Lightspeed i-Helicopter and Turbo Drone mini quadrocopter – hands on reviews

The lovely folks at Paramountzone sent me a couple of shiny new toys to review.

First, the Lightspeed i-Helicopter with on-board camera.

Lightspeed iHelicopter

As always with these Lightspeed choppers, you get a good selection of extra bits in the box, including two rotor blades and two tail rotors. With this one, you also get an 2 GB micro SD card which needs to be slotted into the camera so it can store the photos and videos, and a USB micro SD card reader for transferring the files to a computer.

Lightspeed iHelicopter

This is a slightly larger version of the original Lightspeed i-Helicopter. Making room for the underslung camera by raising the height of the skids.

Lightspeed iHelicopters

Obviously, the eye catching new feature here is the camera. The picture quality, at 680×480 (with 25 frames per second for video) is far from HD, but it’s not terrible either.

How does it fly? It’s what you’d expect from a 3 channel coaxial helicopter. Up, down, forward, back, turn left, turn right. Lots of fun as a first helicopter, though frustrating if you’ve used 4 channel RC choppers (which add the freedom to also strafe or ‘crab’ left + right). It’s definitely sturdy enough, and by dropping the power before a crash landing (to protect the blades) it’ll take a lot of punishment indoors. I’ve crashed it, a lot, with no ill effects. It’s not really designed for outdoor flight, thought I’m very tempted to try it (on a very still day) if only to get some impressive footage of flying outside.

The box boasts that the Copter Controller app is “compatible with iPhone iPod iPad” but warns you to “check website for Android compatibility”. Pleasingly, when you do, it works on a wide range of devices.

Lightspeed iHelicopter

Downs:

  • quite long charging time (~45-50 minutes charging for ~6-7 minutes flight time)
  • the same USB cable has to be used to charge the chopper and the transmitter separately. If both are flat you’ll be waiting for a while before you can fly
  • lack of tactile feedback on the remote (i.e. your phone/tablet) means you’re looking down at the app a lot, especially to control the throttle. The controls for taking photos and video is a bit small and fiddly on small screen too.
  • doesn’t live stream video to the app (though for this money you might not expect that)

Ups:

  • cute little lightweight camera lets you capture in-flight photos and video
  • nice selection of spares (and a screwdriver) in the box
  • comes with a 2 GB micro SD card and (impressively) a USB micro SD card reader
  • Copter Controller app is pretty good and the motion control is fun once you get the hang of it
  • good app support for both iOS and Android

Second, I also got a chance to play with the new Turbo Drone super quadrocopter.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

Have I ever mentioned that I love quadrocopters? Opening this box was super exciting.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

It comes preassembled, obviously. Small and light but sturdy. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

It comes with spares for all four blades, not one but two batteries, and a USB charger which can charge either one battery at a time or both batteries at once.

Two batteries charging

Compared to the older, bigger Turbo Drone I reviewed last year, this one is a lot smaller. Having flown both, I think that for this sort of toy, bigger isn’t always better.

Turbo Drone quadrocopters

This new smaller model is a lot more fun to fly indoors. It needs less room to manoeuvre, it feels less scary to crash it into furniture and it feels really nimble and powerful.

The large arrow on the case, the colour of the blades (red = front, black = read) and the colour of the LEDs (blue = front, red = rear for some reason) all help know which way it’s facing.

Turbo Drone quadrocopter

The remote has an adjustable sensitivity setting. 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, useful when gaining confidence and moving and turning more and more quickly. The 100% setting (which makes the remote controller screen change colour from blue to orange so you see it at a glance) is not really a further 20% of sensitivity, but rather moves the device into full on insanity mode and unlocks the ability to flip the drone.

Downs:

  • while I love the futuristic-angered-hornet noise, my wife is not a massive fan of the sound
  • not yet convinced about the 100% sensitivity mode. Maybe I just need more practice to understand what’s going on, but the hardware assisted flips, while fun, don’t feel entirely under my control

Ups:

  • so fast! Really powerful for such a small beast
  • not bad charging times (~30 minutes charging for ~9 minutes flight time)
  • two batteries and ability to charge them at the same time or charge one while flying the other means more flying, less waiting around
  • really sturdy little frame doesn’t mind being dropped (which is handy, as I crash it a lot). Silicone base makes for a softer landing and reduces the scary rattling when making a controlled crash-landing
  • 2.4Ghz radio controller allows for control over a long distance and multiple devices in the same place
  • apparently copes well outdoors if the wind isn’t too bad. I can believe it (it’s rather powerful), though haven’t tried it yet

Both are good, but of the two, this is definitely the one I’d recommend. Easily the most fun remote controlled toy I’ve tried (and my collation is getting pretty good) and the one I’ll be most excited to master. Of all the RC helicopters Paramountzone are selling at the moment, this and the 4 channel V911 helicopter are probably the best value and most exciting.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter – hands on review

The nice people at Paramountzone sent me a Turbo Drone four channel remote controlled quadrocopter to review.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter

It’s 36cm across (including the rotors, which are 13.5cm each), making it just about small enough to fly indoors.

The 500mAh 3.7v li-po rechargeable battery makes it conveniently easy to get spares; I had the exact same battery laying around in another remote controlled chopper.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter

It takes 45 minutes to charge using the supplied charger, and gives about 10 minutes of flying time.

Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter

The red bit at the top of the remote control makes it look as though it’s going to be an infra-red job, but it’s actually 2.4 Ghz with (apparently) a 100m range. That’s pretty impressive,

It claims to be suitable for both indoor and outdoor flight (in ‘fairly calm conditions’) which, while I have yet to try it outdoors, I can definitely believe. Since my back garden is a terrifying tangle of trees I’ll probably be taking it to the local park to try out longer distance flight.

The remote has an excellent feature in which the level of responsiveness can be adjusted between four modes:

  • 20% – good for getting started, but soon feels a bit sluggish
  • 40% – responds a bit more quickly and feels more nimble
  • 60% – twitchy fun. Probably about as high as you’ll go most of the time indoors
  • 100% – insanity mode in which the remote beeps constantly, perhaps to remind you that any move of the right stick is going to make it instantly flip 360°

The Turbo Drone RC Quadrocopter is a seriously nice little toy, and you should seriously consider it as a Christmas present to yourself. It’s stable and responsive (with the adjustable sensitivity on the remote allowing you to choose exactly how brave you want to be) and I’m finding it more fun to fly than similarly sized co-ax helicopters. It’s also available from Amazon.

Lightspeed phone controlled i-Helicopter – hands on review

The nice people at Paramountzone were kind enough to send me a Lightspeed i-Helicoter to review.

Unboxing

It’s an iPhone / iPad / iPod / Android controlled helicopter, and (having played with a few micro-copters in the past) I can honestly say this is the best I’ve seen.

Rather than a separate remote control, the controller is your phone/tablet in conjunction with a free app and a rechargable infrared transmitter, which plugs in to your headphone socket. Assuming you’ve got one of the supported devices, this is a great setup (Currently supported: iPhone, iPod, iPad, HTC Desire S, HTC Desire HD, HTC Incredible S, HTC Wild Fire, HTC Wild Fire S, HTC Hero, HTC Sensation, Samsung 9100, Samsung i9000, Moto MB525, LG P350. With more to come, apparently). No on-board video streaming to the phone though. Not that you’d really expect it for £30.

To fly it, after an initial charge, I simply installed the free iOS app on the iPad, plugged the IR dongle into the audio jack, and I was off.

iPad app

There’s also an ‘motion control’ option; a mode which lets you control forward/back/left/right by simply tilting your device. I found this mode a tiny bit easier, though the altitude control still needs a careful thumb to control it.

20 minutes of charging (via USB) gets you about 10 minutes of flying time.

Profile

It’s bigger than I was expecting, and the metal frame means it feels satisfyingly sturdy.

Landed

At first I was a bit nervous about damaging it, but I’ve since crashed it into pretty much every surface in my house with no damage to show for it. I’ve not even had to open up the included bag of spare parts. I’m impressed at how sturdy and durable this thing is. By killing the power whenever I get in trouble, and just letting it fall out of the air, I’m now very confident about flying it around indoors.

The app includes a ‘Turbo’ button (“for when extra speed is required”) which I expect will be useful when flying in an open plan office. So far I’ve not needed it much in my house.

Cons: Unlike a regular remote control, using a glass screen means no feedback from the altitude control, which takes some time to get used to.
Pros: Fun, fast and easy to control. Gyroscopic helicopters are really good these days, but this one is remarkably strong and durable.

This is a really great toy. Highly recommended. If you’re interested in ordering one, here’s the UK/Europe (currently £29.99 with free delivery) or the USA (currently $59.99 with free worldwide shipping).

GX Buggy micro RC car – hands on review

The Tomy GX Buggy is a micro remote controlled car from Tomy, the people who bought you the Q-steer and, before that, the Char-G. I reckon they’ve managed to come up with something even more fun here, and was very pleased when I was offered a sample to review.

GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy controller GX Buggy GX Buggy

To get the obvious stuff out the way, the car is tiny and it’s fast. At 10 cm long, it easily sits in the palm of your hand and at a mere 42g weighs next to nothing. Tomy claims it will do up to 22km/h. I was sceptical at first, but having seen it in action I can believe it. It’s certainly more than fast enough for bombing around indoors. It takes about 20 minutes to charge using the portably charging unit (which takes 4 x AA batteries, not included). From that, you get about 10 minutes driving time.

For comparison, it’s about half the price of the Losi Micro T (though of course you lose a few features including proportional steering, full suspension and rubber tyres).

The GX Buggy remote control (which takes 2 x AAA batteries, not included) offers proportional acceleration, plus braking and reverse as well as (non-proportional, i.e. just left/straight/right) steering. I’d quite like proportional steering, obviously, but even without it the car is an awful lot of fun to drive.

The foam rubber tyres are perfect for indoor use, with good grip on both lino and carpet.

Since it’s so small and light, you’d expect it to flip over when it hits things and spend a lot of time upside down. It cleverly self-rights though thanks to a plastic ring, the ‘roll wing’, which (usually) puts it back on its tyres very pleasingly.

And, being so small and light, and with such good acceleration, it can jump really high even with quite a short run up.

I have not tried it outside yet, but while I think it’ll run ok on tarmac I would be a little nervous about how long the foam tyres would last. I would love to take it to a concrete skate park and see how it performs there though. Should be lot of fun in a half pipe.

GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy

P5 Glove – Rock Paper Scissors and other fun

The P5 Glove is a consumer wired glove (tactile but not haptic). I bought one boxed as-new on eBay a while ago for not very much, and I’m glad I did as they now seem to be increasingly hard (and expensive) to get hold of.

P5 Glove

P5 Glove    P5 Glove (Rock!)

It contains five analog bend sensors, 3 buttons plus in theory x, y and z coordinates and yaw, pitch and roll (it emits IR which is picked up by a big USB IR tower so it knows where your hand is in space).

Here’s the P5 Glove intro movie…

I say in theory because while the p5osc Mac drivers handle the bend sensors very well the x/y/z output is jittery and yaw/pitch/roll sadly non-existent.

I’ve been experimenting with bridging the outputs for the buttons, fingers and thumb into MIDI custom controls so that I mess around with them in ControllerMate. Here’s a demo of a simple setup which detects whether each digit is straight or bent, and uses that to determine whether your hand is describing a rock, paper or scissors shape. For now, it just displays ‘Rock’, ‘Paper’ or ‘Scissors’ in large type on the screen but it would be pretty straightforward to turn this into a simple game.

P5 Glove – MIDI Rock Paper Scissors from rooreynolds on Vimeo.

Here’s the ControllerMate patch I made to do it (click through for the annotated version on Flickr).

ControllerMate VR Glove MIDI Rock-Paper-Scissors

Lots more fun to be had here with virtual pianos and guitar strings too; arpeggiating the MIDI guitar, for example.

Microprinter

Inspired by Tom Taylor’s microprinter project, I’ve bought a Citizen CBM-231 thermal reciept printer of my own. I picked it up for just £20 on eBay, including shipping. It’s great.

Tom uses his to print the weather, his diary, where his friends are (according to Dopplr) and more. As soon as I saw it, I wanted one of my own to hack with. Reciepts, printed on cheap and recyclable thermal paper, are perfect for directions, schedules, TODO lists and other impermanent bits and pieces you might want to carry while you’re offline. I also like the idea of it politely telling me what I’m up to as part of my morning waking-up ritual. I have a feeling that the soft sound printing and the ‘clunk’ of the auto-cutting blade will be a nice start to the day.

Citizen CBM-231 Citizen CBM-231 Arduino Hacked cable MAX3221 Barcodes!

(More photos)

A few hours of soldering and programming later, and I’m quite a happy hacker. I’ve put an Arduino sketch on github which shows how to easily print text and barcodes to the printer from an Arduino. It’s just a sketch at the moment, but I’ll turn it into a reusable library soon.  With a few utility methods and constants, a “hello world” with two barcodes ends up looking as simple as this…

println("Hello, World!");
feed();
setBarcodeTextPosition(barcodePrintBelow);
setBarcodeHeight(200);
setBarcodeWidth(barcodeWide);
printBarcode("123456789012");
feed();
setBarcodeHeight(50);
setBarcodeWidth(barcodeNarrow);
printBarcode("123456789012");
feed();
cut();

I think it can print bitmaps too. With a bit of work it should be able to print sparklines and QR Codes.

I know Tom has inspired a lot of people, and there are quite a few of these Citizen CBM-231 printers being repurposed at the moment. If you’re interested in building your own microprinter, you’ll hopefully find the wiki at microprinter.pbwiki.com useful.

Update: more microprinting fun including a book and sparklines.

Toshiba Qosmio G40

I recently received an interesting offer from TalkToshiba; they offered to lend me a laptop on the condition that I write an honest review of it. I get to play with a nice toy for a few weeks, you (and they) get to hear how I got on with it. Sounds fair to me. Let me make that perfectly clear: if the offer had been on the condition that I write a positive review, I’d have said no. The fact that they asked me to “post up your thoughts about the laptop on your blog … whether they be good or bad” and being able to tell the truth about the machine is the only reason I even considered it.

Unpacking it (from a big, heavy box that I’d assumed would be mostly packing material. Oh no, it really is that size) my first reaction was that I had never seen a bigger, heavier laptop. Opening it, I was struck by the distinctive design. Shiny, intricate and odd. Over time, that wore off and I now think of it as odd, and more than a tiny bit irritating. That’s partly because this isn’t the right laptop for me. Commuting every day means I value portability. Don’t expect this to be portable. It truly is a desktop replacement. In fact, you’ll want to plug in a mouse and keyboard too, because the layout is pretty dreadful.

On the plus side, it is quite powerful, has every connection you’d ever need, and the sound quality is amazingly good. When it did sometimes feel sluggish, I blamed the fact it was running Windows Vista. Oh, how I hate Vista. That’s not Toshiba’s fault though, and I should have installed Linux really.

Here’s what it looks like. The speakers vents are huge, and the visual aesthetic here seems to be ‘turbine’.

Speaker (which looks like a turbine)

It’s big. Here it is stacked up against my wife’s MacBook and my MacBook Pro. The two put together are almost exactly the same height as the G40.

Width Comparison

And here it is up against my MacBook Air. Perhaps not a fair comparison, but look at it. Insanity.

Width Comparison

It’s covered in unnecessarily bright and numerous blinkenlighten. Not very soothing on the eyes.

Controls

The biggest problem, especially given the machine’s generous proportions, is having a teensy-tiny trackpad with two teensy tiny buttons, with a fingerprint device right in the middle, just in the way. The design is, frankly, dreadful.

Trackpads, compared

The MacBook Air, despite being a much smaller laptop, makes room for a good-sized trackpad. There’s no excuse for a monster like the Qosmio G40 to have me scratching around on a surface half the size.

Size Comparison

Good points

  • I liked having a fingerprint reader to log in. Probably my favourite thing about it, and the one feature I now miss on my MacBook Pro and Air
  • Having 5 (!) USB ports, and good connectivity generally. HDMI, s-video, SD/Memory Stick etc, even coax TV-antenna, I was almost expecting to see a SCART socket on this thing
  • Good speakers, nice and loud with the best and most sound quality I have ever heard on any laptop
  • Reasonably powerful

Bad points

  • Unnecessarily ugly with lots of wasted space. 17″ inch screen feels small
  • The screen seemed quite dim too. Certainly dimmer than the Pro or Air, even when powered by mains and turned up all the way
  • Dreadful layout: tiny little trackpad with tiny little mouse buttons and a fingerprint reader plonked in the middle of it making it even more uncomfortable to use. I like the fingerprint reader, it’s just in the wrong place. The whole layout somehow manages to feel sprawling and cramped at the same time; I kept pressing the navigation wheel thing on the right when reaching for Return (pressing the soft touch ‘back’ button)
  • No way (that I found) of dimming the enormous numbers of decorative lights
  • HD-DVD. Seriously. I think the battle between BluRay and HD-DVD has been decided, hasn’t it?

It’s doesn’t really matter though because, being over a year old now, Toshiba no longer sells this laptop. The G50 has an even bigger (and I hope brighter) screen, but I don’t think I’ll be buying on. I like my laptops to be something I can put on my lap without fear of injury, and I returned the G40 without being terribly sad to see the back of it. Thanks to TalkToshiba for the loan though.

(More photos on Flickr if you’re interested.)

We could be guitar heroes

Before I went on holiday, I began to think about getting my Rock Band guitar controller to act as a MIDI instrument in GarageBand. I’m still fiddling with it, and since implementing a couple of extra features, I’m increasingly happy with the results.

The setup in ControllerMate, initially quite straightforward, is gradually becoming fairly hairy. Here’s what it looks like now. Click through to see a bigger, annotated version.

Rock Band controller MIDI setup in ControllerMate

Features:

  • Sends MIDI notes based on the fret you are holding while strumming up or down. Release the fret to stop the note, exactly as you’d expect in Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
  • Pick a major key by holding a fret button and tapping ‘Start’. First fret (green button) + start = C major, second fret = D, etc.
  • Hold ‘Back’ while picking a key to make it minor. e.g. 3rd fret + ‘Back’ + ‘Start’ = E minor. Update: in the most recent version, you just hold a fret and hit ‘back’ (rather than ‘back’ + ‘start’ together)
  • Additionally hold the next fret up to make it sharp. e.g. 1st + 2nd fret + ‘Start’ = C# major. 2nd + 3rd fret = ‘Back’ + ‘Start’ = D# minor.
  • Within the chosen key, first fret (green button) is the root note, while the others are intervals on the major/minor pentatonic scale. e.g. for C major, the frets are C, D, E, G, A. For C minor they are C, Eb, F, G, Bb.
  • Move the pickup selector to the 2nd position to engage ‘drone’ mode, in which the root note for the current key is played on a second MIDI channel whenever it is played. Handy for having a different MIDI voice sustaining the chord. I’d like to add ‘chord’ and ‘strum’ and ‘arpeggiate’ modes in other pickup switch positions, though I think strumming and arpeggiating could be better handled by plugins responding to simpler MIDI notes which represent the current chord.
  • The whammy bar controls the MIDI pitch bend. Different VST plugins choose to respond to pitch bend in different ways, so depending on your instrument you can even set this up to be a guitar slide rather than a simple bend.
  • Left and right on the D pad to move up and down by 7 semitones. allowing you to explore the circle of fifths. Sort of. This bit needs some more work.
  • Upper set of frets play up an octave.

If you’ve got a Rock Band guitar and want to use it as MIDI instrument, in GarageBand or anything else, I’m very happy to make the current version of my patch available. Most of the features should work with the Guitar Hero controller too, though I have not tried this yet. Let me know if you want to try my setup and don’t fancy re-creating it from the picture above, though obviously you’ll need the MIDI-enabled beta of ControllerMate, which is available to paying ControllerMate users who have paired their registration details with their forum membership, on the beta forum.

I think ControllerMate is easily worth the $15, and access to the MIDI-aware beta should make it an even easier decision.

Background / further reading:

Headphone Fun

I have a pair of JVC HA-FX300B sound isolation headphones which

come with three different sized silicon rubber earpieces and a pair of memory foam earpieces for a customized fit

They look like this

JVC HA-FX300B Headphones

and cost me a bit less than $100 (somehow I only buy headphones in airports, and usually American airports). These rely on a good fit from the memory foam to block out external noise. It’s a lot like popping in a pair of earplugs, but with built in headphones.

I have a pair of Sony MDR-NC22 noise cancelling headphones. These

have an inside microphone on each earpiece that work with an electronic circuitry to create an opposite sound wave to reduce wave. Up to 75% ambient noise cancellation (12dB at 30Hz)

They look like this

Sony MDR-NC22 Headphones

and also cost me a little bit less than $100.

Taking the memory foam earpieces from the JVC HA-FX300Bs and fitting them to the Sony MDR-NC22s cost me nothing, and really works. The fit is (just) good enough that the memory foam pieces don’t fall off and get stuck in your ear canal, which is what I was scared of when I first tried it and still terrifies me. Apart from that, I can’t see any reason not to upgrade them in this way; now I have the best of both worlds: sound isolation and noise cancelling. Great for long flights.

She Went Of Her Own Accord (.com)

In case you missed it, the super secret new side-project has finally gone live.

She Went Of Her Own Accord (.com)

Nick and I have wanted to do this for a few years. I registered the domain recently and we quietly hacked an instance of WordPress in our spare time last week to get something usable in place. Today, shewentofherownaccord.com is a modest but fast-growing user contributed collection of jokes. Specifically, and this is important, jokes in the following form:

My wife’s gone to the Caribbean.

Jamaica?

No, she went of her own accord.

There are as many of these jokes as there are place names and the imagination to create (sometimes quite convoluted) puns with them. The 1st line is a setup, 2nd line is a place-pun, 3rd line is a retort. It’s all about respecting the constraints of the form, in the same way that Haiku are more beautiful because of the constraints, not despite them.

My favourite feature – and I can say this with full modesty because, as with most of the interesting features, Nick added it – is the master map.

Jamiaca?

In the four days since we quietly launched the site it has already grown from 24 to 62 jokes meaning that we’ve already reached a stage where user contributions outnumber our own. Some of them are really funny too (someone calling himself Gruff has been responsible for some of my favourites so far).

There’s lots of work still to do but if you’re inspired to add your own or want to find out more then come join us. It’s already a lot of fun.

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