Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Moving to the Cloud

Posted on October 6th, 2016 in Technology | No Comments »

Well, hello again.

With my new life as a podcast producer, I seem to have next-to-no time available for blogging, and since the Oscars have been and gone (although they are coming up again soon) and we have no new series of Doctor Who this year, nothing has been drawing me towards the keyboard.

But, here’s a quick update regarding my digital entertainment.

We’re currently doing-up our loft, and planning on moving the TV upstairs and converting the existing TV room into a dining room. This means that there will be much less room for DVDs but of late I have found myself very reluctant to pick a DVD off the shelf, or even to buy a new movie on DVD. Buying on iTunes, or watching on Netflix just seems so much more convenient. Imagine having to get up, find a box, open the box, fish out the disc, open the drawer of the DVD player, put the disc in – Christ, it’s like the dark ages.

Surely, the right thing to do is to convert all of these existing DVDs to digital form and then play them back through the Apple TV…? Well, yeah.

Let’s look at what I wanted to achieve doing this.

  • Have copies of movies and TV shows I’ve bought on DVD available on my home network.
  • Preserve extra trailers, outtakes, documentaries.
  • Preserve commentary tracks, trivia subtitles and other elements in the main feature itself.
  • Be able to put all physical DVDs out of sight, out of mind, knowing I have high quality digital versions available on-demand.

Assuming disc space is no object (more on that later) one obvious solution would be to rip complete copies of the DVDs to .ISO files, maybe throwing away features I’m certain I don’t want, but preserving complete copies of the whole disc structure. This would mean that I definitely wasn’t trading down in terms of quality and the handful of discs which use wonky things like seamless branching would be viewable, but I don’t have an easy way of viewing those files with my current set-up.

Some time ago, a lot of my TV-watching was via a Windows Media Centre PC, connected to a NAS drive, and one reason why I didn’t jump to upgrade to an Apple TV was that this device had no ability to move files, even MP4s, from a NAS to the TV without going via a PC running iTunes, which firstly sounded a bit more Rube Goldberg than I wanted and secondly never actually worked whenever I tried it.

Acquiring the new fourth-generation Apple TV, with its emphasis on apps, also meant that much of my TV watching was via iTunes, Netflix or Hulu (since my Apple TV is firmly of the opinion that it is located somewhere in Delaware). So, I only fell back on downloaded files sent to my NAS when I couldn’t find the show or movie available to purchase or on a subscription anywhere. When this situation did arise, having tried a few different options, I settled on an app called Infuse which seemed very adept at not just playing back all sorts of files but downloading artwork and meta data too. However, Infuse is not at all willing to play back .ISO files (and in any case, part of the joy of this virtual library would be freedom from elaborate menus and unskippable copyright warnings) so some other system was going to be necessary.

When I asked Facebook friends what I should do, the most popular answer by far was Synology plus Plex. I had played around with Plex at the same time as I first installed Infuse, but it suffered from the same problem as the old Apple TV. Since my WD NAS drive is a fairly limited device, it can’t run the Plex software itself, which means I have to run Plex on my PC and then hook the Apple TV up to the PC and blah blah blah. Having looked into this further, the Synology plus Plex option does seem like the best choice, but fairly expensive; probably north of £500 (depending on the capacity and RAID option). I wanted to see if I could at least get started with what I had: my WD NAS drive and Infuse.

This brings up the issue of how to rip the DVDs and how to preserve all the features I wanted. Some years ago, when I regularly ripped DVDs to watch on my iPad (instead of downloaded content from iTunes) I remember having to choose exactly which audio and subtitle track I wanted (resulting in “burned-in” subtitles on the ripped file) but these days, it’s much easier to create MKV or MP4 files with multiple audio and subtitle tracks built in, and Infuse has no problem switching between these, so that part seemed covered. The final choice was whether to re-encode or not.

I downloaded Handbrake, which I’d used many times before, but always found it rather cryptic and awkward, and gave it Tim Burton’s Batman to play with. My laptop coughed and whirred for a very long time before eventually spitting out a very watchable 2Gb MP4 file complete with optional commentary track, which Infuse was delighted to display on my Apple TV (or indeed my iPad).

I then tried a much simpler-looking, although no less powerful, product called MakeMKV which has a very simple interface and which seems to chew through DVDs of all makes and stripes without a murmur. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t attempt to re-encode the video data on the DVD, it just pours it into the MKV container (again with whatever audio and subtitle tracks you want or don’t want). This results in a larger file, but also means that with my fairly inexpensive HP Envy laptop with its new USB3 DVD drive (twenty quid off Amazon) can create a movie file in about 20 minutes instead of the two hours it took Handbrake.

And now that Virgin Media have upgraded my equipment, and I have Wi-Fi through the whole flat instead of just within twenty yards of the router, throwing big files across the network is quick-and-easy too. It seems to work much better to rip the movie to my local disc and then copy it to the NAS, but the copying only takes an extra ten minutes and can be done while the next movie is ripping. I make folders on the NAS for each movie and add the special features that I want to the same folder and on Infuse, I can see the movie and the appropriate extra features all on one screen. Nice.

So, the process is underway, with a few caveats. Firstly, the movies I’m ripping are now around 4Gb in size (blu-rays can stay on the shelf for now) and my NAS is only 2Tb. So I may very well run out of space before I run out of movies (I have around 600 DVDs, many of which are box-sets, and that doesn’t include my complete set of Doctor Who DVDs). Buying a second similar NAS would be fine and inexpensive, but I would have to have some sensible way to decide what went on what drive because Infuse will not merge the two libraries.

Secondly, one NAS (or even two) and no RAID means no redundancy and no back-ups. If there’s a drive failure or a flood or a power surge, then all my work could be undone. Of course, I’ll still have the discs, but ripping them all is going to take months, maybe a year – not something I want to do twice. So, the long-term plan has to be some kind of Synology box or similar, but for now I’m just going to see how long it takes me to rip my current collection, while they are still conveniently close to hand.

Finally, ripping without re-encoding has generated a few special features which look nastily interlaced when played back via Infuse, but so far I’ve been able to deal with these by running them through Handbrake and it hasn’t affected any main features yet.

There will no doubt be Oscar reviews and previews soon.

UPDATED TO ADD

At the time of writing, I have got to H but that leaves out a lot of TV show box-sets, all the Disney animations and all the Doctor Who DVDs as well as the ones already downgraded to an overflow shelf, but things are going smoothly. It would be a huge bummer to lose all this work of course, and my new 6Tb WD MyCloud is still not a RAID system, so I currently have no back-ups save the discs themselves. However, in theory Amazon Drive offering literally unlimited cloud storage for £55pa is the answer. I say in theory because in practice, as soon as I began the back-up process, my Virgin router immediately killed my internet connection, even when I was throttling the upload bit-rate to a stupidly low level. The solution eventually became a new router (this one) with the Virgin “Super Hub” demoted to modem only. Now slinging big files around the network is even quicker, with the process of moving the 600Gb or so of files already ripped from one NAS to the other achieved overnight with Windows Explorer (definitely not the fastest way of doing it). And testing the upload to Amazon, it seems stable, but I’m going to focus on ripping for now, and make the uploading a separate (no doubt months-long) project.

One week with the Apple Watch

Posted on May 1st, 2015 in Technology | No Comments »

As my recent blog post related, I am an early adopter of new tech, although not always a bleeding-edge one. When it comes to Apple gear, I never owned an iPod Classic, Mini, Nano or Shuffle and the original iPhone seemed tremendously expensive and wildly limited. My path to Apple-dom started with the original iPod Touch which was a gateway device to the iPhone 3G and every iPhone since then. I also bought the original iPad, although very late in the day, and every iPad since, bar the most recent iteration. Obviously I was going to buy an Apple Watch.

Pre-purchase

Once the prices were announced, it was equally obvious that I was going to buy an Apple Watch Sport. Discounting the not merely ludicrous but actually demented Apple Watch Edition range, starting at eight grand, I rather fancied the black Apple Watch with matching link bracelet but as that was nine hundred quid, I decided to go for the more reasonably priced Apple Watch Sport with black band. Looking at band sizes and my relatively slender wrists, it seemed obvious that the smaller 38mm version was the one to go for. I fretted briefly about the possibly better battery life and higher resolution screen of the 42mm version, but decided it would probably be too big and so I saved myself the forty quid difference.

When 8:00am on 10 April arrived, I already had my preferred item saved as a favourite in the Apple Store app on my iPhone and so I was able to place my order immediately and I got my email confirmation at 8:03am and a shipping window of 24 April – 8 May (nobody got an earlier estimate that I know of).

Later that day I went down to the Apple Store on Regent Street for a try-on and a demo. After almost no queuing, the perky young Apple-thing there showed me the 42mm version first and I was immensely struck by how small it was. I was relieved to notice that it did not jut out from my wrist by half a mile (some of the photos make it look very thick) but troubled by the way it didn’t dwarf my arm. The 38mm was fine, but I started to worry even more about accurately hitting touch targets on a screen that small. Then she showed me the leather loop with its graceful magnetic closure and I began to worry that I should have hedged my bets by buying a smarter Apple band to go with my Sport watch. This particular band however is only available for the 42mm version. I could have bought the link bracelet separately, but not the black one and the silver one costs more than the Sport watch itself. The leather loop was only £109 though. Maybe I should switch to the 42mm item? Of course, by this time, the delivery estimate was “June” so I stayed pat.

Arrival

On 24 April, I had already seen that my Apple watch was “out for delivery” so I tried to not start any long projects at work in order that I could instantly set whatever I was doing aside to play with my new device. Around 1:30pm, I nipped out for lunch, almost assuming it would arrive in my absence. By 4:00pm I was quite annoyed by its continued non-arrival. At 5:30pm, my office building was locked up for the night, so I waited outside until at 6:10pm I saw a UPS van apparently driving straight past. I flagged down the callow driver and retrieved my bounty.

The Apple Watch Sport is delivered in a narrow white plastic box in which the watch lies in repose at full stretch. Also inside the box is a longer band (or one half of a longer band), a magnetic charging cable and a USB power adapter which in the UK version is equipped with very nifty folding pins which snap up and down in a very satisfying manner. Setting the watch up first requires “pairing” it with an iPhone. The phone’s camera records an intricate swirling pattern on the face of the watch which mysteriously identifies it and then you need to wait about 15 minutes for information from your phone to sync over to the watch.

watch

Once on my wrist, futile dreams of a bigger version melted away. I haven’t tried on the 42mm version since, but the 38mm version now looks just right to me. And since with a skinny wrist comes slender fingers, I’ve had no trouble whatever with hitting touch targets on the screen. I still yearn for that impossibly elegant leather loop, but I’ve got a red leather strap and a black link bracelet coming soon, courtesy of this Kickstarter project at a cost of $150 the pair. Also, this cheap-and-cheerful “Night Stand” dock for bedside charging.

The sport band has proved tricky for some people to put on and take off. What works for me is holding the near side of the strap between my thumb and forefinger, and dragging the far side of the strap into place with my middle fingertip lodged in the hole. What’s neat is that if you password-lock the watch, it stays unlocked until you take it off your wrist, whereupon it locks again. Nifty!

Using the Apple Watch

Reviews of the Apple Watch so far have centred on three main themes. Firstly battery life, which in my case has proven to be ample. In the seven days I’ve had it on my wrist, I’ve only run it down to zero once and that was on day one when it was delivered at 60% charge and I played with it almost constantly until midnight when it died. Every day since, I strapped it on my wrist somewhere between 8:00am and 10:00am and I’ve always had more than 30% left when I’ve taken it off sometime after midnight. The combination of the AMOLED screen and the wake-on-raise seems to work great.

That’s theme number two – wake-on-raise. Lifting my wrist to look at the time makes the watch come on. This works 99 times out of 100 for me and seems perfectly natural. I’ve almost never had an issue with it not turning on when I want, and the lack of a backlight means that it’s fine to give it a subtle glance in a theatre or cinema without a glowing column of light emanating from my seat and annoying other people.

Theme number three is trickier. What is it good for? Okay, let’s start with the obvious. It keeps perfect time and has a number of excellent options for watch faces all of which are customisable. I started with the “Modular” option but I really want the time to go in the big space in the middle, and this is not available, so for now I’m using the “Utility” face which is a bit smarter. For the time being, Apple is forbidding third-party faces, but this will probably come at some point.

watch faces

The key thing to understand about the Apple Watch is that it isn’t a computer on your wrist. Not really. It’s a companion to your iPhone and can’t do a lot without your iPhone there. That may seem limiting, and it is, but let’s remember that this is a first generation device. Just as the iPhone was once dependent on a computer running iTunes, but no longer has any need of such a thing, so I imagine will the Apple Watch develop more and more independence from the iPhone as the generations roll by.

It might be worth remembering just how limited the original iPhone was. The first-gen iPhone had…

  • No GPS, digital compass or gyroscope
  • No 3G (so no Internet while talking)
  • No front-facing camera (and only a 2MP camera on the back, with no flash and no ability to record video)
  • No voice control (not just no Siri)
  • A meagre 4Gb storage in the base model
  • And – unbelievably! – no third party apps. You could make calls, browse online and play music. That’s your lot.

Next to this, the first-gen Apple Watch looks pretty capable.

Here’s a quick list of some ways I’ve found it useful and some frustrations I’ve had.

Taking calls. Walking down the street, with my phone in my pocket, listening to a podcast or audio book (a very common procedure for me), I can now see who is calling by glancing at my wrist, so I can decide whether or not to take the call and if so how I should answer it. You can take the call on the watch, and yell into the back of your arm to talk to the other person, but I normally just click the button on my headphones. At first it seemed to me that if I did tap the watch to answer the call instead I had no way of transferring it to the phone. In fact “handoff” works the same way with phone calls as it does with other apps. Having answered the call on your watch, you should see the handoff icon in the bottom left corner of your iPhone’s lock screen. Slide up and you can transfer the call to your phone.

Walking directions are a great experience with the Apple Watch. The “taptic engine” taps me on the wrist to let you know a turn is coming and a glance at the watch confirms I am taking the right road. Now my podcast listening is no longer interrupted by spoken directions and I don’t have to dig the phone out of my pocket to make sure I’m going the right way. You even get different taps for turn left and turn right.

Another frequent situation for me is sitting at work, listening to something while my phone sits in its dock. Being able to stop and start the audio by sliding up the audio controls glance is very handy, and in general notifications work fine (a handy and discrete little red dot at the top of the display lets you know that unread notifications are present) although many are frustratingly limited. Facebook notifications come through for example, but there’s no way to get more information than so-and-so updated their status. Sometimes the opposite is true. Despite there being no dedicated Any.do watch app, when tasks fall due I can snooze them or make them completed straight from the notifications area of the watch. There are some bizarre gaps as well. There is no Apple Watch reminders app anywhere, but you can set new reminders on the watch and you will be notified when reminders fall due. You can’t see a list of current reminders anywhere however.

The watch UI is not always as intuitive as it could be. The digital crown works well, but I have to keep reminding myself to scroll using that rather than swiping with my finger. The side button is mainly used to access a ring of 12 favourite contacts. It isn’t possible to access this any other way, nor is it possible to program that button to do anything else. Holding this button down gives you access to shut-down options (hard to guess that) and holding it down again force-quits the current app (impossible to guess that). The other mode of interaction is the force touch which is used mainly as a sort-of right click. Force touching on notifications allows you to clear them all, which is handy, but once again very hard to discover by accident.

Other apps work okay – when they work. Ordering a Hailo cab on my watch was smooth enough, and saved me getting up to fetch my watch from the other room. Despite some advance word to the contrary however, the watch does need to be within Bluetooth range of the phone to do anything useful. Being on a familiar wifi network is not enough. This really should be addressed sooner rather than later.

What’s more problematic is the slowness of many apps to respond. The genuinely useful-to-have-on-the-wrist bus checker app has never actually launched before the bus has arrived, despite half-a-dozen trials. Even on familiar wifi networks or in 4G areas, a great many apps take longer to load than the screen will stay on for, which is not a good experience. Hopefully a software fix which caches better or works more efficiently is coming.

I haven’t used many of the fitness functions yet. I get nagged to stand up once in a while but I haven’t done anything as foolish as go for a run yet. I imagine they work fine – although once again please note there is no GPS in the watch, so you still need to take your phone with you if you want to track your route. Replying to text messages works great, with the canned responses often appropriate and Siri working extremely well otherwise. And I still get a little living-in-the-future thrill from adjusting my Hue lights from my watch.

Overall, then for £300 and for a first-gen device I’m pretty pleased. The Apple Watch is attractive, comfortable, useful and fun. It still needs work, and in particular it needs to start developing independence away from the iPhone – for speed more than anything else – but it’s a terrific start and I’m very happy to own one. I’m already looking forward to the second generation model, which will be half the thickness, twice the speed, with a camera for wrist-based Facetiming, have its own onboard GPS and third party watch faces. And of course, by selling my first-gen model, I’ll get if for £200 off.

My Life in Tech – or The Unexpected Virtue of Apple-ness

Posted on February 27th, 2015 in Technology | 1 Comment »

Are you thinking about the Apple Watch?

Wait, let me start at the beginning.

motorola_memphis_mr2011997 was a vastly different time. Yes, email had been around for a while (I had my first email account at university in 1990) but the Internet wasn’t anything like the all-pervading force it is today. I accessed the Internet via a dial-up modem (which stopped other people in the house from using the telephone). I used it mainly to access bulletin boards like CiX, since the World Wide Web was in its infancy. I wouldn’t make my first purchase on Amazon until October 1998. I wouldn’t upload my first website until 1999. Paypal was a year away. YouTube was eight years away. Public access to Facebook was nine years away. Twitter was inconceivable. And my first mobile phone looked something like this.

The battery life was pretty good, and it made phone calls and sent new things called SMSes or “text messages”. Mobile phones had only recently stopped being the preserve of yuppies and had also recently stopped being the size (and weight) of housebricks. They were fairly expensive to own and to use, however, and so my wife and I ended up sharing this one. It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally got my own, which by now looked something like this.

nokia3310It was also in 2000 that I bought a PDA (personal digital assistant) for the first time. I’d been tempted by a Psion Organiser in the 1980s but I couldn’t afford one that was actually any good. By now, Psion was in decline and Palm was the new market leader.

Palm had introduced the original Palm Pilot in 1996. This digital calendar, phone book, eBook reader, notepad and calculator used a stylus to enter data via a simplified alphabet called Graffiti, but early models – although impressive for the time – were very expensive.

m100_bigWhen Palm released the Palm m100, I had to have it. It cost around a hundred quid, was powered by two AAA batteries and it had to be synced to a computer to get updated information on to it (a service called AvantGo synced and cached stripped-down web-pages for later reading on-the-go). It rapidly took over my life.

tungstenOver time, I went through several generations of Palms, culminating in the Palm Tungsten TX which finally got rid of the dedicated Graffiti area (which accepted input from the stylus but which couldn’t display anything), had a colour screen (320×480) and Wi-Fi – but still no cellular connectivity. I got mine around 2006 and its vibrant app development community meant there was precious little it couldn’t do.

Sony_Ericsson_K810i_front (1)I still had a mobile phone at this point which by now looked something like this. For a while, I had an MP3 player as well but later Palms which accepted SD cards eventually took over this role.

Why so many devices? Obviously, I knew that objects existed which combined the functions of phone and PDA into a single device, but Palm Treos and Compaq iPAQs seemed somehow clunky to me, certainly physically if not in terms of software, and I’d got really used to my Sony Ericsson and my Palm Tungsten and didn’t really see a compelling reason to drop either.

I’d also stopped using Apple products since giving up being a graphic designer. At one point my desk at work had a Mac for Photoshop and QuarkXPress and a Windows PC for coding and I was running both of them off one giant monitor. Now, I was working from home and I’d scaled my home computer down to a laptop and relegated my Windows PC to the role of media centre. I’d played with iMacs and been impressed at how pretty they were, but Apple was a niche player as far as I could see, and I wasn’t in that niche.

It’s worth pausing just for a moment here to look at where Palm stood at this point. They were the market leaders in PDAs, largely because of the enormous variety of apps available. Even as far back as 2000, usability guru Jakob Neilsen had noted that what he called the “deck of cards form-factor” was far superior to the “candy bar” format of most “feature phones”. Palm was surely poised to dominate the fast-approaching smartphone revolution. Weren’t they?

Well, I might not have been using Apple products regularly, but I certainly sat up and took notice when Beaming Steve unveiled the original iPhone in June 2007. Clearly this was an amazing device, but as someone who’d never even owned an iPod, I didn’t have any brand loyalty to Apple and all I could see were the flaws. No 3G, which meant sluggish Internet, and you couldn’t surf and talk at the same time. No apps, so you couldn’t find nifty new software like I could on my Palm. No expandable storage. And – ouch – that price! When O2 announced it for sale to UK consumers in November, I just continued with my Wi-Fi Palm Tungsten and my T-Mobile Sony Ericsson candy bar phone.

However, when the far cheaper iPod Touch was announced in 2007, I was suddenly convinced, and got Deborah to buy me one in the States where she was visiting friends and send it home to me. I abandoned my Palm, downloaded iTunes and bought a bunch of CDs to rip in order to use it to its fullest. Suddenly my crummy Tungsten with its fiddly stylus seemed like Stone Age technology. But worse was to come for Palm.

foleoAlso, in 2007, Palm announced what amounted to a new category of devices – the Palm Foleo. This amazingly small and light personal computer had a full-sized keyboard and a 10 inch screen. Today we’d say it looks a little like a netbook and a little like a Microsoft Surface. What it didn’t have was 3G connectivity, but you could pair it with your Treo and download email on the go.

Apple should have been worried. Blackberry – who owned corporate-email-on-the-go at this point – should have been worried. But if you’re wondering why you never saw any of these Foleos in the wild, it’s because three months after announcing it – and before it had shipped a single unit – Palm cancelled the project altogether. From there, Palm spiralled into take-overs, functional divisions and ultimately irrelevancy as Apple seized the initiative.

When the refreshingly affordable iPhone 3G was announced in 2008, I needed no more persuading. My iPod Touch had become invaluable. I had “jailbroken” it so I could install apps, I was subscribing to a bunch of podcasts and listening to audio books, and I was sick of having to try and find Wi-Fi hotspots before I could check my email or browse the web. I paid off T-Mobile, abandoned my Sony Ericsson candybar phone and I was all-in with Apple.

The rest is pretty much as you might expect. I have bought every model of iPhone since – Apple products keep their value surprisingly well, so I can often very nearly subsidise the entire cost of the upgrade by selling the old model on eBay. I bought the original iPad, then fell in love with the smart cover on the iPad 2, then felt I needed the retina display on the iPad 3 and then finally wanted to get an iPad with a lightning connector, so I got the iPad Air. I didn’t get the iPad Air 2, as the only reason to upgrade that I could see was Touch ID, which is nice and all, but I’m saving up for…

The Apple Watch.

Okay, so – to be clear – this is almost certainly a bad idea. The first generation Apple Watch, like the 2G iPhone and the inch-thick 2010 iPad is likely to be a lavishly-priced prototype rather than the real deal. The inevitable Apple Watch 2 is no doubt going to be half the thickness, have twice the battery life and provide intimate massages on demand but – I can’t wait. I want to test this thing out, and I’m getting itchy. We’re told that it will be out in “early 2015” which has now been clarified to “April” (which I guess is early 2015, but it’s certainly late early 2015). If it goes on-sale Friday 24 April, say, that means we can expect an event of some kind week beginning 6 April 2015, so we should be hearing something around the end of March. (Updated to note – we learned yesterday, 26 February, that the event will be held on 9 March, which suggests a slightly earlier ship date.)

At the moment we don’t really know what kind of money we’re going to have to plunk down. Apple has said prices will start at $349 which probably works out as something between £279 and £319 when you factor in VAT. But is that for the watch, and then your choice of strap is extra? Or do all the combos on the Apple website represent different SKUs? And if they do, will you be able to also buy extra straps? What does $349 get you? The stainless steel model or only something in the aluminium “Sport” range? Just the luminous plastic strap, or something fancier like the Link Bracelet or the Milanese Loop? Will it be out in the UK in April, or do we have to wait? (Ominously, the US Apple web site says “Coming early 2015” but the UK Apple web site says “Available in 2015”.)

And when it is finally available, what do I want? Previously, it was an easy choice (“the black one with the most storage, please,”) but this is a fashion accessory and Apple has provided a bewildering array of possible options. My skinny wrist probably means the 38mm model is the one to go for (even though that means fewer pixels, not just a physically smaller screen). I would ideally like the Black Stainless Steel model with the Link Bracelet, but I’m not paying £700 for the privilege. If the Watch Sport range is the only one which is remotely affordable, then I guess it will have to be the Space Grey Aluminium with Black Fluroelastomer band. The 18 carat gold models are clearly meant only for demented millionaires, in which category I do not alas qualify – some estimates put the price as high as $20,000!

And if it is US only, I may be looking into one of those services which provides you with a US postal address and then ships the goods on to you. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Media Centre update

Posted on January 9th, 2014 in Technology | 1 Comment »

My approach to obtaining television material to watch is currently undergoing a significant change, but before we get there, it might be as well to update you as to the continuing evolution of my set-up since I last wrote about this subject a little over three years ago.

First to go was the £30 remote which utterly failed the Wife Compatibility Test. It’s replacement, a Logitech Harmony One for £150, with its snazzy touch-screen, was deemed more suitable, but when repeated harsh treatment bust the snazzy touch-screen it was replaced with an even snazzier Harmony Touch and then more recently a Harmony Ultimate which allows for control of devices hidden in a wooden cabinet and also controls my Philips Hue lights.

When we moved into our new flat, a number of other changes took place. We got our own Sky dish nailed to the outside wall, avoiding all of those tedious single feed issues. I bought a cheap-and-cheerful Sony Blu-Ray/AV receiver which generally did a much better job of filling the room with 5.1 sound and so I eventually took the step of consigning the wheezing, puffing Windows Media Centre PC to the scrap-heap. Having experimented with a WD Live box which was hugely reluctant to access the files on my NAS drive reliably, I ended up with a Boxee Box shortly before they were discontinued. Despite the fact that no further updates will be forthcoming, I have yet to find online evidence of a device which will do a better job of getting a variety of video files off my NAS and on to my TV.

So, let’s recap. I want to accomplish three things. Watch DVDs and Blu-Rays. Watch broadcast TV (and time-shift it). Watch video downloaded from the Internet. The first two are easily covered by the Sony and Sky boxes respectively and the Harmony remote takes care of selecting all the right inputs. Let’s have a little talk about downloads.

Most of the shows I’m watching at the moment come from the USA and not all are promptly broadcast in the UK. Not just the premium “box set” dramas like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Masters of Sex but also mainstream network dramas like The Good Wife, sit-coms like Parks and Recreation and Community, and even some reality shows like Mythbusters or Kitchen Nightmares. It’s a complete lottery which of these will turn up on any of the various Sky channels, even though Sky’s On Demand service makes it easy to catch up on what you’ve missed.

Enter BitTorrent and, in particular TVTorrents.com. Within a couple of hours of the latest episode of Modern Family airing, a copy will be available on the site in your choice of compact .mp4 or hi-def .mkv file. I have an RSS feed set up with my favourite shows on it, so my laptop downloads the torrent file automatically, usually overnight, copies it over to my NAS drive, where the Boxee finds it, identifies it and adds it to the list of shows, downloading the episode title and synopsis, all ready for me to watch it that evening.

Now, Modern Family airs on ABC in the states which arrives free in people’s homes. So I’m not really depriving anyone of an income here, am I? True, I get an ad-free version, but I would skip the ads if I recorded it legally anyhow. Is this a crime? What about True Blood which airs on HBO in the states? Well, I would give HBO money to let me watch their shows if I could but they aren’t interested in taking it, so what choice to I have? Wait a year for the box set to come out? C’mon.

Of course, I could go to iTunes instead, but UK iTunes doesn’t have a complete (enough) library of these shows either. So, I’ll stick with the torrenting, please and thank you.

However, some notable torrent sites have bit the dust recently, and so it occurred to me to wonder what I would do if TVTorrents were just to disappear one day – in the middle of a particularly gripping storyline in Orphan Black, say.

Okay, now enter Netflix.

It certainly was convenient that the final half-season of Breaking Bad was on UK Netflix. But I didn’t have an easy way of getting it on my TV. Hooking up my iPad to the TV was possible, but not convenient and didn’t always work (seemed to be much more reliable with my iPad 3rd gen than my iPad Air – not sure why). So I tended just to torrent it and watch it via the Boxee anyway.

But that wasn’t an option for the various Netflix original series – Arrested Development, House of Cards and best of all Orange is the New Black. And while it’s fun to snuggle in bed watching on an iPad, sometimes you want to take advantage of that big screen out there. And none of my existing devices – TV, AV receiver, Boxee, Sky – had Netflix built in. They all had streaming services of some sort, but not that one. Was it worth buying an Apple TV just for Netflix?

Well, I waited a while, but when at the last Apple event no update was released and Apple was knocking out the most recent model for £75 I went for it, using up the last remaining HDMI input on my TV and having to use an optical cable to get the sound to run through the AV receiver.

It’s very nice. Slick, fast and I have AirPlay back (which an update to the Boxee mysteriously killed) which means that when some of the various automated virtual moving parts in the TVTorrents – RSS feed – uTorrent – RoboBasket – NAS Drive – Boxee system fail, I can AirPlay from the iPad to the TV instead. Nice.

And – oh yes – I can get iTunes content on the TV now without having to hook up the iPad. Hmm…

So – here’s the thing. Only about a quarter of the American shows I watch regularly are broadcast on UK TV in a reasonable timeframe. But only about a third are available to buy on iTunes UK. Now, I’ve had a US iTunes account for ages (I wanted to download the Movie Trailers app which bizarrely wasn’t available in the UK app store. I think it is now.) although it doesn’t have a credit card associated with it. The reason being that while iTunes was perfectly happy to accept the fake address in Florida I gave it, I have no credit card registered at that address to assign to the account.

Surely there would be some way of getting cash in there? Actually, there is. There are plenty of services which will sell you US iTunes gift cards, and these can be delivered on-line giving you a line of credit to make purchases from the US store with. Now downloading the latest series of The Big Bang Theory is as quick and easy as a few clicks and my Rube Golderg torrent/NAS/Boxee system is starting to look obsolete. I’ve finally upgraded my home broadband to Virgin fibre-optic, so now I hardly have to wait before the episodes start streaming in full HD. And while I don’t have copies stored locally, I have access on my TV or any other i-device whenever I want and I can always download there if I need to.

Actually, that isn’t quite true. This is the most tedious part of a quite laborious post, but I’ll try and make it brief. The Apple TV, which only streams and does not store anything, is perfectly happy for me to have many iTunes accounts and lets me flick between them at will. My iPad however insists that it be “registered” to one account or the other and I can only change this every 90 days. While it’s “registered” to my UK iTunes account I can still buy individual episodes or movies or movie rentals on the iPad from the US store, but I can’t download items previously purchased and that includes newly-released episodes where I’ve bought a “season pass”. After some reluctance, I took the plunge and switched my iPad to the US store, leaving my laptop set up on the UK store (so I can download items previously purchased there and sync them to the iPad if need be).

Almost all my shows are now available to me, at a cost of between $20 and $50 per year, which I can live with, and I now have the benefit of being able to flip between the Apple TV and the iPad without losing my place. Neat. There are a couple of exceptions – US iTunes seems very slow to get Game of Thrones but Sky Atlantic doesn’t hang about so no problem there. And Saturday Night Live is only carried in an expurgated version, but honestly it’s so hit-and-miss I think I can do without seeing every single minute.

Telling the Apple TV I am using an American iTunes account also causes US apps to pop up, but these are largely useless. There’s an HBO app, but unless I can give it details of my US cable provider, no soup for me. What’s curious is the different ways in which different providers assess your location. iTunes only cares about the source of funding. Got an American credit card? Here, have access to the US store. Netflix on the other hand only cares about where you physically are on the planet. Set up a UK Netflix account and then take your iPad to the states and you will suddenly get access to the American version.

But, as I already know from using a VPN to get access to iPlayer in Europe, it’s not difficult to fool these apps into thinking that you are somewhere you are not. I wonder about the Apple TV Hulu Plus app…? With a bit of help from Unlocator.com, I had changed the DNS settings on the Apple TV and bingo! I was able to sign up for Hulu Plus at just $7.99 per month (via my US iTunes account) and get access to about half of my favourite shows including full episodes of SNL. There are unskippable ads, but they don’t last very long.

I lose the ability to download a show and take it with me, but if I opt to watch Community via Hulu and then want to take an episode on a plane, I can always pay $1.99 to download that locally on to my iPad.

Obviously this is more expensive than the torrent solution, but I feel better about giving something back to the content creators, even if I’m not always doing it in the way they want me to. And I do feel less at the mercy of the MPAA. Of course, I am now at the mercy of Apple and Hulu instead. But maybe that’s a subject for a future post.

In the meantime – that’s my new system. I’ll let you know how it pans out…

Let There Be Light

Posted on October 31st, 2012 in Technology | 1 Comment »

The website Kickstarter has been coming in for a bit of a, well, kicking recently.

On its face, it seems like a marvellous idea. Launched in 2009, it’s a crowd-sourcing platform, initially focused on creative or artistic enterprises but increasingly with a heavy gadget and especially iOS bias. In case you don’t know, here’s how it works.

I am an inventor, artist or other creative individual and I have thought of a thing. Ideally, I’ve reality-checked it, prototyped it, got it to the point where I can explain it, demonstrate it or pitch it. If I knew that there were 10,000 people out there who would all pay $50 to buy one, or come and see it, or download it, then I would know that the income would be there to justify a full production run, or staging it, or producing it. But I don’t have the funds right now to start that process, making me somewhat stuck.

Enter Kickstarter. You describe your project and set levels at which people can invest. Back the project for $50 and when it’s ready, you’ll get one, or a ticket, or a download. If I get enough people promising their money by the deadline, then credit cards are charged and I get the cash to start making my dream a reality (after Kickstarter gets its cut) and then pretty soon you should get what you’ve paid for. If not enough people invest, then nobody pays anything and I’ve done some pretty useful market-testing which may be enough to convince me to abandon the project.

I’ve got at least one really excellent product through Kickstarter – my Zooka Wireless Speaker bar which connects to my iOS device (see?) by Bluetooth and amplifies my music or video soundtracks. But I’ve also got carried away once-or-twice. “Wow, shooting 360 degree video on an iPhone – that is so cool. Here’s $40!” (Six months later) “Why has somebody sent me this useless piece of plastic in the post? What? Shooting 360 degree video on my iPhone? When would I ever want to do that?”

But that’s not the worst problem with Kickstarter, not the problem which has forced the site to substantially change its rules recently. With my Zooka, I plunked down my money and some months later, I received the speaker bar I wanted in the mail. Just like shopping on Amazon, if Amazon’s warehouse was on Mars.

But Kickstarter is not a shop. You aren’t buying a product, you are investing in an idea that might eventually turn into a product, but equally might all go up in smoke.

Kickstarter’s biggest success in terms of funding to date has probably been the Pebble. This smart watch with an e-ink display pairs with your iPhone, so with your phone in your pocket you can see who is calling you, get calendar alerts, see email messages and so on. It launched in April 2012 with a funding target of $100,000 and has actually raised over $10m, but despite an estimated ship-date of September 2012, so far no-one has actually got their $99 watch yet. And they may never.

So, in September, when I saw the Kickstarter campaign for the LIFX WiFi LED light bulb I was excited but also cautious. When we bought our new flat, we had all the wiring and lighting redone. We had hoped to get dimmable bulbs everywhere, but of course, we also often wanted one bulb operated by two switches and (apparently) you can’t have two dimmer switches operating one bulb or the fight each other and then your house burns down (or something). So we have several lights which are operated by one dimmer and one (or more) on-off switch. Workable, but not ideal.

The LIFX bulb solves this problem at a stroke. These LED bulbs can each be set at any brightness – and any colour!! – and you control them from your iPhone. Neat, huh? Of course, they’re expensive – around £50 each, and for our whole flat we’d probably need at least eight, maybe more.

So, after some discussion, I theorised as follows. Committing to buying eight bulbs now means that by the time they eventually show up (supposedly around March 2013), I may have less enthusiasm for the project, or have found another solution. In that time, various problems may or may not come up – the bulbs may be dim, or unreliable, or the software flaky or who know what. WiFi LED light bulbs may end up being a “thing”, they may go mainstream or they may not. If they do, then in time the price will come down and the technology will improve. If not, I’ve bought a lemon.

Shortly after I decided not to invest, LIFX was one of a number of Kickstarter projects identified as being particularly likely to be problematic in articles such as this one from Reuters. Now Kickstarter has substantially changed the rules making it harder for pure “vapourware” products to swallow up large sums of other people’s money as they evaporate away.

Having mentally shelved the WiFi LED light bulb project, I was most startled when all over my favourite blogs and websites two days ago I saw an announcement from Philips that they had an essentially identical product called Hue which would be available exclusively through the Apple Store the next day.

The price is basically the same – £50 per bulb, £179 for the “starter kit” containing three bulbs and the “bridge” which connects them to your home WiFi network (the LIFX version doesn’t need the separate bridge which is neater and tidier, but may make initial configuration more fiddly). The bulbs are sleeker without the heat-dissipating fins which make the LIFX bulbs look a little odd, but they’re only available with Edison Screw E27 fittings, so if you have bayonet or downlight fittings, you need an adaptor. But crucially, you can go into the Apple Store and pick them up right now, today and put them in your home (but not buy them online, yet, for some reason). [UPDATE: You can now buy them on-line.]

So I stopped off at Ryness to buy some B22-E27 adaptors and then took myself to Regent Street, walking out of the Apple Store minutes later with a very handsomely presented box. Installation couldn’t have been much easier. Like WPS WiFi systems, the bridge has a physical button on it, so you connect it to your router with the cable provided and then push the button to connect it to your iPhone. Instantly I had full control over all three bulbs.

The software is a little clunky at present (LIFX’s software looks more fully-featured, but of course it doesn’t actually exist yet, so…). In particular, it is very focused on using colour from images to create lighting effects (or “scenes”) which is surely a niche application. Nonetheless, after a bit of messing around, I was able to create some suitable presets, such as a dim warm glow in the bedroom for going to sleep, or a nice bright clean light for reading in the living room. I was even able to create a single button to simultaneously dim the light in the TV room, and turn the light next-door off (for fear of it casting a reflection on the TV screen). Three bulbs is not of course enough, but as a proof-of-concept, I’m sold. We’ll give it a few more days to see how we get on and then stick a few more in.

If you turn a bulb off at the wall, you can’t then turn it back on again with the app – you’ve cut power to the WiFi electronics – but if you then turn it back on again, it returns with a standard warm glow and near maximum brightness, which means it’s always possible to override the tech if need be. A good solution.

Are they remotely worth the price though? Well, being LED bulbs they should last around 15 years. An old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, costing maybe £1.50, will last about six months. So you can easily spend £40 over a 15 year span. Of course, who knows if WiFi will even exist in 2027, but at least I’m not going to be chucking my £50 bulb in the bin this time next year. They’re also energy-efficient, drawing less than 9 watts of power, while creating the equivalent light of a 50w incandescent bulb.

For completeness, a Halogen bulb will last twice as long as an incandescent bulb but might cost twice as much. An LED bulb without the WiFi-ness will cost around £25-£30 and will presumably last as long as the Hue bulbs do.

iPad Accessory Round-up

Posted on August 31st, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

As long-term readers may recall (oh, the delusion!), my primary “use case” for my iPad is entertainment on long journeys – videos, ebooks, games (music is more convenient on my iPhone). The longer the journey, the harder it is to manage two key elements, especially where video is concerned: having a long enough battery and having enough choice.

Let’s take choice first. Depending on what kind of iPad you’ve bought, you’ll have 16Gb, 32Gb or 64Gb of storage. Once you’ve installed a few apps, a few ebooks and a few videos, you may find that even 64Gb is gobbled up quite quickly. As a f’rinstance, as each Doctor Who DVD comes out, I rip it in an iPad-friendly resolution (with commentary and trivia text turned on, naturally) and stick it in iTunes to watch at a later date. I’ve got about half-a-dozen I have yet to watch and a new one comes out almost every month. Sometimes more than one, if it’s a boxed set. Each one takes up around 1.5Gb. Add some iTunes movies, some other DVD-rips and pretty soon I’m looking for external storage. Other (lesser) tablets let you plug SD cards or even USB sticks straight in but the iPad is pickier, sad to say.

When I bought my iPad I had the foresight to get the Camera Connection Kit to go along with it. This dongle plugs into the dock connector and then accepts a USB connection to a camera or an SD Card. Images and crucially videos can then be copied off the card for viewing on the iPad. Copied off, notice, so there needs to be room (but existing videos in your library can be deleted to make room).

However, the source and the files need to look exactly like they’ve come off a camera. This means a folder structure something like this DCIM » 100DICAM and then giving every file an 8.3 filename. So your copy of Casablanca needs to be renamed CASABLAN.M4V, or on a really bad day DCM_0001.M4V. Worse, this filename is not visible when you inspect the SD card from within the Photos app – all you have to go on is thumbnail, often black. And folder structures are ignored. Still, it’s a cheap solution, especially if you have some SD cards lying around, and once you’ve copied the right file over, watching from within the Photos app is fine, if a little weird – why can’t I copy it to my media library? Better still, why isn’t the “Open With” option available so I can open a video file in any format using an app like AVPlayerHD.

Other options exist. For a while, I was considering an AirStash. This is a wireless transmitter for the contents of an SD Card which works with a companion iPad app. It’s not expensive, only $100, but hard to get in the UK without the help of Bundlebox and crucially the battery only lasts five hours without a recharge (and you can’t transmit from it while it’s recharging).

In the end, I wound up getting a 320Gb Hyperdrive for $200 which has turned out to share many of the same limitations as the Camera Connection Kit option, but thankfully not all. It’s a kludge of the Camera Connection Kit software, “fooling” the iPad into thinking that it’s importing files from a camera and although it again denies you access to filenames, and tends to provide only black thumbnails, you can have folders and sub-folders on the disk and navigate through them, so I’ve just put each file in a folder which identifies it. I copied my iTunes movie folder on to it, and most movies were already in an appropriately-named folder which saves time. With TV series box-sets, it was a bit more laborious. I had to create a folder called Breaking Bad S2, and then 13 sub-folders, each called Breaking Bad 2.x, each with one episode in. Sounds tedious, but actually it only took a minute or two. When plugged in to a laptop, the Hyperdrive behaves like any other USB drive. Plugged into the iPad with a mini-USB lead, via the Camera Connection Kit – take note, it takes 4-5 minutes to copy a whole movie over, then you can unplug the drive and watch your movie through the Photos app (and delete it when you’re finished to make room if you wish).

Just before I entered my credit card details, I had a quick tour of the site and spotted this little beauty – the Hyperjuice Stand. Now, it’s true I already have a navy blue Smart Cover to prop my iPad up, but that doesn’t stop this being a really, really clever idea. It’s a rubberised stand, lightweight, but just heavy enough to securely hold the iPad in place (360g), at a near vertical angle for watching movies or a flatter angle for typing – but the space inside is filled with battery! 11,000mA of battery which will keep an iPad going for around 16 hours! For only $130 it’s an absolute steal, and because it’s got a standard USB port on it, you can use it to charge or power a great many other devices besides iPads. It charges via a mini-USB connection too, so you can use the same AC adapter as your iPhone, or charge it off your laptop if that’s more convenient.

Having watched my choice of videos, secure in the knowledge that my battery will never run out, and arrived at my destination, I don’t want now to revert to a regular laptop. However, as lovely as the iPad is, it’s hard to type anything as long as, say, this blog post on the on-screen keyboard. So my other purchase was this handsome Aluminium Keyboard Buddy Case, only $49. It pairs quickly with the iPad via Bluetooth and the battery life is very good. Typing is certainly easier than without a physical keyboard, although the keys don’t have quite as much travel as I would ideally like – however it doesn’t really work as a case. I can fold my SmartCover out of the way, but even with it removed altogether, the iPad and the supposed case never snap together securely, they just sort of lie together. I tend to carry them separately in my Troop Brown Canvas Bag.

What toys have you bought for your iPad?

The whole family

Update #2: iPad

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

So, Steve brought us the iPad 2, and my cycle of responses to new technology repeated itself. My first thought, on watching the keynote (on my original iPad, on a plane to South Africa) was that I’d dodged a bullet. By foolishly (but necessarily) buying the orginal model months before the new version was announced I risked almost instant obsolescence. However, the new model struck me as only a bit better than the old model, albeit with a very snazzy magnetic “SmartCover”.

The tipping point for me came when I discovered that iMovie, Apple’s video-editing software, would not run on the old iPad. Having struggled mightily with various versions of Windows Movie Maker over the years, I was eagerly anticipating becoming Tablet B deMille, but this was not to be unless I upgraded. Then, Apple went and cut the price, despite the VAT hike, and so it was all over. My first-generation iPad is currently on eBay, and I have a slim new iPad 2 with a navy blue leather Smart Cover which I always have with me.

And it’s the size and shape and weight which has turned out to be the killer app for me. Despite loving having with me on my trips to Australia, South Africa and the West Midlands, the old iPad in its case was that bit too clunky, chunky and bulky for me to be able just to toss it in my bag and forget it’s there. The new one slips into the side pocket of my briefcase and I can be editing a document, writing a blog post, drawing a diagram or reading an email in ten seconds flat. It’s a little marvel and I love it.

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 3: The Telly

Posted on September 17th, 2010 in Technology | 1 Comment »

Two more cheerful chaps from Currys turned up with my lovely 42″ telly – took one look at my plasterboard walls and were about to slope off again, when at the last minute, one of them thought to look in the van for some of the special rawl plugs that this requires. Once found, the whole process of nailing the awesome beast to the wall took less than half an hour, and they departed with a generous tip.

I’ve moreoreless got the Harmony remote doing all the things I want it to, and both Blu-rays and Sky HD look fantastic on this giant screen. What’s amazing is how poor some SD content looks. Frasier on the Paramount Comedy channel looks worse than YouTube.

And I woke up yesterday to discover that the Sky box was actually taping what was meant to be my dummy recording. This was accompanied by a message informing me that my box’s software had been upgraded. A bit of tinkering later and I discovered that they’ve finally made Single Feed Mode work sensibly. Now if I’m watching BBC1 and a recording is due to start on BBC2, I will see a warning, and if I do nothing, it will flick over to BBC2 and make the recording correctly. This also seems to survive turning on “Anytime”. I believe that Single Feed Mode was introduced over a year ago. Good timing for me but appallingly slow for Sky’s other customers.

So, I’ve decided to postpone both the expensive SCR installation and the free, but unsightly, dish installation and just see how I rock with Single Feed for now. This completes the upgrade process. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Now.

Where can I get a stash of good Blu-ray movies for under a tenner each?

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 2: Sky+ HD

Posted on September 12th, 2010 in Technology | No Comments »

Yesterday was Sky+ day, and a cheerful engineer turned up at the time he said he would, fiddled with my satellite cable, bunged a box under my telly and mooched off. I played with it for a while, and then popped off to Currys to buy a Logitech Harmony 300i remote, satisfied that all seemed to be well. I was even able to take the digital sound from the Sky box and use my PC as an amp (albeit it stereo only, not Dolby 5.1). This means that I have to switch the Sky box off in order to shut off the sound when I want to use the media centre (which was actually one of the issues I was trying to avoid) but it does mean that one sound control works for everything which is convenient, especially if you’re trying to control everything with one remote.

The Logitech remote works very well for a £30 device. There’s a very convenient web/PC interface for programming it, which has loads of remotes already in its database, and you can drag-and-drop to move different commands to different buttons if it doesn’t get it right first time. You can’t program single buttons to perform sequences of actions, and there’s no feature for switching TV inputs automatically when you switch devices, but overall I’m happy.

What I’m less happy with is the profoundly weird behaviour of the Sky+ system and the near-total cluelessness of the telephone advisors.

If you pore over the Sky website, somewhere on there you will find a warning that you require two connections from your dish to your box for Sky+ to work properly. Fine if your dish is on your roof, balcony or in your back garden. But I’m in a block of flats with a communal dish, and my personal access to it is through a faceplate in the living room, which only has a single connector.

However, the latest generation of Sky + software has been updated to deal with this very issue. An engineer can set the box to “single feed mode” which means that you won’t be able to watch one channel while recording another, but also means that the Sky box won’t try and do this either. Although I think Sky could do more – considerably more – to flag this up to potential subscribers, I was aware of it and I wasn’t bothered. After all, I’m used to having only one tuner and I’m used to not being able to watch one channel while recording another. No big deal. Right? Wrong.

You see, the Sky + box really does take quite some convincing that it only has one tuner available. Deep in the core of its essential being, it is built around the fact that it will have two input feeds to choose from and its behaviour, even on single feed mode, is nothing short of bizarre.

With two feeds, if you are watching one channel while recording another, and at that moment, a second recording is triggered, you will – quite sensibly – be offered a choice: do you want to keep watching what you’re watching and cancel one of these recordings, or shall I start recording the new programme? If you do nothing, the box – perfectly correctly – assumes that it is unattended and prioritises the recording. My old Media Centre solution, with its noisy images and Heath Robinson IR blaster, unable to tune into more than one channel at once, would likewise warn me that it was going to change the channel to effect a recording if I was watching another channel when a recording was due.

But the new box, if I’m watching BBC 1 and a recording is due on BBC 2, simply IGNORES the recording and stays tuned to BBC1!! This is madness. Some Sky advisors advised that setting the box to standby cured this insane behaviour, but I couldn’t get this to work. There is a work-around, which I’m trying at the moment, but before I get to that here are some other possible options.

  1. There is a second satellite feed in the bedroom, but getting that connection to my digibox means trailing a wire out the bedroom window and back in again, or drilling holes in the walls. Neither is ideal.
  2. I could (if I could get permission from the landlord) stick a dish on the balcony and do things my own way, but we’d still have to drill (a small) hole in the wall and we’d have a fucking dish on the balcony. Sky would do this for free however.
  3. The technology exists to take two inputs from the dish, pump them down a single wire at different frequencies, and then separate them back out again at the digibox end. These boxes are called a “stacker” and a “destacker” and cost about £100, but they’d have to be fitted directly to the dish which means involving the landlord and/or the managing agents. Sky might or might not do this for free. Who knows? EDITED TO ADD: The terms “stacker” and “destacker” seem to refer to older technology which was very dependent on the quality of the wiring. The proper solution is called a Single Cable Router or SCR. My building managers can fit this for me for around £250, or if I buy the box for £100, Sky may be able to fit it for free. Chapter 4 will reveal the outcome.

Here’s the work around.

Before Sky implemented this single feed setting, tech savvy Sky users sharing communal dishes and only able to access one feed would set up “dummy recordings” which would fail but which would tie up the “second” feed. This would force the box to use the first feed for the new recording, the one you wanted, instead of using that feed for watching live TV. A version of this can still be used with the new software. Here’s how, courtesy of forum member utterepicicity on digitalspy.co.uk.

Step 1: Ensure feed is on input 1.

Step 2: Turn Single feed mode ON.

Step 3: Turn Anytime back ON.

Step 4: Ensure you are tuned into a channel (eg BBC1) and it’s on the mini-tv

Step 5: Set a manual recording on a channel you never watch starting in 2 minutes time (so if its 9:00PM, set it to start at 9:02PM), have it finish at 04:00AM in the morning (assuming you never watch anything at that time of the morning). This ensures that Input 2 is tied up til 4am.

Step 6: Set up another manual recording on the same channel from 04:02AM until 04:00AM. Set the frequency to daily. This will tie up input 2 all day every day.

Step 7: Set up another manual recording on a channel you never watch from 03:58AM to 04:04AM. Set the frequency to daily. This ensures that the dummy recording never takes up Input 1.

Ensure you turn your box to Standby whenever you’re not watching it. It doesn’t matter if you forget now and then but try and get into the habit of it.

The whole thread is here. So far this seems to be working, but it’s not ideal. Tomorrow I’ll try running a satellite cable out the window.

UPDATED TO ADD: Couldn’t face running a satellite cable out of the window and with two windows needing to be permanently open, albeit just a crack, it’s going to be a lousy, lousy solution come the winter. This evening, the Sky box was displaying only “no satellite signal” when I got in from work. I turned off  “Anytime” and it sprang back into life, so maybe my box prefers Anytime to be off. Later tonight, it got in a paddy trying to record Dragon’s Den and I had to do a planner rebuild to get it to record anything at all. Finally, with the “dummy recording” in place, I watched it obediently flick over from BBC HD to Channel 4+1 when Him and Her ended and Jamie Oliver Tells Rural Americans They’re All Too Fat To Live was about to begin. Success! But the real solution is clearly the SCR. Since another tenant is also having this done, we may be able to effect a saving by doing two at once. By which I mean it might be £200 instead of £250. Jesus. 13/9/10.

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 1: Blu-ray

Posted on September 10th, 2010 in Technology | No Comments »

Sound card and Blu-ray drive arrived today and I whipped off the back of the Media Centre PC and quickly installed both. Windows 7 recognised the sound card straight away but had it outputting two channel stereo until I downloaded and installed a Windows 7 Creative driver, whereupon it all worked beautifully.

The supplied Cyberlink PowerDVD software for playing Blu-rays baulked at my having mapped the Windows video folder to my network attached storage device, but this was worked-around by using a new Windows user with administrative powers but no mapped folders which I created for the purpose. Media Centre recognised old-fashioned DVDs placed in the new drive with no problem at all, but trying to play new-fangled Blu-rays rudely dumped me out of the Media Centre environment and into the Cyberlink software. This to be fair was what I expected, but I hadn’t expected that the Cyberlink software would then insist on downloading an update which took the best part of an hour to laboriously suck down at the feeble rate of 35Kb/s. God knows what was happening with Cyberlink’s servers.

When this was finally done, and installed, and after just a touch more screwing around, the system sprang into life and the Blu-ray copy of Inglourious Basterds which I mistakenly put on my Amazon wish list and got given for Christmas was happily playing, and looking very sharp and clear even on my 26” TV. Win! The copy of Speed which I picked up on Blu-ray also looked and sounded great with lots of atmospheric sound effects during the elevator sequence reverberating around the room as all six of my little speakers worked their socks off to provide me with sonic enjoyment.

Next question – will upgrading to Cyberlink PowerDVD v10 provide better integration with Media Centre? This meant downloading the trial version (which probably meant overwriting the free version 8 I’d finally got working, but anyway…) and again this meant making use of my new user account. 15 minutes later… Big win! Integration with Windows 7 Media Centre is pretty much seamless. This is going to cost me another fifty quid but it’s going to be worth it. *opens wallet*. At least there’s 20% off at the moment because of Labor Day or something.

Tomorrow it’s Sky+HD day, when we shall face the interesting challenge of how to connect up a digibox which favours HDMI to a TV with no HDMI sockets, and only one DVI socket which is already in use. I fear we shall be falling back on to SCART. How 1997! Then we shall also see if sound from the said digibox can be made to travel into the SPDIF in on my new sound card and then out to my 5.1 speakers, thus effectively using the PC as an amp when watching TV and harmonising (hah!) all of my audio needs.