Tweaking audio and (webcam) video quality in Windows 10

Back in the spring (whilst I was on Furlough Leave and had time for weeknotes), I wrote about some upgrades to my home office. The LED lights didn’t work out (battery life was too short – I need to find something that works from mains power) so they went back to Amazon but the Marantz MPM-1000U microphone has been excellent.

I’ve seen a few tweets and videos recently about using software to use a smartphone camera as a webcam. Why might you do that? Well, because many laptop webcams are a bit rubbish (like the one in my Apple MacBook) or poorly placed, giving an unflattering view from below.

I had a play with the Iriun webcam software recommended in this video from Kevin Stratverdt and it worked really well, with the phone on a tripod, giving a better angle of view.

Ultimately though, the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 that I use for work has a pretty decent webcam, and my Nokia 7 Plus was no better quality – all I was really gaining was a better camera position.

I do still have a challenge with lighting. My desk position means that I’m generally back-lit with a north-facing window to my left. Some fill-in light in front might help but I also wanted to adjust the settings on my webcam.

Microsoft Teams doesn’t let me do that – but the Camera app in Windows 10 does… as described at Ceofix, there is a “Pro mode” in the Windows 10 Camera app that allows the brightness to be adjusted. There are more options for still images (timer, zoom, white balance, sensitivity, shutter speed and brightness) but the brightness option for video let me tweak my settings a little.

The next challenge I had was with audio. Despite using the volume controls on the Surface Pro to knock the volume up to 100% whilst I was presenting over Teams earlier, everyone else on the call sounded very quiet. It turned out that 100% was not 100% – there is a Realtek Audio Console app on my PC which, as well as letting me adjust the speaker and microphone settings, including volume, balance, Dolby audio, sample rate and depth. Finding this revealed that my volume was actually no-where near 100% and I was quickly able to increase it to a level where I could hear my client and co-presenters!

Some tips from my first few weeks with a GoPro Hero action camera

I’ve been interested in having a play with an action camera for a while now. I figure I can get some fun footage on the bikes, as well as ski-ing next winter, and I missed not having a waterproof camera when I was lake-swimming in Switzerland a few weeks ago!

So, when I saw that a contact who had upgraded to the Hero 5 was selling his GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition, I jumped at the opportunity.

My camera came to me with quite a few accessories and I picked up some more for not too much money at HobbyKing (shipped from China in 3 weeks – don’t pay GoPro prices for things like a tripod mount or a lens cover!).

Whilst getting used to the camera’s controls (oh yes, and opening the waterproof case for the first time), I came across some useful tips on the ‘net… including loads of videos from a guy called Bryn, whose new users guide was useful to make sure I had everything set up as I needed:

Once I had everything set up and a fast 64GB card installed, My first outing on a bike with the GoPro was helmet-mounted. That was OK, but it’s a bit weird having all that weight on your head and also not too handy for working out if the camera is running or not. Since then, I’ve got a bike mount so when my GoPro is mounted on my bike, I have it below the stem, which means technically it’s upside-down:

No worries – the Internet delivered another video telling me how to set the camera up for upside down recording:

One thing to watch out for is the battery life – don’t expect to be filling your memory card on a single battery – but it should last a while. It’s just that a GoPro isn’t going to work as a DashCam or similar (there are actually some good articles on the ‘net as to why you would probably want to use a specialist dashcam anyway – I have a NextBase 402G for that). Anyway, I don’t want to have to edit hours of footage so knowing I can only record a few minutes at a time is good for me (I have hours of recordings on MiniDV digital tape that have been waiting to be transferred to disk for years!).

I did recently use the GoPro to record some presentations at work: great for a wide angle view – but it got pretty warm being plugged into a power source the whole time (so again, a proper video camera would be the right thing to use – and don’t think about using a DSLR or a compact camera – I tried that too and they generally switch off after 20-30 mins to prevent overheating). One thing I found is that each video recorded on the GoPro is chopped into chunks of around 3.55MB (I was recording 1080p). The file naming is worth getting used to.

Each video uses the same number (0001, 0002, etc.) but you’ll find that the first one is named GOPR0001.MP4, the next is GP010001.MP4, then GP020001.MP4, etc. So, when selecting a group of files that relate to the same recording, look carefully at the index numbers (the date and time stamp should help too).

Also, depending on how you import the videos (i.e. copying directly rather than using an application like MacOS Image Capture), you may see some .THM and .LRV files. The GoPro support site explains that these are thumbnail and low-resolution video files respectively.

So, that’s a few things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and just a little bit of GoPro tinkering. Please leave a comment if you’ve anything more to add!

Using a VPN to watch ITV content outside the UK

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

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

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

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

“Where can I use a Hub+ subscription?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streaming video content from a PC to a smart TV with Windows 10 “Cast to Device”

I’m not massively into collecting and curating digital video content – I have some family movies, and I stream content from BBC iPlayer, Amazon Video, etc. – pretty normal stuff. Even so, there are times that I think I could use the tech available to me in a better way – and there are times when I find I can do something that I didn’t previously know about!

Today was one of those days, whilst I was studying for an exam and I wanted to watch some videos.  I wanted to be able to watch the videos in the comfort of my living room instead of on a PC and I was sure there must be a way. I had copies on my Synology NAS but, somewhat frustratingly, the Plex media server wasn’t picking them up (and I wanted to be watching the videos, not playing with Plex!).

Cast to Device in Windows 10

Then, when I right-clicked on a video file in Windows Explorer, I spotted an option to “Cast to Device” which included options for my Samsung TV and also my Bose speakers – though I think the choices will depend on the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) devices that are available on the local network. I selected the TV and found I could create a playlist of videos to watch in the comfort of my sofa – and, even better, the TV remote can be used to pause/resume playback (the PC was in a different room).

Cast to Device in Windows 10

Now I’m studying in comfort (well, maybe not – I gave up the sofa and lay on the floor with another PC to take notes!) and streaming media across the home network using Windows and DLNA.

Short takes: Grabbing streaming video; and installing troublesome Chrome apps

A few more snippets from my recent brushes with technology…

Grabbing a local copy of a Windows Media stream

I found myself watching a streaming video that I thought would be nice to take a copy of for posterity and it turns out it’s rather easy to grab a local copy of a Windows Media (WMV) stream using my old friend, wget.exe.

Simply download one of the many Windows-compiled versions of wget.exe, and supply the HTTP link as the source… a few minutes later you should have a copy of the file on your local hard disk.

Installing NPAPI plugins on Windows 8

I also needed to install BitTorrent Surf in Chrome on my Windows 8 machine (using BitTorrent is not illegal – using it to download copyrighted materials would be very naughty though).  Unfortunately the Chrome Web Store told me to get lost as BitTorrent Surf uses the Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface (NPAPI), which is deprecated.  Thankfully, there is a workaround, as described by John Bruer and you can run Chrome in Windows 7 compatibility mode to install the app with no intervention at all (although I used John’s blog post, I later found the same advice directly from BitTorrent).

Playing with video on the iPad

One of the great uses for the iPad is watching video.  Seriously, it’s a reasonably large display, held close to the user and, whilst it may not replace the big flat screen in the living room for family viewing, it’s more than good enough for catching up on the normal stuff.

Whilst I’m waiting for the BBC to release an iPlayer app for the iPad (iPlayer support is currently limited to streaming content), I have some video content that I’d like to catch up on whilst disconnected from the ‘net.  Unfortunately, my iPad didn’t want to play it… until I converted the video to a suitable format.

My first task was to use GSpot (on a Windows machine) to have a look at what codecs the file used.  It turned out to be an XviD video/MP3 audio file at 30fps in a .AVI container.

According to Apple’s technical specifications, the iPad can cope with:

Audio playback

  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
  • Audio formats supported: HE-AAC (V1), AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV
  • User-configurable maximum volume limit

TV and video

  • Support for 1024 by 768 pixels with Dock Connector to VGA Adapter; 576p and 480p with Apple Component AV Cable; 576i and 480i with Apple Composite AV Cable
  • H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to install additional codecs on the iPad (at least not on a non-jailbroken one), so the video needed to be converted to something that the iPad could handle.  To do this, I installed the DivX and XviD codecs on my Mac (although I should have just used Perian), and used Apple QuickTime Pro to export the video as an MP4… except it took ages and converted it to 4:3 ratio at a lower resolution and higher frame rate – not really the result I was after…

Then I remembered Handbrake.  Handbrake doesn’t have any iPad presets yet but Carson McDonald has created some and they worked brilliantly to create a suitable H.264/MP4 file (there’s also a thread on iPad encoding in the Handbrake Forums).

When it cames to getting the video onto the iPad, I had two options: drag the the video to iTunes and sync (it then appears in the iPad’s built in Videos app); or upload the file to Dropbox and access it that way (by marking the file as a favourite, Dropbox will cache it for offline access). Now I can catch up on my TV viewing whilst I’m disconnected.

I’m still waiting for BBC, Channel 4, et al to step up the mark with their apps though!

Another of my “How Do I?” videos available on the Microsoft TechNet website

Over the last couple of years, I’ve produced a few of the TechNet How Do I? videos for Microsoft and have linked to most (if not all) of them from this blog as they’ve gone live.

A few days ago, I was reviewing my community activities for the year and noticed one that had slipped through the net: running Hyper-V Server from a USB drive.

Unfortunately it doesn’t look as though I’ll be doing any more of these as the company I did the work through has lost the contract (and Microsoft produces a lot of this sort of content in house, reducing the scope for outsiders like me).  It was a nice gig, while it lasted – if a little time-consuming… hopefully the videos are useful to people!

Updating the software on a Humax PVR

A couple of weeks before Christmas, my wife expressed an interest in getting “on of those video recorder things” (and she didn’t mean a VHS recorder) as only I could work the Mac hooked up to the TV with BBC iPlayer on it (and anyway, iPlayer can be a little unreliable at times).  Realising that this was effectively a green light to purchase a gadget, I suggested that, if we were to get a personal video recorder (PVR), then Christmas would be the time when we would get a lot of use from it and I began to research the options.

We use digital terrestrial TV (Freeview) after an earlier attempt to use FreeSat became unreliable, and I knew that the Humax PVRs boxes were the ones to go for so, after a little crowdsourcing on Twitter, some Googling for reviews (like the one from Radio and Telly) and a shufti at the Which reviews, I decided to purchase a Humax PVR-9300T (the 320GB model was £169 at John Lewis although the price has since risen – other retailers may have been less expensive but I called the store to check/reserve stock and collected it within an hour or so of purchase).  Basically, this gives me two Freeview tuners so I can record on two channels and watch a third (as long as it’s on the same multiplex as one of the two that are recording) or play back something from the hard drive.

After two weeks of using it, I have to say that the 9300T has been great and I can’t believe we waited so long with a broken VCR and iPlayer.  Sure, the UI could be spruced up, but it seems to be functional and, most importantly, it’s easy for consumers to navigate (my wife is no technophobe but complexity is not good when you’re rushed off your feet with two small children and you just want to record/watch something on the telly); however I was disappointed to find that it locked up occasionally, requiring a power reset and sometimes resulting in missed recordings.

Checking the software version in the system status, I found that my PVR was running an old release (UPTTF 1.00.15 Dec 17 2008) and that Humax had released an update (UPTTF 1.00.18 Nov 12 2009) which includes a resolution to an intermittent lockup issue.  Over the air (OTA) updates didn’t work for me – as the Digital TV Group’s engineering channel was not playing the Humax updates at the time so I downloaded the update from the Humax website, along with Humax’s download tool (WDN4OAK+).  I also needed to find an RS232C (9 pin female-female) null modem cable to transfer the software to the PVR and a laptop computer with a serial port (I could have purchased a USB to RS232 converter) as well as an operating system that would run the Humax download tool (the installer is a 16-bit application so it failed on Windows 7 but ran OK on XP).  Armed with the necessary hardware and software I then:

  1. Connected the RS232C cable to the PVR and the serial port (normally COM1) on the PC
  2. Installed and ran the Humax download tool (WDN4OAK+)
  3. Selected the software update – in this case it was apps(UPTTF_10018)_LDR(a4_37).hdf
  4. Clicked Download
  5. At this point, nothing happened (except that the downloader will wait for a request!) until I powered on/off the PVR to start the update process.  I didn’t think this was particularly clear in Humax’s instructions, which is why I’m repeating the steps here).
  6. Waited for the PVR to update (it’s important not to interrupt power at this point – to either the PC or the PVR) – a progress bar is displayed on the PC, and the PVR display will show END when it is complete.
  7. Power cycled the PVR once the update had completed and closed the download tool on the PC.

Ever since I applied the update (which was over a week ago now) the PVR-9300T has seemed to be more reliable (no more lock-ups) although I have to say that this process is probably far from simple for less tech-savvy users (but full marks to Humax for making the necessary software available for download).

Two more of my “How Do I?” videos available on the Microsoft TechNet website

Last month I mentioned that my “how do I” video on backing up a Hyper-V host with SCDPM had made it onto the Microsoft TechNet website and recently I noticed that the follow-up on backing up Hyper-V using the tools within Windows Server (Windows Server Backup) is now live on the site too (as well as one on creating a cluster on Hyper-V, which I freely admit would be more useful if it was about creating a cluster of Hyper-V hosts… for which I didn’t have the hardware available…).

There are a whole bunch of guys working on videos like these and the good news is that Microsoft has commissioned more for 2009/10. So, if you’re looking for step-by-step information on perform some common tasks with Microsoft products, then it might be worth checking out the TechNet How Do I? videos.

Another one of my “How Do I?” videos makes it onto the Microsoft TechNet website

A couple of days back, I noticed that another one of my videos has made it onto the Microsoft TechNet website – this one looks at backing up a Hyper-V host using System Center Data Protection Manager 2007 SP1.

Those who’ve watched earlier videos may notice that the sound quality on this video is much improved as I finally bought myself a half-decent microphone. I’ve also dedicated a PC to the task of recording these videos (recommissioning my old Compaq DeskPro EN510SFF, which has been upgraded with a 250GB disk and 2GB of RAM, and more recently gained a Matrox Millennium G550 dual-display video card picked up for a few pounds on eBay). This machine is certainly no screamer but, as the videos are only recorded at 5 frames per second it’s perfectly capable of keeping up, although TechSmith Camtasia Studio falls over from time to time and the 2.4GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor does take a while to render the final output.

There are some more videos on the way as I’ve submitted three more that have yet to make it onto the TechNet site but, if you’re looking for step-by-step information on perform some common tasks with Microsoft products, then there are a whole bunch of guys working on these TechNet How Do I? videos and they’re definitely worth a look.