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)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The crazy world of Windows updates, startup items, and 'normobs'

Got to get this off my chest. Here's the situation.

Joe or Josephine Bloggs uses their Windows PC every few days. Sometimes. For a few hours at most. Sounds OK, doesn't it? Except that they keep saying to you "I still use my PC but it's so slow now, do you think I should get a new one?"

Tempting though it is to say "yes'(!), what's actually happening is that Microsoft's update system doesn't take into account PCs which are only turned on for a few hours every few days. With patches being pushed out weekly (or so), they get no chance to download and install in the background (because the computer is - literally - not usually turned on), so when the user does fire up the PC, they have to live with 'updates downloading' in the background. All the flippin' time. Because they're rarely turned on, and online, long enough for the updates to complete.

Add in that when they do boot up their PC it takes 'longer and longer' because EVERY SINGLE STUPID application, when it does its own auto-update thing, also ADDS ITSELF BACK INTO THE STARTUP list each time, even if it has been manually disabled by someone knowledgeable, like you or me.

Combine both effects and Windows is all but untenable now for those with slightly older PCS and who don't leave them on 24/7.

The solutions, as you might expect are to a) buy a faster PC, where the effects are less noticeable and/or b) to, indeed, leave the PC on all the time. This latter is a question of education, since computers work better and last longer this way, but I'll agree that there's a power/ecological issue here. Maybe educate users to leave their PC on once a week overnight, at least?

The whole situation is somewhat broken and frustrating. Especially to you or I who get called out to help or give advice!

What can Microsoft do? Warn people IN THE FOREGROUND that updates are being downloaded and that they should go off for an hour and then come back.

What can app developers do? Respect the current Startup configuration in Windows and not keep trying to re-enable their own app if it has purposefully been disabled there.


iCloud Photos issues!

I'm posting this here, since other short form social networks are proving inadequate 8-)

Here's the problem.

Friend's iPhone, latest iOS, patched up to date etc.

She has a PC with Windows 7 and iCloud installed. Again all up to date. iCloud is on default settings, set to sync all photos to Pictures\iCloud Photos etc.

The iPhone is set to upload all photos to iCloud and 'My Photo Stream' and, after taking a photo, something seems to happen in terms of uploads.

However, we've waited a few DAYS now, and iCloud doesn't seem to have synced anything down.

Any clues, from Apple experts, as to what to try next. It's driving us insane!! Comment below to add your tuppence worth?

Ideas from me so far:
  • re-install iCloud on the PC
  • pray
  • smash the iPhone with a large hammer and switch my friend to Android or Windows Phone

[I'll update this post with more info as requested by anyone kind enough to help!]

Hmm... seems to offer one techy solution. May try this tomorrow. Seems like there should be something more obvious though!

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-)