News Briefs Archive 2012




Elastic Electricity

Here’s another one of those solutions to problems that you probably didn’t realise that you had. It’s called stretchable wire, and apparently it can be used for anything from headphone cables to charger leads and something called electronic textiles. The wire, which has been developed by researchers at North Carolina State University, can stretch up to eight times its original length. The trick to how it works lies inside in the outer casing, made of a stretchy elastic polymer. The rubbery tube is filled with what’s described as a liquid metal alloy composed of electrically conductive gallium and indium. Just for a change it turns out that it relatively easy to manufacturer, but needless to say there had to be a catch. There are probably several, but the one that really needs to be sorted out before it can go into production is how to stop the liquid leaking, or running out of the cable is severed. That could be quite a task, though before we get too concerned, both metals have relatively low toxicity, but you can be fairly sure leaky electronic textiles will make a mess of your washing machine…



Pack A Pi To Go

The brilliant little Raspberry Pi, the ultimate bare-bones computer for those who want to get back to basics or learn how to program, has spawned yet another variant, this time a mobile version from Parts People, called Pi To Go. In the true spirit of this Open Source project, which encourages experimentation and collaboration, the case is designed to be made on a 3D printer and the instructions include the necessary files so you can build your own. The spec is fairly modest, based around the Raspberry Pi board, which costs around £30, the prototype uses a 3.5-inch LCD screen recovered from an in-car reversing camera, a battery pack from a Dell laptop, which gives around 10 hours running time, it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, an off the shelf miniature keyboard and touchpad, it has a 64Gb SSD and 4Gb of RAM. The whole thing should cost around £350 to put together, and possibly a lot less if you are adept at scavenging and modifying parts.



Google Maps Back on iPhone

There is much rejoicing in Apple land, and a few wry smiles over at Google now that Google Maps is back on the iPhone and my thanks go to Gizmodo for coming up with a way to bury the much maligned Apple Maps on the iPhone. In case you haven’t been following this story, Apple decided to replace Google Maps on the iPhone with it’s own mapping software and it was a complete disaster. Allegedly the only thing you could actually rely on it accurately locating was Apple Stores. It all got a bit out of hand but there were certainly quite a few mistakes and cockups but in the end it got so bad that Australian authorities advised against using it as it could potentially direct users into dangerous situations. Anyway, after firing the executive in charge of the team that developed the app Apple finally bowed to public pressure and on December 13th allowed a whizzy new version of Google Maps back in the App Store. And very good it is too, but being Apple, it wasn’t going so far as to let users delete the hated Apple Maps from their devices it’s protected like all of the included apps – but you can hide it far away. Here’s what you do. Create four bookmarks on the home screen, they can be anything, it doesn’t matter. Now drop the Apple Maps app into one of them and give it a suitable name. Next put one of the random bookmarks on to a blank home screen, swipe right and put another of those bookmarks onto the next blank desktop and repeat for the third and finally the fourth one, with Google Maps inside. The idea is that the despised app is now so far away that it is unlikely that you will ever see it again. Okay, so it’s not a very elegant solution but it works, and if anyone comes up with a better one, we’ll pass it on.



A Touch of Class

Touchscreen technology has improved in leaps and bounds in just a few short years. The first resistive screens were pretty horrible, but they had one advantage, and that was they responded to pressure, so you could use them with gloves. Then along came super silky capacitive screens, lovely to use, but no use with gloves, which meant frozen pinkies in winter. Then someone had the bright idea of touchscreen gloves, with conductive fingertips and things got much better. Some of them are a bit thin and weird looking, but you can live with that, and now they’ve reached the mainstream, with some fairly nasty ones appearing in the pound shops, but we’re left with the problem of what to do if you have a favourite pair of gloves, and don’t like any of the special touchscreen offerings? Now there’s an answer, a magic liquid called AnyGlove, just a few drops on and you’ll be stroking and gesturing with nice warm fingers, suitable for use on smartphones, tablets and ATMs, and only £5.99 a bottle. Only one word of warning, it may stain or cause discolouration, which doesn’t matter too much on woolly gloves and work gloves, but you may want to keep it away from expensive and light coloured fabrics and materials.



Double Life Magnesium Ion Batteries?

Yes, yes, you’ve heard it all before. We get all excited about a battery the size of a pea that is so powerful it can drive a Jumbo Jet. But it is still in development and we’re going to have to wait a few years for it to go into production, and then, nothing…


The next big thing in battery technology is always just around the corner, and this one will probably be no different, but we’ll pass it on anyway and news of a new high energy density battery reaches us from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review. It concerns research being conducted by Toyota, using relatively cheap and abundant Magnesium instead of Lithium in a Magnesium Ion battery. Magnesium is interesting because it has two positively charged ions; Lithium has only one, so in theory a magnesium ion battery can hold twice the charge, gram for gram, compared with Lithium. So far so good, but there is a problem with the chemistry, namely that magnesium, when used to form an anode, doesn’t work with conventional electrolytes and produces a blocking layer that interferes with the flow of a current. The Toyota boffins are now working on two possible solutions, new electrolytes and new ways to form the anodes that will allow them to work with conventional electrolytes. Apparently progress is being made but it’s still too early to know which method will work. As usual the white coats reckon it will be at least 10 years before you can buy one in Dixons and you can be sure we’ll let you know when it cones to pass…




BT Broadband Record Breaker

Don’t get too excited, not just yet anyway, but BT boffins have been tinkering with their fibre optic broadband network and have managed to achieve record breaking speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second; that’s more bandwidth than was used at the peak of the Olympics by the media networks. What makes this really interesting is that this is through a more or less standard optical fibre link. All of the hard work is done by the gizmos sending and receiving the data, using a system called XGPON (Tens of gigabits on a Passive Optical Network). So far it’s just a proof of concept exercise, using a recently installed connection between a company in Cornwall and a BT exchange in Truro. It’s all fairly academic at the moment as the web and your average PC can’t handle anything like those speeds, but it shows what can be done and once day you might be able to simultaneously stream scores of TV channels and dozens of movies, in the blink of an eye. All you’ll need then is the time to watch them all…



Google Maps for iOS Almost Ready?

Good news if you have an iOS 6 device and have been less than impressed with Apple Maps. According to a unnamed source in the Wall Street Journal Google is now putting the finishing touches to its iOS version of Google Maps and should soon be ready for approvals submission to the App Store. Features rumoured to be on the new release include turn-by-turn navigation, but the final line up is being kept under wraps whilst it is being field-tested. There’s no date for a launch yet but you can be pretty sure that Google is pulling out all of the stops to get it ready, hopefully in time for Santa to use it to make sure that all those pressies get to the right addresses…



Banishing the Bird Slicers?

Personally I think wind turbines are great, and the bigger they are the better in my opinion, However I concede that there’s a significant minority who do not like them for visual impact on the environment, the noise they make and their alleged effects on wildlife. So it will be interesting to see what the naysayers make of the Saphonian wind generator (named after a Carthaginian wind god, in case you were wondering). It’s bladeless and resembles a big satellite dish. Okay, so it’s probably not going to score too well on looks but no blades means no diced birds (though the jury is still out on just how damaging they are to bird populations). It also means significantly reduced noise levels, and like all wind turbines, the residual environmental impact, unlike most other forms of power generation, is negligible and when they are decommissioned the land they occupy is easily returned to its natural state. So what’s the catch? There doesn’t seem to be one, according to the designers they cost half as much to make as bladed turbines, it can capture up to 80 percent of the wind energy, compared with around 30 percent for turbines (defying the theoretical 60 percent efficiency ceiling of wind powered systems, known as the Betz limit). So how does it work? Well, it operates like a sail converting wind energy first into mechanical movement and then into hydraulic pressure that can be stored, or converted directly into electricity. Sounds too good to be true? Let’s just say for the moment we’re filing this one under the wait and see category.  



Cheaper Solar Using Carbon

Producing electricity from silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) solar cells is expensive and in spite of the steady reduction in the cost of panels, it can still take between a quarter and a third of a solar panel’s 25-year working life to recover the energy consumed in its manufacture. Payback times are coming down, as panels and manufacturing processes become more efficient but it needs a big breakthrough to make it a truly economical and environmentally friendly means of producing electricity. We’ve looked at many promising new solar technologies over the years; there’s no guarantee that this one, from Stanford University, will fare any better and sink without a trace, on the other hand it could be the one, if the scientists and bean counters get it right. This panel is based on carbon, not in itself a new idea, but the way it works is. The layer in the cell that absorbs the light and converts it into electricity is made up of those wacky new forms of carbon, Buckyballs and nanotubes – tiny carbon structures that do all sorts of interesting things with electricity and light, and the power they produce is carried away from the cell by another new carbon wonder material, graphene. The light-absorbing layer can be made into paste for coating directly onto surfaces, it’s flexible, very resilient and in theory carbon PV cells could be much cheaper to make than silicon panels but here’s the inevitable catch. The current efficiency, of converting light into power, is said to be just one percent, compared with the still fairly miserable 20 percent achieved by silicon cells. Researchers are hopeful that it can be improved and it’s very early days, so as always, if anything ever comes of it, we’ll let you know.



Just How Wide Is The Web?

Have you ever wondered how much data there is kicking around Internet, and how many hard drives it would take to fit it all on? Quite a few is the simple answer, the Internet Archive, the non-profit organisation doing their best to capture the whole web, and responsible for the excellent Waybackmachine archive, has just hit a notable milestone by capturing it’s tenth petabyte of data. It’s a mind-boggling number, so let’s try and put that into some perspective. 10 petabytes is the same as 10,000 terabytes, which brings it down to a sort of manageable scale, assuming that you are used to thinking in terms of terabyte drives, but if you’re still getting used to gigabytes, you’ll be delighted to know that’s equivalent to 10 million of them. In short that’s a lot of data, and it’s by no means the whole web, not even the obvious stuff we know about, there’s probably at least ten times as much – the so-called dark Internet – composed of data squirreled away on commercial and government servers, dynamically generated pages that only come into being when you access a site, and probably a whole lot more we don’t know about. Just to complicate matters, tens, if not hundreds of gigabytes of new data is being added every day, so they’ve got quite a job on their hands…



Ultra Unorthodox

If you have only just heard of, or are just getting used to the idea of 4K then forget all that you know… For all you Luddites out there still not up to speed on 4K, here’s a quick update. 4k is shorthand for 4000, which happens to be, more or less, the number of pixels across the width of the next generation high definition video displays (the actual standard looks like being 3840 x 2160 pixels). Still confused, well, current HDTVs – not HD-Ready, mind – have around 1080 pixels on the horizontal axis, so 4k means very nearly four times the number of pixels, and hence, getting on for four times as much detail. In short it’s Ultra High Definition, a startlingly crisp way of displaying TV pictures, and essentially what this story is all about. The CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) has decided that Ultra HD or just UHD will become the official name for 4k, which pretty well everyone thought was a bit teccy and rather confusing. Not that UHD or 4k isn’t confusing enough already, with several competing standards, a whole lot of TVs and projectors being shown by various manufacturers, and the not insignificant problem of virtually no UHD material available and you’ll need very deep pockets to afford the hardware. The bottom line? Don’t panic, the vast majority of TV still uses the good old 625-line TV standard, HD is starting to take over but it’s going to be a long slow process, 3D has been a massive flop. There are no UHD players or broadcasts or likely to be for quite a while so the industry is in no great hurry to roll out yet another format, especially one with poor software support; in other words, come back in 5 years, maybe…   



Apple Chip Chop

It’s somewhat ironic that the recent spat between Apple and Samsung has overshadowed the fact that Apple sources many of its key chips from the Korean manufacturer. It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn, via MacRumours, that the US giant is considering switching to another supplier, and the top contender is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, who are beavering away on the next generation of quad-core 20 nanometer products – basically cramming even more digital trickery into ever smaller spaces. There is also speculation that it might be in discussions with Intel, who are pioneering even more complex chips, using 14 nanometer production techniques. This makes it less likely that the two warring factions are ever going to settle their differences amicably and further disputes are a distinct possibility. Shhhsh, can you hear it? That's the sound of lawyers rubbing their hands together…



Smarter Faster Charging

Those of us who have been around the block a few times well remember the problems we used to have with first and second generation gadget rechargeable batteries. Nickel Cadmium cells were slow to charge and developed the notorious ‘memory’ effect that reduced their capacity by half in just a few months use. Nickle Metal Hydride was a slight improvement but things didn’t really start to happen until Lithium Ion came along and is now the de-factor power source for all of our toys. It’s not without its drawbacks, though, with high price and short lifespan to name just two. Charge time isn’t too bad and you can normally get away with 2/3 hours on a phone or laptop, but now the boffins at the University of California in San Diego have figured out a way to cut charging times in half. Current methods – pun intended – rely on the charger monitoring the volts and amps flowing in and out of the battery and it’s on-board charger chips. The new technique works on a more subtle level, using algorithms to work out precisely what’s going on inside the battery, things like charge distribution, its state of health and so on, to deliver the most efficient charge. This means that some Lithium ion batteries could be fully charged in as little as 15 minutes, and as an added bonus, improve performance and make them last longer. It’s still at the research stage but major battery manufacturers are taking a keen interest and with the need to improve the versatility of electric vehicles it may not be too long before it’s put to good use.



Intel In Clover

Chipmakers Intel has released more details and the future roadmap for its new generation of mobile processor chips, designed for the upcoming generation of Windows 8 tablets and laptops. Codenamed Clover Trail, the key features are speed and a frugal appetite for power, operating times on first generation Clover Trail devices are likely to be in the region of 10 hours, and they should be able to remain in standby or sleep mode for up to 3 weeks. The new chips utilise a 32-namometer production process; it’s a dual-core device with a clock speed of 1.8GHz, and quad hyper threading technology means it can run four threads simultaneously. The first device, Z2760 supports up to 2Gb of RAM and already more than 20 models using the chip are I development and expected to hit the shelves in the next few months.



Betcha Can’t Fill This One…

Worried about running out of free space on your camera’s SD memory card? Well, it just ‘aint going to happen with this new one from Lexar, which manages to pock in a whopping 256 gigabytes – a quarter of a terabyte – into an SD card. To save you working it out, on a typical compact digital camera that’s enough storage space for over 75,000 shots. In fact we’ve been talking about super high capacity SD cards for a while, and the SDXC (eXtended Capacity) sub-format allows for up to 2Tb capacity, and it’s been around 2009 but t date the largest production cards have topped out at 128Gb. So now for the bad news, as you may expect super-size doesn’t come cheap and the Lexar 256GB SDXC is going to set you back an eye-popping £550, but just think, you’ll probably never have to delete another photo, just pray you don’t lose it, or it ever pops it’s clogs… One last thought, the as the size doubles the price lower down the chain tends to halve, so those still pretty impressive 64 and 128Gb cards are likely to get a lot cheaper, and it won’t be long until paltry 4 and 8gig cards are being given away in packets of Corn Flakes, probably…



Hard Drive Inflation

As if the physics of hard disc drives aren’t mind-boggling enough, Western Digital’s subsidiary, Hitachi Global Storage, has gone and added a whole new dimension to hard drive technology by filling them with Helium gas. No, it’s not to make them lighter, or increase the pitch of the data, the idea is Helium, being much less dense than plain old air, reduces drag on the spinning platter and chattering heads. This also leads to a useful reduction in power consumption, they run cooler and that in turn means that more platters – up to seven of them -- can be slotted into the same space, resulting in a 40 percent increase in capacity. According to PC World, where the story originated, the technique has been known about for a while but it has taken engineers a while to figure out how to stop the gas leaking out. They are still a couple of years away from production but when they arrive capacities are expected to be in the region of 5.6TB.



Wire We Waiting?

Flexible batteries have been around for a good while and in spite of them promising to make things smaller and lighter they’re still mostly confined to the ‘coming soon’ tech pages. We can’t be sure if this new idea from LC Chem will fare any better, but as always, it looks very promising. It’s a battery inside a cable; you can tie it in knots, wrap it around things even wear it like a bracelet. It’s based on lithium ion technology and made using a hollow spiral nickel-tin plated copper anode surrounded by a composite cathode, encased in an insulating sleeve. Prototypes have been used to power an iPod shuffle, LED display and MP3 player and researchers report it continues to work even when twisted and bent. Needless to say it’s still a way off mass production and we’re not holding our breath but this very flexible (pun intended) battery design would clearly be welcomed by gadget designers and opens up all sorts of new possibilities, especially in the field of wearable technology, we shall see…



Google Gets On Its Bike

Actually, two stories for the price of one. The first you may have heard about already and the next time you’re off walking Britain’s highways and byways don’t be surprised if a odd looking bloke on a bike with a camera stuck on top of a long pole passes by. Yes, Google’s Streetview is now reaching the parts it couldn’t get to in its Smart Camera Cars, including canal towpaths, footpaths and narrow lanes. Google bike story two is that it now has turn by turn directions in the beta version of Google Maps Navigation covering a staggering 500,000km of bike tracks and paths in 10 countries, including the UK. Just mount your smartphone on your handlebars and follow the dark green lines, which show dedicated bike paths and trails; dashed green lines indicate bike friendly routes, and there’s even an option to avoid steep hills.




Read it and Weep Kindle

So, you though the Amazon Kindle e-book’s ability to store several thousand books is impressive. Well, wait until you hear what the folks over at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have figured out. They have been working on using DNA – the coding in our cells – to store data. It’s a technique that’s been around a little while, but their efforts could push the technology to new limits and they reckon they have found a way to store what amounts to 70 billion books worth of data on a four grams of DNA, which is a lump about the size of your fingernail. The actual storage capacity we’re talking about is 1 million gigabits per cubic millimetre. There’s no need to worry about the data degrading either, according to the researchers, and your fancy DNA flash drive should still be readable after 400,000 years, even if you leave it in the glove compartment. Don’t get too excited, it's all still a bit theoretical and it could be a while before there’s a DNA socket on your PC or laptop but if you are hoping for a way to preserve those treasured photos, for generations to come, or at least a bit longer than the 50 or so years promised by the likes of optical disc and flash memory, then this could be worth waiting for.



Windows 8 On The Cheap

Some welcome news for those wondering if it's going to be worth the bother and expense upgrading to Windows 8 when it goes on sale on October 26th. Reports coming from US insiders suggest that it will available as a low-cost upgrade until the end of January 2013. The as yet to be confirmed price could be as low as $40.00 (around £25.00), though if true the UK price is likely to be closer to a straightforward dollar-to-pound conversion. This is for a download version, if you want it on disc that's going to cost you the thick end of $70.00 (£45.00). The upgrade should run on any reasonably well specified PC running XP or above, but you might want to pop along to the W8 Compatability Centre check site first.



It Is Rocket Science

Google Earth’s Streetview continues to poke its cameras into unusual and unexpected places and one of the latest locations you can visit from the comfort of your armchair is the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. You can drive around the facility, gawp at the installations where the tour busses don’t go and even pop inside buildings that are normally strictly off limits to the public. See rocket engines, Shuttles and the mysterious machines used to propel men and satellites into space. You are free to roam and peek into the more mundane corners of the site, take a trip around the complex’s nether regions, nose around the car parks and even spot some real rocket scientists strolling around the site.



Apple Takes The Stand

Court exhibits and documents used in the ongoing Apple vs Samsung patent tiff obtained by The Verge have included some interesting images of prototype iPhones and iPads. Apple’s legendary obsession with secrecy means that these are rarely, if ever seen, outside of the company and they provide an intriguing insight into the company’s design process. The design of both i-devices went through many changes and several features, like a hinged kickstand on the back of the iPad, appear to have come and gone quite quickly. One of the more unusual concepts was this octagonal shaped case, and in a somewhat bizarre twist, there are suggestions in the Samsung defence team’s evidence that some iPhone design elements were inspired by Sony and Nokia products from the mid-noughties.



Atomic Bombs May Be Good For You…

There is a well-established theory that exposure to low levels of nuclear (ionising) radiation is actually good for you. It’s called Hormesis and is loosely based on the theory that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the argument can be quite compelling, however, for a really mad, bad and quite outrageous demonstration that an atomic bomb blast may not be has harmful as you may expect, see this video of a US Army bomb test from 1957. It shows five officers volunteering to being exposed to the detonation of a 2-kiloton warhead 10,000 feet above their heads, and having quite a good time of it, judging by the cheery commentary. More surprising is that all five either went on to die at a ripe old age, or in one case, may still be alive.



LEDs In A Spin

This one ticks a lot of boxes, it’s a new organic light emitting diode (OLED) that’s brighter, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than other OLEDs, and it comes to us courtesy of the University of Utah. The key development is Spintronics, a technique known as spin-polarisation, which probably doesn’t tell you much, but basically it boils down to a device called an organic spin valve. This is made up of three layers with an organic semiconductor sandwiched between two metal ferromagnetic layers; one made of a cobalt alloy, the other a lanthanum strontium manganese oxide compound. So, that’s all clear? Okay, you want more. The device is around 300 microns wide by 40 nanometers thick, so it’s pretty small. It works by applying a low voltage to the semiconductor layer, which results in a flow of negatively charged electrons and positively charged electron holes; when a magnetic field is applied the electrons and holes spin, and when an electron and hole meet it releases a creates an ‘exciton’, which releases a small amount of energy in the form of visible light. So far so good? Now, the problem is that the light emitted at the moment is orange, so it’s not much use for displays, but the white coats reckon they’ll soon have that one licked in the not too distant by varying the spin to produce different wavelengths of red, green and blue light. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you posted and let you know when it’s time to get excited about excitons… 



High Voltage Highway

Researchers at Japan’s Toyohashi University have succeeded in transmitting between 50 and 60 watts of electrical power through more than 10 cm of concrete, according to a report in Engadget. So what you may say; wireless charging systems that transmit power to gadget batteries. using inductive loops, have been around for yonks, without making much of an impact, but this development could turn out to be interesting. The obvious application would be to power electric vehicles, overcoming the huge problems of range, battery charging and cost. Needless to say this is very early days and if previous experience in these ideas is anything to go by the major obstacles are going to be gross inefficiency and power loss, not to mention the massive amounts of power that will be needed to power roads full of cars, (at least they won’t freeze over in winter…) but as they say, they’re working on it.



Spray On Storage

US researchers at Rice University in Texas have come up with a novel type of re-chargeable battery that can be applied to almost any surface. It uses a spray technique to build up the component parts of the battery in layers. This makes it possible to incorporate the battery into virtually any shape. So far they’ve managed to create batteries out of glass and stainless steel objects, and even a ceramic mug. Prototype cells have also included a battery made up of nine spray-painted bathroom tiles. The steady 2.4 volt output was able to light up a set of LEDs for six hours. The technology still has a few wrinkles that need ironing out, including difficulty handling the liquid electrolyte, and the painting has to carried out in a dry, oxygen-free environment but there’s high hopes of turning the process into a commercial reality. One intriguing idea is to combine the spray-on battery with a solar cell to create a device that both generates and stored energy.



Phaser On Stunning New Memory

If you are wondering what the next big thing in solid-state memory if going to be, you may not have too much longer to wait. As we have previously reported companies around the world have been working on Phase Change memory devices for at least the last six or seven years and the promise has been memory chips that spew out data more than 100 times faster than conventional flash memory, with a faction of the power consumption. Prototype chips have been around for a while but to date the big problem has been the write speed, which is not much faster than flash but that may be about to change. Engadget reports that The University of Cambridge has come up with a mixture of materials, including germanium, antimony and tellurium, which brings the write speed down to just 500 picoseconds, which is 10 times faster than previous devices. There’s still one more nut to crack, and that’s the need for these memory chips to be constantly powered, so data they hold is volatile, but it’s another step in the right direction that could make instant on PC and tablets a reality.



Massive Mouse Madness

If you find mice with two buttons and a wheel tricky to use, avert your eyes now. Logitech have come up with a Gaming Mouse, called the G600, which features no less than 20 buttons. It’s designed for hard-core gamers and in particular those who while away their time playing MMO (massively multiplayer online) games, who need this kind of rapid access control facility. In addition to the usual right and left clickers there are 12 buttons on a side mount keypad; this also light up and changes colour (16 million of them…). There’s two more buttons behind the central wheel, and for good measure this also tilts right and left. Virtually all of the buttons and keys are programmable and in case you’re still not sold on the idea, it’s available in black or white. So far so good? Now for the tricky bit, the price. In the US it will be selling for just under $80, which on past experience translates to around £65 - £70 by the time it reaches the UK, so start saving your pennies now.



Windows 8 Budget Upgrade Offer

News reaches us of an offer, from Microsoft, for what looks like a cheap upgrade to Windows 8 for just £14.99. It’s open to anyone buying a qualifying Windows 7 PC between now and January 31st next year.  All you have to do at this stage is pop along to the Microsoft website and register your interest, with details of your email and phone number;  when you’ve bought your PC you’ll be asked to enter a few more details. The offer is valid in over 130 countries, on all supported language versions of W7. You’ll get the Windows 8 Pro version, in the form of a download. A disc based copy will cost you extra. You should read the FAQ if you are currently using W7 with a touch screen – it seems there may be some compatibility and performance issues with the new OS -- and you would be well advised to check the W8 minimum system requirements to make sure the PC you have, or are about to get is up to the job.



Radiation Detector Phone Announced in Japan

Well it had to happen and the first company to come up with mobile phone with a built-in radiation dosimeter is the Japanese network operator Softbank. The smartphone in question is a Pantone 5 107SH, made by Sharp and powered by the Android operating system. The dosimeter feature is enabled by pressing a button on the handset, with the reading being shown on the display in microSieverts/hr. The measurement can also be geotagged and uploaded to a website which will eventually build up a radiation map. This is not the first attempt to combine mobile phones and radiation detectors and in the past year there has been a flurry of add-on devices, and even some dubious apps that use smartphone cameras to detect radioactivity. The latter requires the camera lens to be covered and the brief flashes of light, caused by gamma particles interacting with the camera chip, are counted to produce a reading. All of these devices and apps are pretty much next to useless for any serious health or safety purposes, and the readings they generate are virtually meaningless without specialist knowledge and training. They are also generally incapable of measuring the tiny amounts of radioactivity released in the environment by the Fukishima accident, beyond the well-defined exclusion zone, but the Japanese now have a deep distrust of the authorities and the media and naturally fearful of a reoccurrence so the Pantone will probably sell well. There’s also likely to be a demand from the worried well and gadget freaks outside of Japan, so if you are interested pop over to our partner website anythingradioactive.



Samsung Pencil In New Transistors

As you doubtless know the modern era owes everything to tiny little electronic devices called transistors – basically switches with no moving parts – and they in turn owe everything to the humble and plentiful element silicon. In the 60 odd years since this remarkable invention numerous materials have been found to have so-called semiconducting properties, in fact the very first transistors used exotic germanium, but now Samsung’s Advanced Institute of Technology has come with a new family of devices, based on the wonder material Graphene. It’s essentially graphite, also known as pencil lead, but in super thin slices, just a few molecules thick, and that’s good news for transistor manufacturing. The problem until now has been that the thickness of the materials in silicon chips has become a major limiting factor, determining the speed at which they can operate, and the unwanted heat they generate. Graphene looks like it could be a way forward, electrons move through it more easily, but because it’s not a semiconductor, turning it into a switch has proved to be difficult. Samsung’s solution has been to go back to the drawing board, and come up with a device called a Barristor, which switches a current on and off using a technique called a graphene-silicon Schottky Barrier. As usual, don’t get too excited, but file it away, just in case and if it does happen, you’ll be able to say where you heard of it first…



Early June Date for Windows 8 Release Preview

Stand by your modems; Microsoft has announced that the Windows 8 Release Preview edition will be available for download in the first week of June. Those of you that have been following the saga will probably already be playing with the first Consumer Preview edition, which went live in February. This new version will be as near as dammit the final polished edition of the operating system, and probably the last stage before the official launch, which is stil on course for October. As with all preview versions it should be fully functional – barring any last minute bugs and wrinkles – and it will almost certainly auto destruct, or at least run but with greatly reduced functionality as soon as the retail program goes on sale and PCs and laptops start shipping, so don’t get too attached…



It’s Not All Black and White

Why, you might ask is one of the world’s top camera makers going to all of the trouble of producing a digital camera that only shoots in black and white? You might also be curious as to how it can be that the Leica M Monochrom costs a touch over six grand, which would be a pretty penny for a top-end colour camera. Well, the Leica name and legendary build quality probably accounts for a fair whack of the price. The camera’s 18 megapixel sensor and top grade lens doesn’t come cheap either but the key to this camera’s market is the target audience, which is likely to be well heeled professionals and artists, keen to explore the currently trendy world of black and white photography. There’s no denying the special quality of black and white prints, that colour film and image sensors just cannot capture and until now the only way to get the real thing has been to use photographic film. Now there’s an alternative, and we wouldn’t mind betting that before long others will be jumping aboard this potentially lucrative bandwagon.



Better Batteries, But Not Yet…

Several promising new battery technologies may (or may not) provide the long awaited solution to powering our gadgets and vehicles, without relying on rare and expensive materials. First up hails from the Tokyo University of Science where Shinichi Komaba has developed a battery using the abundant element Sodium. Its used in the manufacture of electrodes, together with other common materials, including Iron Oxide and Manganese Oxide. The energy density said to be in the same ballpark as Lithium Ion, which basically means that cells can store roughly the same amount of power for a given weight of battery, but inevitably there is a problem. Prototype cells have demonstrated a very rapid aging effect and the capacity of the battery decreases significantly after just 30 charge cycles. Contender number two comes from chemist Christopher Johnson working at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. His battery brew uses layers of Vanadium Pentoxide in a Sodium cell’s positive electrode. This concoction apparently improves both energy density and cell life, which is increased to 200 charge cycles. Clearly there’s still plenty of work to be don but if only by sheer weight of numbers, one day one of these battery technologies will make it out of the lab.



New Glass Clearly Better

You would be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t much left in the way of new developments for glass, a material that has been around in one form or another, for more than 3500 years, but needless to say you would be wrong. The white coats over at MIT been tinkering with something called surface nanotextures and come up with a new glass that produces virtually no reflections, and as an added bonus it’s self-cleaning and resistant to fogging. Already the possible applications are lining up, everything from smartphone and tablet PC screens, optical instruments and car windscreens, not to mention windows. The solar panel industry is also very interested because panels can lose as much as 40 percent efficiency in six months due to a build up of crud and dirt. The basic trick is to start with regular glass, coat it with a photo-resistive chemical and expose it to light, though a grid pattern which results in the surface being covered in microscopic cones; you can read more and see a video on the MIT News website  



Raspberry Pi Secrets Revealed

We’ve been following the fortunes of the Raspberry Pi cheap as chips computer for some time and it has been going from strength to strength, with demand outstripping supply. So much so, in fact that they’ve been turning up on ebay, in some cases selling for more than eight times it’s official selling price of £20.00. For those unwilling to pay through the nose for the tiny PC, and prepared to wait a little longer, new stocks are on the way, and you can keep yourself amused and figure out new applications by pouring over the computer’s circuit diagrams, which have just been published on the Raspberry Pi website.



Thunderbolt Heading For PC

Moving data quickly from one place to another has always been something of a challenge, and who amongst us can forget the excruciatingly slow serial busses of yore? Then in the mind 1990s along came USB, with what seemed like blindingly fast transfer rates of 1.5Mbits/second. It wasn’t long before the speed was upped to 12Mb/s, then in the late 90s we welcomed FireWire and USB 2, which cracked along at almost 500Mb/s. USB 3 is now rolling out with transfer rates of up to 5Gb/s but even that seems fairly leisurely beside LightPeak or Thunderbolt as it is now known, which manages up to 10Gb/sec. Thunderbolt was developed by Apple and following its launch last year has only been available on its own high-end systems but the word on the street, courtesy of Gizmodo, is that it will soon be available to PC users. This follows the development of Windows-compatible Thunderbolt mass storage devices from LaCie. To put 10Gb/sec into perspective, a full length HD movie could be transferred from one box to another in under 30 seconds. However, you might want to hang on a bit for a new interconnect technology, currently in development by Intel. This uses a mixture of optical and silicon technology to achieve speeds of 50Gb/s.



Kindle Sees The Light…

Whilst we’re waiting for Amazon to pull its finger out and launch its Kindle Fire Android tablet in the UK, news reaches us, via TechCrunch, of yet another new Kindle e-book, this time with an illuminated display. As owners of first and second generation Kindles will know all too well, the excellent e-ink display looks fine in good light, but when the sun goes down, so does the book, unless you invest in one of those clumsy add-on lights on a stick. The new Kindle’s touchscreen is said to have a soft blue-white backlight, which should be restful on the eyes (and no so annoying for bedfellows, trying to get to sleep…). The device is still in development, but from the photographs it looks like it’s not far off production and there is even talk of a launch later this year. We’re not getting too excited, past experience of the Kindle rumour mill has shown it to be a tad optimistic, when it comes to timings but it’s an inevitable development and it should be one worth waiting for.



Mac Attack From China?

According to Gizmodo two new trojans have been identified that target Apples famously virus proof iOS operating system. Currently there’s no need to panic, the few Apple infections that have been identified rarely spread very far due to the small user base and near bullet-proof security, but these ones are different. They exploit an old security loophole familiar to Windows users, and ride in on the back of Word documents. Once the document is opened the virus is activated and opens a backdoor to a remote server where hackers can, in theory, steal data or allow them to plant more dangerous viruses and malware. The fact that the backdoor leads to servers in China, and the infected computers discovered so far belong to pro-Tibetan organisations has led to speculation that trojans were devised with political motivation or government backing.



Wheely Good Idea…

Driving a car used to be so simple; basically all you had to do was keep your eyes on the road, and try not to hit anything. The biggest distraction was changing stations on the radio. It’s a lot harder nowadays, as well as all the steering and gear changing you have to contend with texting and chatting on your mobile, listening out for the GPS, and keeping an eye on the car’s multi mode status displays. It’s all getting too much, no wonder drivers keep bumping into each other. The good folks at AT&T labs are trying to help. They’ve just come up with a vibrating steering wheel to make GPS navigation easier. The idea is actuators inside the wheel produce a pattern of vibrations that represent a right or left turn; there’s also talk of it being used to warn the driver that they are getting too close to the car in front. It all sounds very clever, except this seems to assume that drivers hold their steering wheels two-handed at the approved ten-to-two position. Good luck with that one! Here’s a thought, how about putting those actuators in the seat? Left bum cheek turn left, right bum cheek turn right, and we’ve got a really good suggestion for a way to get drivers to slow down or stop quickly…



Google Takes To The Skies

If you have been wondering where and how Google are going to strike next, then wonder no longer. Following its recent buyout of travel technology company ITA Software, it has now got its beady eye on air travel. Google Flight Search is currently only useful for flights that depart from the US, but it now covers 500 airports worldwide, listing all of the flights for a given route on a particular date, along with the lowest available fares. There is little doubt such a powerful tool will eventually be rolled out for an international audience, and rival services, like Kayak should now be officially concerned.



Blood Sweat and Transistors

We’re not sure how and why researchers at Tel Aviv University came to combine blood, milk and mucus, probably better not to ask, but they did, and in doing so managed to create a semiconductor material. Essentially it can be used to produce electronic components like transistors and displays, and as an added bonus they should be biodegradable, which could conceivably help with the growing waste problem associated with electronic wizwangs. The protein in blood’s ability to absorb oxygen means it can be doped with other materials to give it semi-conducting properties. Mucus has the ability to combine with fluorescent dyes, that can be combined to produce white light, and milk proteins are used to create strong fibres, used in the construction of the transistors. Needless to say this is all a very early stage of development but given the huge costs involved in manufacturing silicon-based semiconductors, and the abundance of milk and bodily fluids this seems like a potentially fruitful, if not messy field of research.



W8 Compatibility Checker

Remember all the fuss when Microsoft introduced Vista? A lot of manufacturers were caught on the hop and many applications and peripherals simply wouldn’t work with the new operating system. Microsoft leaned a few lessons and the transition from Vista to W7 wasn’t anything like as bad. Nevertheless a lot of people got caught out so this time, with W8 due to launch in the next few months it’s time once again to check if your software and hardware is up to it. Microsoft has just announced the all-new Windows 8 Compatibility Checker. It’s the most comprehensive one yet, covering hundreds of the most popular products, and fingers crossed, it looks like it’s going to be fairly painless changeover with a lot of green ‘compatible’ ticks. There are a fair few exceptions, though, some older printers and multi-function devices could be a problem for example, and if a manufacturer chooses not to develop a suitable driver you could be stuck so if you are planning to get a new PC, or upgrade in the next year or so now is the time to find out how much of an upheaval it’s likely to be.



Badger Blues

It’s a worrying times for small furry animals in Dorset. Sculptor David Cranmer has an unusual use for dead badgers, as you can see. It’s called a Badgermin, a variation on a theramin electronic instrument, which produces spooky sounds when you wave your hands near a pair of antennas. Inset in this deceased creature is a PaiA Theramic unit, you can see the two antennas, one emerging from Brock’s rear end; the other appears to be connected to its neck. We’re fairly confident the beast was properly taxidermically prepared before modification, if only because it would smell terrible, and you shouldn’t place electrical devices close to damp objects. You can hear it in action on the Nervoussquirrel website, and the bit about it being a live sett, is their joke, not ours…



The W8 is Over for the Logo

By now we know pretty much everything there is to know about the up-coming Windows 8 operating system, everything that is, except what the logo looks like. Well, wonder no more, here it is. It has been designed to fit in with the Windows 8 ‘Metro’ styling theme that we’re starting to see all over the place (brightly coloured square tiles), and for those of you who are interested in such things, the company behind the new logo is the Pentagram Design Agency.  As you may expect much time, thought and effort went into it. In fact there’s a whole philosophy behind the concept, and not just the W8 logo, but the whole series. You can read all about it, and relive the glories of previous Windows logos on Sam Moreau’s Windows Blog.



Shaping Up Nicely

You’ve doubtless heard about 3D printing, where objects can be made using a clever widget that builds up shapes, by depositing thin layers of molten plastic? Well, here’s a nifty gadget that does the opposite. It’s the Roland iModela, essentially a miniature milling machine for the home. The idea is you pop in a chunk of balsa wood, foam, wax or plastic and a high speed tool, controlled by your PC, running computer aided design (CAD) software, carves it into the required shape. These can be as simple or complex as you require, up to and including three dimensional models and components. Of course milling machines are not exactly new and they’ve been used in industry for a century or more, and automated and computer controlled machines have been around for at least 50 years but the idea of having one on your kitchen table is rather novel. It’s not cheap, though, and you can say goodbye to the thick end of £600 for this one. Nevertheless you get a fair bit for your money, it comes with basic 3D design software to get you started, it has a milling area of 86 x 55 x 25mm, the spindle supports a wide range of readily available tools. It also comes supplied in its own carry case and you can join a growing community of users, to share ideas and designs.



Get Your Slice of Pi

Start saving your pennies, and I mean pennies, because the remarkable Raspberry Pi has just gone into production. In case you haven’t heard of it, Raspberry Pi is a computer, but not just any computer; it’s not much larger than a pack of 20 cigarettes, yet it packs the same kind of capabilities and performance as full size laptops and desktops. What’s more it’s British and when it goes on sale in the next few days (hopefully) it will be selling for under £20.00. More importantly there are very high hopes that it will introduce a new generation of youngsters to the art of programming, and creating their own software, rather than just learning how to use ready-made applications, which is basically all they are taught to do in schools these days. It sounds incredible but Raspberry Pi takes advantage of advances in phone processor and video chips, which means an entire computer, including sound and video adaptors, USB, SD card, network and HDMI connections can be fitted onto a board measuring just 54 x 85cm. It has been designed to use existing Linux distributions and new versions have been developed to take advantage of the PCs ARMv6 architecture. If you go to the website you can see demos of it doing an excellent job rendering high definition video, as well as doing more mundane tasks like word processing and games. For less than twenty quid don’t expect a case, and you’ll have to provide your own keyboard, mouse, monitor and power supply, but what really matters is that there’s a whole community of users growing up around this little device. It’s going to be big in education, robotics, multimedia, in fact any field that can be thought of, and quite a few that haven’t yet, and if it all works out it British programmers could once again be showing the world how it’s done.



Scanning For Shooters

Gun-toting villains, footpads and ne’er-do-wells take heed. The constabulary may soon have the technology to detect your firearms while you are walking down the street, without frisking you, from a distance of almost 5 metres or 16 feet. The device, reported in the New York Times, works by detecting distortions in the natural radiation field that all living things generate. This radiation is electromagnetic in nature and in what’s known as the terrahertz region. It passes through cloths but is blocked by dense objects, like guns. The scanner is currently being tested by the New York Police Department, in collaboration with the Pentagon. It was developed by the US Department of Defense and is still in prototype form and is currently about the size of a large flat-screen TV, but it is bound get smaller and the NYPD reckons the range could eventually be extended to 25 metres (80 feet). It’s not going to be deployed just yet, though, and there will be the inevitable invasion of privacy claims, not to mention possible health concerns as some long-range terrahertz imaging devices – and it’s not clear if this is one of them – also emit radiation.



Dorky Door Chime for Trekkies

The big question is why has it taken 45 years for someone to come up with a Star Trek themed door chime? Well, the long wait is over and now you can have your very own Enterprise wall panel. It’s suitably futuristic and incorporates a motion sensor, that makes the classic ‘swoosh’ door sound, or if you like, the strident Red Alert sound to warn you if those pesky Klingons are dropping by to borrow yet another cup of sugar. It’s the real deal too, officially licensed by the Federation, or at least the people who give the nod to these sorts of things, and the bad news, well it doesn’t run on Dilithium crystals or anti-matter, just 6 rather boring, and decidedly old fashioned AA cells. Not sure when we in the UK will be fortunate enough to get our hands on one but if you’re in a hurry you could try ordering one from the US online store at, where it will cost you a mere 30 galactic credits (or US dollars if you’re ordering from Earth).



Last Gasp For IE6?

It's been around for more than 10 years but the time has finally come to say goodbye (and good riddance) to Internet Explorer 6. It's current share of the world browser market has dropped to 7.7 percent, down from 12 percent last year, but the aim is to get it to below 1 percent, which come as a great relief to web designers everywhere. They waste an enormous amount of time ensuring that sites remain compatible with the old browser, and you won't need reminding that it had its fair share of security loopholes and bugs. The move to wean users away from IE6 and on to more advanced, and safer browsers began in earnest last year. Now there's a website dedicated to tracking its demise, called IE6Countdown, which shows the number of users worldwide, and where they live. For the record the good guys are Norway (0.2%), Finland (0.5%) and the US (0.9%). The UK isn't too bad at 1.4%, but there's clearly still some work to be done in India (5.4%), South Korea (7.2%), and naughty old China who can't seem to give it up and are bumping along the bottom with a whopping  25.2% share.



Top Telly For Vegas

About this time of year the electronics industry gathers in Las Vegas to show off their wares at the annual CES (Consumer Electronics Show) and as usual it's a bean feast of new and nonsensical gadgets that sooner or later, may or may not make it into our homes. There doesn't seem to be any big surprises this time around but new tellies are always good for a few headlines, and this one from LG is bound to get noticed. It's a monster 84-incher, and he LCD screen has a whopping 3840 x 2160 pixel display, so -called Ultra Definition' or '4k', which is just the job for a spot of really convincing 3D. SO far it's only in prototype form but these things have a habit of making it onto the shelves with a year or so, so start saving now, not just for the TV, but the bigger house you'll need to put it in...


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