Friday, September 23, 2016

Scam? Forbury Retail Park parking and Suicidal Retailers

It's a fair cop. As I parked in the Forbury Retail Park and strolled outside to take some photos in the nearby gardens, I had to walk past a sign that said, in very small writing (underneath larger writing promising 'Maximum Stay 3 Hours'), "Walking off-site will result in a charge of £100".

I then returned to the park to McDonalds and bought my lunch. Strolling back to my car I saw the dreaded Penalty Charge Notice on the windscreen.

I've now paid this after researching the whole topic for a week, it's simply more hassle than I can take to go through the various rounds of appeals and court cases etc. I suspect most other people do the same.

I guess it's private land (the retailers lease the shop space) and the landowner can put whatever strict rules they want for the privilege of parking there. But it seems crazy and totally lacking in common sense.

The idea of stopping people parking there all day while they work in Reading is fair enough - that's what the maximum stay number is for. But the idea of letting people park there, run an errand in Reading centre and then return (say) an hour later, to also shop in Home Sense, Staples, Argos or whatever and generally spend a lot of money seems the right way forwards.

Last time I went to Staples I spent £400. And, on the same visit to the car park, bought £70 of bits from Home Sense.

I'm not sure I want to give this retail park my business to the same degree anymore. And, judging from the emptiness of the car park (I did wonder) it seems that a lot of others are voting with their feet, or at least wheels.

There is NO REASON WHATSOEVER why the car park can't have a conventional max stay system (via number plate cameras?) or even a pay and display system, refundable in the shops with a minimum purchase. This would be a 'win' for both consumers and retailers.

The current UKCPS system is more like 'Nobody wins'. There's precisely zero chance now that anyone would visit these shops unless they had a very specific need and an awareness that they couldn't venture from the car park without physically driving their car out.

For example, McDonalds is apparently considered a separate car park by the idiots at UKCPS, so if you park in the main Forbury Retail Park and then walk 30 metres to McDonalds, you're classed as 'Walking off-site' and the UKCPS people leap up on your car and apply the £100 fine.

The lasting effect of this for me is that I've resolved to drive into Reading as little as possible and use the bus. Which means that I'll only be shopping in the main town centre... and not spending my money in Forbury Retail Park.

UKCPS probably don't mind, they've still got a stream of unaware drivers to fine £100 a time. That's their main income. But THE RETAILERS SHOULD CARE. They're the ones who are suffering and they'll go out of business (cough Comet, a few years ago). They need to complain to the landlord to get the car park system changed.

Because the current one really isn't working. For anyone other than bean counters at UKCPS. And I've no desire to ever ben involved with that business ever again.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: Lumsing Bluetooth Car Kit with FM transmitter

Bluetooth car kits are all very well, but a lot of them involve either some DIY to your car's dashboard or the right sockets (even just 3.5mm aux in) on your car stereo.

Which is why I was interested in grabbing this Lumsing gadget which claims to effectively turn any car into a Bluetooth-capable media monster instantly and cheaply, thanks to the 'magic' of FM transmission.

Now, FM transmitters are in themselves not new, they've been around for years, but you normally have to plug these into your smartphone with a 3.5mm jack - the secret sauce here (other than being sleek, small and stylish) is that the audio connection to your smartphone for music, podcasts and call handling, is all done wirelessly, via Bluetooth.

The usual caveats apply in terms of finding a frequency that works well for you - in the UK, I usually swear by 88.4MHz, but a lot will depend on where you live. The power output from this Lumsing unit seems pretty good though and I rarely got hit by interference from nearby FM stations. One omission here is that there's no 'auto-scan-for-blank-frequency' function, something which you sometimes find in other transmitters.

The unit is small and light, and mounts onto a magnetic back, which you can stick (using the supplied pad) to any surface should you not have a magnetic surface in your car already. One nice touch is that the transmitter rotates on its base, so as to relieve strain on the power cable/antenna and also to let you tidy the cable away more easily.

In my car, the circular Lumsing transmitter matched the other circular controls perfectly, so it was natural to stick it onto the dashboard plastic, where it has been secure.

In terms of controls, you get frequency adjustment, track forwards and back, plus play/pause, with a tidy LCD display to confirm the frequency currently being transmitted at. The Bluetooth connection to my test smartphones was trivial and you connect just as with any other Bluetooth audio device, there's no pairing code needed.

Although this doesn't support the Apt-X Bluetooth codec, the standard A2DP profile was fine and our family has been enjoying trips with high quality music, streamed from iPhones and Windows Phones. And when it comes to taking a call, pressing the top right button answers and there's then built-in noise cancellation to keep the audio tidy.

The instruction manual talks about long pressing the top right button to launch Siri on the iPhone, which is fair enough but it does nothing for Android users, so this may be of limited use. Best to still use the controls on the phone itself for most people.

There's a dual port (1A/2A) 12V car adapter in the box, which is very welcome indeed. For most people, plugging the FM/Bluetooth gadget into the lower power USB port then gives you a high current port with which to charge your smartphone quickly. it's neat and... just works.

At £18 (currently) in the UK on Amazon, this is priced about right. Possibly not an outright bargain, but certainly not too expensive - in our car it replaced an old wired FM transmitter adapter and is half the size, weight, is far more elegant... and comes in cheaper as well. Love it!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Review: Hansmare Leather Skin for Apple iPhone 6/6S

Another in my occasional series of iPhone 6/6S case reviews - I'm all for leather when used tastefully and you can't fault the finish here, which is heavily textured leather laid on a plastic substrate - there are no rough edges (despite the relatively low price) and there's a definite premium feel:

It's a typical in-situ design, of course, with the aim here to both look good and also aid protection and grip. It achieves the latter to some degree with the texture, though the 'genuine leather' was coated with something that made it slightly more slippery that it should have been.

Moreover, the Hansmare case makes a song and dance in its promotional material about the edges being raised up enough to protect the iPhone in the event of a fall face down - but I'm sorry, this isn't what's found in real life - the sides barely made it flush with the glass surface and there's really very little protection:

Sorry Hansmare, back to the drawing board - higher quality leather, please, no extra coatings and sides that rise another millimetre and curve around the phone slightly.

You can grab this iPhone 6/6S case for about £14 from Mobile Fun UK. It's not a bad accessory and would certainly make a change for some owners - though it's only available in black and 'mint' and a red or blue version might be even more striking.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Don't need that fourth pole? Clarito are the headphones you want...

This is an interesting sideline from one of my favourite manufacturers of smartphone headsets. ROCKJAW have produced the stunning Arcana v2 and Alfa Genus headsets in the past, with a forth pole on the 3.5mm jack, for microphone and media control of course. Audio quality from each of these is exemplary and there's really no need to spend more than a few tens of pounds for other in-ear headsets - the Arcana v2 have been my go-to reference headset across all smartphones now for almost a couple of years.

Now, the Arcana v2 have been discontinued, but the Hydra v2 are very similar and only a few pounds more.

Now, what's this? Clarito is a cheaper budget version of the old Hydra/Arcana v2 design, but with standard 3-pole jack, i.e. there's no microphone and thus are aimed at wider headphone use. (Yes, you can use them with a smartphone, but you'll have no pause control or way of picking up a call.)

There doesn't seem to be a compromise in audio quality though - the Clarito drivers are every bit as high quality as the previous ROCKJAW designs, with crisp treble (think hi-hats and cymbals) and very decent bass. The latter if you take the time to pick the silicone seals that fit your ears and then insert them sufficiently to make a good seal*

* so many people give up on in-ears because they're afraid of them - in my experience, get the seal right and then you can really hear the quality in both the source audio material and the headphone drivers.

You get four different sizes of seal/bud in the package and they're all of high quality and distinctive, with an inner red core, as shown above.

The aluminium Clarito ear drivers are clearly marked with 'left' and 'right', something which many headsets omit - you've got to get these details right in order to appreciate stereo music with the sound stage that the artist intended, especially for live albums.

90% of my music is from smartphones, since they're the devices that are always with me, and I therefore need the facility to take calls, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this 3-pole Clarito headset for more generic headphone duties (e.g. iPod, iPad, radio, CD players).

At £24 including worldwide shipping these are a bit of a bargain. If, as I say, you don't need that fourth pole!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: the Motomo Ino Slimline for the Apple iPhone 6/6s

I know, I know, it's in rose gold. But in this case, my daughter was doing the road testing - a fortnight of real world rough and tumble, in and out of pockets and bags. And the Ino design proved hard wearing and quite superb. Yes, there are a thousand similar clip-on cases from your local high street shop at a few pounds less, but this Motomo-branded case is premium from start to finish.

The Ino case comes in deluxe packaging, with the case wrapped around a dummy iPhone cutout mounted on shaped foam. Now that's attention to detail!

The Ino Slimline design is plastic, but its beautifully finished in mock 'brushed metal', here in rose-gold that would match the iPhone it's designed to protect (though our iPhone was the original gold - not that the two clash!) and with a grippy inner lining designed to help hold the iPhone in place:

Not that the iPhone 6 or 6s would slide out, because it's held too well by the edges and corners, but in the event of a fall, the more shock protection and stability the better!

The Ino Slimline is clipped on in the usual way:

In use, the iPhone is only a millimetre or two thicker, while being protected from at least casual knocks and falls. More to the point, the case looks good too and it's a simple way to also change one's iPhone to rose gold in a few seconds(!):

The finish is stunning - and if you didn't know it was plastic you'd swear it really was rose gold brushed aluminium. The fit and finish around the phone's buttons is an area where many cases fall down, but there's sufficient clearance here and nice rounded edges, making for a very pleasant in-situ experience:

In addition to corner grip, there's extra bracing at top and bottom as well - I wasn't going to tempt fate with a drop test, but I'd guess that the typical metre drop onto tarmac would be no problem - the initial shock would be taken by the case - at worst, the case might pop off, but thereby absorbing much of the impact in the process and leaving the iPhone hopefully unscathed.

My daughter is quite picky about iPhone cases but this Motomo Ino Slimline has become a favourite. Yes, it was sent in for review, but if it hadn't been then we'd be picking up anyway. This case can be found here at Mobile Fun in their iPhone 6/6s accessories pages. I think £12.99 for this is very reasonable indeed.

Turns out it's quite easy to forget to blog...

Well, there we go. With me writing for an increasing number of sites, including Android Beat, iPhoneHacks and All About Windows Phone, and then doing the Phones Show and PSC on top, I kind of forgot to blog. For about 9 months. Ahem.

Or maybe there just hasn't been as much to 'rant' or 'rave' about in recent times?

No.... that can't be it, the world's going quietly potty and quite bizarre. Donald Trump is running for president in the USA and the whole of the UK has to vote on an issue that only 1% of people really understand.

Anyway, let's try and kick start this blog again. I have some accessory bits and pieces that can go up shortly, aimed at keeping my family happy, tech-wise....(!)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Of broken wrists and summer breaks....

To all my Phones Show viewers, please note that I didn't take a break over the summer holidays as I normally do, i.e. the shows kept on coming and indeed, increased in frequency. However, my elderly (79) and recently widowed father has just had a major fall, breaking his arm and wrist and I'll be needed helping him at least part time for a few weeks, as you can imagine. Adding complications are that he's on the other side of the UK, so there will be many miles on the motorway backwards and forwards....
So.... I'm taking my annual short break from filming now. The Phones Show will return soon, probably around the time the new Nexus devices appear on the streets.

The Phones Show Chat audio podcast will continue, of course, since there's a lot less time that's involved in that - a PSC takes two hours to put together, of which 75 minutes is spent recording. Whereas a ten minute video Phones Show takes around fifteen hours of planning, writing, filming and editing! If any of you have ever done much video editing then you know how fiddly it can be!

Hopefully you'll all understand and will continue to keep supporting me and the shows in various ways. A reminder that the donations page is here.

Thank you.
Steve Litchfield

Thursday, September 03, 2015

August 2015 was when the Web broke and the red mist descended

The World Wide Web is broken. It's been breaking for the last few years, but I saw red a week ago

  • when pages on almost all sites were taking 30 seconds plus to load, with widgets and content being dragged in from dozens of sites that I wasn't visiting
  • when 90% of what I was seeing was adverts
  • And, most of all, when stories starting emerging of malvertising - malware, spyware and ransomware all being spread through various advertising chains used on high profile web sites

"Enough is enough", I thought and I asked around as to whether there was an easy way to just block ads once and for all, for my family's farm of laptops and PCs, to keep us all safe. The unanimous reply was "uBlock Origin" - look under 'Extensions' in your web browser and you'll find it. It's free and fast and has dramatic effects.

Typically, an ad-heavy/laden web page in 2015 might take up to minute to load and will contain content from multiple ad servers, any of which might be compromised and there's nothing you can do about it.

In contrast, with 'uBlock Origin' installed in Safari, Chrome or Firefox, the same page typically finishes loading in under seconds and with precisely zero unwanted visual content and precisely zero risk of 'malvertising' hitting your computers.

Job done.

Of course, the very fact that users have to knowledgeable enough to install something like this means that the Web as a vehicle for the masses is completely broken. To them, it's a place where everything takes an age, where adverts get in the way and where many are being taken over as 'bots' without their knowledge or hit by ransomware, encrypting their files. It's a disaster, and no wonder why more and more people use their smartphone as their main computer - it's just much safer and quicker.

Is there a solution? Ideally sites should stop being so greedy for ad money that they stuff every square millimetre of their page design with adverts. Ideally they should vet their ad suppliers better. Ideally there should be server-side scanning of such ads for malicious content. But I don't hold my breath for any of that.

Which means that more and more people are turning to ad-blockers as the only way to survive. The ONLY way, at the moment. The open Web as we knew it is dead, corrupted by an over-use of on-screen ad panes, pop-ups, scripted interactivity and vulnerabilities.

"But Steve", comes the obvious question, "Most of the sites you write for (including this blog!) have adverts!" Which is true, though I don't always approve of the extent of the scripting and ad coverage. I'd far rather income was generated by subscriptions or donations for content rather than hoping fly-by users clicked on content, often by mistake!

PS. Coincidentally, Steve Gibson covered uBlock Origin on Security Now this week.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Hacking the most out of the Nexus 5 speaker

Having been donated a slightly battered Nexus 5 as an Android M test device, I thought I'd got nothing to lose in terms of hacking it further. One of the biggest drawbacks of the otherwise still perfect '5' has been that the mono loudspeaker isn't very loud and is tinny.

Now, obviously you can't turn a small speaker into a big one, but there are things you can do to let the component produce everything it's capable of. LG's design rather muffles the Nexus 5's speaker (positioned bottom left as you look at the phone normally, or bottom right from the back), by as much as 25% in terms of volume and tone.

So, why not claw back that 25%, at the expense of a few err.... extra holes? This was originally postulated here, but I went slightly further. Again, this Nexus 5 already had scuffs and a few bits of plastic broken off, so I had nothing to lose!

Here's a pictorial representation of what I did, with the red arrows showing the new holes:

The theory is that the three extra holes in the speaker assembly (the actual component  is under the 'HH." legend, i.e. that rectangular moulding) help provide a path for sound to escape through the rest of the Nexus 5 lower body, adding slightly to the volume and also providing a little bass reflex action to improve the tone.

In addition, I wondered if the small holes on the case's bottom (i.e. to let the primary sound out) were a little too small. Working purely on gut feel, I drilled two much larger holes through the plastic (probably too big, but hey!) and also removed the small rubber gasket (shown right, above), which was partially obscuring one of my new holes.*

* I left the dust filter over the output port of the original speaker, don't worry, so there's no danger of dust getting to the main speaker membrane. It was tempting to remove this as well, but that might have been a step too far in terms of leaving the component vulnerable!

The upshot of all this is that the sound output from my Nexus 5 is significantly louder and slightly deeper. Without two identical Nexus 5s to compare/test, it's hard to put a figure to it all (i.e. in dB) - in hindsight I wish I'd measured output with a sound meter before starting the drilling! But that 25% improvement I quoted above seems in the right ballpark.

The usual disclaimers apply - if you try this and break something then I'm not responsible!

PS. Getting the Nexus 5 back off is trivial, see here on YouTube, for example.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: OtterBox Symmetry for iPhone 6

The world of iPhone cases is vast, of course. Every street corner, every vendor. Every pattern known to man - yet invariably made in a similar fashion, with the in-situ cases made from hard plastic or TPU. And above it all strides the phone case colossus that is OtterBox, one of the biggest brands and best known for designs that can take extreme punishment. This is their new offering for the iPhone 6 and it 'does exactly what it says on the tin', at the expense of increasing the cased thickness to 12mm. Job done, though.

Yes, it seems sacrilegious to encase the iPhone's smooth aluminium lines in plastic and neoprene, not least because it almost doubles the thickness, but if you drop your phone once a month (which seems about average for iPhone owners across the globe who try to use the device 'naked') then a case is the only way to go, protecting against unsightly dings to the metal and a probable shattered screen.

The Symmetry design looks similar to other OtterBox rugged designs, in that there's an outer hard shell and an inner soft one, giving the best of both worlds in terms of protection, yet in this case the two materials aren't separate - they're bonded together and you have to manoeuvre the iPhone 6 into it. Easing the metal past the pressure of the outer shell and the clawing neoprene turns out to be somewhat tricky, but once in place there's a feeling that your iPhone is set for life - whatever gets thrown at it.

In fact, the Symmetry (obviously) doesn't waterproof your phone, since the ports are all open, but in terms of drops and shocks, the OtterBox design is all-protecting. Moreover, with the neoprene rim and textured plastic back, your iPhone 6 just got grippier, so it's less likely that you'll drop it in the first place, so it's a win-win.

The cutouts around the periphery are well textured and each big enough for connections where appropriate. The OtterBox folk have been designing cases for a while and it shows. Importantly, the moulded button covers on each side are also superbly executed - it's not a chore to try and press through these onto the iPhone's native buttons beneath.

In use, I much prefer the 12mm, protected feel than the 7mm naked experience. Yes, the latter looks great in adverts and in the boardroom, but when you're actually mobile and using a phone in the real world, the more protection the better and in my test period never did I once even come close to losing my grip on the Symmetry design here.

The design is available in various colour schemes, but the colourful 'Floral Pond' one here perfectly suits the iOS 8 default theme, I think. It's perhaps aimed at women more than men, but at last count there were fourteen colours and designs for the Symmetry, right down to jet black, so there's clearly something appropriate for every iPhone 6 user.

The only slight caveat is that getting the iPhone 6 out of the Symmetry case isn't for the faint-hearted - think getting a bicycle tire off a wheel rim. Strong fingernails, iron-strength-digits and patience are the order of the day - my best time, even with practice, was still almost a minute. This is not a case that you can slip on and off in a trice because you're 'on a big day out'. The Symmetry design is to be installed and left on, day and night. Just a friendly warning.

Of course, with the degree of protection all round you may not want to remove the phone, in which case it really is job done all round. At £30 in the UK, this is an expensive option but then it's a heck of a lot cheaper than a screen replacement for an iPhone, so still comes highly recommended. (Case supplied by MobileFun in the UK)