Unable to install Xbox Live Arcade games on the 360’s hard drive

I’m not a big gamer, but I do have an Xbox 360 and there may be some video evidence on the ‘net of me sampling a game or two at an MVP event a few years back…

These days, much of the console’s use is from my children and, last weekend, my 9 year-old son was keen to buy Minecraft for the Xbox 360 after spotting it on sale in Sainsbury’s.  After coming home and researching, including prices elsewhere, we decided that it was a good deal and I took him back the next day to buy a copy.  One happy little boy.

Unfortunately, when we got home, I was having difficulty installing the game on the Xbox’s hard drive. I do this to avoid wear and tear on the DVD drive in the Xbox, as well as to keep down the noise whilst playing. I expect to supply the optical media to verify that we have a copy (for any piracy purposes) but, from then on, our games run from from the hard drive.

Unfortunately, that option didn’t seem to be available for Minecraft and it seems that it’s the same for all Xbox Live Arcade games. Ludicrous – bizarrely it’s possible to buy the game online and download it to the Xbox via that route (and it would have saved some of my son’s pocket money)!  Unfortunately I don’t think this counts as “faulty” for return to the retailer…

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…

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”.

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.

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…

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!

Where next for Microsoft Kinect?

Last week’s Fantastic Tavern gamification event included the opportunity to win an Xbox 360 and Kinect and Microsoft’s Andrew Spooner (@andspo), a Creative Evangelist working with Xbox, gave an update on the latest Kinect developments.

Dancing with Invisible LightKinect is now (officially) the World’s fastest-selling consumer electronics device. That’s quite some achievement. I described how Kinect works in an earlier post (3 cameras including one RGB and two 3D motion depth sensors, 4 microphones for directional audio) but Andrew highlighted Audrey Penven’s photographs demonstrating the infra-red light patterns that Kinect uses (Audrey’s image is shown here under a creative commons licence).

After some initial unauthorised hacking, Microsoft has now released an official software development kit for Kinect, allowing Windows developers to develop new uses for the sensor [although there isn’t yet a commercial model for it’s use as a PC peripheral]. Andrew demonstrated some simple skeletal tracking but some of the examples of Kinect hacks (pre-SDK) include:

There are some pretty cool projects there – some are just geeky, but others have real, practical uses. Now that there is an official SDK, Microsoft is suggesting that we’re only limited by our imagination… and that’s probably not to far from the truth!

“All you need is life experience”

[Alex Kipman, “Kinect brainchild”]

Andrew finished off his presentation with a video where Kinect becomes self-aware. Of course, it’s not real… but it is amusing… and it does make you think…

Game on at The Fantastic Tavern (#TFTLondon)

It’s been a long week… not just the normal work stuff but two great events meaning some late nights and I’m just not as young as I once was… in time I’m sure I’ll blog about Thursday’s CloudCamp and give some more details on last night’s Fantastic Tavern (TFT) but, for now, here’s the highlights on TFT.

Gamification. I wrote about that after a recent Digital Surrey event and it’s pretty big. Big? Hell, last night’s Fantastic Tavern needed a night club to house the 300 attendees – I only wish I hadn’t had to leave to catch a train home when the music started… anyway, if 300 people want to come along and learn about gamification, that gives some idea as to how hot the topic is right now.

Apparently, there are more than 10 million people in the UK who play games for more than 20 hours a week [they must be insomniacs, or don’t have kids/jobs with long commutes…] and some games are now so heavily played they feature rest rewards!

We all like the feeling of flow – that balance between skill and satisfaction that produces a neurological hit… so why is reality so dull? And that’s where gamification comes in, building out the game layer to cover education, leisure and work. Bringing in game dynamics and reapply them in the real world.

Last night’s TFT featured a talk on the ubiquitous gaming culture that is developing around us before we heard lightning talks on the four Ms of gamification (mystery, mastery, membership and meaning). Then, putting that into practice, we split out and brainstormed some topics to gamify Cancer Research UK‘s valuable work in a world where an increasingly cashless (and cash-strapped) society is giving less.

And just to prove the point, an old-school gamification method (i.e. a raffle) was used to get us to give up our cash for Cancer Research and win a Microsoft Xbox 360 system with Kinect.

I’ll write some more on the ubiquitous gaming culture and the 4Ms soon (I’ll try to line up some posts for next week, together with something on Kinect) but, if you’re interested in future TFT events, find out more at The Fantastic Tavern site (or @TFTLondon).

A £5 homebrew Kinect sensor mount for a flat-screen TV

A few months ago (yes, it’s taken me that long to get around to posting it – sorry Stuart), my colleague Stuart Whatmore sent me some information he thought might make a good blog post.  Like me, he purchased a Microsoft Kinect sensor – but he had issues with it operating at a low level (i.e. below his television).

I have an “old-skool” CRT TV (I still reckon that my 13-year-old Trinitron will outlast most LCD panels I could buy today), so my Kinect sensor sits happily on the top of the telly, but Stuart has a handy tip for those who would like to mount theirs on a newer TV.

At the time, there was no official bracket available in the UK (I looked this week and Play.com lists a variety of options but they don’t come cheap – the official TV mount kit is £36.99) but Stuart’s solution uses an upturned bookend from Staples (which cost around £5), a bolt attached to the wall-mounting bracket, and some sticky pads (two under the bracket and two under the Kinect sensor).

Stuart Whatmore's Kinect bracket

Stuart notes that “The bolt on the picture needs reducing in size and the only caution is to ensure you do not screw through to the TV screen”! It sounds like a workable solution to me – but I take no responsibility for anyone else’s actions as a result of reading this blog post.  Personally, I’m tempted to try the official wall mount kit.