Hardware lineup for 2011

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

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

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

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

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

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

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

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

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

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

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

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

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

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

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

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

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

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

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

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

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

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

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

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

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

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

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

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

The effects of sunscreen on Volkswagen/Audi paintwork

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a brand new Volkswagen Golf.  We’d been happy with our previous VWs (a Mk2 and two Mk4 Golfs, a 2004 Polo and a 2005 Passat) so were more than happy to purchase a Mk5 Golf 1.9TDI Match (in Blue Graphite Metallic) as a family runaround.  Fast forward around a year and we were slightly less pleased with our purchase…

…The car had started to develop white marks on the paintwork.  Each time they were polished out, they came back.  Strangely, some of them looked like little handprints and, when I asked the dealer about them, they instantly recognised the problem.  “That’s sunscreen”, they said, “and it’s not covered by the warranty”.

Sunscreen?! Yep. It seems that the modern (water-based) paints are not as hard as the nitro-cellulose or isocyanate paints used on older cars and that they are susceptible to damage from titanium dioxide – an ingredient found in many sun protection products, including the sunscreen we had applied regularly to our young children.

With just a few thousand miles on the clock, I wasn’t taking no for an answer, but we decided to use a little of the motor industry’s sexism to our advantage too as, from this point on, the negotiations weren’t with me but with Mrs W. instead!  After escalating the issue to an appropriate level within the dealership, it was agreed that the car would go into the bodyshop and the offending panels would be machine polished, as a gesture of goodwill.  Even though the job took much longer than it should (most of the panels on the rear and sides of the car were affected – have you ever tried keeping toddlers from plastering their hands on a car?) they dealer was true to their word and the car was returned to us in as new condition.

Damage caused by sunscreen coming into contact with car paintworkWhen I asked if this was a regular issue, Volkswagen told me that it wasn’t (although, later, an Audi dealer was a little more truthful, admitting that it happens a lot with modern VW-Audi paints and that the resolution is usually a machine polish – we also have friends with similar marks on their silver Bora).  Had it been necessary, I would have kept on pushing until the car was completely resprayed (I might have settled with a compromise agreement to pay for the materials but not the labour) but, as it happens, the problem seems to have been resolved, with just one small area of damage still visible.

We were lucky.  With just a few thousand miles on the clock, it was difficult for Volkswagen to suggest this was “normal”.  If the car had been used a little more, we might have been seeking legal advice to see if we were entitled to a return under the Sale of Goods Act (it is a family car after all, and blemishes as a result of contact with sunscreen might question its fitness for purpose) but I frankly wouldn’t fancy our chances at suing Nivea et al. for damages because their products don’t carry a warning that they may damage car paintwork!

Needless to say, these days we’re ultra-careful to wipe our childrens’ hands with wet wipes after applying sunscreen…

[I waited a while before publishing this because a) I wanted to be sure we had resolved the issue and b) it’s not the normal sort of content for this blog. As a result, the events in this post are written as I remember them; however it’s entirely possible that there may be some minor errors as part of the effect of time on my memory]

[Update – 5 September 2012: Two years after writing this post and I’m sorry to say that fingermarks are back again. It seems that the long term damage of the sunscreen goes deeper than a polish can deal with and our choice is either to accept the damage (on our now four-year-old car), or respray.]

More on integrating an Apple iPhone 3G with Audi’s telephony and audio systems

A few days ago, it was my birthday. Whilst 37 is not a particularly significant age to celebrate (I prefer to think of it as the 16th anniversary of my 21st birthday), I did get a little present at the start of the month (hopefully it wasn’t an April fool’s joke) when my new company car was delivered. Bye bye Saab (I liked you at first but you soon showed yourself to be a Vauxhall Vectra in disguise… with aftersales service to match…) – this time I’ve gone down the German route and plumped for an Audi A4 Avant S-Line. I have to say that, even though it’s still early days, this could shape up to be one of the best cars I’ve ever driven (especially with the extra toys I’ve added to the spec) – mind you, I’ve always liked German cars and have bought a few Volkswagens over the years.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to start writing car reviews – but I did write something a few months ago about integrating an Apple iPhone 3G with Audi’s telephony and audio systems and I wanted to write a follow-up, now that I’ve had some opportunity to spend a bit more time with a suitably equipped car.

First up, telephony integration. This is simple, as long as the car has the Mobile Telephone Preparation Low option. No cradle is required as the mobile phone preparation provides Bluetooth connectivity. As I wrote in my earlier post, just pair the iPhone with the car using the code 1234 within 30 seconds of opening the car and inserting the key (i.e. activating the car’s systems). The handsfree device will be something like Audi UHV 0000, although the number will vary and, once paired, calls will ring the iPhone and the car simultaneously. The Bluetooth logo and signal strength are displayed on the Audi Multi Media Interface (MMI) display:

Audi telephone connection (MMI)Audi telephone connection (Driver Display)

My iPhone 3G is running software version 2.2.1 and I seem to have no difficulties accessing the phone’s number lists and directory (although voice activation/control is not availablethe phonebook that this refers to is the voice tag system, not the directory accessed on the phone over Bluetooth):

Audi accessing iPhone phonebook (Driver Display)

One thing to note – the car can only act as a handsfree for one phone at a time (although it can pair with up to 4 devices). When I’m “on the clock”, I turn off the Bluetooth on my iPhone so that the Nokia 6021 I use for work can access the car systems.

If you’re still having trouble, Audi provides a Bluetooth FAQ as well as a PDF with details of supported handsets (which is now over a year old and so does not include the iPhone 3G, although it appears to work).

Because Apple has not provided Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) functionality on the current iPhone 3G or the first-generation iPhone, to integrate my iPhone with the music system so that I can access the phone’s playlists, etc., I needed to specify the Audi Music Interface option and buy an AMI iPod cable for £29. I think there is a minimum requirement on the sound system for this too (mine is the Audi Concert system).

The AMI is in the glovebox (close enough for a Bluetooth signal for the phone to carry on working) and the cable will charge my phone at the same time. The only problem is that the iPhone complains that the AMI is not a supported accessory and wants to go into airplane mode. If I tell it not to, the AMI will usually find the iPhone and let me navigate the playlists, etc. but I have found it seems to work better if I put start the iPod application on the iPhone before connecting:

This accessory is not made to work with iPhoneAccessory connected
Audi AMI access to iPhone playlists (MMI)Audi AMI access to iPhone playlists (Driver Display)

The good news is that the forthcoming iPhone 3.0 software is expected to include A2DP (and it should work with the iPhone 3G – but not the original iPhone), after which I should be able to stop using the cable (although I may just leave an old iPod semi-permanently connected to the car at that point).

[Update 12 December 2011: Even though iOS is now at v5.0.1, I’ve been unable to use A2DP. This worked in another Audi I drove recently so I assume the car needs a software update too.  This information from an AudiForums thread might be useful too:

“First, the difference between AMI and MMI, which threw me off, so hopefully someone else will find this helpful. This is for my 2011 A4… I don’t know what other years/models it may apply to.

  • MMI (Multi-Media Interface) is just the screen/knob system that controls the radio/sat/cd/settings/etc.
  • AMI (Audi Music Interface) is the link between the MMI system and your iPod or other MP3 device. It is a port in the glove box that you can attach different cables to for different music devices.”]

Bluetooth communications between an Apple iPhone 3G and a Ford Audio system

My company car is due for replacement and the lease company has arranged a demonstration car of my choice for a week – so last Wednesday a shiny Ford Mondeo 2.2TDCi Titanium X Sport Estate was delivered to my house. (For readers outside Europe who don’t know what a Mondeo is, here’s an American review of the range-topping Titanium X Sport model – it might also be useful to note that “car” and “estate” are English words for what’s known as “automobile” and “wagon” in some parts of the world.)

Whilst I’m not a great fan of the fake aluminium that car manufacturers seem to plaster all over the interior of cars these days, this car represents a reasonable balance between performance, economy and the need to transport a family complete with all their associated paraphernalia (or garden rubbish for the tip…) – and it’s pretty well-specced too. One of the features that I was particularly interested in was the Bluetooth and Voice Control system.

(The Ford website features a longer version of this video but I couldn’t easily embed it here – and, for the benefit of those with no sense of irony, this is not serious – it is a parody of a fantastic programme that the BBC used to run called Tomorrow’s World.)

My current car has a fully-fitted carphone kit for use with my work phone (a Nokia 6021) but if anyone calls me on my iPhone 3G I have to use another solution. Not so with the Mondeo. In fact, I couldn’t get the Nokia to recognise the Ford Audio system (even though it’s one of the handsets that Ford has tested) but the iPhone was quite happy to pair following the instructions in the owner’s handbook:

  1. The Bluetooth feature must be activated on the phone and on the audio unit. For additional information, refer to your phone user guide.
  2. The private mode must not be activated on the Bluetooth phone.
  3. Search for audio device.
  4. Select Ford Audio.
  5. The Bluetooth PIN number 0000 must be entered on the phone keypad.

[Ford Mondeo Owners Handbook (2008)]

Sony/Ford Audio System paired with iPhoneOnce paired, I could use the car’s controls to make calls and incoming calls on the iPhone were picked up by the car too.

Ford are not the only manufacturer to have such as system, but it is the first time I’ve had it fitted as standard on a car (on my Saab 9-3 I would have needed to specify an expensive stereo with built in satellite navigation to get the Bluetooth functionality) – and Ford do claim to be the only manufacturer to offer the system on small cars too:

Ford is the only manufacturer to offer a Bluetooth with Voice Control System on our smaller cars as well as our larger ones. It’s available on the Fiesta, Fusion, new Focus, new Focus CC, C-MAX, Mondeo, S-MAX, Galaxy, Fiesta Van, Transit Van, Transit Minibus, Transit Connect and Transit Chassis Cab.

(There are some light commercials on that list too.)

The downsides are that my phone has to have Bluetooth activated (and to be discoverable – leaving me subject to potential bluejacking). There’s also a bit of an echo (on both ends of the call) – something I haven’t experienced with the fitted car kit I use with the Nokia in my normal car – but it’s not bad enough to be a problem and, most importantly, the road noise at 70mph didn’t seem to cause too big a problem whilst making a call.

Sony/Ford Audio System picking up contacts from somewhere - not sure where though!So, what doesn’t work with the iPhone? Despite the audio system somehow managing to detect a couple of my contacts (which I can then select by pressing a button to dial), the Bluetooth Voice Control doesn’t seem to be able to read the phone directory – but it does work if dial by number, as shown in the pictures below:

Ford Converse+ System and Bluetooth Voice Control

Call on iPhone placed using Ford Bluetooth Voice ControlCall on iPhone placed using Ford Bluetooth Voice Control

Also, it would be nice to make the car’s audio system play the music on my iPhone over Bluetooth – except that Apple hasn’t given us A2DP (stereo Bluetooth Audio), so to connect the iPhone to the stereo requires use of a standard 3.5mm headset cable to the Aux socket on the car’s audio system (unavailable on the car I tested because that has a DVD system installed in the front seat headrests instead).

As for whether I will lease this car… well, the jury’s still out on that one. It drives well and I get a lot of toys for my money but the VW Passat Estate, Audi A4 Avant (or possibly A6) and BMW 3 series touring are all on my shortlist. Does anyone know if the iPhone works with the built-in systems in these cars?