Posts Tagged‘portable’

An Artificial Brain in Your Pocket.

Artificial neural networks, a computational framework that mimmics biological learning processes using statistics and large data sets, are behind many of the technological marvels of today. Google is famous for employing some of the largest neural networks in the world, powering everything from their search recommendations to their machine translation engine. They’re also behind numerous other innovations like predictive text inputs, voice recognition software and recommendation engines that use your previous preferences to suggest new things. However these networks aren’t exactly portable, often requiring vast data centers to produce the kinds of outputs we expect. IBM is set to change that however with their TrueNorth architecture, a truly revolutionary idea in computing.

DARPA_SyNAPSE_16_Chip_Board

The chip, 16 of which are shown above welded to a DARPA SyNAPSE board, is most easily thought of as a massively parallel chip comprising of some 4096 processes cores. Each of these cores contains 256 programmable synapses, totalling around 1 million per chip. Interestingly whilst the chip’s transistor count is on the order of 5.4 billion, which for comparison is just over double of Intel’s current offering, it uses a fraction of the power you’d expect it to: a mere 70 milliwatts. That kind of power consumption means that chips like these could make their way into portable devices, something that no one would really expect with transistor counts that high.

But why, I hear you asking, would you want a computerized brain in your pocket?

IBM’s TrueNorth chip is essentially the second half of the two part system that is a neural network. The first step to creating a functioning neural network is training it on a large dataset. The larger the set the better the network’s capabilities are. This is why large companies like Google and Apple can create useable products out of them, they have huge troves of data with which to train them on. Then, once the network is trained, you can set it loose upon new data and have it give you insights and predictions on it and that’s where a chip like TrueNorth can come in. Essentially you’d use a big network to form the model and then imprint on a TrueNorth chip, making it portable.

The implications of this probably wouldn’t be immediately apparent for most, the services would likely retain their same functionality, but it would eliminate the requirement for an always on Internet connection to support them. This could open up a new class of smart devices with capabilities that far surpass anything we currently have like a pocket translator that works in real time. The biggest issue I see to its adoption though is cost as a transistor count that high doesn’t come cheap as you’re either relying on cutting edge lithography or significantly reduced wafer yields. Both of these lead to high priced chips, likely even more than current consumer CPUs.

Like all good technology however this one is a little way off from finding its way into our hands as whilst the chip exists the software stack required to use it is still under active development. It might sound like a small thing however this chip behaves in a way that’s completely different to anything that’s come before it. However once that’s been settled then the floodgates can be opened to the wider world and then, I’m sure, we’ll see a rapid pace of innovation that could spur on some wonderful technological marvels.

1992-2013: So Long MiniDisc, You Will Be Missed.

It was the year 2000, a time when Napster was still nascent and the Internet was still that esoteric play ground for nerds or those who dared to trudge through the horror that was GeoCities. By this time I was already fully set in my geek ways with my very own computer in my room that I’d while away countless hours on, usually on Dune 2 or Diablo. Of course the way of the geek isn’t exactly cheap, my new computer had set my parents back a rather pretty penny or two, and they had said in no uncertain terms that I was no longer allowed to spend their money any more. It was time for me to get a job.

I was apprehensive at first after the horror stories I had heard from friends working in various fast food restaurants and other entry level jobs but the motivation to be able to have my own capital, money that I couldn’t be told what do to with, was far too tantalizing to give up. As luck would have it I landed in what was then geek heaven of Dick Smith Electronics and whilst it wasn’t all roses from day 1 it certainly was the perfect place for me, allowing me to fiddle with gadgets endlessly without having to shell out the requisite dollars.

Sony MZR55 MiniDisc Player

Then one day a particular gadget caught my eye, the Sony MZ-R55. For those who aren’t familiar with this magnificent little beast it was one of the first MiniDisc players from Sony that you could truly consider portable as most of the models prior to that were rather large and bulky, even if they were “portable” in the true sense of the word. It’s size didn’t come cheap however as whilst CD players had become a commodity item at that point, with even the most expensive and lavish units costing under $100, the MZ-R55 was retailing for $500+ even with my ludicrous cost price + 10% employee discount. The price didn’t phase young me however, that MiniDisc player would one day be mine and that day did eventually come.

It wasn’t just geek lust after the size that attracted me to MiniDiscs it was the audio quality coupled with the amazing ability to have tracks I could skip to that pushed me over the edge. My MP3 collection had just started to take shape and I wasn’t impressed with the quality I got when they translated to tape. Recording on MiniDisc however, which was done by a pure optical TOS-LINK connection from a SoundBlaster Audigy card, proved to be far superior in every respect. Plus having a remote and a rechargeable battery proved to be the ultimate of convenience features and my little MZ-R55 saw use every day.

The player also earned a special place in my heart when I journeyed to Japan in 2001. You see apart from myself and a close friend of mine there were no other MiniDisc users that I knew of and I certainly didn’t sell many of them at work. In Japan however they were far bigger than CDs and there were even terminals where you could choose a selection of tracks and then have them burnt to a MiniDisc while you were waiting. That wasn’t what won the MiniDisc a special place in my heart however, no it was something far more special than that.

The trip was part of a school excursion arranged my Japanese teacher and part of that was a home stay with a family. I was billeted with a family of 3 girls and their mother. My host sister’s name was Akiko and I spent 5 days in their house speaking horrific Japanese, enjoying their company and even putting on a “traditional” Australian barbecue at their house. At the end of it all, during a tear soaked farwell that had all of the home stay families gathered together to see us off, she handed me a single MiniDisc with all her favourite songs on it. I had been fairly stoic up until that point but it was then that I lost it and spent much of the rest of the trip listening to it. Maybe that’s why I love Utada Hikaru so much.

And then today news reached me that Sony was stopping production of all MiniDisc systems next month.

You’d think that I’d be upset about this but MiniDisc had been an also ran for some time now; I had already mourned its death a long time ago. Instead when I heard about that today all I remembered was that amazing piece of technology that found its niche in a couple places, one of them in my home. Sure it had its share of problems and no one in their right mind would spend as much as I did in order to use them but it was like the vinyl of my geek generation, it just felt all over better. Whilst other manufacturers might continue to make MiniDiscs and their associated systems Sony was the original and them shutting down production signals the end of its era, even if it had technically happened years ago.

For those of us who had MiniDisc players we loved them to bits, sometimes literally with later models that had a tendency to shake screws loose. They were a stop gap technology that was the first to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world without having to resort to analogue means and the format itself was something of a technical marvel to with the discs being almost archival levels of quality thanks to them being based on Magneto-Optical technology. I really could go on for hours about how good they were and all the fond memories I had with my MZ-R55 but I’m already emotional enough as it is.

Here’s to MiniDisc. You might not have been the raving success that the WalkMan was but you were everything that it was and more to me. You won’t be forgotten, that I can assure you.

Tablets, Ultrabooks and Overlapping Use Cases.

Do you know anyone who actually uses a laptop on their lap? The name would imply that the intended use case for a laptop is for something that could ostensibly be used anywhere that you could find yourself a seat although the primary use for most laptops seems to be as a desktop replacement rather than a dedicated mobile computing experience. I know  that was the case for me with many of the work issued laptops that I was given (they were primarily only used at work) and their form factors usually didn’t lend themselves to being used well as their namesake implies. After reviewing the ASUS Zenbook UX32V this week I remembered how similar my experiences sounded to those who’d bought a tablet and that got me wondering about the larger portable computing market.

You see whilst I was pretty sour on the tablet idea for a long time I have to admit there were situations where I’d find myself thinking that it’d be great to have one in order to do something. Granted these situations were pretty niche for me, usually when I was lounging in front of the TV and wanted to look something up (with my PC being not 3 meters from  me) but never the less it kept me looking into them. Then after getting the Zenbook I found myself doing those exact, presumably tablet optimized tasks, on said device. It was a bit of a strange thing to happen to me as it’s not like I didn’t have a laptop lying around the house before but there was something about the form factor and extremely fast boot time of the Zenbook that transformed it from just being another laptop to a truly portable device I could use anywhere.

In fact thinking back I can remember many of my friends who purchased a MacBook Air said very similar things and their reaction to the iPad was one of questioning the value they’d get out of it. Taking this idea further it would seem that whilst there’s a case to be made for having a laptop and some kind of tablet around should you get the right kind of laptop, namely an ultrabook, you’ll end up usurping all the uses cases you’d have for a tablet. Granted there are still some situations where a tablet might be better (I can think of 1 and only 1 for myself, previewing photographs before I finish shooting) but for people like me it’s hard to warrant a purchase based around that. For many other people however, those who were craving a good portable computing experience, the tablet filled the niche long before the ultrabook ever had a chance to make its case.

Keen observers will note that whilst I might be making my argument around the ultrabook designation there was actually a market sector that was dedicated to the small, highly portable market long before the ultrabooks became viable: the netbooks. Indeed this is correct and whilst many will say that the iPad is what killed the netbook sector (I strongly disagree on that) it was fare more likely that after the initial hype cycle companies started focusing on higher margin products, like the ultrabooks, and thus the market shifted towards them. Indeed when the computing power in a tablet can match or exceed that of a netbook most people will probably go with the former, especially if the user experience is better.

My point among all this is that for me, and I believe many others, the use case for a tablet are more than aptly covered off by an ultrabook. Sure it’s hard to compare them as the form factors, operating systems and available applications are worlds apart from each other but I really have found myself wondering why I’d need a tablet now that I can use my Zenbook in practically every other situation. It could very well be that I’m too in love with physical keyboards and the possibility of playing my PC games anywhere to realise the extra value that I might derive from a tablet but apart from being a digital photograph portfolio I can’t see much use for one any more.

Goodbye, My Sweet Optical Drive.

I’ve been drooling over the specifications of my next computer for well over a month now, tweaking bits here and there to ensure that the PC I end up building will provide the best value for money I can get. Sure there are a few extravagances in it like the Corsair H70 water cooling kit and the Razer Megasoma mouse pad but otherwise it’s a very respectable rig that will serve me well over the course of the next few years. The initial design I had in my head however failed to account for a few of the real world issues that actually building this system would entail, forcing me to make some tough decisions.

Firstly the case I currently use, a Lian Li PC-B20B, has a drive cage that only fits 4 hard drives in it. Sure I’d probably be able to stuff one in the floppy bay but its far from an ideal solution and it just so happens that the perfect place for the water cooling kit would be right smack bang where the hard drive bay currently is. I’m not sure how I stumbled across it but I saw this awesome product from Lian Li the EX-34NB which converts 3 of the front drive bays into 4 internal hard drive bays, complete with a fan. It was the perfect solution to my dilemma allowing me to have the 4 storage drives and the water cooling solution living together in my case in perfect harmony.

Of course then I asked myself the question, where would the SSD go?

The obvious choice would be in the floppy slot since I have 2 of them and neither of them are getting used, but I may have to remove the cage to fit the water cooler in there (it looks to be a tight fit from the measurements). Additionally the motherboard I’m looking at going with, the AsRock P67 Extreme6, comes with a nifty front bay adapter for a couple USB3 ports that doubles as a SSD mounting kit. This means though that I’d have to be giving up one of the longest lived components that I’ve kept for the better part of a decade, my dual layer DVD burner.

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I bought it but I do know I shelled out a good $200+ dollars for my little IDE burner, top of the line for its time. I can tell you one of the primary reasons I bought it however, it came with a black bezel that matched my gigantic black case perfectly. It was the perfect little work horse and whilst its dual layer abilities were only used a couple times when I forayed into the dark world of Xbox360 “backups” it still burnt many a DVD for me without complaint. It had also developed a curious little quirk over the years, opening with such force that it thought someone had pushed it back in after it had opened, causing it to promptly close. Still it functioned well for what I needed and it stayed with me through 2 full computer upgrades.

Thinking back over the past year or so I can only think of a few times that I ever really needed to burn a DVD for something, most of the time being able to cope quite well with my trusty little flash drive or network shares. Indeed many of the games that I bought either had a digital distribution option or were copied to my hard drive before attempting to install them. Whilst I’d be sad to see the one component that’s been constant in my computing life for such a long time to go I really can’t see a need for it anymore, especially when its taking up a potential mounting spot for my future SSD.

That’s not to say I think that optical media and their respective hardware are dead though, far from it. Whilst the cost of flash drives has come down significantly over the past decade they’re still an order of magnitude more expensive to produce than an optical disc. Indeed even in the lucrative server markets nearly all vendors still provide their updates and tools on CDs simply because the cost of doing so on a flash drive is just too high. Sure if you included the cost of the drive in that whole equation that might change matters slightly but like the floppy drive before it we’ve still got a good decade or so before optical media will be phased out of normal use, although it will still hang on for a long time to come.

It was an interesting realization for me to come to since optical media is the first format I witnessed being born, gain mainstream adoption and then begin to fade in obsolescence. Of course I’m still a long way from being rid of optical drives completely, my PC will be one of only 2 PCs in my house to not have an attached optical drive, but it is the signal that things are moving on and the replacement of flash media is ready to take the helm.

I’ll have to find a fitting home for my long time pal, probably in the media PC where he’ll get used every so often.

Next Generation Portable (AKA: The PSP2), Sony’s Answer to the 3DS.

My history with Sony can only really only be described as one of their fan boys. It all started well over a decade ago when I picked up my first Playstation, several years after they had been released. I loved that console dearly and when the Playstation 2 was announced I threw myself into wild amounts of debt with my parents so I could pick up one of the consoles on launch day. This extended to the time when they released their first portable gaming system, the Playstation Portable, as I convinced my then boss to let me take one home before the official release date. I’ve spent a good chunk of time with my PSP over the past few years and even still use it today for the odd game of Lumines or Guilty Gear. Still ever since some teaser images were released of it’s successor I’ve been eagerly awaiting its debut and yesterday afternoon finally saw an official announcement from Sony.

That there is the next generation of Sony’s portable gaming systems. On the surface it doesn’t look to be much more than an overgrown PSP with an additional analog control stick but the real meat of this device is in what’s under the hood, as shown by it’s impressive specifications:

CPU ARM® Cortex™-A9 core (4 core)
GPU SGX543MP4+
External
Dimensions
Approx. 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm (width x height x depth) (tentative, excludes largest projection)
Screen
(Touch screen)
5 inches (16:9), 960 x 544, Approx. 16 million colors, OLED
Multi touch screen (capacitive type)
Rear touch pad Multi touch pad (capacitive type)
Cameras Front camera, Rear camera
Sound Built-in stereo speakers
Built-in microphone
Sensors Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer), Three-axis electronic compass
Location Built-in GPS
Wi-Fi location service support
Keys / Switches PS button
Power button
Directional buttons (Up/Down/Right/Left)
Action buttons (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Shoulder buttons (Right/Left)
Right stick, Left stick
START button, SELECT button
Volume buttons (+/-)
Wireless
communications
Mobile network connectivity (3G)
IEEE 802.11b/g/n (n = 1×1)(Wi-Fi) (Infrastructure mode/Ad-hoc mode)
Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR (A2DP/AVRCP/HSP)

Such specifications are becoming somewhat of a trademark of Sony, opting to go for the most powerful system they can deliver on a chosen platform. It’s been a double edged sword for them as whilst they can always claim the specifications crown their products are then hampered by their high cost, as illustrated with every console they’ve released. Still this thing is mightily impressive with connectivity rivalling that of today’s smart phones and processing power that hasn’t been seen before in a device of its size.

There are a few notable things to mention about Sony’s next handheld and one of them is shown in the picture above. That’s a capacitive touch panel that allows you to interact with the NGP, much like the touchscreen on any modern phone. Many companies have experimented with these in the past as a way to forego having a touchscreen, eliminating the need to touch the screen and leave fingerprints all over it. Interestingly enough though Sony decided to include a touchscreen on the front as well, meaning you can interact with it via both ways. How this is going to be used remains to be seen but its addition does make for some interesting possibilities.

Of notable absence is also any form of a media drive, ala the UMD. Whilst the format seemed like a good idea initially it was plagued by problems like reducing the battery life in half and lack of blank media like other formats. The former was an unfortunate problem that could never be worked around and the latter an attempt to stop piracy which failed miserably. Sony then attempted to revamp the PSP brand with the PSP Go which did away with the UMD in favour of digital distribution. However the PSP Go had abysmal adoption rates with many users outraged that their UMD collections were now completely useless. Still the PSP Go has paved the way for the NGP much like Windows Vista did for Windows 7 and the lack of any kind of media drive on the NGP shows that Sony is committed to a fully digital distribution network going forward.

Sony’s had a hard time in the portable gaming world but the fact remains they’re the only other company who’s still trying to take on the king of the market, Nintendo. Whilst the 3DS does look good on the surface its high price and the publics general disinterest in 3D means that Sony has a real chance to make a grab for the handheld crown with the NGP. However they have a real uphill battle ahead of them, especially when you consider that their new hand held will probably be more expensive than the 3DS. For a rabid Sony fan like myself it’s a no brainer, I’ll definitely be grabbing one of these on launch day just because it looks like such a versatile piece of kit. We’ll have to see if its worth buying as a game console when the time comes but it’s shaping up to be an interesting year for the handheld space.