Sonos Review

Sonos S5Recently I purchased a basic Sonos system, and after just a couple of weeks I’m already in love with it and have more music playing in my house than ever before.

For those of you who haven’t come across Sonos before, Sonos produce a multi-room wireless music system. The system consists of a number of devices that connect to each other using a proprietary mesh network. You can buy Sonos devices that contain built in speakers, or ones that connect to your own as well as a device to link your iPhone and to join your existing network to the Sonos wireless network.

I purchased a Sonos Play:3, a Wireless Dock and ZoneBridge (all three links contain an affiliate id) so that’s what I’m reviewing here.

The Sonos Play:3 is as fairly small, unassuming, single speaker block. It contains three individual speakers while it’s larger brother, the Play:5 (affiliate link) contains five. The back has a power socket and a network port. The top has a mute button, as well as a volumn up and down rocker. The other devices are similarly spartan, yet stylish, in their design with minimal on device buttons.

First you need to plug the bridge into your network using the supplied ethernet cable. Then, after installing the PC software, or their iPhone app, you can create a Sonos network. Just follow the on screen prompts and press the ‘join’ button on the device. For each of your other Sonos devices plug them in, select “Add new device” in the software on on the app, press the ‘Join’ button (or Mute + Volumn Up on the Play:3) and the new device will be found and added the network.

The setup is supposed to be quick and straightforward, and for the first two devices it was. When I tried to add my Play:3 to the network it would repeatedly not be found. The white light on the top of the device stopped flashing, indicating that it had connected but the PC software did not find it. It’s not clear what happened, but I may have plugged it in before the previous device had finished configuring. Doing a factory reset solved the issue.

The simplest thing to play on the Sonos system is internet radio. The controller comes preloaded with a huge range of radio stations. Just select the one you want and after a short pause it’ll come out of your speaker, on the other side of the room. Not only is process of listening to the radio incredibly simple, but the sound from such a small box is amazing. I’m not an audiophile, but it was loud, clear and had plenty of bass.

To play your own music collection you need to have it available on a Windows share. I already had this set up so I just had to tell Sonos where to find it. After short while it had crawled my complete collection and I could select by artist, album, track or genre right from my iPhone. As with the radio it’s quick to start playing and the sound quality is excellent.

It was at this point that I came across the first of the few bugs I’ve found with the Sonos system. Originally I had ripped my music into Ogg Vorbis format. Then, when I got my iPhone I had to rerip it as MP3. Some of my albums have both Ogg and MP3 files of the same music, in the same directory. The Sonos player does not appear to like this, and although it can play both formats neither would appear in the controller. Where only one copy exists the files were found with no problems.

I also had some difficulties when my network was heavily loaded. While upgrading one of my pcs to the latest Ubuntu and listening to some music it skipped heavily and eventually the Play:3 crashed. Another issue is that my music is stored on my MythTV box which turns itself on and off to record tv. I forgot to lock the box so it switched itself off mid-track. Somewhat annoyingly the Play:3 stopped playing mid-track as well. I would have thought that the Sonos would have enough memory to have cached at least the whole track, if not the whole playlist.

The iPhone dock is a very useful addition to my house, if only because I just have to slip my phone in and it starts charging. It is certainly much easier to connect than a cable, and much tidier too. Unfortunately you cannot stream music from your iPhone/iPod Touch unless it is placed in the dock. This is a limitation imposed by Apple rather than Sonos, so I have to forgive them. When it’s placed in the dock any sound your device makes will be played through your speaker. This works great when you’re playing some music or a podcast through your phone, but I had a timer set on my phone which was charging while I listened some internet radio. While surprising this is just it working as expected, and you can turn off the autoplay feature.

I have my old iPhone 3G as well as much newer iPhone 4S, and if I want to keep my MythTV box off I can dock the old phone and browse its music selection and select what to listen to from the 4S. This is the real power of the Sonos concept – all your music, everywhere in your house.

The criticisms I’ve made are small points, and despite only having my system for just two weeks I already can’t imagine life without it. I’m willing to forgive the somewhat high price and am saving my pennies to buy another couple of either Play:5 or Play:3s to spread around the house.

Photo of Sonos S5 by Robert Wetzlmayr.
Photo of Play:3 and iPhone courtesy of Sonos.

iPhone on Holiday

iPhone at the beachRecently I posted about upgrading my old iPhone 3G to a 64GB 4S. One of the things I was mostly looking forward to with the upgrade was the much improved camera and the ability to take video. Last week I spent some time at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and I had plenty of opportunity to experiment with both the still and video camera.

Although it’ll never replace my DSLR the stills camera managed to take some really respectable shots. By far the biggest issue is the lack of a zoom. The colours are great, the focus is sharp but you can’t use the zoom to frame a shot. You need to move if you want to change what’s in your shot.

The video camera is also excellent. The pictures are bright, crisp and clear and it’s very easy to start recording. The small size of the iPhone makes it very easy to move the camera around. Movement is not something I’d had to think about before have previously only used a stills camera, but a static video shot gets boring very quickly.

The audio quality is quite poor, at least when you are in a windy location, and as I was on the coast it was nearly always windy. The white noise of the wind masked much of the voice that I was trying to record. Unfortunately I can’t afford a Foley artist so the wind noise remains on the final version.

To edit my travelogue there was really only one option, iMovie. As iMovie runs on the iPhone you don’t need to move your video files and get start editing straightaway. Each evening in our hotel room I could review the footage and start the editing process.

A touch interface is a natural fit for video editing work, but almost as soon as you start using iMovie you begin to realise the limitations of it. Both rearranging and deleting clips should be possible by drapping them. Instead I found it very hard to make iMovie recognise my dragging, it repeatedly selected the clip instead. Also trimming clips is difficult to do accurately because you cannot drag to frame level accuracy. While dragging the timeline around it also had the annoying habit of scrolling back to the start rather than the small adjustment I was trying to make.

The themes included with iMovie are quite nice, but as is the case with the whole app very soon after you start using them you really how limited they are. The two main problem is that when joining clips together you are limited to either a simple jump cut, cross fade or a single theme specific transition. It’s certainly important not to over use transitions, but having a few more options would be nice. You’re also extremely limited when adding text to the video, which is a key part of making a travelogue video.

I took some panorama photos using my iPhone as they’re a great way to show a scene that you just can’t capture with an ordinary camera. The first app I tried was Dermandar. This app is incredibly easy to use. You hold the camera vertically and then rotate it and the app captures pictures automatically and then stitches them together. The resulting panorama’s look great, until you try and take them off your phone. Part of the ease of use comes from the fact that it uses the video camera rather than stills camera so it’s much quicker to take the pictures. This is much lower resolution though so the resulting images are disappointing small.

The next app I tried was Autostitch panorama. Rather than the pictures being taken automatically you need to line up your photos and press a button to take a picture. When you’ve captured enough click “finish” and the app will stitch them together very quickly, producing great looking full panoramas. It’s not quite as simple to use as Dermandar, but it’s far from difficult and the results are excellent.

I’m not quite ready to leave my DSLR permanently at home, but there are certainly occasions when I will think twice about lugging it around with me.

Photo of iPhone at the beach by John_DL.

iPhone 4S

Apple Store - LondonThis weekend I joined the hysterical masses and upgraded my increasingly ancient iPhone 3G to a shiny new 64GB iPhone 4S. Except that it was actually a bit of an anticlimax. I went into my local O2 shop at about 10:30am on Saturday morning, the day after the launch, and purchased a phone. No queueing, no raging hoards. I didn’t even have to shove a granny out of the way to get one. However, after handing over my credit card while cringing at the expense it was back home to enjoy the famous Apple unboxing experience.

I wish I’d never upgraded my 3G to iOS 4.2. Up until that point it was a great phone. Afterwards it was slow and applications would repeated crash on start up. Did I mention it was slow?

It’s hard to express just how much quicker the 4S is compared to my 3G. Often just typing my the passcode would be too quick for the 3G and it would miss one of the numbers forcing me to go back. No danger of this with the 4G though. Application starting, browsing the web, taking photos are all super speedy.

Although it’s the same as the iPhone 4 the screen is still incredible. It’s so bright and sharp it’s really a joy to use. It really comes into its own when browsing webpages that are designed for bigger screens. The extra detail really helps you to work out where to zoom in.

The camera is also much improved, and I’m sure the addition of video compared to my old 3G will come in useful. I brought iMovie and that seems like an easy way to put together some short videos of my holidays. I haven’t had much of a chance to experiment with this aspect of the phone properly yet, but I can imagine that where carrying equipment is a problem it will replace my DSLR as my primary camera. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic when I’ve been out and about for a while.

Robots only eat old peopleI don’t intend to make this an in depth review of the phone, there are many hundreds of better places that you could go to for that. One feature that I can’t not talk about is Siri. I struggle to see why, for a non-blind user, you would use it after playing with it for a bit. If you are blind then dictating is clearly a huge help, and the biggest surprise for me is the quality of the voice recognition. I don’t have a strong accent so I suppose that if it didn’t work for me then it wouldn’t work for anyone. Still though, for someone who hasn’t used voice recognition for ten years it’s amazing just how far it has come.

There’s lots of talk online about the funny answers that Siri comes up with if you ask it question like “What’s the meaning of life?” It’s certainly to Apple’s credit that they’ve given it so much personality and it’s not just a bland robot. These questions are not a long term use case though.

Where Siri really succeeds is as an interface to Wolfram Alpha. Like most people when Wolfram Alpha was launched I played with it for a bit and then forgot about it. The ability to say things like “What’s the distance from the Earth to the Moon?” and have Siri return the correct answer is quite amazing. People are used to typing a few words into Google but Wolfram Alpha needs a bit more than that. A voice interface seems so much more natural and is probably Siri’s killer application.

Unfortunately as I’m in the UK Siri doesn’t do mapping or business search for me. Roll on 2012 when that is supposed to be added.

It’s early days yet, but I’ve fallen in love with my phone all over again.

Photo of Apple Store – London by nabekor. Photo of Robots only eat old people by Mark Strozier.

Championship Manager 2010 for the iPhone Review

Soccer Ball by jbelluchI often pass some time while traveling playing a game or two on my phone. Being a football fan I was interested to see that a version of Championship Manager was available for the iPhone.

Early impressions of the game are good. The interface is polished with plenty of options and buttons to press. The game also features a pretty complete set of teams and players with all the usual statistics that you would expect from a football management game.

The key part of a football management is the match interface. Choosing your formation and assigning players to positions is incredibly easy with the touch interface. The actual view of the match is top down and feels really cramped on the small screen. Reading the text commentary is simple, but watching the tiny dots running around on the pitch is very difficult to follow. You cannot help but feel detached from the action.

Post-match you are often treated to a press conference where you pick a journalist who asks you a question. You then pick an answer from a number of options, trying to balance the happiness of your players, board, fans and the media. Different answers will improve your standing with some and reduce it with others. Oddly along with the text of each answer the game shows you the exact effect the answer will have. A really manager has to guess at how their answer will be interpreted, they don’t have a help set of red and green numbers.

I was quite surprised to see a football management game on the iPhone. Both Championship and Football Manager are well known for needing substantial amounts of CPU power and memory to run well even on a desktop PC. The game does run pretty well, although some of the menu transitions are a little sluggish. I’m sure it would run better on a 3GS rather than the 3G that I have. Another issue is that the game is a huge battery drain and you can probably only get an hour or so play on a fully charged phone.

While Championship Manager on the iPhone was never going to be a graphical marvel, but it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive games on the system. At just £2.99 it’s an excellent purchase.

Photo of a soccer ball by jbelluch.


It was with some trepidation that I listened in to this Monday’s Apple developer event, the WWDC keynote address. I have 16GB iPhone 3G, a current top-of-the-range model. With all speculation before the event it was clear that Apple were going to release a new model. But what were they going to include? Were they going to include the kitchen sink as some had been suggesting?

Fortunately, as the change in name would suggest, the new iPhone 3GS is an evolution rather than a revolution. Apple claim it has twice the magic which should equate to much faster application loading and probably better games too. In reality it’ll mean twice the cpu speed or twice the memory, or more likely both. It appears that the biggest change is that the iPhone 3GS contains a new graphics chick which gives it seven times the graphics throughput, Seven times!

The extra disk space that comes with a 32GB 3GS is nice, but is unlikely to be a reason to pay the extra for a 3GS. The same with voice dialling. The new phone does contain a compress, which will certainly make using the mapping application easier, and will allow for some really nice apps. When Google change Google Earth to us the compress it’ll be really nice to use.

I’m not going to pay the extra to upgrade before my contract is up, but I’ll certainly be a bit jealous of those with a new 3GS.

FlightControl Review

On Friday I download a fun little puzzle game for my iPhone, FlightControl.

The premise of the game is that you’re running air traffic approach control for a small airport and you need to arrange for the two types of passenger jets, light aircraft and helicopters to land in the appropriate places without crashing into each other. A simple concept with even simpler controls. You tap on the plane you want to direct and then drag the plane to the runway. It will then follow the path you dragged out. It’s incredibly easy to use and really lets you focus on the goal of stopping those planes from crashing.

The graphics and sounds are excellent. The game has a great cartoon feel and although the menu and ui are minimal it has a very consistent look that clearly didn’t happen by accident. The map and airport look good and there are plans to add more airports to the game which I hope will be done to a similarly high standard.

The game starts off very easy to let you get the feel for the controls but the difficulty level ramps up pretty quickly and you’ll soon have to deal with five or more planes at once. When you’ve got two planes flying at different speeds trying to land on the same runway your brain will start to melt, but in a good way.

The game features online leaderboards which is a nice touch, but like with most online stats the leaders are way out of most users reach. The current all-time top score is almost 15,000. My best is 53.

My only criticisms are that the airport is perhaps a little large which means you don’t have much room to sort your planes into stacks as you wait for them to land. The game also has an annoying habit of letting new planes enter when an existing plane is right by the edge so they crash before you can do anything. A warning icon does appear to give you time to move a plane out of the way, but it’s frustrating to lose a game in what seems like such an unfair manner. Finally I think the game could be improved by putting ticks on the planes paths so you see more easily when they well get to a certain point on the map. A small marker every five seconds of flying time would be very useful.

The game is a great pick-up-and-play title, and you won’t be able to play it just the once. With the game currently selling for a greatly reduced price it should be on every casual gamer’s iPhone.

Wolfenstein 3d iPhone Review

ID Software have taken time out from letting you play Quake 3 in your browser to release a port of the granddaddy of all first person shooters – Wolfenstein 3d. The iPhone is really beginning to show itself as an excellent gaming platform, and despite its age Wolfenstein really looks at home on the phone.

The graphics are, quite frankly, rubbish. However, they’re exactly as they were when the game was released in 1992 which is exactly the point. The sound has faired much better and sounds great. The voices of the German soldiers still send shivers up your spine. It’s an extremely faithful port of the game, and the addition of an automatic save feature means it really works as a pick up and play game. It’s very easy to dip in and out of taking one level at a time.

The controls have naturally been revamped for the iPhone’s unique control system. You steer by moving your left finger over up/down/left/right arrows and fire by tapping your right finger on a button. This works really well and it is very easy to pick up and to start running around the Nazi prison that you find yourself in. The controls do rather feel like driving a fork lift truck. You regularly find your self reversing backwards around a corner, which is not how a person would move, but it’s easy to forgive and hard to see how else it could be done.

The game might seem a little expensive at £2.99 but you get all six episodes of the game which will last you many hours. It’s available in the App Store now, and for such an old game still shows its class amongst the other games available on the iPhone.

If you’re interesting in the process of making the port then John Carmack has written a detailed post describing it.