Smartphones, tablets and styli

It’s always struck me that handwriting was a natural way to use a tablet computer, though maybe this is a hangover from my days as a Pocket PC user! But the Apple Way is not to use a pen or stylus but to poke at a touch-sensitive screen with a finger tip.Steve Jobs famously disliked the idea of using a stylus with a tablet.

(Steve Jobs) It's like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it.
So iPad users generally have to make do with either their finger or a third party ‘stylus’ that mimicks a finger tip, usually with a squishy rubbery tip that frankly is not much use when it comes to writing. I’ve tried a few of these, without really finding the experience useful for writing - they are a bit more practical for scribbling quick diagrams in my experience.I also have a Samsung smartphone, the Galaxy Note 2. I bought this largely because it comes with a stylus and surprisingly good handwriting recognition software. I can use the stylus for text entry for most, if not all, of the apps for which it would be appropriate. The stylus fits snugly and neatly into the phone’s case.  It’s not a simple device - (this article explains how the thing works - Break It Down – How Does The S Pen Work?) but it works admirably, giving the real sensation of writing. In contrast to the spongy rubber blob of a typical iPad stylus, you pretty well know where the line you’re writing will appear on the screen. The S-pen is good enough in use that it may well be the deciding factor in which model of tablet I buy to replace my iPad3 in the future.There are several iPad apps I’ve always felt would benefit from the use of a stylus:
  • Any of a number of note-taking apps - ideally with handwriting recognition.
  • Sketching apps (which would include the Evernote app Penultimate).
  • Pdf annotation apps such as iAnnotate or Papership. Papership is particularly useful to me as it accesses my library of pdf files indexed and organised in Mendeley.
  • Evernote. This would be a dream, but really I think script entry would be limited to Penultimate. On my Galaxy Note 2, I can scribble into Evernote to my heart’s content.
A few weeks ago, the Evernote Market Place (which pops into my awareness from time to time when using Evernote) advertised the Jot Script iPad stylus by Adonit, which has the nearest thing to a pen-like point that I’ve seen in an iPad stylus. For a third-party iPad stylus, it’s a bit on the pricy side but I thought it would be worth a punt. This is something of a preliminary review after a few days of use.The Jot Script stylus works with all iOS devices, though you need to have Bluetooth 4 for all the advanced features such as palm rejection - this includes iPad3 and later models (and the iPad minis). Also, unlike the Samsung S-pen, it’s powered (by a AAA cell). You need to turn it on and let it pair with the iPad. In the hand, the Jot Script feels very much like a pen - it’s got a pretty fine point to it, and it’s pretty much the same length and weight as a largish ballpoint pen.I’ve tried the Jot Script with the following apps:Penultimate. This is a graphics app for sketching that’s part of the Evernote family, so your sketches and scribbles end up in Evernote. The difficulty I’ve had so far (only a few days in) is that the line being drawn doesn’t always appear where you think it will. I imagine this may get better with practice. I don’t find my handwriting particularly legible. The software offers quite good protection against accidental ‘inking’ by one’s wrist. Penultimate also offers a ‘drift’ function where you can zoom in to a page, and it drifts across as you write. This allows you to generate pages with reasonably fine text, but it strikes me as a ridiculous workaround of a pretty glaring defect in iPad design - the lack of a really functional stylus from the get-go. Still, it is quite good, and works quite well.JotStudio - made by Adonit, this is a pretty basic sketching app. It has a few pen types, and limited ‘pressure sensitivity’ - line width seems to be mostly dependent on the speed at which the line is drawn (this is true also for Penultimate). Only seems to function in landscape orientation. This works quite well, but has limited functionality.WritePad - this app features handwriting recognition and is made by PhatWare who used to make handwriting apps for the old PocketPC platform. I have trouble here because, as with the other apps, there’s a bit of uncertainty where the line will appear and when it’ll start appearing. I find it quite difficult to write sufficiently clearly (given the limitations of the iPad screen and the stylus) for effective speed writing and handwriting recognition. I find that if your wrist contacts the screen, you can’t write with the stylus (and you make a random squiggle where your wrist touches the screen). Limited use for me, but perhaps it’ll get better with practice.iAnnotate. Perhaps the leading pdf annotation software. The stylus is useful for freehand annotations. Works pretty well, though the highlighter tool seems to select rather more text than I intend to with the stylus.Papership. This is a pdf viewer and annotater that works with Mendeley libraries. The app is free, but the full range of annotation tools needs a £2.99 in-app purchase. This is worth it in my view. Papership is for me one of the killer apps. Annotated pdfs are snychronised back up to the Mendeley server, so the annotations are visible on your desktop PC or laptop. The Jot Script stylus makes reading and annotating research papers really easy and intuitive.My conclusion is that the iPad remains pretty much unworkable (for me at least) for text entry with a stylus, but that for quick diagrams and, more importantly for me, annotating pdfs, the Adonit stylus is a useful addition and one that's much easier to use than a finger tip or the more usual blunt rubbery stylus.For handwriting entry on a tablet or phone, I reckon that Samsung’s S-pen wins. When (or if) I’m in the market for a new tablet, I will try out the Galaxy Note 10.1 with the S-pen.

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Raspberry Pi as a Squeezebox

I’ve blogged in the past about the really rather wonderful but sadly discontinued Squeezebox system of networked media players (see for example 2013 – My year as a music consumer and Squeezebox RIP). It hadn’t escaped my notice that the tiny computer Raspberry Pi has been used as a low power Squeezebox, and I fancied a spot of tinkering to make a backup Squeezebox device should some of my current Squeezeboxes conk out (though it has to be said that I have two Squeezebox Radios, one Squeezebox Touch and one Squeezebox Classic, and I’ve never had any hardware problems to date).I looked around the web for tutorials on setting up a Raspberry Pi as a Squeezebox, and there do seem to be several ways to achieve this.First up would be to install Squeezeplug. This sets up the Raspberry Pi not only as a player, but as the Logitech Media Server (LMS) itself. As far as I can deduce, this setup would be useful as a low power media server that would be left running 24/7 - obviously with an external drive to hold the music files. Since I’m running LMS on a QNAP NAS already, I think this might be overkill!I then found this tutorial on installing Squeezelite on an Raspberry PI, with the stock Raspbian operating system - Installing Squeezelite Player on Raspbian. The same author decided to use a different OS to make a device that could be switched on and off without problems, resulting in...Unpluggable Squeezelite Player on TinyCore. This uses a small linux distro, PiCore (based on TinyCore) which runs in RAM and uses the Raspberry Pi’s SD card in read-only mode, meaning it can be switched on and off with no damage.As an alternative, there’s a pre-built version of the above, called PiCorePlayer. This may be the most straightforward way to set up the Raspberry Pi, and will be my first foray into the world of Raspberry Pi.Just now, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my Model B Raspberry Pi (complete with SD card), a small plastic case and a USB WiFi stick.

Cost so far:Raspberry Pi Type B with 8GB SD card               £27.40Edimax Wireless Nano USB Adapter                     £8.95Case-CLR 1 Raspberry Pi Type B Case - Clear      £3.99Total (inc VAT) is                                                    £48.41

The 8Gb SD card is probably overkill for the purpose I have in mind. The RS website says it has the stock Raspbian OS, but I could put the multi-distro NOOB on it. I probably have a modestly sized SD card kicking around - the PiCorePlayer site says the entire thing is only 26Mb (though the latest img file is around 57Mb).I need the WiFi adapter because running an ethernet cable to the eventual location of the device is likely to be impractical. I expect to do all the set up on the command line, starting with the device hooked up by ethernet until the WiFi is setup, though if necessary I can borrow a keyboard and mouse for the setup. I have several 5V USB power power supplies that should fit the bill according to the Raspberry Pi website.My immediate plans are to hook the PiCorePlayer to a DAC via USB. Another future possibility would be to add a HiFiBerry DAC card. This would be rather fun as it’d require me to get out the soldering iron!

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piCorePlayer - Squeezebox on a Pi

Adventures in Raspberry Pi LandWhen the Raspberry Pi was announced a few years ago, I was rather attracted by this low power but very flexible educational computer but never bought one until recently, when I fancied having a bit of a play with setting up a Raspberry Pi as a Squeezebox player.After a bit of a sidestep in the ordering, I ended up with the following:

  • One Raspberry Pi Model B, with SD card containing NOOB
  • One USB WiFi USB stick (not the Edimax stick I originally planned - more on this later)
  • One clear plastic case
  • One power supply
piCorePlayer installationThe SD card that came with the Raspberry Pi had the NOOB collection of operating systems. However, I began by overwriting the SD card with the piCorePlayer 1.12a image. I connected the Raspberry Pi to my router with an ethernet cable, and booted it up. Booting piCorePlayer takes only a few seconds. Connecting vis SSH was trivial with Terminal on the MacBook. Recent piCorePlayer releases include a rather nifty web page based configuration system, so it really didn't take long to set up the connection to the Logitech Media Server, rename the device, and set up the audio via the spare USB port to a small Cambridge audio DacMagic headphone amp. Here's a quick snap of the device with ethernet connection to the left and power supply to the right with the SD card protruding. You can see the WiFi stick to the left, next to the ethernet connector.So far, so good.PiCorePlayer successfully saw the Wifi network. I entered the SSID and password, but the wifi stick resolutely refused to play ball after a reboot, leaving the device uncontactable except via ethernet. I subsequently investigated reviews of the Wifi stick I'd chosen. Turns out that the thing won't work with piCorePlayer, but will with Raspbian. Ho hum! I then ordered an Edimax device, which I should have done in the first place.In use, the Pi seems to work well, and plays audio robustly, no pops, clicks or other audio artefacts. In its transparent case it looks quite attractive in a 1970s Blake's 7 budget SciFi kind of style, what with the various flickering and flashing LEDs.A couple of days later, the replacement WiFi stick arrived. By this time, piCorePlayer version 1.12c was released. I reflashed the SD card, and repeated the setup routine. I also expanded the second partition to fill the rest of the SD card. This should allow me to install further extensions to piCore. The Edimax WiFi stick does seem to play ball with piCorePlayer, which can now take up residence next to the HiFi. I note that selecting the correct ALSA parameters for the external DAC is important to avoid pops, clicks and other audio degradation. PiCorePlayer's web interface makes setting up the audio (and Wifi) very easy and straightforward.The Pi is hooked up to a Cambridge Audio DACmagic 100, and thence to a Naim Nait3 integrated amplifier and Mission 720 speakers. I also tested it using a Cambridge Audio DACmagic XS DAC/Headphone amp.Next up...I have a HiFi Berry DAC card in transit. I have also soldered up an expansion board for a 2 x 16 LCD display.

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HiFiBerry DAC for the Raspberry Pi

I mentioned at the end of my previous blog article on the Raspberry Pi that I had a DAC board in transit. Well it has arrived, I’ve fitted it and after a few trials and tribulations, it is set up and working well.The attraction of having an onboard DAC in the Pi is really one of neatness. It also frees up one of the USB ports that I would otherwise use to feed a USB DAC (for example I can boot the Pi into Squeezeplug, and use the Pi as a Logitech Media Server with Squeezelite as a player). The case that I’m using for the Pi doesn’t really offer a lot of room for manoeuvre when installing additional boards, but in the end I bodged together a neat enough solution.The HiFiBerryThe HiFiBerry DAC is a small printed circuit board about half the area of the main Raspberry Pi board. It attaches to a set of 8 connecting pins - the onboard sound connector P5 - you have to solder an 8-pin header to the Raspberry Pi main board first.I’d ordered the board with two RCA connectors, but no headphone style jack plug. The RCA connectors were three pin sockets, obviously intended to be soldered to the board. It was immediately clear that this would mean the Pi would no longer fit in the case, so I decided to connect the RCAs via wires to the board, and mount the RCAs in the lid of the case. The board came with the GPIO and P5 sockets already soldered.AssemblyStep 1 - I soldered the P5 header to the Raspberry Pi board. This proved pretty easy. The P5 sits right next to the GPIO connectors.Step 2 - I soldered four wires to the output terminals intended to output to a 3.5mm jack. Two from GND to the GND tag of the RCA sockets, and one from the L and R channels to the appropriate tag of the RCA sockets.Step 3 - I drilled two holes in the case lid. I also needed to remove some bits of plastic from what appear to be strengthening ribs in the case lid to allow it to fit over the HiFiBerry board. I fixed the RCA sockets into the holes, which needed a spot of araldite to hold them firm.Step 4 - I mounted the HiFiBerry board on the P5 connector - it also slots onto the GPIO header for added support. The card came with a polythene pillar and screws to further support it in place, so I fitted those.Step 5 - I assembled the case back together, inserted the SD card and booted the Pi.[caption id="attachment_2499" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Upper side of HiFiBerry board[/caption]You can see the wiring I added to connect the RCA sockets to the board. Obviously, the sockets supplied are intended to be soldered to the board in the positions labelled 'Left' and 'Right'.[caption id="attachment_2501" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The underside of the HiFiBerry board[/caption]There's not much to see on this view of the HiFiBerry - other than my soldering, and the two connectors that attach the board to the Raspberry Pi - the board came with these already fitted.Using the piCorePlayer web interface, I selected the option for the HiFBerry DAC, determined the ALSA settings for the HiFiBerry and entered them, and saved the whole setting to the SD card. Then I excitedly hooked up the phono cable to my amplifier, booted the Pi and sat back to listen to the music.Well, I could listen to the right hand channel, but the left channel was sadly absent!A problem!Clearly I’d done something wrong! I referred to the forums on the HiFiBerry site. Most people having this sort of trouble had evidently made minor cockups with soldering, though there were hints that some cards may have been defective. A quick email elicited a rapid response suggesting I check the connectors for evidence of shorting out. I did this, finding no problems. As an aside, I found Daniel at CrazyAudio very responsive and polite in the face of a neophyte solderer asking questions.A little while later, it occurred to me that the two non-ground pins of the RCA connector might not be equivalent - in particular, it wasn't easy to see how they connected within the socket. I plugged in an RCA plug into the L channel socket and used my multimeter to determine if the signal wire from the plug actually made electrical contact with the tag to which I’d soldered the wire from the board. It didn’t, so after a bit more investigation I detached the wire and soldered it to the third tag of the connector. At this point the Pi was properly outputting audio from both channels!Triumph!So, how does the Pi perform as a media player with the onboard DAC? First impressions are that it compares well with the two external DACs I have available, though both are budget items (a Cambridge Audio DACmagic 100 and DACmagic XS). More on this later, though I'm not really a serious audiophile and I've no way of doing a proper blind test.

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A Second Raspberry Pi Squeezebox

In my first foray into Raspberry PI, I set one up as a Squeezebox networked music player using piCorePlayer - this one has a HiFiBerry DAC card and is remarkably easy to use - to switch it on or off you just plug in or unplug the power respectively. For the new project, I wanted to try the new Wolfson DAC card from Element 14, particularly as I was getting occasional crackles and pops from the USB output in Raspian. This DAC isn’t currently supported by piCorePlayer, so I was keen to take a different route.I ended up with a media player that didn’t have an obvious way of shutting it down, other than via the command line. So I wanted to figure out how to add a pushbutton that would shut the Pi down to state in which it can be powered down.

Installing the Wolfson DAC

Installing the Wolfson DAC card is pretty straightforward. It uses a set of sprung connectors to conenct to the P5 header of the Raspberry Pi, pushes on to the P1 header and fixes in place with a plastic screw. The screw is important to make sure the connectors are held against the P5. I didn’t bother with trying to set the DAC up with a stock Raspbian OS - Element 14 have an image file of a modified Raspbian with all modules etc set up from the get-go. It can be downloaded from here, though I found that the file wouldn’t unzip on my Mac, unless I used Keka, a third party archiver utility available from the App Store. There’s some discussion on the Element 14 discussion forums about the unzipping problem.I set up wifi and installed squeezelite as described in this tutorial - all pretty straightforward as I have a fair bit of Linux experience. I’m using an unbranded wifi USB stick that steadfastly refused to work with piCorePlayer - but it seems fine in Raspbian.In use, the Pi starts squeezelite when it boots, and it’s then visible to the LMS web interface and other squeezebox control apps such as SqueezePad and iPeng. I was using a terminal to shut the Pi down via the command line before powering down. This seemed less than ideal, so I investigated setting up a ‘shutdown’ push button switch for an easier and more orderly shutdown.

 3 Pin Header on the Wolfson DAC

The Wolfson DAC pretty much covers the main set of header pins, and makes three of these available via a three pin header on the card (referred in this thread).

Wolfson_Card_J8-1:RPI_TX  ->  RPi: P1-08 - TXD0 (ALT0) - GPIO14Wolfson_Card_J8-2:RPI_RX  ->  RPi: P1-10 - RXD0 (ALT0) - GPIO15Wolfson_Card_J8-3:GND

[caption id="attachment_2527" align="alignleft" width="400"] The J8 Header[/caption](GPIO14 is the pin closest to the edge of the DAC card, and GND is the one furthest from the edge). I connected a pushbutton switch on a breadboard to GPIO14 and GND for testing purposes.

Setting up the shutdown script.

Bearing in mind I’d never done any prior work with hardware interfaces, and never done any python work, this proved an interesting exercise!First, I installed RPi-GPIO:
sudo apt-get updatesudo apt-get -y install python-rpi.gpio
I don’t recall installing the time and os Python modules, so I assume they are there by default. I copied the shutdown code (from here) and saved as /home/pi/scripts/shutdown2.py. Note that the comment lines indicate sources - all I had to do was to edit the pin numbers from the original to use Pin 14.
# This script will wait for a button to be pressed and then shutdown
# the Raspberry Pi.
# http://kampis-elektroecke.de/?page_id=3740
# http://raspi.tv/2013/how-to-use-interrupts-with-python-on-the-raspberry-pi-and-rpi-gpio
# https://pypi.python.org/pypi/RPi.GPIO
 import RPi.GPIO as GPIO
import time
import os
 # we will use the pin numbering of the SoC, so our pin numbers in the code are
# the same as the pin numbers on the gpio headers
GPIO.setmode(GPIO.BCM)
 # Pin 14 will be input and will have its pull up resistor activated
# so we only need to connect a button to ground
GPIO.setup(14, GPIO.IN, pull_up_down = GPIO.PUD_UP)
# ISR: if our button is pressed, we will have a falling edge on pin 14
# this will trigger this interrupt:
def Int_shutdown(channel):
# shutdown our Raspberry Pi
os.system("sudo shutdown -h now")
# Now we are programming pin 14 as an interrupt input
# it will react on a falling edge and call our interrupt routine "Int_shutdown"
GPIO.add_event_detect(14, GPIO.FALLING, callback = Int_shutdown, bouncetime = 2000)
# do nothing while waiting for button to be pressed
while 1:
        time.sleep(1)
To run the script at startup, I added this line to rc.local:
sudo python /home/pi/scripts/shutdown2.py
One reboot, and voila! My first attempt to use Raspberry Pi GPIO pins was a success! I’ve now soldered the switch to a couple of push-on connectors which fit to the J8 pins 1 and 3 (GPIO14 and GND respectively), so it’s a little fragile in the absence of a proper case! Pressing the shutdown button shuts the system down. I suspect that a reset button connected to Header 6 would re-start the device from that state, but I’ve yet to investigate.I’m presently using this Pi as a small player to drive a pair of headphones - it sounds rather good. Here's a photo of the finished device:[caption id="attachment_2526" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Raspberry Pi with Wolfson DAC (click to enlarge)[/caption]

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Using a Raspberry Pi as a Squeezebox

I have recently been playing around with using Raspberry Pi devices as streaming music players within a Squeezebox-based system. I've arrived at quite a comprehensive arrangement, which includes a Pi as a player:This is a rough illustration of my current implementation of a network of Squeezebox players linked to a NAS (GrumpyBox) running Logitech Media Server (LMS). It consists of several Logitech Squeezeboxes, a couple of iPads that are playback-capable through apps such as SqueezePad and iPeng, and the software Squeezebox emulater, SqueezePlay. To this I have recently added a Raspberry Pi running piCorePlayer. I also have a second Raspberry Pi running Squeezeplug, which has its own instance of LMS (not shown in the diagram).I've summarised the usage cases of the three setups I have tried in the table below. My opinion can be summarised as:

  • If all you want to do is run a media player connected to an existing LMS, choose the piCorePlayer option.
  • If you need to set up a media server as well as a player, choose the Squeezeplug option.
  • By far the most versatile of the two DAC cards I've tried is the Wolfson DAC - if you want to use this, then Squeezeplug or the custom Wolfson kernel options are best.
  • Both Squeezeplug and piCorePlayer work well with USB DACs
SqueezeplugpiCorePlayerWolfson kernel
URLwebsitewebsitewebsite
UsageConvenient low cost LMS server and playerLow cost and easy to use player. Configured via web interface.Wolfson supply a patched image supporting the DAC. Squeezelite can easily be installed and configured
LMSyesnono
GuideSqueezeplug wikiI also described this installation here. Instructions at the piCorePlayer website I described this here
Wolfson DAC supportednot supportedsupported
HiFiBerrysupportedsupported
Notes

1, 4

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Bizarre design flaw in the Cowon X7 media player?

After Apple replaced my 2 gigabyte first generation iPod Nano with a nifty little 8Gb sixth generation model (due to a product recall), I found myself using that in preference to my Cowon X7, even though the latter has 160Gb storage. The consequence of this is that I allowed the X7 to completely discharge.

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Rune Audio media player

I’m always interested in tinkering with alternative audio usage of my Raspberry Pi devices. As standard, I’m using them as Squeezebox substitutes, running the minimalist OS piCorePlayer, though I’ve also tried Squeezeplug and Raspbian for this. Rune Audio, which I think is derived from RaspyFi as a fork at the time RaspyFi became Volumio (though I may have that the wrong way round), recently released a version 0.3 beta for the Raspberry Pi, so (being naturally curious) I decided to try it out.

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Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 - the return of the stylus

So far, I have owned and used iPads (first generation iPad, third generation iPad and a first generation iPad mini for work). I posted previously about my search for a usable stylus for iPad (Smartphones, tablets and styli). This was pretty much unsuccessful: iPad styli were always inadequately precise, either because they had a rubber blob of a tip that mimicked a fingertip, or because the bluetooth system used wasn't precise enough.A couple of years ago, I made my belated entry to the smartphone market, with a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (I recently updated to a Galaxy Note 4). This device comes with the S Pen, an interesting device that gives a really good screen response when writing. Coupled with excellent handwriting conversion, this meant that text entry by scribbling on the screen was a realistic proposition. Here's a good description of how the S Pen works. Essentially, from that site:

An electromagnetic field is generated from a circuit behind the screen. The S Pen picks this up and uses it to power itself and figure out its position relative to the screen. It sends this, along with information from the S Pen button and the nib at the end, back to the Note.
At that point, it was abundantly clear that my next tablet purchase was likely to be a Samsung Note device. And on a recent visit to a department store I had a little play with a Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 tablet - and my partner bought one. After a weekend of seeing this device in action, I bought one too - reduced in price to £324. Anyway, for me (and the work I do) this is an iPad killer - for example:
  • Bigger screen, at a very decent resolution
  • Android 4.4.2 (this is like climbing over the wall of the Apple prison)
  • The S pen, which offers realistic sketch pad and handwriting recognition
  • Easier file transfer to and from the device than iTunes allows
  • Ability to add to the 32Gb onboard memory - I added a 64Gb card
  • Most of the apps I use on the iPad are also available on the Galaxy, and those that aren't have perfectly good alternatives
  • You can run up to 4 apps simultaneously onscreen.
This is basically a power user's tablet, and I really can't fault it. But it's the S Pen that really sells it to me. Here's a very detailed review dating from March last year, when the beast retailed at about £649. I think it's a pretty accurate review. I doubt I'd have been keen to cough up £649, but at £324 this seemed a great deal - I presume the discounted price means it's either discontinued or a new model is due shortly.

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Mini HiFi

I have posted before now about the excellent Squeezebox streaming audio system from Logitech that is sadly now discontinued. Since Logitech knocked their line of Squeezebox players on the head, the system seems to continue flourishing, thanks to the open source nature of the server software. Most recently, the BBC decided to implement a very poorly publicised change to the internet streams of live and listen again radio programmes (see, for example, this blog post).  Within days users of the Logitech Server had access to these streams restored, thanks to the efforts of developers who post on the forums. In contrast, users of just about every internet radio on the market and other streaming systems such as Sonos have to make do with pretty low resolution mp3 streams (and these are not a long term solution).At the moment, I am running a Squeezebox Touch and two Squeezebox Radios in my network, with an old Squeezebox 3 held in reserve. I also have three Raspberry Pi computers set up with piCorePlayer as Squeezebox players, and can stream via several apps on iPads and Android devices. So, all in all, a very versatile system, that Logitech should be ashamed of failing to support properly. Anyway, enough grumbling. Here's a neat little mini HiFi I've just set up - ultimately for use in my office.[caption id="attachment_3413" align="alignnone" width="1000"] A new, and very tiny, Squeezebox based HiFi[/caption]This uses a Raspberry Pi model B, fitted with a HiFiBerry Dac, connected to an Amptastic Mini-1 amplifier. The Mini-1  is seriously tiny, with a footprint smaller than a CD jewel case. I've just added a pair of QAcoustics bookshelf speakers. The whole shebang sounds pretty good for the price of around £300. In the office, I may well be using an old 1st gen iPad to stream music either from Spotify or via a VPN link from my home music server, rather than the Raspberry Pi.

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iPod Nano repair

A few years ago, I obtained a 6th Generation iPod Nano by virtue of a product recall (the 1st Gen nano had a battery problem). I've used the replacement iPod far more than the 1st Gen version, so I was a bit dismayed when the power button stopped working a month or so ago.Repair via Apple didn't seem terribly worthwhile, so I investigated whether it might be possible to sort this out myself. When the 6th Gen iPod Nano was released, iFixit wrote a teardown guide - there's an astonishing amount of stuff crammed into a tiny case! I found a blog with a description of how to fix the power switch problem, which seems to be relatively common. After a bit of procrastination, I set about attempting the repair.It's not quite clear what the malfunction really is - there's a surface mounted switch (it's the gold coloured circle mentioned in step 7 of the repair instructions), and I guess that something wears out or gets dislodged making it inoperative.I didn't really have the specialised tools needed - I used the plastic lid of a Bic biro pen as a spudger/lever, the tweezers from a Swiss army knife, and the small blade of the knife as a screwdriver. To get in, I used a hairdryer to melt the glue and the knife to lever up the screen. I avoided disconnecting the screen or detaching it completely, and once I had the battery loose, I used a rubber band to hold it to the screen. I noted that of the four screws you remove for the repair, there are three different sizes (all tiny!) - I took a quick photo and labelled it so I knew where they go. I fashioned a small square of plastic to glue to the gold switch with contact adhesive.Too much of the original glue was lost, so I reattached the screen with a contact adhesive using a bulldog clip to hold the screen down while the glue set. The result was a bit messy, and I doubt the unit is waterproof any more. But hey, once I had reassembled the iPod, the switch was working again. Who knows how long for...

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Silca T-Ratchet Kit + Ti-Torque

I guess I'm really a sucker for  this sort of thing: a miniature toolset that offers a portable torque wrench of 2-8Nm all packed in a quality pouch with a wide range of bits (2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6 mm Hex key; T10, T20 and T25 Torx; and a PH2 Philips) and corresponding driver ratchet. A rather blingy tool probably useful as a portable toolkit. After perusing various online emporia, I decided to place the order directly with Silca in Indianapolis.

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Indoor Training Part 1 - Hardware

This is the first in a short series of posts in which I discuss my approach to training for cycle time trials. I find road cycling to be unsuitable for structured training sessions other than extended endurance sessions, due to a combination of climbs and descents (albeit pretty small around here), junctions, traffic lights and of course motor traffic. The exception to that would be the evening 10 mile time trials the club offers through the season, which provided an opportunity for riding at a high sustained pace for 20+ minutes.

In part 1, I’ll give a bit of background to the kit I use.

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Powertap

A few years ago, I decided to have a play with using a power meter in my training. Because I wasn't too sure about how useful I'd find this, I went with the cheap option - a Polar CS600X with WIND speed and power/cadence sensors. This worked reasonably well - at first - but I've had no end of problems with reliability. Mostly this seems to be because there are several essential components in the WIND power meter system: the power supply, the chain tension sensor, the cadence sensor and the chain speed sensor. If any one of these elements doesn't work, you see no power or cadence reading, and there is virtually no diagnostics available to figure out where the problem lies (except if there is no power). And what is particularly annoying is that the setup can work fine one day, and the next (with the bike not moved from the turbo trainer) it doesn't the next day.Anyhow, enough was enough, and I decided to move to one of the more 'serious' power meter systems. I was looking for something that could be moved from one bike to another, that used ANT+ (I am so fed up with the Polar proprietary system), and that would be reasonably robust. I thought through the following options:1. The Polar Pedal system. Not ANT+. Seems from reviews that the pedal installation is fiddly so not easily switched from bike to bike.2. The Garmin Vector system. Despite winning a product of the year award from a bike magazine a few years ago, this hasn't been released to the public yet and remains effectively vapourware. It also uses an undesirable (to me at least) pedal system - Look Keo - and may well be prove to be a fiddle to install the pedals as with the Polar system. At least it is ANT+. I should add that I've not got anything against the Keo pedals, but I've no desire to add Keos to collection of pedals that includes old-style Look, Campagnolo Pro-Fit, Shimano SPD and Speedplay!3. The Brim Brothers system where the power meter is within the shoe plate - seems attractive, but what's the release date? At any road, the system seems to use Speedplay shoe plates.4. SRM - the industry standard crank based system. Clearly the system to have above all others, but it's expensive and not easy to switch between bikes. It is ANT+.5. Other players come and go...6. Powertap. This is what I plumped for. I went for a Hed Jet disc wheel with a Powertap G3 hub. This is a spoked wheel with a permanently bonded carbon fibre cover bonded to the rim and hub. It seems to be a robust construction (though the skin is pretty thin and flexible), and I am proposing to use it while turbo training as well as on the road.So far, I've had the device for a few weeks, and I can make a few observations. Firstly, the ANT+ system is a godsend, particularly as it relates to the Garmin 500 computer that I use. I've only used the wheel for a couple of events, as bad weather and a combination of leave and working away from home have interfered. I can observe that typical wattage is considerably lower than recorded on the old Polar system. But that's kind of what I expected, and I am only using these data internally as there's little point in comparing with other riders or power meters. I'd add that the Garmin 500 offers quite a bit of versatility in how data are displayed. I've decided to set one of the screens to include Power, Power (3 sec average) and Power (30 sec average). This offers not only an instantaneous power value, but a rather smoother and stable figure. The Garmin's data are easy to import into Golden Cheetah.As a disc wheel, the Jet disc is different to disc wheels I've used in the past. My first disc was a Hed with a screw-on hub - this had a rather cardboardy feeling carbon structure and was hollow and symmetrically lenticular. This disc was sold and replaced with another version with a cassette (currently adapted for fixed gear use). I've also got a Corima disc, which appears to be a foam core with carbon skin, and is flat-sided. The Jet disc wheel is essentially a spoked wheel with a thin carbon sheet covering the spokes - sort of a fairing. It has therefore got something of an asymmetric lenticular appearance because of the wheel's dishing. The skin feels a bit flimsy, particularly around the valve hole, but has stood up to use rather well so far. The skin is firmly attached to the hub and is bonded to the alloy rim. I chose a clincher version, as I've pretty much abandoned tubulars for all but the best of road conditions - around where I live I was suffering too many punctures in recent years. I imagine that a 'normal' Jet disc would be quite light though with a Powertap hub, even the lighter G3 version, the weight is a little hefty.Expect a longer term review at the end of the 2013 season.

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Squeezebox RIP

A few years ago, I encountered a review of a networked music player that seemed rather useful - the Squeezebox. This was a small unit that connected wirelessly to a computer on the home network (or to a manufacturer-maintained server on the internet) to stream digital music from numerous sources. The Squeezebox itself connects to the HiFi via analogue of digital outputs.  The Squeezebox line of devices had been acquired by Logitech from its original manufacturers, SlimDevices. Over the following years, my Squeezebox system expanded to include a Squeezebox Touch, two Squeezebox Radios, and a number of software players for laptops and iPads, with my my music hosted on a QNAP NAS, running 24:7. You can see the general setup in this diagram (the Touch and Classic connect to the HiFi, while the Radios are standalone players):

The whole system is immensely versatile: I really only scratch the surface. The Logitech Media Server (LMS) offers the facility to add plugins, and over the years many official and third party plugins have been developed. I usually use LMS in preference to the Logitech maintained server MySqueezebox.com, and use it for playing local music files (a mixture of flac and mp3 format) and streaming radio. I scrobble my listening to Last.FM, but I don't subscribe to music streaming services. You can synchronise music between two or more devices, alternatively you can play different music to each device. Like I say very versatile.

There were of course issues with the system. Frankly, had I not some tendency towards geeky-ness, I might have been confused by the system. On the other hand, consumer understanding can't have been helped by continually renaming things - for example the server software changed from SlimServer, to SqueezeServer to Logitech Media Server (and I may have missed some out), and explaining to the customer how the local and internet servers worked must have been a complete pain for support.Fast forward to late August 2012. Having just bought a Squeezebox Touch (as an upgrade to my Squeezebox Classic), I was browsing round the Logitech website, when I noticed a new product, the Logitech UE Smart Radio, which looked remarkably like the Squeezebox Radios I owned. As I continued looking round the Logitech site, I could see all the pages relating to the Squeezebox range disappear, and within a very short time, pretty much all mention of Squeezeboxes had been expunged. I posted to the Squeezebox Radio forum, and you can see there the dismay this news caused.Logitech has indeed pulled out of supplying the best home networked music system that I can see on the market. They've rebranded the Squeezebox Radio, and reduced its functionality (though I have to say this generates an easier consumer experience). Oddly the newly branded UE Smart Radio can't play local music files without an internet connection. And there's nothing in the range that can output to a HiFi. So, all very sad.In the meantime, Logitech are supporting MySqueezebox.com for the foreseeable future, and even when that goes, those of us with functional local servers will continue using their Squeezebox systems.It's just a shame that the Squeezebox lineup has gone.

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New for old

Way back in late November, Apple announced that some first generation iPod Nano models had defective batteries that represented a hazard, and that they had instituted a replacement programme. Visiting the website revealed that mine was one of those to be replaced. My Nano hadn't really been used much since I got an iPod Touch (now replaced with a Cowon X7), but I requested the return package, and in due course posted the iPod off to Apple.Much discussion ensued as to what the device would be replaced with.  Some web sources implied Apple were replacing the defective units with refurbished first generation devices, other that the replacement units would be more recent models.My replacement was delivered yesterday, and I can confirm that Apple have replaced my 1st gen 2Gb Nano (left) with a 6th gen 8Gb Nano (right).I've not really kept up with the evolution of iPods, and frankly I'm astonished by this little device.  And it is little.  At first sight it seems little bigger than the sync cable plug.  Despite its size, it still has a battery capable of [up to] 24h music playback (according to Apple) and an accelerometer so tracks can be changed by shaking it.  It has a number of apps installed including a clock, meaning it can be used as a watch if it's clipped to a strap.  It has a radio, which uses the headphone cable as an aerial.  There's no navigation dial, but the touch screen is pretty intuitive and easy to use (in fact after years of iPod Touch and iPad use, I don't find the iPod classic control dial particularly easy).All in all, I'm rather pleased.  Even though this is another device that uses iTunes.Update: I was curious as to how Apple managed to shoehorn all this stuff inside such a small case. iFixit has an interesting iPod Nano 6th Generation Teardown.

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Third generation iPad

I never upgraded from the first generation iPad to the second. I thought the second generation was more of a generation 1.5. But I was sorely tempted by the upcoming 3G iPad. Indeed, the improved cameras and retina display were what swung it for me, and yesterday I received my shiny new gadget. These are my first observations.First, that retina display. It's astounding. But not so much for photographs as for text. Where on my 1G iPad I had to do quite a bit of zooming to read fine print, the text is spectacularly sharp and clear. And when I return to my MacBook display, it seems pretty poor by comparison ( but not so my very old Sony Vaio Ubuntu laptop, which has tiny pixels).Second, the cameras. Friends tell me that the images captured are significantly better. Frankly, using the iPad as a camera is likely to be something of a minority activity (for me at least), but it makes it possible to use FaceTime.Third, the battery. The iFixit guys show that the interior of the device is mostly filled with battery, about twice the capacity of the second generation model. It does seem to take longer to charge, but the extra battery capacity seems to be needed by the screen, so battery life isn't improved.Fourth, the 3G model seems much snappier than the 1G model.So far, happy with the upgrade from 1G to 3G.

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Amazon Kindle 4

Perhaps it's something to do with the change in focus at the end of the racing season, but I'm often tinkering around with tech stuff in the autumn!  Anyway, I've just taken delivery of one of the new Kindle e-book readers from Amazon.  This model is one of several devices being launched by Amazon over the next few months, with the others apparently being a touch screen Kindle and the Kindle Fire - an Android-based tablet that promises to shake up the tablet market.  The new Kindle is usually referred to as the Kindle 4 (though Amazon seem to just refer to it as the Kindle) and differs principally from the previous model (the Kindle 3, now renamed Kindle Keyboard) by the absence of the tiny keyboard and audio playback facility.Anyway, my initial response to reading the specs of the Kindle 4 was one of disbelief: why would anyone pay for a Kindle with reduced specs - half the memory, half the battery life, no keyboard, no charger?  In fact it still has the capacity to store over a thousand books, the battery life is still 1 month, and the on-screen keyboard (operated by the five-way central button) works just fine.  I guess the expectation is that users either already have numerous USB chargers kicking around, or will just charge from a computer's USB port.The front buttons are, from left to right: Back; Keyboard; the 5-way select button; Menu; Home.  These provide the familiar functions as on previous models.  On the bottom edge there is a press-button on/off button that turns the device into standby mode (this is a slide and release switch on the Kindle 3) and a tiny USB socket.  It's to Amazon's credit that this is a standard USB socket - it's one of the smaller varieties, micro-B.  I get rather frustrated by the profusion of proprietary cables - I have so many kicking around, including two different types for the old iPaq PocketPC, the iPod/iPad cables and the Cowon one for my music player.  Page navigation is via the forward and back buttons found on the right and left edges of the device.  These are in the same location as on the Kindle 3 though subtly different in shape and action.The screen is the same excellent electronic paper display as used on the Kindle 3, with a 16-level grey scale.  This is surprisingly good at displaying images.  The Kindle 4's firmware differs from previous models in it's screen refresh mode.  In earlier models each page turn happens via a 'blackening' of the screen.  I know this bothers some people, and perhaps that's why Amazon implemented a different screen change system in the Kindle 4 in which a complete screen refresh only happens every six or so page turns.  This makes page changes quicker at the cost of gradually degraded resolution.  I downloaded and installed a firmware update that offers the ability to toggle between screen modes.  On a bit of testing, I've stuck with the new screen refresh mode, as I don't notice any issues with the display when I'm absorbed in reading.  This is the first electronic paper display I've used, and the thing really is startlingly crisp and easy to read - much better in many ways that my first generation iPad.The case is quite similar to the Kindle 3, but the bezel is a slightly lighter grey.  The back of the unit has a slightly rubbery texture.  Overall, the device feels (initially at least) to be a bit plasticky, with the pretty much matte texture of the screen.  But these are first impressions, largely by comparison to the heavier aluminium bodied iPad, and in use it's pretty clear that the Kindle is rock solid and robust.The Kindle is hooked up to an Amazon account, books are delivered via WiFi (there isn't a 3G version) - or can be copied via the USB cable.  As with previous models, pdfs can be read either by copying the file over via USB or by conversion to Kindle format by some arcane email-mediated communication that I've not tried.  The Amazon account shares ebooks between the Kindle and the Kindle apps running on my iPad and my MacBook, and synchronises where I am in each book.Some comparisons:  the Kindle is far superior as an e-book reader than the iPad, though it has to be said that in overall capability the iPad is of course a more versatile device.  This is largely because of the screen quality (for example it's excellent for reading in bight sunlight) but also the Kindle's form factor  scores pretty highly.  It's very light and easy to operate single-handed, for example when lying in bed (where I do most of my recreational book reading).There is a sense of handing over one's reading to another 'walled garden' as one does with the iOS software ecosystem.  Having said that, there are options by which files can be converted between e-book formats (the Kindle reads Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion).  Most e-book reader websites advocate software such as Calibre, which offers e-book library management and the facility to interchange formats.  I've installed this on Mac and Linux, and it seems pretty straightforward to use.The full instruction manual is on the device, with only a minimal instruction leaflet provided in the box.Full technical specs (at Amazon.co.uk)  

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Mythbuntu revisited

Over the last year or so, I've played with a home-built PVR system using the Ubuntu-based implementation of MythTV, Mythbuntu.  Mythbuntu is really just a convenient way to set up a Linux-based computer with MythTV easily installed.  Anyway, previous installments are: Easter projects – Drupal vs Joomla! and tangling with Mythbuntu, Mythbuntu, part 2 and Mythbuntu, part 3.  Most recently, I had been forced to relocate the main server box upstairs, away from the main living room.  This was due to the generally annoying and ugly computer case with its flashing lights and persistent fan and hard drive noise.  I had attempted to use an old Acer laptop as a Mythbuntu frontend connected to the TV and relaying the output to the TV.  This proved rather less than ideal.  I had difficulty getting a decent picture to the TV, though this was mostly due to my ignorance of TV and video settings compounded by issues around output formats from the laptop.  Subsequently,  I've played with a few apps on my iPad (of which more in an upcoming post) which enable the replay of uPnP recordings from the mythbuntu box via my domestic WiFi network.  This got me thinking about whether it might be easiest to pick up a relatively cheap uPnP enabled media player with which to play my recordings.I did a little browsing and came across the Patriot Box Office media player.  This little device is capable of playing just about any media format, and crucially is uPnP compatible, even without installing a hard drive.  While a hard drive would clearly be essential to use all of the player's  facilities, I didn't plan to install one.  Firstly I figured it would detract from the device's silence, and secondly, I wanted to keep this as cheap as possible (the Patriot player was at the time less than £50 from Amazon).  In keeping with my efforts to keep this shoestring cheap, I decided to try and set this up with a spare Netgear USB WiFi stick rather than splash out on the recommended Patriot 802.11n USB stick.  After all, I thought, they are probably just trying to sell stuff.The device itself is small, light and seemingly of good build quality.  I haven't opened it up, as I didn't install a hard drive.  I connected it to the power supply, to the TV and inserted the Netgear WiFi stick.  Eagerly, I switched it on...nope, the Netgear WiFi stick just would not work.  Upon browsing the Patriot support forums, it seems that only certain WiFi chipsets are supported.  So it was back to the drawing board while I ordered the recommended Patriot WiFi device.  In the meantime, I've got a long ethernet cable stretching from the router upstairs, and I can say that the device performs really well as a replacement for a mythbuntu front end, though with restricted functionality due to the absence of any added storage (of course).  I can't, at the moment at least, watch live TV from the mythbuntu system, or stream video from the internet (not so important to me).  This isn't a pressing problem at the moment, as we normally use a Humax PVR box for most of our live viewing and recording.  A more immediate issue is that having an ethernet cable trailing down the stairs is something of a trip hazard!I have a second uPnP server in the network: my QNAP NAS box runs Twonkymedia - I can therefore watch some of my home-made videos.  Which isn't quite as appealing as you might think - these are mostly of me riding my time trial bike.  And what's probably most alarming is that it includes Silent Movie, the full video of Team Grumpy's 2009 ride in the Duo Normand time trial.  All 90 minutes or so.If your are interested in finding out more about the Patriot media player, here are some links to the Patriot Memory page describing the device, and the tech specifications (pdf).

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A variety of iPad apps

Over the year and a bit that I've had my iPad, I've tried a variety of apps.  Many of these I've spotted in reviews on a variety of tech websites, and some of which I've located myself in the app store (which can actually be surprisingly difficult).  Some are imposed by Apple when iOS is updated.  Here's a brief review of some recent apps I've tried. The recent iOS5 update seemed to go quite smoothly for me at least.  As an aside, I decided to do that update because of updates to Pages, Keynote and Numbers, though the real impact of those changes seems pretty invisible to me.  One of the things that appeared on my iPad desktop was the Newsstand app, which is effectively a folder for organising magazine subscriptions.  If you don't want it, tough, you can't get rid of it.  Anyway, I was already a subscriber to New Statesman magazine - this is an app operating outside Newsstand, and really is only of interest for the weekly download of a copy of the magazine.  It behaves pretty much like a pdf reader - OK but not exciting.  The rest of the New Statesman app seems pretty ineffective.The GuardianBut when I noticed The Guardian was to be available in Newsstand, I was interested.  Especially since it's free for the first few months before it moves to £9.99 per month.  I downloaded it and I've been using it for about a week and a half.  It presents The Guardian six days a week, with rapid download of each new issue (though I've noticed that the download sometimes needs a couple of attempts). Each issue remains on my iPad for a week (this cam be 1 day to 1 month, but 1 week is the default).  The newspaper is presented with an attractive tiled front page that lets you get to the sections and stories pretty quickly.  Navigation is well thought out and intuitive.  Onward links in each story aren't as frequent as one might have expected - but when they are there, they're very useful.   Highly recommended, and it's likely I'll take up a sub in January.ProCyclingRegular reading of this blog will know I'm interested in cycling.  I've had a paper sub to ProCycling for several years, and I noticed that it was available in Newsstand.  Obviously I wasn't going to subscribe while my paper sub was still active, so I downloaded a sample issue.  This doesn't seem to be much other than a direct version of the print issue, looking very much like a pdf version with a convenient page navigation along the bottom edge.  Email addresses are activated by a tap, as are URLs  relating to some of the product reviews.  But the advantages of the iPad don't seem to be realised - where The Guardian scores and ProCycling loses is in the ability to navigate around the magazine and beyond.Media PlayersI have a couple of uPnP media devices on my network (separate from my music system, of which more later.  I've tried three uPnP media players to handle viewing images and short videos in my photo library (TwonkyMedia on my NAS box) and recorded TV programmes on my mythbuntu box.Plugplayer (£2.99) is able to see both the TwonkyMedia and Mythbuntu servers, but I think is best as a photo viewer (though every photo is preceded by a low resolution thumbnail image generated by the NAS photo gallery app).  With the Mythbuntu server, video playback seems to be a bit unresponsive.  Airplayer (£2.99) , on the other hand, works well with the photos albeit with slow loading.  Video playback from the Mythbuntu server is quite smooth.  Unfortunately, stepping through a recording is a bit hit and miss.  Subtitles are supported. The smoothest video replay comes with 8player (£2.99) - it has a lovely front page with customisable image and icon sets.  Video playback from Mythbuntu is great, it's easy to fast forward and rewind within the video, and subtitles are available.  What's not so good on my system is viewing photos on TwonkyMedia - all I see are the thumbnails.  Each of these three apps works with some aspect on my multimedia, and each quickly and accurately identifies the servers in my home network. 8player is my choice for video playback, and Airplayer for the photo gallery.I am not a particularly enthusiastic game player.  I tend to try and like smaller arcade style games to occupy an occasional 5 minutes or so, rather than spending long periods of time playing games.  But as a long-time Tintin afficionado, I just had to try the iPad Tintin game (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn - The Game).  Unfortunately the whole thing comes across as a marketing exercise for the Spielberg film.  The film is getting mixed reviews, with some absolute stinkers from the serious Tintin fans out there in the press.  So far, I haven't had the patience to persist with the game, so that's as far as this review can go.

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