Using a VPN to watch ITV content outside the UK

Those who follow me on Twitter (@markwilsonit) will probably be aware that I recently spent some time in mainland Europe – travelling through France, Germany and Switzerland with my family. You’ll probably also be aware that one of my hobbies is road cycling – and that I like to watch the highlights from the three Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España) and from the Tour of Britain. With the Vuelta in full swing as my holiday started, I wanted to make sure I could still catch the highlights on ITV4!

Even with the new EU mobile roaming arrangements that mean I can use my mobile data allowance in other EU countries, I didn’t expect to be able to stream content reliably, so I took out a subscription to ITV Hub+, allowing me to download ITV programmes with the ITV Hub app (on Wi-Fi) and play back later, without ads. This worked brilliantly on the ferry to France but not so well once I was in my Paris hotel room, where the app detected I was outside the UK and denied access to content with a variety of error messages:

ITV Hub download error outside the UK ITV Hub download error outside the UK ITV Hub download error outside the UK

I was pretty annoyed – after all, there was no mention of UK-only coverage when I subscribed to the ITV Hub+ and the ITV website says:

“Where can I use a Hub+ subscription?

As long as you’re signed into your account, you’ll be able to use your Hub+ subscription almost anywhere. Watch ad-free telly on our website, download and catch up on the go on your mobile or tablet, or binge on your favourite shows with no interruptions on your Smart TV!”

but I did find the limitation in their troubleshooting guide later:

I am abroad and can’t watch videos
The ITV Hub is only available within the UK as we don’t hold international rights for all of our shows. If you’re lucky enough to be on holiday or you live abroad, you won’t be able to watch ITV Hub until you return to the UK”

After a bit of a rant on Twitter (no response from ITV, of course), I thought about using a VPN (and @JFDuncan suggested Plex).

Unfortunately, my own VPN back to my NAS didn’t work (on reflection, L2TP/IPSec was not the best choice of transport – as @GarryMartin pointed out when I originally set it up) and I was nervous about using a third party service until Justin Barker (@JustinBarker77) suggested TunnelBear:

Recommendations are always good. And TunnelBear seemed more legitimate than some of the sites I found…

At first, I didn’t have much luck – even after following TunnelBear’s troubleshooting advice for accessing content. 24 hours later though, something had cleared (maybe I had a different IP address, maybe it was something on my iPhone) and ITV Hub+ worked flawlessly over hotel Wi-Fi and a VPN back to the UK. I could download my cycling highlights for later playback and the VPN tunnel even seemed to improve the Holiday Inn Wi-Fi reliability – possibly due to QoS restrictions prioritising potential business traffic (VPN) over leisure (downloading videos)!

I did have some challenges with playback – so I put the iPhone into Airplane Mode before watching content, just in case the ITV Hub app detected I was outside the UK again, but each time I wanted to download over the next few days I enabled the VPN and all was good. I also subscribed to TunnelBear for a month’s worth of unlimited data allowance (I soon chewed through the 1GB I got for tweeting about the service!).

Hopefully, this information will help someone else who’s frustrated by paying for a download service and then finding it doesn’t work outside the UK…

Re-acquiring my digital downloads

A few months ago, I lost the entire contents of the NAS device that holds, amongst other things, my digital music collection. Whilst my ReadyNAS Duo had two disks in a RAID 1 mirror, they both failed simultaneously – and I haven’t found a cloud storage service to send a terabyte of data to yet…

(I have been researching cloud storage though – more on that in a future post, hopefully).

With no music in iTunes, I’ve been using Spotify a lot more (combined with the music that was cached on my iOS devices) but, tonight, I decided it’s time to start the long haul of re-ripping all of my CDs (a couple of hundred albums and about 500 singles…) – this time to somewhere that’s a little more secure.

Before I do that, I decided to start out by re-acquiring my purchased music.  With a couple of exceptions, this comes from Apple iTunes, or 7 Digital.  7 Digital is easy enough – it has a “Your Music” section from where I can re-download my purchases (all digital media sources should follow this model, in my opinion). iTunes didn’t used to be so simple though and I feared I may have to beg their support function to let me have my downloads back…

As it happens, that’s no longer the case as iTunes 10.6 and later allow purchases to be downloaded again from the iTunes Store (see Apple support article HT2519).  For those with a lot of purchases (or for whom bandwidth is at a premium), there is another option though – I used the various iOS devices that held cached copies of my purchases to restore parts of my iTunes library.

The details are in Apple support article HT1848 but it was as simple as connecting the devices, then selecting Transfer purchases from devicename (the computer was already authorised, but it now has a new iTunes Music Library). My apps and purchased music are being copied to iTunes as I type this post (note that this feature only works for items that were purchased on the iTunes Store – and note for any items imported from audio CDs or acquired from other sources).

Social Media, the BBC and Jon Jacob (@thoroughlygood at #digitalsurrey)

Last month I travelled down to Farnham to see Michael Wu’s talk on the Science of Gamification at Digital Surrey. Despite a hellish journey home*, I enjoyed the evening and met some great people, so I decided to come back again last night for this month’s talk. I may feel like an interloper from “analogue North Bucks” – and it would be fair to ask why I’m at an event for networking amongst the Surrey digerati – but my first two experiences of Digital Surrey have been great, so it looks like I could become a regular, if they’ll have me!

Last night’s talk was from Jon Jacob (@thoroughlygood), a BBC writer, journalist and producer – who was at pains to point out he was speaking on behalf of himself, and not the BBC. Actually, Jon has a post about his own performance, which is worth a read.

I took a lot of notes in his talk, which included his reading test on LBC whilst being constantly heckled by Sandi Toksvig, but I think it was best summarised with these points:

  • Jon has used and shamelessly exploited social media to build a “brand” and pursue a career.
  • Social media is at risk of being taken over by dangerous forces who don’t understand it. Many of us like using it, or tolerate it, but more and more people are using social media, including groups that don’t “get it”. Early adopters need to keep an eye out for:
    • Protest-driven people who know technology, bring together armies of geeks and put together massive project management teams to deliver projects in time and budget.
    • People with a little bit of information – they learn how to use Twitter on a Tuesday afternoon and set up as “social media experts” on Wednesday.
  • Social media is a conversation to tap into for stories and sources. More fundamentally it’s a transaction between the author and their own audience. If we post something on Facebook, implicitly we want attention: if we deny it we’re liars! It’s the same for Twitter – about the actor and the audience – not about how large is the audience…
  • If we listen to a radio programme and don’t like then we won’t listen again… it’s the same for TV… if it’s a bit tired we’ll go elsewhere. If that’s how it works for radio and TV, surely it must be the same for social media?
  • It doesn’t matter how many followers you have, the focus is about copy/editorial, not the medium.
  • The secret to engaging copy is that the personality flows through. Be the same person on the medium and in person. Tap into joy rather than avoid it. Exploit everything about yourself in a good way and turn into something (on a personal level or a corporate level).
  • Social media is nothing more than a distribution method, just as TV and radio are.
  • The thing that excites Jon is coming up with ideas and doing things. Maybe people have ideas and feel a bit frightened. Maybe they have ideas and “marketing” didn’t like something. Clearly there are certain laws to follow but it’s actually quite difficult to be that naughty. It’s hard to bring down governments!
  • We need to tap into people with ideas. Don’t just ask them to write a blog post but inspire them, create a delicate ecosystem, get people enthused. That can’t be bottled or put in a book but we’re missing a trick if we’re selling something and have teams of copywriters – maybe we need to do break out of our boundaries and do something different.

By the way, I found Jon’s talk to be completely engaging (thoroughly good, one might say). I saw some negative comments and sure, maybe he went off in a few seemingly random directions, but at all times I was completely switched on to what he was saying. There’s not too many presentations where I can say that!

*OK, so “hellish” is a slight exaggeration but the Highways Agency did close 5 out of the 6 lanes on the M1 northbound where the M25 filters in, at around 10pm, to lean a ladder up against an overhead gantry. I’m sure the resulting queues were just for their own amusement.

Sumvision Cyclone Micro: some advice for using this inexpensive media player

Last week, Joe Baguley tweeted about a media player he had bought for his kids for just £18 (after discount).  The device in question is the Sumvision Cyclone Micro HD HDMI Upscaling Multimedia Player Adaptor and, as the name suggests, it’s a nifty little box to upscale standard definition/DVD video to high definition (HD).  It works just as well for those who don’t have an HD television as it comes with a composite cable to hook up to most TVs (including my aging Sony Trinitrons).  Basically, this tiny box of tricks takes a memory card or USB 2.0 input and provides HDMI 1.3 or composite A/V output, for not very much money at all.

Unfortunately, many of the forums/online retail sites that review the product are full of people saying “it doesn’t work”! I spent some time working on some of the issues that people were having and thought I’d post the results here in the hope that it’s useful to others.

What’s in the box?

Unfortunately many of the questions I saw on certain forums were asking (repeatedly), “does it come with…” so, just to make it clear, this is what you get in the box:

  • Media player.
  • DC power supply (5V, 2A).
  • Remote control.
  • Composite out cable.
  • Mini-CD with instructions.

There is no HDMI cable, and European users may need a composite to SCART converter (which should cost no more than a couple of quid at your local electronics store).

Remote control issues

The remote control looks cheap (it is!) and has blue text on black background making it difficult to read.  In addition, the buttons may be difficult to press but it’s functional.  Some people are complaining of interference with their TV functions – I didn’t experience that but I guess it depends what TV you have.  Remember this unit only costs around £20 and you get what you pay for!

If you don’t want to use the remote control that comes with the Cyclone Micro, there are reports that it will work with a Logitech Harmony One.

Unable to access external hard drive

This issue seems to be pretty common and is probably one of two things:

  • Disk (partition) format: according to Sumvision, the Cyclone Micro can read USB devices with a FAT, FAT32 or NTFS file system, or MS, MMC, SD or SDHC cards with FAT or FAT32.  Note that does not include ExFAT, or any Linux/Unix file systems. I’ve used an 8GB Sandisk Extreme III SDHC card (straight from my wife’s Nikon D40) to view pictures (in .JPG format) on the Cyclone Micro, as well as a FAT32-formatted USB thumb drive and an NTFS-formatted external hard drive with a variety of media types.
  • Power: If your hard drive won’t work with the Cyclone Micro, it’s probably down to the power it needs.  Some drives need more power than others. Sometimes they are supplied with a Y-split USB cable and, as the Cyclone Micro only has a single USB port, that won’t allow enough power to be provided.  If your device works off a single USB port, or has its own power supply, it should be OK.  I used a Freecom ToughDrive 120GB with no issues.

Unable to play .AVI files from compact cameras

I have a Canon Ixus 70 and, like many compact digital cameras, it can record video.  The resulting files are 640×480 @30fps, in a .AVI container format and GSpot informed me that they use the Motion JPEG codec.

Although the files show up in the menu on the Cyclone Micro, any attempt to play them results in an unsupported format error message.  Converting the files to Xvid format (e.g. using WinFF, with default settings), resulted in a .AVI file that could be read and played by the Cyclone Micro. [Credit: I got the idea of using WinFF from Jake Ludington’s post on converting AVI to iPod-compatible MP4]

Unable to play MP4 files

I’m still not entirely happy I have found the final answer to this but, according to Sumvision, the Cyclone Micro can play MPEG1/2/4 (.MPG, .VOB or .AVI), DivX (.AVI), or Xvid (.AVI), as well as ISO files using these formats.

Certainly none of the MPEG4 files I produced worked (they were not even displayed in the menu on my Cyclone Micro, which is running firmware version 3.3) but programs like WinFF or Handbrake should help here (indeed, in testing, I successfully converted an H.264 .MP4 file to .AVI using WinFF).

Alternatively, ripping DVDs to .ISOs is faster than transcoding them, and it seems to work a treat.  Windows users could probably use something like Lucersoft ISO Creator (or any number of tools) but I followed Slash Dot Dash’s advice to create a .ISO CD/DVD image on a Mac:

  1. Insert media.
  2. Type drutil status to get the device name for the DVD drive.
  3. Unmount the media using diskutil unmountdisk devicename (e.g. diskutil unmountdisk /dev/disk1).
  4. Create a .ISO using dd if=devicename of=filename.iso bs=2048 (e.g. dd if=/dev/disk1 of=myvideo.iso bs=2048).
  5. Sit back and wait for a while (you should be able to hear the DVD spinning so you’ll know its working).
  6. Test the image by mounting it with hdid filename.iso (or opening it in Finder).
  7. Eject media and (optionally) burn the .ISO or, in this case, copy it to a device that can be read by the Cyclone Micro.

The resulting .ISO file should play on the Sumvision Cyclone Micro. Just to be clear, I’m not condoning making copies of copyrighted material (although it may be legal to make backup copies for personal use in certain jurisdictions, sadly not in the UK though) – I’m assuming the DVDs that you want to copy are home movies, etc.

Summary

This post covers some of the more common issues that might be experienced when working with the Sumvision Cyclone Micro.  Whilst it’s not without its faults (H.264 and Motion JPEG support would be a huge step forward), I guess issues like the ones described in this post should be expected with such an inexpensive device. If I find any more tips and tricks, I’ll post them on this blog.

Further reading

The following resources may be useful for additional technical information:

The BBC’s iPlayer finally catches up

The BBC’s iPlayer TV and radio catch up service is great in many ways but it only runs on XP and has a ridiculously short period before the DRM kicks in and snatches a programme away from your computer. Now things are taking a step forward and, over the Christmas period, I’ve been using a beta of the BBC’s new cross-platform iPlayer Desktop.

No longer limiting itself to a single platform and an old version of Windows, the BBC has dropped Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM in favour of an Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) application and H.264. For those who are not familiar with this technology:

  • H.264 is a video encoding algorithm intended to providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards and is used by Apple iTunes, YouTube and other prominent content distribution platforms.
  • AIR is Adobe’s platform for writing rich Internet applications that can run on the desktop. Basically, AIR is the opposite to Microsoft Silverlight (which takes the .NET Framework into a browser) and it can bring Flash, Flex, HTML or AJAX to the desktop, further blurring the lines between web and desktop applications.

Because AIR is supported on so many platforms, the new iPlayer system requirements list Linux (Fedora Core 8, Ubuntu 7.10, Open Suse 10.3); Mac (Intel only); Windows XP and Windows Vista as supported operating systems. Although they are not listed in the system requirements, it should also run on other platforms that are not listed – for example other Linux distributions and Windows 7.

The application itself seems straightforward enough – if you’ve seen the previous iPlayer Download Manager then the new iPlayer Desktop will be instantly familiar. As should be expected with a beta application though, there are still some issues to iron out: all three machines that I installed the application on set the allocated hard disk space to something ridiculously small; but, critically, if your computer is connected to a low-resolution screen (say, on a netbook, or a standard definition television), then parts of the interface (like the tabs to switch between downloads, now playing and settings) are not accessible – as shown in the screen shot below (a VNC connection to the Mac Mini that I have hooked up to my old Sony TV):

iPlayer Desktop too big for the display

Sadly I’m not aware of any changes to the content restrictions that mean programmes are only available for a (very) limited number of days after broadcast (I imagine that, just as the Windows Media DRM was easily circumvented, the DRM on this new platform will be cracked too). But there is some light at the end of the tunnel – the AIR-based system may just be a stepping stone in the development of the BBC’s content delivery platform – at Microsoft’s 2008 Professional Developers’ Conference, the Head of Online Media for BBC iPlayer, Anthony Rhodes, spoke of moving from an Internet catchup (broadcast 1.0) service to a model where the Internet replaces television (broadcast 2.0) using Live Mesh and a local Silverlight application to share content between users and across devices.

So, how can you get the new iPlayer Desktop? Simply agree to be a BBC iPlayer Labs tester and then download a programme from the iPlayer website. At this point you should be prompted to install the iPlayer Desktop (and Adobe AIR) – just follow the prompts and within a few minutes you should be in business.

After testing the new platform on my systems over Christmas, the iPlayer Desktop seems like a major step forward to me. If you run Linux, Mac OS X, or a modern version of Windows (and if you have a UK-based IP address), then it’s definitely worth a look.