Wednesday, April 01, 2015

MS DOS on Windows Phone - in 2015

Well done to the Connects team for a well done April 1st prank - creating a mini-clone of MS-DOS (from the 1980s) that runs under today's Windows Phone. It's semi-convincing too:

And there's a promo video to go with it:

The packages sent to bloggers missed a trick though - there was a fully working USB floppy drive (I last used one of these in the early 2000s!), with a floppy disk on it. I was expecting the video again, or some PowerPoint or PDF presentations or a special multimedia message, but in fact the 1.44MB floppy just had a tiny TXT file pointing people towards an online URL to grab the app on their Lumias.

Plus a neat notebook with floppy disks as covers, shown above! 8-)

Not that I'm grumbling - hey, who knows when someone will next need me to read a floppy disk(!) - but I think the April Fooling could have gone this one step further in terms of production!

Still, the prank application does work, and even kicks off the likes of Cortana if you're really dedicated.

Hey, Connects team, if you're listening, I'm still getting admiring looks at my blue Nokia t-shirt - what about one commemorating all the Lumias? - yes, I'm a t-shirt 'whore' 8-)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Screen protection overkill - OMG

It beggared belief. There was I accepting a second hand Android smartphone as a 'thank you' for a favour done for its previous owner, and undergoing my usual 'clean it up, check it out, before re-selling or passing on' routine.

Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Bog standard Android phone, Gorilla Glass screen and... the owner had put on a crude screen protector, seemingly fashioned out of a sheet of OverHead Projector slide. I sighed, peeled it off and set to work trying to clean the glass underneath with my wipes.

But there was still a 'ridge'. I looked more closely. There was a second screen protector! Yep, you read that right, the owner had put on a crude screen protector to err... protect the protector underneath. Which was 'protecting' the Gorilla Glass underneath. #facepalm

Complete and utter experience-ruining overkill.

Two, repeat two sheets of shoddy plastic to get in the way of using a capacitive touchscreen, all to 'protect' a sheet of glass which was a hundred times tougher than the plastic protecting it. The feel of the phone was ruined. So was the look. WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS?

I had a relative who insisted on protecting his aluminium-chassised Nokia N8 (with Gorilla Glass from the factory, one of the first phones to have this, I think?) for its entire two year life/contract with him, with an ugly fingerprint-infested, horribly scratched screen protector, meaning that he could never really enjoy the screen as it was meant to be seen by the manufacturer.

Is it just me? Has the world gone mad? Take TWO screen protectors into the shower? I'd rather go in naked. Ahem......

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Great Instant Messaging Disconnect of 2015

“Hey!”, came the shout from Tom, across the office, “Are you coming along to my river bash at the weekend?”

“First I’ve heard of it”, I shouted back. “I sent you an invite on Facebook Messenger!”, he said, coming over to chat in a more civilised fashion. “Did you not get it?”

“Nah, I uninstalled that a while back”, I replied. “I use GroupMe now.”

“GroupWhat?” Tom came back at me. “Never heard of it!” “It’s really powerful, look what it can do…”

“I’ve never heard of it either”, chipped in Diane from the neighbouring desk. “What do you use to keep in touch with everyone, then?” I asked, somewhat resignedly.

“WhatsApp, of course, silly”, she said. “Though it doesn’t do any good with my teenagers, they only use Snapchat these days. And neither help me with Ian (her husband and better half), he’s dotty on BBM, which I can’t stand…”

“So Tom, who else did you invite?” I said, inviting more trouble. “Well, I was going to invite Daniel, but I know he’s a bit of a geek only uses Google Hangouts. Even if I could get a message to him, he’d only spend the party trying to convert me to Google everything….”

“What about Angela?” I said brightly. Pretty, charming, life and soul of every party, or so I’m told. “Great idea”, said Tom. “Hey Angela!” She looked round. “Want to come to my bash at the weekend? I’ll send you the details via Facebook?”

Angela looked keen on the party idea but not on having to go back to Facebook, it seems. Seems she deleted her account after getting fed up with all the rubbish on it. “Couldn’t you send me the stuff via iMessage so I’ve got it all on my iPhone?”

“Sorry”, said Tom, “Never used iMessage in my life. What about “Viber?” A shake of the head. “Line?” Nope. “Telegram Messenger?”. Oblivion.

“Oh, this is ridiculous”, I said. Just print out the map and details and stick it on our desks! Then send everyone a SMS to remind us on the day?

The sheer number of instant messaging and sharing systems that exist today, all proclaiming to be “popular” is nothing short of crazy. Almost every week, some new company comes up with a new entry in the messaging market, looking to make its fortune, and then withers for the next three years before going bankrupt or being bought and then sold for scrap parts….

And you'll notice that all of the above is before I'd even got as far as Twitter DMs, Skype IM, and others...

Back in the day we had Jabber, an initiative to integrate many of the instant messaging systems of the time - surely we now need something along the same lines?

When a new service used to crop up, I'd grab my own 'name' on it as a precaution - I don't even bother now, there are simply far too many messaging and social sharing sites. Life's too short.

Each service and client promotes itself with thumbnails of happy (usually) young Americans all on the same service and conducting normal social interactions. "Looking forward to the beach trip?", one will say, and two others will chime in immediately (on this obscure service) and positively.

Not once you do see the original poster scratching their head because the people he wanted to chat to are each on completely separate chat networks/apps.....

Is it just me? At least there's email, around since the 1980s and still working well. At least there's SMS, around since the 1990s and still working well. And as a last resort, there's always the phone call itself, around for over 100 years and more mobile than ever, or so I'm led to believe....(!)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Car speed and efficiency

Call me somewhat obsessed if you like, but ever since acquiring a car (2006 Renault Scenic) with an actual computer inside, along with a miles-per-gallon readout, I've been taking rather an interest in the efficiency at various road speeds. Yes, I realise that petrol has become cheaper in the last month or so, but it was downright pricey for most of 2014, so every gallon saved is the best part of £10 back in my wallet.

So what IS the most efficient speed to drive along at? Classic car manuals and Internet advice often throw up '56mph', but then we've seen that speed quoted from as early as the 1950's, when car shape and aerodynamics were incredibly primitive. Surely modern cars, designed in wind tunnels, should be able to slice through the air better and this should have some effect on fuel efficiency?

[The problem with going fast is that there is far more air resistance - this increases as the square of velocity, so there's four times as much drag to overcome at 70mph than at 35mph, and so on. Physics, eh?!]

Of course, there are a mountain of other factors that affect both the most efficient speed and also day to day testing, not least:

  • car shape
  • load
  • tyre inflation
  • weather, including head and tailwinds
  • driving and traffic conditions
  • time of day, i.e. whether headlights, fog lights, internal heating fans, etc. were on
  • driving style (especially up hills)
  • engine and gearbox condition and capabilities

That's a lot of variables, so take my comments below with a pinch of salt.

But the question remained - at what speed should I drive, in my Scenic, at the start of 2015 in the UK, for best results?

With this in mind, and with some lengthy journeys back and forwards across the UK needed (ailing parents), I set about logging approximate fuel economy while trying to keep to certain speeds, with these estimates gathered over around 2000 miles:

  • At 70mph - around 41mpg
  • At 65mph - around 44mpg
  • At 60mph - around 42mpg

In other words, I contend, the sweet spot for modern (post 2000) cars is higher, possibly as much as 10mph higher, than it was for cars back in the 1950's, 60's and 70's, when the classic '56mph' was coined. I've not seen anyone else update this figure formally, even online, but both my own data and common sense suggests that it's true.

A sleeker, better shaped modern car, with engine and gearbox designed to ride easily at 3000rpm and up to 70mph, is worlds away from (e.g.) the Maxis, Capris and Escorts of my youth (in the 1970's).

So here's to, reversing the digits rather memorably, 65mph as the new optimum, most efficient speed to drive at in the modern age.

PS. Of course, there are other parts to the overall equation, namely that time is money for many people and the more precious resource. So it may well be worth spending the extra on fuel at 70mph or 75mph, for example, in order to arrive quicker 8-)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Apple Watch is a design monstrosity, an interface from hell

Noises heard from below ground in Palo Alto...

Now, I'll get pilloried for this, no doubt, by Apple fan boys - and note that I own lots of Apple kit (Macs, iPads, iPhones), so I'm no hater - but it has to be said, the Apple Watch is a terrible, terrible design that will go down in history as a huge flop.

I'm not talking about the physical appearance - though that's rather thick and clunky if we're honest (though no more than other current smartwatches). I'm talking about the interface and operation.

This is 2014 and we want elegance, we want consistency. The Pebble smartwatches are quaint in just having buttons, but OK. Last-gen, a little limited, but great battery life (thanks to the screen tech). The Android Wear smartwatches are purely touch driven and relatively elegant as a result, though current hardware is still first generation, obviously.

Apple, of course, will get it right, we thought - show us how simple, how elegant a smartwatch interface could be. And then we saw the first demos on stage at Apple's event. What???

A higglety pigglety amorphous mass of icons that is panned around, zoomed in an out, THEN a physical knob that zooms things in and out, THEN an extra side button for doing extra things to do with contacts, THEN the knob can be tapped to action something, THEN you can swipe up from the bottom of the watch screen to bring up a new interface, which can THEN be swiped left and right, THEN you discover that the touch screen is pressure sensitive and then harder long presses do something else, and.....

Steve Jobs is turning in his grave. He would have ushered out the design team behind this interface from his office in a torrent of expletives.

At least the appearance of the Apple Watch has made my future smartwatch buying decision a lot easier - Android Wear isn't perfect yet, but it's a hundred times more elegant than the monstrosity Apple just created.

[Oh, and I bet the hardware is a lot cheaper too. And will work with a hundred times more handsets.]

PS. Video demo of the Apple Watch interface, if you haven't seen it yet....

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The budget phone contract 'scam'

Now, let me emphasise the quotes above - what I'm describing (ok, ranting about) here isn't illegal, it's simply.... misleading. And I'm not singling out any one phone network here, I'm simply using Three UK as an example - all the others do the same.

Look, I get the idea of contracts, especially at the upper end of the price spectrum - you get a nice, cheap, subsidised handset, you get more minutes, texts and Megabytes than you need, and all is rosy. You're paying £30 or more a month, but you're happy and, essentially, sorted.

However, down at the budget end, there's little or no subsidy in terms of hardware, yet there's massive possibility for swinging overage charges. Let me explain.

I'm looking at a Three UK run down of plans. They offer one at £6.90 a month. Which sounds great. 500MB of data, 200 minutes and 5000 texts. Perfect for a teenager, perhaps?

Maybe. Except that you can bet he or she will occasionally go over, with 'that' long call to a girlfiend or streaming 'that' movie. In which case, you could be looking at 300 minutes used in a month and perhaps 1GB of data used.

Only a bit over, right? You'd expect a few quid more to be charged to your card/account? Actually, the overage in this case is 45p/MB, which is £225, plus £25 for the calls.

Let me state that again. £250 overage on a £6.90/month account.

It's INSANE. Now, obviously, the networks will say that the user should simply switch to the next tiered contract, in this case at £9.90/month. Which is fair enough, but the user will have learned the hard way already, plus with data use increasing across the board, who's to say the teenager won't rack up 1.5GB, with another £225 overage charge?*

* Yes, apparently there's an option to get the network to cut off the account once the limit has been reached, but then what if there's an emergency and use is needed? It's a tough call to turn that on!

45p/minute is almost criminal and it's amazing that networks get away with it. Especially as, in this case, Three's normal pay-as-you-go rate for data is 1p/MB, on their excellent 321 plan. FORTY FIVE TIMES CHEAPER for data!

The upshot is that everyone's encouraged to go for a contract whose details include ANY possible usage. Just in case. Meaning that the margin of profit is kept high for the network, which I guess makes business sense.

Just be warned in case you're thinking about cheap contracts for members of your family. We've been there, done that, and been stung. (Thankfully not to the degree mentioned here.)

For the record, everyone in our family is now on the '321' pay-as-you-go deal. Some months my wife or daughter will go through £10 of credit, or even £15. But never £225! And some months, their balance hardly goes down at all. We average about £25 worth of vouchers for all three of us.

Comments welcome. Am I being overly critical here? Or should overage charges be a lot less severe?!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Anatomy of an eBay scam... dodged!

After a number of years on eBay, you learn the danger signs, the whiff of something not quite right. I won't quote actual eBay usernames here because I'm only 99% sure and not 100%, but I thought the procedure was still well worth writing up.

The task for me: to buy an item, in this case an iPhone 5, a high value item, we looked at it, at £190 or so with a day to go, with local collection (which was OK for us, it was only 20 mins away) and put in a max bid of £290 - the idea being that eBay would auto-increase this if needed, as other people bid on the item.

In hindsight, we rather overvalued the item and should have pitched in lower, as will become apparent.

The task for the seller: the sell us the iPhone for as much money as possible while dodging both PayPal AND eBay fees. And he almost managed it.

Here's the scam:
  1. He specified cash only on collection. Uh-oh. I queried this. It was to avoid PayPal's 3.4% fee, he said. Hmm.... OK, let's press on though....
  2. With only a few hours to go and the auction still at £190, it was pretty clear that the local collection and cash demands meant that we were the only buyers on the horizon. The seller (again, I'm speculating here, but my theories fit the facts) then recruited a couple of 'Mates'.
  3. Bear in mind that the seller doesn't know what my maximum bid is. He wants to get Mate no. 1 to bid something nice and high, forcing me over it, but he doesn't want to get Mate no. 1 stuck with the item and he also doesn't want to make all this too obvious. Mate no. 1 then starts bid every few minutes, adding £10 more until he ends up the highest bidder - and he then retracts the very last bid as a 'mistake', but not before I've been forced up against my maximum bid - entirely falsely.

  4. The next bit is even more devious. a few second before the auction finishes - remember the seller has already got me winning the item at my maximum, the seller gets Mate no. 2 to come in and put in a higher bid to 'win' the item.
  5. A few hours afterwards, the seller sends me a message that there's a 'problem' with Mate no. 2 and that I can still get the item at my maximum bid, but only by contacting him by text. The idea then being, presumably, to meet and pay cash and hand over the item, while the seller doesn't use the eBay 'second chance system' but instead reports to eBay that the transaction never went through and that there are therefore no seller fees to pay.
All very clever, if a little tortuous. We had seen too much and ducked out before completing our side of all this - thankfully. If the seller had got his way, we might indeed have got the item OK, if for a slightly inflated price. But the seller would have got the sale without paying eBay or PayPal a penny.

You may ask if I have evidence for all of this. The warning signs, other than the obvious, were in digging down into the activity of the two 'Mates'. Their activity for the last month consisted solely of bidding on one item - this seller's! Quite clearly, each had been recruited for the specific task in hand.

And, clearly, the seller thought he had stage-managed the accounts and bidding/selling process well in order to game the system. And me.

Happily, we dodged this at stage 5, having lost all confidence in the seller. But I wanted to write up how all this works in case other buyers start getting sucked in using the same scam.

PS. Again, I'm keeping all this anonymous, since I don't have 100% proof. It's possible that the other two accounts weren't friends of the seller. Possible. Just not at all likely!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An enforced Easter break and general thoughts on Phones Show scheduling

Dear Phones Show and PSC viewers and listeners....(!)

Just a small status update regarding the shows.

PSC records on a Sunday evening and thus clashes with Easter Sunday - I think Ted and I did a show last year anyway, but this year I'll be knee-deep in family, so we're going to miss a week. I'm sure you'll have your own family time and won't miss us too much?

The main Phones Show has been hit a little by several general factors, worth noting:

  • a continued decline in the number of people financially supporting the show, meaning that I've had to take on extra writing work to make ends meet. 
  • the critically poor health of one of my parents, a factor which may well play a bigger role as the year goes on. This factor in particular has to take absolute priority, as I'm sure you can sympathise?
  • a huge number of other online video shows, often with far bigger financial resources and offering higher production values. When I started The Phones Show (as 'The Smartphones Show') in 2006, I was just about the ONLY person in the world reviewing phones in video form. Heck, even YouTube itself hadn't got going properly then. Eight years later, it's so much easier for anyone to review phones and produce video content that there are now tens of thousands of competitors.

In addition, specific to the next show, 225, in which I should be wrapping up my Galaxy S5 review by now, Samsung has essentially shafted all online retailers (e.g. Clove here), and I've been unable to get a review device yet. Immensely frustrating all round. In view of this, Phones Show 225 will be delayed by a week or two - I do have a backup review device source, hopefully delivering something mid next week.

The general factors listed above have caused me to have a rethink of the scheduling generally. I don't want to push out sub-standard shows just for the sake of it. And I also don't want to give myself a nervous breakdown trying to keep up a particular bi-weekly schedule just for the sake of it.

So, in future, Phones Shows will come out when they err.... come out! In busy times, this might be more often than once a fortnight, at other times, the gap will be longer. PSC will carry on weekly, of course.

I've asked several times whether those people who do donate, do so because of the video show or the weekly audio podcast - and the balance has been tipping in favour of the latter in recent years. I'm therefore hoping that my decision to be a bit more relaxed over Phones Show scheduling won't affect donations too much. As ever, donating to the 'Virtual Pint of Beer' club is entirely voluntary - I, and Ted, aim to provide you with quality listening (and viewing) and my hope is that enough people will recognise this and carry on subscribing.

Finally, Happy Easter and best wishes from a very sunny UK!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Pop-out batteries save the day from human error!

I've ranted before about the potential perils of sealed batteries on phones, something of a worrying trend in mobile design. Yes, I know designs can be simpler and more streamlined, but it really hurts the long term flexibility of the device.

Not least because there's precious little way back from human error. In this case, me. My error.

I charge my smartphone, like most people, with a microUSB mains charger beside my bed. Each night I plug the phone in and settle in for a good sleep, confident that my phone will wake me up at 7am in the morning, fully charged and with my morning alarm sounds.

At some point yesterday, I needed to plug something else in and so the phone's power adapter got unplugged. You can probably guess the rest, but...

As I drifted off to sleep I noticed that the usual Android 4.3 DayDream clock face (usually on during charging) wasn't showing. Yes, it was my clock during the night, but hey, I was tired and couldn't care too much. Zzzzzzz.....

By sheer chance I woke up at 6.30 anyway and pressed 'play' on my headphones, hoping that my currently playing podcast would spark back into action. Nothing.

"That's odd", I thought, so I reached out to the phone itself and pressed the screen wake button. Nothing, just a faint flash of red LED at the top of the device. Realisation dawned. The power adapter. My phone hadn't been charging at all during the night and it was now out of power.

Completely out of power. So far gone that plugging in the charger again (at both ends!!) did nothing. Just a placeholder icon on the screen. No LEDs, no sign of life, nothing. I left the charger plugged in for 10 minutes and still nothing. Clearly the battery had been forced into such a state of distress that it was now sulking.

With a sealed design, my options now would have been strictly limited. I guess I'd have played with various button combinations to achieve a reset, hoping to spark the electronics into some kind of charging action. If I was lucky. Plus, even if that worked, I'd have to go around all morning with a microUSB portable charger plugged in, via a wire, at the very least.

A nightmare scenario.

Except that the phone in question was a Samsung Galaxy Note II and had a replaceable battery (as shown above). So I strolled into my cupboard and pulled out my spare ANKER battery. I ripped the back off the Note II and stuck in the spare. The phone booted up fine and showed 62% left on the cell (not bad after several months in storage), so I was good to go for most of the day, at least.

I put the discharged cell into my mains Note II battery charger (only a few quid on eBay) and the LED glowed red/purple, indicating that it was charging happily - phew! I'd be able to swap back to my main battery (which had the add-on Qi charging coils attached) this evening.

So.... having a replaceable battery saved the day - literally. I was able to head out and about entirely as normal, with no dangling wires or power worries.

Add in the other benefits of going replaceable, like the flexibility to add in much higher capacity batteries, and you can see why I remain a fan - and an opponent of strictly sealed designs.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Automator - just one MORE reason why I use an Apple Mac....

Mac vs PC debates have raged through the ages, of course. And I can't hope to summarise the pros and cons of each in a simple blog post here. But I did want to shout about something that delighted me in recent months about my Mac and that's discovering how to use the Automator utility.

Here's the use case. I had a bunch of photos and screenshots, all of which I wanted resized to 600 pixels wide, for inclusion in a Wordpress blog post elsewhere. Painstakingly, I opened each in Seashore (v0.1.9, the older one, is the best to use, IMHO) and resampled down, then saved. There must be a better way, I thought.

I started browsing through the Mac App Store and did find a few batch resizers, but they all cost money and seemed too complicated. I wonder.... I remembered seeing Automator a few times in my app list on the Mac, so I gave it a whirl:

  1. Start Automator
  2. Click on 'Application'
  3. Click on 'Photos'
  4. Drag the 'Scale images' action to the application pane (you'll be prompted to add a 'copy' action, so as not to replace the originals - this is a good idea for most people)
  5. Change the scale value as needed
  6. Use 'File/Save' to name and save the application somewhere sensible (e.g. the Applications folder)
  7. Drag this application onto the Mac's dock

And that's it. Took all of 45 seconds. Now, when I want a batch of images scaled down to 600 pixels wide, I just drag them all en masse from Finder to the icon on the dock. A few seconds later, the OS has done its work and my images are ready.

In fact, it proved so easy that I made a second one, for resizing to 800 pixels (for the All About sites). 

Then, a month later, I had a similar problem. I was creating (and downloading) a lot of images in PNG format (from screenshots, usually) but they were all way too big in terms of byte size. What I wanted was to convert them all on an ad-hoc basis to JPG. Again... I wonder....?

Automator to the rescue again, this time using the 'Change type' action from the 'Photos' section. Again, I now just drag any PNGs onto this icon on my Mac dock and bingo, they're all JPGs.*

This facility to just 'create' utilities with zero programming knowledge, and all built into the OS, is just tremendous - and, as something of a beginner, I feel as though I've only just scratched the surface of Automator here! See here for a list of 10 top uses in more detail.

* in fact, I also often then drag these files into JPEGmini, also a useful tool!