Hardware lineup for 2012

Last year I wrote a post about my “hardware lineup” – i.e. the tech I use almost every day so I thought I should really do the same for 2012.  Much of it’s still the same but there are some changes – it will be interesting to take a look in retrospect next year and see how my plans for 2012 have worked out. So, here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year.

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car is due for replacement in the spring and I’ve ordered a Volkswagen Tiguan to drive for the next 3 years. I really like the Audi A4 Avant that I drive at the moment but it’s recently had a lot of money spent on it (new clutch and major service costing over £2,500 – thankfully not paid by me) and I’m not sure that a three-year-old car with 60,000 miles on the clock is  worth the money the lease company wants for me to take it on…

Due to price increases, another A4 with the same spec will cost me quite a lot more each month and, whilst the Tiguan is a little smaller, it’s also more practical (I looked at the Q3 too – but it’s “fugly”, overpriced and there is limited engine choice at the moment). With my growing family the addition of a towbar should allow me to take 4 bikes around on a carrier without scratching the car too.

Verdict who knows – it’s not been delivered yet!

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800I recently joined the 1.5% and jumped into the Windows Phone market. I like it – and want the platform to succeed – but really feel Microsoft has a long way to go. Thankfully I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available or when the Lumia is just too infuriating…

It was a risk buying the Nokia Lumia but the hardware is lovely, the software will improve, and it was a major investment so, realistically, it’s likely to remain with me for the next 2 years! Meanwhile, I’m still hoping to get myself an iPhone 4 or 4S to replace the 3GS but the chances are best described as slim.

(Lumia) Verdict 7/10. Hold.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadNo change here – the iPad is my media tablet of choice and no-one else even comes close. I may be tempted by an Amazon Fire or the new (rumoured) baby iPad but at the time of writing this device is still great for occasional surfing, a bit of TV catchup, and social media on the move.  It’s also great for the kids to play games and catch up on vital episodes of childrens’ television programmes that they missed (using BBC iPlayer)!

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220I’m still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work, but this PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session!

When it comes up for replacement, I’ll see if I can blag something smaller (really need to be a grade more senior for that) and reduce the weight of my work-bag…

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Netbook, schmetbook. I hardly used this in 2011. I did install Ubuntu 11.04 on it and have a couple of blog posts to write before I use it to play with Windows 8. I bought the S10e for Windows 7 testing 3 years ago so it owes me nothing but the netbook form factor has been usurped by tablets and low-cost notebooks. My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.

The P7100 joined me this year as a device to carry everywhere and it’s been pretty good, offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)This MacBook needs to last a while longer before I can justify its replacement but I did upgrade the hard disk in 2011 and it may get another upgrade this year. 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. I’d better get saving for something new in 2013…

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – although both disks in one of my NASs failed and I need to re-rip my CDs for my music library (iTunes had already done a good job of mangling it). I still haven’t bought the music keyboard (maybe this year) but it’s lasting well as my multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it (although I am enjoying my latest purchase: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean). Hopefully the next few months will finally see iPlayer land on the Xbox at which point it will become a really useful media centre for the living room (it works with my aging SD TV).

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

My Dell PowerEdge 840 has been retired to save energy (although it could still be wheeled out for any virtual machine workloads to test infrastructure scenarios) and, as I already mentioned, one of my ReadyNASs has suffered a multiple disk failure (waiting for me to sort out some warranty replacement disks) but, once recovered, these machines will remain as the mainstay of my computing infrastructure. Cloud storage for my photos is still too expensive so I’m likely to add another NAS at a family member’s house to maintain an off-site backup.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Raspberry Pi

These have taken my fancy and I’m seriously considering them all in 2012. Only time will tell what I buy (and when) but I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on the blog!

The hardest thing about choosing my new car? The colour!

A few weeks ago, I received the paperwork to replace my company car. My car scheme gives me the option of taking an allowance or leasing a car via the company and I’ve always chosen the latter option – there may be other ways to save some money but it’s probably not that far off the mark, it’s not my problem when things go wrong and it doesn’t leave me committed to payments on a car if I lose my job (not that I plan to… but you never know in the current economic climate).

I really like the Audi A4 Avant S-Line I drive at the moment so I considered getting another one – until I found that the same car with the same specification was going to cost me considerably more money (partly due to price increases and partly, I think, due to Lloyds TSB Autolease being sold to Lex). I also liked the idea of a Q5, but would have had to drop from the S-Line to an SE in order to stay within my budget, effectively placing Audi out of reach for me. So I looked at BMW and even test drove a 318d Sport Plus Touring (which is very tax-efficient due to its 120g COemissions). Unfortunately, for all its many qualities, the 3 Series failed to inspire and its orange dashboard felt like I was being transported back to the 1980s.

With all of the favourites out of the running, I started to thinking about other options and it seemed that the choices to suit my lifestyle came down to mid-powered diesel estate car (wagon for US and Australian readers), MPV (I think the Americans call these minivans) or an SUV.

A few years ago, one of my friends suggested that men who drove MPVs had given up on life. Clearly he gave up before me (last time I saw him he had sold his Porsche 911 and the family car was a Ford S-Max) but that has stuck in my mind, particularly as I approach my 40th anniversary on this planet.  After a succession of estate cars (Passat, Saab 9-3, A4), it seemed like my time had come but when Mrs W. and I tested a Touran (with Audi off the table, Volkswagen was next in line) she didn’t really like it. Result – no MPV for me! We also test drove a Passat but, even though it’s a great car, the days of having to fill its cavernous boot with pushchairs and assorted baby/toddler paraphernalia are, thankfully, behind us and it would be  just a little too long with a 4-bike cycle carrier on the back.  Then I saw the Tiguan.

Built on the Golf’s PQ35 platform, I thought the Tiguan would be too small for my family but the high driving position means you sit up, rather than back, which means more leg room in the back. Combined with rear seats that slide forward to give a choice between leg room and boot space (for camping trips, holidays, etc.), it seemed like it could work well for us (at 470 litres, the boot is larger than a Golf’s 350 and only marginally smaller than my A4 Avant’s 480, but a more practical shape).

Leasing the Tiguan will involve “topping up” my monthly allowance and so I looked at the Skoda Yeti as a less expensive alternative, except that it was missing some options that I find useful (like iPod integration). I also considered the Audi Q3 but there are none in the UK yet so I would have been ordering “blind” and the brochure indicates a body shape that leaves too little boot space. I was pretty sure that the Tiguan was the right choice and a couple of weeks ago I had one on a 72 hour test. We all loved it so I decided to order one.

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that simple. Most of the options were straightforward (this is the configuration I went for; sadly there is no R-Line Tiguan at the moment) but I was stumped on the engine choice and the colour.

Engine first and, contrary to popular belief, SUVs do not have to be gas-guzzling monsters. I was tempted to go for the 2.0 TDI 140PS model with BlueMotion technology, but my Audi A4 has a 170PS  variant so I’d be looking at quite a drop in power (20% lower output and 10% less torque), combined with a 50% heavier car. If all my driving was on motorways that wouldn’t be too much of an issue but I live in the sticks and being able to overtake safely on rural roads is an important consideration.  I got in touch with Volkswagen and they told me that a local dealer had a 140PS version that I could test so I arranged to drive it, only to check the sticker next to the spare wheel and find that it was actually a 125kW version (i.e. 170PS).

A friend told me about an £89 “economy tuning chip box” that can be fitted to take the power from 140PS to 165PS and I have to admit I was tempted, but  I didn’t really want to make unauthorised modifications to my company car (I figured that could get me into hot water). So, with no opportunity to drive the low-power diesel, I decided to played it safe and to take the tax hit on the 170PS version – vowing to walk/cycle a little more often instead of driving… (had it been my own car, I would have gone for the 140PS and the box of tricks).

That left the colour. I didn’t want to pay for metallic or pearlescent paint but there are only two solid paint options on the Tiguan in the UK. Mrs W doesn’t like “Candy White” so that left “Deep Ocean Blue”,  for which Volkswagen didn’t have a swatch.  Brochures and websites are no good for colour matching (even the pictures in the brochures are computer generated these days) so I spent hours on the ‘net one evening last week searching for Volkswagen Deep Ocean Blue cars…

I found that Deep Ocean Blue has a colour code of LA5H but I couldn’t find any examples (except the same colour code, called Blue Lagoon, on a 2001 Jetta). After about 4 hours of searching I found a Deep Ocean Blue Touran for sale at an Audi dealership in Germany… and was not convinced.  With minutes to go before the end of the month, and fearing a manufacturer price increase, I decided to pay for metallic paint (Night Blue) and placed my order anyway.

There’s a 5-6 month wait for it to be built (Volkswagen seems to have particular delays on 2.0 TDI engines right now) but I’m looking forward to taking delivery in the spring… in fact, it should arrive just about in time for my birthday…

[Update 20 November 2011: I finally found a swatch for “Deep Ocean Blue” and it’s not the colour in the links above… it’s not too bad actually (the website colour is not far off) – probably best thought of as 1970s British Rail blue…]

Handy to know about: fuel cover emergency release on an Audi A4

A couple of days ago, my wife called me and said the low fuel warning light had come on on my car as she set out to take the kids swimming (a 25 mile round trip). “No worries”, I said, “you’ve got enough to get home – I’ll fill it up later”. Fast forward to today, when I drove to the filling station only to find that the cover on the fuel filler cap (controlled by the central locking) wouldn’t open.  Thankfully, I was close to home, so I went back (fuel range now showing as 5 miles!) and called the lease company’s breakdown service, who said I might have to wait up to 90 minutes for a technician. Not great, but acceptable – and at least I was home.

A few minutes later I got a call from Volkswagen/Audi Assistance and 15 minutes after that the technician was on site (the RAC provide the Volkswagen/Audi Assistance service – but with dedicated technicians, so a different queue).

I explained the problem and he tried (and failed) to open the fuel cover the same way that I did… then he popped open the boot, removed a cover and pulled on a wire – which promptly opened the offending fuel door.  Result! If only I’d known about it at the petrol station an hour earlier. (For reference, the car is a 2009 Audi A4 Avant – the B8 model – but I wouldn’t be surprised if the A5 has a similar mechanism.)

So full marks to VW/Audi Assistance – both for the rapid response and for following me to the filling station in case I ran out of diesel on the way.

And, for anyone else with a fuel cover that’s linked to the central locking on the car, it might be worth checking if there is an emergency release…

Hardware lineup for 2011

This is a bit of a copycat post really but I saw Mike Taulty and Phil Winstanley‘s hardware lineups and thought it was a good idea. So, here it is, a summary of the technology I use pretty much every day and how I see that changing this year.

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

Audi A4 Avant 20 TDI 170 S-LineMy wife and I have been Volkswagen fans for a few years now (we find them to be good, solid, reliable cars that hold their value well) so, a couple of years ago, when I heard that Volkswagen and Audi were being added to our company car scheme, I held back on replacing my previous vehicle in order to take advantage. I did consider getting a Passat but the A4 (although smaller) had a newer generation of engine and lower emissions, so it didn’t actually cost much more in tax/monthly lease costs.

After a year or so, I’m normally bored/infuriated with my company cars but I still really enjoy my A4 – so much so that I will consider purchasing this one at the end of its lease next year. My only reservations are that I would really like something larger, sometimes a little more power would be nice (although this has 170PS, which is pretty good for a 2 litre diesel) and I do sometimes think that the money I contribute to the car might be better spent on reducing the mortgage (I add some of my salary to lease a better car than my grade entitles me to).

Either way, it’s on lease until I hit 3 years or 60,000 miles, so it’s a keeper for 2011.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

Apple iPhone 3GSI actually have two phones (personal and work SIMs) but my personal needs are pretty basic (a feature phone with Bluetooth connectivity for hands free operation in the car) and I recycled my iPhone 3G when I was given a 3GS to use for work.

After having owned iPhones for a few years now (this is my third one), I don’t feel that the platform, which was once revolutionary, has kept pace and it now feels dated. As a result, I’m tempted by an Android or Windows Phone 7 device but neither of these platforms is currently supported for connection my corporate e-mail service.

The main advantages of this device for me are the apps and the Bluetooth connectivity to the car (although I needed to buy a cable for media access). I use Spotify and Runkeeper when I’m running but there are a whole host of apps to help me when I’m out and about with work (National Rail Enquiries, etc.) and, of course, it lets me triage my bulging mailbox and manage my calendar when I’m on the move. Unfortunately, the camera is awful and it’s not much use as a phone either, but it does the job.

I could get an iPhone 4 (or 5 this summer?) but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely, unless something happened to this one and I was forced to replace it.

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadAfter several weeks (maybe months) of thinking “do I? don’t I?”, I bought an iPad last year and I use it extensively. Perhaps it’s a bit worrying that I take it to bed with me at night (I often catch up on Twitter before going to sleep, or use it as an e-book reader) but the “instant on” and long battery life make this device stand out from the competition when I’m out and about.

2011 will be an interesting year for tablets – at CES they were all over the place but I’ve been pretty vocal (both on this blog, and on Twitter) about my views on Windows as a tablet operating system and many of the Android devices are lacking something – Android 3 (Gingerbread [correction] Honeycomb) should change that. One possible alternative is Lenovo’s convertible notebook/tablet which runs Windows but features a slide out screen that functions as an Android tablet (very innovative).

I may upgrade to an iPad 2, if I can get a good resale price for my first generation iPad, but even Apple’s puritanical anti-Adobe Flash stand (which means many websites are unavailable to me) is not enough to make me move away from this device in 2011.

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220My personal preference for notebook PCs is a ThinkPad – I liked them when they were manufactured by IBM and Lenovo seem to have retained the overall quality associated with the brand – but, given who pays my salary, it’s no surprise that I use a Fujitsu notebook PC. Mine’s a couple of years old now and so it’s branded Fujitsu-Siemens but it’s the same model that was sold under the Fujitsu name outside Europe. It’s a solid, well-built notebook PC and I have enough CPU, memory and disk to run Windows 7 (x64) well.

Unfortunately it’s crippled with some awful full disk encryption software (I won’t name the vendor but I’d rather be using the built-in BitLocker capabilities which I feel are better integrated and less obtrusive) and, even though the chipset supports Intel vPro/AMT (to install the Citrix XenClient hypervisor), the BIOS won’t allow me to activate the VT-d features. As a result, I have to run separate machines for some of my technical testing (I’m doing far less of that at work anyway these days) and to meet my personal (i.e. non-work) computing requirements.

My hope is that we’ll introduce a bring your own computer (BYOC) scheme at work and I can rationalise things but, if not, it’ll be another two years before I can order a replacement and this will soldier on for a while yet.

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10In its day, my netbook was great. It’s small, light, can be used on the train when the seatback tables are too small for a normal laptop and I used mine extensively for personal computing whilst working away from home. It was a bit slow (on file transfers) but it does the job – and the small keyboard is ideal for my young children (although even they could do with a larger screen resolution).

Nowadays my netbook it sits on the shelf, unloved, replaced by my iPad. It was inexpensive and, ultimately, consumable.

Verdict 2/10. Sell, or more likely use it to geek out and play with Linux.

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

Nikon D700After a series of Minoltas in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve had Nikon cameras for several years now, having owned an F90x, a D70 and now a D700. I also use my wife’s D40 from time to time and we have a Canon Ixus 70 too (my son has adopted that). With a sizeable investment in Nikon lenses, etc., I can’t see myself changing brands again – although some of my glass could do with an upgrade, and I’d like an external flash unit.

The D700 gives me a lot of flexibility and has a high enough pixel count, with minimal noise and good low-light performance. It’s a professional-grade DSLR and a bit heavy for some people (I like the weight). It’s also too valuable for some trips (which is when I use the D40) but I always miss the flexibility and functionality that the D700 body provides. Maybe sometimes I think some video capabilities would be nice but I won’t be changing it yet.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)It’s been three years since I bought my MacBook and, much as I’d like one of the current range of MacBook Pros it’ll be a while before I replace it because they are so expensive! In fairness, it’s doing it’s job well – as soon as I bought it I ungraded the hard disk and memory, and whilst the the CPU is nt as fast as a modern Core i5 or i7, it’s not that slow either.

For a machine that was not exactly inexpensive, I’ve been disappointed with the build quality (it’s had two new keyboard top covers and a replacement battery) but Apple’s customer service meant that all were replaced under warranty (I wouldn’t fancy my chances at getting a new battery from many other PC OEMs).

I use this machine exclusively for photography and the Mac OS suits me well for this. It’s not “better” than Windows, just “different” and, whilst some people would consider me to be a Microsoft fanboi and an iHater, the list of kit on this page might say otherwise. I like to consider myself to have objective views that cut through the Redmond or Cupertino rhetoric!

So, back to the Mac – I may dive into Photoshop from time to time but Adobe Lightroom, Flickr Uploadr, VueScan and a few specialist utilities like Sofortbild are my main tools. I need to sweat this asset for a while longer before I can replace it.

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniMy Mac Mini was the first Intel Mac I bought (I had one of the original iMacs but that’s long gone) and it’s proved to be a great little machine. It was replaced by the MacBook but has variously been used in Windows and Mac OS X forms as a home media PC. These days it’s just used for iTunes and Spotify, but I plan to buy a keyboard to have a play with Garage Band too.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI’m not a gamer – I sold my Playstation a few years ago because the driving games that I enjoyed made me feel ill! Even so, I was blown away by the Xbox with Kinect when I saw it last month. I bought myself a 250GB model and now Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports have become family favourites (with a bit of Dance Central thrown in!). I can’t see myself getting into first person shooters, but I can see us doing more and more with the Xbox, particularly if I can use the Connect 360 application to hook into my media library. The final piece of the jigsaw would be BBC iPlayer on Xbox – but that looks unlikely to come to fruition.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, Dell PowerEdge 840, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

As my work becomes less technical, I no longer run a full network infrastructure at home (I don’t find myself building quite so many virtual machines either) so I moved the main infrastructure roles (Active Directory, DHCP, DNS, TFTP, etc.) to a low-power server based on an Intel Atom CPU. I still have my PowerEdge 840 for the occasions when I do need to run up a test environment but it’s really just gathering dust. Storage is provided by a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS devices and it’s likely that I’ll upgrade the disks and then move one to a family member’s house, remote syncing to provide an off-site backup solution (instead of a variety of external USB drives).

Verdict 6/10. Hold (perhaps sell the server, but more likely to leave it under the desk…).