Archive for August 2007

Toshiba Gigabeat U103 with 24 Colors

August 25, 2007

Making a considerable splash in the color palette by all standards, Toshiba’s next DAP to join the Gigabeat U series offers an assortment of 24 colors.

 In the same fashion as previously added models to the U series, the advancement is purely cosmetic, but the U103 succeeds in producing a striking change from the black and silver of the U102 and U202

 Drawing its inspiration from culture and tradition of Japan, the color range of the U103 has been designed to reflect an observation of harmony in an environment. To confirm the assumption you may have already made: the Toshiba Gigabeat U103 only has plans to be released in Japan, where is will sell for an equivalent of $115.  By: Travis Booysen


Oppo’s Slim PMP

August 25, 2007

The latest creation from Oppo reveals an exceptionally attractive design, as it measures only 0.27 inches thick, and contains a 2.4-inch TFT screen which spans the majority of its face, alongside a level touchpad. Proving to be equally impressive as the appearance of the Blast is its ability to handle a large variety of music (MP3, WMA, APE, and FLAC), image (JPG, BMP, GIF, and animated GIF), and video (MP4, AVI, XviD, and FLV) formats. 

 It is not common to come across a portable media player with the ability to play flash video on a comfortably sized screen with an expandable microSD slot all in such an easily pocketable form. The finer details have yet to be revealed, such as pricing, storage, and battery life, but when the Oppo Blast becomes available it is unlikely that it will be shipped anywhere outside of Asia.

Incoming: Military-grade carrying case for the PSP

August 25, 2007

Over the years, we’ve gotten letters from soldiers stationed in Iraq, and they’ve talked about how hard the place is on electronics gear–and I’m not talking bullets and bombs, but just the raw elements (dust, sand, and so on…). Well, I just noticed this item on PSP Fan Boy: a $100 military-style PSP case from TAD Gear that claims to be military-grade.

A note on the site about the PSP Pod reads:

“This is a very special, limited custom run of nylon accessory pouches. These PSP Pods were produced at the request of some our associates and customers deployed overseas. The Sony PSP has become a common sight in many a soldiers’ kit these days. The PSP has become ideal for personal entertainment for many while in transit or stuck at barracks. This is built with MILSPEC construction and materials thru-out. There is no sturdier, better built, and versatile storage pouch for the PSP available anywhere. TAD Gear is not a video game store, but we clearly see the merits of the PSP as a personal electronic device and wanted to offer this very special case to carry yours. Due [to] the high cost of production it is highly unlikely we will produce these again.”

A hundred bucks is a lot to spend on a case, but it looks pretty sweet, and I suspect a few civilian commuters might pick one up for that rough train or bus ride between the ‘burbs and the big city.

Meet the cheapest laptop in the world

August 25, 2007

From credit card debt and school loans to rising gas prices and adjustable mortgages, there are plenty of reasons why consumers in the developed world can’t afford a laptop. Not to mention the fact that underfunded schools and underprivileged kids also exist in the developed parts of the world. Enter the Medison Celebrity laptop. It’s a $150 laptop from Swedish company Medison that’s available through the Columbus, Ohio-based online reseller

With Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC hovering around $175, and Intel’s Classmate PC expected to cost more than $200, the Medison Celebrity laptop can lay claim to being the cheapest laptop in the world. And it boasts an impressive feature set for the money. For starters, it features a large, wide-screen 14-inch WXGA display and weighs a reasonable 4.8 pounds. Powering the Medison Celebrity is a 1.5GHz Intel Celeron M 370 processor and 256MB of memory. You may scoff at such a meager memory allotment considering all the reviews out there that complain whenever a PC serves up less than 1GB these days, but the Medison Celebrity doesn’t have to power Vista or any other flavor of Windows. Instead, it uses Fedora Linux, which requires less muscle to run than a Windows OS and no Microsoft licensing fee. Rounding out the specs are a 40GB hard drive, an integrated Via PN800 graphics chip, and 802.11g Wi-Fi. You also get stereo speakers, three USB 2.0 ports, and a PC Card slot. Medison backs the laptop with a one-year warranty but offers little detail about the terms.  

Medison takes orders in a variety of currencies, and it claims it will outfit the laptop with the appropriate keyboard. The company estimates it’ll take four to six weeks to ship, but “availability of the Medison Celebrity model depends on how many orders we get per day.” It also lists additional charges above the $150 price as $6.45 plus 5.5 percent “and extra” for its partner,

 Is this $150 laptop too good to be true? Could be–I’ve tried all morning to place an order, but I keep getting an error message before I can even enter my credit card info and address. I’ll keep trying, but it looks like Medison isn’t quite ready to bestow Celebrity status on anyone with an extra $150 kicking around. I’ll update this post should I get my order to go through. 

UPDATE: I successfully completed an order. And wouldn’t you know, the $150 laptop ended up costing an even $150. Shipping was free, and no taxes or other charges were applied. I’ll let you know when it arrives.


Sony STR-DA5300ES

August 25, 2007

Last year we were wowed by the Sony STR-DA5200ES because it was the first AV receiver we’d seen with a true menu-driven, graphical user interface (GUI). Most receivers still rely on archaic-looking onscreen displays with blocky white text–in combination with cryptic feedback from the front-panel readout–to accomplish speaker setup, upconversion settings, input naming, and the myriad other tasks required by a multitalented AV hub. We found that Sony’s GUI was more than just eye candy, it really made the receiver easier to use on a daily basis. Other manufacturers have taken note–some of Denon’s new 2007 receivers will feature a GUI as well.

While the STR-DA5200ES was groundbreaking for its interface, its successor, the STR-DA5300ES, is almost as impressive for its incredible feature set. It packs a walloping six HDMI inputs, which is more than we’ve seen on any other receiver–period–and it comes with onboard decoding for the latest high-resolution soundtracks, namely Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD Master Audio (although you can’t use that decoding yet). Sony has also made a good thing even better by refining the graphical user interface so that each HDMI input can be renamed. And our complaints about the previous model’s lackluster video performance have been almost entirely addressed: the STR-DA5300ES delivers very good video quality with the ability to upscale all sources to 1080p. We did run into some HDMI compatibility issues on our test unit, but that may be because we tested a preproduction model (we’ll update this review once we’re able to retest the shipping unit). The $1,700 list price on the STR-DA5300ES is steep, but it’s well within reason considering how it stacks up to the competition.

As far as AV receivers go, the STR-DA5300ES has a pretty average look, with its all-black design, display in the center, and a couple of knobs and buttons scattered across the front panel. To the far right, on the bottom half, is the volume knob; on the far left toward the bottom is an additional AV input with S-Video and an optical digital-audio input. The display is a little on the small side, so sometimes we had trouble making it out from our seating distance of about seven feet.

Like its predecessor, the STR-DA5300ES features a slick, icon-based graphical user interface. While certain Denon receivers will feature a GUI later this year, the vast majority of AV receivers with onscreen displays still use white, blocky text that looks dated in the high-def era. Press the Menu button and up pops the GUI, which gamers will recognize as similar to the Cross Media Bar (“XMB”) navigation found on the PSP and PS3 interfaces. The first option is Input, which allows you to select an input visually, by name and icon, and change which video and audio sources are assigned to each input. You can also change the icon next to the inputs, so it matches the source you have connected, and rename the inputs themselves.

The most enticing aspect of the GUI is that it makes using the receiver a lot easier, because it allows you to interact with an onscreen menu instead of a cluttered remote and a tiny front-panel display. To select a source, for example, you can just hit “Menu” and then select “DVR” or any other name from the device list. Without the GUI and the ability to rename inputs, you can be stuck having to cycle through all of the inputs while watching the front panel readout and trying to remember which device is connected to the “Video 2” input, for example. One nitpick we did have is that the list of inputs is pretty lengthy–we’d love the ability to hide unused inputs so we could just pick from our connected devices.  In addition to the Input menu, there are several other options: Music–which is used solely for attached DM port (Sony’s proprietary connection) devices–as well as AM, FM, XM, Sirius, and Settings. The radio options are self-explanatory, and having the Settings menu in graphical form definitely takes some of the anxiety out of AV receiver setup.


We were pretty harsh on the older 5200ES’ remote, and, unfortunately, the 5300ES’ remote is largely the same. All AV receiver remotes have a lot of buttons, and the 5300ES is no different. Our main gripe is how the DA5300ES mixes receiver control with device control. For example, if you press the HDMI 2 button, and then a little later you want to switch to another input using the GUI, when you hit Menu most likely nothing will happen–because the remote thinks you want to bring up the menu on the HDMI 2 device. Despite knowing how to avoid this mistake, we found ourselves inadvertently repeating it quite a few times. We’d much rather see a dedicated button, just for the GUI menu itself, to eliminate some of this confusion. To be fair, however, we expect most people buying a receiver in this price range will have enough dough for a quality universal remote 

The 5300ES also includes a small remote for use in a second zone. This remote includes simple functions such as volume, a directional pad, and an input selector. Its functionality is limited a little by the fact that it’s an IR remote, meaning you’ll need to use an IR repeater to actually use it in another room.



The STR-DA5300ES comes with a stereo mic for automatic calibration of your speaker system. The automatic calibration program is accessible through the GUI, and it’s dead simple to run. Overall, Sony’s automatic setup did a pretty good job of setting the levels on our speaker system, although we still went into the manual settings to make a few tweaks–for example, it never asked us the size of our front speakers, which needed to be set to small. On the upside, we did find it was faster than the Audyssey 2EQ setup system found on competing receivers, if a little less accurate.

The STR-DA5300ES is a 7.1-channel receiver, which Sony rates at 120 watts per channel. Like essentially every other receiver available, it offers a full selection of Dolby and DTS surround processing modes. In addition, the STR-DA5300ES also offers decoding for the new high-resolution formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Theoretically, the benefit of having onboard decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio is that HD DVD and Blu-ray players could send these soundtracks to the receiver to be decoded, instead of the players needing onboard decoders themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not currently possible. Currently, there are no HD DVD or Blu-ray players that are capable of sending Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in bit stream format. Instead, some (but not all) players decode these formats internally, and then send the decoded signals to attached receivers via HDMI (as uncompressed linear PCM) or multichannel analog-audio connections. In short, the ability to decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio might come into play in the future, but it’s hard to consider it an essential feature. 

The STR-DA5300ES has a truly impressive connectivity package. The highlight and true standout feature of this receiver is its six (!) HDMI inputs. That’s enough for a high-def cable box, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 Elite, Apple TV, Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player, and HDMI-equipped DVD recorder, all connected via HDMI. These inputs are all HDMI version 1.3 and support the expanded x.v.Color space. While this is a nice feature from a future-proofing perspective, it’s not currently that useful, as there are currently no x.v.Color-compatible Blu-ray or HD DVD discs, let alone games or HDTV programming. For analog high-def video, there are three component video inputs, plus two component video outputs (one for the main room, and one for a second zone). For standard-def sources, there are five AV inputs with S-Video (four in back, one in front), including one recording loop for a DVD recorder or VCR.

 On the audio side, there are nine total digital-audio inputs (six optical, three coaxial) and one optical output, which should cover even the most elaborate home theaters. There are also four standard stereo analog jacks, including two recording loops, and a phono jack for those still spinning vinyl. Rounding out the analog audio connectivity is a 7.1 multichannel input. There’s also both XM and Sirius connectivity, so you only need to connect an XM Mini-Tuner or Sirius Connect unit to get reception (with a subscription).  

The STR-DA5300ES is also equipped with Sony’s Digital Media (DM) Port, a proprietary connection that allows you to connect one of (currently) four Sony accessories, which range in price from $80 to $200: the TDM-NC1 (a Wi-Fi music streamer), the TDM-BT1 (a Bluetooth adapter), the TDM-NW1 (a dock for certain Sony Walkman MP3 models), and the TDM-IP1 (an iPod dock). The two we auditioned previously will work well enough with the STR-DA5300ES, but nonproprietary alternatives will function just as well and be able to connect to other, non-Sony devices. While nonproprietary alternatives do take up an extra input, that’s nothing to worry about on this receiver.  

While we criticize some receivers for not including enough input labels to take full advantage of their connectivity, we can level no such complaint against the STR-DA5300ES. To start off, there are six independent labels for each HDMI input, and you can rename them however you’d like within the eight-character limit. For component video, there are three labels you can use–Video 1, BD/DVD, and SAT/CATV–and again, each of these can be renamed to your choice (yes, you can even rename BD/DVD to HD DVD on a Sony receiver). That means, between HDMI and component video, it’s possible to connect nine HD sources to the STR-DA5300ES at a time–very impressive. If you manage to use up all those labels, there are still two additional standard-def-only video labels–Video 2 and Video 3–that can be used and renamed. It’s also possible to use any of the component video labels for standard def sources, by using the simple input-assigning menu. 

 The STR-DA5300ES’s video-upconverting capabilities are another strong point. All analog signals can be upconverted to the HDMI output, and you can select precisely which output resolution you want: 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. Even 1080p signals input via component video can be output via HDMI without a problem. The extensive upconversion capabilities are a nice convenience, because they allow you to keep your TV tuned to one input while you change sources. Without video conversion, you need to change the inputs on the receiver and the TV each time you move from HDMI to analog sources and back again.

Yet another strength of the DA5300ES is its multiroom flexibility. It supports both second and third zones. Zone 2 is supported by powered speaker terminals plus a component video output–which means you can run a high-def source in a second zone. Zone 3 is limited to just standard stereo RCA-jack outputs, so you’ll need a separate amp to make that work.

 In many ways, the STR-DA5300ES is beyond compare in its price range. For less than $2,000, we’re not aware of any receiver that has five HDMI inputs, let alone six. The STR-DA5300ES is also currently the only receiver on the market with an advanced graphical user interface (GUI)–Denon’s upcoming models will have a GUI, but we don’t know how they’ll measure up. Of course, if you’re enamored by six HDMI inputs, but don’t want to spend so much on a receiver, you’d be wise to check out an HDMI switcher. For example, budget-conscious buyers can pick up the excellent Onkyo TX-SR605 and pair it up with a 5×1 Monoprice HDMI switcher for a total $460 street price at the time of this review, and it will deliver six HDMI ports, video upconversion (although not as good), and Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding. 

 Audio performance
The STR-DA5300ES is certainly feature-filled, but the real test for any AV receiver is how it sounds. We’re pleased to say the DA5300ES does not disappoint, offering up the kind of stellar sonics you’d expect for a receiver in this price range. The STR-DA5300ES was up to the task when we had a listen to Queens of the Stone Age’s latest,
Era Vulgaris. While not as heavy as the earliest albums, the Queens still manage to pack quite a punch on this album, and the DA5300ES didn’t flinch while delivering frontman Josh Homme’s new riff-heavy tunes. The STR-DA5300ES was also up to the task for more subtle discs like Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, doing an excellent job of delivering the fine details such as the tone of Charles Mingus’ acoustic bass.  The STR-DA5300ES was also up to the task with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest on Blu-ray, which delivers a lush soundtrack in uncompressed 5.1 PCM. The STR-DA5300ES deftly delivered all the detail on Dead Man’s Chest, which certainly doesn’t go light in terms of sonic impact. The sequences on the ship do a great job of letting you hear every creak of the boards and crash of the ocean. Even when we cranked up the volume, we didn’t notice any strain or harshness. The DA5300ES won’t disappoint movie buffs.  

Video performance
We knocked the 5200 pretty hard for its video-processing issues, and we’re happy to report that Sony has addressed them with the 5300ES. We used Silicon Optix’s HQV test suite on DVD for the first part of our test, and the 5300ES handled itself very well. The initial resolution test looked sharp, proving that the 5300ES properly scales and delivers the full resolution of DVDs. The next two tests were handled adeptly as well, with almost no jaggies on a spinning white line or three shifting line. It even passed the difficult 2:3 pull-down test, as there was no moire in the grandstands as the car drove by.
 We switched over to actual program material, and the 5300ES continued to impress. It had no trouble with the introduction to Star Trek: Insurrection, demonstrating that it does have 2:3 pull-down processing as it smoothly rendered the hulls of the boats and the curved edges of the railings on the bridge. It even did a solid job with the difficult intro on Seabiscuit. To Sony’s credit, the company addressed our major video quality concerns on the 5200ES, making the 5300ES completely recommendable from a video quality perspective. The only spoiler from a performance perspective was some HDMI-compatibility issues. For example, on both the Westinghouse TX-47F430S and LG 50PC5D HDTVs, we were unable to get the Sony’s GUI to show up on the screen, while it had no problem appearing with the Pioneer Pro-FHD1, for example. On the other hand, when we connected our DirecTV HR20 HD DVR to the STR-DA5300ES to the Pioneer Pro-FHD1, the GUI would flash on and off, never quite locking in. While it’s always difficult to determine the root cause of HDMI issues, we hit enough snags with the testing of the STR-DA5300ES that we’d at least caution buyers to be sure they bought from a retailer with a solid return policy, in case it doesn’t play nice with some of your home theater components.  


Koss KEB/79

August 25, 2007

Koss Earbuds don’t have the most outstanding history on CNET, but they haven’t utterly failed either. Still, they have tended toward the middle of the road, which isn’t bad considering their low price point. Now, Koss has made a brief departure from ultracheap ‘buds to release the KEB/79, a $100 pair that purports to offer “deep bass and unbelievable isolation.” Unfortunately, for some users, problems getting and retaining an effective seal with the ear may interfere with this claim. Still, the KEB/79 is quite capable of producing quality sound, if you can achieve a proper fit.

The design of the Koss KEB/79 is my main gripe, though there are certain aspects that I appreciate. First, the cable is modular, so you can choose between two lengths: 17 inches for use with an MP3 player that you carry in a shirt pocket or wear clipped somewhere on your upper body, or add the extender to get to 58 inches for use at home or with a player that you carry in a bag. Another nice touch is the inline mute switch, which you can press and hold if you want to hear external sound without taking the earbuds out. It’s cool that you can press it in the middle for full mute, or on either side to just mute either the left or the right channel. I also like that Koss includes a pouch for storing and carrying the earphones.  

However, the mute switch and cable connection also cause part of the problem with the KEB/79: they add weight that pulls on the left earbud, causing it to gradually slip out during activity. Plus, it can be difficult to achieve an adequate seal with the ear to begin with. Koss includes three sizes (small, medium, and large) of silicone ear tips, but I couldn’t even get a good fit with the smallest ones and was never able to bring about effective isolation. And unlike with competing models from the likes of Shure and V-moda, the ear fittings rest flush with the ‘bud, meaning the hard plastic casing sits inside your ear as well. This low-profile design is good for looks, but I found that this contributed to my problems getting a seal with the ear, and it proved uncomfortable after less than 30 minutes of wear. 

 Of course, not everyone will have this issue with fit, and users that can get an effective ear seal will be rewarded with good sound quality. Initially, music came off as bright and lacking in bass, but once I pressed the KEB/79s into my ears, things improved considerably. The high-end clarity is not the best I’ve heard, but it’s up to the $100 standards. Really, the mids and lows shine the most through the KEB/79–you can even pick up upright bass in track backgrounds. Overall, folk, classic rock, blues, and dancey hip-hop sounded best, but the headphones do a fine job in general.