Upgrading to the Xbox One S

The original Xbox One was announced over two and a half years ago, but I skipped that version and continued to use an Xbox 360 for my living room entertainment.

The new Xbox One S is much smaller and slightly faster than the original, but mostly it is the same. For me this upgrade is perfect timing, as I have been waiting for a hardware refresh before making the switch from the now-discontinued Xbox 360.

Watch the Xbox One S announcement

For people who already have an Xbox One: it may be better to wait for “Project Scorpio” – which will be a significant upgrade to the Xbox coming late 2017. Microsoft have stated that all three iterations of the Xbox One will be compatible with each other – so I am not concerned about being left behind, though “Scorpio” will almost certainly support VR as well.

Watch the Project Scorpio announcement

Hardware

The industrial design of the Xbox One S is absolutely fantastic. Anyone who wasn’t keen on the “VCR” looks of the original Xbox One would agree that Microsoft has gone in a different direction this time.

Xbox One S Design

At the moment the device only comes in white, though I know plenty of people would have liked to see it in black. To me the white polycarbonate really shows off the features of design itself – it would be a lot harder to make out some of the nice touches if the device was just black and in the shadows.

Internally the biggest noticeable improvement is around storage: the disk in the launch edition is 2 TB – that’s four times larger than the disk that shipped with the original Xbox One. You need it too, as games are regularly over 80 GB.

No Kinect in the box this time

In contrast to the original Xbox One launch bundle, the Kinect sensor is not included this time. In fact, it is prohibitive to get the Kinect for the Xbox One S: you’d have to buy both the £80 sensor and a £30 adapter to make it work over USB. The adapter is free if you are upgrading from an original Xbox One – but I am not, and so I will skip this expense for now. However, skipping the Kinect does come at a cost…

At a high level the Kinect provides three main features to the Xbox One:

  • A camera array which supports video and motion capture
  • A microphone array for voice commands as well as chat functionality
  • An infrared transmitter for controlling audio and video equipment

The infrared transmitter is now built in to the front of the Xbox One S. This means I can control my TV without the need for the expensive Kinect add-on.

But the other two features are not included.

I can understand the fact that the camera and motion detection technology is not built in, as most games don’t use it, but I don’t understand why the Xbox One S didn’t include a microphone array by default. Especially as being able to turn on the Xbox with your voice was one of the most impressive features of the Kinect, and the new Cortana assistant requires a microphone to work.

If they can include an infrared transmitter, why didn’t they include a microphone array too? I don’t get it.

Software

The Xbox One S comes pre-loaded with the “Redstone” version of the operating system which matches the Windows 10 Anniversary Update. It includes features like Xbox 360 backwards compatibly, background music, Windows 10’s Universal apps, Cortana, and loads of other tweaks. This update is available for the previous model too, but for me this is a massive leap from the experience provided by the Xbox 360.

Switching between apps is fast

On the Xbox 360 there was no way to pause a game and then watch Netflix for a while, the Xbox One’s software allows this with ease, allowing seamless switching between games, live television, and apps without long loading times.

Being able to use two apps at the same time is supported, but it isn’t as great as I’d like to be. Some applications don’t support snapping at all, and the interface for snapping unintuitive when compared Windows 10.

Xbox One Dashboard

As a Groove Music user the new background audio features work really well – all of the music from my Music Pass and OneDrive collections are available to stream from the same Universal app that I use on my Surface and my Lumia.

While I could access my music through a subpar app on my Xbox 360, I couldn’t multitask at the same time – there was no way I could listen to music on Groove and then go looking for something to watch on Netflix or iPlayer. As an entertainment device this makes a lot of sense, and I’m really pleased they’ve added it to the Xbox One.

Background Audio

Television

In the UK you can use a USB adapter for the Xbox One to gain access to Freeview. In my area of England this includes over a hundred television channels – including 17 in HD. This works without having to do IR blasting to a cable box, and integrates well with Microsoft’s OneGuide software.

I’m not a big television watcher, but now you have to have a TV Licence to watch iPlayer it makes sense to have Freeview as well.

At least this way everything is handled through the Xbox One itself.

Streaming

The Xbox app for Windows includes access to all of the Xbox Live features you’d expect. Including friends, messages, achievements, and (most importantly) game streaming.

Xbox App for Windows

I have been impressed by how well the streaming works – at the medium quality settings there is no noticeable lag, and the compression doesn’t look bad at all.

Personally I have no interest in installing 80 GB games directly on my Surface Book (which I use for software development) but having the option of streaming directly from the Xbox One S means that playing in another room is now an option.

Streaming TV and Games to Surface…
…and HoloLens

And yes, streaming even works with the HoloLens. In the photo below you can see me streaming Halo 5: Guardians onto the wall in my office.

Halo on the HoloLens

More to come

The Xbox One is still early in its life cycle – especially when you consider how much the Xbox 360 changed in the 10 years it was in the market. I still have more to write around the various options for controlling and using the device, and my thoughts on how the software needs to be improved… but that will come another day.

For now I’m pleased to have finally made the jump to the Xbox One platform, and I’m glad I waited for this beautifully designed Xbox One S.

Sony MDR-EX750BT Headphones

It was only a few months ago I wrote about my Sony MDR-100ABN noise cancelling headphones which have been absolutely perfect for listening to music in my home office.

I mentioned that I can split my earphone use into two main situations:

  • Indoors or working at a desk
  • Outdoors or in public places

The MDR-100ABN was squarely placed for use indoors at home, and I mentioned that I also had two additional sets of earphones that I regularly use with my phone – wired and wireless. I was very disappointed that my wired earphones broke soon after publishing that article. It was my sixth pair of Nokia WH-920 in-ear headphones I’d had, and they were less than 6 months old.

My experiences with the MDR-100ABN made me think that a s set of in-ear headphones in the same Sony range would be a good idea. I would see if I could replace both my wired and wireless headphones with a single set which I could use in all other situations.

Sony MDR-EX750BT

When looking into my options for over-ear headphones I had looked through Sony’s whole line of h.ear headphones, with particular attention to the Bluetooth offerings.

The MDR-EX750BT looked like the best fit for outdoor use, but like last time I took the same qualities into consideration before making the purchase.

Sony MDR-EX750BT Headphones

Comfort

I know a lot of people are not keen on the in-ear style headphones, but I’ve been using them for many years. It’s only recently that I started using over-ear headphones at all.

As expected the earbuds fit well and I have had no discomfort from them – even when using them to listen to music for 12 hours worth of travel.

The main electronics of the headphones go behind-the-neck. I have previously found this to be a good option for Bluetooth headsets and until battery technology improves I don’t think there is any better alternative.

The main electronics are not heavy, and you hardly notice that it is behind your neck. The exception would be if you are running, but I wouldn’t recommend using this style of earphone for running anyway.

Practicality

This time I wanted a smaller device that I could keep with me every day and use while I am at work, walking around or using public transport.

It’s always a gamble when it comes to battery life for these kinds of devices and like with the MDR-100ABN I have been pleasantly surprised at how long they work. I’ve easily gone for a full day out with it wirelessly connected to my Lumia 950 XL – using it for music for a good proportion of that time.

Unfortunately the MDR-EX750BT also don’t support Bluetooth multipoint. Ideally I’ve love to be able to seamlessly be able to switch audio from my Lumia and Surface without having to go through the effort of pairing again. Maybe next time.

For times when I don’t want to use the battery, I can use a provided Micro USB #x2192; 3.5mm Audio cable. I think I would have preferred a standard audio cable, but everything works as you’d expect so I am not going to complain too loudly.

Freedom

Bluetooth connectivity is fast becoming a must-have for my headphones and the biggest factor is the freedom that it affords. Knowing I can walk to another room without having to unplug cables is really liberating.

An additional freedom is offered hear by easily keeping them on at all times and just plugging in when required. They hang from your neck and provide easy access while the phone is either in my pocket or on a desk.

Audio Quality

Audio quality is always something I want, but for me it’s a “I’ll know it when I hear it” kind of deal – and in this case, I know that it sounds good. Some of the Bluetooth headphones I have used in the past sound obviously compressed, but I can’t tell much difference between this headset and wired headphones.

Noise Isolation

I would have loved to have had the same active noise cancellation technology I have enjoyed on the MDR-100ABN, but I have yet to find some behind-the-neck style Bluetooth headphones that have it.

It’s not a problem though, as the in-ear style headphones isolate external sound by design.

The in-ear style is also better for isolating sound leaking out of the headphones. Unlike my over-ear headphones I use at home, I use these in-ear headphones out in public and in quiet environments like offices.

Final Thoughts

For now I have consolidated on two sets of headphones, both are wireless but support wired as backups. Both meet my requirements in different ways, and both work great with my Surface and Lumia.

Sony Wireless Headphones

Sony MDR-100ABN Headphones

MDR-100ABN

I listen to audio through headphones for a large portion of my day and I have done so for many years. I am sure other people around my age are the same way.

Growing up with the Walkman and then the iPod or Zune, in my case, has got us so used to having our own soundtrack, that sometimes it feels strange not to have music available. Forgetting to bring my headphones with me can be very frustrating…

When thinking about it, I can essentially split my earphone use into two main situations:

  • Indoors or working at a desk
  • Outdoors or in public places

Traditionally, I had only used in-ear headphones but when I moved into a new home office, I decided to try some over-ear headphones specifically for use around the flat. I’d continue to keep using my in-ear headphones for use outdoors or in public places.

I decided to get some fairly cheap Sony Bluetooth headphones (DR-BTN200M) to see if this design worked for me. Generally, I was really happy with the style of headphone, but I decided it was time to invest in something a bit more substantial.

Sony MDR-100ABN

I spent a lot of time looking around at the various options in the market and a month ago I settled on the Sony MDR-100ABN h.ear on Wireless Over-Ear Headphones with Noise Cancellation in Charcoal Black.

There were a number of qualities I took into consideration, and I’ll go through each one in turn:

  • Comfort
  • Practicality
  • Freedom
  • Audio quality
  • Noise isolation

MDR-100ABN

Comfort

Compared to my previous headphones, the MDR-100ABN has a larger earpads that are made with better materials. The top part of the band also includes an area with this same padding – which is most welcome for people like myself who do not have too much padding of our own on top.

The metal construction makes them heavier than my previous headphones, but I have found the weight is not an issue for me and I am able to wear them for hours without discomfort.

Practicality

As I use them at home, I did not need to go for the smaller in-ear style headphone I have primarily used for years.

Having a larger device means there is plenty of room for the battery. It lasts a long time on a full charge – though I will freely admit I have not taken the effort to time how long it takes for them to run down to empty. They just seem to work for multiple days when I need them to, so I am happy with this.

Even if the battery runs out, it doesn’t matter since a standard 3.5 mm audio cable can be used in place of Bluetooth. This was something I knew I wanted and was a factor in choosing this model. It means that I can travel with these headphones safe in the knowledge that I can still use them without access to a power socket.

My only complaint is that it does not seem to implement Bluetooth multipoint. According to the instructions, you can pair it with multiple devices, but it does not support simultaneous connections like other Bluetooth headsets do. This is not a deal-breaker for me, but it I would have appreciated it.

Freedom

Bluetooth connectivity means I can use them with my Surface while I am at my desk without worrying about being tangled up in cables. Being able to walk from my desk to the kitchen without unplugging helps me stay focused on the task.

In fact, the Bluetooth connection will go from my office to every other room in my flat. Bluetooth isn’t perfect though, as the further away from my office I go the more likely it is that the audio will break up. Breaking up over long distances is pretty normal though, so I’m quite happy with the performance in this regard.

Audio Quality

I do not think I have the correct vocabulary to offer an expert assessment of the audio quality on the MDR-100ABN headphones. Nor do I have I have access to any other contemporary headphones in order to form a fair comparison… but they sound excellent to me!

They certainly have a better sound than my previous over-ear headphones and my current in-ear headphones. The fact they have fantastic noise isolation also seems to improve the general quality.

Noise Isolation

I often see users of more traditional earphones put the volume really high in order to cover the sound of their environment – but this can result in audio distortion and damage to hearing. Since my first pair of isolating in-ear headphones, I have understood the value of blocking out external noise so that the music can be enjoyed without distraction while still being used at lower volumes.

This time I wanted more than noise isolation, I wanted to have the option of active noise cancellation too – so I only considered headphones with the feature included.

The MDR-100ABN’s large earpads isolate a good amount of external noise, and then microphones on the outside of the cups then record the external environment which in turn is processed so that it can cancel out the sound waves going into your ear. The effect here is extremely good and I can use the MDR-100ABN to listen to music on relatively low volumes without hearing background noise like fans, air conditioning, washing machines, or even neighbours watching TV or talking loudly.

I already live in a fairly quiet place, but one of the side effects is that even the faintest noise, like doors shutting or cars parking, can become a distraction. All of that is gone when using these MDR-100ABN’s active noise cancellation, even without playing music.

MDR-100ABN

Final Thoughts

The Sony MDR-100ABN are fantastic headphones and I’m really pleased I have them and the two year warranty means I can be sure that they’ll last.

They are perfect for use at home when writing software and the noise cancellation works well with my favourite productivity music as a way to reduce distractions and stay comfortable for hours.

That is why I got these headphones, and they fit the purpose well.

It’s worth mentioning that I will continue to use in-ear headphones for outdoor use; I do feel comfortable using the MDR-100ABN while walking around in public, even though Sony show people using them this way in their advertising material. I may change my mind over time, but until then I still need to have at least one other set of earphones for use in other scenarios.

Right now, the reality is that I have two additional sets of in-ear headphones that I use regularly with my phone – wired and wireless – bringing my total count of headphones in regular use to three.

I will certainly be looking towards having similar noise cancelling features for my smaller headphones in the future and the minimalist in me would love to consolidate them even further… but I don’t think the technology is really where I want it to be. Most in-ear noise cancelling headphones require an external processing unit, which makes them less portable in general.

I believe we’re actually on the cusp of a number of cool audio technologies and I hope to see tiny in-ear devices with real time audio processing and noise cancelling built in. I can imagine having a system like this with spatially aware audio and the ability to move between sources securely and seamlessly… but we’re clearly still a number of years away.

Until then, I will stick to my three sets of headphones, with the MDR-100ABN as my favourite of the bunch, even if I only use them at home.

Xbox 360 Ends Production

This week Microsoft has announced that it has stopped production of Xbox 360 consoles after a little over 10 years. The Xbox 360 has been an extremely useful machine for me, and formed an integral part of my computing life.

J Allard

I closely watched the development of the 360 back in 2005 (I was a bit of a fan of J Allard too) but I didn’t make the purchase until a year after the original release of the console.

My first Xbox 360 was the Premium version. It was white and huge with a very loud fan. I actually didn’t time my investment all that well as a slightly upgraded Elite version came out soon after I got mine, but they all supported the same software so it didn’t matter all that much.

Original Xbox 360 Dashboard

Back then the 360’s operating system was very different to the one we have today. The original Dashboard included different colour blades which you navigated through left and right to find the section you wanted. I mostly used it to play Xbox Live Arcade games like Geometry Wars, as well as some of the more blockbuster titles such as Gears or War and Crackdown.

I used a VGA cable to connect the Xbox directly to desktop computer monitor – so I was either using my PC or using my Xbox which meant I often ended up using video and entertainment apps in a window while multi-tasking on the PC and the Xbox 360 usage dwindled.

In 2012 I switched around my computing platform in general and essentially replaced my desktop computer with an Xbox 360 S model. It was way quieter than my original Xbox 360 and has been the only thing plugged into my living room screen since then. (I don’t actually watch any broadcast, cable, or satellite television.)

Over the years the software has seen a huge amount of updates too. The current version is such a long way from the original that it’s quite impressive to think how far the device has come.

Current Xbox 360 Dashboard

I still use my 360 pretty much every day when I am at home. Over the years the main use of the console has changed and now it is mostly used to watch video on Netflix or listen to music on Groove.

Most of the time I just use the media remote which is able to turn on my TV, change the volume, and control the 360 software all without using a controller. Essentially my Xbox 360 has become a Roku – with the option of playing games when I want to.

This year I plan on replacing the 360 with an Xbox One. There are plenty of games I want, but the general improvements to the software and user interface are enough to make a noticeable difference to how I get my entertainment. The coming addition of universal Windows apps means that (hopefully) more Windows applications will run directly on the console.

I won’t lose anything with the upgrade either, as most 360 games are backwards compatible with the Xbox One.

Currently I plan on moving over to the Xbox One after this years Electronic Entertainment Expo. Who knows, there may be some new hardware innovations on the way…

Two Weeks with Lumia 950 XL

If you know me well, you know I have been waiting for this phone for a long time. My old Lumia 920 stopped working at a time when there were no high end replacements running my operating system of choice. I decided to buy a Lumia 630 to keep me going until there was something I really wanted.

The 630 was good value, but it was underpowered for what I wanted to do with it (skipping the Windows Insider Program wasn’t an option!). Because of this, I took less photographs, listened to less music, and generally found ways to avoid doing anything complicated on my phone. Not cool.

I stuck with it and waited until a new flagship arrived, and boy did it take a while.

The Lumia 950 XL is just what I needed: the operating system I wanted, the same ecosystem I was invested in – but the whole experience is much better.

With that in mind, this isn’t so much of a review of the 950 XL, or even of Windows 10. It’s more about how having this new phone has changed what I can do when compared to the previous handset.

Lumia 950 XL

The 5.7 inch and 518 PPI screen is large, crisp, and bright. It supports the same Lumia settings as other devices, so I can set it to have my preferred warm and vivid colour profile – similar to what can be achieved by using F.lux on a PC.

Lumia 950 XL Screen Comparison

The above picture has a screenshot of OneNote running on the 630 (left) compared to the same page on the 950 XL (right). You can easily see that the information density is higher, as well as the overall size of the display.

Lumia 950 XL Screen Comparison

In this cropped 100% zoomed screenshot, you can see here that the text itself is much larger on the 950 XL (right), making it seem a lot crisper to the eyes. It’s very difficult to make out individual pixels with the naked eye.

The 950 XL also uses AMOLED technology, which is by far my preferred choice of screen for a device like this. Black is black, and each pixel has its own light source. As an astronomer, this is important as 100% red is 100% red, which is great for using Astrolight.

Like most of the other Lumia devices, it supports micro SD expansion. I’m using 64 GB for photos, music, maps and all those things that take up lots of space on a phone. I have set the built in 32 GB of storage to be used by apps only. This means if I need to change the card at any point, I won’t need to reinstall everything.

Lumia 950 XL

The phone itself has a bit of a strange feel to it. You can’t really call it premium. It’s crazy light, has a removable plastic back, and the side buttons feel just a little bit too sharp around the edges for my tastes. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t give the same kind of premium feel of an iPhone.

I do like the understated branding, and I find that the silvered Microsoft logo on the back looks great.

Lumia 950 XL

It’s significantly larger than my 630 and I can feel it in my pocket, but it’s not too large. I’m already thinking that the 5.7 inch mark is probably the sweet spot for me moving forward.

It also has all of the hardware features I sorely missed on the 630 – a front facing camera, ambient light sensor, dedicated camera button and glance mode support. Crucially, it also includes a powerful new camera and flash.

Lumia 950 XL

I absolutely adore photography and, as many photographers know, the best camera is the one that you have with you. With the 630, taking a photograph was a slow process, or impossible with some builds of the Windows 10 preview. The app would simply crash and not let me take the photograph.

The 950 XL’s camera is significantly faster than the 630. With the dedicated camera button on the side, this means that I can pull the phone out of my pocket and take a photograph in seconds.

On the back you can see the tri-colour flash. I’ve not experimented with the flash enough to say for sure that a tri-colour one is superior, but I can say that it’s bright and fast.

Lumia 950 XL Flash Adjustment

Field Notes DDC Dead Print

The built-in Lumia Creative Studio software allows you to change the intensity of the flash after the photo has been taken. This is a really nice feature, but I would say that the post-processing of these images is a little sluggish compared to the usual high speeds of the device.

Overall, the camera is fantastic. I’ll probably end up posting more pictures taken with it over the coming months, as the weather hasn’t been too ideal.

Windows 10 Audio Apps

Audio is also great with the 950 XL. I regularly use Groove Music, Pocket Casts and Audible to listen to music and spoken audio. Unfortunately he device itself didn’t come with any earphones, but I have a couple of pairs already so I didn’t mind too much.

I have a Nokia Purity Headset for listening to music. They are still the best earphones you can get for Windows phones, and I would really love to see Microsoft release a successor.

I also Microsoft Comfort Headset which I use for listening to spoken audio and making phone calls. The Purity Headset has much better noise reduction and sounds really great with the music I listen to, but the bass can be a bit much when listening to audiobooks. The Comfort Headset is also a bit safer to use when walking in the street, as the sound of traffic comes through without being blocked.

Lumia 950 XL

For charging and connectivity the 950 XL uses USB Type-C connector and comes with two cables – a standard USB cable for the computer and a fast charge cable for plugging into the wall. I have found that the fast charging really is quick when compared to my 630, it’s a great feature to have.

The cable is too short though, and at time of writing it’s super complicated to find acceptable USB Type-C cables: Microsoft don’t list the official ones in the UK store, and the world of third party cables is complex. One of the adapters I purchased doesn’t meet the specs, so I am not going to use it.

Windows Hello

The 950 XL also includes a couple of new features which I don’t think I have had enough time with. Windows Hello allows biometric authentication using the built in iris scanner, and the Display Dock allows you to connect your phone to a monitor, keyboard and mouse to get a full screen experience. I have tried both, but only in limited ways so I am not sure how good they are yet.

Lumia 950 XL

Overall I am really pleased with the Lumia 950 XL. It gives me with the Windows experience I want on a large and powerful device. I appreciate that this is not a device for every consumer, but it feels like it was made for me.

I would like to see an even more premium Windows device come in the future though, and hopefully a Surface Phone will be around in a couple of years when I replace this one.