Wednesday, February 10, 2016

IT News Head Lines (AnandTech) 11/02/2016


Skylake Overclocking: Regular CPU BCLK Overclocking is Being Removed
If you follow PC technology news, you would have seen our news on how Supermicro had enabled overclocking for Skylake (Intel’s 6th Generation) processors on non Z170 motherboards. This was a two fold increase in interest – not only was there overclocking (via base frequency rather than multiplier) on an H series chipset more than a few MHz, but it also enabled this type of overclocking on locked processors from $60 and up.

Core i3-6300T overclocked by 20%

We reported at the time that ASRock was also introducing this feature, and since then they promoted a new series of ‘Sky OC’ features to enable base frequency overclocking on locked (often called ‘non-K’ because these chips do not have the K letter in their name to denote overclocking) processors. At CES we were shown new motherboards that were not Z170 motherboards that also had the vital feature – the extra signal generator required for the processor to enable this and a variant of custom firmware. Other motherboard manufacturers were also interested in pursuing this line, although they were a little more reserved.

Since that news we have sourced both the Supermicro motherboard that started the trend as well as more mid-range Core i3 processor for a review. Testing is almost complete, but there is a new climax to this story.

In the past week or so, it turns out that this feature is being removed for non-overclocking focused CPUs. The most obvious indication that this feature is no-longer part of the ecosystem comes from ASRock – their BIOS updates lists new firmware for all of their models which have the feature removed with the following phrase:

The marketing for this feature has all been removed as well, from ASRock’s websites and adverting.

When we (and other media) spoke to the other motherboard manufacturers, noting how reserved they were at the time this ‘feature’ came to prominence; we were told that it was still a work in progress for them. Some were uneasy to guarantee stability, or were not in a position to issue direct updates as some of their products did not have the required hardware and it would have left a confusing product stack with some having the feature and others not.  As a result we expected to see new motherboards with the feature over time, either ‘revision/mark 2’ variants or a hold out for the Kaby Lake platform later this year and introduce it there.

Since ASRock were removing the feature, there have been plenty of comments abound on forums as to the reason behind this. The removal of the feature also comes with a CPU microcode update, which is notable because it could mean that both updates are linked. Most are pointing the finger at Intel, wondering if they are flexing some muscle requiring the manufacturer to change the firmware, or it's being done via microcode, while some are blaming the media for featuring it as a big wow factor and bringing it into the radar more prominently. I want to address some of these points and a wider look at Intel’s strategy here.

Firstly, no matter which way you slice it, Intel has been actively promoting overclocking as a big feature of their processors. It was a big part of the Skylake launch back in August last year.

To put some history in here, overclocking the processor by the the base frequency was common place with Conroe, and then with Nehalem there were special SKUs that opened up the multiplier. With Sandy Bridge, the microarchitecture was designed very differently and more parts of the silicon were integrated into the same clock domain which restricted any base frequency overclocking quite severely. Intel also restricted overclocking via the multiplier to a couple of parts with K in the name (typically high end i5 and i7 parts) such that overclocking could be focused on the high margin processors. This meant that users had to focus on getting more out of the better silicon, rather than pushing a mid-range part into a better performance chip. Some may argue this was to increase high end processor sales, while others saw it as Intel having a performance lead and being able to structure their product stack in such a way to maximize that lead.

In July 2014, with Devil’s Canyon, Intel adjusted the beams slightly. Partly due to an increase in temperature generation with the integrated voltage regulator on Haswell and a decrease in thermal interface quality, Devil’s Canyon was released offering more thermal headroom and potentially better overclocking performance – we tested the i7-4790K and i5-4690K and came to this conclusion. Alongside the two Devil’s Canyon processors they also released an overclockable Pentium processor, the G3258, to mark the 20th anniversary of Pentium. This was a dual core part without hyperthreading which offered a 30-40% overclock, but as we found out in the review of the G3258, even with this OC the fact that it was dual core limited its usefulness in a word were software/gaming is designed to handle more than two threads. At the time, for most enthusiasts, it was clear that if Intel wanted to relaunch the mid-range market, then an unlocked Core i3 needed to be made. It has been clear that while Intel holds the competitive advantage, that was not on the cards – releasing an unlocked Core i3 would give users performance of an i5/i7 at a much lower price point, and would cannibalize sales of their high end parts. While they had no competition for raw CPU horsepower, it wasn’t going to happen, regardless of how heavily Intel was promoting overclocking and how good overclocked processors were for gaming.

Fast forward to Skylake, and the first processors released were the two overclocked chips – the i7-6600K and i5-6500K, which we reviewed on day one. These were released at Gamescom in August 2015, a primarily gaming focused event and were marketed as unlocked parts ideal for gaming. These processors were arguably as rare as hen’s teeth to find until September. It was more at IDF, a couple of weeks later, that we given that the architectural details of the new CPUs and allowed us to explain why we were seeing the performance numbers we did. The reason why they were released at Gamescom was simply for the gaming crowd, as gaming is one of the few growth markets in the PC industry, but it meant that the overclocking discussions happened later at IDF. Intel invited experienced overclockers on stage during the presentations to show off overclocking on the new parts – it was clear that overclocking is on the agenda.  We found out at IDF that the new Skylake microarchitecture uses separate frequency domains for the IO and PCIe, allowing the base frequency of these new unlocked parts to be adjusted as well as the multiplier.

Splave and L0ud_sil3nc3 at IDF 2015 overclocking live with Intel's Kirk Skaugen (source)

Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, with Splave, L0ud_sil3nc3 and Fugger during IDF 2015 (source)

In September 2015, the other members of the Skylake family were released: the 65W parts, the lower power parts, the Core i3 and the Pentium processors. Despite what was being said about being committed to overclocking as a concept/feature, these parts as we expected were locked down in terms of multiplier, but surprisingly locked down in base frequency as well. We had a chance to test some 65W parts, but were only able to move 3% or so, and this was a hard wall rather than a decline.

Core i3-6320 overclocked to 127 MHz on a Supermicro C7H170-M

So again, move forward to November 2015, when we wrote about Supermicro working around this 3% limitation using an external clock generator and modified firmware. It essentially opened the floodgates – not only could you overclock by adjusting the base frequency on a non Z-series chipset, but also on processors that were previously locked or only moved 3%.  There was still the limitation of the DRAM increasing in frequency, but it was good enough for enthusiasts to start asking about the motherboard and other motherboard manufacturers to do something similar. Very quickly we were speaking to all the major players about their plans, with ASRock leading the way in that regard. They were quick enough to roll out the new feature on motherboards that could support it, and were taking motherboards already on the design stage up a notch to support it. We tested the i3-6100TE and got to 140 MHz very easily without any voltage increases, giving a 40% overclock.

So in this past week, ASRock has rolled back this feature on the latest BIOS updates. I am in contact with Supermicro as to their perspective on all this. Because of the scale of the rollback and how sudden it was, it is understandable that many users are pointing the finger at Intel, and wondering if there is some muscle being flexed to make this rollback occur. There is obvious finger pointing – if motherboard manufacturers had this feature, and a overclocked Core i3 performed as well as a Core i5-6600K in games, then users might spend $100 less on the processor. Not only end users, but system integrators as well would take advantage of this, offering cheaper pre-overclocked systems that gave higher performance. It would mean that users would upgrade today and keep their system longer, which might be contrary to any strategy for reinvigorating the PC market. Not only the CPU, but saving money on chipsets by buying H or B series would also affect the bottom line.

If you believe that Intel is worth pointing the finger at here, there are plenty of signs that show the two conflicting sides of interest – while promoting overclocking as a major part of the platform on one hand, not allowing overclocking on the low end SKUs with the other seems at odds with the overclocking strategy. There is something to be said about controlling the user experience, making sure the user gets what they paid for rather than a burning pile of rubble due to misconfiguration, or we could look to the fact that if base frequency overclocking is occurring now, then it would invariably end up with Kaby Lake as well. Depending on how Kaby Lake turns out, this might (or might not) be a good (or bad) thing for Intel.

Of course, there could be a few dangers given it was enabled mid-cycle. Allowing overclocking on an H-series or B-series chipset might not be a good thing, especially if the motherboard is only designed for 65W parts from a power delivery perspective. If the CPU is designed for 35W/65W and starts to draw 120W+ or 200W+, with a motherboard that was only expecting 65W, then it would not last very long. That would mean some motherboards would have to be engineered to do so, but as mentioned before, having a blanket upgrade regardless of the motherboard design would leave the company product stack with some parts that could and others that couldn’t, potentially confusing end-users.

Also of potential concern/confusion here are warranty matters for overzealous overclocks. As part of their overclocking strategy Intel does in fact offer overclocking warranties in some regions via their optinal 'Performance Tuning Protection' plans, but again this is only for SKUs that are unlocked. With lower-end processors I think it's safe to say that Intel doesn't want to open the door again to replacing lower-margin processors that died under "mysterious circumstances" while trying to balance that with legitimate consumer warranty needs.

Arguably the best way to encourage these CPUs to be opened up is some strong competitionIt's at this point that I should add that despite the opening up of the clock domains with Skylake, Intel has been clear in talking about their overclock strategy only in relation to the unlocked parts. This makes sense given their market position.

Back on the motherboard side, assuming that Supermicro will also have to roll back their feature (or limit it to that single motherboard only, which might be difficult to get hold of), then there are two options here for anyone who had invested in the base frequency ecosystem. Either stay on the older BIOS and not update as time goes on, or update and lose the feature. We’re not sure if ASRock will keep the BIOSes that allow base frequency on their website, or if they will be removed so new users cannot roll back the BIOS. I assume that some forums have taken a copy while they were all still available and hosted them elsewhere, such as the overclocking forum HWBot or at XtremeSystems.

Not to mention, there's the consideration for reviewers as well. For those that have an OC capable system for these locked parts, creating data at an overclocked speed and base speed means double the time to test, although there will be fewer users able to buy the hardware necessary to do so as time goes on. From a personal perspective, I still want to see those OC numbers on Core i3 or Pentiums, or even the Core i5-6400/6500 where a user could have saved $60 compared to the i5-6600K, or comparing that to what the competitors have to offer. How OC makes a difference allows us to predict performance. I assume our readers want to see as well?

Relevant Reading

Devil's Canyon Review: Core i7-4790K and Core i5-4690K - CPU Review

The Overclockable Pentium G3258 Review - CPU Review

Skylake-K Review: Core i7-6700K and Core i5-6600K - CPU Review

Comparison between the i7-6700K and i7-2600K in Bench - CPU Comparison

Overclocking Performance Mini-Test to 4.8 GHz - Overclocking

Skylake Architecture Analysis - Architecture

Z170 Chipset Analysis and 55+ Motherboards at Launch - Motherboard Overview

Discrete Graphics: An Update for Z170 Motherboards - PCIe Firmware Update

Read More ...

Micron Reports on GDDR5X Dev Progress - Volume Production This Summer
Engineers from Micron Development Center in Munich (also known as Graphics DRAM Design Center) are well known around the industry for their contribution to development of multiple graphics memory standards, including GDDR4 and GDDR5. The engineers from MDC also played a key role in development of GDDR5X memory, which is expected to be used on some of the upcoming video cards. Micron disclosed the first details about GDDR5X in September last year, publicizing the existance of the standard ahead of later JEDEC ratification and offering a brief summary of what to expect. Since then the company has been quiet on their progress with GDDR5X, but in a new blog post they have published this week, the company is touting their results with their first samples and offering an outline of when they expect to go into volume production.

The GDDR5X standard, as you might recall, is largely based on the GDDR5 technology, but it features three important improvements: considerably higher data-rates (up to 14 Gbps per pin or potentially even higher), substantially higher-capacities (up to 16 Gb), and improved energy-efficiency (bandwidth per watt) thanks to 1.35V supply and I/O voltages. To increase performance, the GDDR5X technology uses its new quad data rate (QDR) data signaling technology to increase the amount of data transferred, in turn allowing it to use a wider 16n prefetch architecture, which enables up to 512 bit (64 Bytes) per array read or write access. Consequently, GDDR5X promises to double the performance of GDDR5 while consuming similar amounts of power, which is a very ambitious goal.

In their blog post, Micron is reporting that they already have their first samples back from their fab - this being earlier than expected - with these samples operating at data-rates higher than 13 Gbps in the lab. At present, the company is in the middle of testing its GDDR5X production line and will be sending samples to its partners this spring.

Thanks to reduction of Vdd/Vddq by 10% as well as new features, such as per-bank self refresh, hibernate self refresh, partial array self refresh and other, Micron’s 13 Gbps GDDR5X chips do not consume more energy than GDDR5 ICs (integrated circuits) — 2–2.5W per component (i.e., 10–30W per graphics card), just like the company promised several weeks ago. Since not all applications need maximum bandwidth, in certain cases usage of GDDR5X instead of its predecessor will help to reduce power consumption.

GDDR5X memory chips will come in new packages, which will be slightly smaller (14×10mm vs. 14×12mm) compared to GDDR5 ICs despite the increase of their ball count (190-ball BGA vs. 170-ball BGA). According to Micron, denser ball placement, reduced ball diameter (0.4mm vs. 0.47mm) and smaller ball pitch (0.65mm vs. 0.8mm) make PCB traces slightly shorter, which should ultimately improve electrical performance and system signal integrity. Keeping in mind higher data-rates of GDDR5X’s interface, improved signal integrity is just what the doctor ordered. The GDDR5X package maintains the same 1.1mm height as the predecessor.

Micron is using its 20 nm memory manufacturing process to make the first-generation 8 Gb GDDR5X chips. The company has been using the technology to make commercial DRAM products for several quarters now. As the company refines its fabrication process and design of the ICs, their yields and data-rate potential will increase. Micron remains optimistic about hitting 16 Gbps data-rates with its GDDR5X chips eventually, but does not disclose when it expects that to happen.

All of that said, at this time the company has not yet figured out its GDDR5X product lineup, and nobody knows for sure whether commercial chips will hit 14 Gbps this year with the first-generation GDDR5X controllers. Typically, early adopters of new memory technologies tend to be rather conservative. For example, AMD’s Radeon HD 4870 (the world’s first video card to use GDDR5) was equipped with 512 MB of memory featuring 3.6 Gbps data-rate, whereas Qimonda (the company which established Micron’s Graphics DRAM Design Center) offered chips with 4.5 Gbps data-rate at the time.

The first-gen GDDR5X memory chips from Micron have 8 Gb capacity, hence, they will cost more than 4 Gb chips used on graphics cards today. Moreover, due to increased pin-count, implementation cost of GDDR5X could be a little higher compared to that of GDDR5 (i.e., PCBs will get more complex and more expensive). That said, we don't expect to see GDDR5X showing up in value cards right away, as this is a high-performance technology and will have a roll-out similar to GDDR5. At the higher-end however, a video card featuring a 256-bit memory bus would be able to boast with 8 GB of memory and 352 GB/s of bandwidth.

Finally, Micron has also announced in their blog post that they intend to commence high-volume production of GDDR5X chips in mid-2016, or sometime in the summer. It is unknown precisely when the first graphics cards featuring the new type of memory are set to hit the market, but given the timing it looks like this will happen in 2016.

Read More ...

CEO of Imagination Technologies Steps Down
Sir Hossein Yassaie, chief executive officer of Imagination Technologies, has stepped down as of Monday, Feburary 8th. Mr. Yassaie served as Imagination’s CEO since 1998 and joined the company in 1992. The company expects to report a loss for the financial year, which may be the reason for CEO’s departure. Andrew Heath, one of the company's non-executive directors, has been appointed interim chief executive. He has already began to search for a new CEO for Imagination.

Imagination licenses graphics, multimedia and general-purpose processing technologies to various chip developers, including Apple and Intel. The company indicated that royalties from some of its key customers have fallen short of previous expectations for the last calendar quarter of 2015. The company also lowered its forecast for Q1 2016. Imagination named global slowdown in the semiconductor sector as well as global uncertainty about future trading prospects with China as the reasons for its financial problems. While Imagination indicated that its licensing pipeline remains strong, it is not sure about its license revenue timing.

Imagination Technologies was founded in 1985 as VideoLogic. The company sold chips for televisions, game consoles and PCs. Mr. Yassaie changed the company’s business model to technology licensing in 1999 and essentially exited chip business several years later. Imagination tried to return to the market of graphics adapters with its Kyro and Kyro II graphics chips in early 2000s, but it could not compete against ATI and NVIDIA at the time. Starting from the year 2000 Imagination bought a number of important technology companies, significantly boosting its IP portfolio. Among the companies acquired by Imagination are Ensigma (digital signal processing), Caustic Graphics (hardware/software for real-time ray-tracing technology), MIPS Technologies (general-purpose processing) and a number of others. Today, Imagination can provide virtually all technologies needed to build system-on-chips for almost all kinds of devices. In fact, Imagination’s graphics processing technologies are used inside billions of smartphones and tablets.

Imagination did not announce when it expects to hire its new CEO, but said that it will consider both internal and external candidates. For a company like Imagination the absence of permanent CEO concerning because it constantly needs to make strategic decisions that have long-lasting effects on its future. Technologies developed by Imagination today will be licensed only a couple of years down the road and it is important for them to be competitive against offerings from ARM as well as developers of proprietary chips. As pointed out by The Tech Report, Mr. Yassaie is the author of the intellectual property licensing model that brought the company to fame, and it will likely not be easy to find a replacement due to the complexity of the technology licensing business.

Alongside Mr. Yassaie's resignation, Imagination also announced additional details on restructuring initiatives, which include the sale of Pure, its consumer electronics business. The company expects to reduce operating costs of its on-going businesses by £15 million in the next financial year, ending April 2017. In addition, Imagination will re-invest £2 million in PowerVR graphics processing technology. The company also plans to analyze its overhead expenses and research and development expenditures before implementing additional restructuring actions.

Read More ...

Sony Enters SSD Market with Phison S10-Based SLW-M Series
Sony-Asia this month introduced its first own-brand solid-state drives that it will sell in retail. The decision to start selling consumer SSDs is completely unexpected because Sony has been trying to focus solely on highly profitable and less competitive businesses in the recent years, whereas the competition in the market of consumer storage is fierce. Initially, the company will sell only two SSD models, which means that it is trying to test a new business rather than to become a leader on the market.

Sony’s SLW-M SSDs come in 2.5-inch/7 mm form-factor (a special bracket to install the drives into 9.5-mm bays is included) and feature 240 GB (SLW-MG2) or 480 GB (SLW-MG4) capacities. The drives use SATA-6 Gbps interface and hence Sony can address the vast majority of desktop and laptop PCs with its first-gen SSDs. According to Sony, the SLW-M solid-state drives feature up to 560 MB/s sequential write speed and up to 530 MB/s sequential write speed. Each drives comes equipped with the Acronis True image 2015 and Sony SSD ToolBox software for managing and saving your data.

The Sony SLW-M SSDs are based on the Phison PS3110-S10 controller as well as Toshiba’s TLC flash memory, according to images published by web-site. The SLW-MG2 solid-state drive from Sony features 128 MB DDR3 buffer made by Nanya. Usage of TLC NAND indicates that Sony’s SLW-M are entry-level client solid-state solutions that do not cost a lot to make and are not supposed to be expensive, and based on the specifications listed it's a reasonable guess that performance will be near the similarly-built low-end OCZ Trion 100 series.

Meanwhile with the Sony drives it's worth noting that Phison not only sells controller chips to makers of SSDs, but actual turnkey solutions, which include ASICs, firmware, reference designs of solid-state drives, software, and so on, and this appears to be what Sony is doing. The PCB design of Sony’s SLW-M resembles that of Kingston’s HyperX Savage, Corsair’s Neutron XT and Patriot’s Ignite, while Sony's SSD ToolBox is rebranded Phison ToolBox.

Many new SSD suppliers acquire Phison’s turnkey solutions in order to produce own drives and find out whether they can successfully sell such products to their customers via their sales channels. For example, Zotac last year introduced its first SSDs powered by Phison’s PS3110-S10 controllers and Toshiba’s MLC NAND flash memory.

Sony’s SSD plans are not completely clear. At present, the company only sells its solid-state drives in select Asian markets and it is unknown whether Sony has plans to offer similar products in the U.S. or Europe. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the company, which has been withdrawing from commoditized markets for years, is trying to sell its own SSDs. Nowadays solid-state drives are not as cheap as HDDs, but in the entry level the competition is fierce and margins are low.

Read More ...

AfterShokz Bone Conduction Headphones Capsule Review
Headphones are not a category we usually cover at AnandTech, and even when we do, it is restricted to gaming headsets. In my CES visits over the last several years, I have been fortunate to have a bit of spare time to go around the show floor and look at the various interesting gadgets about to make an appearance in the market. Many of these gadgets are, like headphones, only tangentially related to our core coverage areas.

AfterShokz is one of the companies that has managed to grab my attention several times on the CES show floor. Their product is quite unique - bone conduction headphones that do not require something placed right over the ears to experience sound. Right since the introduction of the AfterShokz Sport in early 2012, they have been working to bring more features and better usability to the models in their lineup. After CES this year, I got the opportunity to spend some extended time with the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium as well as the Bluez 2.

Introduction and Specifications

Bone conduction is the transmission of sound directly to the inner ear through the bones of the skull. It bypasses the eardrum (part of the middle ear) completely. While the aspect has been known for a long time (at least since the Beethoven era), commercial products (such as hearing aids and military use equipment) started appearing only in the 1970s. As usual with niche technology, the pricing was too high for mainstream adoption. In 2002, Goldendance, a Japanese company, was founded with the aim of doing R&D on bone conduction as well as to design and manufacture the transducers used for bone conduction. The products were brought to the US in 2008 under the Audio Bone brand. The Audio Bone headphones are still being sold - however, over the last 8 years, only two models have been introduced, and the pricing has been a bit out of the league for the average consumer. The Japanese market saw a few bone-conduction headset models from the likes of Maxell and Thanko. In the US market, Tier 1 vendors such as Motorola tried to bring bone conduction headsets to the mass market with devices such as the Endeavor HX1 Bluetooth headset. Unfortunately, they didn't make much of an impression in the market. AfterShokz entered this area in 2012 with the launch of the Sport headphone.

After checking out the AfterShokz Sport at CES 2012, I felt that the product seemed interesting, but with a narrow focus and clunky UX. The wired model required a USB adapter with a headphone jack to charge and came with a in-line battery / volume control box that needed to be secured during usage. However, over the last four years, the models have evolved quite a bit. Since then, they have managed to introduce new wired models such as the Sportz 2 and the Sportz M2 in late 2012 (the latter being the first bone-conduction headset to integrate a microphone). In 2013, the first wireless Bluetooth-enabled model - Bluez - was launched, while Bluez 2, the second generation version, started shipping in June 2014. In 2015, AfterShokz  had a successful crowdfunding campaign for a new wireless model - the Trekz Titanium. Launched in late 2015, it is a Bluetooth enabled wireless headset with noise-cancelling dual microphones that can be used seamlessly for even taking phone calls while listening to music.

The first generation Bluez model introduced in 2013 had the battery pack and the volume control mounted at the back of the head. The Bluez 2 moved it to one side of the headset while the volume control moved to the other side. The Bluez 2S is similar to the Bluez 2 except for the porting of some of the development efforts from the Trekz Titanium model to it. The specifications of the Bluez 2 and the Trekz Titanium models are provided below (extract from the official specifications PDFs):

AfterShokz Bluez 2 Specifications

AfterShokz Trekz Titanium Specifications

Even though AfterShokz claims that the battery life is only for 6 hours, I found that both the Trekz Titanium and the Bluez 2 easily exceeded the claimed usage time. It is quite possible that the battery life was measured at a volume level that is a bit higher than what I am comfortable with.

Since the Trekz Titanium happens to be the flagship model, I will devote the rest of this section to it. Compared to the Bluez 2, the frame of the Trekz Titanium is more flexible, and that allows for a more comfortable fit. In addition, AfterShokz also bundles silicon rubber bands to place on either side of the headset (for a better fit in certain cases) and earplugs (to block out external noise when using the Trekz Titanium in noisy environments).

There is also a carrying case in the package along with the user manual and the warranty card.

Two of the main issues with bone-conduction headsets relate to the improper reproduction of certain frequencies and the leakage of sound to the surroundings. AfterShokz has some DSP tricks under the trademarked 'PremiumPitch' and 'PremiumPitch+' tags to provide good experience with both music and voice. On the leakage front, AfterShokz claims implementation of some sound cancelation features under the 'LeakSlayer' tag for this purpose.

Industrial Design and Internals

The titanium frame of the Trekz Titanium allows for it to be thin and flexible. The rest of the observations in this section are applicable to both the Bluez 2 as well as the Trekz Titanium unless specifically noted. The weight is equally distributed on either side, which aids in a more natural fit. On one side, we have the battery, and the other side has the volume / power control, micro-USB charging port and the main circuitry / antenna. All the buttons as well as the micro-USB charging port are on one side, with the micro-USB slot having a flap to protect it against ingress of liquids and dust. The power button is multiplexed with the volume increase button (long press to activate power functions). The outer shell of the left-side transducer has a multi-function button that can be used to take calls and skip tracks during music playback. The positioning of this button is perfect, though I can't say the same about the volume buttons. I tended to frequently keep pressing the micro-USB flap when trying to power on the device or alter the volume. Sometimes, I also mistakenly ended up raising the volume instead of lowering it. Nothing about the industrial design can be termed as a show-stopper, but there are always a few aspects that could be improved in future generations.. That said, the industrial design of the Trekz Titanium addresses one of the major issues with the Bluez 2 (inflexibility and, as a result, fit in certain cases).

The galleries below show the internals of both the Bluez 2 and the Trekz Titanium (from the official FCC filings).

The Bluez 2 utilizes the CSR8645 Bluetooth Stereo ROM solution with aptX technology. Interestingly, the official specifications for the Bluez 2 don't indicate aptX codec support. The Trekz Titanium uses a 3.7V 180mAh battery and also uses a CSR chip, though the chip markings are not clear.

Subjective Assessment and Concluding Remarks

As an average consumer, I don't expect audiophile-quality headphones while being on the move or exercising. Also, unlike the typical consumer, I am averse to having anything covering my ears. As a result, I have never cared about headphones or headsets till affordable alternatives such as the AfterShokz models came out. I have used the Bluez 2 as well as the Trekz Titanium for a hour at a time (mainly during my bike ride to work), and I have only had positive experiences to report. I can definitely see that extended use might cause discomfort, particularly since bone conduction needs some getting used to.

Despite the claimed 'LeakSlayer' technology, there is some amount of sound leakage in both models. It is possible to bring down the volume without adversely affecting the effectiveness of bone conduction. The sound leakage also seemed to be reduced in the Trekz Titanium when compared to the Bluez 2. People wearing glasses need to adjust the units to get the right fit. While this adjustment is easier in the Trekz Titanium, the Bluez 2 is a bit rigid. In general, even with the Trekz Titanium model, being able to adjust the position of the transducers independent of the rest of the frame would be a very useful feature. Limited buttons on the unit make user interaction a non-intuitive affair. However, reading through the manual once should clear up this aspect. It might be a better idea to have the two volume buttons on either side (given that the Trekz Titanium design multiplexes the volume up and power buttons). Obviously, it goes without saying that this is not a product for audiophiles.

I did notice multiple reports online of users finding that AfterShokz units stop working under excessive sweat. This was not an issue for me, but I can see that it could affect certain users. The Trekz Titanium carries a IP55 rating pointing to sweat-resistance (the rating for liquid protection implies that there would be no harmful effects to the device from water projected by a nozzle (6.3mm) against it from any direction). AfterShokz claims to have a new sweat-proof coating in the Trekz Titanium and Bluez 2S to handle this situation, though its effectiveness is not something we were able to test. It would also be nice to have a carry case in which it would be easier to put the Trekz Titanium into without any twisting or bending.

These drawbacks aside, the Trekz Titanium and the Bluez 2 are compelling solutions for certain users. Talking about the positives:

  • One undeniable aspect is that AfterShokz headphones like the Trekz Titanium and Bluez 2 can help people with damaged eardrums / middle ear issues  to experience sound (assuming the cochlea / inner ear is not damaged).
  • People who hate things covering their ears in general (and, by extension, avoided headphones / headsets of any sort) get an open-ear device with bone-conduction headphones
  • It is ideal for living room HTPCs where one can listen to the audio from the PC without disturbing the others in the room (applicable to any Bluetooth-enabled headset, but specific to bone-conduction models when considered with the above point).
  • Usual open-ear device advantages include increased situational awareness (particularly in outdoor usage scenarios such as running or cycling)
  • The Trekz Titanium integrates multipoint connectivity (i.e, it can be paired to more than one device at a time - say, a phone and a tablet or a PC at the same time) which increases its usefulness

I am quite happy to see that AfterShokz is continuously widening the market appeal and usability of their products (having started with a limited use wired model back in 2012).

Coming to the other vendors in this space, we have the Damson Audio Headbones at $140, the Raking Bone Conduction Hearing Aid at $50 (primarily targeting usage for dialog, and not music), a couple of Panasonic models and the pioneer for bone-conduction consumer equipment in the US - Audio Bone. I have not personally evaluated the others, but, it is clear that the competitors' pricing for equivalent products is easily 1.5x to 2x of what AfterShokz is marketing their model for. Additionally, online reviews also consistently indicate better satisfaction with the AfterShokz models.

The Bluez 2 headphones is available for $80, while the next-gen Bluez 2S retails for $100. The Trekz Titanium is currently available only at AfterShokz for $130. If you are interested in just checking out whether bone conduction works for you, the plain vanilla wired model (no microphone) comes with a $40 price tag.

Read More ...

Available Tags:CPU , CEO , Sony , SSD

No comments: