AMD, the future, and more than a little computing

A few days ago I was excited to be asked to participate in an AMD webinar. AMD are a name you might not be familiar with as a brand but they’re pretty ubiquitous- if you’ve got a Playstation 4 or an Xbox One, you’ve got some AMD product in your home already as they designed the graphics chips for both those consoles. AMD also make desktop processors (CPUs) and system on a chip thingies called APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) that combine a processor and a graphics chip on one chip. You’ll find APUs in laptops and other devices.

AMD are by no means a new company, I first encountered them way back in the late 1990’s when I built my first PC from components I purchased off the internet. It had one of their K6-2 processors in it and was the main reason I needed to resit the first stage of my accountancy qualification (well, the PC games I played on the computer were the real issue. Or even the lack of self control I had over playing them I suppose). Along with their arch rival Intel, they pretty much power all the desktop and laptop computers out there at the moment. The ace up AMD’s sleeve however is it’s graphics card division that make the Radeon graphics cards. AMD still have the fastest single card in the insane water-cooled Radeon R9 295X2, which still comes out top in tests on sites like Tom’s Hardware. Combining both CPU and GPU expertise into one package is a compelling move for portable devices and all in ones (for example the Lenovo B50-35) because they often don’t have the space or thermal capacity for a separate graphics card.

It’s always exciting to look to the future, and 2016 onwards will be really pivotal and exciting as far as AMD are concerned. They’ve been using the same basic architecture for their chips for a few years now- this is a normal product life cycle- but later this year they’re switching the heart of their processors from the current design called Kaveri to something called Carrizo.

If you’re interested in the technical detail on AMDs new APUs, there is a great article on Anandtech here but be warned, if you’re not sure about your nm, bulldozers and excavators, most of it will go over your head. What it means in simple terms is that AMD have managed to increase performance AND power usage/battery life with their new series of APUs. You may have noticed as devices get thinner and thinner, battery life gets worse and worse. One way of combating this is to stick in slower processors, which means you get a thin but slow computer, another is to make a clever processor that uses less power, deals with some common tasks like video playback on the chip rather than in software, and so on and that’s what AMD have been beavering away at.

liquidvr-globe-man-eye-focus-375px[1]Of course a chip is only as good as what it is put to use doing and AMD appear to have a good track record there too. Their stuff is in pretty much everything, from servers to electronic billboards, from medical equipment, through to slot machines. Going forwards though, their new monitor technology, Freesync, should help make video games look smoother, they’re working on virtual reality too.

But then that is the benefit of being an integrated company that works both in processors and graphics!

Tips for children travelling for the first time

Travelling for the first time? Then you might be a little daunted as it’s not always easy venturing far from home – even if you are heading off on a luxury family holiday with the likes of Tots Too. There’s lots to take in and absorb, so to make your life a little easier, here are five tips to make your first voyage fun and simple.

 

  • Research your destination

 

If you’re feeling anxious or simply want to know more about where you’re going, head online. The internet is crammed with fascinating world facts that’ll not only get you in the mood for a holiday but will also help you to understand more about particular locations, cultures, people, climates and global expectations. You could even impress your parents by learning a foreign phrase or two.

 

  • Make an itinerary

 

Before you set off, make an itinerary of everything you want to do and see. You know, a kind of bucket list, as it’s being called these days. That way, you won’t be wondering around aimlessly and can squeeze a fun-filled adventure into every single day. This can be done digitally, allowing you to cross off activities as and when you complete them.

 

  • Pack your own suitcase

 

While it’s tempting to let mum and dad do all the packing for you, it’s well-worth organising your own suitcase if you don’t want to spend the next few weeks wearing what your parents have laid out for you. To make sure you take the right items, read up on what the weather will be like and think about what kind of activities you’ll be doing during your time away.

 

  • Take entertainment

 

Getting from A to B can be a long, drawn out process, especially if you’re heading on a long-haul flight. So, the best thing you can do if not used to waiting around in airports or travelling such long distances is to take plenty of entertainment. Electrical items like iPads are ideal or if you’re in a group you might prefer more interactive stimuli like a pack of cards or other travel games.

 

  • Don’t go hungry

 

Travelling on an empty stomach is a big no-no, as not only can it make motion sickness worse it can also leave you tired, irritable and with no energy for the journey ahead. So, with this in mind always eat before leaving home if possible and take as many goodies and snacks that you think you’ll need along the way. Try to avoid crisps, sweets and other high fat/sugary foods if possible and go for filling alternatives like sandwiches. Oh, and don’t forget drinks, but remember you can’t take more than 100ml through airport security.

Travelling is one of the best forms of education and should be great fun, so follow these five handy tips and enjoy a trip of a lifetime. You’ll soon want to go again!

 

7 hand care tips for men

It’s no secret that many women like to pamper and preen themselves, but that doesn’t mean men can’t do it too. There’s nothing unmanly about taking good care of yourself, so why not start with your hands by following these seven useful tips?

 

  • Wash and sanitize

 

The next time you take a romantic stroll with your partner or share a box of popcorn at the cinema, make sure your hands are properly washed and sanitised. In fact, make sure they’re sparkling clean all the time as scrubbing your hands regularly will not only reduce the bacteria on your skin but it’ll also prevent you passing a nasty bug onto a loved one through crossed contamination. Hot soapy water should do the trick but it’s also worth purchasing hand sanitiser from the likes of Brosch.

 

  • Moisturise

 

If your skin is a little on the rough side, try moisturising every time you wash your hands. A decent hand cream will not only lock in moisture (particularly if they contain ingredients such as oils and petroleum jelly) but will also banish rough patches and leave your skin shining. Try to go for a cream that’s thicker than your average body lotion as hands need a little more TLC.

 

  • Apply a sun cream

 

When looking for a moisturiser, choose one with a sun protection factor of at least 15, or simply swap moisturiser for a standard sun cream. This is especially important if you’re going outdoors or work outside during the summer as it can stop your skin from burning. That said, it’s a good idea to wear sun cream all year round anyway to protect against harmful UV rays and lower your risk of skin cancer.

 

  • Exfoliate

 

Exfoliating your hands once a week will help get rid of dead skin cells blocking your pores and should leave your skin looking fresh and rejuvenated. To do this, buy an abrasive exfoliation sponge and rub your hands in small circles – pretend you’re buffing your car if you feel too girly. Don’t want to buy an expensive product? Then check out these homemade exfoliating scrubs.

 

  • Trim your nails

 

Long nails can look dirty and unsightly, so keep them at a reasonable length using the right tools. Avoid biting them if you can help it (as your nails are laden with germs) and instead cut them with clippers before filing to get rid of rough edges. If you’re in the mood, you can also use a cuticle tool to push back the skin at the base of your nail, however, only do this after bathing as the skin will be softer.

 

  • Wax your fingers

 

If you’re hairy and proud you might want to skip this step, but if you like to be soft and smooth all over then waxing your fingers is a must – after all it’s bound to look a bit weird if your chest is as soft as a baby’s bum but you have gorilla hands. This might be a little painful at first but pull the strips off quickly and the stinging sensation should be minimal. Apply a cooling spray if it all gets a bit much.

 

  • Visit the doctors

 

Whether you’ve got ingrown nails that have become infected or have a skin condition such as psoriasis or eczema that you can’t get rid of, it’s wise to see a doctor. Medical professionals will be able to advise you what to do and prescribe treatments for your condition and skin type. There’s plenty of help available these days, so don’t suffer in silence.

You could have beautiful hands in no time, so why not give these tips a go?

Sony NWZ-A15 review

a15As I sit here holding the Sony NWZ-A15 high resolution audio player, When the Levee Breaks from Led Zeppelin IV booming out in full 24bit/192kHZ glory through my headphones, I’m thinking, yes, we’ve come full circle and I’m home now. Thank you Sony.

I remember vividly getting my first cassette Walkman back in the 80’s. It was followed by a portable CD player in the early nineties that served me well for a number of years until about ’98 when I decided to join the cutting edge of audio and buy a Diamond Rio PMP-300. This was the first consumer MP3 player and it was, well, a bit rubbish. 32MB of internal storage, 10 hours of playback, it could hold about half an hour of music at 128kbs, so you’d drop it down lower and everything would sound terrible (well, even more terrible than it did at 128kbs against CD). But it was the future and I doggedly stuck with it and other players that gave substandard audio reproduction until I hit pay dirt in 2006 and got myself a player that supported FLAC. The next three years were glorious. I had a “massive” 40GB of storage on my portable player, I had a great pair of high end earphones and I had my music. Then something odd happened. Smartphones and iPods suddenly became popular and everybody was carrying their music in a lossy MP3 or similar format around on their phone or iPod. Portable music players that weren’t tied to iTunes didn’t disappear over night but they did become a lot less popular and with a drop in popularity, they became less of an area for innovation.

In the last two or three years though there has been something of a resurgence, albeit in a different sector of the market, for the humble portable audio player. The portable audio player has gone high end, and the Sony NWZ-A15 is actually one of the cheaper devices available that anyone who loves music would actually want to buy. The Sony NWZ-A15 is one of an increasing number of high resolution digital audio players (DAPs) that can play music that’s been mastered at a level much higher than CD. For years CDs have been held as the gold standard in audio fidelity. CD quality means 16bit/44kHZ, whereas high resolution audio is at 24bit/192kHZ.  Rather than attempting to explain what the difference means myself, I’d suggest you have a look at What HiFi’s explanation which is here. Suffice to say, a higher bit rate is good, and a higher sampling rate (in kilohertz) is also better.

bitrate

I remember getting my first pair of good earphones, Shure E2Cs, and finding that I could hear hidden detail in albums I’d been listening to almost daily for 15 years. It was a revelation back then and it’s as much of a revelation now, returning from the average world of smartphone music replay to a dedicated music player that was designed solely to play music and play it damn well. The Sony NWZ-A15 has delivered a similar experience, showing me extra (hidden) depth in some albums I’ve been listening to for decades. The albums I’ve tested specifically on the NWZ-A15 are:

  • Chill out, The KLF (256kbs and 320kbs MP3)
  • Four Symbols, Led Zeppelin (FLAC, and 24bit FLAC)
  • Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (FLAC)
  • Rumours, Fleetwood Mac (320kbs)
  • Before the Storm, Jack Savoretti (FLAC)
  • Countdown to Extinction, Megadeth (FLAC)
  • The Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson (FLAC)
  • The Definitive Simon & Garfunkel (320kbs MP3)

king crimsonMost of our CD collection (500+ albums) are packed away in the loft. When we had our garage conversion done a few years ago, we decided to rip all our CDs to a NAS drive for use with our SONOS music system. Most got ripped at 320kbs, a few at 256kbs and some (my favourites) as FLAC. FLAC is what’s known as a lossless format- unlike MP3 it doesn’t reduce the audio quality in order to compress the file size. Generally if you listen to an MP3 track, especially one ripped at 192kbs or 256kbs, it will sound noticeably different to one ripped into FLAC. On the downside, FLAC tracks take up more space and generally use more battery when a portable player is playing them.

Sony also kindly provided me with a set of complimentary headphones, their MDR-1A over the ear ‘phones. Whilst I have used them, they’re not the most suitable for “out and about” use, so I’ll be reviewing those separately. For the most part for this review I’ve used either my RHA MA600 in ear, my Creative Hitz Bluetooth wireless headphones or my Pioneer SEMJ532 on ear headphones. All are very portable, and ideal for using out and about. I did try my AKG 545s but the player lacked the power to drive these properly, which is understandable as they’re pretty big. All the headphones did a great job but a special mention should be given to the Creative Hitz BT pair; the audio sounded an awful lot better through those than it did when I use them with my smartphone at the gym. This is likely down to the aptX Bluetooth support which the A15 has but my smartphone doesn’t.

The A15 has 16GB of built in storage, which is enough for a good few albums in it’s own right. It does however have a micro SD card slot, and given that a branded 64GB card only sets you back around £25, you can get quite a lot of storage for relatively little cost. The music on the SD card integrates into the main music library seamlessly too; something which a lot of players don’t manage to do. Album art looks okay on the screen- it’s not particularly hi res but it does the job. If you want the bells and whistles, Sony do a much more expensive high end player that’s built on the Android operating system and has wifi, touch screen etc. This device though is a very different beast, designed purely to play music and play it well. In some senses the design is no frills but the audio playback is anything but.

I conciously picked a wide range of different sorts of music to see if anything let the A15 down but I’m pleased to say it didn’t. There are various settings which offer to enhance the sound on low bit rate MP3s and whilst they do sound appreciably different, nothing could rescue the appalling mix of Countdown to Extinction- the cymbals still dominate the sound 20 odd years after it was originally released and nothing anyone can do seems able to fix this. Oh well. On the other hand, King Crimson sounded a lot fresher and cleaner than I’ve ever heard it and Simon & Garfunkel was nothing short of a revelation. My personal favourite track of theirs, The Boxer, sounded absolutely out of this world. But if the Boxer sounded out of this world, Led Zeppelin in 24bit sounded out of this solar system. I’d hoped to get some high resolution Pink Floyd, but after trawling several different stores, and reading extensively on forums, there is sadly no 24bit Pink Floyd available to buy right now. This is a shame but more than compensated by Jimmy Page’s obsession with constantly updating Led Zep’s works to sound as good as they can on the top end equipment that’s available. I always feel immersed in music when I can hear fingers moving on the guitar strings, the singers intake of breath before the first verse starts, and a clear differences between all the individual drums and this is what I can hear in spades on this recording. I first listened to Led Zep’s Four Symbols album in a university bar in 1993; I know it inside out, note for note, and yet I am still hearing new things in it as the equipment I use is improving.

Now it would be remiss of me if I didn’t touch on the debate that’s currently happening over high resolution audio. Some tech sites have conducted double blind tests and say they can’t hear a difference. Further, the foundation behind FLAC and Vorbis, Xiph.org, rather robustly disputes the benefits of 24bit music. I however am not a scientist, I’m not even a professional reviewer. I’m some bloke who likes listening to music. And I have to say hand on heart, this is the best device I’ve owned that lets me listen to my favourite music.

Having a device that offers tens of hours of battery life in a small, robust package and musical playback quality better than anything else I’ve spent (a lot) of money on over the years is a blessing. I’ll even overlook my one genuine grip, yet another device with a propitiatory cable (it’s not even the same as the PS Vita)! However, the fact that the inclusion of a standard USB cable is pretty much the only complaint I have probably speaks volumes about my opinion of the device. The A15 does indisputably to my mind make my music sound better than it does on my smartphone or the other portable audio player I occasionally use, and for me that’s enough to warrant a purchase.

The Sony NWZ-A15 retails for an RRP of £149.