when Apple will begin including this feature as a standard feature in the iPhone (iOS version 4.1).

The results will probably not be dramatic HDR photos but instead more subtle HDR photos that will look perfectly realistic and at the same time superior and far more pleasing to the eye than anything coming out of other cell phone cameras, point and shoot cameras or even high end SLR cameras. Obviously the competition will not stand by and within weeks or months every new Android and Symbian phone will come with this same feature as standard. Manufacturers of "real" cameras may look at such software processing as cheating but they can not stand by and let people become acustomed to cell phones taking far better photos than more expensive single purpose devices so not too long from now all cameras will have HDR support as standard.

In some situations HDR is of no use and will only damage the photo but in many situations automatic HDR can produce stunning pictures. And when uncle Bob starts taking stunning vacation photos with his cell phone camera, that is when you are allowed to use the word "revolutionize" to describe what has happened in the photo industry.

Travelling with an iPad only


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I recently travelled by train - two 5 hour trips in two days - and for the first time in 15 years, I did so without a laptop. This time, I brought only my iPad. I think I'll make this a habit.

On the train, I only do "simple" things, like browsing the web, read e-mail, listen to music and watch movies - the kind of things that the iPad is well suited for. In fact, I noticed I did more with the iPad than I previously did with my laptop; now I also played games thanks to some great game applications for the iPad such as Real Racing HD and N.O.V.A. HD. I also read the latest issue of Wired magazine and TIME magazine using their own applications. I never did that using my laptop.

And no laptop I have ever owned has been as portable as the iPad. Not only is it small and easy to carry and use compared to any laptop and even netbook but using the tiny European iPhone charger, it is an amazingly compact travel companion. The iPad's own charger is a bit bigger and charges the device faster but the iPhone charger works well too and has no problem charging the device during the night. Not that you need to charge it very often though, the built in battery really gives you close to 10 hours of actual usage.

With a laptop, you really can't use it any other way than putting it on a foldable table in front of you and when you open the lid/screen, the seat in front of you always seems to get in the way. The iPad has no such problems and you can keep it much closer to yourself and that makes the 10" screen much more useful than a similar sized screen on a netbook.

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