Category Archives: Gadgets

You Plexy Thing!

Late last year I purchased an Amazon Fire TV

I wanted it to facilitate my watching Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video without needing to turn on my Xbox, which was rather noisy and convoluted to get to the applications, not to mention a little noisier and clunkier than I would have chosen.

The Fire TV box looked to be ideal, and with the changes Amazon made to Prime in the latter half of the year, it became an easy decision.

What I didn’t count upon was discovering Plex and the Plex Media Server.

There is a Plex app which can be installed on the AFTV, which enables a connection via the Network to a Plex Media Server which can run on a PC (Windows, Linux or FreeBSD) or Mac, or if you’re fairly lucky, a NAS. My 3 year old QNAP NAS allows me to install it, but just doesn’t have the CPU or Memory to successful run the Media Server, let alone handle the Transcoding workloads it generates, so I might just have to consider a NAS upgrade in the future. In the meantime, running the PMS on a Windows Desktop PC and creating links to mapped drives containing the content that sits on the NAS seems to work well enough!

So then I started to dabble a bit in to creating the content to feed it. Now anyone that’s been to my place will know I’m something of a quality fiend, enjoying High Definition picture quality from Blu-ray, and 5.1 or higher surround sound, so I didn’t really want to loose any of that when streaming, but if I could achieve an acceptable balance of quality against size, it would mean that I didn’t have to keep reaching for physical media when I wanted to watch something, which would be fantastic!

After a fair bit of trial and error, and extensively searching t’interweb, I’ve settled on a two stage process. Firstly, I use MakeMKV to “Rip” a Blu-ray disc. This generates a lossless source copy of between 20-25gb (depending of course on the source). This is a legal action in the UK now since 1st June, assuming of course that you legitimately own the source media and aren’t ripping borrowed or loaned media. This follows the Hargreaves Review, see here and here for details. It takes me between 20 and 30 minutes to generate this source file on a fairly well specified (but two year old) Haswell i7 (3820) CPU. There is a trick to using MakeMKV, and that’s to make sure you choose the correct Soundtrack that you want to keep (eg English/DTS) and if you’re like me you’ll only want to rip the Movie itself, and not bother with the other extras on the Blu-ray disc.

I then take this rather large .mkv file, and run it through Handbrake, having set the video to an RF value of about 20 for Blu-ray source media, and in another 25-30 mins I’ll re-encode the .mkv in to an H.264 .mp4 file, which is usually between 6 and 10gb in size, depending on the length and quality of the source file, and would therefore allow me to store between 200 and 300 files on a 2Tb HDD.

Then it’s just a question of setting up Libraries on the Plex Media Server for the type of content. This isn’t difficult, but requires a little thought and planning. I created separate libraries for Film and TV Series’ because Plex allowed me to separate them. This makes sense given the Media Enrichment capabilities Plex has, where it will try and identify the media from the filename, and will then download from IMDB and/or elsewhere extra information about the cast/crew, posters and/or thumbnails etc and generally make it look very sexy on the screen. For TV programmes, it will allow drill-down by Series too, so you can choose Series -> Season -> Episode.

Plex Media Server

Above is the view you get from a PC or MAC running Google Chrome and browsing to the Plex Media Server.  The above shows all of the Movies I’ve got stored in my Library.

If I click on any of these, I’ll get a further display with details of the cast, crew, and a synopsis of the plot, all enriched with background images taken from the movie, and where Plex can find it, the theme music too.

The same process happens for TV programmes, with the added step of choosing a Season if possible too for the TV programme.

The User Interface from the AFTV itself is remarkably similar, with the same enrichment capabilities, and the whole process just works so very well.

In fact on the AFTV, it will also tell me the quality of the Video and Sound too!  If you look in the bottom/left of the photo below, you’ll see an example showing the 1080p, H.264 and dts 5.1 sound.

tv1

So, my project has become to further expand my library, and transfer as much of my blu-ray library on to Plex as I reasonably can.  This will doubtless take me years given the rate that I accumulate them, but I’ve already started doing this with “new” media as it lands, so I can watch it without media at my leisure.

UK.plc on the brink of something wonderful?

Being myself a product of the British Educational System, and having followed a fairly conventional path in to my current career, I have long felt a substantial frustration with the direction of our current higher educational system.

I am of course talking primarily about the prevalence of “Hairdressing”, “Media Studies”, “Photography”, and “Tying your Shoelaces” courses which seem to be so popular with the modern youth.  Coupled with this has been a somewhat backwards attitude towards Computing and IT qualifications, or “ICT”.  Thinking back to when I graduated some 15 plus years ago now, some of the available  courses were somewhat out-of-touch with the marketplace, teaching obsolete programming languages (COBOL) and disciplines such as JSP which the real world had left behind.  For the first two years after graduation, I sept unlearning, or more specifically relearning what I actually needed to have a real career in Computing and IT, but to be fair, despite teaching  obsolete topics, the courses had equipped me with the basic approach and knowledge I needed to apply to any language or discipline that I required.  Indeed it would be foolish to assume that I would be programming in COBOL or PASCAL for the remainder of my programming days, knowing how the market was going to evolve in unknown directions.

The Technology sector is the industry in which I work, so I have a huge vested interest in caring about the direction it takes.  For me it is the future, it is replacing many of the White collar types of work our Parents could or would have done in their lifetimes, and it has the potential to become  the new  wealth creating sector of the economy, since it’s evident we just cannot compete in Manufacturing, and have exhausted most of our Raw Materials already.   In my estimation this makes it so vitally important for our economy, even for those that have no interest in working within that sector.

For me then, the Educational System has let the Technology sector down badly for the last ten years or more.   Many people don’t seem to have much of a clue about the difference between Computing and IT, or “Information Technology” to give it it’s full title.   For me, IT is about using the modern tools available to do a job.  It’s not specifically about that £500 PC or £1000 laptop sitting in front of you, but it’s you being able to use that piece of equipment to help you complete a task of some sort;  in the same way Screwdrivers, Paintbrushes, Spanners, and Shorthand might have been to support other professions.

If we are honest, in recent years this has translated in to needing to be able to use a Mouse and Keyboard, to navigate Windows, MS Office, and yes, even to know how to use popular Office suites such as MS Office, or perhaps using a Tablet or Smartphone.   It is absolutely vital that this particular facet remains current and aligned to market trends.   The downside of this in the last 5 years or so has meant knowing the Microsoft Product suite, Excel, Powerpoint, Access, and Word specifically.   Of course in order to do all of that, you don’t need to understand much about how a computer works, or why it does what it does;  No knowledge is needed of Binary, of Electronics, although a high level knowledge of Computer components would probably be useful.   All of these skills will be handy for just about any student of any discipline these days.  In much the same way as English and Maths are part of a standard curriculum, so I believe Information Technology should also be included as standard, and probably in the first 2-3 years of Secondary Education (I believe they call it Years 7-9 these days!).    I know “Graduates” of a Higher level Computer Programming course that think programming is using Visual Basic for Applications within Access or Excel, when in my estimation this is “just” a tool (and admittedly a fairly sophisticated skill to possess) to do a job which ought to be a product of the Information Techology arena.

Contrast this with a Computing course, or more correctly titled a course in Computer Architecture or Computer Programming, which clearly would require a much lower level of detail around how computers work, and why they do what they do;  Perhaps a missing element in Networking could be folded in to the Architecture section?   In any case, out of this fundamental knowledge of Computer Architecture grows a necessary understanding of Operating System concepts, which in turn grows in to API’s and programming languages that may or may not be platform specific.

I have recruited and interviewed staff several times during my career to date, and each time I’ve found it necessary to explore just what content the Computing courses a candidate has on his CV actually contained, and from that establish whether the basic level of required knowledge is there.  In the Networks space, it’s quite astounding to see how few people in IT actually have a grasp of how the Internet works, and how applications could be exploited over the Network if not written properly.

So, enough moaning, Why are we on the brink of something wonderful?

Two reasons…. Firstly a Slice of Pi.

Raspberry Pi Logo

The Raspberry Pi is a fantastic concept which has been long missing in the marketplace.  It is a simple, and cheap (not just cost effective) solution for providing Computing Power and technology.   It literally costs about $30 to produce, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation does not aim to turn a profit, so this is loosely the price to you as an end user.  In exchange you don’t get a finished product nicely cased with lots of glossy instruction manuals;  Instead you get a completed PCB slightly larger than a credit card, but probably smaller than the smartphone in your pocket, with a Media Card Reader slot, a couple of USB ports and a Network interface, and an HDMI Out so you can plug it in to a modern TV to use, and not much else!    No PSU, no Keyboard/Mouse, and no Operating System is provided;  instead you have to use another PC to write the Open Source OS on to a Media Card, and then plugging a USB keyboard & mouse in and away you go!

Currently most of the available OS’es are Linux based, but I expect this will change over time.  The Pi uses an ARM processor based on a Broadcom System-on-a-Chip, and has a limiting 256Mb of RAM, but again this costs $30  (or ~ £30 for us Brits).

What an amazing Catalyst for learning the Pi could be!  Providing cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere!  It’s aimed at the Educational sector, and it fits in so well with my vision of a Computing course it’s astounding.  It could be used to learn Web programming!  Several of the currently available OS distros can support a LAMP (Linux, Apache, Mysql, & PHP) stack, and of course it facilitates a clear understanding of the system architecture and indeed it’s limitations play to this as well, having to write code that performs well and within the capabilities of the Smart Card based Storage and 256Mb of RAM.

Other options are of course there too, with C and Pascal compilers, Basic compilers/interpreters, and so many possibilities it’s incredible.  The Pi doesn’t lack for processing power either, it’s capable of outputting an HD picture to a TV and decoding video at 720P resolution on your HDTV, or even playing Quake.

So, if you are a parent with a curious youngster, I strongly suggest you think about investing in one!  It’s not going to replace your family PC, at least not yet, but what better way for both you and your children to learn together about Computers?  And it doesn’t stop there either;  Schools adopting the Pi in to the curriculum could develop Craft Design Technology (or whatever they call it these days!) sessions around making cases for the Pi, and so much more!

The second reason dovetails neatly in to the Slice of Pi.  If Pi helps shape the Computing aspect of Technology Educational needs, then the Governments’ brave decision to effectively scrap the current ICT curriculum in January this year, and to invite dialogue with the Technology Industry on developing a replacement has kindly facilitated the other missing part of my vision.

The so called “Microsoft GCSE” has the potential to deliver Students with real skills in modern technology solutions out to the workforce in a few years time.  If at 16 or 18 a student had the ability to write applications for a modern Windows PC using Visual Studio, or to interface with and control a SmartPhone, or even produce Apps for that SmartPhone, then the system has done it’s job, and will be producing worthy candidates once more.

I know that other vendor entities including Cisco have been engaged in discussion over the future curriculum too, (see here), perversely the Government has even been criticised for perhaps listening too closely to the vendors, but at the end of the day it’s Vendors like Cisco, Microsoft, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation that are going to be leading the market in all sorts of directions over the next 5-10 years, so why should we not pay close heed to their needs?

If all of this happens as I sincerely hope it will, UK.plc has the potential in years to come to retake the worldwide lead in the Technology market, and to turn out some of the most supremely and more importantly usefully qualified students which will go on to lead our economy who knows where!  This is something which we’ve been fighting to do for years now in the face of strong competition from Asia and the Pacific.

This is all my own opinion and perspective, and of course it’s possible I’ve got it all wrong, and my Vision is naught but ideas in my head.  I sincerely hope not, but all the same it makes me feel like we’re on the brink of a whole new journey now, so let’s make the most of it together, and see where it takes us!

(I am currently in a waiting list to get my own Raspberry Pi).

New Gadget!

Ok, so my old trusty Acer laptop finally gave up the ghost, with some very odd distortion on the screen meaning everything was either psychedelic green or pink!  It’d done me a good turn, and it surprised me when I sat to think about how long I’d had it, and the “designed for Windows XP” sticker proudly on the front really should have given me a slap in the face.   Still, having survived at least one HDD and RAM upgrade, and two OS upgrades, to Vista and then to Win7, it really didn’t owe me anything.

I thought long and hard about what to go for;  Did I want a really powerful desktop replacement style laptop, with a Core i7 and all the whistles and bells, or a fast & light Ultrabook?

In the end I opted for the Asus N55S, which is a really beautiful piece of kit.  I can’t seem to find one that matches my spec exactly on line.

 

Specs are: Intel Core i5 2430M v2.4Ghz CPU, 6Gb RAM, 6x Blu-ray Reader/Writer, 500Gb HDD, Nvidia Geforce 635M GT Graphics with 2Gb dedicated VRAM, USB 3.0 Ports,  & Built in Bang & Olufsen ICEPower Sound System (with separate Subwoofer).

 

Overall this is one very sweet laptop.  It’s powerful enough to act as a desktop replacement for when I’m out and about.  It’s not an ultrabook by any means, being fairly large and weighty, but that doesn’t bother me too much.

Here’s the intro Video so you can see for yourself!

I can thoroughly recommend it!

Customer Service

I’ve seen examples of both Amazing/Excellent Customer Service, and pretty piss poor couldn’t-care-less Customer Service in the last 24 hours.

My DART Tag

Starting with the negative first, earlier this week I had cause to travel through the Dartford Toll Crossing twice. As a reasonably regular traveler of that route in the past, I long ago invested in a “DART-TAG” to make my life easier, and to save a few pennies.  What SHOULD happen is that as you approach the toll barrier, the equipment there somehow senses the presence of your tag, and so just debits the charge to your account.  In most cases you don’t even have to stop, the barrier is sensitive enough and quick enough for you to just slowly drive on through.  The Tag usually emits a loud “bleep” to indicate it’s been recognised, and you get a nice friendly message saying that the toll had been paid (or your credit was low of course!).  But this time, when I tried it on the way “out” this week, NOTHING HAPPENED.

No Bleep.  No nice friendly message, and most importantly NO ACCESS through the barrier.   And of course the car behind me was right up behind me, meaning I couldn’t reverse to reach the machine’s coin catcher if I wanted to.

I had to go rummaging around in the loose change in my pockets, and rolling about in the car trying to find enough change to pay my toll.  I could see the people in the car behind me getting impatient and exasperated, and then I had to sort of wriggle out of the window and reach over my shoulder and behind me to get the money in the machine.

The return journey was a similar experience, only I was prepared for the eventuality that it might not work and had the cash ready to use.

So as you might expect, I looked at the Tag Website to see what if anything was said about a Tag not responding, and there was nothing.  The “FAQ” seemed quite laughable in actual fact, when you consider the number of tags that must be out there (mine is numbered well in to the hundreds of thousands) it is not outside the realms of possibility that they might just stop working every so often, for whatever reason.   Simply NOT having a “What do I do if my tag doesn’t work” in the FAQ doesn’t really make me think that it’s a wholly reliable solution that never goes wrong, merely that the operators of the service are too short sighted to realise that this is EXACTLY the sort of thing an FAQ might actually be Helpful with.   Instead I resorted to the “for any other enquiries please e-mail xxxxxx” option, seeing as the published telephone numbers all seemingly close at 5.30pm!

Anyway, to my disappointment, it’s been over 24 hours now, and I’ve not so much as had an acknowledgement of my e-mail, let alone an answer to my problem.   If I’d have been traveling through the Crossing again today, it would have cost me £1.50 each way instead of £1 each way with the tag, so I’d have lost more money.  I therefore hold this up as a classic example of (1) how to NOT help your customers via your Service Website, and (2) how to NOT help your customers by responding in a timely manner.  There’s nothing for it but to label this as  BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE.

And then the positive.

I was gutted today to discover when I picked my Kindle up intending to use it, that the screen appears to have broken.

My rather broken Kindle

I can genuinely say that I’ve not dropped it, smacked it, or anything else.  Indeed you can see the plastic surround is pristine and undamaged, as is the surface of the screen itself.   I keep it in a purpose made leather wallet which is also totally undamaged.   When transporting it, I tend to put it in my baggage right next to my iPad which is also absolutely fine, so I have absolutely no idea how this damage occured.

Unfortunately it renders the Kindle quite unusable.  The top/right hand part of the screen stubbornly displays the last “advert” it displayed in Sleep mode before I turned it on, and the bottom/left part of the screen works more or less as normal.

So I called Amazon using the “call me back” facility on the Website.   I bought the Kindle back in March this year, from my local Tesco.  I had Googled “Kindle Repairs” and come up fairly short, so really wanted to ask Amazon if they could offer or recommend a repair service.  However I was astounded by what happened next.

I explained what I’d found, and how I couldn’t explain how the damage had occured, and before I could ask my questions, the operator started asking me a few other things.  When did I purchase the unit?  I wasn’t totally sure, maybe as long as 6 months ago from Tesco, I hadn’t bought it from Amazon.co.uk directly.  No, to the best of my knowledge it hadn’t been dropped, or squashed, or exposed to water.  Yes, I had tried the “cold reset” facility.    Ok then, in that case they’ll dispatch a replacement today on next-day delivery, please send the old one back in the next 30 days.

I was astounded.    Given my honesty and sheer puzzlement over what could have caused the damage, I certainly wasn’t angling for a free replacement.  I was expecting to have to pay for a repair or even replace it at my own expense.   Never did I expect a replacement to be sent out just like that.   No “proof of purchase” required, no quibbles, or messing about.  Just a straight replacement, and I hadn’t even asked!

Of course I wasn’t going to turn it down, so I went from being quite angry and annoyed with the prospect of spending another £150 on a replacement Kindle to elated and overjoyed that I’d be getting a Free Replacement (and a postage-paid label to return my old broken one with!) the very next day.

That in my estimation is going above and beyond the requirements of Acceptable Customer Service in to the realms of the Exceptional.  Well done indeed Amazon.co.uk, you have one very happy customer here!

 

Finally!

After what seems like an eternity, my new car is here!

My Vauxhall Insignia Elite Sports Tourer

It’s rather nice to drive, positively gliding along the Dual Carriageways. I’m glad I went for this rather than the Ford Mondeo Estate. Visibility in this seems far better than in the 5-door hatchback I tested.

We haven’t tried Tinker in the back yet, that’s a job for the weekend and two people, as the Automatic Tailgate might be slightly confusing and unsettling for him for the first few uses.  The Interior looks quite elegant compared to the older cars I’ve driven:

Insignia Interior

Insignia Interior - closeup of Central console

Insignia Interior - Dashboard


I initially had a problem using the USB port with a USB Memory Stick. Aside from the fact that it needs to be a fairly short stick to prevent it being hit by the centre console armrest when it’s folded down, it seemed to insist on playing the files in a strange order. Not a major problem for Music, but something of an inconvenience when listening to an Audiobook! I haven’t yet tried it with my iPhone, so that’s something else to put on the list of things to do!

More photos and feedback to follow in due course!

An Unfulfilled Quest

I wrote a few days ago about my interest in a Fuji Finepix XP30 camera.  I wanted it specifically because of it’s underwater ability, and the dustproof/shockproof characteristics would come in handy for my grand holiday later in the year.

However, I’ve been dissapointed, and in retrospect I’m actually glad.

I went ahead and ordered the Camera from Amazon, together with a “Pro” class 16Gb SDHC card for it.  Unfortunately the day it was due to be delivered I was out of the office at a certain Football Stadium.  When I returned and found no parcel waiting on my desk, I contacted Amazon who confirmed that “Home Delivery Network” had put it through the letterbox at 9.02am, and hadn’t obtained a signature.

The only problem being there IS no letterbox at my work address!   Needless to say I contacted Amazon who went off to investigate.  They later confirmed that something had gone awry with the order, and were good enough to re-order both the camera and the memory card for me at no cost.   But the story doesn’t end there!  Of course the Camera itself is out of stock at Amazon now, and the only options are more expensive.  Amazon will be re-stocking but in 3-4 weeks time.

So I’ve been looking around for alternatives.  And having read through in more detail the reviews for the XP30, both at Amazon and elsewhere, I’ve phoned back and cancelled the Camera, and requested a refund.

There are a few alternatives out there, including the Canon PowerShot D10 (12.1 MP, 3.0x, 2.5″ LCD), or the Pentax Optio WG-1 (14MP, 5 x Wide Angle Zoom, 2.7″ LCD), the Panasonic Lumix FT3 (12.1MP, 4.6x Zoom) or the Olympus TG-310 (14MP, 3.6x Wide Angle Zoom, 2.7″ LCD)

I’m not sure which to look at, the Canon and the Pentax both have much better write-ups, and both come in at about the £220 mark.  While that’s a fair amount more than the Fuji XP30, it’s not unreasonable.  The Pentax appears to have the best specifications of the two.

I don’t expect this to be a fantastic camera, but I do want to be able to take it underwater.  The dustproof & shockproof nature also have some appeal given where I’ll be taking it.

Anyone out there have any experience with cameras like this and able to offer any suggestions?