An iPad USB hack anybody can do

By Mike on 7:56 pm

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Apple charges a lot for official iPad accessories.

If you plan to do any serious typing on the device, you'll probably want to invest in one of Apple's official iPad keyboards. The dock version isn't exactly portable. It's $69 price tag is also steep.

Here's an easy way to save $40. Buy Apple's official camera kit for the iPad. It contains two dongles. One for SD slots and one for connecting USB cameras. The USB dongle has a hidden function. It supports both USB keyboards and USB headsets.

Simply plug a keyboard you already have into your iPad. It will complain about the device not being supported. Ignore the warning, and type away. I've tried it myself and it works very well. It even supports basic "command - " functions like a normal Mac.

Unfortunately, this trick only works with the iPad and not the iPhone and iPod Touch. Also, it only supports more basic bus powered wired and wireless keyboards. Forget using your LED backlit gaming keyboard.

Vintage electronics month: video killed the radio star

By Mike on 3:29 pm

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Radio was the first major electronic device to win the hearts of consumers. But like every other gadget, people weren't satisfied. Sure, you could listen to a concert at Carnegie Hall. That was revolutionary. Still, you couldn't watch the performance as if you were actually there. What if you could?

Developing a system that could transmit both sound and pictures was the holy grail for radio engineers, even before radio was invented.

The roots of such a system can be traced back to 1840, to the 1840s when Scottish inventor Alexander Bain proved it was possible to send images electrically. His complex device used a clockwork system to scan a message and transfer it to a series of electrical pins on a drum. The electrical signals sent by the machine could be reproduced on the other end. In 1861, Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli made a practical version of this device. We know it today as the fax machine.

The next evolution came in 1873, from an English inventor named Willoughby Smith. He was trying to develop a system to test underwater cables as they were being laid. Smith tried using selenium electrodes. Quite by accident, he found the electrical conductivity of the selenium rods dropped when exposed to a bright light. This property of selenium could be used to turn light into electrical signals. The discovery would eventually give birth to electrical cameras.

In 1883, German technician Paul Gottlieb Nipkow developed a perforated disk after reportedly being inspired from beams of light coming from a lamp. The holes were positioned in a spiral pattern and could, in theory, reproduce an image via mosaic of points and lines.

The basis for reproducing images had been laid by the early 1900s. Georges Rignoux and A. Fournier had managed to reproduce images using selenium cells in Paris in 1909. In 1911, Russian scientist Boris Rosing and his student Vladimir Zworykin invented a system to display crude images over wires using a cathode ray tube.

It wasn't until 1925 when the first practical device for showing video first appeared. Scottish engineer John Logie Baird took a Nipkow's disk and worked it into a mechanical device for showing moving pictures. A modulated light source was used in conjunction with the perforated aluminum disc, which was spun with a motor. As each hole passed by, it created a single line in the image. It used AM radio waves to receive the image transmitted from a similar device that acted as the camera. He called his invention the Televisor. The first image it received was "Stooky Bill", a ventriloquist dummy. The Televisor could reproduce images in 30 vertical lines, at five frames per second. The picture was extremely small by today's standards. Maybe about an inch across.

Baird's Televisor. Early Television Museum

The Televisor revolutionized radio. However, it came about at the worst possible time. When the Great depression hit In 1929, people weren't concerned about moving pictures in the home. Baird only began regular broadcasts through the BBC in that year. The technology was also rapidly improving. By the time the Televisor was being mass marketed, it was already obsolete.

The Televisor produced crude yet recognizable images

In 1927, American inventor Philo Farnsworth demonstrated the first all-electronic television. The 21-year-old's device used a cathode ray tube instead of a Nipkow disk. It has no moving parts, had a larger screen, and produced better quality pictures.

German electronic television

By the 1930s, the us Federal Communications Commission settled on the Farnsworth design as the future of television. By 1941, the familiar 525 line NTSC format was adopted in the US. The format is still widely used 70 years later. After the end of WWII, televisions became a staple of North American households. It hailed the end of radio's golden era as programming moved to TV.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia & The Early Television Museum

Vintage Electronics Month: Crosley Rogers Batteryless

By Mike on 10:13 pm

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When Ted Rogers Sr. invented the batteryless radio, it sparked a revolution in electronics. It was a simple idea. Create an electronic device that could simply plug into any wall socket. Back when it took three different batteries to power a radio, this was a major blessing.

Today, we have an authentic Rogers batteryless radio on the workbench. This particular model was made in 1936 for by Rogers for DeForest-Crosley. Despite being 74 years old, it still works. This model features all original parts, except for the antenna. It stands as a testament to the durability of tubes when they're taken care off.

Image courtesy of the Canadian Vintage Radio Society.

September is vintage electronics month

By Mike on 10:19 pm

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Electronics affect so much of our daily lives. Right now, you're reading this on your computer, an advanced electronic device.

We're surrounded by electronics but few stop to think how it all began. This month, we're taking you back to the past, way back. To the roots of everything you see on this site and in your daily life.

This September, we'll look at how electronics have evolved since their invention, to their domination in our daily lives. I've also got a couple of surprises in store. Today, we'll be turning back the clock all the way to the birth of the modern world.

The Invention of Electrical Communications
The invention of electronics can't be traced back to one individual or time. Individual components came about from a slew of inventors over a span of 100 years. The first electrical communication devices were telegraphs, dating as far back as 1806. Samuel Morse perfected the design in 1844. The devices used a battery and key to send varied electrical signals through a cable. While primitive, they were the first electrical communication devices.

In 1876, Elisha Grey and Alexandre Graham Bell simultaneously invented an electrical device for two way voice telegraphy. Bell called his invention the "telephone".

By 1890, Nikola Tesla began working on a concept for wireless transmission of messages. In 1894, Indian physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose began experimenting with UHF signals for communication.

Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi began sending signals a distance of 1.5km in 1895. Other inventors such as Russian Alexander Stepanovich Popov began working on similar devices independent of each other.

Marconi's first radio transmitter used a simple oscillator or spark gap to send signals. The system could send Morse Code using a telegraph key to vary radio pulses. His simple receiver used a coherer, a glass tube with metal filings inside that could detect radio waves. The filings were connected with electrodes.

Early radios couldn't amplify signals to send or receive communication over long distances. This made transatlantic and ship-to-shore communications difficult. In 1906, eccentric inventor Lee De Forest began working on the problem.

The Rise of True Electronics
Diodes had existed for some time prior. The principals of a thermionic diode were discovered in 1876 by British physicist Frederick Guthrie. Thomas Edison expanded on his research. The devices consisted of a cathode and anode inside an airless glass envelope. The device could limit the flow of electricity to one direction. Some of the first applications of diodes were radio detectors, such as the coherer. However, they couldn't amplify the signal and make them usable over long distances. The earliest radio transmitters used powerful generators and very high voltages to send signals across the oceans.

Lee De Forest took the basic diode and added a third electrode between the anode and cathode. He discovered that this amplified the electrical signal. De Forest stumbled upon the principle simply by tinkering, and in fact didn't know why this happened. He called his device the "audion". The rest of the world called it the "triode".

Lee De Forest's audion, the granddaddy of modern electronics

De Forest completed the first successful ship-to-shore radio transmission in 1907. By 1912, radio became a fixture on-board ocean going ships. The Titanic famously used a Marconi system to send distress signals after striking an ice berg in April of that year.

With the audion, radio engineers had a way of controlling and amplifying electrical signals. These early signals still used spark gap transmission, which spammed the entire radio spectrum. In 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden began working on a radio system that used amplitude modulation. It worked by sending signal at a specific frequency. Communication was achieved by varying the voltage of the radio wave rather than electrical pulses. American radio pioneer Charles "Doc" Herrold began sending weekly AM broadcasts out of San Jose, California in 1909.

By the 1920s, De Fortest's vacuum tube triode was becoming a household staple. The first commercial radio station launched in Montreal, Quebec on May 20th, 1920. Interest in home electronics exploded.

Work continued on improving the radio. Originally, AM radio receivers required three different batteries to run them. Each of the vacuum tubes required their own specific direct current voltages. Many of them were kit builds, involving a hodgepodge of parts. This made the systems bulky and complicated.

Canadian inventor Edward S. Rogers Sr. began exploring ways to run radios off mains electricity. After examining US designs, Rogers invented a new type of vacuum tube that could run off alternating current. In 1924, he introduced the Rogers Batteryless Radio. The device was the first to use a standard wall socket. Top of the line models began selling in 1925 for $370, worth about $4,800 in today's money. The system was the first to make radio simple and easy to use for the average homeowner.

Rogers went on to found the Standard Radio Company, later named the Rogers Vacuum Tube Company, to make the radios. He founded Toronto radio station CFRB to sell these radios.

How does a Rogers Batteryless radio work? In our next article, we'll be taking a closer look at this revolutionary device.

Smart Car not a smart choice for Americans

By Mike on 9:30 pm

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The Smart Fortwo has polarized the auto and tech worlds. It's either loved or hated.
Mercedes' stubby little "microcar" hit Europe back in 1998. The company thought it would create a revolution in North America by marketing it an ultra-fuel efficient city car. At the time, gas prices were hovering well over $1.20 a litre in Canada. As the green trend dropped off, so has Smart. Sales of of the cars have dropped 70 percent since the beginning of 2010. It's not hard to see why people are steering clear of this high mileage revolution.

I had the pleasure of taking a Fortwo out for a test drive last summer. It was the 2009 three door with a 1.0 litre gasoline engine. Similar to a full size sport motorcycle. The Smart comes in four models: coupe, cabriolet, and the same two with the Brabus tuner package. The Brabus adds better wheels, suspension, and a sportier interior. The Smart Fortwo Coupe starts at $14,990 while the Brabus cabriolet goes up to $24,900. By comparison, the Toyota Yaris three door hatchback starts at $13,620.

German tuner company Brabus has tried, and failed to make the Fortwo look sporty.

One of the first things you notice is how cramped it is. There is no storage space in its tiny trunk. While it's not uncomfortable, it's certainly not something you want to go any distance in.

The control layout is also odd for North American car. It has two shifters: paddle on the steering wheel and stick in the centre console. The ignition switch is also in the centre console, rather than the dash or wheel column.

The dash is quite sparse. Not many features here.

Driving the Smart Fortwo is like driving a go-kart. Acceleration is very sluggish. It seems to take forever to get up to 60km/h, typical city driving speed. You can forget about taking it on the highway. It will struggle to do 100km/h and can't overtake. The engine is rated at 70hp but it definitely lacks torque. Steering handles as you would expect for a car its size. It turns quick but you're not going anywhere fast. For such a small, light car, it doesn't handle like you'd expect it to.

My biggest beef with the Fortwo is the transmission. It's automatic, but lacks a torque converter. The part of an automatic transmission that allows it to always stay in gear. Instead, it opts for an automated clutch system. It has the option of a fully or semi-automatic mode. There is no fully manual option, even though that would be ideal.

The Smart's shifts are abrupt, causing it to jerk with each gear change. It's a bit like driving a standard car with someone who can't drive standard. Overall, it's just not a nice car to drive.

You might be wondering about safety. One would logically think the Fortwo would be unsafe due to its weight and compact design. I must tip my hat to Mercedes. It's a safe car for the most part, due to its built in roll cage. The car performed well, receiving a top rating of "good" in everything but offset crashes. In offset crashes, the Fortwo performed poorly due to it's cramped interior. There was too much intrusion into the foot-well and a high risk of impact with the steering wheel. Its light weight caused the car to spin easily.

You said you wanted a safer Fortwo? I'll admit this mod is epic.

On fuel efficiency, the Smart Fortwo Coupe doesn't get high marks. The United States EPA estimated 36 miles per gallon of combined city and highway driving. It's good but it's not a major improvement over other small cars in its class such as the Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, and Suzuki SX4, which get 30mpg combined and have engines twice the size. The Smart also requires premium gasoline while other sub-compacts use cheaper regular. The diesel option, while ideal, disappeared form North American models.

Obviously the Smart is designed for narrow European city streets, not long, high speed North American roads. Americans love their big cars. The promise of a cheap, 40mpg car isn't going to shake that. Due to it's cramped size and rough handling, the Smart is little more practical than the giant SUVs it seeks to replace. Aside from that, and I have to be frank here, you'd also look like a total wanker driving it.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Google Picasa

Revolutionary, retro, relegated: thought's on Apple's iPod event

By Mike on 8:46 pm

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It it's usual rock star fashion, Apple lifted the lid on its new iPod lines. Pundits seem to agree that there was a little less excitement at this event than past ones. Apple seems to be loosing its edge when it comes to producing something completely unexpected from behind the curtain. That's partially due to a slew of Internet leaks. But, the declining favour in the company towards the venerable iPod has just as much to do with it.

iPod Touch
The new touch is exactly what we expected it to be. It's basically the iPhone 4 without the cell chip. Interestingly, Apple has chosen not to use the new minimalist chassis. Instead, they opted to use the same rounded case style used in past Touches. There's not much to complain about. It features improved battery life, the new retina display, Apple's A4 processor, three-axis gyroscope, front and back cameras, and 256mb of RAM.

UPDATE: I originally reported the new Touch had 512mb of ram, but teardowns show it only has 256mb.

The new Touch: looks like the old but new guts and new cameras

The fourth gen Touch runs iOS 4.1 and, supports FaceTime, and can record 720p video. Apple fans have been calling for a Touch with a built in camera for a long time. But, this camera is limited to just 0.6 megapixels. About equal to a camera phone six years ago. Very unimpressive given the iPhone's 5 megapixel camera.

Aside from that, Apple has also introduced a slightly cheaper 8gb model along side the 32 and 64gb. They start at $229.

iPod Suffle
The third generation Shuffle was a mistake. Apple knows that. The tiny player had no buttons, just a rocker on the earbud wire which used complicated commands. Plus, you couldn't use third party headphones with it..

The new fourth generation Shuffle is a blast from the past. Apple has gone back and resurrected the design of the of the 2007 model. The click wheel has made a return. It's a little smaller. The wheel now takes up the entire front. Button controls are a welcome return for fans of Apple's smallest and cheapest player. It starts at $49.

iPod Nano
This is the one redesign that has everyone talking, and not for the good. It's the most radical change the mid-sized iPod line has ever seen. The fifth generation gave people what they wanted with their Nano. A bigger screen and a standard definition video camera. All was good. The sixth generation took that away.

The new Nano looks like a Shuffle on steroids. The device is only slightly larger than it's little brother. While it has a small touch screen, it's actually a lower resolution than the older model.

The new Nano: touch screen, not much else

Apple has really taken the knife to the Nano. Gone are video recording, video playback, and even the photo album. The FM radio tuner and Voice Over are still there. Apple hasn't added anything at all to the device. They've only made it smaller. Heath nuts are already complaining about the lack of physical buttons.

The new Nano is a glorified iPod Shuffle. Despite slashing back its features, Apple still wants $149 for it. That price is much too high for what it is. Apple's competitors have it matched or beat, at a lower prices.

iPod Classic
The Classic is a dying breed. The last ancestor of the original iPod didn't even get a mention. It's looking more and more like Apple will eventually phase out this model. It's sad for fans who enjoy it's beefy hard drive space. As it stands right now, it's the only non-touch iPod that can play photos and video. But at $249, it's not exactly the best value anymore. If you want one, get one while you can. Apple will dump it sooner or later to focus on the Touch as its flagship line.

The iPad can print now. That is all. Well, it will once iOS 4.2 is released in November of this year. Aside from Flash, this was probably the biggest feature Apple omitted from the original OS. Despite having a word processor and photography apps, I guess Steve Jobs figured nobody would ever want to print something from it. Unfortunately, printing is wireless only. So if you don't have a wifi enabled printer, you'll need to set up a print server.

The iPad will also get AirPlay, which allows it to stream photos, videos, and music from iTunes. It will also get all the other features of iOS4.

Apple unveiled iOS 4.1. It's biggest new feature is the Game Centre. Game Centre will allow players to connect with their friends and others to play multiplayer games online. It's Apple's answer to the Playstation Network and Xbox Live. The iPhone and Touch have needed a unified online gaming system for a long time.

Apple also claimed to have 50% market share in portable gaming. I find that a little hard to believe. Not everyone who owns an iPod Touch uses it to play games. Though, there is a shred of truth if you factor in highly casual titles.