Bluetooth Headphones: Nokia BH-503 vs Sony DR-BT20NX

I’m a Nokia fan, but I’ll try to be objective on this one.

While perusing my RSS feeds today, I came across at Nokia Beta Labs about the possibility of winning the Nokia BH-503 bluetooth stereo headset by giving feedback about one of their applications. You can find that here: http://betalabs.nokia.com/blog/2009/09/23/win-a-nokia-bh-503-bluetooth-stereo-headsets-for-your-feedback .

This prompted me to write up a quick review of this device. You can see an image of it at the link above.  But first, a bit of history.

I discovered bluetooth stereo headphones virtually by intuition about two or three years ago. I was thinking one day about my aged JVC headphones, how it was so difficult to get good headphones in Nigeria, and how I needed to replace these I was holding soon. My thoughts wandered into bluetooth. You see, aged phones always develop wire problems along the way, and quickly become a major annoyance to use.

I figured, bluetooth can support speeds of up to 2mbit/sec, was that sufficient to replace the wires that ran into my current headphones for transferring sound? Some quick mental math based on a CD quality WAV file said no. But for mp3s, this was ample bandwidth.

I decided to see if the bluetooth people had thought of something of the sort. Google helped. A search for "bluetooth headphones" proved that my fantasy was not new. I was excited, and my next task was figuring out how to actually lay my hands on such a device.

I had to wait for more than a year. I eventually got my first pair when my dad travelled to the UK for a business trip. Such things, as I already explained, are not easy to get in Nigeria. I gave him specific instructions to get me "bluetooth headphones and NOT a  bluetooth headset". I made him understand that I would be very very unhappy if he failed to do this.

As it was, my first pair of bluetooth stereo headphones turned out to be the Sony DR-BT20NX. I was a bit disappointed that it was a Sony, but this device was awesome. Sub-zero cool in fact. I’ve had this pair for over a year now, and recently added the Nokia BH-503 to my collection. You see, the wire-ageing problem wasn’t entirely eliminated in the Sony device. Here is a comparison of the two devices. This is by no means scientific.

Feature Description Sony DR-BT20NX Nokia BH-503
Form-factor Earbuds. CPU (which contains controls) is a rectangular box that hangs off your neck via a loop of wire, like a necklace. The earbuds extend from the "necklace" in a way that easily plugs into your ears, and can be strapped back when not in use. Over-the-ear Headphones, frame runs round head near base of skull. CPU is on the right headphone, together with controls and charging slot.
Battery Life (Manufacturer’s claim) 11 Hours of playback. Largely true. 13 Hours of playback. Largely true.
Sound Quality (Based on my judgement) Excellent. The earbuds also help to keep external sounds out. Excellent. Phones are big enough to cover your ear comfortably.
Comfortability Earbuds are not exactly fun to use for long. The weight of the phones makes them troublesome after about an hour or so.
Charging A desktop charger, which is quite trendy, but frankly, just another annoying box to remember to pack when travelling. The nature of the device (Phones) makes it difficult to charge using a desktop charger. Device is unusable while charging. Uses the standard Nokia charger, so if you use a Nokia phone already, that’s one less charger for you to pack. Also, you can use the device while it is charging.
Performance Fast and responsive. It seems to have its own audio amplifier, so you can get quite loud if you want (not recommended though). This device trumps the Nokia on the performance side. Very usable. Play/pause/stop/volume are quite usable. However, there is a noticeable lag between button presses and command response. It’s not so large as to be annoying, but its there. Particularly, it takes about 2 seconds from pressing the answer button to actually receiving an incoming call.
Price ₦13,000 ₦15,000
Longevity considerations (I am a heavy user, but expect my devices to last long, since I am generally careful with them) Looks solidly made, but still contains visible wires, which are bound to become problematic after a while. Mine failed around the one year mark. I disassembled the device, trimmed the faulty segment, and soldered it back together, and the device is still going.

No visible wires. Frame is made of flexible plastic, and the only fragile part appears to be the headphones themselves, so there should be no ageing wire troubles here. However, the soft casing over the speakers doesn’t seem to be replaceable, so the device will definitely become useless once the original covering wears off. Lets see how long that lasts.
Cool Factor Goes well with formal dress, since its not so conspicuous. People think its a cheapo mp3 player, which gets on my nerves when they ask me. Just a factor of ignorance too though. They usually gape when I tell them its bluetooth. Plus the Sony label isn’t exactly low-class is it? Leaves people in awe. They see headphones, but no wires. Plus the Nokia label on it makes people wonder when Nokia started making headphones. He he, that’s also just a factor of ignorance, but I like it.
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Random quote: The future is a race between education and catastrophe. — H. G. Wells

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Putting The Sledgehammer to Use

Its been a slightly hectic week involving a bit of travelling and lots of debating in my NYSC Community Development Service Group about the extent of legislation needed to guide the affairs of the group, and the weight of the fines imposed for violating any of our constitutional tenets… we try to organize ourselves after the Nigerian National Assembly.

In real life™, things went on as usual. My main source of internet remains my mobile phone, using the Opera Mini browser. My primary Mobile service provider is Glo, and I switch to MTN whenever there is a prolonged service outage.

Two or so weeks ago, I noticed that Opera Mini didn’t work whenever I was using an MTN Sim card.

About that same time, a good friend of mine posted in his facebook status: "MTN, una no fit win. Naija people are too good for you". An allusion to the fact that MTN had tried and failed to plug a loophole in their Mobile Internet billing platform that so many people were exploiting in order to browse for free. My younger brother also complained to me about his inability to use Opera Mini on his phone. I was unable to give him a satisfactory answer.

How it was possible for someone to browse for free using an MTN sim is quite odd. One could argue that since every bit of data that eventually reached your phone had to pass through their routers and any special software they had to filter and bill such traffic, then it was impossible to transfer data without getting billed for it. But in practice, it was possible to browse off MTN without getting billed if you routed all your traffic through a special combination of proxy servers and port numbers.

That this works strongly suggests that MTN maintains a set of proxy servers for some select clients in order to bill them differently (or in this case, not bill them at all), and some inside person had leaked this information.

There are obvious ways of solving this problem, and even identifying the leak if they have proper access control and logging. They could simply deactivate the old proxy servers and commission new ones with different parameters, which they would try harder to keep secret, or they could bill people based on the unique identifier that each SIM card has. Option one is not a secure way of solving this problem. Option two is slightly better since SIM cloning is not yet a common thing in Nigeria, and seems to be the way all the other networks do their billing.

Today, on the way back to katsina from Mani Local Government, I was pondering how I have basically given up on internet access. Haven’t browsed in a long while, and how the Cafe’s in Katsina aren’t quite appealing. Glo Mobile’s GPRS has also been down since tuesday. I’ll have to switch to my MTN SIM later and check my email at least. I wondered if this was going to affect my personal development in any way. How did I ever survive before the Internet?

Anyway, I got to town, ate up, switched SIMs and loaded ₦200 on my MTN. I fired up Opera Mini, and predictably, it failed to work. I used the Phone’s supplied browser instead, which works just as well, but isn’t so conservative on bandwidth usage, and hence slightly more expensive to use. It worked without glitches. I fired up my chat program "Nimbuzz", which worked flawlessly. Gmail worked as well. I was at peace. But not quite so. Why is everything else working except Opera Mini?

I like to fantasize about the way people get ideas. I imagine that ideas and thoughts are what fill up the empty space in the vast universe, are what you find in-between air molecules. You breathe them when you breathe air, and you’re lucky when they find their way into your brain, to which they are attracted to. One’s intelligence depends a lot on how magnetic their brains are to ideas. The more ideas you can attract to your brain, the more likely you are to find the killer ideas! I am allowed to dream, right?

So, on this sunny afternoon, on Friday the 18th of September 2009, a series of ideas got attracted to my brain. One merely reminded me that Web Browsers have a way of identifying themselves to the web server they are communicating with during the process we call "browsing" or "surfing" etc. This is the user agent identifier string. Ah, yes, that’s why www.nokia.mobi give me an annoying warning when I visit the site using Opera Mini. It tells me to use a supported device, and refuses to show me what I am interested in. I believe that Opera Mini simply tells the server that "I am Opera Mini 4.2", while the phone’s in-built browser says "I am A Nokia 5800 Xpress Music Mobile Phone". When www.nokia.mobi sees that, it shows you only downloadable things that are compatible with your phone. Useful for novices, but rather limiting for someone who knows what he’s after. No problem there.

Another idea crawled though my lungs into my heart, bonded with oxygen in my blood, made it into my heart, and was pumped subsequently into my brain. A-ha!! MTN, having tried and failed to stop people from browsing for free through their phones decided to start inspecting the data passing through their pipes, and discarding whatever was labeled as coming from, or to an "opera mini" type browser. This means in simple terms that you cannot use Opera Mini with MTN.

What has Opera Mini got to do with browsing for free you ask? Well, Opera Mini is the only mobile browser I know, that has the ability to route its traffic through a configurable proxy server. Official Versions do not exhibit this ability in an obvious manner, but there are modified versions out there that tout this feature prominently. Nearly everyone that was cheating MTN was using a modified Opera Mini.

So, this is the third, most horridly ineffective way to get rid of the people eating away all the bandwidth that should rightfully go to the paying clients.

In going down this path, MTN has quite simply blocked out honest folks like me who didn’t care much for free browsing for other reasons. Mine was fear for the security of my data. They have also displayed a remarkable propensity to come thundering down the wrong path towards solving problems. If another browser comes along that allows one to change the user agent string, then this measure will go down like a house of cards. It is not even foolproof. If the proxies are unchanged, then it means that one can still use a computer to bypass the billing platform. There might also be another information leak.

This is one shaky sledgehammer indeed, and someone is trying to kill a fly with it.

Disclaimer: This is merely speculative. I am simply attempting to explain a situation based on the facts I have seen, and educated guesses based on my limited knowledge about GSM networks.

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Random quote: Phases of a Project: (1) Exultation. (2) Disenchantment. (3) Confusion. (4) Search for the Guilty. (5) Punishment for the Innocent. (6) Distinction for the Uninvolved.

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I Came, I Saw, I Clicked

Quite often, people receive unsolicited and rather dubious emails which contain links which they are curious to click. Some would follow such links, blissfully unaware that they may be exposing their computers to unnecessary security risks. Others understand the possible implications of following such links, but still do it. Others still, seem to have come up with the assumption that clicking on the link is inherently more dangerous than copying the link, and then pasting it in the browser’s address bar, and pushing the enter button, hence, they do the “safer” thing. The following article attempts to explain why this might not necessarily be true.

You may be aware that web pages are written with a combination of different languages, but mostly, what you see in your browser (as you read a web page for instance) is mostly HTML, CSS and Javascript together with images thrown in here and there.

HTML takes care of the content (that is, web pages are encoded as HTML), CSS takes care of the visual appearance (if you see bold text, it was made bold using a CSS command. If you see green text, it was made green using a CSS command).

Javascript does other, often under the hood things which will not be easy to explain in a few paragraphs, but if you use Facebook for instance, you depend on javascript a lot. Javascript is what processes your comments and makes them show up on the page so quickly without loading a new page.

Now, in HTML, there is one way of specifying text that a user can click on, and cause it to load a new page, or do something similar. This is called a link (or hyperlink). Links are made with the "A" tag. (In HTML, a tag is the rough equivalent of a command). To make a link, you are required to supply an address of the resource that the link is supposed to load. This is called the "href". You are also required to supply a title for this link. This is called the "title". The title makes it possible for you to have links such as the one in your email box that says "inbox". Your inbox cannot simply be a resource called "inbox". The href for that "inbox" link will most likely be a long and complicated string containing lots of information in it, the title is used to give it a human-readable form.

If the href of the link is uncomplicated, you may have both the title and the href to be identical. For instance, if you were reading this article off a computer screen, and you saw a link that simply said “http://www.yahoo.com”, then that would be a link whose href and title are identical. If on the other hand you saw something like click here to go to Yahoo.com, then that would be a link whose title and href were different.

Now, there is a subtle complication here. There are two ways to copy a link. You may copy the "href", or you may copy the "title". If the two are identical, then there is no difference. If they are different, then it is likely that the "title" will be an invalid web address, which makes it useless for copying and pasting in your browser’s address bar (it will not work).

If you right-click a link, and say "copy link" or similar, you are copying the "href". If you paste this in a browser, and click "Go", then it makes no difference whether you clicked on it or copy-pasted it. You have activated it. If on the other hand, you highlight the link (as you would highlight text in Microsoft word) and then right-click the highlighted text and say "copy", then you have copied the title. And as I said earlier, if it is different from the "href", then you might get an error if you attempt to open it in a browser, or it could do something entirely different. It strictly depends on what the title is, and how the browser interprets it.

Links can also have some javascript code executed when they are clicked, something which won’t happen in the copy-paste instance, but within the confines of a link inside an email, it is highly unlikely that javascript code will be allowable.

Clicking, or otherwise activating the link causes the resource idenfied by the href to be retrieved, and processed. Processing malicious data can cause whatever evil action its creator had in mind. And the resource will get retrieved, whether you clicked on the link, or copy-pasted it. This is why it really makes no difference how you activate a link in an email.

At this point, you might be thinking that if someone is posting a link to a malicious resource, then they will probably make the title of the link look benign, but underneath that title will be hidden an obviously dangerous href. This will be true if you’re dealing with a simple-minded and clueless villain. You see, nothing requires an attacker to name an evil resource in a manner that could give clues as to the true purpose of that resource. When you type a document in MS Word for instance, you click “save” and are given the option to name the file however you please. You could call that file “report” because that is your monthly report you just finished typing. Or you could call it “virus”, just to be mischievous. There’s nothing in your way. Attachers have the same freedom.

If I were an attacker, and I created a small program that installs itself on your PC at the first opportunity, emails me, and then sits there waiting for further commands from me, I could embed such a program in a website that has nothing at all to do with Zombie PCs (that’s what you call a PC that has been infected with the sort of program I just described). Say I embed this program at http://www.medicinewatchers.com/dangerous-antipyretic , then I would not need to disguise the link. As far as a casual user would know, he just got an email warning him about a killer antipyretic drug, and that link would take him to where he would read more about this drug. Clicking or copy-pasting this link would make no difference.

This explanation intentionally leaves out some detail, but it is not as bleak as you might imagine. Since computers are very nit-picky devices, they will only process stuff that was meant for their specific kind of hardware, and kind of software. It is mostly about software though. By "kind", i mean something in the sense of "Windows Vista", "Windows XP", "Apple’s Mac OSx", "Nokia’s Symbian", "Canonical’s Ubuntu" etc, and the type of browser "Internet Explorer 5, 6, 7 or 8", "Mozilla Firefox 1, 2, 3 or 3.5", "Opera Browser" etcetera, or even email clients like “Outlook” or “Thunderbird”.

A malicious resource could be disastrous for a PC running Windows Vista, which happens to be processing the resource using Internet Explorer 7, while being completely benign for a system running Windows XP, and processing the same resource using Mozilla Firefox 3.

Malicious payloads work by exploiting weaknesses in specific configurations, and they succeed by targeting the most popular configurations. There is a rather useful side-effect of this fact: You will be slightly safer if you use unpopular configurations.

In general, it is safer to keep your computer and any anti-virus software you have up to date, and avoid going clickety clack on anything you suspect to be a hoax. Even more importantly, make sure you read the text in any dialogue boxes that pop up, before saying “yes” to them.

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Random quote: Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy. — Robert Heinlein

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Its Hard to be Legit

I’m one of those guys who still makes a big deal out of piracy. I hate being labelled as one. This is not to say that I don’t have some music in my library that was ripped from a friend’s CD. It just means that I’ll get the legitimate version whenever I see the option.

So yesterday, I played Need For Speed Undercover on my friend’s PSP. I’ve clocked this game before, I was playing it again just because I love the soundtrack. I couldn’t spend much time playing this game for practical reasons, but then it hit me that if I like the soundtrack so much, I should be able to buy it.

Lucky for me, I was in Abuja, and had access to a 1mbit internet connection. So, what did I do? Fired up my web browser, and typed in www.amazon.com, then searched for "need for speed undercover soundtrack". The number one result was the correct one, and I opted to buy the MP3s. It was about 8 US Dollars for the entire album. I add to shopping cart, proceed to checkout, and I am promptly told that "this item is only available to United States residents".

Why on this mother-lovin earth is an MP3 file restricted to only US residents?

In the rage that followed my fish-brained attempts to buy a legitimate copy of Need  For Speed Undercover OST, I blanked my browsers address bar, and typed in a URL I should have typed in the first place.

He he. Don’t ask what the URL was. You can’t prove it.
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Random quote: If your mother knew what you’re doing, she’d probably hang her head and cry.

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