An evening with Sony, at their 2014 consumer electronics product preview

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself heading to Brooklands, site of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, except that the purpose of my visit was not to experience any form of motor sport, but to spend an evening with Sony, at their UK headquarters, taking a look at the consumer electronics products that the Japanese giant is bringing to market in 2014.

Working for another Japanese technology giant, as I do, it’s easy to forget just how big Sony is in the consumer electronics space.  Happily, in the UK, we don’t really compete (except maybe around PCs – and even then we focus on different markets). As news since my visit suggests that Sony is looking to dispose of its Vaio PC business and transform the TV business into a wholly owned subsidiary (perhaps to resolve the issue of the innovators’ dilemma?), I’m happy that I could learn about the sound and vision, photography and computing devices that Sony is bringing to market this year without any conflict of interest.  And Sony started the evening off by telling us how they are concentrating on the user experience – on the best picture and sound quality – be that for televisions, cameras, projectors or other digital devices.

TV – forget 3D – 4K is where it’s at

It has to be said that Sony’s 4K TVs are stunning.  I first saw 4K Ultra HD images whilst visiting The Design Museum late last year and my trip to Brooklands re-enforced my view – whether it’s for watching films or sport.  Quite how I’ll be able to receive a 4K signal at my house is another issue (I have “up to 8Mbps” ADSL2) and whilst I like the idea of a 65″ TV, our living room is not really large enough… but hey! (It should be noted that Sony’s X-Reality processing engine can upscale some content too).

Sony X9Sony explained some of the technologies that their mid-high end 2014 TVs feature and it’s clear that it’s no longer just about being “super slim”.  The quest for enhanced picture and sound quality includes a range of technologies such as:

  • X-Reality PRO image enhancement for increased realism, texture and a more refined output
  • Triluminos imaging (launched last year – but now with increased colour range and much improved viewing angle – as shown in this image from Sony with, from left to right,  a 2013 Sony TV, a 2014 Sony TV and a Samsung TV)
  • X-tended Dynamic Range – improved brightness, whilst retaining detail and colour.
  • Long duct speakers with a new wedge shape to increase speaker capacity and sound quality – including software to adjust the settings depending on whether the panel is wall or table mounted (wall-mounted units use the wall for reverberation – I pity the neighbours!)
  • Front mounted speakers on some models for better sound direction, a magnetic fluid system as coolant and conductor for efficient sound transfer – and an RF-connected subwoofer option for those who don’t want a 5.1 system.
  • ClearAudio+ sound processing, to separate dialogue from sound effects, reduce/increase sports commentary volume, or provide virtual surround sound.

And, when one Sony representative was asked a question about the future of 3D TV:

“Our focus is 4K”

I think that says it all really (the 3D glasses for my TV have never come out of their box)!

Smart viewing

I have a mid-range Samsung TV, which, on the whole I’ve been very pleased with but I do have to admit that the SmartHub is a little less smart than I would like at times. Clearly Sony seems Samsung as a leading competitor (their competitor comparison units are all Samsungs!) and, from what I saw of the developments in Sony’s Bravia software, it seems that they have a much better user interface – and an interesting approach to control with their “One-Flick”gesture-based remote (a standard remote is provided too). Whilst some of the apps seem a little gimmicky (e.g. “Football mode” for “less ghosting and more immersive viewing” because of Sony’s tie up with the 2014 World Cup), the usuals are there too (iPlayer, etc.) as well as Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services.

The features I found most interesting were Social Viewing (integrating social media use with television-watching, albeit with some issues around content filtering) and Photo share (using the TV as a hub to share images between devices, scanning a QR code or using NFC to connect, with no app required).

As for the full range of 2014 Sony TVs, rather than rely on my notes being correct, why not get it straight from the horses’ mouth, as it were.

Getting connected

I also had some time to spend in Sony’s “network room” and whilst I have to say I was pretty impressed with the range of Vaio laptops in touch and non-touch forms (including the lightest ultrabook in Europe), all with NFC and some featuring ClearAudio+ (which really made a difference using the PC speakers), the potential sale of Sony’s PC business and my own professional IT links made these no more than a “ooo – that’s nice” view…

There were Xperia phones and tablets too but the real items I found of interest were the wearables – a Smartband that pairs with an Android phone for “life logging” and the SmartWatch 2 which acts as a remote screen for an Android phone, but also runs some of its own apps.  Wearables are big right now and I find this a particularly exciting market – it will be interesting to see how Sony’s devices take off…

 

Digital imaging (and a date for my diary)

A few years ago, Sony bought Konica-Minolta’s digital imaging business and they’ve clearly used it to good effect, expanding the Sony range to cover everything from digital compacts to high-end DSLRs (and of course expanding their own range of digital still and video cameras).  As a Nikon DSLR-shooter, I found the range confusing, with seemingly competing models using two different lens mount systems:

  • The A-mount is effectively the old Konica-Minolta system.
  • The E-mount is used by the modern, small form factor cameras.

Thankfully there are converters available, which means A-mount E-mount users can use adapters for Nikon and Canon lenses.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite too – I like a solid full-frame DSLR with high quality (often heavy) glass up front and am unconvinced by the new ranges of small cameras with interchangeable lenses (possibly because I got burned by Minolta in the late-1990s with an interchangeable lens APS film camera!).  Having said that, I increasingly find myself using the camera in my pocket (my phone) and it was interesting to see how Sony is enhancing the user experience with seamless integration between devices, including built-in NFC and Wi-Fi communications, together with iOS and Android PlayMemories apps for a range of photography uses).  I was also impressed to see that Sony is really moving ahead with behind full-frame cameras – be that the DSC-RX1, the prosumer ?7/7R or the ?99. Indeed I’d be happy to have an RX1 as my carry-everywhere camera (albeit a rather pricey one!)

On the video front, Sony has always been a leader and I was impressed to see both the NEX-VG900 full-frame interchangeable lens camcorder and the AX100 – a 4K Handycam targeted at home film-makers, using a 1″ sensor and class 10 SD card storage (that reminds me, I really should find a way to stream all of the raw footage off my collection of DV tapes onto a disk somewhere!).

Oh yes, and that date for my diary? Sony sponsors the World Photography Awards, and the 2014 exhibition will take place at Somerset House in London from 1-18 May.

Wall of sound

The last demonstration of the evening was focused on audio.  I didn’t check out the high resolution audio systems (although I heard others doing so, and they certainly sounded good) – I was interested in something portable – like the Bluetooth and NFC SRS-BTS50 or the higher-end SRS-X5 unit.  After all, when all you’re playing is compressed MP3 files, or music streamed from Spotify, it’s amazing how good it can sound on a small speaker setup. Then there were earphones, modern Walkman digital music players (I didn’t know that brand still existed but it seems you can get everything from a USB stick to an iPod competitor and even an MP3 Walkman built into a set of headphones!), clock radios, docking stations, DAB radios, all in one Hi-Fi systems – the works.

<tl;dr>

I’m pretty impressed with Sony’s consumer electronics plans for 2014.  Sure, what geek wouldn’t be interested in huge super-high definition TVs, some smart PCs and wearable tech, a selection of imaging devices that meet the needs of most, if not all, consumers and some seriously big sounds. But it’s more than that.  Maybe I drank the Sony Kool-Aid but I really did leave with the distinct impression that Sony is out to create a user experience that transcends devices and simply delivers the best picture and sound quality.  If I didn’t already have a Samsung Smart TV, Apple and Samsung phones, a Lenovo PC, Nikon cameras and an Xbox 360, I might well be persuaded to make my next consumer electronics purchase one from Sony…

[Update 19 Feb 2014: corrected statement re: adapters for third party lenses with Sony cameras]

Hardware lineup for 2014

For the last few years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012, and 2013). This year, Dan Delaney reminded me when he borrowed the idea (and I originally stole it from someone else…) so here’s the belated 2014 line-up…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

I’m still enjoying my current company car even as it approaches its 2 year anniversary and am actively working to keep the mileage down as I may buy it at the end of the lease. Whilst I might be able to get a deal on a second hand Q7 or Toureg, this was specced up the way I wanted it  including a retractable towbar and I’m more than happy. Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Windows Phone 7.8 was a disappointment and the lack of apps for the Windows Phone platform means I’ve gone back to iOS for my personal phone (second-hand from the SmartfoneStore), although I hope to jailbreak it to get some of the features that are missing for me in iOS 7. Meanwhile, my company iPhone 3GS has been replaced with an Android model (the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini), which is infuriating in many ways but at least lets me get experience of working with the other dominant mobile platform. (iPhone) Verdict 7/10. Hold – something new is too expensive. (Galaxy Mini) Verdict 5/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet, especially since we bought a touch PC for the family (read on). If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or a Tesco Hudl). Verdict 5/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook P702 (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 8GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

This PC is my main computing device and is a small form-factor replacement for the previous Lifebook I used.  I like it, but a BYOC scheme would be more likely to leave me buying a competitor’s PC. Just as well we only have CYOD! Verdict 7/10. Still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work but not holding my breath.

Family PC: Lenovo Flex 15 (Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk)

Lenovo Flex 15When it eventually arrived, I set this PC up with Windows 8.1, Office 2013 and an account for everyone in the family.  It’s been a huge hit – the kids love it and I find it really useful to have a PC in the kitchen/family room.  I’m glad I held out for a touch screen – Windows 8 is so much better with Touch – but I should possibly have got something with a bit more memory… Verdict 8/10. A bit underpowered but a good balance between price and form factor.

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

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Rarely taken out of the drawer – only used when I want to play with Linux (Ubuntu) or upload some new code to the Arduino. Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100Although I’ve fallen out of love with photography, I’m sure I’ll get back on the wagon some time. A full-frame DSLR is still my favourite format 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.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good. The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like and I increasingly tolerate using the iPhone instead (poor camera, but always with me). (D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold. (P7100) Verdict 6/10. Hold.

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

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. Still too expensive to replace, but as long as I’m not doing much photography, this will last a while longer… Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300Our late-2012 technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my family’s media consumption habit with my children watching more iPlayer content than live.  The software is a little “buggy” but it does the job – as a half decent TV it’s more than adequate and I’m thinking of getting a 22″ version for the den (when we build one…) Verdict 9/10. Hold.

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

(+ iPad, iPhone 4S, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300) Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago (although the Dell server I bought a few years ago has come out of retirement in preparation for that task). We bought a Yamaha PSR E-343 music keyboard for my son this Christmas so this PC may be brought back to life with Garage Band or as a media server as 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 but my sons make more and more use of it, and bought me a copy of FIFA 2014 for Christmas, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use. No plans to replace it with a newer model though. Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Raspberry Pi, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Raspberry Pi has replaced my atom-based infrastructure PC, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago.  I still need to consolidate the various USB hard drives onto the  3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive and sort out the various cloud-based services that I use. (Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25? (ReadyNAS Duo) Verdict 5/10. RAID failures mean I’ve lost confidence.

Other tech: Arduino Uno, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

I’m still occasionally playing around with electronics using an Arduino – although I need to do more with this. I’m also slowly regaining control over my filing using the document scanner (and it’s very cathartic shredding old documents!) (Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support. (Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostatLego Mindstorms

Just as last year, I still have my eyes on home automation and tech toys but budgets (and other hobbies) mean they are unlikely to become real for a while yet.  A smart watch is a possibility too… just waiting for the right one…

Eurosport Player lets me watch the Giro, without a Sky subscription

Last year, I developed a new sporting interest. In common with many others in the UK, I found myself glued to the TV highlights for the Tour de France, followed by the various cycling events at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Vuelta a España, and even taking a day out to watch the Tour of Britain. I haven’t got a road bike yet (hoping to get one soon – I’ve entered a trialthlon later in the year and am hoping to ride London to Paris next year) but I was looking forward to watching the Giro d’Italia. At least, I was until I found out it’s not available on free-to-air TV:

MT @: Extensive [#Giro] race guide. Stage info and TV times here: http://t.co/FJTZfCHs5J ^MW Gutted it’s not on Freeview @

@markwilsonit

Mark Wilson

Tonight, determined not to miss Bradley Wiggins in action in the first of the Grand Tours, I was searching the Internet for Giro highlights and even considered taking out a Sky subscription after reading that I can get a Sky Go monthly ticket and watch via my Xbox.  An online chat with a Sky representative confirmed that I would need to pay £35 for a single month’s TV and even thinking of that as £1 a day didn’t help.

I considered hitting the torrent sites until I learned (thanks to Ian Murphy/@journoian) that the highlights are on Eurosport as well as Sky SportsA little research suggested that, for £4.99 “Crowd Pass” I could access the Eurosport Player for a month (Android, iOS and Kindle apps, PC and Mac, as well as Sony and LG smart TVs – unfortunately not Samsung…). There’s also a £2.99 “Sports Fan” option but that involves a 12 month commitment.

So, despite being delayed by two sullen blokes hitting coloured balls around a big green table, here I am, watching Cav, Wiggo and co. racing on the Italian riviera, just as I suspect I will be for the next three weeks!

HomePlug Ethernet, part 2

For the last week or so, our living room has been out of bounds as we installed a new fireplace, redecorated and are now getting a new carpet fitted. That means all of the furniture has moved out to another room – and that includes our Smart TV.

After months of near-perfect video streaming over the Power Ethernet connection that I wrote about in November, I’ve had to go wireless again, and that means lots of buffering, etc. – despite the TV being right next to the Apple AirPort Express that I’m pretty sure should be repeating the signal.  That’s prompted me to a) do something about it as it will be another week or so before the Xbox and Smart TV are back in the living room and b) write this post about my experiences with my Power Ethernet TP1000 sockets.

Installation

If you can install a 2-gang (double) power socket, you can install a Power Ethernet socket*.  Simply turn off the power at the mains (consumer unit), disconnect the existing socket wiring, connect the TP1000  – and you’ll have a single power socket and four Ethernet ports in place of the two power sockets that were there originally.  Repeat for the second socket (you need a pair to work together) and a mesh network is created automatically. Simple!

A few points to note:

  1. Depending on the depth of the pattress or wall box that your socket uses, you may need a “spacer” to increase the depth to at least 35mm. I found that the wall box for my living room (standard fit for an early-1990s house with dry lined “dot and dab” walls) was too shallow but some spacers were included with my sockets.
  2. Even with the spacer, it’s still a tight fit (the back of the TP1000 is bulkier than a standard switched double socket) and I moved the point at which the ring main entered the wall box by a couple of centimetres to improve access to the wiring connections.
  3. The TP1000 power socket is unswitched. That’s not a problem for me, but may be a concern for some people.
  4. Although the facia plate for the TP1000 is white, the unit itself is grey (and my spacers were white). Also, it has rounded corners, which look nice, but are difficult to match with existing sockets (or the spacer).  Again, not a problem for me (the socket is hidden behind our TV stand) but it would be good to see Power Ethernet devices available in a selection of finishes to match the most commonly used electrical fittings here in the UK.

Use

It’s a power socket, just use it as normal.

And it’s an Ethernet switch with four connections. Just use them as normal. Of course, one end will need to be connected to your Internet connection – for me, this is via the wired LAN in my home office, without any need for cross-over cables.

Performance

For many years, I avoided Ethernet over power line solutions because I was concerned about interoperability between the various standards, and I’d heard stories of poor performance. Of course, this will vary tremendously based on the electrical wiring in use but I’ve been pretty impressed with the Power Ethernet devices. Bear in mind that my primary use is to stream TV from the Internet (BBC iPlayer, for example), so the bottleneck is my “up to 8Mbps” ADSL2 connection, but  I’m having no issues at all, even streaming HD content.

It’s difficult to measure the true throughput of the network but the Power Ethernet Management Software (PEMS) suggests I’m sustaining a connection at around 160Mbps and the initial connection speed often rises over time.  Tests using file transfers (for example, using NetCPS) suggested lower transfer rates but it’s still far better than over Wi-Fi – and seems more reliable.

The TP1000 Ethernet sockets also go into standby mode when not in use, which obviously has an environmental (and fiscal) impact, but they are quick to “resume” when a device is plugged in to one of the RJ45 connections or switched on, taking just a few seconds to establish a connection as normal.

Management

As I mentioned above, Power Ethernet provides management software  for the Ethernet switches inside the TP1000s. I’m not using the advanced functionality (e.g. setting up VLANs or QoS) but those sorts of capabilities will be extremely useful in an office environment and it’s still useful to be able to see the topology of the network, check out the port states, monitor bandwidth and otherwise manage the devices from a single location. Supplied as a Microsoft ClickOnce application, I did initially have some problems installing the software but Power Ethernet were able to take my log files and quickly resolve the issue. Since then, PEMS has automatically updated itself to the latest software release with absolutely no problems and apart from a few display problems (which may be due to the fact I’m running it on a Windows Server 2008 R2 machine, and connecting via RDP), it’s been pretty solid.

Power Ethernet Management Software

Interoperability

I mentioned that my SmartTV is temporarily in a different location (approx 8m from the nearest Ethernet socket) and, faced with an inability to watch iPlayer without buffering, I needed to set something up.  As this is a temporary fix and I don’t think Power Ethernet sockets are available with a brushed metal finish, I picked up a single TP-Link AV200 Nano powerline adapter (TL-PA211). It’s not as neat but it’s no worse than a 12V DC “brick” and it’s fine for a temporary setup. And, because both the TP-Link and the Power Ethernet sockets are HomePlug compatible, it instantly joined the mesh so I was connected to my Internet connection right away with no further configuration required.  What I did find is that the TP-Link connection is slower – which may be down to the the household electrical wiring or the device chipset (the TP-Link device uses the Intellon INT6000 chipset, whilst the TP1000 uses the Qualcomm Atheros INT6400) – but PEMS recognises a third party device and has shown me connection speeds in the range of 85-115 Mbps – which is still pretty decent and far more than my broadband connection!

Summary

I’ve been really pleased with my Power Ethernet TP1000s and I’d certainly recommend them for home or small business use. The management software can be a little clunky but it’s only really needed if you want to manage the embedded Ethernet switch, which is overkill for my simple home setup. And, whilst they may not be the cheapest HomePlug devices on the market, there are some significant advantages in terms of physical security, aesthetics and performance – and there’s always the option to combine with other 200Mbps HomePlug devices where appropriate. If you’re looking for an alternative to Wi-Fi, and running CAT5/6 is not an option, I seriously recommend taking a look at Power Ethernet.

 

* Of course, if you’re not confident in doing this, then consult an electrician. I’m not qualified to give electrical advice – I’m just a “competent DIYer”.

Short takes: cyber security; stock images; PowerPoint presenter view; smart TVs, iPads and YouTube

Lots of ideas for blog posts this week but limited time to commit pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard for that matter. Here are the highlights of what might have been…

Cyber security

Last year, I assisted one of the lecturers at University College London (UCL) with some “expert” opinion on the bring your own device phenomenon, for a module as part of the MSc course in Human Computer Interaction. It seemed to go reasonably well and I was invited back to speak on this year’s topic – cyber security.  I can’t claim to be an expert, but I could present some supplier-side views on the UK Government’s “10 steps to cyber security” advice which seems very sensible but is also based on aspirational and tactical solutions which could be costly to implement in full, so need to be considered with an understanding of the relative risks and an eye to the future.

For anyone who’s interested, my presentation is available for viewing/download on SlideShare, although it’s very visual – full narrative is available in the notes.

 

Searching for good images

I’m a fan of full-page images on slides and limited text. I find it keeps the audience engaged and listening to the presenter, rather than reading pages of bullet points.  The down side is that it can be very time consuming to find the right images, especially without access to an account at a good stock library.

As my presentation to UCL was as in individual, not representing my employer, I was able to use images licensed for non-commercial use under Creative Commons and Compfight is a great tool for searching Flickr for these.  I’ve attributed all of the photographers used in the deck above, and if you don’t have access to iStockPhoto, Fotolia, etc. then this can be a good way to find images.

PowerPoint Presenter View

I’ve blogged before about PowerPoint’s presenter view and I’m amazed that more people don’t use it (although, the people who don’t are generally fans of dull corporate decks with lots of bullet points – yawn!). Somehow though, my PC had reverted to not using it, and I needed to Google to find where the option is in the PowerPoint 2007/2010 ribbon!  In the end, it was this Cybernet New post that showed me the important option: on the Slide Show tab, in the Monitors section.

YouTube smart TV and mobile apps

I wanted to re-watch a presentation that I’d missed last year and that I knew was on YouTube. Given that it was nearly an hour long, I thought the comfort of my living room would be a good place to do this, using the YouTube app on my smart TV. It was. At least until I lost the stream part way through and the Samsung YouTube app refused to play ball with the fast forward control. Another annoyance was that the “Watch Later” functionality in YouTube isn’t recognised by the a-little-bit-dumb app on the “smart” TV, so I needed to add the video to another playlist first.

Eventually, I finished up watching the second half of the video on my iPad. Here, again, it’s useful to know that the built-in iOS YouTube app is feature light and that there is a newer version available from Google in Apple’s AppStore.

The benefits of IP TV in my living room

Our living rooms have become a battlefield: Microsoft, Apple and Google each want to control our entertainment experiences, integrating TV, PC, smartphone (and games consoles); then consider Samsung, Sony and the other consumer electronics giants – all of whom want a slice of the digital media consumption cake – there’s certainly a lot at stake as existing media consumption models start to crumble and new business models are established.

Until fairly recently, I was resisting any temptation to bring more technology into the living room, especially as my “black loud crap” (19″ hi-fi separates to you and I) was banished when Mrs W and I became an item all those years ago. I’m not much of a gamer but I do have an Xbox 360, which also doubles as quite a decent DVD player/media hub (especially since the BBC released iPlayer on Xbox). We don’t have a BlueRay player, I think 3D TV is a gimmick and music is on an old iPod, hooked up to some speakers in our garden room, served up from Spotify on my phone/PC/iPad, or streamed from a iTunes/Spotify on a Mac using an Apple Airport Express. All very 2005.

But then I bought a new television.

Much to my surprise, the SmartTV capabilities on the new telly impressed my wife (who saw the potential for the kids accessing the CBeebies website, etc. from the TV, still under our control) as the Samsung rep took us through the motions in a local Currys/PC World store (by co-incidence, the same rep was working in John Lewis, where we actually bought the TV, a week or so later). I wasn’t sure how much we’d use other apps, but having BBC iPlayer, and to a lesser extent ITV Player (hopefully to soon be joined by 4oD and Demand5), running directly from the TV has real benefit.

Since finding that the Wi-Fi connection in my living room wasn’t up to the task, and putting in a HomePlug Ethernet solution from PowerEthernet, I’ve become more and more convinced that IP TV is the way forward. Catching up with the latest BBC natural history series, Africa, with my kids a couple of evenings ago I was streaming BBC iPlayer content in high definition without a hiccup. When the PVR failed to record a critical episode from Masterchef: The Professionals, our TV’s YouTube app came to the rescue. And, over the weekend, I decided that watching Vimeo on my computer screen was too restrictive, so I connected the Vimeo app on the TV to my account and started to surf through my “Watch Later” list. That’s more like it! New apps seem to be coming all the time – Spotify was a recent addition, as was TED (only a few days ago).

Of course, I can access the same content on a tablet, or a smartphone, or a PC – but the television is still the focal point of our living room and, by integrating my online video consumption into the broadcast mix, it’s suddenly a lot more convenient. I haven’t even started to consider the possibilities of streaming music, photos and video from the computers in the house although a neighbour did drop by to test his XBMC configuration on my TV before he commits to purchasing, and plugging a USB flash drive into the TV to look at some photos/home videos is certainly very convenient.

In less than two months I’ve gone from “there’s nothing wrong with my old Sony Trinitron” to “what, no high definition?” and “I’m sure we can stream from the Internet”.  Something else has changed too: whilst the majority of our TV content still comes from the BBC, or Channel 4, I’m watching more stuff from the ‘net – whether it’s Vimeo, YouTube, TED, the Red Bull Channel, or the BBC Sport app (which, incidentally, showed a great video of [Sir] Bradley Wiggins performing The Jam’s That’s Entertainment at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year after-show party).

For a long time I’ve heard talk of IP (Internet Protocol) taking over from broadcast TV. Now, it seems, this may actually have become a reality…

Hardware lineup for 2013

For the last couple of years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012) and I thought I’d continue the theme as we enter 2013.

In these times of austerity, there’s not a lot of scope for new geek toys (some more camera lenses would be great, as would a new MacBook) but there’s no harm in a bit of aspiration, and it’s always interesting to take a look back and see how I thought things would work out and how that compares with reality.

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 was replaced in April (a nice 40th birthday present) and the Volkswagen Tiguan I drive will be with me for at least 3 years. Whilst there are plenty of more capabile 4x4s and the space afforded by a 7-seater might be nice at times, “the Tig” has been great – my family all love the high riding position, my wife is happy swapping between this and her Golf (she should be – they are practically the same underneath the covers!) and, whilst I miss some of the refinement of my Audi, I get a lot more for my money with the Volkswagen.  Putting a retractable towbar on this car has created new possibilities too, allowing me to use a 4-bike towbar-attached carrier for family cycle trips.

Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800My initial enthusiasm for the Nokia Lumia 800 waned considerably, after Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 plans and the handset lost 60% of its value overnight.  That means I won’t be trading it in for a new model any time soon and, depending on whether Windows Phone 7.8 ever makes it out of the door, I might consider looking at options to run Android on the (rather nice) hardware instead.  Still, at least we got an update a few months ago that, finally, enables Internet Sharing on Lumias (Windows Phone 7.5 supported this capability, but the Lumia 800 firmware did not).

I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available for Windows Phone (i.e. most of the time) and, whilst I’m unlikely to get another smartphone from the company, I am considering a second-hand 4S to replace this as the 3GS is getting a bit long in the tooth now…

(Lumia) Verdict 5/10. Hold, under duress.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet and there’s still nothing that comes close to the iPad from a media tablet perspective (except newer iPads).

If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or an Amazon Kindle Fire) but and Apple’s decision to stick with a 4:3 screen ratio on the iPad Mini means I have little interest in that form factor (it’s almost the same hardware as my current iPad, albeit in a smaller package). If I were to get a new tablet, it’s more likely to be something that could really be a laptop replacement – perhaps a Microsoft Surface Pro? We’ll see…

Verdict 7/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220This 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! A recent hard disk failure meant my free space dropped (my 250GB drive was replaced with a 160GB one) but it’s due for replacement soon.

I’ll be looking for a smaller form-factor device to reduce the weight of my work-bag – at least until BYOC becomes a possibility (an ultrabook, Surface Pro, or a MacBook Air would be nice, but not available to me on the company’s catalogue).

Verdict 6/10. Unlikely to be with me for much longer now, although still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work.

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

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Yet again, this device has hardly seen the light of day. Usurped by the iPad, it now runs Ubuntu and is only ever used for tech projects (e.g. uploading software to my Arduino). 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.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good, even 2 years after launch.

The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), 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)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive.

Still too expensive to replace, I think this will last another year, at least…

Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300My most recent technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and has given us back a lot of space in the living room! I’ve been really impressed with the Smart TV functionality (more on that over the next few days) and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my media consumption habit.

In time, it may be joined by a sound bar (to improve the experience when watching films) but at the moment the TV’s built in speakers will have to make do.

Verdict 9/10. 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, Samsung UE37ES6300)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – except for the addition of a Smart TV – and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago. I still haven’t bought the music keyboard and this PC’s role as a multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc. has been replaced by a Smart TV in the living room.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs but it may be brought back to life as a media server as 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 but the arrival of BBC iPlayer and the death of our DVD player promoted the Xbox to be our living room  media centre, at least until the Smart TV arrived (and the two still complement each other). My sons are reaching the age where they play games too now, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

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

The Atom-based PC still provides infrastructure services for the home, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago. I recently bought a 3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive to replace an assortment of smaller USB hard disks and am preparing to supplement this with suitable cloud storage as we become more and more reliant on our digital assets.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

New toys from 2012: Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

At the end of my 2012 post, I mentioned a few potential purchases and I did pick up one of the first Raspberry Pi computers, which is a fantastic hobby/educational machine to use with or without my children.  I also started to play around with electronics using an Arduino – which is great fun – and I hope to be doing more with both of them this year (more Raspberry Pi postsmore Arduino posts).

I’m slowly regaining control over my filing with the aid of a dedicated document scanner. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s portable, but the fast duplex scanning to PDF and multiple sheet handling (with very few mis-feeds) is a huge step forward compared with the all-in-one printer/scanner/copier I have in my home office.  Mine was an “Amazon Warehouse Deals” purchase (which saved me a few pounds) and the advertised condition suggested it may have a scratch or two but it seems to be in perfect condition to me. It will certainly be a big part of my push to digitise much of my paperwork this year.

(Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25?
(Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support.
(Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Lego Mindstorms

Of course, as a geek, I have my eye on a whole host of potential purchases and these were two that took my fancy in last year’s post, plus one more that I’ve had my eye on for a while (may be something for the kids to get and Dad to play with?).  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I’ll be buying much at all this year, but anything I do is likely to be in the general electronics, robotics and home automation field.

Tweaking the display on a Samsung TV for use as a computer monitor

Samsung UE37ES6300A few weeks ago, I bought my first flat screen TV. The old (c1998) Sony Trinitron still works, but it was starting to lose the colour a little around the edges and was, frankly, taking up a huge chunk of living room so I splashed out and bought a Samsung UE37ES6300 from John Lewis.

I’m not bothered about 3D pictures but the Smart TV (Internet-connected) functionality is a huge bonus. Meanwhile, the availability of HDMI ports (no VGA on this year’s model) led me to hook up my old Mac Mini as a permanently connected place for Internet access in the living room (although the requirement is rapidly dropping as more and more Samsung Apps become available – Spotify appeared last night!).

Using a DVI to HDMI cable, the Mac was able to detect the 1080p display but it did enable overscan which meant I was losing the edge of the picture. Turning off overscan helped, but didn’t use the whole display (and was also a bit fuzzy).  With a bit of help from a friend (who, conincidentally, had come over and hooked his Linux machine up to the display), I worked out that the solution is to leave overscan enabled on the computer but to set the TV Picture Size to Screen Fit.  I’m not sure if I can see much difference betwen 50Hz PAL and 60Hz NTSC but, seeing as this is a European model, I left the computer set to 50Hz PAL.

This resolved the display size but it was still not as sharp as I would expect for a native resolution display. Switching the Picture Mode from Standard to Movie made a big difference (although the colours were a little muted and there was a slight magenta cast) so I started to look at the differences between the two profiles.  Now I’ve tweaked the Standard profile to bring down the sharpness from the default of 50 to 20 and turned off the Dynamic Contrast in the TV’s Advanced Settings and I think I’m pretty much there.

So, there you have it. I haven’t tried a Windows PC yet, but those settings seem to work well with the Mac – and the result is a much improved digital display output.

HomePlug Ethernet, part 1

As more an more computing devices are being allowed into my living room (Xbox, Smart TV, etc.) I’m starting to find that the Wi-Fi in our house, which seems fine for basic surfing, email, social media, etc. is struggling more and more when it comes to streaming video content.

It could be a problem with my Wi-Fi setup but I have a pretty good access point, located in a reasonably central position (albeit upstairs) and an Apple Airport Express acting as a repeater, connected to some speakers in our garden room.  I have a feeling that the TV and Xbox are picking up the Airport Express, rather than the main access point (no way to tell on the Airport Express as its diagnostics are almost non-existent) and the lengthy Wi-Fi journey between access points may be the cause of my problems.  I could redesign the network but it works for streaming Spotify to the garden room/kitchen so I started to consider alternatives.

Creating CAT5E/6 cable runs around the house is just too disruptive (I did consider it when we extended a few years ago, but it was quite expensive too), so I started to look at running Ethernet over the household electrical system with HomePlug devices.

A bit of crowdsourcing (asking around on Twitter) turned up quite a bit of advice:

  • Develo dLAN devices seemed to be well-regarded and I nearly bought a dLAN 500 AVtriple+ starter kit.
  • A few people mentioned the TP link Powerline products too.
  • Some people told me to go for faster connections (500Mbps) and that slower devices may be limited by 10/100Mbps Ethernet connections.
  • Others suggested higher speeds are more vulnerable to overheating and interference (that was another common theme – depending on the household wiring it seems you might not get very close to the stated maximum).

Ultimately, whatever I use will mostly be streaming content from the Internet (BBC iPlayer, etc.) over my ADSL connection (which runs at about 6Mbps downstream) so the home network shouldn’t be the bottleneck, once I get off Wi-Fi and onto some copper.

I mentioned that I nearly bought the Develo kit, so why didn’t I? Well, just as I was getting ready to purchase, PowerEthernet (@PowerEthernet) picked up on my tweet and suggested I take a look at their product, which is really rather neat…

Instead of plugging into a socket (either with or without pass-through power capabilities), the PowerEthernet devices replace a standard UK double socket to provide a single socket and four 200Mbps Ethernet ports. You need a pair (of course) but they work together to create an encrypted (AES128) mesh network that’s compatible with the HomePlug Alliance AV standard.

Professional installation is recommended but, as Paul Ockenden (@PaulOckenden) highlights in his PCPro article:

“Most competent DIYers should be able to replace an existing two-gang socket with a Power Ethernet faceplate, and indeed the IEE Wiring Regulations do allow for a confident consumer to do this. For a new installation, however, or if you lack the confidence, you’ll need to consult a qualified electrician.”

I haven’t installed mine yet – I only collected them from the Royal Mail today – but I intend to report back when I’ve had a chance to play. In the meantime, Jonathan Margolis (@SimplyBestTech) wrote a short but sweet piece for the FT. PC Pro’s full review suggests they are a bit pricey (almost £282 for a pair including VAT) but Girls n Gadgets’ Leila Gregory (@Swannyfound them on Amazon at closer to £80 each (as did I).

I’ll write more when I’ve had a chance to use them for a bit…

Some thoughts on modern technology: email, gadgets (and how children view them)

I haven’t found much time to blog recently, but this post pulls together a few loosely related streams of consciousness on technology – how we use it (or does it use us?), how it’s sold to us, and how the next generation view the current generation’s tech.

on Email…

Driving up to and back from Manchester last Friday night gave me a great opportunity to catch up on my podcast backlog – including listening to an entire series of Aleks Krotoski’s The Digital Human (#digihuman). The “Influence” and “Augment” episodes are particularly interesting but I also found that some parts of “Intent” sparked some thoughts in my mind. That episode featured comments by Douglas Rushkoff (@rushkoff) of Program or be Programmed fame, which I’ve paraphrased here.

Email can be seen as a [broken] game with many unintended consequences coded into it. For many of us, our working life is a game called “empty the inbox” (in the process, filling the inboxes of others). Email has a bias to generate more email – even when we’re away we auto-generate messages. In effect, all problems become a “nail” for which email is the “hammer”.

We’re almost entirely reactive – and we need to understand that it’s a person on the other side, not a computer – someone who is expecting something of some other person. So, standing up to your Blackberry is really standing up to your boss/colleague/whoever, not to the technology. It takes a brave person to send an out of office response that says something to the effect of “I’m deleting your message, if it was urgent, send it again after I’m back”. But that is starting to happen, as people realise that they are the humans here, with finite lifespans, and that a line needs to be drawn “in the digital sand” to show their limits.

I was also fascinated to learn that the average US teenager sends 3000 texts (SMS messages) a month – a stark contrast with ten years ago, when I had to explain to American colleagues what SMS was. At that time, the USA still seemed to be hooked on pagers, whilst SMS was really taking off over here in Europe.

on gadgets…

I spent a chunk of this weekend shopping for a (smart) television and a smart phone [why does everything have to be “smart” – what next, “neat”?].

The experience confirmed to me that a) I’m officially “a grumpy old man” who doesn’t appreciate the ambient noise in John Lewis’ audio visual department (nor, I suspect, do many others in the department store’s target demographic) b) John Lewis’ TV sales guys do not deliver the “well-trained and knowledgeable” confidence I associate with other departments in the store (i.e. they don’t really know their stuff) c) Samsung reps attached to consumer electronics stores are trained to up-sell (no surprise) d) Even John Lewis’ under-trained TV sales guys are better than Carphone Warehouse’s staff (who told my wife that the difference between the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 starts off with the operating system… at which point I bit my tongue and left the conversation).

Incidentally, Stephen Fry’s new series, Gadget Man, starts tonight on Channel 4 – might be worth a look…

on the way children see gadgets…

Of course, the shopping experience had another angle introduced by my kids, who decided that it would be a good idea to change the channel on as many TVs as possible to show CBeebies (it kept them amused whilst we talked about the merits of different models with the Samsung rep who was in store) but I was fascinated to see how my boys (aged 6 and 8) reacted in Carphone Warehouse:

  • The switch from “oh phone shopping – that will be boooooring” to “oh, look, shiny things with touch screens” was rapid.
  • They liked using a stylus to write on a Galaxy Note.
  • All tablets are “iPads” (in fairness, my wife pointed out that that’s all they’ve ever known in our house).
  • An e-ink Kindle is a “proper Kindle” and the Kindle HD (which they had been happily playing games on – it took my six-year-old about 30 seconds to find “Cut The Rope”) was “the iPad Kindle”.

The irony…

After slating email as a “broken game”, I posted this by email using the new post by email functionality in the WordPress Jetpack plugin. I guess it still has its uses then…