Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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This Androidless Life #2 – Getting the Jitters

June 4, 2013

Vista busy cursor  This is the second post in my series documenting my experiences in attempting to make the switch from Android user to iPhone user. As previously explained, this is not down to any kind of dissatisfaction with Android – I have been delighted with my Galaxy Note. Rather, I now get an iPhone paid for by my employer so it makes sense to use that as my one smartphone for everything and save the cost of the monthly contract on my Android.

My initial expectation was that I would miss some of the Galaxy Note’s benefits but find I could pretty much get the same basic utility out of the iPhone. After all, when it comes down to it I have only a few basic requirements out of a smartphone (aside from the obvious ability to make/receive calls, send/receive text messages, email, calendar) namely:

  • Podcast download and playback (via podcatcher app)
  • Audiobook download and playback (via Audible app)
  • Ebook reader (via Kindle app)
  • Bluetooth A2DP support so I can listen to podcasts/audiobooks on bluetooth earphones or in the car

Let’s start with podcasts. I first tried Apple’s default stock podcast app and rapidly realised it was far too basic, much as Google’s stock podcatcher is reputed to be. For example, it does not allow me to set the fast forward/back buttons on the bluetooth (or any) headset to skip forward or back by 30 seconds or a minute, as opposed to skipping to the next podcast. That alone was a dealbreaker. So I “cast” around, read some reviews and alighted on iCatcher! by the charmingly named Joeisanerd.com. Now iCatcher! is the real deal and very comparable with Doggcatcher, my Android podcast app of choice.

Another key requirement for me is the ability to vary playback speed. Typically I listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed otherwise I’d never get the time to listen to them all. In the Android world there is the Presto app which is used by other apps to carry out the clever digital signal processing that allows speed to be varied without changing pitch or losing quality. In the iOS world, Apple have built a utility into the OS and iCatcher! unsurprisingly uses it. Which would have been fine except that on speech podcasts I can hear a distinct and annoying “flutter” or “jitter” at 1.5X speed. It’s fine at 1.25X, but that isn’t quick enough to get through my podcast listening schedule and still squeeze in some decent progress with whichever Audible book I happen to be reading.

I can’t think of a way round this one other than wait for Apple to improve their software to the standard of Presto.

Not a great start.


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This Androidless Life #1 – The Holy Grail

May 28, 2013

Vista busy cursor Android has come of age in the last year or so, matching the iPhone for polish. It was already ahead in terms of flexibility and customisability. It is no longer anathema to switch from iOS to Android and former Apple fanboy bloggers have been known to share their experiences and learning processes on dipping their toes in the Android world.

Not so much comment, however, on how well dyed-in-the-wool Android users get on with switching to the iPhone. After all, it is hard to imagine many wanting to go in that direction just at the point when even the Apple faithful are running out of  reasons to put Android down. But that is what I may well find myself doing.

Blackberry substitute

Blackberry substitute

Until last Friday, I had never had an iPhone. I bought them for my wife and children, but chose a Samsung Galaxy S for myself when the contract on my old Windows Mobile phone expired. I confess that at the time it was mainly down to not wanting to follow the herd, but I have since become very partial to Android, enjoying the larger screens, custom launchers, automation apps such as Tasker and slick keyboards such as Swype, all of which are denied to iOS users.

So why am I moving to the iPhone? Well, it’s actually the company I work for that’s switching allegiances. In addition to my personal Android phone, I have for the last two years been carrying around a work’s Blackberry. It’s one of those horrible little dumpy things with a microscopic physical keyboard and tiny screen. But it was the only way to get at my corporate email and calendar while on the move. And the firm paid for it. I made all my work calls on the BB and personal calls on the Android – which made things easy for me when it came to claiming expenses.

But now my employer has replaced my BB with an iPhone 5 and that raises a question: can I justify going around everywhere with two smartphones? If I can use the iPhone to do all the things I would have used the Android for, then I can dispose of the latter, saving a considerable monthly bill, and have fewer devices to lug around. In principle I would have achieved the holy grail. That to me carries more weight than any petty loyalty to one mobile platform or another.

So I’m starting a series of posts to chart my attempt to make the switch to the iPhone, by analogy to my old “This iPhoneless Life” series. And I have already hit some potential showstoppers, but that’s for next time.


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Note Upgrade Still Impending

April 8, 2013

Vista busy cursor  It is months since Samsung updated their micro-site for the original Galaxy Note promising an upgrade to Jelly Bean and adding key features from the Note II such as split-screen multi-tasking. I have the international version of the Galaxy Note, the GT-N7000, but so far no sign of any update.

I have no doubt at all that the fault lies entirely with my carrier, T-Mobile, latterly rebranded as Everything Everywhere following their merger with Orange. Nothing Anywhere would have been more apt, or perhaps No Upgrade to Anything.

I remember exactly the same thing happening with the Froyo upgrade to my previous phone which was the Samsung Galaxy S. There again T-Mobile kept users waiting for months, supposedly testing the ROM out before deeming it safe to roll out. It is almost enough to drive one to a Nexus device, but even then upgrades are not instantaneous. Also, I like the idea of some of the Samsung added in features, such as the split-screen multi-tasking, which are of course not available with a stock Android ROM.

If it comes to it I will install the Jelly Bean ROM for my phone manually. It has been available from say the SamMobile site for some time. All that is stopping me is the risk of bricking my phone. The detailed procedures are set out in detail and the danger of an irreversible disaster is probably quite low, but I still have the thick end of a year to go on my contract so sensible caution dictates that I allow T-Mobile just a little longer before I take the plunge.


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Impending Upgrade Noted

December 28, 2012

Vista busy cursor  Samsung have just updated their micro-site for the original Galaxy Note with details of a Premium Suite upgrade which incorporates many of the features hitherto only available on the Note II, for example multi-screen.

The upgrade details also confirm that the original Note will be getting Jelly Bean (Android 4.1). This is not really news – the original Note was one of the models slated for Jelly Bean a good many months ago. What is news is that there is at last some prospect of Jelly Bean arriving in the very near future, not that Samsung have promised anything around timing. They are in any event beholden to the carriers. My Note is on EE (T-Mobile) which does not augur well; they always seem to take far longer than anyone else to release updates.

All in all, the Jelly Bean upgrade for the Note has been a long time in coming. I will be lucky if it arrives within a year of my first acquiring the phone (mid-February). It probably comes down to Samsung deciding to package up Jelly Bean for the Note with a port of the multi-view, popup note, photo note and other features from the Note II which is very sweet (suite?) of them but has added considerably to the delay.

It will have been worth it, and would have been for multi-view on its own. It almost turns the Note into a Note II. Let’s just hope EE don’t spin out the roll-out for months and months.


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Making a Scene over a Power Cut

December 26, 2012

Vista busy cursor  Last Sunday we woke early to find the power was out, and clearly had been for hours. It wasn’t just the house circuit-breaker which had tripped; the whole street was dark. I used my phone to check the Scottish Power website and found that the problem was known about and a fix expected by around 10am. In the event the power came back on a little earlier than that.

There was no harm done; the outage was not long enough for food in the freezers to start thawing.  All the same, I wondered if there might have been some way I could have been alerted earlier. It is not as if we get power cuts every other week, but this happens two or three times a year and an outage just after we had gone to bed might go unnoticed until the morning, easily long enough to risk problems with the food in the freezers.

A thought had come to me as I picked up my phone to check the power company’s website. My phone was plugged in to the charger, as it is every night. At the hardware level, the circuitry would have detected that the battery was no longer charging when the power cut out. Could this not have been intercepted programmatically and made to trigger an audible alert?

plug

I searched the Google Play Store for apps that could be used to detect power cuts. I only found two of note. One was a paid app designed to detect outages on key circuits, e.g. the circuit that powers the freezers, at a holiday home or business – in any event somewhere remote. It would send a text to a chosen mobile number to warn of an outage. But I did not want to be alerted by text; I just wanted a simple audible alarm to warn of a local residential area power cut. This app could not do that.

There was another app which did have the audible alert functionality I was after. Except that it was very poorly written. Once the alarm had started sounding, there was no way to stop it without rebooting the phone! Both apps were uninstalled in double quick time.

For a short period I seriously thought of writing my own app to do the job properly, maybe marketing it.  I have been dabbling in Android app development and am well up to the task. Then I had my second lightbulb moment. I could probably program the Tasker app to provide the functionality I wanted. Tasker is a wonderful app which can be used to customise the behaviour of Android phones in any number of creative ways. I’ve written posts about Tasker before, for example the profile I created to ensure notification sounds were muted at night time. To use Tasker you specify “what” should happen and “when”. The “what” will be some specific action you wish to happen automatically, such as a change in notification volume, turning on the wi-fi or the sounding of an audible alarm. Determining the “when” consists of creating “profiles”, descriptions of particular statuses, such as proximity to a particular geographical location, the period between specified hours of the day, etc. One of the options for profile is “on AC power”, so Tasker can be programmed to trigger actions when the phone is plugged in to the mains and when it is disconnected. Note that from Tasker’s perspective there is no difference between unplugging the charger and a power cut. Either way, the hardware detects that the supply of AC power has stopped.

It is very easy to create a Tasker profile which detects when AC power is disconnected and sounds an alarm. Unfortunately, that would cause the alarm to sound every time I disconnected the charger in the morning. I needed something a bit cleverer – maybe arrange for the sounding of the alarm to be deferred for a minute or so and meantime display a dialog box which the user would press to cancel the alarm. That way, each morning when I took the phone off the charger I would see the dialog box and tap to prevent the alarm going off. If, on the other hand, there was a power cut during the night I would sleep through the display of the dialog box and be awakened by the power cut warning alarm a minute later. The question is whether Tasker was clever enough to make such a solution possible.

The answer is yes. At one time it would not have been. What has made the difference is the introduction of “Scenes” into its functionality around a year or so ago. When Scenes were first announced, I was not sure what to do with them. I had a brief play but did not really “get” them so left them be. It was only when I started thinking about Tasker and power cuts that I realised I could use a Scene to add the dialog box functionality that would make the whole idea workable. The Scene I created is a dialog box occupied in its entirety by a button. When the phone exits the “on AC power” profile, it kicks off a series of actions.  The first is to display the dialog box with its button, labelled “Cancel Disconnection Alarm”. The second is to set a “user variable” named %POWERCUTALARM to status ON. It then performs a 60 second “wait” operation and the third is to play an mp3 file (the power cut alarm) but only if  %POWERCUTALARM is still set to ON.

Should the user have tapped on the button in the dialog box before the 60 second wait had run its course, this would have triggered the execution of Tasker commands to set %POWERCUTALARM to OFF with the result that the alarm mp3 would not play. 

I have tested all this with a simulated power cut, the simulation taking the form of switching the mains off at the socket where the charger is plugged in. It may be a while before we get a real power cut to test with, but I’m happy if that does not happen for months and months.

There is a postscript. Another idea, but less of a lightbulb and more a slap on the head.  This is to do with the Tasker profile which mutes notifications at night. I had this originally set so the profile would be active at specific times of the day, e.g. coming on at midnight and off at 8am. Those times proved to be too rigid, so I later moved on to switching the profile on and off manually by linking the profile to a button on my phone’s desktop. But the best solution is to have notifications muted when the phone is on AC power, because that corresponds exactly to when I am in bed asleep. But until the power cut incident I had never thought to check whether Tasker could respond to changes in mains power connection status. I have now adapted the Tasker Power Cut profile to also control muting of notification sounds.  All obvious in hindsight.

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Driver to Distraction

November 19, 2012

Vista busy cursor  Another whinge, I’m afraid, this time about Canon and their failure to provide driver upgrades for older peripherals. I don’t want to be forced to buy replacements for ageing but perfectly serviceable peripherals, much as I can understand manufacturers wishing me to. At least there is a happy ending to this tale.

The device in question is Canon’s LiDE 50 scanner which I guess I acquired around 5 or 6 years ago. At that time I was running Windows XP. I think the driver support was there when I switched to Vista but recall having considerable difficulty getting the device to run on Windows 7. That would have been around March 2010, but I recently had the same issue again when wanting to use the scanner with a newish  Windows 7 Lenovo T430 laptop.

I remembered that on that occasion in 2010 I had been unable to install the driver from the supplied CD, tried the manufacturer’s website and discovered there was no Windows 7 driver available. I then did as anyone would (what you probably just did) and searched on the ‘net for a possible solution. What I found was that there was a Windows 7 driver for a slightly later model, the LiDE 60, which would still recognise and support my scanner.  I’m not certain where I came across that particular nugget but I still had the Canon driver on my desktop PC.  The latter originally came from here.

I thought it would just be a matter of running the SetupSG.exe file as administrator, but it simply did not run. I could see it was starting with a Winzip self-extract but the extracted driver install program would not launch and (oh so helpfully) the temporary files were deleted.  Googling for a solution brought me here. So it turns out that you have to install and use winRAR to do the extract then plug in the scanner, find it as an unsupported device in Device Manager, use the driver update utility and point it at the newly extracted driver file. The driver update hung on the first attempt, but mysteriously “took” on the second after a reboot.

I thought it would be plain sailing from there. The scanner was being recognised by the OS and was making scannerish noises on system boot up. But when I actually tried to scan an image into Photoshop it failed with the error message “The program can’t start because rmslantc.dll is missing from your computer”. Searching for a fix for that took me to Aaron Kelley’s blog. Thankfully, the remaining steps were not hard and well explained by Aaron. The scanner now works fine.

All the same, it was quite a job to get there, needing a number of steps, a lot of Googling and even more perseverance. It really should not be that hard.

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How to Press your TV into Service as Video Podcast Player

October 21, 2012

Vista busy cursor  Acquiring a TV that can connect to my home wifi, more specifically a Samsung Smart TV, has proven to be transformative.  Surprisingly so. I finally have a proper solution to a problem that has been bugging me for a long time, namely how to watch video podcasts on an HD TV. That is, as opposed to on a phone, tablet or computer, and as conveniently as if I were watching normal broadcast programmes.  It’s not that I spend a lot of time watching video podcasts; currently I only watch three shows a week. Still, when I do take the time to watch them I want to do so in comfort and with a minimum of hassle.

Before arriving at the complete solution, there were a couple of false starts.

False Start 1 – Laptop and HDMI cable

Our Samsung Smart TV, bought for the master bedroom to replace a dying cathode ray TV, was not our first HD TV. We had already acquired a 42″ Toshiba TV for the living room, albeit not a Smart TV. My first attempt at “lean back” podcast viewing involved hooking up my laptop’s mini displayport, via adapter and HDMI cable, to the Toshiba TV, having used iTunes to download my video podcasts to the laptop over the home wifi. This setup did work, in the sense that I could sit back in my armchair and watch my podcasts on the TV, but it was hardly a slick solution, the downsides being:

  • It was not trivial to get the laptop (running Windows XP) to recognise the TV and send a video signal to it
  • The TV would cut out when I closed the lid of the laptop! If I left the lid open I could see the video in two places and found that disconcerting. After a fair bit of Googling and messing with the Windows settings I did manage to cure the problem
  • I was forever having to use the TV’s own remote control to switch the picture size to “native” (as opposed to, say, “wide”) otherwise parts of the picture would get cut off
  • I had no remote control for video playback! I was effectively using my TV as a PC monitor so found myself having to use the mouse for play/pause/rewind, etc. The HDMI cable was too short to allow me to use the mouse from the comfort of my armchair, so I had to get up to pause the video if the phone rang.
  • I couldn’t really leave the laptop on and connected to the TV the whole time, so whenever I wanted to do some video podcast watching there was the faff of booting the laptop up, connecting the cable up, often having to wait for my shows to download and then having to disconnect it all afterwards.

False Start 2 – Android phone and MHL cable

When the Samsung Galaxy SIII was announced, one of the features that caught my notice was Allshare Cast.  It allows you to mirror the phone’s display on the TV in real time, although you have to buy a specific Samsung accessory, a wifi dongle that plugs into the TV. This sounded like the ideal solution for my video podcasts, but I had by then already upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy Note which does not support Allshare Cast.  The Note does, however, support HDMI out, or at least MHL over micro USB which amounts to the same thing. The bottom line is you can still mirror the phone’s display on a TV provided you get the right cable and adapter. A cheaper solution than Allshare Cast but the phone has to be located close to the TV, because of the cable, so again I was missing my remote.  The beauty of Allshare Cast would have been that I could have kept the phone with me and used it, effectively, as a remote.

I had the idea of trying to use my old Android phone, an original Samsung Galaxy S, as a remote. I looked for apps that would allow me to control the Galaxy Note from the Galaxy S. The obvious choice would have been Droidmote, but that requires root and there is no way I was going to take a chance on rooting a Galaxy Note right near the start of a 2-year contract.

I also tried a curious app called Tablet Remote from Tournesol which uses bluetooth for inter-device communication and a custom keyboard on the “controlled” device to implement the transmitted commands without need for root. It is a bit of a fiddle to set up but did work very well for a day or so. Then the bluetooth connection started generating errors and there was no recovery from that.  I did have a dabble at writing my own Android apps to do something similar but have parked that since I now have a satisfactory solution.

The solution – Samsung Smart TV, Allshare and Juice

I bought the Samsung 22″ 1080p TV because I needed a new TV, not because I had a fix for my podcast problem in mind. And I bought a TV with Internet connectivity simply because more and more new models are offering this and there seemed no sense in investing in older tech just to save a few coppers. In truth, I was not sure what the benefits of a Smart TV really were. Very likely a lot of people buy Smart TVs because they are the “latest thing” but then just proceed to use them with broadcast TV, satellite or cable, which is what they are used to, without ever taking the time to explore the additional options brought by Internet access. Samsung do at least recognise this by featuring a very large, colourful and conspicuous button, right in the middle of the remote, to activate the “Smart Hub” screen. It just begs people to ask “What the hell’s that button for?” and maybe give it a whirl.

In my own case I have made considerable use of the Samsung’s Smart TV capabilities but it is not really the Internet access that made the difference. Wifi connectivity to other devices in my house has been the key to my podcast viewing, allied with support for the DLNA protocol. Samsung don’t refer to DLNA explicitly – they use the Allshare brand  – but it is just their own implementation of DLNA. Clearly they want you to buy lots of Samsung devices and connect them up using Allshare, which is understandable to a point, but this goes against the grain of DLNA which is all about ensuring interoperability between devices from different manufacturers for sharing of video, images and audio content over wifi.

The specifics of my podcast solution are as follow:

Source device

I have my video podcasts downloaded automatically to a selected folder on my desktop PC running Windows 7. Should anyone be interested, the shows I currently follow are from Leo Laporte’s This week in Tech (TWiT) network, namely “All About Android“, “Before You Buy” and “Know How“.  They all come out weekly and the latter two are available in HD.

Podcatcher software

I’m using the Juice application, formerly known as iPodder. It looks a bit old-fashioned and clunky but it works very well.  I have it set up to delete the files automatically ten days after download.

DLNA broadcast software

Surprisingly, all you need is Windows Media Player. If you activate the sharing feature, and include the relevant folder in your media library, then WMP will act as a DLNA server, making the files in that folder and its subfolders available for consumption by any DLNA client on the same wifi. Interestingly, I couldn’t make WMP recognise files sitting within the Windows “My Documents” tree, which is where my iTunes  music and videos are located. That meant I couldn’t use iTunes as my podcatcher unless I changed the default iTunes folder and moved all the content across. It was easier to use Juice and pick a download location that WMP could access.

Accessing the video content

Even with the WMP application window closed, the DLNA service is running in the background. I can then press the bright, cube-shaped Smart TV button on my Samsung TV remote and wake up the Smart TV functionality.  From there it is a matter of navigating to the Allshare icon, selecting it and navigating to the “videos” option. My DLNA-enabled desktop PC appears in the list of sources.  I select it and navigate to the folder with my content and select the show I want to watch. It buffers very briefly then plays perfectly.  Beautiful quality, no stuttering.

Remote control

I now have not one but two remote options. I can use the Samsung TV remote to play, pause and FF/FR in 15 second steps.  Unfortunately the 15 second interval is fixed. I can though navigate to any part of the show by using the “tools” button on the remote then selecting “time search”.

An even better option is to use my Galaxy Note as the remote. If I launch the Allshare app on that I can again select the desktop PC as source, navigate to the show I want and then launch it directly from my phone.  I am presented with a dialog box asking whether I want it to play on the Note itself or send it to the Samsung TV for playback.  If I choose the latter, it plays perfectly on the TV as before but I can now use the Galaxy Note as the remote. The advantage is that I get fine control of playback navigation.  Instead of the 15 second forward/back, or the slightly clunky time search, I can navigate within the show to the second by swiping on the Note’s screen.

The upshot is that my podcasts are just there, available to be watched on my Samsung TV, very shortly after each episode is published. No faff, no hassle and I have full remote control for comfortable “lean back” viewing. Heaven.

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