Archive for the ‘Tech Talk’ Category

Happy New Year – cough cough

Firstly can I wish everyone who reads this blog on an even semi-regular basis a Happy New Year.  I disappeared off to Tunisia for a week of sun and sand after Christmas, and had a really good time, as soon as I get chance I will post a couple of photos here just to remind myself what I’m missing.

Unfortunately, as all-too frequently happens, I’ve come back with a stinking cough/cold.  I’m loathed to call it flu, mostly because I can’t afford to be ill when I return to work next week as I have a series of interviews crucial to my next piece of PhD work.  So I have four days to get myself well, which considering how I feel as I type, could be an uphill struggle.  I’m off to the docs anyhow this evening, after my scare a couple of years ago I always get this checked out.  Strangely, despite having the jab before and various problems, I wasn’t entitled to a free flu jab, and had to pay for it myself last October, which I duly did.

The holiday was a great break, and also an enforced experiment to see if I could cope without being ‘Gridlinked‘, ironically one of the books which I downloaded to my iPad via Amazon’s Kindle service.  Tunisia does not have a strong wireless Internet presence, and it was day six (of seven) that I discovered a bar with free wi-fi.

So I ‘only’ had the iPad, iPod Shuffle, and iPhone to keep me amused, with no chance of any new content being available to me.  How did I do?

The iPad was really heavily used by both of us.  For me I used it as an e-book reader (Kindle though, not iBooks unfortunately, still too expensive and limited range of titles though this may change), music player, and video viewer.  I only rarely played games, though that’s not the fault of the iPad, I really am poor at playing games, and even a game of Scrabble can’t always keep my attention.  The shuffle performed flawlessly as my night-time music player, and the iPhone filled the (few) gaps when I wasn’t by the pool or in bed.

The only downsides to the iPad are the battery life and screen glare.  I was always aware of the charge on the device, and was concerned about it ‘running out’.  Screen brightness seems to be the single largest influence of battery life (remembering this was running in ‘flight mode’ all the time as there were no wireless networks that the device could even try to connect to).  I know that for it’s primary holiday purpose, that the Kindle device would make a highly compelling purchase, solve the above problems at a stroke, and having seen a couple out ‘in the field’ in Tunisia, I am even more tempted, but like many people I’m being cautious in my purchases in 2011.

Hmm, having just read the Amazon Kindle page again I’ve just noted this interesting paragraph at the very end –

Read Before Bed Without Affecting Sleep

According to some sleep experts, reading on closely-held backlit screens before bed inhibits melatonin production, which is critical for a good night’s sleep. “The take-home lesson is that insomnia and electronic gadgets emitting light should not [be] mixed before bedtime” says UCLA Neurology Clinic Director Alon Avidan. “Kindle is better for your sleep.”

The Kindle is sitting in my shopping basket now, but I must be strong!

I have loads of new years resolutions, and whilst ‘only’ 4lb heavier than this time last year, the relentless upward curve has continued, and for my own health this is something I need to get a grip with.

I’ll try and rattle off another posting before I return to work.

 

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Apple TV delight

Another month, another Apple product makes its way into my life. This time it’s the new and improved Apple TV. 
The heart of the diminutive little black box (think the size of a couple of packs of John Player Specials, and that includes power supply and 802.11n wi fi is one word, streaming. 
Want to rent a movie from the iTunes store and stream it directly to your tv? – check. 
Want to stream YouTube, podcasts, flickr and Internet radio from the Internet? – check. 
Want to stream music, photos, podcasts, photos, and all those movies that you have legally bought from the iTunes store (plus any others that you may have acquired and are in the right format for viewing in iTunes) – check. 
Yes, there are other products which do similar functions without the tie-in to apple and it’s DRM. And the UK version is lacking some major features which it’s US counterpart have, including the ability to rent TV episodes, and a Netflix-type service opening up the concept of movie rental packages rather than one off rentals (which at £2.49 – £4.49 a pop is anything but cheap). 
And I can’t avoid mentioning after a recent journey to the states has reminded me, $99 is about £62, even with 17.5% VAT the equivalent price is £72.85 – this for a lower functioned device too. 
But am I happy with Apple TV?  Delighted. Though as has been pointed out I do now own every category of Apple device in at least one form or another (iPods, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, Mac, Apple TV). Maybe this won’t be a completely unbiased view. 
I’m tapping this on my iPad on my way back from London, a quick ‘in and out’ to see a musical.  Interestingly this Virgin Pendolino can get me from Central London to Lichfield in 1hour 11minutes, not that much slower than the new High Speed 2 Rail line Is predicting speeds. 
Makes you think.

iPad Delight

It was inevitable that I would get an iPad, not so much if, but when? Fortunately (in a way) it was my 40th birthday year, so my beloved parents decided that a 32gb wi-fi model would be an appropriate gift.
And who am I to argue?
It is a brilliant device. Just about the right size, and any criticism about it being ‘too heavy’ has to be countered by the fact that its battery life is measurable in days, not hours. I fully charged the device on Saturday evening, Monday evening with a *lot* of usage over the last couple of days I still have 41% usage as it type.
The touch screen keyboard is suitable for touch typing, and is larger then my eee PC.
Downsides? It’s still running the previous version of iOS, version 3.x (which I could check if I had a multitasking OS such as iOS 4.0). But an update is coming ‘soon’ according to Apple, and as long as the performance and battery life issues with iOS 4.0 on my iPhone 3GS.
One thing to note for early adopters, the iLife applications, Pages, Numbers and Keynote have been reduced in price from £9.99 to ‘just’ £5.99, a relative bargain.
I’ll write more about the exciting changes at work in a post later this week, in the meanwhile if you have to beg, borrow or steal the cash to get an iPad.
You won’t regret it.

Back to basics

I have somewhat fallen out of love with my little eee PC.  Looking back through my blog, the clues were there a while back.  I never really did get over the performance blips at the time, and over time it became slower.

I did, over Christmas, spend a lot of time looking at alternative Operating Systems, but all of them needed me to scrub the XP systeem.  If I was the only person to use the machine this would have been fine, but I had to think about the legacy of the machine, there’s a chance that this will be handed down to someone else, and there’s no chance that they would cope with a non-windows machine.

So today, with some time on my hands (I spent too long yesterday in my study on uni and PhD work), I decided to go ‘back to basics.’

I removed all google software, including notifier, gears, chrome and google earth.  (Nearly) all microsoft software went too (yay!).  iTunes and Quicktime went into the recycling bin.

The only software installed on the machine is IE 8, Twihirl (and the associated Adobe Air framework), and Glary Utilities.

I have all the other applications I would need on a laptot via PortableApps.com siting on an 8 gig memory card, which has recently been upraded and contains everything I need (apart from a twitter client, come on guys!).

A few other tweaks, I’ve gone into the performance settings through my computer and adjusted for best perfomance, though have kept font smoothing on, as the screen does not look ‘right’ otherwise.

I’ve got boot up speed from turning on, to opening Internet Explorer (FireFox runs off the memory card so it a little slower) to a little under two minutes – not bad and I reckon about half the time that it was creaking along.

So, new life in a machine without installing the OS, and I’m using it now to type this posting.

So go on, love your laptot… at least until the iPad prices are released!

End of Teletext on commercial television

It’s been a sad couple of days, as the commercial Teletext services on ITV and Channel 4 have come to a close.  To be honest, I never really used the fancy pants new ‘digital’ text services, but for many years, before the advent of Compuserve, AOL and even the Internet, Oracle and Teletext were the only providers of text on demand for most households, including myself.

itv-100-311292

I remember watching the ‘death’ of the Oracle service approaching midnight on new years eve 1992, they did some clever sort of ‘folding’ thing with the limited graphics so that it appeared to be vanishing into a black hole.  It was also sad for me as Oracle had published my first letter in an electronic form – I had written a sterling defence of Bonnie Langford as the Doctor’s companion when I was seventeen, and this had been published as a page on the “TV Voice” section of Oracle.

I fully realise that technology moves on, very few people must have used this service regularly, though at the weekend I did read figures (admittedly by Teletext ltd. themselves) that they had millions of weekly ‘hits’ (I guess this is difficult to tell with analogue Teletext, but easier with the digital service).

Of course, BBC’s Ceefax service, the Blue Peter to ITV’s Magpie service continues, and now that I have a conventional aerial for the first time in ten years I sometimes go back to the old analogue service… and think how slow and clunky it is.  But for a big part of my formative life this was ‘real’ computing to me.

My final bit of nostalgia?  I remember going round my great-aunts before Christmas, and she had the first Teletext TV – this must have been around 1980.  They had an Advent calendar page, where you pressed the ‘reveal’ button to show what was behind the ‘window’.  You can imagine with the blocky graphics half the fun was identifying exactly what was behind the window, but it fascinated me nonetheless.

Ah, nostalgia, it’s not what it used to be!

I know many (ok some) of you are waiting for my iPhone review and impressions.  Patience, I’ll soon be charting my first experiences, and some top tips for the three other people in the world who want an iPhone, but haven’t bought one yet.

Lite-On ETDU108 Portable DVD drive

I’ve been a bit gadget-strapped recently, try as I might I can’t get excited about blinds and other essential items which I’ve been splashing out on recently.

However, I have just succumbed.  I love my netbook, but not having a CD or DVD drive is a real inconvenience if you want to just take a DVD away with you, or install software which comes as a .iso file, or traditional DVD.

So after some debating, I treated myself to the Liteon ETDU108-02 8x External Slimline DVD ROM (Black), delivered in great time by Amazon even with their Super-Saver delivery (are Royal Mail trying extra-hard post strike, it certainly feels like it at the moment.  There’s a review from the register here, which seems to criticise it for not being able to write CDs and DVDs.  No it doesn’t, and I looked and on Amazon there are similarly priced portable drives which does offer this functionality, but this is a cheap and cheerful solution to a specific problem.

And does it work?  Brilliantly.  I had major reservations that it wouldn’t work with my underpowered eee-701, which has sometimes struggled to play back .mp4 files when running full screen, but DVDs run fine when using VLC.

The other reason for purchase, it’s sometimes handy to be able to burn a CD/DVD, whilst watching another when on my MacBook or Big Mac.  A DVD project can sometimes take nearly four hours to encode and burn (I’ve got one running as I type).  I can now plug in the Lite-On, and carry on watching a DVD.

The build quality seems good, with a big panic ‘stop’ button on the front.  We take it for granted nowadays that these products just work out of the box, no need to install drivers etc.

The only thing missing is a case of any sort, for a device that’s going to be used on the go this is a serious omission, and I may invest in some sort of case offering more protection than the plastic bag which it’s currently stored in.

So, a completely unnecessary gadget purpose, but something which I’m pleased with, and seems to do exactly what it should.

iPlayer on Wii

iplayer_logo

wii

In the early hours of the morning my Wii started glowing a bright blue.  That rare event, a message from Nintendo.

The BBC  iPlayer channel is now available for free on the Nintendo Wii.  Now downloaded, it takes pride of place at the front of my channel list.  If you’ve installed a few other channels or games, you may find that it’s installed on ‘screen two’ of the Wii menu.  Clicking buttons A and B together allow you to reposition the channels, making accessing the iPlayer a three-click process (one click to turn Wii on, one click to select Wii channel, one click to select Start).

The channel itself is available for free from the Nintendo Shop online.   It’s stating the obvious of course but your Wii does need to be connected to the Internet. (That feels a little like the statement that Microsoft had to release to say that you needed a PC to be able to install Windows 95).

A very short time later, you then have is the complete BBC iPlayer service, both video and radio available to you in full screen glory.  The interface is great, and a huge improvement over the old channel via Nintendo’s internet channel (which ‘broke’ early September after an upgrade to the Opera browser).

A new home means faster broadband for me, so the stuttering and drop-outs I used to experience have disappeared.  Full screen video looks great, and is equal to my ‘standard definition’ tv picture.  Sound is a little ‘flatter’ compared to normal tv, but nothing that you wouldn’t notice.

Radio stations get a themed background for the particular station, details about the programme and a really nifty interface.  Compare this to the old ‘Real Audio’ service before radio was implemented into

What makes the Wii the ideal media player of course is that it’s virtually silent in use – certainly compared to my new Xbox 360 Arcade (see, I have been busy with the occasional gadget purchase whilst I’ve been away).

Whilst this isn’t the *only* reason to buy a Wii, I’ve been rarely so impressed by a piece of software – it’s been a long time coming, but well worth the wait.

More info on the launch here.

The Power of Twitter

I know, there’s a lot of hype over Twitter. This isn’t helped by research published today which shows that 90% of the content is generated by only 10% of the users – it makes a change from the 80/20 rule I guess anyhow.

But can I provide two examples in the last 24 hours which may persuade the most skeptical of you that there’s ‘something’ in this Twitter thing.

First example, a casual ‘tweet’ by me that I had finally received confirmation of my holiday payment was posted yesterday.  An astute businesswoman in the island we’re going to picked up on this, and half seriously/half jokingly offered to help sort out any problem.  Whether this was a genuine offer or not, I’ve been able to link to her web site and find a useful resource for my hols, and if there is a problem I may just be able to get in touch with someone who is there.

The second example happened late last night, and can be a cautionary tale for anyone tempted by an iTunes impulse purchase.  Listening to the radio, a piece of classical music which I remembered well from my time at school came on the radio.  I decided I wanted to listen to rest of the album, so promptly hopped onto iTunes, and bought the first version that came up on my search.  The moral of the story, always preview the music before you buy!

In fact the album I purchased was a digitisation of a vinyl album, and came with all the cracks, pops and hisses that my old records used to have.  There had clearly been a sampling problem too, as the double bass sounds were inaudible, and there were a few skips too.  Caveat Emptor I thought, and put it down to experience and reminded myself not to be so silly in the future.  Still, I sent out a late-night Tweet, and sure enough someone responded telling me how to report the problem to Apple.  This was done this morning, and true to their word, I’ve had a refund of the album cost, and a nice email from them apologising.

Neither of these are dramatic events, just strangers helping each other out, but it does show that Twitter is more than just a micro-blogging service for those that wish to post the smallest details of their lives.  I guess in a couple of years time we’ll look back with cringing embarrassment some of our early Twitter posts, and whatever we thought was important at the time, but isn’t that the same of any media which is published?  I look back at some of my early creative writing, and whilst some of it doesn’t make me howl, some of it really isn’t very good, and that’s from just four years ago!

So if you don’t use Twitter, don’t worry – no one’s going to put a gun to your head and force you to, but please don’t criticize those of us that do, and are finding little examples such as these which make it worthwhile.

Full disclosure

If anyone wants to send me a Palm Pré for evaluation purposes, I promise I will tell everyone it’s been sent to me.  I also promise I won’t go into meltdown if anyone asks me about this – unlike the reviewer below (warning, contains language that may upset my mother).

Unfortunately it will be a while before it’s released in the UK, I’m guessing the new iPhone (allegedly) will be out by then.

Not another gadget surely?

Regular readers to this blog will be holding their hands up in despair now.  Surely he can’t justify another gadget to add to his bulging rucksack.

Hang on though, it can’t be argued that I don’t actually use these gadgets.  As I type this on my eee in Cafe Nero, using my 3 wireless broadband and listening to music on my iPod touch, it can never be said that I’m not connected.

Anyhow, thoughts have recenty turned to my holidays, and the need to carry enough books to sustain me through at least two weeks of sun and surf.  For some people this could be a single novel, but not me.  For my last holiday I took eight books and read seven of them, but then I had the luxury of a huge people carrier to take my books (or my MINI, with the back seats down).

This year though we’re flying, so that means a ridiculously low baggage limit.  How am I to get all my reading into a small case?

Enter e-Readers, the next ‘must have’ accessory.  I was somewhat pleased to note that I wasn’t the only person who’s been thinking of these too. 

The Sony e-Reader pretty well has the market sown up, but that may be about to change.  CoolerBooks is that rarity, a UK-based company (based in Reading, where else!) which is planning on releasing an e-book reader using the same e-ink technology used in Sony products, but at a lower price point.

The key technology is e-ink, which as far as I can tell works like a very fancy etch-a-sketch, once power has been applied for you to switch pages, then no power is needed to maintain the screen image, meaning that thousands of pages can be read between charges.  The light weight and small size all helps towards it’s portability, as does changing the font size.

So I’m waiting until their product launches in the UK (soon I hope, I’ve set myself a 1st July limit for this), so I can do a proper side by side comparison, at least on paper.