Posts Tagged ‘O2’

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This iPhoneless Life #11 – iTunes’ Secret Agent

August 27, 2010

iPod To describe my life as iPhoneless is a slight exaggeration. There is definitely an iPhone in my life, my wife’s iPhone 4, and it robs me of sleep.

My wife is addicted to Angry Birds.  It has not quite taken over completely from reading in bed at night (I can thank the late Stieg Larsson for that) but there seems to be an unwritten rule that we have to get through at least 2 or 3 levels of the aforementioned smash hit game before calling it a night.  I am often called in to help out clearing a level if my wife is stuck on it and wants a break to read another chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I am expected to keep going until every last grunting green pig has been blown to bits.


So I know all about the iPhone 4, it’s beautiful “retina” screen and gorgeous build quality. But for my own use I still have my old, battered Windows Mobile phone – an HTC Tytn II (in O2 “Stellar” livery).  It has done a job for me but now enough is enough and I want a modern phone.

Largely out of sheer bedevilment, I am determined not to become an iPhone user like everyone else in my family. And I’m wary of being a Windows Phone early adopter, much as I believe that platform holds out great promise. How could I forget what it was like to be an early adopter of Vista, when the pain of it is still faithfully documented in this blog? So I will go Android, at least for the foreseeable future, and currently favour the Samsung Galaxy S.

It was while I was checking out what the podcast client options look like in the Android world that I came across a free open source application called iTunes Agent. The idea is very simple. It makes your random non-Apple music device look, to iTunes, like an iPod. That means you can use iTunes directly and seamlessly to synchronise music and podcasts with any mp3 player or phone.  iTunes Agent has been around for quite a while and I can’t think how I missed it, particularly when I was casting around for a podcast solution for my HTC WM6 phone. As explained in an earlier post, I have a more than workable solution using iTunes for podcast capture and WMP for synchronisation, but iTunes Agent looked like a neater fix and I thought I should try it out.

I had no trouble installing and running iTunes Agent on my Windows 7 PC, and it hooked up immediately with iTunes. The difficulty I had was getting iTunes Agent to link up to my phone when the latter was connected to the PC via USB.

The way it is supposed to work is that you specify the folder on your music device where you want your synchronised music to live, in my case a folder on the HTC phone’s micro SD storage card. When you connect your phone, iTunes Agent is supposed to detect that this folder  is available on the Windows file system and therefore knows your phone is ready for synchronisation.  The limitation is that iTunes Agent requires your phone or music player to have been allocated a drive letter by Windows, but Windows was just listing my phone under “Portable Devices”. I could easily navigate through the phone’s folders and files using Windows Explorer but no way could I persuade Windows to allocate a drive letter.  And without a drive letter, iTunes Agent refused to accept any folder on the storage card as synchronisation target.

This stumped me for a while until, by dint of frantic Googling, I discovered the difference between the MTP and UMS protocols for connecting storage devices over USB. My phone naturally connects to my PC using MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) – a technology which is reckoned to offer the widest device compatibility with media players – as opposed to UMS (USB Mass Storage) which is targeted more at USB keys and SD card readers. Unfortunately Windows only allocates a drive letter with UMS devices, not with MTP.

More Googling and I found out about two applications that can be installed on a WM phone to make it emulate a UMS device and thus qualify for a drive letter, W5torage and Softick Card Export.  The former was written by a lone developer and is free whereas Card Export is a commercial product. Both were created so that you can in effect use your WM phone as a card reader.

I tried W5torage first.  It installed fine on my phone and appeared to be running, but in UMS mode my PC was not able to detect my phone at all. A quick uninstall and I tried Card Export, which is free to trial for 21 days. I took an instant dislike to the latter because it automatically added an annoying status display to my Today screen and an icon in the notification tray. It did however work. My phone now appeared as the G: drive and at last I was able to configure my phone in iTunes Agent. My HTC now showed up as a device in iTunes.

This did not though constitute a happy ending. Before going much further I was determined to rid my phone’s Today screen of the unwanted Card Export status display.  I went into the phone settings and unticked the Card Export option from the list of Today items. This resulted in my phone locking up. A reboot later and the Today Screen was free of Card Export status, but now my program icons were missing. There was clearly some clash between Card Export and the application manager software from O2 which came with my phone. Now the O2 software is lot more important to me than use of iTunes Agent – my researches in that direction were more curiosity than need – so it was Card Export that was going to have to go.

It took about 10 reboots before the phone was working normally again, with no trace of Card Export, the Today screen displaying all the right items and no lock-ups when I tried to access the Today settings.  There was a moment when I thought I was going to have to ditch the phone as a write-off, or at least restore factory settings.

That is, unfortunately, one of the most problematical issues with Windows Mobile. Lots of apps but easy access by developers to the deep innards of the operating system, which can readily become unstable as a result. I don’t know why iTunes Agent had remained a secret to me for so long but I could have done with it remaining a secret.

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This iPhone 4 wife

August 8, 2010

iPod It seems very strange that I have now purchased 4 iPhones but am still using a Windows Mobile phone. For a while at least I will continue to lead this iPhoneless life. The first 3 iPhones (all 3GSs) were for my children, for the festive season, and just recently an iPhone 4 for my wife, Naomi.

My children are absolutely besotted with their iPhones. In heaven with them. Naomi hates hers and keeps begging me to get rid of it. Until very recently she was a Windows Mobile user too, and had been since the first O2 XDA came out 7 or 8 years ago. But her O2 XDA Orbit2 was suffering death throes (symbolic of the Windows Mobile platform as a whole) and the iPhone seemed the obvious, safe alternative. Naomi had had a play with the kids’ iPhones (admittedly mostly Doodle Jump) and I expected her to take to it straight away. But she is finding the transition very hard going.

Steve Jobs has shown us that the one true smartphone experience has no room for a pesky stylus. Such things are fiddly and keep getting lost or broken. There is no need for any such contrivance if the user interface is properly thought through. Except that Naomi had had plenty of time to get very efficient writing texts etc with a stylus and finds the iPhone keyboard to be a beast, as many do on first acquaintance. Coupled with exceptionally unhelpful predictive text and her unfortunate tendency to hit send on SMS messages by accident and the results are utterly infuriating for her, when they’re not hilarious.

Last week she replied to a text from my son Jonathan which asked for advice on making sure a text he planned to send to a friend was not misinterpreted. She wanted to suggest he tack a smiley on the end of his text. But thanks to her keyboard issues, the unwanted incompetent interference from the predictive text facility and an untimely use of send she ended up advising him to add a “skills” to his text.

The reply came back: “what is a skills and where do I put it?”

Naomi dissolved into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. She could hardly breathe, let alone say a word. Which was highly inconvenient because at that moment I was driving the two of us around the horrible Coventry ring-road system (which I do not know at all), was struggling to make sense of the Satnav and was hoping for some help from my co-pilot. I had to manage without help.

I sense Naomi is settling down, very slowly, to the iPhone. And what are the alternatives? Another moribund Windows Mobile phone? Just putting off the inevitable. A Blackberry with a real keyboard? She likes the tiny buttons even less than Apple’s virtual ones. And there really is no going back to the horrible texting systems we had before smartphones.

So I imagine the iPhone will stay. But in trying to help my wife get on speaking terms with her new phone I have spent a fair bit of time with it and I do see where she is coming from. The more time I spend with it, the more I think Windows Mobile has come in for an unfairly bad rap.

I don’t think I will be buying a fifth iPhone. Not for myself. I know Windows Mobile is on its deathbed and Windows Phone 7 is still some way off being ready to invest in. Most likely I will go with the trend towards Android.

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O2 should give the Zest a rest

July 17, 2009

iPod A hideous disappointment, and that’s being kind. Describing it as a steaming pile of camel droppings is not too harsh. I’m talking about O2’s XDA Zest, the only XDA branded phone to date not made by HTC.

The Zest is made by Asus, better known for motherboards and notebook computers. Their first foray into the smartphone market has not been auspicious.

It looks cheap, feels cheap and the battery won’t hold enough charge to keep it alive overnight. I got my son Alex one of these as a stopgap, to replace his dead LG phone and dead iPod Touch. The plan was to find a phone that would also handle media, in particular being able to take a large (32GB) micro SD card. On paper the Zest fitted the bill, despite being an unfashionable Windows Mobile phone. As I recently found, you can get WM phones to perform perfectly well as media devices.

In practice, twice in a row his alarm failed to go off in the morning because the battery had died, despite having been fully charged the evening before. I wondered if GPS might be on all the time or the power/display options were screwed, but was able to eliminate all issues of that type.  Maybe the battery was defective. Even so, the plasticky build quality compared with every HTC-built XDA I have ever seen was enough to deem the Zest a reject.

It has this morning been collected by the courier.  Good riddance.

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Setting up a home twifi

March 25, 2009

Vista busy cursor My eldest son, who is living at home this year while doing his law conversion course, has been tending to turn up in the oddest places around the house with his Mac perched on his knee. There was a time we hardly saw him – he would take himself up to his room to bury his head in law books – but then he started taking up vantage points in the lounge, half-way up the stairs, on the landing, always with his computer.

It seems wifi reception in his bedroom was becoming a problem. His room is at the opposite end of the house from the study, where the wifi router lives, and on a different floor. He had coped OK in the past but for whatever reason the weakish wifi signal was starting to become more of an issue. His pleas to me to “do something” had got to the level that I had to come up with a solution.

Now I already had a long-range router, a Belkin pre-N, which had always produced a decent signal all around the house. Unfortunately, I had had to stop using it when I switched my broadband service from Pipex to O2 last year, because O2 use the ETHoA protocol which the Belkin does not support. I had had to switch to the poxy Thomson 780 router supplied by O2.

Since then I had occasionally thought about trying to get the best of both worlds by connecting the two routers up in series, using the Thomson to talk to the broadband connection, but then hook it to the Belkin via the LAN to get the benefit of the latter’s better wifi range. From time to time I would Google for tips on how to do this but all I found was uber-geeks on weirdo forums arguing with each other about which ports to connect up, what IP addresses to use and other minutiae to do with configuration settings. It looked too hard and risky so I had never actually bothered to try.

But with Jonny’s growing wifi crisis it had to be worth a go. In the event it only took me around 30 minutes to get everything working, but did get a scare when I thought I had wrecked the Belkin forever. I knew that when you link two routers you need to make sure only one of them has DHCP turned on. DHCP is the technology that allocates IP addresses to devices on your LAN. You don’t want two devices fighting over IP address asssignments if you want the computers and routers on your LAN to be able to communicate with each other.

The advice seems to be to turn DHCP off in whichever router is not connected directly to the broadband service, in this case the Belkin. So I powered down my desktop PC, disconnected it from the Thomson router, connected it to the Belkin (which I had previously powered up) and rebooted the PC. I could now access the Belkin’s configuration panel by opening a browser and entering the address 192.168.2.1. I found the LAN settings screen and selected the DHCP off option. The Belkin rebooted, and now there was no way to communicate with it. The control screen was no longer available on 192.168.2.1. I tried all sort of workarounds, including connecting the Belkin up via the Thomson, hoping it would have been allocated a new IP address in the Thomson’s address range (192.168.1.nnn) but no joy.

In the end I Googled for how to reset the Belkin to factory settings. You have to find the reset button at the back and, with the router on, hold it down for 15 seconds. I hooked the PC up to the Belkin and could again get to the control screen at the 192.168.2.1 address. This time I first used the option to manually choose a new fixed IP address for the Belkin. I chose 192.168.1.100 because I knew it would be compatible with the IP addresses allocated by the Thomson, but would not clash with any other device on the network. Only then did I turn off DHCP.

I then powered everything off and connected my PC up to the Thomson as before. I then connected one of the LAN ports on the Belkin to a spare LAN port on the Thomson. I booted the Thomson up first then the Belkin and the PC. Now I could access the network and Internet from my PC in the normal way. But if I browsed to 192.168.1.100 I could now also access the Belkin settings, so I set up its wifi with WPA-PSK security. I now had two wifis, the one being broadcast by the Thomson and a second one, with different SSID and security password, broadcast by the Belkin. Using a laptop, I could log in to either wifi, and in either case see the rest of the network and use the Internet.

Jonny’s problem solved. Wifi signal from the Belkin is more than adequate in his room. And now that we have a twifi, we have double the wifi bandwidth for Internet traffic, file downloads etc., provided different users log into different wifis.

Twiffic.

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Learning to be underwhelmed … with WMDC

April 12, 2008

Vista busy cursor Windows Mobile Device Center (WMDC for short) is nothing more than a light makeover and rebrand of ActiveSync for Vista. The software is (mostly) the same. The name has been changed to protect the lazy.

I have only just nursed my laptop to an acceptable level of health after ActiveSync did its utmost to emasculate its connectivity. It still plays up occasionally. Admittedly, nothing like that had ever happened before but no way was I going to take any more chances with that laptop.

I have a Vista desktop (hence this blog) so decided to give WMDC a whirl. Microsoft have had years to get this sorted. Surely it would have to be an improvement on ActiveSync as we have come to know it.

It is billed as part of Windows but is not part of the install as shipped. Rather, when you connect a Windows Mobile device via say a USB cable Vista detects it and automatically downloads and installs the latest version of WMDC. It is a long, slow process with little reassuring progress confirmation.

Once installed and running, well, it looks very different from ActiveSync, but that’s only the top level interface. Whenever you dip into any of the more detailed functionality the dialog boxes that pop up look awfully familiar. I took that as a bad sign.

I set WMDC up to synchronise my calendar and contacts only, essentially to capture them into Outlook from my outgoing Windows Mobile device (an O2 XDA Mini S) so they could be copied over to my new WM6 device (an O2 XDA Stellar) on a subsequently synchronisation. The first leg seemed to go fine, albeit very, very slowly. I then hooked up the Stellar, established a new relationship (as it is a separate device) and synchronised with the same Outlook profile. That seemed to go fine too, except when I checked that all my appointments etc were safely replicated I found that far too many of them had gone AWOL.

I had to step through the calendars on both WM devices, one day at a time for up to a year ahead, to identify missing items manually and beam the missed ones across, one at a time, using bluetooth. At least all the contacts had copied over correctly.

It’s not that the manual tidy up was all that onerous. It’s a matter of trust in the software. The whole point of ActiveSync/WMDC is that it should provide reliable data backup and enable you to move your living data intact between devices when you upgrade your PDA or PDA-phone.

While I’m having a jolly good gripe, what about Outlook profiles? I didn’t want my WM device data copy exercise to interfere with the data on the family copy of Outlook on the Vista desktop. Unfortunately, you can only maintain completely disparate Outlook data sets by using separate Outlook profiles, and you can’t switch profiles from within Outlook itself. You have to use the Mail applet in the Windows Control Panel which has been a component of Windows for eons, remains unchanged in Vista and looks utterly archaic.

You can see how Vista has become bloated out of all proportion. Microsoft never get rid of anything in case they break some legacy application support. They just layer on wads of new functionality, like a lazy interior decorator that glues the new wallpaper over the old because they won’t make the effort to strip the walls to the plaster and reline properly. To understand Windows you don’t need a software engineer, you need a software archaeologist.

Oh, and after synchronising the Mail applet/Outlook get locked in the current profile. You have to reboot to free up profile selection. Come on Microsoft, we’re talking about real functionality here which is important to people. Forget the 3D interface and other eye candy. This is what really needs to get sorted, so pull your finger out.

And I do hope WMDC never pulls a nasty trick like ActiveSync did to my laptop or we might have to reacronymise WMDC as Weapon of Mass Destruction for Computers.

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Learning to hate with ActiveSync

April 3, 2008

Vista busy cursor I try not to “do hate”. It’s a matter of personal philosophy. The very act of hating someone or something reduces us to the level of the objects of our hate.

But I make an exception for Microsoft’s ActiveSync. In that one case, hate is perfectly justified. In fact, no negative emotion directed towards it is too extreme.

Even during Vista’s endlessly-rotating-blue-bagel-riddled infancy I did not begin to come close to the desire for murderous revenge regularly engendered by ActiveSync, Microsoft’s lame effort at software for synchronising Windows Mobile devices with MS Outlook.

Since my family started using Windows Mobile devices in 2003 (the original O2 XDA and subsequent incarnations) I have synchronised with Outlook as infrequently as I think I can get away with. It has always been such an utter pain, from the frustration of getting a connection (USB, infra-red, bluetooth, wireless, piece of string with a plastic cup at either end … ActiveSync can fail to locate them all) to the unpredictable and alarming threat of synchronising in the wrong direction thus deleting all one’s new contacts and appointments … and latterly dismembering my laptop’s network connection capability.

Yes, ActiveSync rendered my XP Thinkpad unable to connect to a network via LAN or wireless. Violent, painful death would be a megillion times too good for it, could software but be subjected to torture and assassination.

It started when I upgraded my XDA Mini S to an XDA Stellar. I was in danger of making a second exception to my “no hate” rule for the former’s telescopic stylus which suffers from a congenital design fault and becomes very loose in its storage hole after a while. The stylus would fall out almost every time I picked the Mini S up unless I was very careful. I lost the two that came in the original box and two more from a pack of spares I had to buy from O2. I found myself going to great lengths to carry the phone upside down, to enlist some help from gravity in my stylus-retention challenge. Even so, people would keep finding random disembodied styli lying around the place and returning them to me.

Enough! It had to go, hence the XDA Stellar. A far better bit of kit anyway, and thankfully equipped with a non-collapsible securely stowable stylus.

O2 XDA Stellar

You’ve guessed the downside. I had to get my non-SIM contact details across to the new phone. I hadn’t used ActiveSync in months. I tried infra-red to connect. Slow, but experience had taught me it was less disaster-prone than the USB cable method. No dice. ActiveSync did not want to know. Reluctantly, like an utter fool I resorted to USB. No only did this fail to produce a connection, it caused an ActiveSync freeze-up and general computer crash which left my laptop bereft of any TCP/IP based communication capability whatever.

It has taken me days to get any improvement. I have followed any number of Microsoft Technical articles, checking settings and reinstalling parts of Windows. The biggest help has been uninstalling the ethernet and wireless devices from the Control Panel and allowing Plug and Play to rediscover/reinstall them on a reboot. LAN and wifi are now both operational again, although the latter seems to take ages settling down. It keeps losing the wifi connection and reconnecting every few seconds, for the first 10 minutes or so after a reboot or switch from LAN connection.

Maybe my experience with the Windows Mobile Device Center in Vista will be better. I’m going to try that next, since there is no way I’m letting ActiveSync loose on my laptop again. Who knows? It might turn out out to be the best reason yet to be grateful for Vista.

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Bradbury broadband whinge unhinged

February 5, 2008

Vista busy cursor Viewers of the Gadget Show, Channel five’s consumer technology programme with Jason Bradbury, will be familiar with the follically challenged host’s stalwart campaign for “broadband truth”.

Jason is incensed by the dishonesty of just about every ISP in the country, for the callous deception perpetrated on consumers, advertising broadband of “up to 8 Mb” when in reality they might only be able to get 6.7 Mb if they have the misfortune to live 3km from their telephone exchange. How do ISPs get away with such scandalous misrepresentation?

Jason’s criticism zeroes in on the use of the term “up to” as a get-out. After all, ISPs could safely offer you “up to” 73 heptillion Mb, secure in the knowledge that they need only actually deliver your bits of data one by one on a column of ants and still be honouring their promises. Shocking! Scoundrels to a man!

With all due respect to Jason Bradbury, he is no Esther Rantzen and he is barking up the wrong tree. Or maybe just barking.

jason bradbury

My sympathies are with the ISPs on the subject of advertised speeds. I really do not believe they are deliberately seeking, either singly or in concert, to dupe the public.

ISPs are faced with a challenge when they advertise their offerings. There are different technologies with different capabilities out there in the market. An ISP offering a potentially faster technology would want to communicate that fact, but they cannot promise a definitive connection speed.  That’s because the connection speed any given technology is capable of delivering to a particular consumer depends on a host of factors, including the distance between their home and the relevant telephone exchange, and cannot be established definitively in advance.

In practice, broadband services have to date been advertised by reference to the theoretical maximum speed that a particular broadband technology is capable of. Some ISPs (eg Be Unlimited, O2, Sky) have taken advantage of Local Loop Unbundling to offer ADSL2+, a technology which can theoretically achieve 24 Mpbs although they tend to be conservative and bill it as up to 16 Mbps or 20 Mbps. Most other ISPs buy their broadband wholesale from BT and offer ADSL1 which can only achieve 8 Mbps at best.

For a consumer to actually achieve these theoretical maximum speeds they would have to live within around 2km of their telephone exchange. With greater line lengths there is greater signal attenuation and a resulting cap on the attainable connection speed. The effect of increasing distance can be quite dramatic. The excellent spreadsheet by RichardM in this post allows you to calculate the connection speed you could expect from either ADSL1 or ADSL2+ depending on the “downstream attenuation” figure reported by your router, which in turn depends on distance from the exchange.

Advertised “up to” speeds are not completely meaningless. They are helpful in distinguishing between capabilities of different services, but should not be taken as a promise about actual speed once connected.

I noticed that Pipex no longer advertise on the basis of “up to” speeds, no doubt under pressure from Jason’s misguided campaign. Visitors to their website are presented with a choice of the Mini, Midi, Maxi or Pro options. There is a “speed checker” on the home page but no information about speeds under the various services until you click on the respective “More Info” links, and then you are back to “Up to 8 Mb” type descriptions. To my mind this just makes it harder for consumers to collate the relevant facts so they can make a choice.

Jason is doing a great job of undermining trust in ISPs to no-one’s great benefit. He would do far better to put his efforts into educating consumers about the characteristics of the various technologies on offer by different ISPs, developments in the broadband market and the factors that affect connection speeds in real life.

Better still, forget all about Bradbury and his crazed obsession and go to a serious website like SamKnows. Maybe a bit more technical detail than the typical consumer might care for, but if you want to know what’s going on in broadband in the UK it’s a far better bet than the Gadget Show.

And if you were promised up to 16 Mbps but can only actually get 12.8 Mbps? Well, that’s life!

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