Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Struxx your stuff

The Struxx robot is a sad old thing, really.

You see, he's much bigger than the other construction toy robots. Bigger than any Bionicle. Larger than many a Meccano. Taller than a Transformer. (OK, that last one isn't actually a construction toy...). And K'nex... let's just forget K'nex.

He's a bit left out, ol' Struxx 'bot is.

Much better to think of him as a kind of kiddie Terminator, a T0.5, silently wishing he could grow up to be, at the very least, a human smushing composite steel T800 Model 101.

Sorry to say, it's never going to happen. His 29-inch wibbly-wobbly frame is just too weak for such aspirations. Not to mention the propensity for joints to pop out of their sockets at inappropriate moments. At least his eyes light up, giving him a freakish orange stare.

And it's a shame, really, because at it's root, the Struxx construction system verges on the actually-quite-good.

Struxx is a product from the 'brick-compatible' non-Lego Mega Bloks. Now, to any fan of Lego like myself, inviting a Mega Bloks product into your home is the equivalent of inviting Dracula himself over the threshold. Once he's in, he's welcome any time.

In it's favour is the fact that it doesn't directly compete with anything on offer from Lego. It doesn't particularly look like anything from Lego. The parts don't have studs. There aren't many right angles. The colour palette is limited to silver, charcoal and green. And as the name suggests, constructions are largely built from struts connected mainly by ball-sockets.

By and large, it's a well made toy. Attention has been given to the important interlocking pieces. The ball-socket joints are reassuringly snug, with sufficient friction to hold parts in place. There's even a larger, green ball joint part that makes possible a stronger joint like the hip and shoulder joints.

There are many types of joint in this kit. Single, bi, tri and quad ball joints. Fixed angle joints. Buttress style joints. It's all very bewildering, coming from the comforts of Lego's established brick system. But the parts go together easily and I imagine a fairly large construction could be built rapidly.

On completion of Spindly here, the end result, despite being a bit unsteady, is quite a pleasing articulated space-frame type thing.

Now for the not-so-good bits.

A construction toy is only as good as the instructions accompanying it. Here, Struxx robot is a little let down. To start with, there a a couple of addendum sheets that need careful studying. Mainly because they're a bit wrong. Some pieces, the angle joints, have a handedness to them. That is to say, the illustration in the manual is of the piece in a particular orientation. Except that in the addendum, the piece can never look like how it's pictured, because someone has flipped the piece image in the vertical and then had it printed. It's not that much of a problem really, but it's annoying and confusing.

Confusing, also, are the bits in the manual that are correct. It's sometimes not clear how the socket parts should be aligned in the strut - the octagonal socket and pins allow for four possible angles (for symmetrical parts - eight for asymmetrical) and only after an assembly has been built and joints start a-poppin' do you have to go back and revise the alignment of the part. Even harder is making sure that tri-pieces are lined up properly.

I also found it difficult to get my completed assemblies to look exactly like the ones in the manual, mainly down to the lack of perspective used in the illustrations and the large amount of freedom of movement in 3D some of the assemblies have.

Having said all that, getting the parts right and put together is ultimately quite rewarding.

The Struxx Gears block is a bit disappointing. Lego Technic it is not. Looking like it might be a differential, it tries to allow some sort of mechanised articulation but its function is quite limited. You can't transmit the rotation to other parts of the model because other parts don't allow it. So the robot has a limp left arm that turns the head when swung. That's why he's a bit sad. As a mechanism, it's a bit rubbish, particularly when compared to this.

I was also a bit disappointed that there were no secondary model instructions. There are plenty of pictures of them on the box and in the manual - but no step by step guide on how to build them. The Struxxworld website - well it doesn't really exist. You are re-directed to the Mega Bloks product pages where Flash abounds and the only remotely informative alternate build instructions take the form of 360-degree images of lots of models.

Be prepared to have your laptop handy (and a magnifying glass)when your child demands you build the Range Rover lookee-likee.

Overall though, I like this toy - it's sufficiently different to make it interesting, but doesn't quite have the appeal (or compactness) of Lego's Bionicles, or the technical detail to meet the Technic range.

Finally, the Struxx robots inability to self-terminate, means a slow death by dismantling, or maybe being chucked in to a vat of molten... chocolate.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

... someone updated their blog on a more regular basis than I do.

Today I'm looking at a really neat USB gizmo - the Sandisk Ultra II 4Gb SD card.

This is one of those SD cards that also slots into a USB port and presents itself like any other USB flash drive. If your laptop doesn't sport a SD slot, this little device is a godsend.

The 4Gb capacity means that it's only compatible with SDHC equipment such as my Acer Aspire One and digital photo frame.

However, flip open the cover, and the card can be used in any USB port. It mounts quickly on the Mac desktop, as well as Windows and Linux.

The double hinge mechanism looks flimsy, and it probably wouldn't stand up to rough handling, but it's well engineered and snaps shut with a satisfying click.

There's even a tiny activity light that remains invisible - I mean you really can't see where the LED is - when the card is unplugged from the USB port.

Transfer speeds are fast - what you would expect from this class of device.

All I need now is a few more gadgets that support SDHC!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sandisk V-Mate

The Sandisk V-Mate has been around for a couple of years now, but not only has it been discontinued, but no replacement device seems to exist that replicates the V-Mates' functionality.

The concept behind the V-Mate is simple: take a video source and encode it directly to memory card in mpeg4 format, without using a computer. The mini- and micro-SD slots on the unit mean that you could encode something for direct viewing on a mobile phone. There's a MS Pro Slot that takes Duo cards without an adapter, so encoding directly to PSP cards is straightforward too. 

In addition to standard SD cards, the V-Mate accepts SDHC, MMC and RSMMC. It's a comprehensive list but so far I've only been able to try the unit with standard SD cards. Partly this is due to not having spare cards to hand, and partly due to mistrust of the V-Mates' ability not to corrupt cards from other devices.

I say this, because my first attempt at recording resulted in a SD card that could no longer be read by my camera (although the Mac could see it) - a format sorted it - but the V-Mate had done something to the FAT on the card to render it unusable by the camera.

Now, I only have one high capacity MS-Pro Duo card and that's in the PSP and carries a fair mixture of game saves, some music , pictures and config files. I'd rather the V-Mate didn't muck it up - so I've not yet tried direct to PSP recording. (Yes I know I can backup the card... but I don't have time for that...).

The V-Mate packs a couple of extra features in addition to recording video. Tied to the core function is a scheduler set much like a VCR - this in turn drives an IR blaster to change channels on a set top box. I've not tried this because it's not how I intend to use the device (clue: I have a TiVo). A mini USB port allows connection to a PC or Mac and allows the V-Mate to double as a multi-format card reader. Remember that, unlike the bulk of card readers, this handles those pesky micro and mini-SD cards.

Now, all this is packaged in a compact form that looks a little lost even next to an Apple TV. Video to and from the unit is a simple composite signal, together with left/right audio channels. Most video devices put out this signal, but they're usually part of the Scart socketry instead of a discrete, dedicated socket. So, a switchable Scart adapter (from eBay) is required to start using the V-Mate.

Ah. Using the V-Mate. This is where concept meets real-world and the result is a train wreck. Ok, I'm being a bit harsh. The main problem is the unresponsive remote. The annoying bubble-texture buttons, when prodded, don't do anything... most of the time. Sometimes, the unit buffers two remote operations, by which time you've pressed the buttons a few times more to be sure and the interface ends up where you don't want it.

The result makes using the V-Mate thoroughly unenjoyable, which is a pity because I really like the idea.

Recordings can be made in various resolutions, to match the intended playback device. One problem is that resulting mpeg4 files are in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Most TV in the UK is broadcast in 16:9. V-Mate will still record this, but the result is squashed and unwatchable. A solution is to re-encode the video, adjusting the aspect ratio along the way. This scheme works but the overall time and effort required to process even 1 hour of television leaves me asking the question: is it worth it? The answer depends on how important it is to get the video onto the computer. This process is something I'll describe in a future article.

I like the V-Mate. It has an appealingly unique function. The operation of the device could be better, but it does what it sets out to do and the results are not too shabby. I got mine cheap on eBay and despite the gripes, this is quite a cool bit of kit.